tan lin, “seven controlled vocabularies”

Tan Lin
Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking
(Wesleyan University Press, 2010)

Like Tan Lin’s previous plagiarism/outsource, this is a book with a title in flux; I’m using the title on the spine, though the title page (appearing as a verso, not a recto) gives the title Seven Controlled Vocabularies 2004 [Airport Novel Musical Poem Painting Theory Film Photo Landscape], and the Library of Congress cataloging-in-publication data on the copyright page, recto, gives a further variation on those elements with different punctuation. (A first LoCC-I-PD appears on the front cover.) A spread after that gives the title as The Joy of Cooking; the next spread presents another variant. As far as I can tell, there are six different titles to this book. A foreword by Laura Riding Jackson appears, as the back cover promises, on page 162; this is not, of course, a foreword written for this book, but a photocopies of her foreword to her own Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words and Supplementary Essays from 1986.

This is a book built from appropriations, from pieces of other books, as the title suggests; but more to the point, this is a book straining the forms of a book. Or possibly this is a book that explodes the bounds of books: at his recent book party at Printed Matter, Lin was a huge number of ancillary volumes created through Lulu; yet more material is floating around the web in various formats. I was given copies of Blurb and Selected Essays about a Bibliography, to which I contributed content; I’ve looked through these books and a number of the related works online, some of which, like the appendix seem integral to understanding Lin’s project. I certainly won’t pretend to have read everything: it seems impossible to tell where this book ends, or if it has ended.

How can we read Seven Controlled Vocabularies? The method suggested by the form is to dive in at random and float around for a while; to read it from front to back is perhaps to read this book against its grain, which is what I did. And one notices that despite the book’s chaotic appearance, the page numbers do march from the beginning of the book to the end in an entirely linear fashion, perhaps the most constant design feature of the book. The first text inside the book that one finds reading from the Western front cover is on what would be page 1 of the book: it says “[INSIDE BACK COVER]”. A Chinese edition of the book, available on Lulu, suggests that a front cover is sometimes a back cover; and so the front cover of this book might also be its back cover, and the back cover contains much of the same information available on the front. As one pages through the book, front matter appears, not necessarily where one might expect it; unexplained numbers (“11/07 2.21”) appear on one of the title spreads.

The first page number appears on page 9, where there appear acknowledgements. These are set in the same type (Scala Sans) as the rest of the book; on first glance, this seems like it might be straightforward. Details pop out though: the last line, a paragraph by itself, says that the photo on page 182 is by the author. Flipping to page 182 reveals a small photo, which might be by the author. The paragraph above it suggests that the illustration on page 45 is Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham; turning to that page reveals what looks like a photograph that isn’t of any sort of resurrection, though it might be a detail. But the illustrations that ostensibly appear on pages 237 and 256 can’t actually be found, as the book doesn’t have that many pages. Re-reading the acknowledgements, one realizes that it’s been lifted from another book; probably the book was not written when Lin was a “Post-doctoral Research Fellow at Liverpool John Moores University between 1999 and 2002” as one might believe. Google, ever useful, suggests that these acknowledgments are from Timothy Bewes’ Reification, or the Anxiety of Late Capitalism. The following page contains an editorial note, an authorial note on methods used to produce the book; it appears to be “real” in that Lin could have conceivably written it, but the seeds of doubt have been sown. Opposite is text in Chinese; it seems to be a translation of the editorial note.

The book proceeds: there’s a blank verso, then a recto with a heading. Flipping through the book reveals seven of these, presumably the Controlled Vocabularies of the title:

  1. A Field Guide to American Painting
  2. A Field Guide to the American Landscape
  3. American Architecture Meta Data Containers
  4. 2 Identical Novels
  5. A Dictionary of Systems Theory
  6. Various Library Standards
  7. A Field Guide to American Cinema

After the last, there’s an About the Author, which seems to be accurate. But out of the apparent chaos of this book, a structure can be discerned: inside each section, there does seem to be an internal grammar. The first section, for example, pairs text on the verso pages with labels for non-existent plates on the versos; the second section pairs text with photos, though the photos seem to be out of synch (in the style of Hollis Frampton’s film (nostalgia), obliquely referenced here) with the text.

