Whiting Out, Writing In, or

A Technique for Recording the Migratory Orientation of Captive Texts

Uljana Wolf

Artwork by Miko Yu

Documents resemble people talking in sleep.
–Susan Howe, Ether Either

womit ich schreibe: / weiß / dies zweite Gesicht / auf den Mund gelegt

Spring 1964, night, when a full moon was in the southern sky. In a field alongside a large flock of birds, scientists have installed a funnel-shaped experimental cage with ink pads at its base, called the Emlen funnel. A white-crowned sparrow is fluttering inside it, displaying clear indications of zugunruhe. With every attempt to fly out of the cage, its claws write traces on the paper-lined wall. Later a vector diagram                                  these movements, in a radial pattern, facing South,

          ] don't you remember [
          we, too, did such things in our youth


March 16, 1907, Villa Discopoli, Capri, evening. Rainer Maria Rilke begins to translate Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Rilke had learned of Barrett-Browning through a publication by his friend Ellen Key. He wrote to Key: "Not well-read, awkward with books and a stranger to English, I knew almost nothing of the Brownings, only one or two fortuitous verses from the poetry of their lives."

Cut to the poetry of the Brownings' lives: London, 1845. At the age of nearly forty, Elizabeth leads a sickly and retiring life in the house of her jealously guarding father. Fascinated by her poems and her fame, Robert Browning, six years her junior, decides to express his admiration in a letter. Over the subsequent months, clandestine meetings and a passionate correspondence ensue, during which Elizabeth captures her turmoil, fear, and growing attachment in 44 sonnets. Following their illicit wedding and flight from London a year later, the Brownings become the talk of the (not only literary) town. To protect the sonnets from all-too-inquisitive readings on their publication four years later, Elizabeth and Robert give them a mask—from the Portuguese—as if they were translations, a collaboration not further detailed, something flown to them from the South,
                                 einer der großen Vogelrufe des Herzens in der Landschaft der Liebe is what Rilke, who knew all about such things, called the poems.

Landscape, but with traces on the wall. In a later version of the migratory-bird experiment, the funnel is lined with correction paper for typewriters. At every attempt to escape from the cage, the sparrow scratches and scores at the powdery white coating. ...has the advantage that the scratch marks remain invisible for the test bird and cannot influence its choice of direction. The gaps on the paper are readable, movement a text that displays itself as absence. Even weak glossy traces. Especially small, light birds...           whited-out text, later to break out, knows where to.    ] don't you remember [

Doesn't every text have its own zugunruhe, a sense of migratory unrest, no matter how firmly installed on its page? And the traces in the eye of the reader, who opens cages when she deciphers the marks and the apparently empty space around them. Any and every flight direction. Repeats, on the page, on the wall, sometimes stroking against the nap, against the preferential direction. Where was your first misreading, mistyping? Trace the same path again with the typewriter, treading in the footsteps where the snow lies dinted. The powder on the correction sheet has to lie exactly in line with the wrong letter, fly exactly in line, laying another trail that leads to Dallas.

There, on a hot weekday in 1951, sits Bette Nesmith Graham behind a desk. The mother of the later Monkees guitarist Michael Nesmith, Bette is the executive secretary to W.W. Overton, Chairman of the Board of the Texas Bank & Trust, and is struggling with the new electric typewriter. The carbon film ribbons leave behind numbers and symbols that can't be corrected using simple rubber erasers. Bette thinks of artists, who don't erase their mistakes, but paint over them. Thinks of the bank's windows, which someone—she?—paints white for the holidays, simply painting over any mistakes in the curlicued snowscapes, now deep and crisp and even. One day she mixes a bottle of white tempura paint in the same shade as the paper, brushes over the typo, lets the paint dry, writes over it, and calls the mixture Mistake Out. Clatter of keys, approval from the neighbouring offices.

Recollection. Recollection. Palimtexts. Folded out here alongside each other. This story is not a story of a poetic practice called erasure. It is an upended Emlen funnel, a multiplication of traces, white shadows. Flight field and trust. Distribution of scratches,
forked-up paths: This ending begins in a bank, with new ribbons, obstinate in their black. What errors are: an excess of energy. Zoom in to lacquered fingernails, or coffee hand, red lips on the brink of a mug. Where was your first mistake? Something's wrong with this picture—it only offers one position, the desk in front of power. Fingers stand to attention, things come to mind, a slip. What errors are: an excess of keystrokes. Tiny excursions, light birds, stroking the system the wrong way.

