Kevin Fitzgerald

Zukofsky's "A" and Joyce's Ulysses:
Epics of Fragmentation

     1. Joyce's Ulysses and Zukofsky's "A" offer modernist epics—personal or tribal encyclopedias of the everyday—founded in the rubble of modern perception or consciousness. But Ulysses and "A" share similarities not only in scope, but also in prosody. Joyce and Zukofsky used a serial form of intricately developed individual cells to better reflect in form the harsh and disjunctive edges of the 20th century. Through a fragmented modernist style, they rejected the poetic style of late 19th century that sought beauty for its own sake. They cut away the inflated rhetorical dross of conventional and sentimental romanticism and aestheticism and shifted the reader's attention to the everyday image, perceived in all its potent meaning or fact. Zukofsky did this in his writing by presenting piercing moments of perception. Joyce accomplished similar aims through the shifting internal monologues of his main characters.

     2. Joyce especially traced the choppy montage-like quality of perception or consciousness among everyday things and during everyday experiences, though both Joyce and Zukofsky replicate in their writing abrupt mental shifts and sudden digressions prompted by chance occurrence and/or evocative people or objects. For example, in "A", Zukofsky abruptly switches from stating that his poetics has "an old ochre in it/ On walls of a civilized cave" to "Paul's robin" (A-12, 238-239). Likewise, in Ulysses, as Bloom talks to M'Coy about Dignam's passing, a lady climbing into her carriage across the street attracts Bloom's attention. This launches Bloom into a string of thoughts about the lady and her type even though on the surface he continues to listen to M'Coy speak of Dignam's passing. Both of these examples, picked out at random from countless others, point to the method by which Joyce and Zukofsky represent consciousness or perception as a disjunctive series of images, as a swiftly shifting array of perspectives and focal points.

     3. Like George Oppen's "Discrete Series," Zukofsky and Joyce enveloped the fragmentary essence of perception or consciousness in the structural framework of the finite series. Differing from infinite series, traditional sequential narratives, and predetermined forms such as the sonnet, the finite series gives the writer freedom to group either unrelated and/or thematically cohesive fragments. Finite series thereby avoid the necessity for totality or logical cause and effect. Neither subscribing to a linearity that requires meaning to travel in a chronological succession of causality, nor a diffuse, unbounded formlessness, the finite series displays a sinuosity capable of unifying fragments seemingly contingent and tangential. Zukofsky and Joyce used the finite series to encounter the 20th century's jumbled multiplicity of fragmented images.

     4. Coinciding with the movement away from centripetal and totalized systems that stress the predictability of phenomena toward centrifugal and fluctuating systems that recognize the capacity for contingency to disrupt patterns of occurrence, "A" and Ulysses use serialization on the grammatical level. Instead of promoting logical completeness through limpid, hypotactic phraseology or interdependent word chains, both works dissuade totality by forwarding an oscillating, protruding parataxis. Both works feature to varying degrees a concise modernist minimalism that strips language of causal connectives. In Ulysses, the clipped short sentences of Stephen Dedalus's interior monologue on the beach in particular displays the paratactic disjunctive. For example:

Come. I thirst. Clouding over. No black clouds anywhere, are there? Thunderstorm. Allbright he falls, proud lightning of the intellect, Lucifer, dico, qui nescit occasum. No. My cockle hat and staff and his my sandal shoon. Where? To evening lands. Evening will find itself. (50)
     Zukofsky put a similar paratactic aesthetic to use, though his is more pronounced than Joyce's. For example:
Visible and invisible
Of the fantastic island
To the North
That but for a little green
Is entirely buildings
And pavement
Holding such sights
As a café front
Composed of a mortared
Giant champagne glass
Overflowing a coruscation
Of rocks;
All such instants
Watched over
By the Empire State (A-13, 311)
     By means of this broken syntax, "A" and Ulysses veer away from the expectations of normal speech patterns toward a sort of modernist aesthetic. Take another example from Ulysses:
     His eyes sought answer from the river and saw a rowboard rock at anchor on the treacly swells lazily its plastered board.
     Good idea that. Wonder if he pays rent to the corporation. How can you own water really? It's always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream. All kind of places are good for ads…
     Mr. Bloom moved forward raising his troubled eyes. Think no more about that. After one. Timeball on the ballast office is down. Dunsink time. Fascinating little book that is of sir Robert Ball's. Parallax. I never exactly understood. There's a priest. Could ask him. Par it's Greek: parallel, parallax. Met him pikehoses she called it till I told her about the transmigration. O rocks! (153-4)
Constantly in medias res, in the midst of a plot but also in the middle of commonplace things, never reaching the grand resolution or denouement plotted into a traditional epic, everyman Bloom is depicted here roving amidst quotidian things and happenings in a fragment of his hypothetical life. Fragmentary rather than complete, flipping through memories and associations evoked by an object, Bloom's stream of consciousness shifts back and forth from outward observation to the internal dialogue perception compels. This section finds Bloom consulting the river for an answer to the question, "Why is it that saltwater fish are not salty?" Before receiving an answer, though, his mind is diverted by the novelty of an advertisement plastered on a boat. Being in the advertisement profession, he internally issues a value judgement on the location of the clothiers' ad. His mind then jumps to wonder if the agent who placed the advertisement pays the city government for the privilege of mooring the boat in the river. This in turn promotes a string of philosophical ruminations akin to Heraclitus that end in a Jamesian (William) or Bergonsian platitude. Next, after telling himself to think about something other than advertising, Bloom notices a "timeball," which in turn reminds him of a book by the author "Robert Ball," conceivably due to the association "Ball" and "timeball" carries. Recalling this book, Bloom contemplates asking a passing priest to elucidate the meaning of the word "parallax" in the book. However, a phrase from an earlier conversation with his wife Molly jumps into his mind. In response to Bloom's use of the word "transmigration," Molly had stated "O, rocks!…Tell us in plain words" (64). Here "rocks" operates as more than just emotive rhetoric—it also alludes to the Rock of Gibraltar, Molly's place of origin. This is an example of how Joyce's language frequently evokes layers of meaning that extend beyond the simple surface meaning of the word. In this manner Joyce's approach to language differs from Zukofsky's, which focused less on the symbolic and more on converting images into entities not unlike tangible objects.