Themes emerge through the book, though they seem to disappear almost as often as they pop up: the changing form of the book, of course; the meaning of plagiarism in contemporary composition; the parallel changing world of food; metadata as it relates to reading; reality television; the obscurantism of computer jargon; and perhaps how the canon has become something personal rather than universal. The Joy of Cooking, for example, has a very personal meaning to Tan Lin (which can be understood by reading the unincluded Appendix to this book); reading this book without that leaves the reader in the dark. Parts of this book remain obscure to me: how the photos in it work, for example. Some are probably of personal significance, as seemed to be the case with the photos in Lin’s earlier books; but right now I can’t make sense of them. I suspect that there’s a definite meaning there: but it may only be as part of an ecosystem of other, related books that those meanings might emerge.

jon cotner & andy fitch, “ten walks/two talks”

Jon Cotner & Andy Fitch
Ten Walks/Two Talks
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

This is a book that I read entirely on public transportation: on the way to a party on Saturday night and making my way back home from a brunch in Brooklyn on Sunday afternoon. This feels wrong, to a certain extent: this is a book, as the title suggests, that’s about walking and talking. It’s difficult to square these pursuits with reading, which for the most part is a solitary activity and one that can’t be done while walking: to read is necessarily to abnegate the outside world. It’s not entirely impossible to combine reading and walking – I remember reading The Recognitions for the first time while on the mile-long walk between work and home one summer – but that was a walk that I’d taken many times over already, and I’m not sure how much I got out of that reading of the book. It was college: maybe it was more performative than not.

This is a small book, consisting of four sections, divided by seasons, each section introduced by a recaptioned reproduction of prints from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. The first and third contain narratives of five walks from what might be five consecutive days in New York City; told in the first person, the narrators seem to alternate. The second and fourth sections contain transcriptions of two conversations between “J” and “A”, whom we might assume to be the authors: reading these sections, the reader can work out who is responsible for which sections of the walks. Upon scrutiny, the book’s structure becomes less clear: the walks sections are headed “Early Spring” and “Late Spring,” while the talks are “Early Winter” and “Late Winter”. The second talk refers back to the first talk, but the temporal location of the walks is unclear: we might reasonably presume that winter comes before spring, and that the talks are a result of the walks, but there’s no concrete evidence for that. Internal evidence in the walks sections suggest that they happen in March and April of 2005.

It’s in the talks that the project of the book becomes clear: these sections of the book presents a transcription of two conversations, with all the strangeness that appears when oral language becomes written language (as in, for example, Ed Friedman’s The Telephone Book, transcriptions of his telephone conversations). Conversation is a very different thing from a printed interview. Here, for example, is an extract from the first walk, headed “Central Park, 9:10 p.m.”:

J: Sure I’d wanted to cross the park today, but spent hours printing a writing sample for UCSD: a total, maddening loss of time. In fact one guy caught me losing my cool. I explained only printer troubles . . .
A: Let’s move down the mic a bit.
J: make me lose my cool.
A: I got I got caught bowing to the Huddlestone Arch waterfall by this shadowy figure who . . .
J: A scary . . . (p. 23)

Here the mechanics become apparent with the reference to the microphone that’s recording this conversation. The speakers’ voices overlap; punctuation is something that exists in written language, not spoken language. It’s possible there’s a certain amount of self-consciousness that comes with speaking when one knows one is being recorded: subjects bounce back and forth very quickly. (In the second talk, the recorder is switched off at a point when the speakers become aware of those surrounding them; then it is resumed, with the explanation that they’ve moved.) The reader can make sense of most of it with some effort.

Once it becomes apparent how the talks section works, the reader immediately starts wondering about the walks. A representative paragraph, from the last walk; the speaker is near Riverside Park:

A townhouse I otherwise appreciated held patriotic ribbons wrapped around the porch. A dog crossed with its owner calling Stephen, wait! Two Scottish terriers looked less intelligent side-by-side. An old Japanese woman wore a bowler hat. The question Was she attractive? made no sense I was attractive. She needed my gaze and I delivered it. (p. 57)

The speaker here is recording everything he does on his walk; however, this is written language, something not composed in the moment. One can’t very well walk and write at the same time; it’s possible he’s scribbling notes to himself, or using a voice recorder, but his person does seem to be in the moment. One wonders, in passing, if these walks, ostensibly taken alone, were actually taken together, with one of the authors walking and one recording; but that also doesn’t seem like it would pass without notice.

