What is the relationship between language and the body? Perhaps we may view it as hierarchical—language as subordinate to the brain that produces and interprets it, the tongue or hands that fashion it, the ears that hear, and eyes that see. And yet, as the conundrum goes, our ability to perceive and communicate these mechanics is grounded in language itself. The line of demarcation must surely be present, but it is unclear, shifting, porous. Danielle Vogel’s Between Grammars, a finalist for the 2013 Noemi Press Book Award, begins with a collection of epigraphs from Virginia Woolf, Hélène Cixous, and Roland Barthes that interrogate this relationship. Each inscription suggests both an acknowledgement of the boundaries between language and the body, and the ways in which those boundaries may be blurred: two people create “an unsubstantial territory” between them by speaking; an individual who thinks, dreams, and speaks in two languages explores the “line [between them] that makes them vibrate”; the relationship between language and the body becomes intersectional, as though the speaker has “words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of [their] words.” All of this provides an apt primer for Vogel’s book-length narrative poem, which imagines a fluidity between the corporeal and the linguistic.
Water, in fact, is the lifeblood of this text, continually evoked by both content and typography. “Make a verb of the book and the book overflows,” Vogel writes, and sure enough this book is rife with images of water and verbs that suggest its motion. Similarly, Vogel’s choice to encapsulate many of the book’s early prose fragments inside airily spaced sets of parentheses—
—gives the fragments a sense of buoyancy, so much so that when this technique is reprised in later pieces—
—the effect is not unlike tōrō nagashi, paper lanterns bobbing in the current, spiriting messages through the drift and into the unknown. On the stage of Between Grammars, the “writer” and “reader” are invoked in both figurative terms and bodily forms; their shared space exists within language itself. In a recent profile from Women’s Quarterly Conversation, Vogel describes her early experiences of reading and writing as “a bridging between [her] voice and [her] body,” as a kind of communion. “Language slowed the world for me,” she recalls, “it gave me a sense of tactility, a skin to encase my thinking.” Vogel’s visceral experience of language is palpable in Between Grammars; there is a sense of tactility ever-present. Beyond the philosophical exploration, reading this book is as much a sensory experience as an intellectual one, the text shot through with light, sound, and touch.
In Between Grammars, Vogel writes of “a room that waits,” of “the third space of the letter” where writer and reader meet. In this place, “a body loosens itself across an alphabet. The margins malleable because they are washed.” Vogel invokes, among many things, a hermeneutic practice: inscribing and reinscribing the body, the book, the page, the syllable. The “room that waits,” held open for us by Vogel, waits to be filled by the writer and the reader, by “voices overflowing voices.” Jacques Derrida’s The Postcard opens with the suggestion, “You might read these envois as a preface to a book that I have not written,” and the envois that follow are a series of love letters, addressed to an unnamed reader. In Between Grammars, the “you” and “I” summon a similar correspondence: the writer sends her missives off into the air, sets them afloat upon the sea, toward an unknown (and, perhaps, unknowable) reader. In appreciating this gesture, I am reminded of Derrida’s fascination with the post office, of written communication as mediated by a faceless mechanism. The message, in the moment it is relinquished by the writer, is imbued with a duality: it may be either transmitted, or interrupted.
Writing is risky business.
Vogel’s work fully and completely embraces this uncertainty, with admirable abandon. Here, in the curated space of the page, language gives itself over to not-knowingness. The writer Vogel conjures, in incantatory prose, writes letters to a reader who may or may not exist. Letters that may never arrive. Love letters. Language, here, is an attempt: to make and unmake the body. There is utter heartbreak in this gesture, and yet it is hopeful; in this mixture we encounter the uncanny. Ultimately, it is not the transmission or interruption of the message that matters, but the missive’s potential. The imagined writer and reader balance on the precipice of possibility. They enter into a space, a “third space,” in which they approach the book together. We find ourselves suspended in this moment: the moment in which the envelope slips from our fingers into the cavernous dark. Vogel holds us in that space, she holds us close.
Meghan L. Dowling is a writer, artist, and graduate of the University of Denver’s doctoral program in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, Drunken Boat, LIT Magazine, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives and works in Maine.