At New Langton Arts, south of Market in the 1980s, Steve McCaffery left the room, re-entered in the buff, and climbed a ladder propped against a far wall. At the top, back to the audience, he performed a piece I no longer remember—though I see his pale skin and ass as if it were yesterday. Suffice it to say, as he had shown through his collaborations with The Four Horsemen, and in this performance, McCaffery puts his whole body into his work, his shoulder to the grindstone, naked, raw, bold and bad-assed.
Revanches: Constellations, typescripts & other texts, a look at 40 years worth of concrete and visual poetry by one of the most innovative poets of the last half century, McCaffery’s new book surprises, delights, satisfies, and inspires. Moving from classic concrete, through minimalist comics, asemic writing, to arcane captioned graphics, utilizing stencils, typewriter ribbons, letraset, carbon paper, frottage, collage, pens and markers, this collection demonstrates that, for McCaffery, material is language, language is material, and materiality is the body of energy wrestling out of absence, out of silence, “a retrieval from being lost,” literally and figuratively.
A quintessential Canadian poet, comfortable in many schools, a master of many genres (poetry verbal, visual, sound, and performance, prose literary, critical theoretical, and political), McCaffery is a writer who can be irrepressibly playful and analytical by turn. His work can deconstruct, reconstruct, and restructure the substance of language, making it more malleable for all of us. McCaffery is body of language writ large and minute, deft eye hand elbow knees shoulder and ass pushing what has been done into what could be possible.
The first section, “Constellations (1969-1971), grounds McCaffery’s concrete poetry in the form Eugen Gomringer developed in the 1950s. In some of the poems in this section, the language is denotative and illustrative, or “Cratyllian,” as McCaffery states in the “Notes on Composition,” the shape of the poem with “a direct and natural relationship to the thing referred to” (p.124), as in this example:
But other constellations present word and image with an additional element, a narrative as it were. In the example below, spires are present and benign, but the multistoried spires, when the “r” is removed, reveals a possible, nefarious purpose for these “spies.”
Many concrete poems are static, like the two examples above, but some chafe at the stillness of their appearance on the page. The following example marks four arcs of the moon across four spaces of time:
The clear, methodical placing of letters and words on the page, the hallmark of concrete poetics, is virtually obliterated in the next section of abstract texts, “Typestracts (1969-74).” Several of the pages push over the margins (in the original, I assume; in these reproductions these pages are placed with a one-inch margin of blank space), square and rounded blocks and swathes of overlapping letters and symbols. The page, then, is a seething surface of letters and worlds, but in effect it is also a letter and a word in itself, a complicated aggregate of sign and energy. Letters, the dependent building blocks of words, are given a power here, a presence, a body to be reckoned with. Here what is said is less important than the tools—the objects—of saying. Expression is matter; matter is expression.
The last five pages of this section open back up into white space and on the surface bear the appearance of concrete poems, but though letters are present they never cohere into words, each letter not a signifier but an icon, a figure, a visual element independent of the alphabet. The last two pages created with stencils, accretions of letters building through tightly cut windows (circles, free-flowing curves, a straight edge), achieve a dynamism that belies the two-dimensionality of the medium.
Revanches is not only a record of McCaffery’s production; it’s also a record of the tools that became available to him, including letraset, a prominent tool in the visual poetry produced from the 1960s into the 90s (and though still in use—see Derek Beaulieu—not as prominent a creative material as it once was, supplanted by computer graphics). This book includes three poems from circa 1975, showing McCaffery’s playful hand, eschewing the use of a complete letter, exchanging the two interior spaces of the letter B with Os in two sizes.
McCaffery also seized the rubber stamp with typical vigor. As one would expect with the nature of this instrument, repetition rules, sometimes to the point of illegibility. In “Rubber Stamp Poems (1969-70), as well as in many other works across the book, McCaffery’s work is cyclical, spinning off a center or multiple centers, careening off gravity, producing multiverses, some clear and sharp:
some smudged and claustrophobic, from letters to forms to rage against the bureaucracy:
For me, the strongest section is “Origins of Prose (1970),” a collection of images that McCaffery writes are “attempts to combine the theories of ‘Spatialisme’ (as outlined by its inventors Ilse and Piere Garnier), and Olson’s call to ‘the kinetics of the thing’ in his 1950s essay ‘Projective Verse’” (p. 124). These thirteen pieces plunge into and out of and commingle with the quarks of written language as detected and recorded by a typewriter and a well-trained poet technician. Imprints, traces, energy dispersing and collapsing, matter fleeing matter, regathering, language ships passing in the crumbled carbon night:
I did not know that McCaffery still had an eye/hand/body in visual poetry or that so much great work had not yet seen the light, so this book was like finding a box filled with long-lost family heirlooms. But we cannot rest on the riches of our forebearers (oh well, maybe during this election season in the U.S. some of us can try). What are we doing twiddling our thumbs sitting on our clothed asses? It is time for us to produce something new for the next generation and the next. Start by climbing a ladder!
have written about visual poetry in modes other than verbal (Johanna Drucker is one, using font and other typographic techniques to enhance her commentary. Why re/present visual poetry theory in verbal mode at all? Doesn't that contradict the mission, communicating through the primacy of the visual? Can't visual poets construct the visual argument to say what they want to say about their medium?
It may be that we are born into a world of words (tyranny of the alphabet), haven't developed the visual vocabulary and grammar, and fall back into the predictable comfort of words?