Alix Anne Shaw translating Ludwig Wittgenstein

Rough Ground
An Argument

Given the if, the open palm, a question interposing in the air. Given a voice

that answers from the corner of the room, a kitchen table

where they sit and speak. A hole gapes in the interstice (blue

air through the curtain, slab of sunlight sliding

along the windowsill) between what they have said

and what they mean. Call this an argument. As one might say, negotiate

and the other might hear choose. She might place a cup on the table

or take it from the table to the sink. She thinks it is a cup, but one might call it teacup,

coffee cup, or mug. As the rustling outside might be the willow's branches

or the passage of a person through the street. She thinks when she says sky,

the idea of a sky is evident. Like the theory of a roof that says,

Beneath a given roof there is a room, a kitchen with a table,

two people with their separate names, their breakfast dishes waiting in the sink.

Rain, Rain, Rain, Rain.

She thinks, if there is rain, its falling must denote

the seconds as they pass, that the ticking of the rain

is equal to the moments that accrue. If the gutter fills with water

it is a sign that hours have gone by. So time emits. As the statement rain is wet 

turns in on itself. But perhaps no time has passed and there is simply this:

a blotter and a desk, her window open to the sound of rain.

She thinks, When there was rain, that day was somehow green. She thinks,

When the forest was green, we knew it had been damp. (Either she must fill the time or memory emits

the way that memories emit.) She thinks, There must have been some days both green

and grey: days of standing water and days the rain streamed down along the eave. She thinks

that there cannot have been a night of bodies, void white light.

(How can one bear a scene but not its recollection?) No. Say there is neither time

nor the fact of memory. Or time but not its slippage

through the scene. Or say, all times are present

here and now, at once. Or say the rain is dry

and therefore time cannot emit. Or say, The falling rain

emits a timeless time. She says I am awake to mean this wilderness

of thought, to name the voice that tells her, That argument was true. 

An Empty Superstition

Either she wakes to rain as it falls outside the window, or else she hears the traffic

and thinks, Today is clear. Today there will be no memory and time

will not emit. But perhaps there is neither the sound of rain nor rain

nor the absence of it. Perhaps the day is neither green

nor grey. As, for instance, one might say: Fire. Burned by fire

when one attempts to say, His body burned. As if the rain were requisite

to emit a time of rain, as if a time of fire

were requisite to burn. In the night she sees the image of a small green house

that burns and burns inside a driving rain. In the dream, the roof

caves in. In the dream, the roof caves in. In the dream, the fire and the rain

are white. She thinks, to burn in a wild light

must have some—procedure. That one might plan for it

if one could read the gestures of the body as it burns, if one could know beforehand

what each burning gesture means. But perhaps each body burns

according to itself: its narrow face, its skin, its glossy hair. How could a mouth on fire

ever speak itself? The mouth and the burning lip and the fire

are not the same. Perhaps one thinks I am awake

to mean, I am on fire. To mean, My skin, on fire. My shirt and hair on fire

and I cannot escape. (But one cannot infer, from the nightmare of a body

the dreams of the separate body it slept beside.) As if one could be safe from flame

by saying, In this kitchen drawer we will admit no match. Or, Here we only speak

of what is damp. Or rap three times on the kitchen sink

because one's knuckles make the sound of rain. One thinks, It is the sound of rain,

and therefore what my knuckles mean will be self-evident. Therefore, it will be evident to fire. Therefore fire

will not come

to live inside the house. The way one says, the rain is dry to make the day

go clear. The way one says the rain is wet, the rain is wet

with rain: to mean the fire

must go out. To make the fire vanish from within. 

Insomnia / New Logic

The general shape of dream is this: a thought emits in sleep.
The shape of a given house results from each successive night 
wherein the images irradiate. Given the boards of one house (the attic
or the walls) one might construct another, different house. Inside the wooden shell

these moving images would still reside. Call this an architecture. As one might call the interstice
of dream. So. A city has an archway before which you might stand
watching snow that falls in a public lake, feeling the wind as it drags
over and against the bulky earth. You inspect a constellation, choosing as your own,
(it will be no more than this) by careful estimation, the seventh-brightest star.
Inside the space of dream, you might attempt to count:

            You stand before an archway, saying nothing. This defines an absence,
                        concave, pressed from dark.
            You stand before two archways, uttering a single word: Hello
                        as a woman in dark clothing passes on the street.

            You stand near a series of archways, saying a series of words. Hello.
                        Hello. Hello. Hello,
though there is no one passing on the street.

                                                                                    And so on.


            You stand before an archway, shaping in your mouth
                                    a voiceless fricative. It is a form of prayer.

            You stand before an archway and utter a single word
                                    you heard but do not know the meaning of.

            You stand before an archway and say a series of words.
                                    The stranger nods. The stranger nods and speaks.

            Is this a conversation? Because you have put forth words, like particles of dust
            or bodies that comprise a constellation. Perhaps a series of white specks emits.

Belief the other understands the words as they are put. This larger supplication
            flickers near the arch, in the buffets of the wind
            as you feel on the frame of your limbs
            the weight but not the warmth of a heavy winter coat, 
            and the rough scrape of the wind as it drags across the park
            and at your throat the scratch: a hard wool scarf. 

To See What Is Pressed From Darkness. In Case Of No Expanse.

Instead of ‘time’

‘emit’ and ‘thought’ you write

BLUE thought WHITE. 

As handfuls of the flux
chirp from the brackets, e.g.:

and so the correlation pressed by blue or salt
(or not-blue of the body and its if)
from fistfuls of the snow
or the argument of snow
with lines in the following way:

Thus if phase, then shape. Reknit, therefore tinker.
If edit, tide. So you ask of the arch
and the not-arch (the law of contradiction)
whether blue is blue resides therein.

(In this notation particles falling through the night
is written as the following transmission:)

And the form, ‘both falling-from and a voiceless fricative’ 

Hence, the proposition no arch
and no not-arch:

(Her body correlated with fistfuls of the snow,
the open hand in argument; the blur,
the flux, the blue / with none of these.)

Translator's Note

Rough Ground is a translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from philosophical treatise to poetic text. In this work, Wittgenstein argues that language sets the limits of what can be said and thought meaningfully. He famously concludes that “that which we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Such topics (as Wittgenstein himself noted) include much of human activity that does not have a basis in objects, including philosophy and poetry. Clearly, as a poet, I do not share his view.

The work incorporates many different methods of literal and semantic translation. Although the format of the Tractatus—long lines in short sections—lends itself well to poetic form, the language and syntax do not. Wittgenstein’s text is notoriously abstract and austere. In writing my own text, I began by using simple substitutions of a concrete noun for an abstract one; as the work progressed, I was forced to reinvent my method in each section. The result of these manipulations is a text in which Wittgenstein’s concepts are discernible, but in which there is more and more slippage between his language and my own. This slippage, of course, underscores the weaknesses in Wittgenstein’s own analysis of language, highlighting the ways that poetry creates its own reality—literally makes its own sense. As I worked, the text took on a loose narrative, involving a main character who experiences the trauma of atomic warfare. The result is the loss of language through which her experience can be understood and expressed.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Wittgenstein’s work, a phenomenon I connect to the linguistic challenges we face in our present historical moment. Arguably, the very nature of language has changed, and continues to change, in the wake of terrorism and the simultaneous reduction of reflected human experience to sound bytes. How can language continue to function in the wake of actions such as beheadings broadcast on the Internet? We must all ask how we can speak about such events. We must also learn to communicate complexly in their aftermath. Rough Ground explores these questions and dilemmas through the dual modes of philosophical thought and poetic logic, as well as through the gaps between the two. In doing so, it not only deals with the inevitable falling-short of language, but also suggests we can invent forms of linguistic signification that accommodate our present need. For me, poetry is one space in which such invention—a wild proliferation of meaning—can take place.

Alix Anne Shaw

Alix Anne Shaw is the author of two poetry collections: Dido in Winter (Persea 2014) and Undertow, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize (Persea 2007). Her poems and reviews have appeared in journals including Harvard Review, Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and New American Writing. Her most recent project is Rough Ground: A Translation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from Philosophy into Poetry. Part of this work recently appeared as Contingent, a chapbook from Damask Press. Shaw is also a Chicago-based visual artist. Her work can be viewed online at