     Joyce employed in the above excerpt a concise, jagged syntax devoid of the connectives that would streamline the flow of his sentences. Each word shoulders a compressed weight. For example, in the first sentence of the above quoted section, "and saw a rowboat rock at anchor on the treacly swells lazily its plastered board," Joyce chooses neither to place commas around the phrase "on treacly swells," nor end the sentence after the word, "lazily." Although it might have forced him to repeat the verb "saw" before "its plastered board," such changes would have rendered the sentence more conversant with normal speech patterns. Due to Joyce's syntax, an angular accumulation of words occurs at the tail end of the sentence. This syntax defamiliarizes language, though in a way that—as in the broken syntax of Zukofsky—motives clarity. In other words, through its use of a novel rather than bromidic grammatical structure, Joyce's syntax actively engages the reader in the task of reading or constructing meaning. Perhaps stemming from the human tendency to value what is earned over what is handed to them, after a certain amount of attention the reader encounters in an immediate manner—as if for the first time—the image of a rowboat gently swaying upon a molasses-like river.

     As in Ulysses, the language of Zukofsky's "A" dwells perpetually in medias res, shifting from fragment to fragment, addressing an existence in the midst of everyday things and occurrence. Zukofsky isolated on the page piercing moments of clear empirical perception extracted from the rapid flux of existence. For example:

Have your odyssey
How many voiced it be
"Speak to me in a different anguish

               It's a bee-star—no!
                              a bumble-bee star—it's
                              a star!" A flying seeded
                              dandelion, a something—a jack
                              a star-feather—and Paul looks
                              as if it might sting him
                              it floats away into the grass.
                              To the day: a month before he was five. (128)

This section begins with an incitement toward multiplicity, a multiplicity soon enacted through counterposed fragments that mimic the polyphonic Bach fugue. Typically an unfinished composition that contains a number of voices who state different themes, the fugue contrasts harmonious unity with varied and sometimes opposing melodies. Such contrasts are apparent in the leaps between fragments in the excerpt above. Although disguised by the quotation marks that frame the third through seventh lines, a more than visual leap occurs between lines three and four, which veers the passage into an episode when Zukofsky's son, Paul, encountered a seeded dandelion. Rather than state, "Have your own odyssey however many voiced it may be," Zukofsky cleaved the first two lines of the above passage so that they sound angular and run counter to typical grammatical anticipation. The outcome of this approach reminds one of the "sculpture not proceeded with" that Zukofsky mentioned in his essay entitled, "An Objective" (Prepositions 20-21). This is because Zukofsky esteemed a choppy, unrefined effect as capable of capturing more truthfully and precisely the roughly hewn quiddity of sense perception.

     Through the estrangement produced by his jagged syntax, Zukofsky transformed his words into direct portals to experience. Rather than operate as diffuse symbols or portmanteau words that evoke multiple references, like some of Joyce's language, Zukofsky's words access as immediately as possible the simple "objectivity" of the phenomena perceived. They render the nearest possible allegiance between signifier and what is being signified. Zukofsky stated, "the facts are not a symbol" ("A" 379) and "[t]he economy of presentation in writing is a reassertion of faith that the combined letters—the words—are absolute symbols for objects, states, acts, interrelations, thoughts about them" (Prepositions 22). Instead of operating in the diffuse manner of a symbol, a manner that, by suggesting multiple interpretations, participates in doubling or duplicity, Zukofsky believed the dandelion and Paul's reaction to it to be a truthful and exact presentation of experience.

     Zukofsky's word choice in "A" stemmed from his belief that greater truth resides in particulars rather than in the generalized. "In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations…" he stated. "Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist" (Prepositions 20). For Zukofsky, words—neither transparent nor artifice distanced from their referent—spring into consciousness during privileged moments of clarity to musically accompany and define the details of perception. In essence Zukofsky's image offers a sincere, unmediated experience to the reader.


Works Cited

Joyce, James. Ulysses. NY: Random House, 1992.

Zukofsky, Louis. "A". Baltimore and London: John Hopkins UP, 1978.

---, Prepositions. London: Rapp and Carroll, 1967