November 23, 2021
there’s a stutter in the archive
It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain
of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater
than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says
nothing against the pain to speak. It festers in-
side. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must
— Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee
I am a disquieted archive that fumbles in words. A thing made up of infinite, intractable traces.
— Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You
I never knew why. I did not ask. Instead, I had learned to take soundings—like someone testing
the depth of a well. You throw a stone down and listen. You wait for the gaps and say, “Yes.”
— Anne Carson, Plainwater
Whatever becomes told will be incomplete, as incomplete as the reality that is beside my feet
and which I call a stone, although to say “stone” is perhaps to have already said too much.
— Yve Lomax, Sounding the Event
i. rehearsing with a riff
These are notes. Some notes on archives and their undoing; on building archives and breaking them down, too. Some notes that we might call variations on the different forms that archives can take, and their attendant cycles and patterns and arrangements. Variations on bridging, on the act of bridging—this act that might form unforeseen connections or allow for disparate things to be held together, as with the way a thought can be held in the rest or pause or sudden stoppage in the midst of movement. I am just as interested in the note and its variant as I am in the space in-between.
Perhaps this is the space between two measures tied together through language, in the gap between words. Or perhaps it is language’s other: silence. Perhaps it is a silence that wavers between belief and uncertainty; in-between my body and your body; in the space between one body that is this body, and other bodies—let’s say a multitude of bodies. Terrestrial bodies; celestial ones, too. I offer these notes in a humble attempt to think about arrangement and composition, about forms of re-arrangement and decomposition. What I’m after, if I’m after anything, is thinking about forms of fracture that also bear notes of life. Ruptures that give way to enduring vibrations. Forms of undoing and unbecoming that shape something new. I want to think about the stutter and its place in the archive—its call from within the archive’s stone walls, to unarchive.
To function as anarchive. A heap of broken images. To contemplate what such a pile of debris—these broken images—might have to do with salted tongues, with language and loss. To ask what weight such a heap would have to bear. What relation it might have to the archive’s foundational form, its architecture. This interest lies not in locating an architecture against architecture but in wanting to discover a way of inhabiting a new space within the archive’s enclosure, a dematerialized zone of spatial resistance and intervention, a space ripe for poetics. This interest brings us to thinking the archive as anarchitecture —a set of concepts and practices and ways of living that seek to reveal architecture’s cracks, its complicity with capitalist modes of production. In his writings on anarchitecture, Gordon Matta-Clark’s distinctly photographic descriptions reverberate the underlying idea of what it means to unarchive. “Not building, not-to-rebuild, not built-space. Creating spatial complexity reading new openings against old surfaces. Light admitted into space or beyond surfaces that are cut. Breaking & entering.” I am moved by this curiosity born from the complexity of space that permits new reading to take place, that allows us to ask what lies beyond a building’s surface. “Rather than using language, using walls. Looking through the thing. The ambiguity, what’s there & not, as much as the whole.”
In the archive’s space of complicity and entanglement, of bodies and desires, of all the noise and the pause in-between the noises, I’m hoping to think about the stammer, too. And how it might be a new opening against an old surface that we can crack into. I’m thinking of the tendency to stammer, by which I also mean the unavoidable stammer of history. The stammer is an utterance that cannot be complete, cannot come to fruition. And so is perpetually held as potentiality. Language lying in wait. Suspended in the space of temporary arrest. Imprinted in the subject, in the place “sheltered but ready for silent ecstasy.” I’m interested in these forms of speech, in speech acts and the gestures embedded in and also held by language. How might we consider language’s hold as a form of care?
But equally compelling, I think, is the related yet slightly different line of inquiry that might orient us not towards holding but towards something more like releasing or scattering. The task in this will involve thinking about certain affinities between language and ash, between stones and cinder and stars. Thinking about the event that does not have a simple or straightforward referent. Thinking about words and their weight and then, also, their escape from weightedness. Their escape into something we might call flight. Or fugitivity. The task, deceptively simple, is to think about scattering as a form of being and a way of doing. Scattering as foundational to creation, to layering, to the surface “on which things are strewn, the foundation from which things originate and their order develops.” To think this is to consider scattering a practice, a praxis, a poetics. It means to reconceptualize the act of scattering, to shift away from our understanding of it as a method against retrieval or preservation and instead reframe it as a tactic for survival. For outlasting. Perhaps for discovering the place where the light breaks in, as opposed to where it just breaks. How it enters through the cut. The same place where aftermath can become life beyond destruction, where it can transform into afterlife, and shine anew.