A passage late in the second talk explains the concerns at stake:

A: Yeah as soon as something gets put on paper [Cough] chance I’ll retain it. Or perhaps you know: when the Laotians began to write, which happened, I believe mid-seventies (a French priest designed a print language for them), they lost half . . .
J: Socrates talks about this in the Phaedrus. He refuses to write since it would weaken his memory.
A: Hmmm I’ve heard an implicit anxiety throughout Plato’s work is that, for the first time ap appears the potential for discource to be preserved – to pick up new interpretations the author couldn’t anticipate, interpretation justified by textual proof. And this anxiety leads to conceptions, you know Platonic conceptions of forms (an idealized world; a world more permanent than the written one coming . . .
J: So you think Plato’s disdain for the empirical world derives . . .
A: His . . .
J: [Muffled] books ambiguous?
A: Ambiguous in a way things hadn’t been. A new temporality develops through them, as Plato’s thought becomes our thought. (pp. 82–83.)

The book is an attempt to get back from language what’s lost when put on paper – with the recognition that it has to be a book. What Plato says on the pages of the Phaedrus doesn’t, in the end, matter quite so much as how we internalize it. The discussion then moves to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and how we presumably lost many of the works of the pre-Socratics there; I was left wondering if the book might not be paradoxically more fragile than the remembered text, though on looking back, that’s not in this book.

In the first talk, we find the reason for the Hiroshige illustrations, in a discussion of how the light brings to mind one of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo:

. . . . As always in winter months I’ve I value Asian, specifically Japanese art, for training us to recognize the splendor of bare branches.
J: That’s why I go back to Asian poetry and painting, to to track the beauty of each season but not catch myself . . . and escape the trap of longing for summer in the heart of winter. (p. 28)

One senses that this is what this book is attempting to do.

monica youn, “ignatz”

Monica Youn
(Four Ways, 2010)

I picked up a copy of this after a performance at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop: word came from their email list that Matmos was going to be performing with Monica Youn. Matmos is one of the few electronic groups that’s reliably entertaining (see, for example, this clip on YouTube, as well as its weirdly civil comment thread), and as I’ve been going to Matmos shows on and off for the past ten years – having first run into them at the Festival Dissonanze in Rome, where they were contact-miking each other and making music out of that – I dutifully went along, knowing very little of Monica Youn, besides having seen her name about before. The company one keeps is important, of course; and I have been to enough poetry readings to know that interesting poetry readings are very much the exception rather than the rule. This was a nice one, in no small part because of how arbitrary it seemed: there’s nothing in Youn’s book that suggests that it needs to be remixed live to make sense, my problem with a lot of mixed-media poetics. (The blurbs on the back of the book – by Cal Bedient, Stephen Burt, and Matthea Harvey, all respectable enough – don’t suggest this either.) Rather the impression was that of listening to David Grubbs and Susan Howe reinterpreting her books live (the CD version of Thiefth and a live version of Souls of the Labadie Tract are now online at PennSound): it’s a different way into the words.

The performance was rather staid as Matmos performances go: a brick was hit with a rock hammer and looped to create a rhythm; drumsticks and, and one point, a rubber duck were thrown in as well. Previously sampled voices reading Youn’s poetry (probably the members of Matmos) mixed with Youn’s own voice. A synthesizer was in there somewhere as well. One had the sense of a sonic Rube Goldberg machine being constructed: the result wasn’t pop by any measure, but it had the playfulness of pop to it. Not knowing the book going into the performance, I don’t know how many poems formed part of the thirty-minute construction; one did have the sense of a character named Ignatz who recurred, and some sections did seem to be prose rather than verse. A particular standout was “Landscape with Ignatz,” a six line poem based on structured repetition, something like Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes:

The rawhide thighs of the canyon straddling the knobbled blue spine of the sky.

The bone-spurred heels of the canyon prodding the gaunt blue ribs of the sky.

