Things American: The Buffalo Sentence (Federman, Coetzee, Creeley).

 

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

This is actually a grammatical sentence, featuring Buffalo the city, the animal the buffalo, and an obscure verb, to buffalo, meaning to intimidate or bully.

Substituting different words for each of these parts we can hear the structure of the sentence better, as in, “Cincinnati bison Cincinnati bison intimidate intimidate Cincinnati bison.”

It is perhaps coincidental, but as a student, fiction writer, and professor in Buffalo NY for over twenty years in three different stints, I have always richly associated the city with experiments in and meditations on sentence writing.

I’m sure this is very personal, and has to do with the fact that I first studied how to be a writer in Buffalo, returned to Buffalo to finish writing my first book, and later became a publisher in Buffalo, and the writers here who taught me, directly and indirectly, whose books I admired: Raymond Federman, J. M. Coetzee, and Robert Creeley.  My most significant early teacher was Federman, an experimental fiction writer with a cult following who is sadly little known in mainstream circles, and certainly a far less recognizable name in the United States than Coetzee or Creeley.  Federman began me focusing on sentences.  He said he began any book project with a sentence.  For instance, he told my undergraduate class in Fiction Writing, in the first writing workshop I ever took, there was the sentence he said he got in his head one day, he knew not from where, “If the night passes quietly, tomorrow he will be on his way.”  The sentence would eventually generate Federman’s book, The Twofold Vibration, and Federman said that he did not know anything else about the story when the sentence occurred to him: who “he” was, why the night needed to “pass,” “quietly” or otherwise, or where “he” would be going “on his way” to.  Of course, Federman wrote the same story, the story of his life, in many different guises, over and over, in all his books, and the old man of The Twofold Vibration was to be on his way to a relocation camp, echoing the fate of Federman’s own family, only instead of being sent to a space colony, Federman’s family, his parents and two sisters, were deported to Auschwitz, where they died.  This was also the fate of the old man’s family in The Twofold Vibration, as the old man recalls, awaiting his own transport, not knowing much of anything about where he is to be taken.  Federman was a compulsive doubler, redoubler, and recomplicator of the plot elements of his own life in his books, and so too, he could not keep the sentence, “If the night passes quietly tomorrow he will be on his way,” as simple as he first articulated it.  The sentence as it actually appears in The Twofold Vibration runs thus:

the first sentence goes like this, If the night passes quietly tomorrow he will have reached the 21st century and be on his way, nothing extraordinary about that, nothing earthshaking but I rather like that sentence, and besides don’t you think it’s a better beginning than Once upon a time there will be  (10-11)

The sentence is not punctuated, and indeed the book does not contain periods, only block paragraphing, so even as Federman draws attention to his sentence and the idea of a sentence, and even made an object lesson in classes of the role of a sentence in giving rise to a narrative project, it is not clear if this is a sentence, or if it contains a sentence, or if it is syntax that creates a sentence rather than punctuation, and all manner of other considerations in endless regression or, to use a favorite Federman word, digression, from whatever the presumed subject might have begun to be.

At the same time as I was taking undergraduate courses with Federman at SUNY-Buffalo in the early 1980s, J. M. Coetzee was teaching there on a visiting appointment, returning to the university where he had previously been known only as an 18th century fiction specialist.  It was something of a trademark of the Buffalo English faculty in the 1960s and 70s that they were frequently, and proudly, incapable of staying professors of what they had been hired to do – Federman had initially been hired as a scholar of French poetry; the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Carl Dennis had a prior career as a scholar as well.  Coetzee, known in Buffalo as John Coetzee, had just seen his novel Waiting for the Barbarians published for the first time in the US, but as I recall – and I was not a student of his in any actual class – he taught both fiction writing and the 18th century novel that year back in Buffalo.