Part of my interest lies also in the relationship between entombment and enjambment. The tension between enclosure and overflow. I’m curious about the productive space of the break wherein one might find solace in solitude or silence. Or, perhaps, where we encounter a sound that redoubles itself as seeing. Where, as Fred Moten compellingly writes, “something is remembered and repeated in such complications. Transferred. To move or work through that something, to improvise, requires thinking about morning and how mourning sounds, how moaning sounds. What’s made and destroyed.” To listen to where one might discover some kind of comfort in the discordance, in the disquieting hold of sound reaching beyond, escaping, becoming other than itself. In the generative slippage of the space-time between music and its other. Between utterance and stutter. What else might we call this, other than the poetics of fugitivity? This question I want to return to, and with it return to asking what scattering might have to do with the archive, or with the undoing of the very ground on which the archive stands. For now, allow me another riff, a detour no doubt. Let me begin again, with stones.
ii. the weight of stones
Can a stone—let’s say one—constitute an archive? Would it need to be more than just one? Would it need to be a field of stones, or a coastline? The compression of time and heat necessary to form something layered and solidified. A stone. Something contained but needing to be carried and broken in order to be repurposed for witnessing or building. I want to begin with this image—the image of a stone—because I think it has everything to do with the operation of the archive: the gestures of holding and hardening and needing, eventually, to be broken. Or undone. Stones fortify (a wall or a tomb); they can be scattered (like ashes or words). They offer us hard surfaces, which when confronted with the softness that reading might invite, present a difficulty. Perhaps an estrangement. Some stones can be smoothed over perfectly by water or wind; others can change color or degrees of transparency, reflecting or refracting light waves. In Judaism, one partakes in the mitzvah of commemorating the dead by leaving a small stone on the gravesite, a sign to others that the tomb, and by extension the burial process, has been properly attended. In ancient times, this mitzvah involved raising a pile of stones on top of the grave in order to ensure that it was adequately marked and also preserved for posterity, discoverable for future visitations. Roland Barthes uses stones to describe the rawness of suffering. The stone of grief is both around his neck and deep inside him. As metaphors, we often use stones to talk about heaviness or inscription, about things already set or set down. Things weighted.
When I lived in northern Spain, I walked everywhere. It didn’t matter how long the distance, I somehow found the time. Or maybe time worked differently there. I’m not sure. Every day the pilgrims arrived by the hundreds, filthy and exhausted. They would often stand in reverence, sometimes in total silence, in front of the main façade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, also known as the Cathedral of Saint James. The bones of James the Apostle were allegedly guarded in the crypt beneath the main altar’s slanted marble stairs. Each day there were new waves of pilgrims congregating in the Praza do Obradoiro, the square situated to the west of the cathedral’s main gate where the doorway once was set aflame, the same plaza named after the cathedral’s first stonemasons. On the main street that cuts through el casco viejo (the old zone), which then went by the name Rua do Franco, workmen in blue jumpsuits would hoist giant stones out of the ground using rope and levers. They did this when the heavy rains came, which was often, almost daily. Removing some of the stones was, I imagine, a way to help facilitate drainage, to stave off flooding of the town’s excessively narrow streets. The stones were deep and wide and appeared to be smoothed over on one side, like the Pórtico de Gloria. When they were lifted out of the ground, the pavement stuttered, leaving only a hueco (hole) in its place, like a tomb. I remember thinking how just one of those stones must weigh enough to crush a man. Years later, I would read about the long period of construction, marked by extensive delays in the cathedral’s assemblage—its last stone laid in the year 1122. In the symmetry of this year, a kind of stutter.
iii. going to the prison
Decades later, I now live in central upstate New York, where it rains (but not as much as in Santiago), and where it snows a great deal, too. I am now gearing up to go back inside. To see them again, the incarcerated students in the prison education program for which I volunteer. I am preparing to return to Auburn Correctional Facility after this long year of pause, under the still ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has given a particular yet difficult-to-name form to this extended interruption in our living together; in this present moment of varying states of confinement and isolation which have shaped our collective separation, or more accurately, our collective circumstance of living together separately. I find that I do not know exactly how to feel about returning to the space of the prison. There’s a mixture of excitement and hope combined with apprehensive anticipation. A feeling of disquiet and unease slaked by a sense of eagerness and urgency. These feelings are restless and also difficult to put into words.
I began this piece with the prison in mind. The space of incarceration—architecturally, experientially, and temporally—that is both contained within but also exceeds the prison’s foreboding walls. The same walls that shut the world out in order to, supposedly, keep order within, along with everything else detained there: locked behind bars. I began with wanting to consider how the physical site of the prison simultaneously is and is not an archive. Achille Mbembe begins with this foundation: the archive rests between materiality and inscription, in the entanglement of architecture and documents. Each a collection symbolizing institutional power. There can be “no definition of ‘archives’” that does not “encompass both the building itself and the documents stored there,” he tells us. One must take into account—
the arrangement of the rooms, . . . the labyrinth of corridors, and that degree of discipline, half-light and austerity that gives the place something of the nature of a temple and a cemetery: a religious space because a set of rituals is constantly taking place there, . . . and a cemetery in the sense that fragments of lives and pieces of time are interred there, their shadows and footprints inscribed on paper.
