In her essay collection Calamities (2016), Renee Gladman recalls picnicking in a Brooklyn park around the time of her 40th birthday. She writes that on the occasion of this milestone “everyone filled in your sentences for you … And yes, their stories did approximate some of what you’d been thinking over the past weeks, but why wouldn’t they let you tell it?” The way Gladman situates her unvoiced sentences in a place (Brooklyn) and in a time (the summer she turned 40) gives them a form—or the beginning of one. As a reader, I don’t know what exactly she may have wanted to say for herself, but in my mind, I can see her sentences weaving through the trees of the park, over the tops of the buildings, and across the water, like sonar, giving shape to themselves by tracing the shape of their environment.
Writing—specifically the unit of the sentence—is Gladman’s abiding form of navigation, a means of translating the inner world to the outer one and vice-versa. “In the way it is possible to find the place you are looking for by simply moving about outside, so too when in your mind and writing,” she says in The Ravickians (2011), the second of four novels about the imaginary city-state of Ravicka, where the geography is as variable as the space of language and thought. The untranslatability of certain Ravickian words echoes the difficulty of finding one’s way around the fluctuating cityscape and the individual’s fluttering sense of self within that environment, as Gladman writes in the series’ third novel, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013):
I didn’t have words for the building and their turned-in windows, folded into their evacuated state. I had lost architecture … Where was my body in this walk I did, where I moved for hours between neighborhoods and tried to read the city as it rearranged itself?
Gladman’s drawings, first gathered in Prose Architectures (2017), combine these elements—writing, the city, the individual, language, the sentence—into a single form. Made with ink on paper (the materials of writing), the lines in her drawings are lines of writing—indecipherable sentences written to form various architectures as a way of reflecting the process of thinking. “And what was most profound,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “was that it left a record behind, a map: the drawing itself.” The drawings use the unit of the sentence to make a map of thinking. They are, in other words, another form of writing.
Or is writing another form of drawing? The visual works in Gladman’s latest book, Plans for Sentences (Wave Books, 2022), look a lot like the sentences I imagined floating through Brooklyn when she turned 40: clusters of looped verbiage that populate the horizon and send shoots that climb in curves and angles into the air, forming buildings, towers, and ladders. One drawing seems to depict a sequence of telephone poles connected by lengths of slack cable that canopy over the curls of the cityscape below. Like those in Prose Architecture, the lines in the new book are sentences, but now Gladman has put her own writing alongside the drawings. Each spread contains a pair: one drawing and three paragraphs of one to two sentences each. In the text that accompanies the telephone-pole drawing, Gladman writes,
These sentences will move forward in a kind of corridor duration and will shape the stringing of something linear and climbing—calling out a gull flying over water—to something triangular and graining—calling out water in water; and they will blacken at the hinge and double the ground
In Gladman’s hands, drawing and writing function as two sides of the same verbal art, to borrow a term from the linguist Roman Jakobson: drawings comprising language and language describing images. The book contains 60 pairs of drawings and texts. Each spread is labeled “Fig.” (as in figure) with a number. A drawing is typically understood as an illustrative representation of an idea expressed in a text. In Plans for Sentences, the “figure” designation doesn’t sit on the page with drawing but on the text page, which means the drawings aren’t labeled as illustrations for the text. The term instead applies to the set so that text and drawing are on par with each other, in conversation. (The pairing seems ready-made, as people sometimes refer to sentences as lines and talk about reading art.) In the book’s acknowledgments, Gladman explains that she previously resisted putting writing and drawing alongside one another because she feared one would be read as an assistant to the other:
At the same time, I started to wonder: What would future sentences look like and what would they do in a present that precedes their use or, at least, precedes the places to which they point? These are descriptions for future sentences, however the plans for those sentences (i.e., their actual futures) are still the drawings.
The texts, all written in the future tense, describe sentences that do not yet exist. The drawings show what those sentences will look like, just as architectural plans show the relationships between different elements of a proposed structure. Both elicit a feeling of the territory they envision.
Gladman sets the scene in the book’s opening: “These sentences—they—will begin having already been sentences somewhere else, and this will mark their afterlife, and this will be their debut.” How can something begin if it already exists elsewhere? She writes, too, that the sentences’ iteration here, in this book (this location, this site, this place), denotes their afterlife. Does that mean they no longer exist? But they do—they’re here. This is also their debut, which may signify a rebirth. To begin again, to start anew. It could be that time isn’t a thread to follow but a circle or a snarl, without a beginning or an end. Fred Moten has called the form of Gladman’s sentence drawings “an open tangle.”