The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky.

This does lend itself to an electronic rendition: taking the structure “The — — of the canyon —ing the — blue — of the sky” as a spine, different recorded voices and Youn’s live voice were substituted in for the parts. Not having the poem in front of me while listening, I don’t know how much of this was improvised or whether this was a straightforward performance of the poem.

Reading the book on the subway home, I found a similar sort of obliqueness: as most readers probably will, I started by reading the back cover’s paragraph-long blurbs, then made my way through the poems from the first page to the last. The blurbs inform you of the meaning of the title: Ignatz is a character in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. I don’t know Krazy Kat, save from references: Wikipedia is helpful, but Wikipedia doesn’t exist on the subway. At the end of the book, we find an appendix with an explanation:

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip was published in U.S. newspapers from 1913 to 1944. The strip is set in Coconino County, Arizona, and stars Krazy Kat, a feline of indeterminate gender and mutable patois. Krazy is hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse, a rodent of criminal tendencies, who, in turn, despises Krazy and whose greatest pleasure is to bean the lovelorn cat in the head with a brick. Krazy interprets these missiles as tokens of reciprocated affection, and the cat-mouse-brick-love cycle recurs in almost every strip. Ignatz’s repeated assaults upon Krazy incur the righteous wrath of Officer Bull Pupp, the canine sheriff of Coconino County, who is sweet on Krazy and who takes every opportunity to spy out Ignatz’s crimes and to drag the recidivist mouse to jail.

Hence, of course, Matmos’s bricks (and perhaps an antecedent to their involvement can be found in their Rat Relocation Project); from this we can start to make sense of Youn’s poetry. From Youn’s description, one might think of Wile E. Coyote’s unfulfilled desire to catch the Road Runner; but that isn’t actually what the relationship between Krazy Kat and Ignatz is. Krazy wants Ignatz; Ignatz wants to throw bricks at Krazy; but a third member of the triad, Officer Pupp, keeps the law. One realizes that things aren’t quite as they seem from Youn’s notes, which point out what she’s borrowed from Herriman’s work: the epigraph from “The Subject Ignatz,” for example, is from Officer Pupp: “Once more an urge; once more a succumb.” This is the language of desire, but played out in the world: Pupp is describing what he sees, not what Krazy (whose position the speaker in most of these poem appears to take) feels. A handful of poems here (“Ignatz Incarcerated”) lay out words in rectangular matrices, looking at how structures can be used to relate them. In “X as a Function of Distance from Ignatz,” parenthetical phrases constantly intrude in the poem to relate the position of male and female figures.

And I like the language here: sources aside, this is a satisfying book. Later in “The Subject Ignatz,” we find “Asbestos / interlude: // the rubber / button // replumps itself,” cartoonish, but beautiful in the way the “u” sounds cascade through the stanza. Or “I-40 Ignatz”: “A cop car drowses / in the scrub // cottonwoods. Utmost. // Utmosted. There is / a happy land.” A note suggests that this poem “quotes Krazy”: these might be Herriman’s words rather than Youn’s, but they’re still worth noticing.

gérard de nerval, “aurélia & other writings”

Gérard de Nerval
Aurélia & Other Writings
(trans. Geoffrey Wagner, Marc Lowenthal & Robert Duncan)
(Exact Change, 2004)

I first read Nerval about ten years ago in the Richard Sieburth edition from Penguin; I was on my way to reading Proust, and “Sylvie” is a natural stop along that way. I like the Sieburth Nerval; but one wonders what other Nervals might sound like. The Exact Change book is one that I’m constantly picking up in bookstores – one always hopes that by mistake one might discover something new in the Nerval section – but despite its splendid cover and my general love of Exact Change, I’ve always put it back in favor of something else: too many books to read. A few years ago I did find the Kendall Lapin translation of “Aurélia” and “Sylvie”; I didn’t like Lapin’s versions of these as much as I remembered liking Sieburth’s. But finally I actually bought the Exact Change edition.