The prison is something I can only witness, never belong to. Something I can feel repulsed by but never directly implicated in. Or, always implicated in but from a distance, as a spectator, and through an obscure unspoken veneer. In the daily experience of its savagery concealed behind the gate, I recognize the prison as a space that I can only ever approximate in my mind. Being there in person creates the illusion that I know it. That I feel it, live it, when plainly I do not. When I first started laying down tracks for this entry, I began by mentally retracing my steps to the prison, thinking about the drive up there, the sinusoidal path of country roads, the way the fields and their adjacent farms open up against slivers of sky, the unfolding of rolling hills under rising moons, the land’s undulating sense of continuation and expansiveness. I considered the way those same roads also foreclose sightlines, obstructing the view or severing the horizon. I started thinking about the town itself: Auburn. The name contains a burn, a tiny flame within. But in actuality it refers to a fleeting spectrum of coloration, moving from “whitish” to “white” to “yellowish” and finally to “reddish brown.” Green is notably absent, but the gradations of industry and imprisonment and hard laboring hands are all there. The gradations of snow and soil and excrement. These are the same color variations that oscillate between confinement and erasure, punishment and reformation. A visual echo of the racialized time-space that is the prison’s very foundation. Each time I arrive to Auburn, everything appears stuck. The town, a suspended sentence, as if perpetually lodged in the coldest of seasons. An endless wave lapping against the shores of some deep and interminable winter.
If the archive presents us with “pieces of time assembled, fragments of a life to be placed in order,” as Mbembe writes, then what might the suspension or disassemblance of such fragments and temporal orders mean? What would such a disordering—an unarchiving—look or sound like? To whom might it belong? Insofar as a sense of belonging could be conceptualized at all. If “just like the architectural process, the time woven together by the archive is the product of a composition,” then “this time has a political dimension resulting from the alchemy of the archive: it is supposed to belong to everyone.” Mbembe refers to this as “the community of time,” the co-ownership of a temporal order that we have collectively inherited, and which culminates in “the imaginary that the archive seeks to disseminate” or scatter.
This notion of an inheritance of time struck me. I decided to dig deeper, to read about the prison’s history. To learn about how it came to be, which led to the history of how other prisons came to be. An unnamed desire grew in me: I wanted to know more about Auburn’s method of compulsory silence and contractual labor. Its lock-step, congregate system, and twisted relationship to manufacturing the reduction of idleness, the kind perceived as another form of criminality. I wanted (or perhaps needed) a better grasp on the brutality and violence and calculated isolation necessary to enforce all the things the prison was ostensibly built to reform. I learned that in 1821 New York State authorized contractual labor of incarcerated individuals, releasing them for short periods of time to outside companies for the purpose of securing cheap labor, “to save the wages of free workmen.” These penitentiaries leased prisoners; branded their bodies a new labor force for industrial production, the accumulation of capital in factories and mills, and most importantly for employing them in the architectural expansion of the carceral system. In 1825, Elam Lynds, then warden of Auburn Prison, selected one hundred convicts to be sent to the Hudson Valley by way of freight barge down the Erie Canal. These men were contracted out to build another prison from locally sourced limestone and marble. The quarry would give that prison its future name, located in the village once inhabited by the Mohegan tribe before Frederick Philipse, with the permission of the British Crown, purchased in the year 1685 the last parcels of land known as Sint Sinck—“stone upon stone.” One hundred and forty years later, the so-called “Castle on the Hudson” was born. Today we call it Sing Sing.
The village’s original name, like its tribe, and the land and the stream, had been quarried too —mined through various iterations, the remnants of which the present name of the town, Ossining, retains and perpetuates. Maps from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries trace these musical variations and poetic transmutations, the lineage of which bears the cadence of polyvocality: “Cinque Singte, Sink Sink, Cinquesingte, Sinck Sinck, Sin Sinct, Sint Sinck and Sin-Sing.” But there was no singing there, in Ossining, the place of stones, where some one hundred and forty years after the last “official” land purchase, the prisoners worked in silence, side-by-side. Broken into wordless submission, their first task was to break the stones. This labor a dreadful severance. All the weakness of isolation had to be harnessed, rendered a tool that could be put to use through forced manual labor. Through lack of speech, the denial of communication necessary to bring an individual into communion with others and with himself. How deep the veins of irony: to toil in silence under the weight of punishment for utterance, for pronouncing one’s own name or, equally forbidden, pronouncing another’s, in this place named after the sound of stones on stones, a kind of unsung singing.
After the prison was built, completed three years later in 1828, more stones were extracted for more construction. The other castle came next (Lyndhurst Mansion), followed by the university (NYU) and, of course, some churches (Grace Church) and the New York State capital building, too. An appalling mixture of opulence and slavery. Of institutions and the bedrock of their archives, pried from the land. The land where the Hudson Valley begins. The same valley whose glacial history gave form to its lakes and their narrow reach into the sea. It might all be too devastating to live with if it weren’t for the constant blending, being hewn into the everyday scenery that constitutes our common places of education and worship and bureaucracy.
The violence of the archive puts these acts—these transactions—on display and transcribes them as justified forms of restitution and rehabilitation. I am particularly intrigued by what layers of history the prison’s stones hold. What stories might be heard in them. And I am compelled to ask what archival knowledge is waiting to be discovered there, in the weight of those stones, in the pressure of time they index. The same stones that had to be broken in order to be taken from the quarry. Broken before being slowly carried to the site of construction, a site of assembling, stone upon stone, through the weight of non-utterance, a house of detention. A house where something, it was said, would be made whole again. A person leveraged, remade after being turned into property. The noise must have been unbearable at times, cast against the silence of all the thoughts unsaid. Against the silence of the mine’s open wound.
iv. “vessels full of winter”
In late August 2021, I visit the monumental five hundred acre open-air sculpture museum known as Storm King, located in the Hudson Valley, in the present-day town of New Windsor, New York. The museum itself is an archive in the sense that it is a collection of large scale art objects gathered in, but also scattered across, one common space. An archive of sensibilities, of affects and wanderings under a sweeping sky. Among the first pieces I stumble upon is Martha Tuttle’s site-specific installation titled “A Stone That Thinks of Enceladus” (2020), commissioned as part of Storm King’s “Outlook Series” and also linked to a public program series of performances, organized by Tuttle and poet Gabriel Kruis, called “Return to the Field.”
