Secret Lives of Letters

  • Angela Szczepaniak
    The Qwerty Institute: Annual Report.
  • Christine McNair
  • Andrew McEwan
    repeater. BookThug
  • Roger Farr
    IKMQ. New Star Books
Reviewed by Melissa Dalgleish

What language does when no one is looking is anyone’s guess, but four new collections imagine what goes on in the secret lives of letters—pull back the wrappings and trappings of daily dialogue to see what can be discovered about the hidden character of characters and examine the conflicts that arise when our purposes for language, and its purposes for itself, are at odds.

Angela Szczepaniak’s second collection, The Qwerty Institute: Annual Report, is a dispatch from the institute where the poet “has been employed” for “most of her life”— within the structure of language itself as a manufacturer and consumer of linguistic products. Szczepaniak’s lexical imaginings take the evocative potential of typography to its (il)logical limit, populating the pages of a graphic mixed-genre collection (part report, part comic book, part detective mystery, part advertisement) with letters come to life. Letting characters stand in for characters, Qwerty’s Detective I encounters the femme fatale F in a noir mystery that plays on the indefiniteness of the word their coupling produces; the poster boy for cosmetic typographical enhancement is Blake, an ordinary C who strikes out with women until he acquires a saucy prosthetic cédille. But belying the playfulness of the collection is an undercurrent of anxiety about the dangers of letting language take control: archivist Hillary Brown breeds “clerical parasites that slowly turned his flesh to paper”; a not-so-imaginary “innovation that paved the way for all of us to folder-and-file every aspect of the human mind and body”; a textual transformation already almost possible in a world where filching files
is implicated in identity theft and where our identities must be proven by official documentation.

IKMQ, Roger Farr’s second major publication, consists of sixty-four short passages of prose-poetry—discussions, experiments, recipes—collaboratively performed by the characters (in both senses of the word) I, K, M, and Q. The volume’s cover image—a 1940s adding machine with the collection’s title photoshopped over its original logo and the number sixty-four on its display—suggests the formulaic nature of Farr’s conceptual poetics, and some of the constraints that guide the collection’s organization are obvious: each section is titled after one of the characters and contains sixteen poems; all poems are written in the third person (which is easy to forget if one forgets that I is a character and not a pronoun); poems begin with the letters I, K, M, and Q in repeating sequence where I always gets the last word. Like much conceptual writing, IKMQ seeks to discover how language will push back against linguistic and formal constraint, how it will reshape itself around barriers and boundaries imposed by the author. Christian Bök remarks that the distinct character of each univocalic chapter in Eunioa “proves that each vowel has its own personality, and demonstrates the flexibility of the English language.” In turning characters into characters, Farr makes the same discovery—K is “a well-kept, hard-working, Kafkaesque study in contrasts”; M is “more mysterious, an esteemed, determined, . . . and unkempt poet maudite” (sic). As in The Qwerty report, where Detective I proudly boasts of his pronominal status—“I’m my own word, baby”—Farr’s I is particularly complex, his name blurring the line between the conceptual and the expressive, the character I and the poet’s I/eye. In “Against Expression,” Farr acknowledges the difficulty of avoiding expression (so tied up with the I) and the value of constraint in achieving this end—the characters distill expression out of the poem like one distills whiskey, but when M and Q believe that the process is done, “I knew that if the goal was a completely clear and tasteless product, this procedure would have to be repeated 63 times, until all traces of the originary substance had been removed.” But while distilling expression is an exercise in simple chemistry, “The Rules” and “Art as Technique” align poetics with pig slaughter, contrasting the formulaic nature of constraint-based poetics against the messiness of language itself.

In Andrew McEwan’s first collection, Repeater, “code is conceit” and constraint used to program poetic code into computer code. In the first section, McEwan uses the ASCII code for each letter of the alphabet as the basis for 8-line acrostics. Within the bounds of this constraint, which forces the creative variability of poetry to accommodate itself to the rigid binaries of computer code, “words across page make themselves” and lines iterate like automated sequences of code. What is revealed in these iterations are the uncanny links between human and computer, between animate and mechanical, between expressive language and functional code: “birds stream in formation,” their spatial positioning a coded communication. The seemingly unique individual is nothing more than “a fill-in-the-blank projection of collected atoms,” a semi-random assemblage of genetic code more similar to programming than we might like to admit. Repeater’s epigraph asserts that “[t]he codes covered here are the beginning of a crude alphabet for our new machines’ pidgin.” As machines become more human and humans acknowledge their mechanical affinities, as humans language accommodates itself to the necessary rigidity and structure of computer language into order to be mutually intelligible, the creative variability of language comes into question—are we doing things with machines, and with words, with code? Or are machines and their language doing things with us?

Christine McNair’s debut collection Conflict discovers in language “an insistent refusal to silence or to shift,” as well as “the impossibility of erasure and a gritty resistance” to outside intervention. In a world with “No More History”—one unlike our own, where “uncaptured moments / do not exist in a world without catalogue,” where if it isn’t on Facebook, it didn’t really happen—the documentary impulse is discovered to be what holds the world together and its inhabitants “survive on the tatters / of evidence.” But language, like history, refuses to be fully silenced: in the graphic beauty of “[Excised] [Excised],” which replaces each word of a letter with “[excised],” meaning seeps up through the gaps left by the censors and belies the statement that “an absence is simply an absence.” “Archaeology” uncovers “the remnants of action spread thick / in silt layer: lyric scrawls.” McNair’s “lyrical rhetorical / kernings” also imbricate the individual and the textual, life and language, suggesting that life is not fully extinguished until its textual traces are whited out—in order to “unmake me,” the speaker of “Provenance” exhorts the reader to

rake eraser
till paper is pressure-burnt,
a thousand times crossed over,
take my name
from the indexes

But, as she concludes in “Anti-Statement,” even erasures have echoes—“a low-grade fever of a tune,” “stringed words floating,” meaning to be found even in “the depth or shade of ink.” Language persists, lives a life of its own, sometimes “trapped . . . in the space between breaths” and other times exceeding the grasp of those who ostensibly control it in order to shape worlds and works of its own creation. It is only under its “watchful eye,” as Szczepaniak calls it, that these four collections come into being.

This review “Secret Lives of Letters” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 160-62.

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