The Nerval that emerges here isn’t quite the same as Sieburth’s Nerval, even though there’s a fair amount of overlap in what the two books include. Both include “Aurélia,” “Sylvie,” “Octavie,” “Pandora,” and versions of “The Chimeras”. The Exact Change edition adds “Isis” and “Walks & Memories”. Eight pieces in the Sieburth edition aren’t in the Exact Change. There’s a fair amount of Nerval that doesn’t exist in English: a Selected Writings translated by Wagner adds “Emilie” to “Aueélia” and “Sylvia,” and a couple of smaller books have appeared over the years, but the Penguin edition remains the most comprehensive collection of his work in English. That book roughly follows the course of his life, with a little of everything – making me wish for something more comprehensive – concluding with “Aurélia” and a coda of the poetry, presented in French with an English crib. The Exact Change edition starts with “Aurélia” – Nerval’s memoir of his madness, ostensibly his last piece of writing – and then proceeds through the stories and “The Chimeras” (here in facing-page unrhymed translation by Robert Duncan) before finishing with another autobiographical piece from near the end of his life, “Walks & Memories”. The narrative that emerges is an autobiographical one: the names that Nerval uses for the overlapping loves in his life – Aurélia, Sylvie, Adrienne – bounce across pieces that are explicitly fictional and those that are not. Notes suggest how the fictional pieces were based on his life and how the non-fictional play with the verifiable truth.

This Nerval is the Nerval loved by the Surrealists – it feels particularly like a precursor of Michel Leiris’s Aurora. There’s an obvious power in narratives of madness; but somehow I don’t like this Nerval as much as I remember liking the Sieburth Nerval. Maybe it’s that madness no longer seems as romantic as it once did: Aurélia no longer speaks to me as much as it once did. It’s as much, though, that this feels like a conflation of the authorial persona with the person of the author: too much a history of the different facets of one man’s work, unified by madness. It’s useful, perhaps, to know that Aurélia was Jenny Colon, minor star of the stage, but I don’t know what this really tells us about Nerval’s work, save that he was obsessed. From Sieburth’s introduction to his collection:

Catering to a readership increasingly eager to enter into the intimacy of its favorite writers – as Coleridge grumbled, literature had now entered into ‘the age of personality’ – Nerval discovered there was no deeper resource of fiction, no more powerful strategy of illusion than the autobiographical ‘I’. If he therefore adopted the first person in virtually all of his texts, it was paradoxically the better to guarantee his invisibility. Late in life, having come across a lithograph portrait of himself in a recently published biography, he inscribed the frontispiece with the enigmatic phrase ‘Je suis l’autre’ (‘I am the other’). It is perhaps a caveat addressed to any potential reader of his work: beware of mistaking me for myself. (p. ix)

To make Nerval autobiographical seems a misstep: especially as these pieces seem to be profoundly self-contained. When not presented as one stop on a man’s trip to the grave, “Sylvie” still seems perfect to me, prefiguring the wistful pastoral of Le Grand Meaulnes. Proust was glad that Sainte-Beuve hated it, and wished that the dream-logic of the story could remain his own private secret. Proust recognizes himself in the story:

. . . what we have here is one of those rainbow-painted pictures, never to be seen in real life, or even called up by words, but sometimes brought before us in a dream or called up by music. Sometimes in the moment of falling asleep we see them, and try to seize and define them. Then we wake up and they are gone, we give up the pursuit, and before we can be sure of their nature we are asleep again as though the sight of them were forbidden to the waking mind. (pp. 110–111 in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s translation)

There’s a universalism here that still works, but it’s harder to get at this when it immediately follows “Aurélia”; the reader can’t help but notice that Nerval is still talking about Jenny Colon in the first section of “Sylvie,” and the temptation is to continue reading the story in this fashion. We read “Sylvie,” of course, knowing that the one who wrote this would write “Aurélia” and kill himself; but in “Sylvie” this is held at bay, something the reader knows but doesn’t want to apply to the text. We know that the pastoral must end, as does the narrator of the piece; but we want to believe that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Any Nerval is welcome, of course, and I feel like I shouldn’t be so hard on the presentation of this book. Wagner’s translations of “Sylvie” and “Aurélia” don’t seem quite as fluid as Sieburth’s; it’s those that I’ll return to, I suspect. But it’s fitting, perhaps, that one should seek to return to one’s first Nerval.

lucy ives, “anamnesis”

Lucy Ives
(Slope Editions, 2009)

The premise of this book is laid out in its epigraph, by Vito Acconci: “Sometimes I draw the line on what I have dun.” Deleting the struck-through text, one is left with “o.”: a reminder that the poet can call forth through absence as well as through presence. Anamnesis is a book-length poem about not only writing by also unwriting: not erasure, but crossing out, leaving a record of thought. The book is divided into nine sections by pages that feature only a centered “+”, an interesting device: “+” can be the addition sign, but it might also be a crossed-out vertical line: a negated “I” as appears in the quoted Acconci?

Despite the promise of the epigraph, this is not a book that relies overtly on typographic trickery, though it is deeply engaged in the process of writing, a process that is reenacted in the text. This sounds like the overt premise for a fair amount of electronic writing: from William Gibson’s Agrippa on, it’s been a field fixated on the idea of the ephemerality of digital text. But the premise of good conceptual art is good ideas, not necessarily formal trickery, and it’s the ideas that Ives is interested in. (At the end of the day, “Agrippa” remains a rather bad poem written by William Gibson; while the concept is fine, the text seems incidental.) The way Anamnesis works is evident from its first stanza:

Suppose we write the sentence, “Paul had a very great mind”
Later we can return, strike through the word “mind” and write “brain”
Later we might add, before the word “had,” the words, “the owner of the restaurant”
We might add, “whose sign is the shape of a sleeping deer”
We could strike this sentence out entire
We could write, “Debt has become the watch word”
We’ll write, “Recommended for you”
But we can cross this out
Write, “My family has three members”
Strike through “has,” write “is”
Strike through “members,” write, “both my mother and father, in the apartment right now”
Strike through “right now,” write, ” in the mornings, noon, and in the evenings”
Strike “both” through
Write, “Lucy was saying that”
Strike the whole sentence

Taking the “we” at face value, we could attempt to follow these instructions, to create a sequence that starts like this:

Paul had a very great mind
Paul had a very great mindbrain
Paul the owner of the restaurant had a very great mindbrain
Paul the owner of the restaurant had a very great mindbrain whose sign is the shape of a sleeping deer

but already we have problems: which word does whose modify? The restaurant could have a sign in the shape of a sleeping deer; but it’s the personal noun Paul, rather than the restaurant that can be modified by whose. The whose clause can’t be inserted after Paul because the owner of the restaurant gets lost; it can’t be inserted after restaurant or brain because it would appear to modify those words, which would be ungrammatical. A solution would have to go beyond words themselves: but one notes that this is a book that purposefully doesn’t including periods, in an attempt to construct meanings out of words as words, unaided by that particular form of punctuation.

The commands to write and cross out are repeated through the book. The voice in this stanza is interesting: as something of an introduction, this stanza uses “we” in different tenses: “We write”; “We could write”; “We’ll write”. We seems to include both the speaker and the reader, inviting the reader into the text; but the shifting tenses make the relation of the reader to the speaker unclear. These might be mental exercises, à la Wittgenstein (“Suppose we write”); or they might be future plans (“We’ll write”). By the next stanza, “we” has turned to “you”: “You can write”. Unadorned imperative forms with an implied you become the rule: “Write”; “Cross out”. The reader must make his own space in the text, deciding whether these commands apply to him. There are limits to the reader’s power: following the instructions will only go so far. This is a “writerly text,” as Roland Barthes would have said.

I’m not trying to suggest that the reader is excluded from the book: I don’t think that’s the case at all. Rather, the reader is invited to be a part of the process as something is created by writing and effacing. Another electronic project comes to mind: Brad Paley’s CODeDOC, a program which reflexively visualizes itself while being run. The difference between this and Agrippa might be instructive: there’s an economy of means in CODeDOC, in that the code is the poem, rather than being something separate from (and more interesting than) the poem. Ives’s book contains its own mechanism: everything is done with words.

