Sap: An Erasure of Calvino’s Invisible Cities

An original erasure of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a book with black chalkboard paint, completed and digitized in April 2016 by Emilia Phillips. Included on this page are the following pieces:

  1. Gallery: Digitized Sap
  2. Transcribed Text of Sap
  3. “What Separates the Inside from Outside: On Sap, a Eusapian Erasure of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities,” an introduction to the project and its process
  4. Further Investigations: On Erasure’s Theory, Practice, and Consequences and Altered, Cut-Out, Erased, Grangerized, Redacted, and Sculpted Texts

 

Gallery: Digitized Sap

Transcribed Text of Sap

/ = visual caesura
// = line  break
/// = page break

 

those // who / believe / live // happy

///
where / spiral // telescopes / are // there / the // young // are already memories

///
There // arrived // the wind // that morning

///
I // know this // city // and the // tilt of // the dock // abandoned in // the // past

///
The city, however, / con- // tains // windows // of / light

///
At the end of // a // chrysoprase // wood // women // desire / and // the // day // takes / its form

///
a vein // is // silent // Finally

///
the brothel // display // embroidered // Your gaze // the names // clouds

///
rivers // run // in a musical // score // This city / cannot be // a honey- // comb / of // names

///
in vain I // disappeared

///
overland // the // red wind // and // the cranes // wither

///
whitewashed // half-hidden // Each city // a border city

///
Actually // there is no // city

///
the / well / said // sunlight is // water

///
the / voices // live // above // a word

///
In // a glass // his reflection // canopied // the // world

///
when // others / imagine // a moment / is / longer

///
In every // eye // some say // gold // odalisques / roam // What / separates the in- // side from the outside

///
Now // No one remembers // suspended stairways // trying to // divide the years

///
men // everywhere the same

///
after // the white city / exposed // its foundation // a // woman // turned // to // escape again // The / streets were // forgotten

///
the path // could not understand // this trap

///
the // suicides // felt // barred by // a cloud of smoke / of an // opium pipe

///
The // horses // know // the tombs / from // the citadel

///
the // city // deserted // the // sun

///
I have come to // mirrors // or // to // waters

///
In // her veil // copulations / are // a word exchanged

///
every phantom // a story

///
the traveler // reflected // the mirrors of // forgetfulness

///
At times the mirror // denies / everything

///
No one // can // illuminate // outskirts

///
sleepwalkers // use different words // to describe // Falsehood

///
the // remains // suspended from // a / life

///
On the day // of weariness // any // citizenry // is renewed // by the // empty chessboard

///
speeches // open / mouths in identical yawns

///
If you go / whistling // hang / your head // the // impossible // streets with eyes // dig / cellars

///
I can tell you about // a colorless city // But this would // not be true

///
unmistakable // words // live in // the // memory / of // words

///
the spider-web // ties // the chasm // and // the abyss

///
In // white or black or gray // the houses are dismantled // when // the ruins of the abandoned cities // do not last

///
Nothing of / the earth // was // stone

///
God // stay / hiding // or // be found

///
decaying palaces // give form to // chil- // dren

///
the prostitute // has died // the foolish / have taken // their places // in the // role

///
the map / cut the air // with // all the points of // the city

///
suspended // streets // cover // the spire // you cry // with // the statues

///
routes are drawn // in the void // to reach // a girl // like // a blank page

///
For a long time // the / high windows // conjured // The day // and / separated // the wind // From // My mind

///
call it by name

///
Never in all my travels had I // disappeared

///
the / mask // resembled // someone who was dead // already

///
dead ends // resemble // the eye // in // which the // tiniest detail // brings you to // your real destination

///
the // shadows // hang / on // the city // like / paper

///
tormented // men // emerge from // festering sewers // lost

///
locked in display cases // the name / and // a living body / smell // like // remains

///
the Museum of // the eras’ // dead // shifted // in // the // confusion

///
No city is more // out-of-tune // with / laughing

///
They say that the // rumor // becomes unrecognizable // with // the dead

///
heaven // is // stone // and // the // city // is dark and malleable

///
In // the // pipes // potato peels

///
the / city // released // the // citizens of // greed

///
the / radio // is // joy

///
the street // resists time // little by little

///
a landslide // rolls // in // the // boring cities

///
a city in the distance // is / trapped

///
We do not know // tunnels // it is dark // there

///
Why is // the // whisper // a city under construction // a // blueprint

///
If // I / take // the // world // the name of the air- // port changes

///
a magnifying glass // will find // a lemon // in the // horizon at the edges of the city

