Trees Are Alphabets

Below is information about a fantastic-sounding exhibition that will open on the 26th at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. E.J. McAdams’s striking title (which comes from Roland Barthes) reminds me of Nabokov’s character (from his amazing short story “Signs and Symbols” ) that is stricken with “referential mania,” a condition in which “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence”: “Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.” This, of course, would be a terrifying, unbearable condition, but it is one that, nevertheless, sheds light on our own very restricted vocabularies and systems of meaning. Certainly it would be productive for us to intuit systems of reference not solely about our own human nature. Trees are Alphabets begins to imagine what such systems might look like.

Trees Are Alphabets
September 26, 2015 to February 7, 2016

Perhaps inspired by his earlier work as a NYC urban park ranger, E. J. McAdams is interested in how we attend to the forces in our environment. Therefore, the attempt to read natural or built elements that surround us has become a major focus in his work. For his installation at The Bronx Museum of the Arts’ Terrace, McAdams was inspired by French philosopher Roland Barthes’ observation that “According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets.”

Trees Are Alphabets considers how the sun, rain, wind, and soil constantly transform the shapes of trees since evolving in primeval forests. McAdams sees in these transformations a vision of an epiphenomenon – like a text – that is forever changing. For the duration of the exhibition, McAdams will write with tree branches, in the hope to make space for a resonant poetic emanation to emerge out of this human-tree collaboration.

About the artist

E.J. McAdams is a poet, artist, and collaborator who lives in Harlem.  He explores language and mark-making in the urban environment using procedures and improvisation with found and natural materials.  One of his text-collages was included in the mail art exhibit “Focus Latin America: Art Is Our Last Hope” at Phoenix Art Museum.  An ongoing series, TRANSECTs, was featured in The Volta and About Place Journal, and published as a chapbook by Sona Books. He was a founding board member of the interdisciplinary Laboratory of Art Nature and Dance (iLAND) from 2004-14 and curated the Social-Environmental-Aesthetics (SEA) reading series at Exit Art that featured poets, visual artists and activists in conversation from 2009-11.


Michael Leong’s Recent Reading at Brown University

Here’s the introduction I delivered before Michael Leong’s reading at Brown University’s Literary Arts Department’s Demitasse on  April 3, 2013:

In e.s.p., Michael Leong drafts a kind of architectonics of the page. By architectonics, I mean devices that reveal an overt consciousness of language’s status as language, words as building blocks, in which their form and shape and how they sit on the page and divide the surface plane are integral to their meaning. Though Leong’s poems often revel in the tactile aspects of words and letters, how sentences can visually suggest various structures, e.s.p. is no cold blueprint. Leong’s angular phrases, spiky forms, and playful compositions cavort within their spaces, prick consciousness as much as jar us from our sluggish thinking, and more importantly, rouse great feeling.

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The Satisfaction of Incompleteness: A Conversation with Kristina Marie Darling

Last month, I talked with Kristina Marie Darling over email about her new book Compendium (Cow Heavy Books, 2011)—topics ranged from the Romantic fragment to mourning rituals to collaboration to erasure.

Darling is also the author of the poetry collection Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010).  She has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as grants from the Vermont Studio Center and the Elizabeth George Foundation.  Her editorial projects include an anthology, narrative (dis)continuities: prose experiments by younger american writers (VOX Press, 2011), and a volume of critical essays forthcoming from Cambridge Scholars Press.


Michael Leong:  First off, congratulations on the new book.  I was wondering if you could begin by discussing the title.  A “compendium” is, according to some definitions, an “abridgement or condensation of a larger work or treatise” or a “condensed representation, an embodiment in miniature.”  Reading through your book, I got the sense that I was encountering paratexts (and in the book you interestingly draw on several paratextual forms like the footnote and the glossary) to a post-gothic or Victorian novel—in other words, we have the textual fringes of a narrative but not the narrative itself.  What is the relationship between the work called Compendium and any larger work or main text?

Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question.  When I set out to write Compendium, I hoped that the book would allow the reader to imagine the main text.  Although he or she would hopefully be guided by the fragments found in the collection, I wanted it to become their creation.  Sigmund Freud once said (and I’m definitely paraphrasing here) that there is something inherently satisfying about incompleteness.  In his opinion, the supposedly missing elements in a work of art allow space for the audience’s imagination.  The spectator fills in the blanks with things that he or she wished were there.  

This idea, that there is beauty and freedom in incompleteness, definitely was influential for me as a reader and a writer.  I came to admire texts in which the reader experiences a sense of agency, often because he or she is asked to speculate or imaginatively reconstruct elements of a narrative.  This is definitely something that I was striving for in Compendium. Continue reading

Criticism as a form of living: on Masha Tupitsyn’s LACONIA: 1200 Tweets on Film.



“…the issue is not freeing ourselves from representation. It’s really about being enlightened witnesses when we watch representations, which means we are able to be critically vigilant about both what is being told to us and how we respond to what is being told.” (bell hooks, “Cultural Criticism and Transformation.”)


“Brooding at the end of the world on my island of Sal in the company of my prancing dogs I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.” (Chris Marker, Sans soleil.)


« 27 octobre

Qui sait? Peut-être un peu d’or dans ces notes ? » (“Who knows? Perhaps a bit of gold in these notes?” Roland Barthes, Journal de deuil.)




I’ve been told that when I was very, very young—so young I practically consider the period pre-cognitive—I had an eidetic memory, like my father. There was a period of tests and appraisals, of which, ironically enough, I remember very little. I don’t even know if I believe the story, memory having so much to do with faith, after all, and the notion of eidetic memory being highly controversial in the first place.

What I can remember is occasionally frightening other people with recall of particular landscapes or interior layouts—my memory having mostly been limited to perceiving objects in space, not information or sounds—and thereafter quietly, and only partially-consciously, training myself not to remember things in this way. Not to hold onto things in this way. (This is also what I meant by pre-cognitive: to member something, to hold something—all of these were enfleshed gestures, synesthetic, anti-dualistic. Memory was something that happened to your body, to the mind of your body. The opposite of remember wasn’t forget, but dismember. Pulling the limbs of memory apart.) And if I couldn’t help but hold onto things, I made sure, at the very least, not to talk about the things I held with anyone except my family, the only people I trusted (have ever trusted). And so, in this way, the “ability” (which had nothing to do with ability) mostly disappeared, although to this day I still find myself regularly lying to other people about not remembering things that I do remember in detail.

When I think about the memory of the Internet, and especially of the memory-repository of sites like Twitter or Google Books, I often think about what an eidetic memory would feel like for an amnesiac. The opposite of Ireneo Funes in Borges’ “Funes the Memorious,” the man who remembers everything and can’t forget anything—instead, someone who remembers everything and must forget it all. Someone for whom memory might be like Chris Marker’s eternal magnetic tape, but faulty; everything being remembered or recorded is at the exact same time being erased.

I read “previewable” texts on Google Books; often I come across that line, “Pages XX to XX are not available for preview.” When I do, it begins to appear to me that Google is now assuming the work once performed by time, by environmental disaster, by neglect, by zealots hovering over papyri: which is to say, all the persecutions, accidents, customs and habits that have historically removed pages from manuscripts. Frequently it even occurs that a page I have definitely read, only seconds before, will no longer be there when I click back—I, as a reader, having exceeded some mysterious page viewing limit whose parameters I have yet to identify.

It’s true that Google is making a global library, but its model is Alexandria. Google Books makes every book you read a ruin. Every act of reading, a glimpse into a book’s destroyed and partial future.

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