As a meditation on landscape, scale, and the luminosity of textured surfaces, “A Stone That Thinks of Enceladus” offers sculptural testament to the affective power of stacking and scattering. The piece consists of one hundred handcrafted glass stones and one hundred hand-carved marble stones, cast from molds of natural stones gathered from the museum grounds and either carefully strewn across a patch of meadow resembling “islands in an archipelago,” or arranged into cairns, stacks of stones, and placed on top of large boulders scattered throughout an eight-acre field. As with the placement and patterns of the stones, which establish a dialogue between the work of fabrication and the order of the natural world, our encounter with these objects also initiates a kind of conversation between the human and the non-human; between the seeing subject and the thinking object referenced in the work’s title. There’s an implied sense of communication in all this—the touch of a human hand in holding and placing each stone, as well as communion with the dead conjured through the figure of each cairn, a memorial mound used in premodern times for mapping or marking burial grounds. The stones, in this way, constitute an event.
Visual artist and theorist Yve Lomax poetizes this process of sounding out the event through an imagined dialogue in which an unnamed speaker ruminates on a question she suddenly hears—
A question cries out; who or what will answer its call?
In the field, within which I am standing and listening, I am hearing echoes of laughter, yet I am also hearing echoes of voices…
As I turn my head to hear what one voice in particular is saying something catches my eye. Something is there on the ground, glinting. I look and there not far from my foot is a stone, silvered by sunlight.
My attention is caught by a stone, but at the same time I am hearing it being said that a stone is a field of activity. …a molecular dance taking place …I am hearing the word event being sounded here.
A stone is an event, for Lomax’s narrator/listener, because it bears spatial and temporal extension rather than being simply defined by location.
What is fundamental for the stone on the ground is that it has extension. Indeed, what is fundamental for the stone and the thousand and one aberrant grains of corn and the preying insects and the tree twittering is that they all partake of the relation of extension. Yes, this is where the narrative starts: extension is a fundamental natural relation. . . . Extension is what defines the event.
Extension, for Lomax, is key to the event because “what extension fundamentally involves is multiple relations, entangled histories.” Thus, the stone that is an event “is a relational entity: it is a vibration.” A “chunk of space-time,” that through its extension into (and also beyond) the tangible world operates on a set of relations always “in motion—vibrating, resonating, reverberating.” Relations that are “always moving on, . . . entering into composition with each other . . . like when music is being made.”
In the case of the glass stone sculptures, movement and composition occur through light reflecting off the stones’ surfaces in a manner suggestive of the reflective celestial body of Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth and iciest moon. The same moon known for its interior ocean, exterior geysers and razored crevasses, and also for being the “brightest world in our solar system.” In an interview for Columbia Climate School’s Glacier Hub Blog, Tuttle made the cosmic connection in her work explicit: “[t]he scatter of the reflective stones to me has a relationship to the scatter of stars, and I wanted to draw a circuitous relationship between the earthliness of stones, and the vastness of the cosmos.” The interplay between scale and surface also bears resonance with the materiality of archival accumulation—the dust, mold, residues, and cracks that come to transform (and sometimes paradoxically conserve) documents or artefacts in perpetual disintegration. These traces left behind and impressed upon Tuttle’s sculptures become poignant reminders that “each stone represents an extraordinary relationship and witness to time.” In this way, the stones, like vessels, give shape to the lines, invisible as they are, between distance and “the advent of / a new species of intimacy.” These lines, at once imperceptible yet nonetheless moving through us, are perhaps best captured in the delicate flows and tender relations evoked by Gabriel Kruis’s verse:
in this field—in what some call
the Hudson Valley—in the unceded
homeland of the Munsee Lenape people—
among some stones which are even now
filling with light—as if coursing in
place—as pools of time arise in
tides of silence and—like a vapor—
settle—of how—in the vacancy
between these stones and you—
something is supposed to happen—
music, not only, but some 3rd thing—
like thinking of—or being in—
the noise of life—or life beyond
It is this notion of “life beyond suspension” that, I hope, will bring us back to the beginning, to thinking with and against the archive as a space of intelligibility. Here we return to the stutter in the archive, and to the concept of unarchive, with the extraordinary work of JJJJJerome Ellis.
v. “the stutter shall deliver years of stolen time”
By mapping these various points in time and their corresponding and variegated geographies—the cathedral to the prison to the valley—I have taken a long and admittedly personal route to get here. But I’ve now finally arrived. My aim has been to save the sweetest part for last. To draw upon these ruminations as a kind of prolonged hesitation or delay. To use this space of writing as a stage for constellating fleeting moments, fragments of history and the images left in their wake. The initial impulse was to dive right in, to begin by theorizing modes of unarchiving straight away, but in practice I came to realize that the slow steady montage of writing through memory was the only doorway in. And this in the hopes that such moments isolated will not lapse into oblivion simply because they are suspended or were not yet said. The hope is to gather these stones but also, to a certain extent, allow them to remain scattered. Rearranged. To take their place across time as the condition for the formation of a temporary bridge or gradual “reticulation,” to borrow Rizvana Bradley’s captivating term. The “raveling together of threads of thoughts” that would tie the lived experience of those moments, however impossible to truly know or articulate, to the places and structures and words that now hold them.