///
all / that have blossomed // are al- // ready blossoming

///
Naturally the // infinite / is empty // The living // interrogate // the questions

///
The city of the dead // is // the generations // unborn

///
each passage // will // fall

///
the astronomers // oriented // the axis // so that // the / constellations // would // dwarf // the // children

///
I saw the // bridge // all distances // disappeared

///
in the streets // a / parasol // flying

///
the city of sadness // is // a // city unaware

///
the night // flows calmly // meticulous clockwork

///
a nova’s explosion // implies // a // pattern

///
forests // shadow // uninhabited places

///
We have // been wandering // the Meadow of // traffic

///
A sibyl // swallows / the summer sky // clearing the // horizon // of // flying

///
the batlike // words // fly // over all heads

///
You advance hours // the edges of the street // thicken

///
I // come // to sleep // You ask for / the // night

///
does an outside exist? // invasions / of // the sky // multiply

///
the / fleas // preserve // the / nonextinct species

///
I should not tell you of // intrigues

///
I do not wish // to // peer deeper into this // tiny spot

///
From my words you will // want / the // future

What Separates the Inside from Outside: On Sap, a Eusapian Erasure of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

Introduction

In Eusapia, the city of the living coexists with the underground city of the dead, each municipality mirroring, envying, and influencing the other. Through Italo Calvino’s narrator Marco Polo, readers of Invisible Cities learn that Eusapia’s city of the dead is the creator and shaper of the living city. In Sap, my erasure of Calvino’s novel, I transmuted the Eusapia section’s conceit into the approach to the erasure. The author’s text, now buried in black chalkboard paint, influences a new text, one that renders a fragmented, surreal landscape, a city that “con- / tains / windows / of   light.” The erasure implies a first-person narrator, a Virgilian guide into an underworld: “Never in all my travels had I // disappeared.”

Like any good guide, the speaker of this book-length, erasure poem moves between things as they are, as they once were, and how he believes they should be, swerving between the mundane—“In / the pipes / potato peels”—and the philosophical: “God / stay       hiding / or / be found.” In this way, readers follow their guide through half-darkness, boundaries and limits of the cityscape and the imagination. The speaker says, “Naturally the / infinite       is empty / The living / interrogate / the questions.” By creating the erased book, I hope to not limit the text so much as open it up and allow it the infinity of darkness.

 

Process

In preparation for mCalvino erasure spider-webaking Sap, I ordered a new copy of Invisible Cities and ripped out the frontismatter and italicized sections to avoid typographical incongruity. Next, I outlined a rectangular “window” pane on the front cover, which I then cut out with my Exacto knife. I then used the pane’s frame to trace the next pane into the paper below. After I cut out this next pane, I repeated the steps all the way through the book. By tracing and cutting, the pane gradually became smaller, creating a passage through the core of the book, a depth further exaggerated by the black paint applied later. In adding this cut out to the erasure, I limited my field of words and added a dimensionality apropos to the erasure’s conceit and content.

I then began the process of creating the erased text. At first, I used a pencil to trace words before I committed to painting around them. Later on, however, I felt comfortable enough with my intuitive and immediate choices to frame in the words immediately with paint. As I progressed through the text, I realized the shadow of a narrative was emerging. The text seemed to make some kind of sense, not so much linear or logical sense, but more akin to what Italian poet Cesare Pavese called “the image narrative.” The subtextual lurking of a narrative urged me forward at a much faster pace through the text, and I was able to complete the erasures in approximately eight hours spread out over the course of several evenings.

