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Brandon Pownall | Emory Digital Humanities

Questions of Authorship

St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Wall of room in Ward Retreat 1. Reproductions made by a patient, a disturbed case of dementia precox [praecox?]; pin or fingernail used to scratch paint from wall, top coat of paint buff color, superimposed upon a brick red coat of paint. Pictures symbolize events in patient's past life and represent a mild state of mental regression. Undated, but likely early 20th century.

I won’t even attempt to offer a normal English class interpretations for the mass amount of information thrown at me by Mark Z. Danielewski. I just want to know one thing, which character “wrote” House of Leaves? Initially, the text lead me to believe the blind Zampanò authored The Navidson Record, Johnny Truant found it, wrote footnotes for it, added the appendixes, and added letters written by his mother Pelafina. However the footnotes by Johnny often mirror the text and certain clues (yes, the experience of reading this book is like solving a mystery) have caused me to doubt the supposed authorship of everything in House of Leaves.

The first thing that caused me to begin doubting the Zampanò/Truant authorship was a little comment in Pelafina’s letters. She signs off with, “Practicing my smile in a mirror the way I did when I was a child” (615). This is quite interesting because Karen Green was characterized by the exact same thing: “Karen spent every night of her fourteenth year composing that smile in front of a blue plastic handled mirror” (58). Is Johnny’s mom actually just represented by Karen in The Navidson Record?

I later found out that on the same page the second to last full paragraph contains a little secret message, much like the much larger one 5 pages later, it reads: “My Dear Zampanò what did you lose?” This really throws me off. How would Pelafina know Zampanò? Did Johnny, or whatever his real name is, write The Navidson Record to cope with his mother’s demise? Or is Pelafina crazy enough to create all of these characters herself? Or is Johnny a side of Zampanò’s personality? There are numerous interpretations. I found a little snippet from the Appendix that Zampanò supposedly wrote on September 21, 1970 quite interesting: “Perhaps in the margins of darkness, I could create a son who is not missing; who lives beyond even my own imagination and invention” (543). This could be an answer to the question Pelafina asks Zampanò, he lost his son. Did he create Johnny as a character in a book (“the margins”)? Is Pelafina actually Zampanò, as she lost her son when she was sent to Whalestoe? Does it even matter?

I am left with no answer to all of these bizarre questions and feel a little crazy that they even arose. I feel like this is Danielewskis intention. Like me reading this book, I imagine a patient like Pelafina has a hard time piecing together her own narrative. Zampanò’s story barely exists within the text, so who knows how broken his is or if he really exists, and Johnny comes off as fairly fragmented himself. He gives us one piece of wisdom that helps me process the novel. He quips, “We all create stories to protect ourselves” (20) which shows me that while the authorship question might never be answered, there is indeed a reason for the novel’s existence.

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The Bookness of House of Leaves

Moby Dick

370 pages into Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I’m struck by how much of a physical book it is. Almost every feature of the book itself seems to have some sort of meaning. Danielewski takes what are just normal features of a book and uses them to create or add possible meaning to the story.

First, just look at the cover. The cover is almost half an inch shorter than the pages contained inside. This is a stylistic choice and could relate to the way the Navidson’s house is bigger on the inside than the outside. The book is titled House of Leaves. The word leaf is often used in place of page and Johnny Truant calls letters, “leaves of feeling” (350). House of Leaves is composed of pages, and a book itself is a home for leaves of paper. It is a house of leaves. Is this a book about books?

With the copious use of footnotes, the way text is arranged on certain pages to reflect the story, the multiple appendixes, this novel is very aware of its status as a physical book. I feel like some of David Foster Wallace’s reasoning for using footnotes and endnotes could illuminate what Danielewski is trying to do. In 1994 he said that endnotes, “2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence” and “4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns.” But they could be interpreted in many other ways. Even having the word “house” in blue is just another enigmatic aspect of the book that would work only in book form. It would be impossible to turn this into a movie and have the same effect. All of these features are something that could only be employed in the print form.

But what do all of these features mean? On the first page of chapter one, the blind author Zampanò tells us, “the house itself, like Melvilles behemoth, remains resistant to summation” (3). The author compares the house to Melville’s behemoth, Moby Dick, a book similar in size, complexity, and mystery. So if we take “the house” here to mean the book itself rather than the Navidson house, the author is telling us that all of these confusing signs just create a book with an enormous amount of interpretations. Like “Stephen King. Novelist” says:

“look at Ahab’s whale. Now there’s a great symbol. Some say it stands for god, meaning, and purpose. Others say it stands for purposelessness and the void. But what we sometimes forget is that Ahab’s whale was also just a whale” (361).

