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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 1, March 2013


Melissa Allen
Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A.

On David Marshall's The Lost Work of Wasps

The Lost Work of Wasps: An Essay with 243 Titles by David B. Marshall. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012. Paperback, 168 pp. US $25.00. ISBN 978-1-4781570-1-4.

You should begin by imagining how dead a place La Marque is at two a.m. Even the cops are asleep at the station or in the squad car usually parked at the end of the dirt road that runs along a line of electric towers through town.

David B. Marshall, The Lost Work of Wasps, p. 39

It's entirely fair to judge David B. Marshall's book The Lost Work of Wasps: An Essay with 243 Titles by its cover. The cover illustration is an elaborate, colorful abstraction, something that Marshall refers to as a "doodle," although I think most of us would feel that our own doodles, our half-formed crude scribbles, were put to shame by this artistically-balanced, well-drafted geometrical exploration. All the book's illustrations are different, but all are variations on a theme—random and yet orderly explorations of line and space and color. When I look at Marshall's elaborate networks of lines and shapes, I feel that I am somehow viewing the shape of his brain, tracing his neural pathways, following vicariously his unique inner visual logic.

What if observing anything made it burn with eternal fire? What would everything look like, blazing with attention? What might be left cool and untouched? [p. 3]

The prose of Wasps gives much the same effect as the illustrations. Divided, as the subtitle implies, into 243 sections of varying length and style, the book has no clear narrative arc, traces no straightforward line of argument. It skips haphazardly from personal anecdote to philosophical musing to literary commentary to aphorism; it quotes sources as diverse as Tolkien, Aristotle, Bashō, Samuel Johnson, Kafka, Hegel, Woody Allen, Nietzsche, Li Po, Marx, and the Brady Bunch—and you wouldn't believe how many others I'm leaving out. It is both as wandering and as seeking as the human mind.

I picture [Bashō] sometimes, dipping a brush into ink, the earth scent of painted characters' evaporation rising to fill his hut, a past journey playing like a familiar fading tune. Maybe he felt some hurry to get it all down. Maybe he wished to re-enter memory altogether and stay there. [p. 4]

And yet this is not to say that the book has no theme, or no overarching purpose. In fact, it is an idiosyncratic and absorbing attempt to trace the winding, stuttering path of the human mind as it explores a series of linked subjects. The blurb on the back of the book suggests that these subjects are "memory, history, habit, and truth," which seems right, although I might add reality, and identity, and art, and specifically writing itself.

During one of my first years as a teacher, a sophomore girl visited every time we had a mutual free period. Finally, taxed by talking to her, I hid in the faculty lounge. When I returned to the classroom, she'd written her name on every post-it note on and in my desk. For the next two years, whenever I used one, I first had to erase her name. [p. 8]

Marshall is not the first to write a book in this way. The explicit antecedent of Wasps is a fourteenth-century work, Tsurezuregusa, by a Buddhist monk called Yoshida Kenkō. Donald Keene, in the best-known English translation, renders the title as Essays in Idleness and the monk's own explanation of his method of composition as "jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head." This technique may seem to us an idiosyncratic way of going about writing anything you mean other people to read, but in fact there is a substantial tradition of this kind of writing in Japan. It even has a name, and hence a category, an odd thing for such an apparent vagary to have: zuihitsu, or "following the brush." (Another well-known example of this genre is The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a tenth-century lady-in-waiting who filled hundreds of pages with her trenchant observations of court customs and personalities and her musings on the mores of the day.)

The word for a verse paragraph is "stanza," which is Italian for "room." I like the idea that everything in a stanza is in one room and that jumping the gap to the net is finding another room. I don't care much about halls and never miss transitions. I like being suddenly transported to another point of view. [p. 18]

Several commentators have questioned whether Kenkō (or, perhaps, any author of zuihitsu) actually composed so artlessly, or whether, in fact, the impression of artlessness was a deliberate, studied effect. In Formless in Form, her critical examination of Tsurezuregusa, Linda H. Chance makes an argument that Kenkō deliberately chose the form of the book to convey certain messages about Buddhist concepts of impermanence and formlessness: "Tsurezuregusa is clear on the aesthetic value of impermanence, averring that everything changes and should not be conceived of as fixed, even in an abstract discussion of ideals. The flow of the text is surely on some level an instantiation of this refusal to allow anything as permanent, yielding a preference for the fleetingness of life."

