Instead, I began with a haunting. Every night, a return. To keep time by lunar light is to iterate in the ebb and flow of shadows. Iteration: the repetition of a process or utterance. In other words: the earth’s orbit, the sun rising and setting, the annular return of springtime peonies. To wake every morning is an iteration we barely recall, but the utterance blurs from there. It is not an exact replication that I want, a recurrence of clones, but rather a rhythm of grounding that allows for ghosts in the margins, fog on the horizon, unsaid hours, a vagrant echo between tidal encroachments.
Every morning I take a picture of the sky above the ocean through my kitchen window and keep them in a folder of accumulations. It is an impulse with no explanation except what is in human nature to record, document, archive, collect. The texture of our hours: to catalogue shifts in the horizon, a slight slipperiness in the interaction between ocean and sky. How the same frame is transformed moment to moment by ambiguous convergences of weather, temperature, time. How a small transformation becomes large in the heart. In some ways we are all reporting on the weather.
A copy made by xerographic process is an iteration that has been electrically charged. Black powder adheres to charged particles after an exposure to light. It does so with precise imperfection: shadows appear as darkened areas, edges of pages are delineated, dust and wrinkles are accentuated. In Anne Carson’s Nox, you can see these details, as the entire book is a facsimile of a journal or scrapbook. Perhaps most of all is something about these evidences of facsimile, the accidentals, the unplanned deviance from an original: What is gained in these subtle losses? Somehow in the flattening of a three-dimensional artifact, what is otherwise peripheral becomes etched and caught, emerging forward as a singular image we experience texturally.
In my own experiments with electrons and light, pressing paper against hard glass, it is the silent space beyond the page, which upon a fire of electrical charges emerges as a black ocean, a bounded margin of night.
To carry back: With the weight of a list, every line begins the same, linking them in an emphasis of sound and meaning, accreting a rhythm of insistence. To begin again and again, reminding us that each utterance is a failure of sorts, each accumulation another attempt: an act of urgency, a vertical ache. Every morning we wake. Every morning we breathe. Every morning we wait.
A litany: a liturgy: a ritual. A rhythmic context within which variation occurs, the poet said of poetry. The collection was the point: on its own, an isolated photograph had little meaning beyond itself. Like a heartbeat, then: an insistence amidst a world constantly in flux.
My body swelled to hold them all. One hundred poles on a crescent beach, it says, then lists each cycle of the tide. An adjacent document logs the process through its four repetitions, and each final line reports the findings:
Nighttime tide sweeps all poles to sea.
Shape of the delta changes with the tides.
All poles fall in the night and are scattered north up the beach.
After two tide cycles four poles remain standing, these fall the next morning.
Inside the very motion of documentation is a gesture of here is our world shifting on its axis, here are my fingerprints recording that shift. My body is drawn to archival records. But here in all its repetitions and rituals, the act of documentation becomes even more a liturgical science, each fallen pole a measuring stick, each collection a transcript of the tide. How many ghosts and echoes can you count on your finger? With every repetition of the process are deviations, and inside each deviation is a little bit of watery moonlight.
< weather report of the smallest hour >
< weather report of our mapmaking tendons >
< weather report of the distances we endanger >
< weather report of language in its absences >
< weather report of these alighting bodies >
< weather report of her aberrations, her aberrational organs >
We collect all nature of things, knowing there is careful leverage in crowds, multitudes, assemblies. Stamps, coins, postcards, matchboxes, feathers, dolls, rocks, seashells: an array of our own constellatory assertions, which is to say our unarticulated longings. A long poem I wrote began with two impulsive collections of images from all over the ether-space. The first was an obsession of structures with A-shaped roofs: barns, interior frames, cardboard cut-outs, canvas tents, pencil drawings. The second was of geometries and geometric shapes, whether actual models or naturally occurring happenstances: diagrams, shadows, creased paper, art installations. We collect, we arrange, we look: not for narrative, but some forceful texture of feeling: an instinct into the texture of the universe: the texture of the universe is worn paper, a clipped angle, tiny dwellings from the sea.
Wring me into a spiral of order and rupture, convergence and divergence, boundary and bewilderment. On my way to the sea, a pattern of echoes is evoked in the wilderness, and I run to catch them like twigs. A small, persistent pulse, and in between breaths we like the tension, we like the slipping, it gives us a crevice to lie in shadow, to wander in the dark, balloon outward little and large while remaining anchored to our tilted ground.
Evolution happens like this: an incantation, again and again, within which small aberrations.
In mathematics, iteration tends toward infinity; we put down boundaries to keep it contained. If I were to write a poem-essay “The 27 Moons of the Lady,” it is so I can show you, one by one, how the movement of her circular returns gathers toward something unknown, a space beyond or between the frames. A soft, grainy haunting whose insistence signals the existence of what that cannot be touched but is at every interval sensed more deeply.
Litany means both recitation and prayer. Liturgy is an observance. Ritual marks something as sacred. Iteration, then: sacred prayer from which we watch the world.
Jennifer S. Cheng received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa. She is the author of a hybrid chapbook, Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press), and her poems and lyric essays appear in Tin House, Web Conjunctions, AGNI, Tupelo Quarterly, Mid-American Review, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. Having grown up in Texas, Hong Kong, and Connecticut, she lives in San Francisco, where she is a founding editor of Drop Leaf Press. She can be found in the ether at jenniferscheng.com.