Questionable Concepts

Reviewed by Carl Watts

Colin Browne’s The Properties begins with the epigraph, “But Nature, that knows best its own laws, and the several properties of bodies, knows also best how to adapt and fit them to her designed ends.” Taken from Micrographia (1665), a work that detailed Robert Hooke’s use of magnifying lenses, these words lay out Browne’s guiding concept of the ability of unconscious, unknowable, or natural forces to influence social configurations. In a sense, Hooke’s words also describe the way the books under review here announce their concept and then stray from it. In The Properties, Browne alloys his theme with invocations of language writing and signifiers of the Western Canadian avant-garde. Early on, “prickle operas” invokes a hybrid, difficult-to-decipher multiplicity, calling attention to the arbitrary and spontaneous in its privileging of sound over sense:

fish sit

snot floats

flat stoats

flip sheets

fillet milt

stone boats

The collection also remains in conversation with current conceptual practices, such as when “Les prisonniers ont le droit de s’enfuir” employs passages taken from transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial. The poem resonates with the multivalent wordplay of the collection’s shorter pieces while also capturing the particularity of experience and the contingency within the seemingly inevitable:

This hold on life

is slight.

This grip on this hold on life

is slight.

This grasp on this grip on this hold on life

is slight.

“Les prisonniers ont le droit de s’enfuir” also closes with a note that the piece was presented with a score in Vancouver in 2010, and it is precisely this grab-bag quality that slightly dilutes The Properties. Despite their strong moments, such standalone pieces establish the book as exemplary of a historical moment in which books of poetry are curated as much as they are written. The agglutinating phrases of “An Inauguration, April 15, 2009” (“who’s asked / who’s asked to / who’s asked to speak for”), for instance, seem inseparable from the fact that the piece was originally performed at a Vancouver shoe store, and the poem comes across as part of a catalogue rather than an integral component of a book. Many of the longer pieces here draw attention to the unknowable interstices of histories and communities; still, by the time a closing quotation from Hooke returns to the book’s initial premise, The Properties seems like a compilation that has been advertised as a concept album.

Less varied is Dennis Cooley’s abecedarium. In recalling its titular genre’s function as exercise book and devotional text, abecedarium at once invokes conceptual writing and remains anchored in the prairie language poetry tradition in which Cooley has been at home for decades. The poems are organized somewhat alphabetically, and Cooley’s preface refers to the Latin alphabet’s limitations and productive idiosyncrasies; it announces its intentions, however, with the predictable playfulness of classic language writing: “ours is not to reason y the alphabet is very close to ancient greek and roman in sequence and in lettering.” abecedarium is best when it conducts a conversation with conceptual writing yet acknowledges its own distance; this perspective allows Cooley’s preface to acknowledge both the institutionalization of the avant-garde (“a young Toronto poet is an avowed and out-and-out lipogrammatist, unrepentant some have said from too much book learning, gives us too much lip”) and, when it replaces “dear poet” with “dear reader,” the coterie of writer-readers that contemporary poetry seems to have instead of a conventional readership. Subtler examples of this stylistic hybridity pop up throughout: “in the book of secret alphabets” gives a historical account of writing systems, including

the seven alphabets of the learned men

the four and twenty alphabets of other learned men

the antediluvian, no more than three in number,

of which the first Adam spoke

“hyoid,” meanwhile, refers to the organs enabling human speech (“where the bone being disarticulate / brings into art / iculation breaks voices from our necks”), and lines like “what slip page do we risk then / bidden to speech / in wet & cartilagenous zones” combine the bodily imagery of Cooley’s earliest work with his current themes.

It is precisely this long-running consistency, however, that makes abecedarium seem somewhat dated. Cooley’s use of bolded text and superscript doesn’t add much to his onomatopoeia, and his employment of alternate typefaces for phrases like “SACRED TEXTS” doesn’t do justice to the inherently aesthetic nature of alphabetical writing he acknowledges via an epigraph from Johanna Drucker. Instead, such moments make it seem as though the poems are waving their arms to get the attention of an uninterested reader. And while “prefer ring” nods to non-Indo-European writing systems with its omission of vowels (“in some languages you do not write vowels, do not dare write them, thx xnspxxkxblx sxxnds xf gxd”), these moments seldom approach the sophistication of the phonetic, alphabetical, and abjadic experiments conducted in past works by the other authors under review here. Despite its integration of eras of experimental poetry, abecedarium is classic Cooley: length and consistency ultimately work against him.

Of the works reviewed here, kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s Their Biography: an organism of relationships hews most closely to its concept. eckhoff’s past work with shorthand and phonetic writing systems suggests he is quite at home in the conceptual (or post-conceptual) moment, but it also indicates that he is interested more in the expansive and idiosyncratic than in the rigidly programmatic. Accordingly, Their Biography has been constructed out of solicited contributions that include substitution-based pieces (“the left Macpherson has thicker walls than the right because it needs to pump Eckhoff to most of the memory, while the right Macpherson fills only the voice”), illustrations, visual poems, and prose descriptions from the perspectives of family members, friends, and at least one former student. Their Biography also replicates eckhoff’s trademark solecisms and slippages in register, such as in chapter three: “I ask in return do: any of us really ‘know’ Kevin? Are we aware through observation, inquiry or information about who Kevin is?” Such moments call into question the author’s absence and emphasize the relational nature of both writing and publishing. Has eckhoff tampered with the pieces to produce some greater consistency? Have the contributors (intentionally or unintentionally) replicated eckhoff’s style? Does it matter?

eckhoff is sure to mention who contributed, as a retroactive proof of concept but perhaps also to foreground the social network to which the book’s subtitle alludes. It seems useful to consider this element of the text with reference to Felix Bernstein’s Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry (2015), which regards a newly foregrounded social network as a survivor of the “death of the writerly and readerly” that is declared by the practitioners of such poetry. Just as all these authors show us the script and then revel in departing from it, the entertaining and intermittently brilliant Their Biography would appear to resist Bernstein’s pronouncement, if only to some extent: I’m genuinely glad I read it from cover to cover, even if the contributor list with which it ends suggests my time would have been better spent cultivating my network.

This review “Questionable Concepts” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 128-30.

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