I wonder whether Gladman’s reticence to put writing and drawing together eased after she made One Long Black Sentence with Moten in 2020. That book consists of Gladman’s drawings and Moten’s response, which he titled “Anindex,” at the end of the book. In a conversation with Gladman when the book was released, Moten described his contribution in terms of annotation, which, he says, relates to ornamentation or adornment, and he parsed the freewheeling sense of the latter: “To adorn is also to adore, but ‘adore’ is also ‘a door,’ as in ‘a way in.’ And a way in can also be a way out.”
In Plans for Sentences, Gladman writes of portals, which, in literature, can move readers to other places, other writers, other times. The expansiveness of the kind of writing she imagines is echoed in the lack of punctuation at the end of each paragraph (“a period, that dot, that fleck of dust that ruins conversations,” she writes in her 2019 novel Morelia), as though the sentences themselves are ongoing, just like the ideas they describe. The sentences “will loop the unknown and unfinish.” Each unpunctuated ending leads to the beginning of the next sentence, with a line space or a page space between them that acts as a threshold, that liminal space that is a beginning and an ending. The drawing for Fig. 29 shows looped lines buoyed by 10 ballooning circles. Ladders climb the bottom of the construction, and the very top is crowned with a narrow triangle ending in a long, sharp point. “These will have ended in a spire,” she writes, “in reach of elsewhere.”
Another drawing depicts, in part, “the systematic treatment of magnitude,” which Gladman identifies as the colon and the em dash, those marks of punctuation that carve out “the room behind the side of," a private space but one in which ideas can be expressed at full volume—“the weather report on full blast.” Mention of weather recurs in Plans for Sentences, as when Gladman introduces color into the book, about midway through, in the form of three brushstrokes of golden paint: “These places will glow and will void and stick like wet leaves at the window, partitioning thought … These sentences will arrive in a weather system; they will glow and pound the coast.” The weather is the state we’re in—the psychic and social atmosphere, how things are going—and the weather report is a kind of summation of a particular moment. Poems are like weather reports, lines sensitive to vibrations. Weather is a mood. In the drawing for Fig. 44, a gray cloud descends over the sentences, obscuring them and drawing down in a show of verticality: “These will be the sky written on and the sky extending to the ground; these will blur the borders, they will lean and darken and partition the ground from itself.”
Sometimes Gladman seems to write more generally about what writing is and does:
These will crust a scaffold, will chapter the site as it striates, and will write the unwritten without pause. They will encumber to void
These sentences will cover the horizon from end to end as a kind of castellation of grains and threads and portals; these portals will constitute the loop inside the map and will give the map levity
That sentences “write the unwritten” is a crystalline evocation of the power each sentence holds to bring forth that which doesn't yet exist in written form. The “castellation” (a building up into towers) and “grains and threads and portals” evoke the stuff of writing: ideas, concepts, notions, comparisons, metaphors, and so on—all of which, together, produce a map of thinking, which, in concrete terms, is a piece of writing, one that is alive and stretches beyond itself. But it retains its visual quality, as the sentences “will edge the unwritten into a shape of something wrote.”
A sentence represents physical space. “The sentence is at once a map of where we have gone and where we wish to go,” Gladman says in an interview with BOMB. A sentence has boundaries and directionals (interior and end punctuation); it spans a distance and can incorporate an endless area within itself; it is a construction made from the building blocks of grammar and syntax; and it has individual structures (letters) that tower above the horizon of the line and plunge below it. “Moving through that order is a kind of unfolding,” Gladman writes, “each word being a ‘sign’ of sorts that tells us about where we are and where we are going.”
In part of the drawing for Fig. 10, the vertical buildings of a small cityscape cluster together on a long horizontal line. A diagonal stretches from the top of one building and connects to a diamond shape, from which another line extends and grasps another, smaller cityscape resting on a short, thick platform. The scene can be read topographically so that the diamond shape might be a roundabout connecting two cities that sit miles apart. It can also be read as a picture of some future city in which the diamond shape holds aloft a subdivision of the larger city below. Behind the towers that these sentences create, “hives will rise belonging to language, but not these sentences of any language and not this language in particular.”