I feel like I might be unjust to the book by drawing these comparisons to electronic writing; other comparisons could as easily, and perhaps more fruitfully, be drawn. To J. L. Austin, of course, to Barthes and Blanchot, through both of them back to Mallarmé. Marjorie Welish’s recent work – I’m thinking of Word Group and Isle of the Signatories  might be another useful point of reference: Welish, with her strong visual sense, is similarly interested in the word on the page and how meanings change without being a concrete poet. And beyond the focus on the process of writing and re-writing, there’s also the problem of how we use writing: as this book moves on, it becomes slowly less imperative and more a consideration of life: of how one does things, thinks about them, records them. This is an important book: I’ll come back to it.

chris diken, “some people” / stan mir, “flight patterns”

Chris Diken, Some People
Stan Mir, Flight Patterns
(JR Vansant, 2009)

The number of people, I assume, who would buy books sight unseen from a press calling itself “JR Vansant” simply because it’s called that must be rather small; but I am in that number. Scott Bryan Wilson started publishing chapbooks under that name at the end of last year; my copies arrived last month. Production is straight-forward: silver type on heavy paper covers stapled around laser-printed interiors. The interior printing isn’t quite as nice as one might hope, and because of the long measure in Flight Patterns, the type is a bit small, but these are minor quibbles: this are very nice little books, better than I’d hoped for.

*     *     *     *     *

Chris Diken’s Some People is a short story, 18 pages long, and its plot is quickly related: a young man and woman visits an art museum, and the man uses the restroom. One is immediately caught by the style: the Gertrude Stein rhythm in the repetition of the fourth sentence:

They had hit a stride and each room in the museum seemed to reflect this overall greatening, each led them into a new age of new orientation of new medium of new dimension of new lender of new time of new overwhelming sense of standing before something ununderstandable yet still personally affecting.

Calling out Stein is something of a red herring. The dialogue in the story uses the Joycean dash; the voice is that of Gaddis, but more the Gaddis of The Recognitions than J R. There’s a little intrusion of Thomas Bernhard’s style if not his attitude: the long paragraphs, explanation piled on explanation; and maybe some David Foster Wallace. Another sentence, when the protagonist has found his way into the restroom, which he first wonders might be another exhibit:

As he went he though that while one arm had worked the flusher he’d used the other to undo himself with his free hand, thinking of himself in this situation as explicitly not free, that no one was free, that everyone was enchained by their urges, thinking of his free hand unjiggering his bebuttoned arrangement and of a three-dimensional model of the phrase free hand rotating like the precursor to human utterance in his mind, thinking how he used to be a mildly accomplished freehand sketcher before he gave it up for another pastime that too had passed, thinking that if only he didn’t find self-voiding the most horrendously outrageously horrible most distasteful and disgusting enterprise in the gamut of human activities that he could possibly take this opportunity to revisit his talent and how if he wasn’t in such a hurry to get it out and over with he could in a sense draw with his own acridity, employ self in lieu of stylus, practice here and then taken the honed skill to some more prominent canvas.

I like this sentence. It’s the italics that make me think of Wallace, but maybe the twisting baroque sentences of William Gass would be the best comparison. So much current fiction, especially fiction by young writers, tends to fall back on short, overly dramatic sentences: I feel like I don’t see long, wandering sentences like this enough: this is a sentence that’s trying to do something, and succeeding.

The protagonist of this story wanders into the bathroom wondering whether he’s left the art or whether he’s entering another exhibit; while at the urinal, a voice starts talking to him, engaging him in a conversation more philosophical than that of the typical bathroom voyeur. The possessor of the voice isn’t seen (and it’s unclear in the end whether he exists or not); the protagonist remains unsure whether he’s in the midst of some kind of performance. There’s an American suspicion of the visual arts: the fear that the crafty artist, probably European, might just be trying to trick us: it’s certainly at play in most of the descriptions of modern art in The Recognitions, for example. That’s certainly at play here. But there’s also a willingness to play along, to enter into a shared illusion, and I think that works here. It’s a good story: I’d like to see more from Chris Diken.