Coetzee’s sentences were at once more simple and more complex than Federman’s; that is, the sentences themselves were deceptively simple, but their movement and accretion was subtle and complex, and what they told could be deeply enigmatic.  In effect, this was something of the opposite of how Federman’s texts worked.  Federman’s sentences were complicated syntactically, but easily comprehensible in most of his books, with the notable exception of The Voice in the Closet (a book the press I founded, Starcherone Books, would later bring back into print).  There was little difficulty following Federman’s thoughts or his narrative line, because they were complicated as spoken sentences may be complicated, digressive, referential and self-referential, while at the same time conversational and often broadly comic.  I did get to know Coetzee slightly – I visited him in his office and saw him give readings – and he formed a strange bookend to Federman in a number of ways: Federman was cheerful, boisterous, and endlessly self-obsessed and self-congratulatory; Coetzee was uncomfortable with speech, drew no spotlights to himself, and bore himself with the sliding quiet and somber face of a scholar or, it might be equally accurate to say, an undertaker.

Do not imagine as you read this reminiscence of these authors that the environs of Clemens Hall, where the English department was then and remains housed today, were in any way grand or elegant or bore even a simple hominess.  The place was and remains butt ugly, the buildings dreary dark brown brick, with precious little ornamentation or warmth and Buffalo’s gray skies casting the featurelessness in gloom most of the year.  Somehow, it seemed even dingier in the 1980s than it is today.  Perhaps the shabbiest spot in Clemens Hall was a cubicle-sized men’s room on the first floor near the elevators, which seemed to be forgotten by the cleaning staff and deliberately beaten up by passers-through.  I would rarely stop there if I could make it to the upper floors.  But nature called one day and I entered and stood at the urinal.  To my immediate right was a sink, with only the smallest of metal partitions separating the two.  A mirror over the sink reflected the single toilet stall and as I prepared to do what I had come to do, the door opened behind me and in the mirror I saw John Coetzee step out.  He came to the sink silently next to me and began slowly to wash his hands.

Coetzee knew who I was, but didn’t acknowledge me in the slightest; indeed, by a kind of tacit washroom contract, neither of us acknowledged the other, despite being close enough at this moment to almost touch elbows.  There are so many negotiations and codes a young man must learn about using a rest room; another is learning how to urinate in these semi-public spaces when we feel the sidelong gaze of others upon us, even though we are also all tacitly taught never to direct our gazes at each other unless, I suppose, there is some illicit business there to be conducted.  But I suppose it was always so.  My father was in the Navy in the Korean War, and apparently no one who has had the experience of using a toilet aboard a ship in wartime will ever again feel the least amount of bashfulness.  I am far more self-conscious myself.  I froze next to John Coetzee; I could not piss.  I held myself in the air and shriveled.  Coetzee, too, I believe was aware of the awkwardness of the situation, but seemed determined to disregard it.  Or, perhaps, as began to occur to me at that very moment, he was willing to let the discomfort linger, as he was so adept at doing in his fiction.  Paralyzed there at the urinal, next to the future Nobel laureate, I began to reflect painfully on Coetzee’s sentences from Waiting for the Barbarians, a novel in which washing, exposure, voyeurism, and, most of all, torture are all thematic.  I was thinking of such sentences as these:

I wash slowly, working up a lather, gripping her firm-fleshed calves, manipulating the bones and tendons of her feet, running my fingers between her toes.  I change my position to kneel not in front of her but beside her, so that, holding a leg between elbow and side, I can caress the foot with both hands.

