The Seeing Dice and the Anxious Dictionary: An Experiential Essay

  • Elizabeth Bachinsky (Author)
    I Don’t Feel So Good. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Natalee Caple

Elizabeth Bachinsky’s book of procedural poetry, I Don’t Feel So Good, seems from the title onward to confront sublimated cultural expectations around gender and genre and to embrace nausea and anxiety as aesthetic values to be appreciated as they relate to reversals of the vision act. I Don’t Feel So Good is a work that Bachinsky produced by operating on her own diaries, diaries kept for twenty-six years from the time that she was ten-years-old. To produce the book, Bachinsky selected passages from her diaries by rolling a dice. The passages are re-arranged in the book, denuded of their original context in the order that the dice “saw fit.” Thus, the book itself represents a collapse of the distance between the public and the private as well as a collapse of the distance between historical and new.

Procedural writing (sometimes called constraint based writing) is writing created by the application of laws—it is a form of writing popularized in the twentieth century by an organization of poets, mathematicians, professors known as Oulipo. Oulipo is short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature.” This loose gathering of mainly French-speaking male writers and mathematicians was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais.

Bachinsky’s book represents a feminist challenge to the canon of procedural writing as well as to the depersonalizing process of chance-based literature. Why do we gender genres at all? In part it is a sublimated impulse left over from post-industrial-revolution European ideology around the gendering of spaces, the linking of forms to either public or private social spheres. And so, if procedural writing can be considered a masculinist form (as opposed to just a form popularly associated with male writers) it is because it is public. And it is public because it emphasizes non-human processes, machinic arrangements—the throw of a die, in this case—something that happens outside of the writer that the writer is only one witness for. As a public form, procedural writing emphasizes governmental authority, not only because of the authority of the founders of Oulipo, cemented by historic membership, but also because there are laws to how it must be done. This emphasis on the de-personalization of the arrangement of works creates an interesting tension between the writer’s ability to express personal experience and the writer’s ability to express public affiliation.

The ‘I’ of the writer becomes a ‘We’ through the machining of art (presumed to be an expression of self at least on some level). This We is public and it displaces the public I (which strangely begins to seem like a private self) embedded in romantic notions around the artist as isolated genius that emerged through Modernism. The We-ness of procedural writing should work against the gendering of the genre. It should make impossible a reductive male gaze. So, it is as a challenge to the reductive male gaze that Bachinsky uses her own diaries as the body on which the die operates. However, instead of becoming enjoined with the Oulipean We, Bachinsky draws attention to her own subjective response to Oulipean contradictions. The mismatch of the diary and the die functions as a feminist remix of the genre, queering the I when it multiplies her subject position, and makes a somewhat uncomfortable leap to assert her I as both object and subject, material and machine.

Because there is an ever-present Bachinsky in the text, who multiplies as she changes over time the personalizing of the procedural form is unavoidable. In making it so, Bachinsky draws attention to the artist behind the curtain in every procedural work, laying bare the trust of the reader who believed in the objective procedure for re-examination.

Bachinsky’s remix also enables a contemporary examination of some basic differences between public procedure and private confession embodied by genre work. Procedural writing celebrates the surprises that can be generated by machinic activity. Procedural writing values innovation, emphasizes form, and interrogates originality. Procedural writing is typically represented by its practitioners as contemporary and, as such, appears to value the new.

The diary, by contrast, is a very old form, understood to have been a place for personal, private, confessional explorations of self by anyone who knows how to read and write. It is messy and human—it is a form that values the freedom of the inner self and does not value originality, at least not in the same way. The value of the diary does not lie in its artistry; instead, the diary asserts an irreducible value to every human life, asserts a right to reflect in private on one’s inner life and to attempt a kind of honesty that goes unchallenged, perhaps even unseen.

When Bachinsky applies procedural technique to a private archive she effectively takes the two approaches to writing to be inverse forms and puts them together to see what will happen. One wonders, which one will emerge as the dominant visible form? Will one form break the other, and, if so, what will that look like? How does the intersection of the lyric and the experimental, the free form personal diary, and the structural laws of the procedural poem change both forms?

The object that made the book becomes the central metaphor of I Don’t Feel So Good. The seeing dice operating on the anxious diary produces proxies for two subject positions that parallel two literary genres. The diary and dice stand in for person and procedure, aligning these with lyric and experimental traditions. At the same time, because diary and diarist are separated by the flensing of the diaries, Bachinsky, as diarist and as procedural author, multiplies the sites and limits of how We/readers (and here Bachinsky is part of the We) relate to the Bachinsky of the text. This enables or activates a very unusual read of the author in that it highlights the author in the text, revealing a curated self, and the curation of the self is itself influenced by many different kinds of movement, including the interaction of contemporary and historical art movements over time.

Thinking about time here is also interesting. Bachinsky curates her presentation of self first in her diaries. A diary is, of course, a form that represents continuities and disjunctions in the self that occur across a span of time. A diary, which may seem like a dated form because of its historical longevity (and the anxiety produced by the capturing for witness of ones many younger selves), is always about discourse between the past, present, and future. So, here, in I Don’t Feel So Good, Bachinsky’s curated self is re-curated in a way that at first seems almost cruel, the life of Bachinsky as child, adolescent, beginning author, and adult cultural worker is reduced to fifty-six pages of unassigned blurbs. The white space isolating these blurbs and the lines that separate each moment from the next, highlight absences that cannot be filled by the reader—we can’t know what made Bachinsky say, at one time: “The darkest moment: the end of the second act. Marked by falling action, pastoral reflective moments. Protag is in deep shit and there is no possible way we can get out of this darkness.” But, because the text is understood to have been operated on, to have been expansive, and to have been part of a response to something outside the text we can’t help but speculate. Speculation becomes a value central to reading and imagining the potential meanings of the text. Or, is this another making of a We?

