Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Upcoming Kenneth Patchen/Celery Flute Preview

I'd like to post a piece from the upcoming issue of Celery Flute, which is a section from a much larger project of mine, one I have taken up and abandoned over the years (sputteringly, alas). My hope is to eventually delineate a verbal-visual criticism that will be as useful for literary studies as it is for the visual arts. The essential sticking point, in my mind, is the degree to which digital poetics and cinema will be a necessary part of this form of criticism, while my work is essentially about poetics, publication and visual design as it relates to poetry, painting and concrete poetry.

The new issue should be available in about ten days. It can be purchased from me for $9 postage-paid.

Some Remarks on Deterritorialization and the Verbal-Visual Poem

the language is the landscape of the poem

bpNichol, “Letter to Mary Ellen Solt” (Meanwhile, 113)

If we extend the sense of Nichol’s statement, we could also say that, as a landscape, a poem has surfaces and subsurfaces, degrees of air pressure, as well as nutritive and geologic flows; and more often than not, architectural principles can be applied to it. In this light, the geographic dimensions of poetic practices are “deterritorializations” and “reterritorializations” (as defined by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari), tropes which imply landscapes under signifying systems. Deterritorialization is a term for the recoding of socio-spatial possessions, markings and other semiological systems that make spaces readable, a concept which best reveals how geography and the public sphere are related to other poetic and visual forms which undergo similar processes. Sometimes poems can be read through the lens of an alliance, and at other times as a becoming-other, which is a process within the poem (and its construction) in which desire, taken from one territory (as surface, significance, or plane of consistency, or of the overcoded becomings of woman, of child, of animal), is then brought into relation with another territorial system, or is reterritorialized in the effort to surpass forms of overdetermination and overcoding, and in their place produce new affects, new relations upon which differentials are established to produce meaning. As such, they refer to notions about a place or environment that have been extended to a conceptual horizon, organize new perceptual cues, and take affects associated with these spaces and forces to their limits. They are ideas that can be used to establish one locus around which the theoretical discussion of verbal-visual poetry can take place.

These functions can serve as a powerful way to read a poem, especially if the poem is inherently a work of visual art equal to its linguistic content. They inform that part of the modernist inheritance used by Kenneth Patchen to indicate an instability of place in his anti-novels and picture-poems. My primary example here will be his picture-poem “What Is” (The Walking-Away World p. 223). This work combines two brightly colored facial figures with the text: “What is / not, then, is in every / case / the world”. The combining of text and image in works of this nature require a renewed verbal-visual criticism that can relate prosody with poetic propositions, and then relate these contents to the material inventions within art and literature that participate as the act of taking specific flows (of material, language, of meaning) from within a milieu (such a poetry, or book design) and effect a transformation (a deterritorialization or reterritorialization) of the milieu itself because of their uses.

A poet enacts a deterritorialization in the use of specific historical and compositional elements to form or suggest newly defined relationships in bodily and social spaces. For William Blake, the symbols of territorialization appear in his frequent depiction of and reference to the compass of Newton as the principle of measurement, in his poetic mythologizing of the functions of engraving instruments (and their properties of reversal) and, importantly, in his poetic dramatization of England as conflated with that of a Druidic prehistory, a Gothic imagination in Architecture, Biblical geographies, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and Pughe and William’s Archaiology of Wales. In Patchen’s work, the coding/decoding of geography is a pervasive thematic element in the travel narratives of The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Sleepers Awake, in which a deterritorialized dystopian world is reterritorialized onto powerfully psychological affects of transformation. Subsequently, in the last 18 years of his life, he composed single-page picture poems. The visual figures in these works appear in transitory, neutral, and morphological spaces of an indistinct visual geography very much coded by the social territories in which these strange beings interact. Patchen had made much of the Spinozan/Blakean aesthetic of the particularity of object, animal and place, and through these figures created the ethical geography of his picture-poems, where the idioms of human solidarity are perplexed by gestures of abandonment, paralysis, splitting and division. This thematic coincides with the ’pataphysical projects of other modernist and postmodern writers such as Georges Perec, bpNichol and Christian Bök, in which conventional visual icons are transformed or “remapped” onto poetic conceits, and then exploited for their metaphoric residues. As Blake’s vision for Jerusalem is an obvious effort to work through a succession of deterritorializations (of the holy space, and of the body) in order to effect their subsequent reterritorialization, the similar idea of the encounter between two strangers and their ability to define a cultural continuity of stable reference is crucial in understanding the concretist, visual poetry of Kenneth Patchen, despite the peculiarities of historical context, materials used and thematic concerns. As each poet developed and transformed his material practice, this reference to place served equally as an expression of an ethical relation and the possibility of a vital transformation of language and icon that could potentialize new, human, non-, or extra-human desires.

