Fabulas Feminae. Susan Bee and Johanna Drucker. (Litmus Press, 2015)

          In their new collaboration, Johanna Drucker and Susan Bee pay homage to a range of historically celebrated women—“feminae” as diverse as Sojourner Truth, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, and Lucille Ball. Each fabulous fabula’s fabled life has had a mythical impact on our culture, particularly on the generations of women artists they inspired. In 25 collages and accompanying prose poems, Fabulas Feminae probes the nature of biography and the ways any representation, whether image or text, holds up a distorted mirror to the life it reflects. Bee’s lively collages combine historic photographs and paintings of their heroines with imagery from pulp novels, mass-produced stickers, and an iconography of flowers, arrows, polka dots, and swirls. Many figures seem to radiate a nimbus of energy, creativity, and wisdom. For instance, a red aureole encircles Rosa Parks, “Mother of the modern day that we waited so long,” as she gazes down at her fingerprinted hand. Though her bodny appears restrained, from her head sprout a sunflower and pansy, a bee (the artist’s surrogate?) hovering near the uppermost petals. A large green and purple bow at her back evokes a butterfly’s wings, making Parks herself a nymphalid ready to take flight. While a struck-through bell rains multi-colored tears, Bee undercuts this grief with sparkly high-five stickers and children in karate uniforms:

Susan Bee and Johanna Drucker, from “Rosa Parks,” Fabulas Feminae, n.p.

 

 

         Each brightly-colored collage faces a text by Drucker that responds to Bee’s imagery in its expressive design (an x of negative space within Joan of Arc’s entry echoes the ropes that bind her, Hannah Hoch’s text mimics a gridded collage). 

 

 

Susan Bee and Johanna Drucker, from “Emily Brontë,” Fabulas Feminae, n.p. 

 

These poems are constructed, a note tells us, “(sort of) by the Hapax Legomenon, a natural language processing program that automatically condenses large quantities of text into an abstract.” Because of this contraction, each past-tense entry applies a matter-of-fact tone to utterly jumbled language—enacting the highly partial way we remember admired figures. Fragmented and campy, they also include deeply resonant moments, as in the Emily Brontë entry, which begins:
 

Remembered for her only now 

a classic. Pseudonym mythologized 

as one of enduring combination elements of 

passion human psyche Haunt me then, haunt me.

 

Shaped into a silhouette that echoes Brontë’s portrait, the poem’s purple-hued type seems “haunt[ed]” by her passionate intensity. Rather than pinning these heroines like exotic butterflies (as the Latinate title implies), Drucker’s lovely computer-assisted poems acknowledge our inability to capture these wild things, embracing the hilarity of our attempts to render an artist’s life in a single page. The choice to condense their biographies this way brilliantly matches the feminist ethos of the project. “Hapax legomenon” refers to a word that appears only once in a given corpus; thus the software named for this linguistic feature removes a text’s recurrent words (Drucker’s “sort of” in the note suggests she has tinkered with the results, a clinamen that doubtless improved them). Because it forbids repetition (a constraint Doug Nufer obeyed to compose his Never Again), the Hapax Legomenon suggests that, though we emulate these women, they are in fact one of a kind. Drucker and Bee’s tributes highlight the ways they, like artist Sonia Delaunay, “transfor[m] the world brighter and more exciting,” throwing caution to the wind much as the Hapax throws grammatical constraint out the window.

 

             —Amaranth Borsuk

V

 

Alphabet  Noir. By Nico Vassilakis. (c_L Books, 2016)

 

          “Spell a word and everything starts to slow down,” writes Nico Vassilakis in this extended meditation on visual poetics. As a long-time practitioner of poems to be seen, rather than read, Vassilakis has edited anthologies, instigated performances, and served as an ambassador for the Vispo community. This collection of short essays unpacks his debt to a range of writers, from the Franco-Romanian artist Isadore Isou to Vassilakis’s own long-time collaborator Crag Hill (who provides the book’s introduction). The author’s own visual poems, which can be found in numerous anthologies in print and online, are spatio-temporal experiences. Densely layered with letters and letter fragments, they invite and resist reading, in many cases offering landscapes of language for the eye to roam. It’s worth consulting the author’s website (staringpoetics.weebly.com) alongside the text, since a number of these essays take shape there in visual renditions that blur poetry and poetics, reading and looking. An early essay in this collection compares the way the eye takes in both kinds of poems:

 

So, if the eye were tracked while reading a textual

poem it might look like endless tide coming onto

shore. What happens to the eye when it reads

visual poems? It gets lost.

 

That “gets lost” gets at the two widely divergent responses visual poetry engenders. While for some viewers visual poems are an invitation to enter into a strange and diverting landscape, losing themselves there, for others visual poems are barred doors emblazoned “keep out,” an injunction they gladly heed by getting lost. Vassilakis’s goal, it seems, is to slow things down enough to allow reader/viewers to encounter the former, rather than the latter. Part commonplace, part notebook, Alphabet Noir places Vassilakis in dialogue with a history of visual poets from Mallarmé on through Dada, Lettrism, and Concrete poetry. 