We fill in meaning when we speculate, while remaining aware of the limits of what we can know (what we can know about Bachinsky, but also the lost context for any text’s production). The arrangement of the text, which seemed reductive, becomes expansive under the speculum of speculation—which is to say that when the reader engages in parsing the poems into something that they can receive they expand the text, they imagine the gaps that all texts contain, the books that the book could have been.

And now I am thinking about the word “received.” On the back of the book the word is used in a way that implies something greater than reader reception: “not so much written as received” is the description given of the author’s activity (or lack of) during the unseen production of the text. Well, that word, “received,” conjures a sense of the paranormal, even clairvoyance, to the arrangement of the diary entries by the die that “saw fit.” This extra valance of the weird highlights (or creates) anxiety around what is known by whom about the body embodied in Bachinsky’s diaries—and so, it also works to pressure the limits of what this new arrangement can represent. What the dice saw remains elided since the details of the transaction are never fully described.

Bachinsky begins to seem like she may be the protagonist who is in deep shit, and perhaps the nausea around her condition is the value that propels the second act of the book. Certainly the line “Protag is in deep shit” appears in around the right physical place. Is this just an accident? The tension between what is random (the throw of the dice) and what is machined (the application of the procedure) seems to feed at this point into a kind of anxiety aesthetic. Because we know that there is more than what we see—more text, more context, more procedure—the procedural reduction, far from demonstrating the randomness of meaning, actually engages the personal imaginary of the reader who becomes a third curator identifying with the I (making it a we) that is Bachinsky. In doing so, the reader’s own subject position becomes folded in, becomes part of the receiving of the text, once again making gendered reductions of the text slippery, if not totally impossible. This, of course, highlights that it is always true that a reader curates a self for the author shared with, muddied by, invested in their own subjectivity. This makes clear that Bachinsky was never represented in any stable way in any text. In fact, no author can be. As well, the author referenced on the cover of this, or any book, actually represents other people as well, other cultural workers: an editor, a proofreader, a designer . . . . The author’s name is a kind of front for a complex of social, historical, economic, aesthetic interactions. So, the reduced woman of the flensed diaries can only be reduced so far until the reduction lays bare a rather remarkable complexity.

Looking now at how the diary works on procedural poetry it seems as if the diary exposes the limits of randomness and the failure of laws to account for the restlessness of shared imaginaries. The dice, after all, has only a limited number of sides. The diaries can be read many ways. The issue of authenticity raised by the aura of the diary genre ends up provoking some doubt as to the authenticity of what can be revealed by procedure.

Let’s say we believe perfectly that the uncanny connections between parts that seem so meta-like—“What is a poetic response anyway? A book called I don’t feel so good,” and “what would be different if there were no monster stories?” “His is the language of exclusion: it says to the reader you may enter or you may not”—are just that, just uncanny co-incidences throughout the book. Still, the whole book is not random. Is the title random? Is the design? Will it be marketed randomly? Sold at random prices? This book, every book, is curated for meaning—to reach a certain audience, for example, or to be received critically, to register as a certain kind of cultural object, to promote an aesthetic.

The dice that could see is an illusion. It is the writer, the editor, and/or the reader who find potential in text and mobilize that potential for new thinking. The aura of the superiority of intellect over emotion does not hold up. Instead, Bachinsky’s project performs a neat reveal: the confessional aspects of the text the sense of a voice, the trace of a real person, haunt the pages. The spell of two genres at war breaks.

And Bachinsky, who has multiplied her position, including the reader, addressing traditional and experimental audiences together (thereby including them in her We), reveals that collapsing the distance between the personal and the procedural does more than deposit private content into a public form. It actually models a kind of writing that can assert complex subjectivity, can entertain multiple values, can refute the boundaries of its own framework, and can invite further intersections across broader communities. The public and the private are demonstrated to be deeply interpolated, irreversibly involved.

The title, I Don’t Feel So Good, which, in the beginning, seemed sort of funny, maybe self-deprecating, turns out to be a warning about the personal somatic nausea produced by slicing apart one’s inner life and denuding it of context. Perhaps it is even a warning about submission to objectification in the broader world. The context of dates, of complete narratives, of a coherent self, which is made into a literary object in the diary, becomes a point of return and an invitation to play. Upon completing the book and experiencing the nausea, Bachinsky herself seems to mean something more and have more intentions than initially displayed. Bachinsky—as a woman writer, as a diarist, as a procedural poet, as a feminist, as a tattooed person, who goes to plays and has a mother and a father and reads Richard Ford, lived in the North, and used to be an arrogant student—doesn’t feel like being so good.

Elizabeth Bachinsky doesn’t want her diary read. Doesn’t want to give up what is personal or enable a stable reading of her subjectivity. Instead, by using her diary material in a procedural text she asserts that she has a complex subjectivity; but it does not belong to her readers, and it will not undergo the circumscription of gendered genre orthodoxies.



This review “The Seeing Dice and the Anxious Dictionary: An Experiential Essay” originally appeared in Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 227 (Winter 2015): 144-48.

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