It is important to see how verbal-visual poetry situates a particular understanding of place within an aesthetic discourse—as a trope, as topos, and as a production of activities. In other words, the verbal-visual poet creates a distinct relation of particular geographic locations (or their analogues) as a function of this becoming-other; a visual and verbal conflation which cannot be reduced to simple utterances but instead takes flight along the graphic line, and thus make alliance with deterritorialized others in the pure affects which, when brought together, they help compose. This could be schematized as a language-form coupled to a graphic line and a coordinate—the affect being one of movement (becoming-animal, becoming-child). Better still, the poet understands the motivated & named geographical surface to be always already a function of tropes, of an overcoding directed towards a particular arrangement of concerns, and he thus utilizes a spatialized ideology/iconology for the articulation and liberation of affects submerged beneath hegemonic captures. In this poetry, the substance of sound and its notation can be contrasted to, and played against, the signification it is said to represent, while in the image a textuality engages the textural surface so that the graphic dimensions of the poetic are invoked and superceded within the semiotics of the visual, the movement of which is always in potential alliance with the figures and desires which have been overcoded, or pinned down to the linguistic categories of a tyrannical body or state form—a metaphoric form—but always escape them in the unfolding of their expression.

As a description and retrospective on Patchen’s visual work, Peter Veres’s book, The Argument of Innocence, is perhaps the most detailed, accurate, and complete picture we are likely to have of the method, materials, and compositional processes that made up Kenneth Patchen’s picture-poems. In addition, a substantial contribution to the book was made by Miriam Patchen, whose personal collection of her late husband’s work made up most of the images provided. Veres describes the spaces figured in the picture-poems as “another country,” a “new land . . .somehow less oppressive than the old [as given in The Journal of Albion Moonlight]” (42). In regard to his later works, Miriam Patchen said that “his creatures became more real” (44). Those sheets of rag-paper, taken from the Stanford Biology Department, once holding vegetal impressions, finally served to express Patchen’s counterintuitive proposals, like that of the picture-poem “What Is”. Spatially, the images in Patchen’s picture-poems present this consistent arrangement: a rectangular form containing vaguely facial/animal morphology and the use of lettering aligned horizontally, and in some cases, vertically (as in the picture-poem “What Is”) or even lettering that twists and loops around the images and forms. The two facial figures in “What Is” are partial abstractions, but of such unnatural proportions that they can only invoke a sense of faciality by way of the eye-points, or indistinct hairlines. Because of this, they typify what Deleuze calls “The abstract machine of faciality,” since, “regardless of the content one gives it, the machine constitutes a facial unit, an elementary face in biunivocal relation with another: it is a man or a woman, a rich person or a poor one, an adult or a child, a leader or a subject, ‘an x or a y.’” The second aspect of this abstract machine “rejects faces that do not conform, or seem suspicious” (Mille Plateaux, 177). This dictum of biunivocality and the appearance of these facially-transgressive forms permit Patchen’s reversal of Wittgenstein’s famous opening proposition in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist” (the world is everything that is the case). Patchen’s new sentence is not a statement of negative theology, defining God or world by stating what they are not, but of a form of negative geology, proclaiming & instantiating the matter of an extra-factual anti-matter. And the forms, in their zones of pale blue surrounded by red, yellow and orange, confirm that if “the world/is not”, then it is terra incognita, that the knowledge here proposed or which can be achieved, is teratological. These images are not the exceptions which prove the rule, and can thus be discovered beyond the domain of facts, they are what appears within the free space of his picture poems, and simply by that fact seems exceptional. The expressive forms in these works pressure the abstract facial machine to reject that they constitute the very (or the verifiable) world. And, if this much can be permitted, “the case” is not a world at all, but only a deterritorialized world that Patchen’s illogical proposition is able to provide with sense. Though this is only one example from among the several hundred picture poems that Patchen designed, this contrast between “What is,” and “What is not” demonstrates the philosophical and expressive penetration and depth to which his verbal-visual inventions had arrived. Though the roughness of his design—the pasted bits of paper and the deliberate, looping nature of his careful lettering—gives his work the qualities of Art Brut, it is the subtle sharpness of his verbal observations that recast the picture-poem into a very fine & composite art.


1 comment: