Experimenting with the visual possibilities of text and page is as old as written poetry itself. It’s an uncomplicated idea at heart. These days Apollinaire’s Calligrammes are taught to primary school children, who immediately appreciate its playfulness. It’s also often a form high in idealism. In a recent edition of Words without Borders, Meghan Forbes examines interwar Central European avant-garde poetry. ‘New Typography’, she states, was conceived as ‘a method by which textual and graphic elements were meant to obtain equal stature so that information was conveyed not only through literal meaning, but via visual cue … New Typography was to be a universal and international mode of art and knowledge production’.
Given that the ability to manipulate shape, space and text is dependent on the materials employed, it’s not surprising that written poetry, visual or otherwise, has tracked advances in the technologies of dissemination, and existed alongside the other worlds created by these advances, advertising and media particularly. Interesting too is the implicit assumption of the universality of the visual experience versus the localised particularity of language that an idealised belief in new technologies can bring.
European medieval manuscript culture shared some of this same idealism with its desire to spread the Word, and the realities were just as complex. Be it Rabanus Maurus’s De laudibus Sanctae Crucis or Celtic illuminated manuscripts, the idea existed that patterning, image and shape could deepen a text’s meaning and help convey its message as well as impress a viewer. Susan Connolly engages with this rich point of contact between traditions in Bridge of the Ford (2016). She identifies the book’s main influences as the early monastic manuscripts of Lindisfarne, Durrow and Kells, alongside well known modern Concrete poetry practitioners bpNichol, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Dom Sylvester Houédard. The manuscripts she names are some of the finest examples of insular art in existence, characterised by lavish decoration and the use of exuberant colour. Nichol, Finlay and Houédard form a trio of writer-artists whose own idiosyncratic exuberances challenged assumptions concerning the relationship between writing, textuality, visual expression and, in Finlay’s case, landscape itself.
Visually, Connolly’s pieces are generally symmetrical and favour a plain and straightforward font and design. She states her preference for Courier New in her preface, citing its equal spacing and connection with typewritten Concrete poems. Shading at the level of individual letters is a notable feature, a technique favoured at different times by her more modern influences. In so doing she neutralises the ostentation of her exemplars, preferring simplicity and straightforwardness over intricate complexity. ‘The Sun Artist – At the Cross of Muirdeach, Monasterboice’, exemplifies her approach. The subject is another example of elaborate Insular art. The Christian essence of the Cross (light versus dark, good versus evil, judgement verses forgiveness), and the viewer’s physical encounter with this specific cross, are distilled to two short lines of verse. These lines are then neatly patterned on the page, with a diamond/triangle shape dominating.
Many of the pieces constitute an initial re-presentation of or homage to the subjects of the poems. As a homage to places and works of art they succeed, insofar as my initial reaction was to want to go and visit the Monasterboice Cross, or Tara, or the Lindisfarne Gospels, or Drogheda even. There’s an interesting connection here too to Hamilton-Finlay, whose text-made-sculpture works became part of landscapes. The energy in Connolly’s works is often closely bound to what the page cannot do, namely make manifest these physical objects or places. There is much to be explored here. Yet the inclusion of transcripts of the words of the poems at the bottom of many of the pages, along with notes, is problematic. The decision lessens the visual impact of the works and is akin to the poet explaining the poem’s meaning rather than allowing the work to speak for itself. This tentativeness continues into Connolly’s examination of the Boyne Valley and Drogheda. Conceived as a journey along the Boyne River, I found myself instead ferried between straightforward wordlists and more visually aware pieces, wondering where my attention should be – with the names themselves, or the patterns Connolly creates with them. Perhaps this is the aim. But it’s interesting to consider an incorporation of the paratextual within the visual. And Connolly’s obvious care and visual meticulousness could be well suited to a more thoroughgoing delve into the etymological roots of her subjects. These landscapes and artefacts, familiar to us through tourism brochures and marketing campaigns, could be made other once more. A poem like ‘What day and night will make of you’ for example, succeeds confidently within the form’s terms, the shading and diagonal repetition of the phrase, along with the open-ended questioning of the statement itself, gathers to itself a pointedness that can only be encountered by seeing the poem on the page.
Connolly’s book is a journey from sacred object to the page. The transition from performance to publication is one of the central concerns in Aodán McCardle’s IS ing (2011). Having seen McCardle perform, ‘translation into printed text’ is an intriguing proposition, with as many pitfalls as possibilities to negotiate. The recorded sources of the poems are included on a CD. The performances, when listened to, retain a sense of time and space, a thereness. In a short preface, he states the book is not a ‘replacement for listening to those performances’, but rather ‘a response to them and a transition from them’. A preface that predefines the poems (and signals a possible future web edition) risks negating the book itself. So, in its way, does the inclusion of the recordings. But it helps orientate the reader toward the central energy of the book, a sense of restlessness seeking repose. The interstitial nature of the reading experience, moving between actual book, remembered performances, recorded voice, and imagined future projects, fruitfully scatters the reader’s desire for cohesiveness. This in turn feeds directly into one of the book’s central themes (“howwords can be true”) and is furthered mirrored in the book’s various typographical styles.
McCardle’s formal control and intellectual rigour lead to a perturbed self-investigation. Again and again we return to the word ‘belonging’. What do we do with a sense of belonging when there is nothing to belong to? Or when we distrust belonging in the first place? Aware that to speak involves an immediate enmeshment in the socio-political world, the poems work to find the various limitations of performance, voice, text, and media while seeking something that may suffice to answer this question. Fatherhood is the focus as McCardle reflects on the Self that these boundaries create. Doubt is explicitly stated throughout the book. This collision is central, with the visual aspects of the text, the overlays, justifications and fragmentations stretching the page, generally seeming to signal that there are limits to what can be said here. Personal limits too. The non-linguistic is considered (‘we move/ we touch’ ‘what do you think of this copulation/clarity the ability to conduct electricity’) but underlying the whole text is a sense of pathos in the impossibility of a fiercely imagined intimacy with that which you love.
Perhaps it’s no real surprise then to see Saint Augustine mentioned, if only in passing. More fruitful would be to read McCardle against Julian of Norwich, who in turn, influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius and the via negativa, offers an intriguing counterpoint. And indeed Julian’s manuscripts, rough, over-layered, almost asemic, existing in multiple exemplars of uncertain origin, paradoxically suffused by faith and doubt, bring to mind McCardle’s own compositional methods and resulting broken openness. Beckett, another figure mentioned by McCardle and an undoubted influence, had time for the medieval mystics and would perhaps concur. As he put it in conversation with Charles Juliet: ‘Yes . . . I like . . . I like their. . . their illogicality. . . their burning illogicality [. . .] that burns away filthy logic’.
Visually, Frances Kruk’s lo-fi frags in-progress is the most spacious of the texts considered here. Largest, too, in terms of page count, within the book white space and clarity of typesetting predominate. It feels at first as if it’s possible to read the pieces quite rapidly, with the quickening pace in keeping with the speed of thought encountered in the poems. ‘Surge’, ‘swarm’ and ‘swell’ are words found in these poems that help describe the initial reading experience. Page turning too becomes foregrounded in the process in a way that is hard to quantify at first, beginning perhaps simply as a haptic companion to the kinetic energy at play.
This pace is intermittently interrupted by collages created by Kruk. These sometimes incorporate words or phrases from poems just read or to come. However, they may be more correctly considered as visual poems themselves rather than interpretations of the written poems. Titled as a group ‘Basement Songs Seen Here as Collages’ they also offer an alternative method of encountering the written poems.
Collage suggests a way of effective assemblage of the half broken and glimpsed images throughout the book, not for examination or analysis but for further contemplation, as another way to dwell upon Kruk’s themes. It allows you perhaps to pose the question ‘Where am I?’ or ‘What is happening here?’
And Kruk’s book does feel like a form of travelogue at times, a journal of internal encounters that find reflection in the external world. No surprise to see Dante’s circles of Hell evoked in both the collage ‘the unknown variables all of which lie and are profuse’, and surreally in the poems: ‘Circles/& circles of pigs fed evidence/piece by piece…’, ‘in the woods/in the music of dwarves’. Fairy-tale and allegory become entangled. Though the book is separated into sections, the poems are not a procession of isolated incidents but rather one thoroughgoing attempt to speak pain, the ‘white hush of pathological ellipses/slammed into a fuzz’. The desire to quickly turn pages suddenly makes sense – it’s a desire to accelerate past the discomfort and escape. The visual elements then arrest the reader in the best possible way, placing a hand on the shoulder to remind one to slow down and feel what is occurring in the language. The Divine Comedy has been treated, by Frances Yates, as a form of allegorical memory palace. Kruk’s internal peregrinations could be considered a journey through an unsettling subterranean equivalent, where the pained flesh becomes word:
My shake is quiet, the wound sound I
have no hate I have no hate
sugar with an angel’s zeromouth I wish
to question vertebrae til they puke
their secret ice
The books reviewed here grapple with various forms of duality. Of these, common to all three is the struggle to express feeling and emotion within the confines of a narrow white page. In differing ways, the page as container does not suffice. Connolly’s work urges one out into the landscape, McCardle toward the sound of the human voice, Kruk inward to the physical body. The visual elements utilised by all three specifically fit these personal investigations. An uncomplicated idea at heart, visual and spatial experimentation, fittingly becomes for the reader an aid to reaching their limits of verbal interpretation.
Susan Connolly’s Bridge of the Ford was published by Shearsman Books, Bristol in 2016; Aodán McCardle’s IS ing by Veer Books, London and Surrey in 2011; and Frances Kruk’s lo-fi frags in-progress by Veer Books in 2015.