Later, as I was touching up some of the pages, I decided upon a few revisions via redactions. These cuts made many of the images more crystalline and resonant in the language’s sparseness. In some cases, the tackiness of the chalkboard paint caused some unintentional changes when pages stuck together; in other cases, my hand slipped and I obscured a word I’d intended on using. When this happened, I had to reroute like a dammed river toward other available language paths. In some cases, as with the erasure’s singular address to “God,” this made the text more immediate and evocative of the speaker’s persona. Initially, the gist of this page was something like “The gods of the coat-rack and umbrella must stay in hiding or else they will be found,” whereas, it now employs the apostrophe of “God.” Additionally, I gave up on trying to prevent some damage to happen to the text when the book was closed. The new white areas created by two pages being stuck together created an additional layer of erasure, an erasure of the erasure, further emphasizing the text’s ephemerality and, conversely, its materiality.

sap-pagesAlthough the erasure’s title Sap does not appear in the actual erasure text, it’s a redaction of “Eusapia.” We normally associate the word sap with sticky stuff or a fool, but occasionally we use it to refer to someone’s vigor. As a verb, we know it to mean that it means to weaken someone’s strength. While there could be great reaches to make these meanings of “sap” important to the project, the word’s archaic definitions and etymological history perhaps best codifies the erasure project. Etymologically speaking, the Old English word “sap” likely meant to “undermine.” Additionally, it’s been used to describe “a tunnel or trench to conceal an assailant’s approach to a fortified place.” The origin of this word seems to stem from the Italian zappa, which translates as “spade.” Some etymologists chart the origin of this Italian word from the Arabic sarab, an underground passage, or sabora, “probe a wound, explore.” These deep roots seem particularly evocative for the project, especially with regard to the undermining of the living city by its creator, the city of the dead. This title likewise supports the choice of including the tunnel into the physical, erased text, and underscores the idea that things on the surface are influenced by what’s underneath. But perhaps I’m just a sap for recherché etymological connections that resonate with the content and process.

On Layering, Erasure, and Context

I first started to pay attention to the process and products of erasure when I attended a reading and presentation by the poet and artist Matthea Harvey at Vermont Studio Center in summer 2012. There she read and discussed Of Lamb, her erasure of a biography of Charles Lamb, reconstituted into a new text and illustrated. Not long after, someone lent me a copy of Mary Ruefle’s Little White Shadow. My dear friend Gregory Kimbrell and I started creating our own erasures in a book called Italian Cinema by Peter Bondanella. We participated in these erasures as a kind of game, passing the book back and forth, and trying, when we could, to use our page to respond to the other’s. In some ways, this was merely a writing exercise, a means to bewilder myself into new language, to break syntactical ticks, and reestablish a practice of intuitive choices. I have since appreciated other erasure texts like Jen Bervin’s Nets, an erasure of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Mary Ruefle’s Melody, an erasure and collage project now digitized and available online. Independent presses have become great supporters and publishers of erasure texts and art. Erasure has become an increasingly practiced form in American poetry, and some poets have even appropriated erasures, as with Nick Lantz’s use of a redacted CIA interrogation manual. This kind of practice of found erasures might best be illuminated by poet Solmaz Sharif’s essay  “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure,” in which she writes:

the proliferation of erasure as a poetic tactic in the United States is happening alongside a proliferation of our awareness of it as a state tactic. And, it seems, many erasure projects today hold these things as unrelated.

Still, when it comes to erasure, this very form of palimpsest, the ghost is not only death or the degradations of time—the ghost is the state itself.

The erasure is perhaps most vital to those poets who want to demonstrate the erasure of people or voices, or the loss or absence of something. This motivation is perhaps only steps away from the burying and hiding of texts in Jasper Johns’s American flag and target collage paintings. The physical depth and texture of the texts, as well as our inability to fully access them, create resonance. Likewise, in erasure, what is silenced becomes the foundation—the context—for what is allowed to speak.

Calvino erasure - the sunlight is waterContext not only illuminates our ways into a text but also breaks down in a sleight of etymology. The word literally means “to weave together,” but lingering there without meaning to is “con,” something against or against something, and “to con,” to trick. Context: against text, to trick the text. In some ways, erasure does just these things. Erasure is against text in the sense that it damages the text, now palimpsest, and partially transmogrifies text into subtext. It’s akin to stilling a film reel on subliminal advertising, and then showing those frames as a new work. Erasure also tricks the text to bend to the will of a new author; it hypnotizes the text, makes it confess its secrets locked away in its literal-sub-(under)textual memory.

Calvino erasures

 

Further Investigations

On Erasure’s Theory, Practice, and Consequences:

 

Altered, Cut-Out, Erased, Grangerized, Redacted, and Sculpted Texts: