Silénzio / Scienza: Registering 5 in Joan Retallack’s Errata 5uite

1 February 2014

like choosing the parameters of speech1, Diane Ward, ‘Mediate’ (1992).


Teaching Errorious Silence

Joan Retallack describes her second major book, Errata 5uite, published with Edge Books (Washington, D.C.) in 1993, as a ‘silent suite.’ A five line prefatorial note defines, or notates, the meaning of the books title and its composition:

errata 5uite. errant phrase denoting a suc
cession of 5 line errata slips of tongue
composed of letter notes written  on 5 line
musical staves (invisible) together form
ing a silent suite (Fr., a following)2

Being invisible, except on the front cover of the book where the title is written in red letters over a grand staff, these literary staves are templates for writing, the silent support for the registers from which all the rest ‘follows.’ The literal definition of suite is given here, meaning a ‘staff’ of attendants or followers, a regal retinue. The title of the piece itself—with 5 for S—overwrites the s-for-silence with the literal stave-template and its lines or registers. Importantly, the ‘letter notes’ are substitutive and analogous: letters as notes. Composition follows these five lines (simple enough), but when letter analogously replaces neume, the template recedes from vision. This is complex composition in which the parameters of speech are chosen (echoing Diane Ward), a process will determine what goes on in the text, how it generates literary appeal, and intimate ways in which the sequence can be read. Readers will do the work as well. The influence of John Cage, a friend of Retallack, is clear here in the emphasis on silence, Cage’s gift to contemporary music.

The text follows, and crucially invents, its errata slips through a peculiar kind of citational poethics.3 From an alphabetical list of source texts by authors from Abelard and Heloise and Aristotle through to Spinoza and Wittgenstein, Retallack occasionally feeds errata slips or slightly deviating phrases from these authors into the poetic material. Yet this is a broader and more complex poetics of error, one in which the very concept of error itself comes under question. One ‘misreading’ is the substitution silènzio for scienza in the phrase O tu cara scienza mia musica (‘O thou my beloved study, my music’). This line comes from the lyrics of a madrigal written and composed by Giovanni de Cascia, the fourteenth-century Florentine composer who appears in the Squarcialupi Codex, one of the primary sources for music in the Italian Trecento. The original song reads:

O tu, cara scienza mia musica.
O dolce melodia, con vaghi canti.
Che fa rinnovellar tuttor gli amanti;

e io son corda di tua consonanzia
che 'mmaginar solea tuo bel trovato:
or son procuratore et avvocato.

Però ritorno a te, musica cara.
Ch'ogni atto bel d'amor da te s'appara.

Here is an English translation:

O Music, dear science of mine.
O sweet melody which, through lovely songs,
makes lovers renew again their love.

And I who, as a string in your consonance
used to recreate your beautiful inventiveness:
am now your proxy and your advocate.

That’s why I return to you, dear Music.
Because every fine deed of love is learned from you.4

The science of music is an inventive study, and the invention of a consonance that supports the amorous situation. It is sung in the voice of the composer as ‘proxy’ and ‘advocate,’ whose science of compositional technique provides pathways to love. This is a song about song, music about music, music as science.5 In the appended ‘Sources and Notes’ and on page thirteen Retallack cites Boethius, author also of the influential musical treatise of De Institutione Musica, written early in the sixth century C. E., a text largely responsible for bringing Greek theories of harmony into medieval musical thought. The misreading of silence for science begins on page five with the ‘proper’ citation:

read for for fore tu (large bird) errorious to be in motion o tu cara
scienza mia musica varied as were mixup agitator not known the man 
could not swim and Now apostrophe s restored to pronounce the ritual
formula punch in code for teeth (love  ’s savage splendour) read land and
math for lang and myth’s urgent isosceles smile6

A displaced apostrophe, (‘love ’s’), a typographic error, untethers love from savage splendour. Then we read ‘land and math for lang and myth’s urgent isosceles smile’ and eerily (earily?) I’m reminded of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss when he treats something so seemingly total like myth as readable along the vertical and horizontal axes of an orchestral score.7 After reading these registers, in which a watery ocean of signifiers occasionally gets fixed and quilted by imperial punctuation (apostrophe) and by punctuation error, the misreading itself appears, returning forty-seven pages later:

i.e. to read o tu cara silènzio mia musica for late orts cracks figmenst dis
coarse on terror incognita tort thud slipova girl light as 7 pt italic in which
she only she appeared to know that he had asses ears (coughs in
shrubbery) proverbial never no fortuitous timing the classical reference
achieves the force of logic but for theorem read c or d (p. 52)


  1. This poem, part of a collaboration with Tina Darragh and Joan Retallack, was originally published in Chains, appears in the book Human Ceiling (New York: Roof Books, 1995), p. 37
  2. Joan Retallack, Errata 5uite (Washington, D.C.: Edge Books, 1993), n. pag.
  3. The term ‘citational poetics’ I borrow in this instance from Marjorie Perloff’s reading of Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Adding an ‘h,’ the resulting ‘poethics’ refers to Retallack’s major critical book of essays, The Poethical Wager (2003).
  4. This translation is based on one by Giovanni Carsaniga, an Italian language and literature scholar and an Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney.
  5. Bryan Walpert has written on Retallack in the context of the postmodern critique of science. See “AIDS and the Postmodern Subject: Joan Retallack’s “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE,” in Poetics Today, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter 2006): pp. 693-710
  6. Original quotes were left and right justified. I have kept all line breaks.
  7. Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Structural Study of Myth,’ The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 68, No. 270, Myth: A Symposium (Oct. – Dec., 1955), p. 432
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