In Review

Court of the Dragon by Paolo Javier. Nightboat Books, 2015.

cover of Court of the Dragon

Reviewed September 1, 2015 by Alan Ramón Clinton.

Paolo Javier’s Double Séance

Javier’s double séance is “first”—it will become clear why we can never speak of firsts without always being aware that the word first, while indispensable, must always be, implicitly, placed in quotes. This is because, first of all, the word takes on meaning in iterable and thus inexhaustible contexts and, when the word is not used as a more or less generic place marker, as in this sentence, it is inevitably tied up with an apparition and then an order, an order which can change. If you are the first of one, you are singular, that is only until a line forms, and one could argue that without this line the word “first” would have no meaning—the first would instead be an apparition, a specter with no guarantee of a second. Yet the specter of itself, always appearing in a séance or “meeting” (a French to English translation) which is really “a sitting [setting]” (Latin etymology)—that is, a context which is always a séance and vice versa—exhibits a quality of duplicity which is really only the premonition of a multiplicity. We only use the term “double séance” to draw attention to a spectral nature of which people are not generally aware, even and especially those who associate séances with apparitions. So there can be no first apparition—Javier’s double séance is first even as its duplicity calls the very notion of firstness into question and, as will be seen, for very important reasons.

Javier does not use the term “double séance” in his book Court of the Dragon, although the term “séance,” which is already double, appears five times in the book’s opening sequence “My Aspiring Villain.” The first mention, fittingly, is of an “enemy séance” as it raises the question of the double and of the villain who is always a doppelgänger for the hero. Also, the question of firstness is raised because a hero may first appear as a villain of the villain. So the question of who speaks, who speaks first, and temporality more generally (“aspiring,” as a non-finite verb, can suggest a villain fully formed, in formation, or someone temporarily attempting a state of villainy) is raised from the very first line of the book: “See your boy ache extraneous, o Queen of Tardis.” Already we have a second person address, which could refer to a first person (“your boy”) or if not, to Who(m)? Presumably the female spirit of Dr. Who’s notoriously unreliable Tardis or “Time and Relative Dimension in Space” machine, the one which at first convinced Dr. Who that he stole the machine although it was in fact the machine, or “her,” who stole him in order to see the universe. Like Schrodinger’s cat, our good author Javier could, probabilistically speaking, be alive or dead, inside the box or not. In that sense, your boy is “extraneous” in mood, whether inside or outside Who’s police box which is only a disguise for the machine itself and whose dimensionality on the inside does not reflect its relatively diminutive “extraneous” size.

But, of course, that first line of the book is not really the first line, which is ceded to the great turn of the century occult writer Arthur Machen in the section’s epigraph: “‘Sorcery and sanctity,’ said Ambrose, ‘these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.’” The epigraph (in Greek “epi” indicates “upon, at, or close upon ((a point of space or time)), on the ground or occasion of, in addition”) comes from the first line of the “prologue” (that which comes before and/or proscribes the first “speaking”?) of “The White People,” published in 1904. The seeming opposite spiritual states of which Ambrose speaks are real, the “only [thus apparitional yet supplementary] realities,” but also constitute a “withdrawal” from common life (granting such life a certain firstness), which seems less important than that each is an ecstasy, deriving from another Greek disruption of origins—in this case the soul standing outside or next to the body (or vice versa). Villainy, we could say, aspires to or from Javier’s sequence in both sorcerous and sanctified forms, and whoever speaks, it is as “other voice than my own march[ing] ransom.” No one to pay off, might as well attempt to “adjust furies magic.”

If someone owned a voice, perhaps a “firstness” could be assigned to it, a firstness which would establish primacy or ownership. Javier, for his part, does not seem confident of such ownership, as “furies’” is spelled without an apostrophe. Throughout the text, the contraction “I’ll” (standing in for the consummate phrase of personal agency and power, “I will,” is not only contracted but spelled “Ill”) which is less interesting interpreted as a nod to texting or to literary modernism (although the twin defiance at the beginning of two centuries in collusion with two emerging technologies of writing—typewriter and cellphone—is worth noting) than it is, on the part of Javier, part of a larger disavowal of ownership. Indeed, although Javier’s interests (partly as a multilingual Filipino in an “English speaking world”) in who “owns a/the language” have been expressed in slightly more traditional ways in previous texts such as 60 Love B(oem)bs and The Feeling is Actual, the abdication of the apostrophe in relation to an avowal of mediumistic writing is not only a more nuanced response to such questions, but in fact a more deeply ontological avowal in its disavowal of simple identity politics and “glocal” posturing.