The live performance that took place at Storm King on the day I visited featured composer and musician JJJJJerome Ellis on the saxophone playing alongside a trio named The Hawtplates, whose soul music adopts diverse experimental, echolocative, and dialogic forms, all interlaced with conceptual vocalizations, waves of electronic modulations, and a high degree of textured improvisation. These musicians were also joined by Gabriel Kruis who, in a brief interlude, read the above cited poem in its entirety, an homage to and collaboration with Martha Tuttle’s sculptural works. Roughly halfway through the performance, JJJJJerome Ellis, who identifies as a “blk disabled animal, stutterer, and artist,” picked up a stone, cradled it in the palm of his hand, positioning and re-positioning his body and the stone’s body in a kind of symbiotic choreography of holding and being held. A decelerated dance of caressing and carrying, of stopping and flowing as if moving through waves of music’s mystery, perhaps through the “harmonic space inhabited by the We.”
JJJJJerome Ellis’s work first crossed my path about a year ago, when I had the pleasure of attending his virtual performance and lecture (alongside Erica Hunt and Saidiya Hartman) organized by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics as part of their Black Study Intensive Series “Collective Protest & Rebellion.” In the context of that conversation, JJJJJerome presented a moving and memorable work titled “Life of Life”—a seven-minute single-channel video which opens with a dialogue between voice, text, and image, weaving together sound and choreography. The work begins with the verse “stoppage / thence passage / thence stoppage,” which is sung repeatedly. As the words STOPPAGE / PASSAGE appear, bold black lettering flickering against the whiteness of the screen, images of a woman crouched inside a partially enclosed box placed in the middle of an unnamed forest intermittently flash up. Kneeling, with her back to the camera, she starts first with slow measured movements that gradually unfurl into a sequence of complex postures within the confined space of the box. Pressed against the upright cardboard edges, the body is malleable, molding itself into different angles; through a kind of self-sculpting, it produces eclectic asymmetries and shapes, behind which are rhythms in search of new forms, a slow emerging fluency. There’s of course constraint in all this. But, more importantly, there’s a certain degree of plasticity. Plasticity against constraint; pliancy under the weight of one’s own body.
Entering into this piece, the viewer is situated in the space-time relation of collaborative composition, which hinges on the synchronized and recurrent movement of words and gestures in combination, entering and exiting the audiovisual frame. This relation, an entanglement that is structured by extension, occurs in the place where language is rehearsed even as it is arrested. A place where language reaches into other forms. Stoppage rolled into song. The place where composition, by virtue of adhering to constraints (the box, the script, the text), can slip into “another arrangement of the possible.” This is perhaps another way of saying that what we are invited into is precisely the place where composition makes possible the generative slippage between stoppage and passage. To do this, there must be a method of addressing both location and extension. Location in the twin sense of the place from where language emanates and the place towards which it travels and is held, which involves considering how words themselves are evolving frames and also corners that might be boxed in. Extension in the sense of fluidity, reach, and musicality—the very qualities that permit us “to seek to discover that possible thing which is disturbing the metrical table of values.” The poet William Carlos Williams likens this discovery of disturbance to finding “a language that hints toward composition. . . . A language full of hints towards newness.” In his essay, “The Poem as a Field of Action,” Williams muses that “jazz might offer a suggestion,” a way of encountering “that instability in language where innovation would be at home.”
“Life of Life” forms part of JJJJJerome Ellis’s ongoing conceptual project that combines performance, video, music, and poetry to engage with archival source material of runaway slave advertisements from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers. This multidisciplinary approach has everything to do with performing poetry, with “the bringing together of what has been parted” that “makes language quiver.” Each advertisement is transformed into a field where a new event takes place. Each word of each advertisement a stone waiting to be picked up and held and placed somewhere new. Each stone the possibility of a new arrangement of history.
After the first thirty seconds of the video, a long text dated “12 April 1777” appears on screen. It is a reproduction of one such advertisement, first published in the Cornwall Chronicle, which details the names, trades and physical descriptions of several fugitive slaves, including explicit mention of speech impediments. Here, the materiality of the ad, which is also a box or chamber containing the language of capture, is put on display in order to be mined for poetry. JJJJJerome brings the solemnity of select words into a state of song just as those same words are temporarily suspended on the screen, fixed in red. There’s a sense of moving-into-stillness that occurs in this conjunction of text held and word sung. In this gathering of words to create new verses, in between the brightening and the fading, constellations emerge.
