Gary Barwin

Wise Ys: Stephen Nelson's "Dance of Past Lives"

Metaphors, metaphorms, metavores, letters which reach

Stephen Nelson's Dance of Past Lives
Dance of Past Lives

Y.

Stephen Nelson’s Dance of Past Lives is an array of alphabetic pas de deux. Duets de Y. The letter as body. As body text. An abstract dance, wise metaphorms meta(phor)morpho-singing into stars, trees, other symbols. Y is another. An A. A tittle or jot as ball, sun, rayless star. I-less is another.

Antibodies are y-shaped. Texts are (wh)y-shaped. Y? Not because (Y)YOLO.

An array of past whys. Whysdom. What were our letters in a past life? How did we read?

“How much can you tweak English before it malfunctions?”

QAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: The visual poetry of Mike Cannell

Word Malfunction by Mike Cannell
Word Malfunction

What does it mean for a language to malfunction?

What funds its means? What makes it done for?

First we have to ask: What is the function of language? What is it is supposed to do? And who decides—who assesses its function?

Is language a Paul Klee twittering machine? A W. Heath Robinson fantasmallegorical don’t-shut-your-contraption? A speech balloon animal? Does one’s signs fit all?

Not Sultans of Poetry but Thralls to its Charms: Christian Bök’s Odalisques

from Christian Bök’s Odalisques
from Odalisques by Christian Bök

The visual poems in Christian Bök’s series, Odalisques, fascinate me, both as texts in themselves and because these resting female bodies appear so different from the rest of his body of work.

These pieces, as representations of female nudes, are mimetic and seem to engage with notions of representation of gender (the female body and more specifically, the ‘male gaze’), both in visual art and in language. Is the body — specifically here, a woman’s body — concubined by language? Are women trapped in its semantic (sementic) harem (-scarum)? Trapped by a kind of economy, a commodifying calligraphy?

Or is it the other way around: language itself is the concubine that must give pleasure to its master, that must live in the seraglio of its grammatical sultan?

Cover versions: Reading outside-in in Erica Baum's Study

from Erica Baum's "Study"
from Erica Baum's "Study"

Erica Baum’s Study is a text rich with texture. With contexture. We read the tactility of the woven page, the richness of the colors and the striking design of the background. Its allusiveness: the allusion to a source text. Its elusiveness: the oblique referentiality and poetry of the words.

Coming to the work without any paratextual context or explanation, a reader might first be aware of the ‘bookishness’ of the piece. To the conventions alluded to. These are ‘pages’ or, at least, parts of a book. Time for your close-up, book. There seem to be source texts that inform the work, even if it isn’t clear what the sources are. And these sources may be real or imaginary texts or contexts. 

A gumbo of mumbo jumbo or a sub-rumba via Christopher Columbo

The visual creole of John M. Bennett

"Discipline" by John M. Bennett
"Discipline" by John M. Bennett

1.  "All human cultures are creole," John M. Bennett writes. Our language and our world view are hybrid, influenced by and adapting influences from the global village and our post-global home. They are inevitably syncretic and creole.

Absolutely. But Bennett’s use of the term ‘creole’ brings to mind the other meaning of creole. Creole as in the ‘creolisation’ of languages. How the language of a colonizing or dominant culture devolves into a pidgin and then develops into a creole, a rich communication tool with its own grammar, form and traditions, though often with a vocabulary based on the dominant language. So: Haitian Creole and its relationship to French.