Dies: A Sentence by Vanessa Place

About Vanessa Place: The Boston Review called Vanessa Place “the spokesperson for the new cynical avant-garde,” The Huffington Post characterized her work as “ethically odious,” literary critic and philosopher Avital Ronell stated that Place is “a leading voice in contemporary thought.” She was the first poet to perform as part of the Whitney Biennial; a content advisory was posted. Selected performance venues include Getty Villa, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art; and De Young Museum, San Francisco. Exhibition work has appeared at MAK Center/Schindler House; The Power Plant, Toronto; the Broad Museum, East Lansing; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles; and elsewhere. Books include BoycottStatement of FactsLa MedusaDies: A SentenceThe Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and LawNotes on Conceptualisms, co-authored with Robert Fitterman, her translations from the French of Guantanamo (poetry, Frank Smith) and Image-Material (art theory, Dominique Peysson), and her art-audiobook, Last Words. Place also works as a critic and criminal defense attorney specializing in sex offenses. Learn more about her work here.

I interviewed Vanessa Place here.

There is an etymological ancestry between ‘sentence’ and ‘sentience,’ and not to sound too sententious but the sustained tension of certain sentences can be nearly transcendent, and Dies: A Sentence is a 50,000-word death sentence, a sentence of death, perhaps not mine, perhaps not yours, technically Place’s but only in terms of authorship, definitely the protagonist’s whose thought-thread we follow up and down in its fluctuations of Time and telling and the physical rectangular coffin/trench-shape of the book from page to page, 4.25 inches of width to its 9.25 inches of height, and this shape is manifest in the text itself, for the protagonist is a WW1 soldier dying in a trench as he tells his literally tall tale, yes Dies, and while speaking about the book on the phone with Wendy Walker who has heard of it and its author, she pronounced the title “dee-us”, as in the Latin, perhaps in reference to “Dies irae,” that Day of Wrath which is in actuality quite appropriate to the sentence at hand, and but so before we get into the melted mind of our fallen hero, let’s consider some other sentences in literature: first, there’s the recent hype for Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,000+ page sentence with almost 19,400 instances of the phrase “the fact that” and probably as many instances of platitudes, no, this sensationally-marketed sentence bares only a superficial resemblance to anything Joycean (are these things really sentences, is the question, well in the case of Joseph McElroy and José Saramago they arguably are, but most of the sentence sensations of others, Ellmann or László Krasznahorkai or Márquez’s “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship” or even Place herself, are maintained by eschewing the period where one could very well exist or at least chewing the period till it looks like a comma), and if anything, the almost 2,250-word sentence in 2666 is a fluke of no consequence, not to mention no rhythm or rhyme (likewise with Agustín Fernández Mallo’s feeble Nocilla Lab), fooey to all that, Dies is the (sur)real deal, the dulcet peal to drug the mind via the ears, rejoicing in the Joycean and echoing Molly Blooms blooming monologue, except she’s much more comfortable with her bedridden thoughts than our legless protagonist who is spilling his guts to his armless friend, not just armless but nameless, in the sense that one has no name when they have every name, for our truly nameless hero refers to his confidante by a range of mostly J-beginning labels that jump genders and ethnicities—John, Jack, Juan, Jean, Jenny, Johann, and so on—who is this friend, you wonder, a fellow comrade of war perchance, yes, that would be the most reasonable assumption but wait for the dark twist at the end, and but so we too are, to them, the nameless nonexistent eavesdropper who hears (emphasis on hears, for it’s a joy to read this sentence aloud) what is in effect a kind of compressed epic of the eely realism of war-horrors coupled with the hyperbole of classical mythology, featuring one of the most astounding Beowulf-like sea-monster fights I’ve ever read, not to mention the appearance of satanic seraphim, a bug-composed succubus, muddy-boggy war trenches that swallow soldiers like reverse sphincters, and speaking of those organic wagon wheels, there’s a Rabelaisian scene of superfluous feces that produces hearty logs of logorrhea as well as the more liquid kind of verbal diarrhea, it being but one of the sort of circles of hell in a ominous place called the Inverness which features a vaguely Borgesian man who’s “blind as a librarian,” and then the blizzardous circle of prison in which victims waste away inside “frozen cages windwhipped, the hands losing skin with each purchase on the bars, […] ‘it’s a corniconcupiscence of resurrection you’re in, costing, like a snake, but a bit of skin,’” yes, like this, you’ll find a worldwind of wordplay and verse-esque rhyming, multilingual lunacy featuring phrases from the French, Greek, German, and even Vietnamese, as though speaking in tongues, and speaking of tongues, one of the best lofty lists in the book describes a vast pile of those budded wagging mouth-slugs, “unrooted, tossed together like leaves in an infernal compost, tongues greyly flaccid and rigor’d lilac, still tongues and tongues still slapping, blush tongues of every form and dialect, stripped tongues of all stripes, the gross timber of the preacher, the seeksorrow’s uncinate curl, a small girl’s budded sweet, a good Berlin Zunge, breaded and cordoned blue around the charred Hebrew cancering its neighbor, […] swarmed over by tongues thick with betrayal and thinned from forgiving, tongues forked, tongues spatulate, tongues silvered and suspicioned, tongues rendered fast together and far apart, tongues coiled close as marble ears and the brown shells of sidewalk snails, […] they sucked the firmament and licked the tilth,” and those tongues, our tongues, Place’s tongue, has a breathless plethora of potential words on command, and she’s not hesitant to spell them, allowing us to revel in such barrages of verbiage as occecation sustentacular thairm machicolation refragable lutarious belomancy jactitation incrassate pituita supparasite flenders ad infinitum or at least “Αλφα και Ωμέγα,” and like Zeno’s arrow “man dies by inches, and so never expires,” alas, the sentence eventually ends with the death dot, the unforgiving period which is the peerless period of eternity, yet some eternities are larger than others, ’tis true, arithmetic will show you, and we should pay heed to the skull-free, temporally-porous consciousness of our protagonist who explains how “the universe swelled in midsummer and suddenly I saw the world through a microscope or not at all, and it was rife with gasping quarks and shivering alphabets, stripped of breath, there was nothing in toto that couldn’t be cradled in the palm of one hand or probed with a tweezer’s twin points, my eyes were bejeweled by this pocketchange cosmos, suddenly I understood everything, or not at all, it’s a choice, you see,”

a note on ‘unreadability’: the charge of unreadability reveals the inability to read on part of the accuser, and in a word, it’s illiteracy, whether literal or through utter laziness, the end result is the same, and if anything, ‘unreadable’ is a projected and clothed critique that really refers to incomprehensibility, something that opens up the fearing reader to intellectual fault, thus it’s rarely admitted, and but so no, Dies is written in English for English readers, spiced with foreign phrases because languages are not isles unto themselves, rather archipelagoes connected beneath the sea at best and a map of faux-bordered countries at worst, which is all to say that language is traceable to the first word, the first cave-echoed grunt, the sibilant singularity, and if you don’t understand it, then learn it, or, if not, rather than burn your books at the creepy feet of Mephistopheles, donate it to the readers who read, “it’s a choice, you see,”

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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