Building upon my “Pulled from my Shelves” series which I recently completed for Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound site (indexed here) this “an irresponsible act of imaginative license” series will explore concrete and conceptual literary projects. These occasional columns will be a place for discussion (and I encourage comments), reviews and interviews around books that I think deserve increased attention.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
The traditional poetic impulse is a refutation of language’s inherent failures. It is the attempt to make language perform the impossible; to lucidly reconnoiter the ineffable. Metaphorical language is an acknowledgement of language’s inherent downfall. Language is too tied to thingness, to objects and gestures (as Robbe-Grillet argues) to plumb the depths of the “human soul.” This is not to say that metaphorical language does not have moments of beauty and grace, but those moments are the result of a larger failure. As poets, we attempt to bend language to our lyrical will. What results is inevitably a failure, but the poem lies in the degree to which the poem fails.
kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s Rhapsodomancy (Toronto: Coach House, 2010) explores language’s inherent failures and surveys how those failures become poetic. Through the use of two abandoned languages—Shorthand (created by Sir Isaac Pitman in 1837) and Unifon (created by John Malone in the 1950s)—Rhapsodomancy visually ties concrete poetry (a ostracized poetic form) to other marginalized spaces: slight-of-hand, comic strips, optical illusions and apantomancy (the divination of the future through scattered objects).
Rhapsodomancy’s “Disavowals: Optical Allusions” recreate traditional optical illusions with Unifon characters. Each of the fourteen visual poems playful challenge the reader to define their own poetic foreground/background relationship; the pillar of “I” warps, one of the arms of “E” falls into emptiness, the “O” is a linguistic Gordian knot. The “optical allusions” in “Disavowals” belie the illusion of poetry; strain your eyes as much as you’d like, vertigo is inevitable.
As hopeful as apantomancy (the divination of the future from astrology, palm-reading, tea-leaf reading revealing more about the reader than the read) may be, poetry is just as naïvely optimistic. Poets have become literary palm-readers, not because they can divine or influence the future (gone are the days when poets were members of the court or endowed by the ruling classes to celebrate and immortalize their accomplishments), but because they are the literary equivalent of tarot-reader in a secluded tent at a creative anachronist fair. Poetry has become Shorthand and Unifon, one more language largely abandoned to specialist and anachronists who pine for a return to an imagined poetic heyday.
Rhapsodomancy revels in the exuberant, playful poetics of failure. The meaning we have “stamped on [the] lifeless things” of poetry is merely an illusion, a “now you see it, now you don’t.” No longer is poetry the beautiful expression of an emotive truth; it has become the archæological re-arrangement of the remains of an ancient civilization. Faced with the “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” of Shorthand and Unifon (and by extension of poetry itself), mcpherson eckhoff realizes that “[r]ound the decay / of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away” and sits down to make sandcastles in the rubble.