Such an avowal of course raises the question of, “What is mediumistic writing?”—“Thought it was a fad back when people actually believed in mediums, or at least considered them worthy of study—late nineteenth-century stuff for those clinging to ‘logocentrism’ and ‘belief in transcendence.’” No doubt, the medium of mediums has taken a beating over time except with grudging respect to a few “minor” writers such as Jack Spicer who opines about people not “listening to the ocean” or Hannah Weiner whose mediumship is recuperated as a metaphor for, of all things, non-logocentric, “decentered” writing concerned solely with the medium of language itself. Indeed, I was quite surprised when the latest editor of Weiner’s selected works rejected my offer to publish in Javier’s 2nd-Avenue issue “New Poeticks of Magick” because he, “in his own work,” abstained from the “credulity” expressed by Weiner about the sources of her inspiration. It is somewhat sad when the most sanguine espousals of the relationships between media, mediums, and inspiration come not from poets but almost solely from German “positivists” such as Friedrich Kittler (who always receives a tip of the hat from your “present” author).

Of course, to label Kittler a positivist is somewhat of an inside Kittler joke and alludes mostly to the densely materialist historicism of his writing, even as his method of using these materials leans towards the poetic and anecdotal modes of Foucauldian history. That said, there is a certain anti-positivist positivism of mediumship. More simply put, no medium who has truly abandoned themselves to a mediumistic state could honestly describe that state as reassuring them of a coherent identity. True, a certain credulousness is required, but it is more a credulousness in the form of this abandonment, of opening oneself up to “receiving” whatever may be out there and letting it flow through you. As poet Jack Spicer puts it, mediumistic writing turns one into a radio made of flesh, a cyborg subject to psychic and physical abuse of a not inconsequential nature:

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios

don’t develop scar tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a

transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram

burns out replaceable or not replaceable, but not like that

punchdrunk fighter in the bar. The poet

Takes too many messages.

Taking too many messages (often at the same time) that don’t belong to someone any more than the programming material belongs to a specific radio accounts for the discomfort or “burn out” that mediumistic writers often experience and for the paratactical and multilingual nature of their discourse.

For Jacques Derrida, in his essay “La Double séance,” all writing is mediumistic or performed “mediumystically” even if this element of language is suppressed by most writers. Indeed, it is even misleading to use “medium” in adverbial terms and would be better to note that writing is medium in a way that Derrida associates with the word “hymen,” which for Mallarmé is a marital signifier “tainted with vice yet sacred, between desire and fulfillment, perpetration and remembrance: here anticipating, there recalling, in the future, in the past, under the false appearance of a present” (qtd in Derrida 183). In marriage, as in mimicry, the hymen both separates and connects—although again, “separation” is suppressed for the more favored term or concept by most individuals, which is perhaps why a voice is quoted in Court of the Dragon: “‘Writers like you make terrible husbands’” (74). So here is the unresolvable dialectic, a writer who acknowledges the hymen (in Western culture, the fetishized word/concept of marriage) in its fullest sense is the worst husband.

And what exactly does this acknowledgment, which can never be acknowledged in full, in full confidence, entail? The hymen where “sorcery and sanctity,” to use Machen’s terms, engage in a “confusion between the present and the nonpresent, along with all the indifferences it entails within the whole series of opposites…produces the effect of a medium (a medium as element enveloping both terms at once; a medium located between [the] two terms)” (Derrida 185). The mediation of the marital hymen thus exhibits the same properties as those of medium writing—the medium creates a situation where, since it is both “inter/entre” (186) and “enveloping/ surrounding” oppositions, nothing is assured, nothing first, and herein lies both its inevitability and its frustration. This necessarily domestic yet foreign hymen writing, to the extent which the male poet submits to it, not only makes him a “bad husband” because his receptivity to what arrives through the medium turns him into a female-man on a performative level, but also on a historical level due to the late nineteenth-century division of labor which privileged female mediums for their perceived passivity. They, like the “bad husband,” presided over the table, so to speak, uttering the words of others in a way that undermined their linguistic authority while granting them a certain access to authorship in a culture where more official venues of publication were closed to a vast majority of working class women. Thus the hymen language we are speaking of, to the extent female writers also submit to it, potentially makes them “terrible wives” as the hysterical hymen forgoes the security of marriage in favor of medium writing. This gender uncertainty results neither in identity nor in secure relationships, but in “Rogue States [I]”:

…inter media

aquiline rose semiotics limned novice entrance siege

in face of brute despair Ive no aversion litany a lost set arrhythmia

I have you I know but for how long border borders in glove

you say this is our home yet won’t list my name under owner stanza

neither fear design a sinister lead equate to rope oracle

liquid made you shrug article gloam dagger

whenever I sit down to chat your English comes up like a mountain peak

inside alley of fear leans a horizon equip treble I reorganize

synchronous common cabals here they vow & un ramp period space

To not be averse “in face of brute despair” would seemingly be a quality “good husbands” have, assuming they were not the ones who led “their” hymens to the precipice, but it comes at the expense of converting a home into a cabal which, for all the latter’s protective insularity, is thereby always under “entrance siege.” Furthermore, as “inter media,” the hymen is a home the patriarch cannot own because that which is both between and surrounding inevitably cuts across itself, and is thus subject to “quasi-tearing, a dehiscence,” the latter designating a botanical term for the “splitting that, at a certain moment in the cycle, is undergone by the closed organs so that what they contain can come out” (Derrida 197). To dedicate oneself to the hymen is to open up what is already open in a mostly unacknowledged way—that is the dissemination of language as a scattering of seeds, or a making of oneself a home who scatters what he contains. In this scenario, there is no stasis, only states.

And thus no firstness, since Machen’s epilogue is of course not the first line of Court of the Dragon, which is reserved for the book’s title and longest sequence. And yet courts, as spaces, strike one has simultaneously enclosed, open, and full of intrigue, just as dragons in their more traditional depictions are extremely lithe and prone to ouroboros-like acrobatics able to frustrate any “line of succession.” So Javier’s first line is curiously nonlinear, as is the book’s eponymous sequence. As with the other sections of the book, it “begins” with an epigraph, this one from Gertrude Stein both “professing” and demonstrating how grammar alone, or the syncategoric as opposed to categories, disrupts the certitudes of ontology. Another convention maintained throughout the book is the practice, in all numbered sequences (“Court” has 53 sections), of denying “firstness” any real place by only starting the numbering with the second section. What might be viewed as purely typographical aesthetic choices elsewhere, we must choose to recognize as significant, or as in Mallarmé’s Mimique, demonstrations of the possibility “that what is imitated could be still to come with respect to what it imitates, that the image can [but need not] precede the model” (Derrida 176). And this “still to come” can also be an arrival that never happens, deconstructing the whole of mimetic discourses and leaving us solely with apparitions.

As with “My Aspiring Villain” we cannot know exactly who or what is the author of the poems, only that s/he has “come back from the dead awaken groggy late,” somewhat surprised and out of sorts in the manner of Lazarus. The instantaneous, apparitional quality of the writing is emphasized by constant questions of someone watching the poem while it is written, “why double the dolor bitterness arise.” Medium writing is not in control of what happens or the emotions connected to it. Its automatic nature is emphasized by a prodigious use of alliteration, almost to the point where a non-Beowulf scholar might even call it “bad” poetics. The puns, such as “dolor/dollar” signal a dreamlike production more than any attempt to approach Joyce’s “trivial” or even “quadrivial” work in Finnegans Wake—although Joyce’s foregoing of the apostrophe in his title is notable in relation to Javier’s own disavowal. Javier’s “source material” for the section is, on the one hand, Robert Chambers’ 1895 short story “In the Court of the Dragon,” a work which exhibits similarly uncanny automatisms. Its unnamed narrator finds himself in the cathedral St. Barnabé whose “organ-playing” he has always found “scientific…expressing a vivid if cold intelligence.” Soon, however, he becomes subject to states much more akin to those of Javier’s own “Dragon Court,” instigated in large part by a certain new organ player whose comings and goings seem to defy linear time, instead becoming, as in Javier’s poem, apparitional:

The same man was coming out from behind the organ, and was passing along the gallery the same way. But there had not been time for him to return, and if he had returned, I must have seen him. I felt a faint chill, and my heart sank; and yet, his going and coming were no affair of mine. I looked at him: I could not look away from his black figure and his white face. When he was exactly opposite to me, he turned and sent across the church straight into my eyes, a look of hate, intense and deadly: I have never seen any other like it; would to God I might never see it again! Then he disappeared by the same door through which I had watched him depart less than sixty seconds before. (Chambers)

The double séance is in full effect here, with the organist appearing as two men, and then as one again as he locks eyes with the narrator, imposing a gaze which, if its full force is acknowledged, makes the organist the narrator’s narrator. This mesmerizing act also evokes the more overtly political act of sovereignty in Javier’s other “source,” the neo-Crusading King Sigismund of Luxembourg whose Order of the Dragon (1408 A.D.) was designed to maintain the strength of Christianity in the face of the Ottoman Empire.

In his attempts to ward off the Turks, Sigismund’s “secondary” Crusade took on a symbol/sigil that was both mimetic and homeopathic—the very dragon whose evil, defeated by St. George, symbolized the “evils” of Islam. Curiously, the ouroboros form of this symbol mimicked the sort of circularity which would deny precedence to Christianity while resembling an enclave against Islam formed by the very “substance” of Islam itself. Christian sovereignty, if one interprets the symbol in a slightly more “naïve” fashion, is a country whose borders can only be defended when defined by the enemy. One could, perhaps, locate the source of authoritarianism at the very spot where such doubling takes place, is put into place while denied by the sovereign who invokes it. In this sense, any sovereign court truly is of the dragon while every defender of the faith is also an “aspiring villain.” The border of the dragon thus functions as a hymen, a marriage between enemies whose “(pure and impure) difference inscribes itself without any decidable poles, without any independent, irreversible terms” (Derrida 183). Likewise, Javier’s own court of the dragon enacts a writing where sovereignty works through the medium/hymen, where things are both inside and outside the court, including its attendant ideologies.

In order to control ideology, however, one must control language, something Javier (or someone) doesn’t seem to believe can occur in the last instance:

name English yours divinity instance relief distend

I can will may know pen movement sling intention under starfish aorta

until Caesar solder patronymic denote antipode sojourner

who am I kidding name English yours divinity entrance midway into woods

You can “name English yours” in a “divinity instance” while “I” will sling my pen under a five armed aorta, shooting ink everywhere. Rather than resembling Caesar bestriding the globe, “naming English yours” is a more radically Quixotic act which will lead you to magical, if uncanny experiences. Taking the medium of “midway” into the forest, you will awake with memories of an afternoon where “the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes” only to shoot forth “stony blossoms in the morning” (Machen). In medium writing, you do not need to sling intention, for it will sling itself. Instead, one claims “English mine” in which English is not owned, but opened up to Mallarmé’s mime, “the many-faceted lustre which itself is nothing beyond its own fragmented light” (Derrida 182). The mime/mine is potentially open to all and always potentially opening as the medium/hymen “enters into the antre”:

Entre [between] can just as easily be written [phonetically speaking] with an a. Indeed, are these two (e) (a)ntres not really the same? Littré: “Antre, s.m. I. Cave, natural grotto, deep dark cavern. ‘These antres, these braziers offer us oracles,’ Oedipe II, 5.

Instead of ideological speech, oracular speech. Or, if a “grotto is a picturesque cave created by nature or by man” (qtd. in Derrida 186), a spectacular speech, “English yours” or “English mine” (assuming, for shorthand, the language is English) becomes an open source antre loaded with treasures that are returned as soon as they are taken. The ouroboros of the Order of the Dragon’s sigil opens up to become “the hollow or bed of a valley (vallis) without which there would be no mountains.”

