by Rob Phelps
So we’ll ask at the outset what is the meaning of the little story that is central to our reading in which a daughter would believe herself to have been lied to at breakfast by her father about a rabbit he killed in the garden? What are we to think about the father’s lie? Shouldn’t we ask in the first place if it is a lie? And wouldn’t it be easier in a way if we said the father did in fact cut himself shaving; the rabbit died of natural causes; and the daughter, confronted at breakfast by the blood on her father’s shirt, sought by means of an exchange in a manner that is far from unambiguous, to protect herself from being engulfed by the massive implication of the deferment (one might say, repudiation) of her own lethal assignation “in the garden?” And finally how does this little drama relate to writing, because in a way doesn’t it seem to be a little drama that is about nothing other than writing?
“Father” “daughter” “rabbit” “lie”–terms we observe functioning in the permutational system of D’Italia’s text as a kind of endlessly generative axiomatic group. From Detectives (D): “We went in to help him move his things [the setting, here, importantly, is a house within a house], but mostly there were empty boxes covered in dust. There was a message from her, in the shape of a rabbit, running, it was made from brown construction paper and it had writing on it.” Two sentences later: “…they heard gun shots and became frightened,eyes wide and darting around the small space as if there might be another exit.” And then: “He laughed at us because he knew we were scared and he brandished a small tool that may have been a blade, but was also pale blue plastic, as if only to mock our perception that there had been gun shots.” (D-4). Add to this a sequence of passages in Part 13 of Flocks Packs Herds (FPH) in which the story of the rabbit in the garden is told: First: “I packaged up two books to send them in the mail to my nephew Joe… I have a special affection for Joe, except I think of the time he gleefully spoke of shooting a deer
through the eye.” Next, the story: “Once my father came to breakfast with blood on his shirt. I asked him what happened and he told me he cut himself shaving, but he had killed a rabbit in the garden.” After this comes a reflection on the name, “Will,” followed immediately by a description of a hole: “There is a hole in the edge of the woods, the edge marked by the road. And if one looks at it straight on from across the street, one may or may not notice it, after all, what is a hole in such a porous screen?”
The homology, here, with “female background” of course cannot be overstated. In fact, it is in relation to this subject that is “hardly a subject in the usual sense” (Detectives-3) that we would wish to orient the familial, grammatical, and oblatory axioms of our reading and to indicate in particular the veritable beastiary of sacrificial objects D’Italia conjures in her book in conjunction with iterations of burial, invisibility, background, and submergence: “a long yellow duck, lying underground…dying” (Tigers-4); a puppy with “a small hole” in its head, dying but not dead (Tigers-4); dogs locked in a basement suffering neglect–nevertheless they do not die (FPH-5); deer which are neither alive nor dead because they are “hunted for sport” (FPH-7); a pig running on a road, abandoned to die (FPH-12); a “dying fish” (Springtime-4). To these examples we would add “a [half-dead] human body…submerged” (Tigers-4); a “black boy” drowned (Detectives-2); a “blonde girl” drowned but not dead (Detectives-2); a “small boy” strangled does not die (Detectives-13); a group imprisoned and sentenced to death; they do not die (War-1); and finally, a woman in a bathtub, inert, vividly imagining her death (Water-9). So in a way that is inseparable from the pathos, the very murmurous vocative quality of the writing, we meet again and again with this idea of a living death, of a death that does not bring an end to life. And of course insofar as this agency that reduces, that immobilizes, congeals, and
condemns its recipients to an inert subterranean persistence must be thought side by side throughout with its parallel “magnifications”–tigers, bears, “swarms”, the “tidal force” of war, storms, the ocean, itself, in its dimension of menace–do we not encounter in these mortified bodies and their aggrandized, phobic supplements something like an illustration of the very affect of signification in all of its dreadful hauntological “corporeality?”
Two more examples: First, from Detectives, a series of passages beginning with: “One must be sitting to write in the fifth floor apartment, at a blackened table, cold to the touch,” an orientation, she continues, “which must preface a fair consideration of what belongs in a sealed box.” Next (in a suggestive alliterative play) this talk correlating books to boxes: “There is something to [books’] undifferentiated solid space. Something to the homogeneity of all the books, perhaps more accurate than a sealed box. There is only theory in sealed boxes. It requires more than opening the box to transform the theoretical, an incantation of sorts.” In the next passage: “If you never see these sealed-up, entombed objects again, there
will be part of you that will be gone, despite the extraordinary insignificance of these objects.” And finally from Part 8 of Water there is the following description of a medium: “She used means I had not seen before, neither on television nor in life. There were tablets. She showed me a dark tablet, maybe 7 by 10 inches, held flat like a tray but then tilted back and forth as if to catch light. Images and text seemed to periodically flicker in gold light as if a message was forthcoming. She seemed to be asking something of this mechanism, but I’m not sure what she asked. She got her answer and showed me the board: it was a small and glowing knife. ‘You will carve the knife,’ she told me.“
In both instances D’Italia poses the basic question, How, in
homogenous, undifferentiated space–the book–does something like “meaning” emerge? In other words, how do we move from the level of material fulness to that of the message, “sense”? And it is interesting to note how in both instances she presents the idea of “incantation” and the liturgy of medium-ship linked to “carving,” hollowing-out, the production of an emptiness that is “sealed-off.” Of course, for D’Italia, these objects in their modalities of emptiness and solidity represent just another means of posing the question about “background”: “The nature of background, in many cases, is to be invisible. It still must be apprehended, left to the mysterious and yet solved, as it were by a more proper sense. A sense that once atrophied must be rehabilitated, cultivated, because it is not vision that finds the invisible” (D-8). Another way of saying this is, in order for the visual field to be constituted some things must become invisible. The notion that invisibility must be “apprehended” or “solved…by a more proper sense”, that invisibility is not merely the negative of visibility, but rather the constitutive exclusion at the expense of which the visible as such is founded, brings us finally to the more radical, dialectical orientation of D’italias project.
“Background,” here, no longer functions as the indifferent medium or container of what is “not background,” but rather identifies the disjunction, the asymmetry between two contents–excluded and included. To name this disunity that is in a way inherent to “meaning,” D’Italia would at the same time, of course, privilege the exception, the excluded, the “marginalized,” the unconscious, so to speak, as, precisely, the locus of truth. And isn’t she here also writing very specifically about sexual difference?
We might take seriously the idea (announced in the epigraph from Weinenger–not to mention the illustrations throughout of automatic writing) that D’Italia’s engagement, in its various
“curtailments” would attain to a level of objectivity (in relation to matters of epistemology) impermissible to treatments of more orthodox generality. That is, it would be a mistake to see D’Italia’s mode of exposition as in any way arbitrary. Evincing a sophisticated understanding of the complex juxtapositions involved in summoning the oneiromantic, the fragmentary, the imagistic, the “feminine”, as, precisely, the register in which the truth of the emergence of a field of meaning as such is properly understood, it is the sureness of D’Italia’s grasp of these problematics that enables her to formulate this question–about W–not a one question among many, but rather as, the fundamental question.