In Yoshida Kenkō's Essays in Idleness . . . he repeats a high priest's praise for imperfection, "It is only a person of poor understanding who wishes to arrange things in complete sets. It is incompletion which is desirable."

Spirits thrive in gaps. [p. 16]

I'm not certain whether Marshall knows of Chance's work, but Wasps certainly has a more explicitly stated theme, or set of themes, than Tsurezuregusa, and one of these themes is, in fact, the idea of impermanence, the idea that everything is always changing and that the past is a different country to which it is impossible to return, impossible even to recall with any certainty. Marshall tells many stories of his past in which his own memories of what happened conflict with the memories of someone else who was there, or with other available evidence. Memory, Marshall tells us repeatedly, is inaccurate and unreliable, and for this reason so is history, and so, for that matter, are most stories, which impose an artificially neat structure on the messiness of reality. Conventional narratives generally show us everything from one point of view and are thus inherently incomplete and inaccurate. For this reason, it can be argued that fragmentary and seemingly chaotic literary structures like zuihitsu actually provide a better model of reality than the more linear structures to which we're better accustomed.

My jacket slips from a chair and falls—sleeves spread, arms reaching in alarm. The play begins again, every act is memory's new puppet.

There is no haiku or other poetry in Wasps (although Marshall is a fine haiku poet, with a distinct and well-developed style). But to readers and writers of haibun, a literary work with more than one section, and with perhaps only tenuous or thematic connections between the parts rather than a direct narrative connection, will seem familiar. The leaps between many of the sections of Wasps are often reminiscent of the links between poetry and prose in haibun. When Marshall moves from section 79, with a discussion of the notion of reality in Moby Dick, to section 80, with a description of the drunken, exaggerated stories of a friend, the shift is jarring until we see what he's aiming at: Both Ishmael and Marshall's friend are grappling with how to understand and construct their place in a world whose reality neither of them can be quite sure of. The two sections shed light on each other without referring to each other, as the parts of haibun so often do.

Maybe I've always been writing one essay. [p. 48]

One possible implication of such a loosely connected work, as opposed to one that makes a straightforward argument or tells a straightforward story, is that, as is often said of haiku (and by extension haibun), the reader bears a large responsibility for constructing meaning from, or "completing" the text. There is a great deal of space between the sections of this book, which a reader can fill with his own experience and philosophy. Chance believes that Kenkō deliberately exploited this notion in Tsurezuregusa and that the older work assumes that "all interpretation and reading will take place within a dialogic situation in which the participants do not expect the full text to be provided, but rather to have to complete a document that is not fully available to everyday understanding." The connections between the sections of Kenkō's text are arguably looser than Marshall's connections, but both books, I think, are generous to the reader in more than one way. For one thing, they give liberally of themselves—both books are deeply personal. For another, they allow the reader plenty of room to bring his own personality to the text.

How different would [Kenkō's] book be if he knew we were listening? [p. 67]

For those of us who like to reflect on what exactly a haibun is supposed to do and what exactly the nature is of the link between its parts, this book that is not a haibun, paradoxically, may give us new food for thought on the matter. It's interesting to try to determine what the difference is between this work and haibun, besides the obvious lack of poetry. It's not the length, clearly, since Bashō and others have written book-length haibun. The length and complexity of Wasps allow it a depth and richness that most brief haibun can't really attain to (though clearly most of us feel they have their own virtues). But both forms give us the sense that the author has drawn back a curtain briefly and showed us the unconscious workings of his mind, the subterranean connections between apparently unconnected ideas that make up the stream of a human being's daily thoughts.

I take comfort knowing all the authors of the western and eastern world quiver in ones and zeroes. Kenkō still dips his ink brush, Bashō is away on another journey, and somewhere the past lingers in an eternal present. My stories join theirs in cyberspace. They are companions. [p. 140]

Truth may be beside the point. [p. 104]

Works Discussed

Linda H. Chance, Formless in Form: Kenkō, Tsurezuregusa, and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose. Stanford University Press, 1997.

Yoshida Kenkō, translated by Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness. Columbia University Press, 1967.

David B. Marshall, The Lost Work of Wasps: An Essay with 243 Titles. 2012.

Sei Shōnagon, translated by Ivan Morris, The Pillow Book. Columbia University Press, 1991.



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