The sentences are both structures and words—visual elements that also make meaning. Gladman’s word choices hint at this dual function. She uses blacken to indicate intensity or density, and I wondered whether it might extend to the culinary sense of blackened, of being intensely seasoned, its flavor enriched. When she writes that certain sentences “will launch the language of the grain,” grain produces an image of both acres of wheat (helped along by mention of fields and growing) and the texture of wood—alternating suggestions of time, direction, and intent. She also uses grain as a verb, meaning, in one sense, “to ingrain” or “to work indelibly into the natural texture or mental or moral constitution,” according to Merriam-Webster. In another sense, it can mean to “form into grains,” like sugar or sand, which implies both a potential for agglomeration and a coming apart, a falling to bits. The rolling and graining that occurs throughout the book imparts a constant, simultaneous feeling of construction and deconstruction. “These sentences,” she writes in Fig. 6, “will move vertically toward the sky, will grain, will void, amassing tiny statements.” In one swoop, the sentence and/or what it describes accretes, breaks into constituent elements, and disappears. Yet even in this making and unmaking, the sentences build something. Sentences are themselves constructions—of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech. Even sentences that unmake a creation are making something new.
Gladman’s exploration of construction as it relates to language and thought and one’s environment is astonishingly resonant. She uses architecture as a metaphor for essay-building, poem-building, idea-building, language as a built environment and as a space of community. The ability of a sentence to create and transform is boundless:
These sentences … will foment tiny gears of speech, clicking, turning, moating, and will be like wind blowing through back onto itself, behind itself so that thought moves by leaning forward …
These moats will separate objects from subjects and preserve silence
They will set the world of the text in motion, diverting at the escapement, turning to void, and will make small bodies of sayings that will click and moat
The drawing that accompanies these sentences is a Watts Towers of the mind—an unruly multiform structure that includes complexes of spindly towers, cantilevers, low-slung buildings, bridges, and clusters of dwellings. The effect is of active, harmonious disorder.
Fig. 45 describes a monument: “These sentences will both fog and chart the rising structure… This chapter will write itself in intervals of fog and twilight; it will filament the curve and be a chronicle … they will fog the monument in a curving; they will fog the ground in memory.” A fog and a chronicle—a record of something that has solid form but whose meaning is intangible and evanescent. It’s there but what readers make of it is perhaps changeable, dependent on the weather. The drawing in the next spread depicts a circular mass thickly outlined in black and filled with a thin, brushy layer of gray paint. It sits at the intersection of three lines, like a great object astride the city streets. Its sentences “will model a scale of the exhaustion of the erased … These sentences will dream themselves into a figuration of planets and satellites, looking to set value to variables beyond the science of the plain: the feeling of the unknown beside you.”
I thought instantly of Cenotaph for Newton, Étienne-Louis Boullée’s unbuilt 18th-century architectural homage to the English physicist. Boullée’s ink and wash drawings depict a memorial of astonishing scale (it would have been nearly 500 feet tall)—a great orb housing Newton’s sarcophagus and depicting on its vast inner dome the vault of the night sky. Boullée characterized the architecture of cenotaphs as “a composition made up of the effect of shadows,” a play of light and darkness that creates a shifting sense of volume and surface, inside and out. Cenotaph for Newton was never realized, but its significance for Boullée is not that it might be built but that he had conceived of the project. “It is this product of the mind, this process of creation,” he wrote, not “the art of construction,” that “constitutes architecture.”
In imagining sentences that have yet to come into being, the “figures” that make up Plans for Sentences also summon the book that would house those sentences. There is talk throughout of covers, chapters, and afterwords. Toward the last page of Plans for Sentences, readers feel the end of the imagined book—the future one—also drawing near. The sentences in Fig. 57 “will signal the closing of the figurations, the soon-to-be-end of planning, the growing short of breathing.” And in the penultimate Fig. 59, Gladman writes, “This chapter will self-intersect as well as any poem or weather map”—a closing, where all threads are finally drawn together. This chapter too “will chart a history of wander,” which hints at the thoughts that continue after a reader finishes a book, the way it lingers in the mind and can bleed into other stories, poems, or paintings or into daily life. The accompanying drawing resembles the globe, a sphere crisscrossed by sentences that “constellate the territories of the poem” and wreathed by green-blue strokes of “the membranous sky”—the full picture of everything that has preceded it in the book and that now comes together to form this vast image.
The final set, Fig. 60, is an ending and an inception. The drawing depicts sentences that “will be that day of cloud cover that shelters the unwritten,” like new sentences born from a primordial stew, just coming into being for the first time—the close of one great life and the beginning of another.