One Long Black Sentence
(Image Text Ithaca Press, 2020)
Clothbound with embroidered cover
Poet Renee Gladman’s non-verbal linguistic line drawings approximate sentences, as the title of her newest collection of what she calls “paragraph drawings,” One Long Black Sentence, directs us to consider. The longness of this is abstracted, like the sentences themselves, as the book foregoes page numbers, the traditional marker of a book’s duration. (This is unlike Gladman’s first book of paragraph drawings, Prose Architectures , which presented them on off-white rectangles, framed by the white page margins with page numbers in the traditional bottom corners.) Additionally, the drawings appear sometimes only on the left page, with the right-facing page left blank—in addition to dual page spreads and right page only. The white lined drawings glow against the full-bleed black pages, encased in a black hardcover with embroidered white lines that are physically raised off the surface. In this temporally and spatially abstracted book, we are treated to suites of cityscapes and areas that read as cartographic.
I’ve written before about the architecture, the rise and fall and winding, of Gladman’s lines. The drawings in One Long Black Sentence share much of the visual structure set forth in Prose Architectures. But here are more circular forms and colored swatches placed in such a way as to suggest sky, sun, moon, and celestial scapes. There is less linearity and more use of higher and lower levels on the page, suggesting different vantage points. Lines jut out and crisscross like radio towers and antennae. As both a novelist, poet, and visual artist, Gladman’s work retains a particular attention to structure and form. In this case, the visual language borrows from maps—both celestial and terrestrial—and interior and city planning.
But her title directs us to consider other things, number and duration, but also a linguistic structure, the sentence. Her non-verbal lines have syntax—a quality listed in the Merriam-Webster definition of sentence n.—and each mark in many ways is like a clause that “expresses an assertion, a question, a command, a wish, an exclamation, or the performance of an action.” But what about other meanings of sentence? Gladman’s dense geometric lines and use of expansive blank black page space also include nearly-legible groups of markings that are almost mathematical; another part of sentence n.: “a mathematical or logical statement (such as an equation or a proposition) in words or symbols.” What are these wordless drawings, these wordless sentences if not a logical proposition? And yet, as we read, we are left wondering what it is they propose: another vision for urban building, another planetary universe, or just a new perspective on our own?
Gladman further qualifies this sentence: there is only One, and it is Long, and it is Black. The singularity of it is important. This isn’t a universal sentence, it is a specific one, one with specific characteristics, black characteristics. And so I am left to ask, what’s a “black” sentence? In the legible text of the book—an essay at the end that is an index that is not an index called “Anindex”—Fred Moten asks, “But does the figure/ground thing work if the ground is black? The blackground: that nonrepresentational capacity that lets all representation take place.” The blackness of the sentence haunts the book with the darker meaning of sentence n.: “JUDGMENT … one formally pronounced by a court or judge in a criminal proceeding and specifying the punishment to be inflicted upon the convict.” As with her novels, her paragraph drawings are part of a larger investigation of cities, their construction and their communities. Judgments are often cast about urban life as one of violence, poverty, and uncleanliness. What kind of judgement are Gladman’s lines handing out? In a 2011 interview with BOMB magazine, Gladman said of her approach to storytelling as a “black lesbian poet”:
As you gaze into words, into their relation, you see things that are not there to people who have never had to prove that they should be counted among the living. You see jungle spaces, geometric spaces inside which it is possible to point, to unfold something about the silences, the loneliness of being in the world.
I read this book as protests fill the city streets; communities chant the names of people sentenced to Black Sentences: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more. Gladman’s vision submits a different kind of Long Black Sentence. One that is continuous and uninterrupted—one not cut short by state-sponsored violence. Moten writes:
What if discontinuity is more of a bend than a break? But what if a break is, in fact, a bend—just a tear with a bottom, a silty, caressive wall or wail, some manti, melismatic, anautoappositional complaint, a dark region of need that, cool in the cityscape, denizens smoothly on the run dance to, cooly in escape in the city, in continual look at that, look at that, but quietly, noticing all but unnoticeably, violently, warily in love?
What if there is a way out of A Long Black Sentence? Or what if A Long Black Sentence is endless, boundless, expansive, and beautiful—like the cites conjured in these pages? Gladman’s sentences have an energy of aspiration that builds between the pages. As I read, I try to see the vantage she offers of a different world.