Image Sauce: https://flic.kr/p/9Uncnq

Mrs Darwin’s Evolution

La Democracia - Repulsive Spider Monkey

In my earlier post, “Stealing” Notebooks, I went over what enlightening information I uncovered in MARBL’s collection of Carol Ann Duffy’s notebooks. Along with the Selling Manhattan notebooks, I also looked at The World’s Wife, focusing on the four line poem, “Mrs Darwin”.

The World’s Wife notebooks were not as content rich as Selling Manhattan, possibly reflecting a change in Duffy’s process or that she jotted down thoughts elsewhere. She has four rewrites of the poem, which is double the amount present for “Stealing,” but the length of this poem is considerably shorter.

The first unusual thing I noticed about the drafts of “Mrs Darwin” was the date she wrote them. She writes her first draft on the 16th of December, 1993, while The World’s Wife was published 6 years later in 1999. I even stumbled upon a letter to a publisher about including that poem in what would later be a preview of The World’s Wife in 1994’s Selected Poems. Duffy clearly deliberated on the concept and content of the collection for quite a while.

The drafts themselves were written over a period of 3 weeks, the first only three lines long, missing the first line, “7 April 1852”. Within that first entry Duffy rewrote the poem, this time with the idea of including a date to make it seem like a diary entry of sorts, but left the specifics blank to be filled in later. She ended up choosing “It was the 3rd of April 1852” as the first line of the draft. Stylistically, Duffy decided to use chimpanzee instead of chimp in the second draft as well, which could be because she uses the same ‘z’ sound in “Zoo”.

The following week, the draft reflects a change of heart as she modified the first line to just “7th April 1852”, dropping the extra language and changing “3rd” to “7th”. The “th” is dropped from “7th” in the final draft.  She decides to shorten the second line too, instead of “We’d been to the Zoo”, she goes with “Went to the Zoo”. Another stylistic change, she goes with a capital ‘H’ in “Him” instead of lower case, which could have various interpretations. Undoubtedly it better matches the capital ‘Z’ in “Zoo” on the line before and connects him to the capital C “Chimpanzee”.

Finally, she rewrites “Mrs Darwin” a week later as it appears in The World’s Wife. The drafts take up only a short front and back of a page in her notebook. The nature of her notebooks makes me wonder what else it took to generate her poetry. Does she write ideas and first drafts on scraps and transfer near complete work over to her notebooks?  What can be inferred from the notebooks reflects the care for her craft but leaves me wanting to know even more.


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“Stealing” Notebooks


I recently visited Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) to view some of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry notebooks. While the collection spans decades of her career, I focused on her Selling Manhattan and The World’s Wife notebooks. This post will cover what I uncovered from notes on the poem “Stealing” from Selling Manhattan.

Her notes for “Stealing” begin on the 14th of January, 1987 with the line, “All over this island the children are building snowmen”. The children that are mentioned only as a thought in the poem are emphasized with this line.  It is not clear if this was intended to be the first line of a poem or possibly her source of inspiration, but the winter date suggests she could be capturing an aspect of her everyday life.

Duffy leaves a few lines blank and goes on to write out one of the two drafts of “Stealing” contained in the MARBL collection. The first draft of the poem lacks the poem’s final stanza. She forms the final stanza on the back of the first draft, beginning with the rhetorical question from the missing last stanza, “you don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?” Duffy builds the last stanza around that disconnecting final line. With the last line completed she works out what the first line of the final stanza will say, crossing out the despairing lines, “what’s always bother me is What’s the point?” and “what’s always bothered me is boredom, ticking off the days”, settling for the published version’s line, “Boredom. Mostly, I’m so bored I could eat myself”. It’s interesting to see the original phrasing of that thought and how she works it into the speaker’s voice through rewriting.

The second draft includes the final stanza, but she makes an interesting change to the third line: She crosses out, “I nicked a nude bronze once” and changes it to “I nicked a bust of Shakespeare once,” referring to the master of the tradition she is working with. “A bust of Shakespeare” alludes to both art and literature, which adds a dimension to the character, as the narrator alludes to music in the previous line when they admit to stealing a “guitar”.

In the final version of the poem the ambiguous narrator wants a snowman as a “mate,” however both drafts in the notebook have “brother” instead of “mate.” The reason behind this change could be the word “mute” ends the previous line and “mate” sounds better as the next ending word (they are only one letter from being the same word). Though a change in the next stanza could be related, as “clasped to my chest” is crossed out and changed to “hugged to my chest” in the second draft. “Hugged” and “mate” from “clasped” and “brother” have different connotations, suggesting a more endearing, romantic rather than fraternal relationship, at least to my ears. “Mate” could also just be an inclusion of colloquial dialect, as Duffy uses slang like “nicked” and “flogged” as well.