I lose myself in the rhythm of what I am doing.  I lose awareness of the girl herself.  There is a space of time which is blank to me: perhaps I am not even present.  When I come to, my fingers have slackened, the foot rests in the basin, my head droops. (32)

I am here today writing this and to my knowledge J.M. Coetzee is nowhere in the vicinity, so this moment must eventually have ended, though in a certain part of my mind it will always be going on, at least in part because of the uncanny quality of Coetzee’s sentences – “There is a space of time which is blank to me: perhaps I am not even present.”  Syntactically, there is nothing pyrotechnic in this sentence in the least; the vocabulary are all words a kindergartener would be comfortable with.  Nor would Coetzee ever begin with such a sentence: he always begins with simpler, or apparently simpler, states of mind, and moves slowly toward the more radical states of crisis and abstraction, slowly, by accretion.  I am recalling now Waiting for the Barbarians, but I have read Disgrace more recently; in both there is the sense time and again of arriving at an uncanny place, a horror one did not at all expect, or a state of mind so puzzling that it is like you have swallowed a Zen koan and there will be no getting rid of its uncertainty or unsettledness until the thing passes out of your body.  One arrives there with Coetzee by infinitesimal degrees, from out of the familiar, lulled by the pedestrian words he uses.  “For a man of his age,” begins Disgrace, “fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (Disgrace 1).  No, indeed, the narrator has not solved anything, as the book will let us know, despite the certainty of these opening words.  But then the unacknowledged hesitancies are signaled to us by the five commas, interruptions to the flow: “For a man of his age,” comma, “fifty-two,” comma, “divorced,” comma, “he has,” comma, “to his mind,” comma, “solved the problem of sex rather well.”

Let me speak last of Creeley, one more Buffalo sentence writer who, like the others, is gone from Buffalo.  Federman is dead, Coetzee famous – and generally one does not remain long in Buffalo long after true fame comes.  Buffalo, the city, is all about loss – the animal the city may or may not have been named after, long since disappeared (see, on the connection between Buffalo and the buffalo, E. R. Baxter III, Niagara Digressions); industry; chances of winning Super Bowls; the fabulous wealth the city knew at the turn of the century from 19th to 20th and which left its mark or shadow in still magnificent architecture – all gone.  Robert Creeley moved from Buffalo in the 1990s after having lived there for some thirty years, writing poems about some of its streets and leaving behind houses where he’d lived that people still slow down before as they pass in cars.  Well, I do, anyway.

It was probably 1990 when Creeley did a series of talks at University of Buffalo called “Walking the Dog,” and in one of these, he read a short work called Autobiography, a rarity of which I have a copy, from the tiny and wonderful Hanuman Books series.  Humble, almost comical, in size and scope, Autobiography begins with this sentence:

I’ve spent all my life with a nagging sense I had somehow the responsibility of that curious fact, that is, a substantial life, like a dog, but hardly as pleasant, to be dealt with no matter one could or couldn’t, wanted to or not. (7)

One doesn’t think of Creeley as a prose writer, obviously, because he was so notable a poet, but not only did he have several published works of fiction and nonfiction prose, but just as particular as his poetry to my ear was his emblematic way of expressing himself in speech or written sentence, a style of expression that echoes his poetry’s phrasing and appears to have been hard-won, judging by Creeley’s description in an introduction to the poetry collection, So There: Poems 1976-83: “When I was a young man, I often felt as if I were battling for the integrity of my habits of speech, my words, my friends, my life.”  Creeley spoke aloud many of the same techniques as are seen in these sentences, employing numerous qualifications and a precision that is at the same time refractive, multiplying at the same time as it would purport to specify.

The “dog” in the sentence, both the other living entity besides himself who has life, and the enjoyer of a life preferable in some ways to one’s own that’s “hardly as pleasant,” was also a reference to the title of the series of talks, “Walking the Dog,” the sense of which was to suggest the daily habits of mind or practice of the writer engaged in – how one thought, what one thought about.  In another of these talks Creeley meditated on a sentence from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: “A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot.”  Notable to Creeley in this sentence from Stein were the edges of its consonants, and how it reflected that quality of the English language.  To make this point, he showed us a translation of the sentence in Italian that entirely lost the sharpness of phrases like “pink cut pink”: “una rosa e una rosa rossa fresca taglio rosa.”  “Ah ah ah ah ah,” said Creeley.  But I’m drawn in Creeley’s sentence from Autobiography to characteristic hesitations and redirections it displays: “…that curious fact, that is, a substantial life, like a dog, but hardly as pleasant, to be dealt with no matter one could or couldn’t, wanted to or not.”  One hears the same vacillations, the multiple simultaneous paths of thought, in his poems, for instance in a very famous one, “I Know a Man”:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, — John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

