Tagging and Other Marginalia

After writing my last post about graffiti, I'd gone looking for a Donald Justice poem, convinced that he'd written a poem about graffiti in bathrooms. I found the poem, "Unflushed Urinals", and although it was about washrooms, it made no mention of graffiti. Looking through his selected poems, though, I found another poem with a small note I'd scrawled to myself in the margin.

The poem is "Self-Portrait as Still Life", with a couple of lines that run like so:
Already out, the knife,
Confident lover.
It smiles. It knows
How attractive it is

To sunlight...
Beside that, I'd written, "Those who know how attractive they are to sunlight..." Nothing more than that, but it got me thinking about the other notes I've made in books over the years. For a long while, I resisted the idea of writing in books: the page had a kind of integrity to it, an aura, something inviolate to it. The first book I really remember marking up was a copy of Steinbeck's East of Eden; looking through the book now, there are a couple of sloppy lines, a stray highlighter, nothing really very telling. Since then, though, I've come to fashion a kind of style for writing in books.

Underlines are usually out, as I can rarely trust my own swerving hand. Brackets, on the other hand, are clean enough, and they don't demand the fidelity of lines. I'll often leave check marks beside a passage, more rarely an awkward star. Depending on the book, I'll sometimes scrawl something in the margins or leave ellipses and a thought at a chapter's end.

But reading Borges recently - first The Aleph and Other Stories and then his Collected Fictions - I found myself watching the notes I left in his books: "That kernel of myself that is untouched by time, joys, or adversities," I wrote after his inscription; I wrote down the page where I found his "honey-colored moon". I put brackets around his description of the West: "But the sky of banked clouds, with tatters of storm and moon, is covered with dry, cracked watering holes and mountains". Looking back on it now, his phrase reminds me of Solnit's description of the West, her love of the sky. Borges' description of Merv, "whose gardens and vineyards and lawns look out sadly onto the desert," moved me to parrot, "The high desert, lawns that look out sadly on the desert," thinking as I was of Lancaster and Palmdale, Apple Valley and Victorville. But it was at the end of one story - "The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette" - that I wrote this: "Reading as a process of tracing - a way of marking presence, like graffiti, like tagging? Walls and pages, passive things..."

Perhaps better phrased as this: Reading, for Borges a more civil thing than writing, can be likened to leaving a trace upon the page. These marginalia I leave (to quote roughly from the end of that Billy Collins poem, Pardon the egg salad stains, but I think I'm in love) are a kind of trace of myself. By way of explanation, I first read Calvino's Invisible Cities years ago. I bought it in London while staying with a dear friend and while on my way to rendezvous with a young woman with whom I'd declared myself in love. I started reading the book as it became clear to me that my feelings would not be returned in the same way, in much of any way at all; in pencil, I find a set of brackets around this: "There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening."

I've come back to the book a handful of times since that first reading, and I can sometimes pick out my different moments of reading by the comments I leave in the margins: "After pride, after mortality, what? Story." or at the end of the city of Isidora, the comment that "Desire makes us old." The script varies from page to page, and I can sometimes pin down their age by the letters' curve, the tangles I made of the ends of words.

My point, I suppose, is that tagging and marginalia might be related acts. Not so much in a literal sense (not, perhaps, at all in the literal sense), but a kind of sympathy between the two acts. A couple of months back, I was sitting towards the back of a Culver City bus. There was a young guy sitting in front of me who craned his head around at one point to stare back at the freeway we'd just passed under before going back to leaving his tag behind the mirror at the back door. The last time I checked, his tag was still on the north side of the 10 Freeway, where the freeway passes over Sepulveda just south of Pico, and I'd like to think that tags are a way of asserting a kind of presence. If, as Borges suggests, reading is a civil act, and if tracing in the margins is itself a part of reading, then one might think of tagging as a way of reading the city and leaving something of oneself to be read.

There's another poem for which I can't remember the poet, but it has a line that runs roughly thus: The flesh dreams of permanence. Again, perhaps another motivation for writing.

And a last note on reading signs: BikinginLA reads a recent ride.


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