*     *     *     *     *

Stan Mir’s Flight Patterns couldn’t be more different: a long poem (32 pages of small type) identified on the website as the first part of an even longer poem, another section of which is scheduled to be printed in the future by JR Vansant. The subtitle identifies it as a “Poem Beginning with a Line from Lax,” the line (“Birds dart over us, pulling shadows through us“) presumably from Robert Lax, though I have to admit not knowing his work and I’m not sure about the attribution. This is a meandering, meditative piece: carried out to full length, it feels very much like it could have been a Jargon Society book. An excerpt of an earlier version appeared online in the oddly presented GutCult: this is approximately the first sixth of what’s in the book, with some differences: italics have been added, and a phrase deleted (“a bird ripped apart” in the third line of the first stanza of the second section).

The first section of this begins with a succession of thoughts, separated by colons, starting with birds and necessarily spreading onwards: the bird is a tremendously rich image, signifying an infinite number of different things. In the second section, the speaker’s voice appears: “I don’t / know where I belong nor where the pattern is”. From flocks of birds in the sky, the speaker takes his subject apart: “if change did occur // it did so long ago from the 3-fingered avian hand / flight’s feathers met modern birds’ basic form”. And then back to specifics: a warbler calling. Finally, a statement of purpose: “More things take flight / than we can count. I began with birds / to realize it’s more than birds.”

The style loosens up after this introduction and becomes more conversational. Sections of prose and quotations are placed in the text; there’s a loose narrative, a trip to a farm in Vermont. The speaker is writing Flight Patterns (perhaps in this metafictional nod, we see what unifies JR Vansant); his companion plays Chopin and he reads Robert Duncan. A stanza lists the proper names of birds, all evocative. The speaker’s mother and father are introduced; the history of the land comes in, an enduring concern of the poem. In an extended prose section, the scene changes to Arizona: and there’s more digging into the familial past. Current events intrude: the death of Saddam Hussein, when “an Airbus’ engines / ingested Geese over the Hudson.” We move back and forth: to Philadelphia, back to Vermont, into the recounted past, to Arizona. A bit of what seems to be Mormon history intrudes, as does the mystic Johannes Kelpius who settled in Germantown, Philadelphia. Birds glue everything together:

When my father handed me many things he handed me
my mother. At various times she has been a Mimic
Thrush or a Thrasher. Hardly ever has she been
a Laughing Thrush or a Babbler.

Since 1960 my father has hung like late autumn
Starlings in Rome, omnipresent & not quite
despised. Each November the Starlings come
in from the countryside & fly about
sometimes in the shape of lungs
sometimes in the shape of a fist.

It is impossible to get them to do
otherwise – this is their pattern.

The image of starlings in Rome strikes me as exactly perfect: that’s how I remember them there. This is a rambling work, and it’s hard to come to a judgment of it knowing that there’s more to come; but this section is self-contained, coming, finally, to a conclusion:

Poetry is not
the third eye
It is an eye

Word & voice
Voice may
not remain

The word a
recast image
in ruin

The bird’s
image darts
through us

The cicada
a shadow
pulling through

I like this; I suspect I’ll be coming back to this, and I’m interested in Mir’s other forthcoming books.

probable systems 24: physical contexts of human words

“In a number of the preceding PROBABLE SYSTEMS, we have been examining concepts like ‘the weight of speech,’ ‘the speed of thot,’ etc. What becomes increasingly apparent is the need for certain world standards when it comes to print. Something as simple as measuring the circumference of words is made meaningless by the virtual babel of type-faces and type-sizes.

If a world standard were adopted – something like, say, 10 pt, or 12 pt, Helvetica, Garamond or Futura – then numerous variables could be taken into account & meaningful discussions & research could begin to take place. For instance, a more accurate notation of pitch and volume variables would become possible.* It could also illuminate discussion of the justified paragraph versus the preferred typographic mode of ragged right. And, of course, that old question of the time it takes for the mind to get around certain old thinking would finally be answerable.

This is merely to point to the advantages of setting up such a standard. Those interested could begin by forming local study groups to discuss the problem and approaches to be taken in order to get their government to adopt the notion of a World Standard for Print Size & Style. We can only hope that this initiative does not go the way of Esperanto.

written: Spring 1978
additional research & final draft: Summer 1988

* As an instance of what i’m saying here: pitch could be tracked through gradated use of type-faces; similarly, volume could be indicated by gradated use of type-sizes.”

(bpNichol, from Art Facts, p. 312 in The Alphabet Game: a bpNichol reader.)