“I Know a Man” is punctuated as one sentence, with a single period after the last word, but one reads it as containing at least two sentences, with an implied period coming at the famous enjambment before the line “drive, he sd.”  These two sentences are the first one ending “shall we & why not, buy a goddamn big car,” and the answer: “Drive, he sd, for christ’s sake, look out where you’re going.”  But the poem all the way through has had multiple voices, including those within the speaker’s head, which interrupts the simple line of narration with metacommentary “because I am always talking” and “which was not his name.”  So it is fitting that the enjambment creates two different ways of reading these suggested sentences.  “Who says the word ‘drive’?” asks Seamus Cooney on a web page where I found the text of Creeley’s poem for this talk; “Creeley has said in an interview (in Athanor, 4 [1973]) that it’s part of what the ‘I’ of the poem says, but I don’t know any reader who fails to hear it as part of the friend’s answer” (Cooney).  That is, the sentences may also be read:

… shall we and why not buy a goddamn big car, drive.

and

He sd, for christ’s sake, look out where you’re going.

Creeley might have said different things on different occasions regarding an authoritative way of reading the poem, the suggestion of which, I believe, goes against the multiplicities of voice that Creeley sets up even single speakers as having in the characteristic contours of his sense of the sentence.  It was reported to me by a poet in a class I did not take that Creeley, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, suggested that the TV show title Murder, She Wrote was a rip-off of “drive, he sd” from this poem (Clibbens) – an indication that Creeley was very aware he had put a comma there and not a period, as the internet-quoted interview suggests.

These senses of sentence are part of Buffalo’s legacy for me, and are less a particular method of sentence-writing than a shared desire to meditate upon sentence writing and engage in a practice of self-conscious crafting of sentences.  Think Buffalo, think the sentence.  Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.  Can’t do that with Boston.  Can’t do that with Chicago.  Can’t do that with New York.  Can’t do that with Providence.  Well, come to think of it, maybe you can do that with Providence: “Providence providence Providence providence providence providence Providence providence.”

You think? Well, someone else can write about that.

Works Cited

Baxter III, E. R. Niagara Digressions.  Buffalo: Starcherone, 2012.

Clibbens, Marten.  Personal interview.  nd.

Coetzee, J.M.  Disgrace.  New York: Penguin, 1999.

—.  Waiting for the Barbarians.  1982.  New York: Penguin, 2010.

Cooney, Seamus.  “Robert Creeley’s ‘I Know a Man.’”  April 1997.  Web.  8 Mar 2013.

Creeley, Robert.  Autobiography.  New York: Hanuman, 1990.

—.  So There: Poems 1976-83.  New York: New Directions, 1998.

Federman, Raymond.  The Twofold Vibration. 1982.  Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000.

Stein, Gertrude.  Tender Buttons.  1914.  Modernism: An Anthology.  Ed. Lawrence Rainey.  Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.


Ted Pelton is the author of Malcolm and Jack, the novellas Bartleby, the Sportscaster and Bhang, and the short story collection Endorsed by Jack Chapeau 2 an even greater extent, released in an expanded 2nd edition in 2006.  He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Isherwood Foundation, and Vermont Studio Center for his fiction, and a Best of Western New York award as Best Fiction Writer from Buffalo Spree magazine in 2006.  His stories have appeared in WebdelSol, Brooklyn Rail, Fiction International, and in the anthologies The Art of Friction and The &Now Awards, among other venues.  He is also the founder and publisher of Starcherone Books, a non-profit publisher of fiction that recently celebrated its thirteenth anniversary.  A Professor of Humanities at Medaille College, he lives in Buffalo, NY.

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