This latter shape evoked by Derrida reminds me that “Court of the Dragon” is not the first line of Javier’s book either. “The first pic,” Javier wrote me, “is the primary sigil I worked with thruout the writing of the first draft. Perhaps of interest to you!” The sigil appeared at first a completely incomprehensible set of lines drawn in pencil or ink, lines and curves that looked like they had been scribbled automatically, and scribbled over several times giving the feel of static. Its only “continuity,” as far as I could tell, was the fact that there seemed to be an effort (successful) to never pick the pen(cil) off the page, as if Javier had somehow recorded the traces of a long sojourn over an invisible Ouija board. There was definitely no first (in) line here. But then, after pouring over the letters “M,” “A,” and “V” in “My Aspiring Villain,” it became apparent that the sigil was largely (though not completely) devoid of curves and full of openings resembling the hymen’s “hollow of the valley” as cited by Derrida. I counted well over twenty “V” shapes (not all necessarily upright V’s), each of which struck me as either a dialectic splitting away from its synthesis or ending in a dead-end point—in other words a sigil against dialectics, all the metaphysics and temporal progression offered by dialectical reason. As I read the poem I noted abundant historical allusions, but without any apparent fidelity to (a) history in the manner of Pound’s Cantos. History had become hystery even as the book seemed leading toward an historical exploration of language and politics in “Court of the Dragon.” Yet, to the extent that Javier’s politics follows the haunted paths of the hymen, we may note the “v” in the “y,” the possibility of a language that refuses to acknowledge history as such or firstness as a form of brutality. Rather, what “counts here is the formal or syntactical praxis that composes or decomposes” (Derrida 189).

Or, in Javier’s terms, “akala ko yung demonyong tumanggap sa aking imbitasyon & bungy jumped at gigil.” So, even before the sigil, magical or otherwise, there was gigil. In his essay “Fel Santos: Violent Affections,” Javier writes, “Gigil is a Filipino term for the trembling or gritting of teeth in response to a situation that overwhelms one’s self-control. My Tagalog dictionary offers two definitions: ‘to tremble or thrill from some irrepressible emotion,’ and ‘gritting of the teeth because of suppressed anger.’” On the one hand, gigil is a response where the mouth is closed off, while on the other it can be viewed as a form of Ur-language or baby talk, as suggested by the “gigilating” quoted above. Yet, its temporality is not quite that simple, as gigil is primarily spoken by adults to children. Furthermore, it can also be seen as a form of mediumistic channeling. In this latter sense, to invoke and practice gigil is a deliberate denial of linguistic ordering that dismantles any ability to organize temporality, syntax, or the other elements of dialectical thought that so easily lend themselves to violent mobilizations (sans affection). Indeed, one could see the medium writing practiced by Javier as running throughout his book, as there is no clear point in his book, not to speak of the trace both supplementing and disorganizing language, at which gigil becomes sigil or vice versa. Javier is “courtin’ the draggin’” in his ferocious pulls against teleology. Sure, there are moments where Javier is more explicit about what is at stake in relation to content, where he declares a war on the “realism” which political science has commandeered as its “disciplinary” and thus ideologically “scientific” term to justify brutality in the face of the “inherent” self-interest of nation states. But when it comes to language, such utterances ultimately become a pitting of one realism against another like mirrors facing each other into infinity. Like all true language artists, more or less politically radical, Javier realizes the necessity of Mallarmé’s, and Derrida’s, and his, and others’ double séance belonging to no one, the possibility that the best move might be away from a mimesis that repeats already espoused ideologies—regardless of content—in favor of an attempt to gigilate into unforeseen utopian spaces of a miming that gestures, potentially but not necessarily, as an image field preceding and superseding and unseating “originary” models in the simple sense of the term. This creation of a magical space, this medium writing, explodes dialectics in a way that allows language to pour through, torrentially, as if through a broken sluice. It is in this way that writing, whatever its politics, becomes truly prophetic, where prophecy has the potential to become the new real if not the new realism.

Works Cited

Chambers, Robert. The King in Yellow. Web.

Derrida, Jacques. Between the Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991. Print.

Javier, Paolo. Court of the Dragon. Calicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2015. Print.

---. “Fel Santos: Violent Affection.” Ear / Wave / Event. (2) 2015. Web.

Machen, Arthur. The House of Souls. Web.

Spicer, Jack. My Vocabulary Did This To Me. Eds. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010. Print.

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Alan Ramόn Clinton is the author of Unsuccessful Love Poems (Kattywompus, 2015) and The Autobiography of Buster Keaton (Montag, 2014).