With each word isolated and placed into new relations with other words, transmutated into musical patterns, there is not so much a stripping bare of each text as there is a vocation—listening for what was not, but still could be said. I understand this form of listening, which is also a form of intimacy and care, as a strategy for attending to not just what went unsaid in the original document but for imagining what is perhaps still unsayable. A mode of conjuring the dead that actively participates in what Hartman calls the “imperative to respect black noise.” JJJJJerome’s lyrical reconfigurations are acts of radical poiesis that create a space through which the dead are finally allowed to speak, a space “for mourning where it is prohibited.” We might call this an unarchival space in which “a subject does not speak about an object but rather things are spoken through, and things speak.” In this way, “Life of Life” isn’t invested in dismantling the box, nor destroying the archive to which that box is anchored. Rather, the investment is an aesthetic one irrefutably alloyed to the parameters of the box, and to the conditions of impediment that it bears. The poetic act is always in pursuit of discovering new forms of saying, news ways to inhabit the box, new vocal/textual/corporeal arrangements that will make the box inhabitable. Here the inheritance of the archive is interpreted as a structure that needs to be traversed and broken so that it can be remade again. In this remaking, there’s a sense of being both “inside and outside of the event of language,” the goal of which is “to speak of a history that is rendered possible.”
In her exquisite essay, “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman asks a timely if demanding question: “must the future of abolition be first performed on the page?” JJJJJerome’s work takes this very question seriously—by listening for the unsaid, creating a history written with and against the archive, a counter-history reformulated from the gleaned textures of “a past that has yet to be done.” There’s survival in all this. And there’s tremendous empowerment, too, in taking an impediment and turning it into an object of belief. The very thing unambiguously signifying a disability or defect, once deployed in the advertisement to facilitate recapture, now is turned into the glass stone of poetry. A stone that extends and reflects the fragile line inscribed within the poem between fault and falter. In a second runaway slave advertisement, from “Westmoreland County, Virginia, 17 August 1794,” this fragility is even more evident when a clearing is held open for the stutter. Disabled speech is first yoked to the law of slavery. THE LAW PRETENDS TO STUTTER. Then it is mercifully unyoked in order to be set free. This happens first with a question formulated through the rearrangement of key words from the original text: “Where is the goal of the law of speech?” This inquiry effectively converts the public call for capture into a collective interrogation—a threefold questioning of the text itself, of history, and of what Hartman calls the “afterlife of slavery.” This question lingers beneath the slippage of metaphors that comes immediately afterward, a series of traversals or crossings that swell inside the expansive time-space of one momentous crescendo:
the stutter is coffee for the runaways
the stutter is reward
the stutter is passage
the stutter is a high chariot
the stutter is a scar on speech
the stutter is a house for speech
the stutter is a horse for speech
The format of which, on the screen, appears like this:
the stutter the stutter the stutter
is a scar is a house is a horse
on speech for speech for speech
The passage through which the stutter morphs into coffee/reward/a high chariot/a scar/a house/a horse marks a coexistence of temporalities, measured by the multitude of experiences projected into an imagined future, but which also flash up in the present and cull from the past’s reverberations. Here, dysfluency is both a vessel and the experience of being carried.
The poet and critic John Berger writes of poetry’s ability to “abandon itself to language, in the belief that language embraces all experience, past, present, and future.” In this belief, poetry presents us with a confluence of time, wherein “words are a presence before they are a means of communication,” but also, interestingly, where words are placed “beyond the reach of time: or more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.” This temporal fluidity, the conditions of which are an endless gathering of potentialities, resonates profoundly with JJJJJerome’s work, and with the very notion, as suggested by the title, of a vital infinite reflexivity: “life of life.”
In his phenomenal book, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, Berger proposes that unlike prose, “poetry speaks to the immediate wound.” It does this, in part, because all poems “cross the battlefields, . . . listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful.” Poems attend, they recognize, and they promise to hold that which has been experienced, even if unsaid, so that it will not disappear “as if it had never been.” But this is not the promise of a monument, for “who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?” Berger asks. Rather, poetry’s promise “is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.” JJJJJerome responds to the call of this cry through embracing the radical temporality of dysfluency, tapping into the way it can both suspend and open a space for something to become passable, for something to pass through, which hinges on the discovery of possible passages inside the box, situated in a clearing, in an unnamed wood. There’s another side to this as well, a different angle, which involves confronting the way the archive stutters too, the way it houses a kind of speech that gives shape to unintelligible events. Here’s a longer fragment from Berger again, one worth quoting at length:
The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience—everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable. In this sense one can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man. For prose this home is a vast territory, a country which it crosses through a network of tracks, paths, highways; for poetry this home is concentrated on a single center, a single voice, and this voice is simultaneously that of an announcement and a response to it.
I recognize in JJJJJerome’s work the conscious breaking of structure in order to listen to black noise, and through that listening, to create a space for what was—but also what remains—unsayable, to mobilize poetry as a space of enunciation and as a method of address which confronts “the otherwise indifference of language” and which, through that confrontation, “incites a caring.”
The caring that we witness in “Life of Life,” is also beautifully, importantly an act of carrying as well as a form of carrying through, and is uniquely linked to what JJJJJerome has elsewhere called “the stutter’s inherent resistance to intelligibility,” a resistance that the poem can channel and “let shine.” I want to pause, for just a moment, on this notion of care and try to connect it back to the innovative force of metaphorical slippage, which I hope will return us to the practice of scattering as foundational to unarchiving. Berger reminds us that poetry operates on a dual-orientation of reassemblance and reach—gathering anew by metaphor and reuniting through extension, equating “the reach of a feeling with the reach of the universe.” Accordingly, poetry doesn’t exercise care by repairing loss but by defying the “space which separates.” It resists or disobeys the governance of separation by “its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered.”
