The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue
Editor's Message Guest Critic

From the Threshing Floor

Portrait of Norma Cole, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Norma Cole, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.

“Every work of art is political because every
work of art is breaking new ground.” — Doris Salcedo

Threshold is the operative word here.

It is and isn’t about “our mental representation of dawn.” (Marcelline Delbecq, CAMERA)

Threshold: the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result or condition to occur or be manifested.
“nothing happens until the signal passes the threshold”

What signal? What threshold?

For some reason I had no words. I had some words but they would not settle into a rhythm. A bodily rhythm hadn’t come yet. Instead, coming at me were flying objects fast & furious —“climate crisis,” “migrants,” “separation of children from parents at borders,” “weapons,” “incarceration,” “solitary confinement,” “corporate takeovers,” “fascists,” “the technological singularity,” which kept Stephen Hawking up nights, you name it.

Threshold appeared. “Some of our earlier etymologists…thought that threshold was indeed thresh and hold. They were wrong,” writes Anatoly Liberman (on “An attempt to identify -shold with sill is a solution born of etymological despair. This Germanic word for ‘threshold’ was opaque as far back as the time of the oldest written monuments. For some reason, Latin limen and Russian porog…both meaning ‘threshold,’ also lack a definitive etymology….We are missing the moment at which the threshing floor…began to denote the entrance to the room.”

A perfect uncertainty principle. But “[l]anguage knows what it wants. Good for it, because I don’t know, no not at all.” (Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel Speech, 2004)

Limit (n.) c. 1400, “boundary, frontier,” from Old French limite, from Latin limitem (nominative limes) “a boundary, limit, border, embankment between fields,” which is probably related to limen “threshold,” and possibly from the base of limus “transverse, oblique,” which is of uncertain origin. ( Limes, (Latin: “path”) plural limites, in ancient Rome, originally a path that marked the boundary between plots of land. (

Propose a path, a development which is progression but not progress. Suppose in this case development without positive or negative value, merely change, movement, for example the movement of waves, motion which is time and refers beyond itself. Meaning is in the rhythm or cadence.

Improvisation, experimentation. “Mere exposure to stimuli is enough to create preferences.” (Joseph Ledoux, The Emotional Brain) Already there is an orientation. Improvisation and progression are development, orienting each other. Development, which is motion, is involved with preference. Preference is involved with subjectivity and direction and creates expectation. Writing is involved with movement, development, subjectivity, preference, and direction. Subjectivity, which does not depend on pronouns, occurs in movement, development, writing, and preference. Improvisation and progression, their motion, include rupture, discontinuity. Discontinuity is startling, shatters expectation. The questions become how great a surprise can you tolerate and how small a surprise can you register? Linkages, not always lineages, like lists and like submerged autonomic systems, have direction.

Exile: “Esse est percipi,” wrote Bishop Berkeley, being is being seen, being known. Ovid (43 BCE – 17/18 CE) wrote the Tristia from beyond the horizon of his known world, far from his language context, far from his companions, his witnesses, in mere space he could not recognize and value as place. Osip Mandelstam (1891 – 1938), from his free fall of searing anticipation, wrote his Tristia. During one of his prison sojourns, the Persian poet Mas’ud Sa’d Salman (1046–1122) wrote his Tristia. From Maranj prison,

There was no way that they could find any crime
that I’d done, except where I was born, my origin
(Habsiyyat, Prison Songs, trans. Paul Smith)

Considerations of exile dovetail with questions about what defines or binds a work as, say, “American,” a continuing preoccupation since this country’s revolutionary beginning. What locates a work? Sometimes we are looking at the location of emotion. And btw, did any of you see Transit (2018), the film directed by Christian Petzold? Adapted from Anna Seghers’ novel published in 1944, France—in exile, having fled Germany in 1933, after Hitler became chancellor, after the spectacle of book burning at the university in Berlin, after her books were placed on the Nazi blacklist, after her apartment had been broken into by the police, after her neighbors had hidden her. Her daughter writes later of how the children, with the last of their money, were sent to swimming lessons, for, who knew, one day perhaps they would have to continue their flight by boat. Can you separate living and writing? Someone receives a book in the mail and writes back on a postcard, “It is life!”

Writes Tisa Bryant (Letters to the Future, ed. Erica Hunt & Dawn Lundy Martin), “I always reach back…to see forward.” Continuity is thrown into question, a threading and a fraying take place. Experience becomes experiment, from the Latin experimentum, which breaks down into experior and mentum. Experior is making a trial of, testing, putting to the test, and also experiencing, undergoing. It has periculum in it, having to do with danger, risk. I seize upon the word danger, bringing to mind the quote from James Baldwin, “To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.” We act. Today is December 10, 2019, Human Rights Day. Rights, homophone for writes. “I can’t write back.” (“All She Wrote,” Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary).

In September 2019, there was a series of climate strikes around the globe in which many of us took part. “YOU BROKE OUR GLACIER,” was the message from children in one town at the foot of Mont Blanc. My first sense of Mont Blanc was the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni,” which I first read in grade school. On September 19th, I reread it. It begins, “The everlasting universe of things….” “Everlasting” is and isn’t about our mental representation of anything. Imagine. The tallest mountain in Europe is set to release millions of gallons of ice. Nothing happens until the signal passes the threshold. I hold my breath and read on.


The poets on the Critics Pages responded, each in their way, to this thought piece.


Norma Cole

Norma Cole is a poet, translator and visual artist. Recent works include a book of poetry, FATE NEWS (2018), and a film, At the Turning Bridge (2019). She lives in San Francisco.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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