Erasure, the reworking of found or selected texts by erasing most of the words, be it with the aid of correction fluid, ink, painting over or leaving out, oscillates between sabotage and homage, vandalism and reanimation. In Jen Bervin's Nets, for example, all the words of the original text —Shakespeare's sonnets—are still legible, yet most of them are printed in grey, almost faded away. They form a net, a shadow text, which can support the remaining words or at any moment lay itself protectively over them, as if they wanted to emerge briefly or themselves join in the disappearance. This curious tension is common to all erasures, the appearance of disappearance; they foreground—like concrete, experimental, lyrical, or language poetry—the materiality of language, of every single letter. They know that the space on the page is party to a text's writing, a valve to let off steam, a white that structures silence, physically tangible,
                             notationen, reproduktionen von schnee
                                                                                                      (Daniela Seel)

Working on boundaries        smudging/snatching, overstepping. Bette Nesmith corrected an error of history, perhaps not as easily as it reads later, as out of the desire for disappearance grew a company of her own. She's ditched the secretarial job by now. What she desires: a white droplet on the bottle, to leave a trace while obliterating, 300 bottles for General Electric, patented 1958. Her own factory, conveyor belts, ink ribbons
                   errors white flow, even the unthought errors, more than one woman's errors. From the idea of painting over, Bette, the godmother of all erasure artists, expands her concept to the general flexibility of all documents, morphing forms,
and calls her product Liquid Paper.

Translation too makes paper liquid. Even if one doesn't have a fluent command of the source language. Rilke's hostess on Capri, Alice Faehndrich, née Freiin von Nordeck zu Rabenau, spoke good English; her mother was an Englishwoman. Dem Englischen fremde, Rilke owed the translation of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's sonnets to Faehndrich's help. Whether she prepared written interlinear translations and read over Rilke's versions the subsequent day, or whether she read the originals aloud and explained them in conversation, we can no longer tell. Rilke himself seems to suggest closer collaboration; a year later he informs Alice Faehndrich: "I am reading the proof sheets of our last year's work together." The first edition of Elizabeth Barrett-Brownings Sonette nach dem Portugiesischen was dedicated to Alice Faehndrich in Erinnerung an gemeinsame Arbeit.

Collaboration and constraint. Erasure can awaken energies in a text that have not been previously accessed. Everything is in motion, smell, breathe in, breathe out, breathe errors, clouds. The white spaces on the page; Mary Ruefle calls them "little white shadows," after the nineteenth-century book A Little White Shadow, its name perhaps given new meaning via white-out fluid: The dead. / borrow so little from the past /
                        as if they were alive. But what is it that casts the shadows? The text that remains on the page? What it borrows from the past, the possibility that things, readings, might have been different, scatters in bright clusters around the few words, as if surrounded by a light dispersed by time. Or do the words now lying beneath white covers like under snow, lace, white sleep, cast all their possible, illegible shadows?

         ... aside from that, correction paper is simpler and cleaner to use in the field.

Alice Faehndrich died shortly after the first edition of Rilke's translations was published, in 1908. The dedication in the second edition in 1911 suddenly changed to In memoriam / Alice Faehndrich / née Freiin von Nordeck zu Rabenau. All that work wiped out. What had happened? Would Rilke have used an ink eraser? No reports have survived of the translation work undertaken during his time on Capri, the island he called an "Unding", an absurd nonentity. In a letter to Lou Andreas-Salome five years later, from Duino, Rilke describes those particular evenings on Capri, "on which nothing happened other than I sat with two older women and a young girl and watched their needlework, and in the end one of them might peel me an apple". The translation's coworker had suddenly been degraded to a mere needleworker.