What I find useful in this conceptualization, this image of poetry’s ceaseless labor and its incitement to care, is that in the very recourse to metaphor through which we “discover resemblance,” the poem moves beyond simple comparisons or rhetorical equivalence that might otherwise run the risk of “diminishing the particularity of any event.” Rearrangement is recast, indeed reclaimed, as an antidote to the performance of mastery, the same performance propagated by the archive. For Berger, the power in this reassemblance— which in JJJJJerome’s work, as we have seen, takes the form of rearrangement—is the discovery of correspondence and relationality: “to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the indivisible totality of existence.” The indivisibility of an unclaimed experience that the archive both stores and silences. The operation of the archive, its functioning, involves a regime of ordering that depends on the appearance of discipline, which in turn depends on concealing any “inherent resistance to intelligibility —that is, the potentially unruly, rebellious movement of language’s slippage that threatens to undo the archive’s stability by introducing what JJJJJerome refers to as the stutter’s “radical uncertainty.”
If, as Hartman suggests, “the archive contains the language that lays us to ruin,” then JJJJJerome Ellis’s work steps into that space to confront the language of ruin head on. In doing so, this work asks what poetic forms might be available to us to escape such a fate, a state of ruination, or wreckage or disrepair. The question is to imagine the texture of lives contained within the archive; to create from within the impossible, paradoxical tangle of immediacy and delay, of materials and their impediments, all housed in the archive, a counter-history that might “revisit the scene of subjection without replicating the grammar of violence.” “Life of Life” ends where it begins: with the saxophone’s rise and fall of complex tones, with the images of the woman repositioning her body inside the box, and with JJJJJerome’s voice propelling the word “stutter” through the groan of history and into an intractable space of freedom. A space where a life sentence passes into fugitivity.
What is the archive but a series of stones? Stones that “persist and shift ground” in the sway and folds and weathering of a past dampened or unearthed not by the passage of time but by its constant passing? What is the archive if not, in the end, a field of possible openings? And in this way, a kind of garden, too? What would unarchiving achieve if not the creative arrangement of entry points into that garden or field? A sequence of unfoldings necessary to step into the past without reproducing its harm. To listen to what was never said, yet was there all along; to transform that possibility into actuality. Into music. A music that would carry in each measure “a past that has yet to be done.” And there, in this past which is entombed in the archive and held as a silenced cry, to listen for the future sound of new beginnings, of voice becoming song. Songs like stones, extensions that carry but are also broken pieces of the violence of history. A concatenation of soundings, let’s call them notes, that in their stutter, hold and scatter.
 Hansen, “Kracauer’s Photography Essay—Dot Matrix—General (An-)Archive—Film.”
 Matta-Clark, Manifesto, 13.
 Matta-Clark, 13.
 Matta-Clark, 13.
 Derrida and Lukacher, Cinders, 15.
 Caruth, Literature in the Ashes of History.
 Monk and Tan, Disassembling the Archive: Fiona Tan, n.p.
 Moten, “Black Mo’nin’ in the Sound of the Photograph,” 201.
 Barthes et al., Mourning Diary, 106.
 Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” 19.
 Mbembe, 21.
 Mbembe, 21.
 McHugh, Auburn Correctional Facility, 8.
 The Democratic Register (emphasis added).
 Ellis, Responsory.
 Bouhassira, “New Storm King Art Exhibit Features Glass, Marble, and Glacial History.”
 Bury, “Martha Tuttle’s Sentient Stones at Storm King.”
 Lomax, Sounding the Event, 83.
 Lomax, 83–4.
 Lomax, 84.
 Lomax, 85.
 NASA Science, “Enceladus: Ocean Moon,” https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/cassini/science/enceladus/.
 Bouhassira, “New Storm King Art Exhibit Features Glass, Marble, and Glacial History.”
 Kruis, “I Think of Music When I Think of You—.”
 Ellis, “On Fugitive Speech.” This lecture was a virtual talk presented as part of the “Diving into the Wreck” lecture series.
 Bradley, “Four Theses on Aesthetics.”
 Members of The Hawplates trio are Justin Hicks, Jade Hicks, and Kenita Miller-Hicks, though only the former two members were performing at this particular event.
 JJJJJerome Ellis is a multi-disciplinary artist, working across the fields of music, composition, poetry, performance and video, drawing on jazz and improvisation, as well as disabled speech and the poetics of dysfluency to blur the line between rehearsal and performance. His work importantly centers around the political, poetic, and racial dimensions of stuttering, its kinship to Blackness and how both can be reimagined as “technologies of refusal, possibility, and reparation.”
 Line adapted and slightly reconfigured from Gabriel Kruis’s verse. The original verse reads: “a harmonic space of the We in- / habits.”
 This was a virtual event titled “Looking for Language in the Ruins” and took place on September 29, 2020. At this point in the essay, I begin referring to Ellis by his first name, retaining his artistic spelling— “JJJJJerome”—to hold a space for his stutter through this writing.
 Hartman, Wayward Live, Beautiful Experiments, 302.
 Williams, “The Poem as a Field of Action,” 286. Williams calls for a reconsideration of the structure of the poem, which might take place through our concept of musical time, and which would involve acknowledgment of our indebtedness to the dead.
 Williams, 290. This is not, for Williams, realism but “the opportunity to expand the structure, the basis, the actual making of the poem.”
 Williams, 288.
 Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, 89.
 Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 12.
 Hartman, 8.
 DiCarlo, “Disassemblance: Eruptions and Incisions, Bastards and Monsters,” 131.
 DiCarlo, 131; Lomax, Sounding the Event, 63.
 Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 10.
 Hartman, 13.
 Here, I am drawing on JJJJJerome’s term: “Stuttering (especially in the form I present with, the glottal block) creates unpredictable, silent gaps in speech. I call these gaps ‘clearings’. Slaves sang in the fields, and whites heard them; but they also sang (and danced) in the woods at night, out of earshot. Undergirding the clearing created by my stutter is that other clearing, in the woods, where my enslaved ancestors stole away to keep healing, resisting and liberating through music—work that I continue today” (Ellis, “The Clearing,” 215).
 Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 13.
 Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, 21.
 Berger, 22.
 Berger, 95.
 Berger, 21.
 Berger, 21.
 Berger, 21.
 Berger, 95.
 Berger, 95.
 Ellis, “On Fugitive Speech.”
 Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, 97.
 Berger, 96.
 Berger, 97.
 Ellis, “On Fugitive Speech.”
 Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 4.
 Barthes, Lecture in Auguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, 9–10.
 Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 13.
Barthes, Roland, Nathalie Léger, and Richard Howard. Mourning Diary: October 26, 1977–September 15, 1979. 1st American edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
Barthes, Roland, and Richard Howard. Lecture in Auguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, Collège de France, January 7, 1977. October 8 (1979): 3–16.
Berger, John. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
Bouhassira, Elza. “New Storm King Art Exhibit Features Glass, Marble, and Glacial History.” GlacierHub Blog (Columbia Climate School), October 7, 2020. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/10/07/storm-king-art-exhibit-glacial-history/
Bradley, Rizvana. “Four Theses on Aesthetics.” E-flux 120 (2021). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/120/416146/four-theses-on-aesthetics/
Bury, Louis. “Martha Tuttle’s Sentient Stones at Storm King.” Hyperallergic, September 5, 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/582225/martha-tuttles-sentient-stones-at-storm-king/
Caruth, Cathy. Literature in the Ashes of History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Derrida, Jacques, and Ned Lukacher. Cinders. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
DiCarlo, Tina. “Disassemblance: Eruptions and Incisions, Bastards and Monsters.” In The Archive as a Productive Space of Conflict, edited by Markus Miessen and Yann Chateign, 127–36. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016.
The Democratic Register. March 2, 1901.
Ellis, JJJJJerome. Impediment is Information. Single-channel video, 2021. https://jjjjjerome.com/impediment-is-information
——. Life of Life. Single-channel video, 2020. https://jjjjjerome.com/life-of-life
——. “ Looking for Language in the Ruins.” Virtual event, CAAPP with Erica Hunt and Saidiya Hartman, September 29, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bSu_ysGzVQ
——. “On Fugitive Speech.” Virtual lecture, Yale School of Art, November 30, 2020. . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qL-RSug5IU
——. Responsory; or, When Shall We Walk Clumsy Into the Snow of Now. Single-channel video, 2021. https://jjjjjerome.com/responsory
——. “The Clearing: Music, Dysfluency, Blackness and Time.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies 5, no. 2 (2020): 215–33.
Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “Kracauer’s Photography Essay—Dot Matrix—General (An-)Archive—Film.” In Culture in the Anteroom: the Legacies of Siegfried Kracauer, edited by Gerd Gemünden and Johannes Von Moltke, 93–110. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–4.
——. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Kruis, Gabriel. “I Think Of Music When I Think Of You—.” Unpublished/forthcoming poem.
Lomax, Yve. Sounding the Event: Escapades in Dialogue and Matters of Art, Nature and Time. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
Matta-Clark, Gordon. “Manifesto” (1978). In Principles of Anarchitecture by Interior Ministry, 13. ALIENIST Magazine, 2019. https://alienistmanifesto.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/principles-of-anarchitecture/
Mbembe, Achille. “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits.” In Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton et al., 19–26. Cape Town: David Philip, 2002.
McHugh, Eileen. Auburn Correctional Facility. San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
Monk, Philip, and Fiona Tan. Disassembling the Archive: Fiona Tan. Toronto: Art Gallery of York University, 2007.
Moten, Fred. “Erotics of Fugitivity.” In Stolen Life, 241-67. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.
——. “Black Mo’nin’ in the Sound of the Photograph.” In In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 192–211. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Tuttle, Martha. “A Stone That Thinks of Enceladus.” Storm King Art Center, 2020.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Poem is a Field of Action.” In Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, 280–91. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1969.
Wigley, Mark. Cutting Matta-Clark: The Anarchitecture Investigation. Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers with the Canadian Centre for Architecture and the Columbia University GSAPP, 2018.