          Among the most pleasurable pieces in the collection are his “Notes,” which include a series of collages from Jack Spicer’s work, “Spicer’s LANGUAGE (foreshortened),” which writes its way through the author’s poems selectively, yielding lovely juxtapositions, like this one from “Phonemics”:

 

Over that land

There

Is more of it.

Empty fragments.

Found but not put together.

The/unstable/Universe

 

Vassilakis trains his gaze on “unstable” letterforms, impeding reading in order, as he puts it, to liberate letters from their words: “My interest is in watching Letters discorporate from the words that contain or confine them.” His liberatory intentions, much like those of Isou, suggest a poetics dissatisfied with the systems of oppression in which language is bound and a desire to “abandon your terminology” and let letters take on decorative, dialogic, and other roles. Can the individual letter or, as Vassilakis suggests, partial letter,  bear such weight? Vassilakis thinks so, imagining at one point a scene in which “[a]t night, the lower angled support scaffold of / the letter K would vibrate.” Whether such vibration channels movements within the earth below or reflects the effort required to buttress K’s extended armature we don’t know, but this poem and others interspersed throughout play with the potential in unmooring letters from words. Rather than bemoaning our inability to escape the way language structures our world, Vassilakis celebrates the potential for any visual material to transform into sound, from isolated letters to the length of the cords in a shag rug: “You can read anything as language is everything.” 

 

—Amaranth Borsuk 

 

V

Thief in the Interior. By Phillip B. Williams. (Alice James, 2016)

 

          A boy born without pain receptors collects broken glass and seeks out lightning with an aluminum baseball bat. This figure in Phillip B. Williams’ “First Words” runs directly into the storm to court the “electric tongue” that will teach him “what his friends have felt” and give him a language for pain. Positioning himself as a lightning rod to channel “thunder’s umbrage,” he might be  a conduit Williams’ double. Like the boy, in poem after poem Williams offers himself as a conduit for shocks in order to understand suffering more intimately, making “First Words” an ars poetica. A poet and dancer, Williams worked for several years as an HIV tester and counselor in his native Chicago before moving to Atlanta, where he is currently a Poetry Fellow at Emory. Much as this boy takes pain into his own body, Williams’ Thief in the Interior seeks to process the trauma and grief of our current moment through a body trying to account for its own vulnerability as it moves through a shattering world. The book internalizes suffering and reissues it in sound—the mouth a recurring figure for the necessity of expression that activates Williams’ poetics. Rich in internal rhyme, assonance, anagram, and knotty language, the poems press their readers to feel beauty and pain in their own mouths, tonguing the wound that refuses to heal so that we might see: 

 

Stars: wounds grouped and sainted

as constellations. I counted my blows, dared

 

bruises to implode like dying suns. Instead

they hid behind skin to mask their dread” 

(emphasis mine) 

 

Thief seeks new ways to express the bodily precarity and brutality experienced by queer and trans People of Color, and it finds some of what it needs through concrete poems that give an intense tactility to Williams’ words. A series of shaped poems titled “Inheritance” grapples with the history of lynching and  violence motivated by what Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda have called “the racial imaginary,” the fears and myths that haunt even the best-intentioned White American subconscious: 

 

 

 

Phillip B.Williams, from “Inheritance: Anthem,” Thief in the Interior, p. 16

 

          A noose, a series of postcard-sized sestina verses, bullet-holes of distorted text—each visual technique Williams uses turns the reader’s head, choreo-graphing our interaction with the book and forbidding the kind of passive contemplation that allows such atrocities to happen. The reader, rotating the book to trace the shape of “Inheritance: Spinning Noose,” or to read the Miranda warning that encircles “Inheritance: Anthem,” virtually joins hands with Williams, extending the conduit for the electric charge of his words. Williams most explicitly seeks to hold the suffering of others and acknowledges the inability to do so, in the long poem “Witness,” which memorializes murder victim Rashawn Brazell, a youth mentor and aspiring designer whose unknown killer left his dismembered body in a Brooklyn subway tunnel in 2005. Through repetition and reconfiguration, the poem re-members the young queer artist the poet sees as “my brother who wasn’t a brother of mine.” In one section, stanzas aligned to the book’s gutter set up Williams and Brazell as doubles, inviting us to read both down and across, suturing the two to one another in order to recognize both the proximity Williams feels to Brazell and the ways he feels implicated for entering the interior of this loss that is both his and not (double pipes inserted below represent the book’s gutter):

 

       Brooklyn lost a boy in the subway. | | I called his name but heard my own

       come back. In the fog of my breath | | called his name and a train replied,

          Of course the sky unbraids itself, | | a prayer like wool too worn out to warm 
How long does it take a city to discover | | a cloudscreen stitch quivers, a mirage? 

 

Refering to Césaire alongside Beyoncé (whose “I woke up like dis!” seems to push back against the distorted warning that presses in on “Inheritance: Anthem”), Williams speaks across registers, from high lyricism to onomatopoeia, multiplying the forms (and formations) urgency can take. As one speaker remarks to a fellow poet, “I too wanted beauty without risk but 

the Black bodies fell into beauty to disturb it.” These poems disturb beauty at every turn to bear witness to physical and psychological trauma, probing the interior and dismantling the self in search of language: “I walked away from car and corpse and made / room for nothing but this body’s / firt words. See my mout move, lie ths—

 

  —Amaranth  Borsuk

 

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