And the apple? In The Task of the Translator, Benjamin writes that content and language of the original text form "a certain unity, like that between a fruit and its skin," while the translation flaps about "like the broad folds of a royal mantle". By peeling the apple, then, a person separates language from its content,                     die langen Ketten  /  meine Finger                        / (gaben) / weiße Winke

Could it be that the female idyll with fruit Rilke described contains a trace of Alice Faehndrich's translation help, her authorship? Erasure, a different kind of peeling, takes away not only what was there, but also what wasn't there. Erasure not only covers over, but it also awakens ghostly voices—principally questioning singular authorship.                 that in any author's phrases lie a supressed multiplicity of phrases. The singular of the author is one hierarchization but is not all.      (Erín Moure)

More than 150 years after the publication of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, Christian Hawkey and I began a double erasureship of the bilingual Insel edition of the Sonette aus dem Portugiesischen, which now reads SONNE FROM ORT. The title melds Capri, Rilke and the two starting languages, even retaining an echo of Elizabeth's London in the Os. We used correction fluid to rework the sonnets in dialogue with each starting-point text: Christian Hawkey with Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Uljana Wolf with Rainer Maria Rilke, Uljana Wolf with Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Christian Hawkey with Rainer Maria Rilke, Uljana Wolf with Christian Hawkey, Christian Hawkey with Uljana Wolf. On the fruit and the broad folds of a royal mantle             peelers, aides, hearing aids, hands with tailor's chalk
       racing outlines, apple-casters. Our thin or thick, our transparent or at times fully covering, our crumbling and our glowing-white Liquid Paper becomes a backhanded sign of a wiped-out dedication. Faehndrich—her name translates as ensign; from Fahne meaning signal, pennant; a parallel etymology between German and its English equivalent descended from insignia—not tracked down, but flagged up perhaps. She is not made more legible, and yet the act of being made illegible, her disappearance, makes an appearance, is recollected in the fractures, the space that steps between the words, its possibilities, that space that uncovers hierarchies, awakens ghosts:

          womit ich schreibe: / weiß / dies zweite Gesicht / auf den Mund

In this type of collaboration with a starting text, something comes about that belongs to no one in the end, not the author, not the translator, and not the reworker. The third mind, incident of a recollection, a more, a myth         in its own way           which lays white ribbons         (lay of the land, lament). The white is a sign that a process has taken place, decisions taken, and altering reading, a process inscribed, ensigned, with splashes, smudges, lumps and bumps, wrongly painted-out, half scratched-back words. White spaces, zugunruhe. The slumbering text, pinned down on paper for years or decades, is set in motion, liquid paper or open cage, from which birds, white shadows, landscape, snowscape

          nicht / gleichen Zeichen / die ich / aufzog / kraut und Raute / Nimm
          / deine Augen / die losen / Wurzeln

In 1979 Liquid Paper was sold for 48 million dollars—to Gillette. From typos to stubble. Finding a way through the weeds of signs, symbols, bodies. Another parallel etymology, this time a scratched score: in erasure the hidden German Rasur (shaving) and in razor German's Radierung for etching. All share the same Old French root raser, from the Latin radere or eradere: to scrape, scratch, remove. Or to remove oneself, frantically, between the languages.

SONNE FROM ORT is a document of this removal, the opposite of a finished text. A process related to Benjamin's Entstellung, which can release the familiar from its firm captivity, erasures rewrite the text's countless inherent possibilities of its infirmity, its incompleteness: A technique for recording the migratory orientation of captive texts.

March 24, 2011. And yet another attempt at snow.             Overnight.       I can't walk any faster. Coverlet on a scratched car hood. Dreamed of intimate washing machines for women (car wash/cunt wash). The pigeon in the backyard is back,                  , its white breast, cooing          "...but it was put in afterwards when people chose to pull down the mask which, in old days, people used to respect at a masquerade. But I never cared." (Robert Browning to Julia Wedgewood, 1864)

translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

The illustrations above appear courtesy of Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey. For print publication, the white-out erasures of SONNE FROM ORT were transformed/ translated/redesigned into graphic charts/symbols by Andreas Töpfer. The book is available from kookbooks in Berlin. The original German version of this essay first appeared (in a different form) at karawa.net and this version is now available in German in Metonymie (Ed. Norbert Lange), available from J. Frank.