Seeing the changes adds a new layer of understanding to previous interpretations. It also may interest you that “Stealing” was a late addition to the collection, not included on many of her lists for what ended up being Selling Manhattan. The notebook entries reflect Duffy’s deliberation to ensure the right message got across to the reader in the right voice.

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The Colour of Thought


Carol Ann Duffy ends her complex poetry collection, Selling Manhattan, with the poem “Miles Away.” I had never really considered it before, but in class we talked about how the arrangement of a poetry collection could be, and most likely is, intentional. Ending on “Miles Away” would make sense, as it explores many themes present throughout the collection, and like in the first poem, “Practising Being Dead,” memory is of great interest to Duffy. However, a recurring theme that doesn’t show up in the first but really caught my attention was a fascination with thought before language.

In “Miles Away,” the narrator observes herself to be “breathing the colour thought is/before language into still air” (2-3) in relation to a memory she is experiencing. She goes on to observe the inaccurate and fading nature of memory, but what color is thought before language? It makes me picture standing out in the cold and seeing the smoky cloud of my breath, but what an odd metaphor to throw out there, it really made me stop and think. Besides working as a beautiful image, pondering thought before language is not something everyone does. Throughout the collection Duffy shows concern with learned language’s inability to express the ineffable nature of emotions and memories.

Jumping backwards to the second poem in the collection, “Dies Natalis,” Duffy explores the idea of thought before language, as the narrator takes the reader through past lives as both pre-language acquisition animals and humans, and ends the poem from the perspective of a baby. The baby will, “learn words/ which barely stretch to cover what remains unsaid” (93-94) which is again a comment on an inability to express thought, or “what remains unsaid,” in human language.

I like to think Duffy is dividing language into two categories: the language of thought and the language we use to communicate. Just like the incarnation of the bird in “Dies Natalis”, with her own “private language,” (39) the narrator of “Foreign” uses a split in language to describe her isolation. She observes, “You think/ in a language of your own and talk in theirs” (4-5). She describes what one might feel if they moved to a foreign country and learned speak a language that differs from the one learned by heart, but also describes the nature of thought versus spoken language. Some things just can’t be put to words.

It seems the narrator of many of these poems anxiously struggles with conveying her own personal language to other humans. She has experiences, memories, all in the form of thought, but only has the limited English language to convey them to others. Whereas a language philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein posits, “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts,” Duffy believes poetry to be just as clear a form of translation.

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/9mSESz

Ticking Away


Reading up to about page 130 of Virginia Woolf’s brilliant Mrs. Dalloway, one pattern seems to unite, or rather interrupt, the thought process of every character: the striking of London’s Big Ben. Besides serving the obvious purpose of marking time, the sound of Big Ben has a real effect on a character’s thoughts and perceptions, often negatively.

While I’m not sure what the Big Ben is meant to represent itself, time seems to become a device that is forced on everyone in the city. Rezia Smith is nearly having a breakdown as she walks down Harley Street, to observe, “the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion” (102). This sense of proportion becomes almost villainized by Sir William. We know this feeling applies to Rezia, but it is reinforced by the fact that Big Ben is able to creep into Peter Walsh’s mind as he speaks “to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound, the direct downright sound of Big Ben striking the half hour” (48). Time shows itself to be is a force in everyone’s life that they are reminded of without ever asking.

Woolf’s use of Big Ben reminds me a little bit of the train in Thoreau’s Walden. Even though Thoreau is able to escape much of societal influence by moving to his simple cabin, the noise and the time schedule of the train is, for him, concerningly inescapable. He tells us, “the whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods…informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town” (81) and lets us know in his typical style, “regularly at half past seven, in one part of the summer, after evening train had gone by, the whippoorwills chanted their vespers for half an hour” (87). The train is a marker of exact time in an otherwise inexact state of existence, and here contrasted with the way other animals mark time. So the train, like Big Ben, enforces the adopted time of the city, or more so the time the market operates on.

Could Big Ben be a statement on how the market or the will of people like Sir William is inescapable? Or is it merely an annoying sound that unites a city by disturbing its inhabitant’s thoughts? It seems it wouldn’t be the latter, just because of how pervasive it becomes. If anything it shows us that in an age when one must be scientific above all things, exact measurement of time was of great importance.

And, if you’re interested, I really enjoyed a wonderful essay Woolf wrote on Thoreau to commemorate his 100th Birthday.

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