Afterimages: Revolution of the (Visible) Word



Marjorie Perloff

published in Experimental, Visual, Concrete: Avant-Garde Poetry since the 1960s, ed. K. David Jackson, Eric Vos, & Johanna Drucker (Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996), pp. 335-344 and Symphoposium, passim.

In 1965, Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote to Ernst Jandl, “I am not considered to be a poet here . . . mostly, Scotch poets . . .  like to think they are thinkers, full of very serious thoughts about serious matters. . . . but ‘thought’ is not intelligence, and one image against another, can create something more subtle than thought.”  And he added, “almost any Scottish poem of the present is offered to one as a comment on life, an aid, an extension, etc. . . . Hence we get inane critical remarks like: ‘X has something to say’ (which actually means, X’s poems are crammed with jargon, about politics, hunger, Scotland, his love-life, or whatever).  The notion that ‘something to say’ is actually a modulation of the material scarcely enters anyone’s head.” [1]

The reference here is probably to Hugh MacDiarmid’s notorious dismissal of Finlay’s experiments in Concrete poetry as having “nothing in common with what down the centuries, despite all changes, has been termed ‘poetry’.” [2] Extreme as this sounds, it is still very much the Establishment attitude to a poetics that takes the visual (or aural) dimension of language as seriously as its semantic one.  Even the more “advanced” poetry anthologies like Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry (New York Norton,1994)  and Douglas Messerli’s From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1994) do not include Concrete poetry like Finlay’s, perhaps because such texts would be too expensive to reproduce side by side with more “normal” linear poems.  The result, in any case, is that visual poetics has become largely the domain of the museum–the exhibition of artist’s books, installations, art objects, laser works, and so on–rather than of the poetry world.

But there are signs that things are changing.  For even as Finlay and his fellow Concretists are dismissed as “not poets,” we are witnessing a quiet revolution of the visible word.   The innovations of the Concrete poetry movements of the fifties in Europe and especially in Brazil are now entering the poetic mainstream.  Small presses like tailspin, meow, leavebooks– all three of these from the Buffalo Graduate Program in Poetics — are turning out dozens of visual and even tactile chapbooks like Kenneth Sherwood’s TEXT squared , Michael Basinki’s SleVep, and C. S. Giscombe’s “Two Sections from Giscome Road,” not to mention the electronic transmission of texts via RIF/T, which now has a thousand subscribers.  From Susan Howe’s dramatically charged typography in Articulations of Sound Forms in Time (Awede 1987) and Eikon Basilike (1989), to Christian Bök’s “fractal” poems and poetic fractals in Crystallography:  Book I of Information Theory (Coach House Press),  to Johanna Drucker’s desktop production of the computer-generated and hand-painted Narratology (both 1994), “one image against another” is “creat[ing] something more subtle than thought,” as Ian Hamilton Finlay put it.

Meanwhile, Finlay’s own particular tradition is being carried on by his son Alec’s publication of Morning Star Folios.   These are collaborations between artists and poets, published since 1990 in annual series of four issues. [3] At the outset, the folios tended to keep the verbal, visual, and even musical, media distinct, as in Heiligenstadt,  Friedericke Mayröcker’s 1978 poem, illustrated by Wes Christensen’s painting An Mein Herz (1987) and packaged with the score to Brahms’s Intermezzo, which is the key to the poet’s narrative.  But soon Finlay was bringing together artists and poets who seemed naturally in sync, as in the case of Robert Creeley and Sol Le Witt (Fifth Series).   A beautiful little folio juxtaposes, on its vertical front panels,  a Le Witt abstract design in black and white with Creeley’s poem “Echo,” which begins “Find our way out / no doubts / or in / again begin.”  The panels then open to reveal on the recto  another composition (c. 15” square) by Le Witt, a hexagonal maze that is the perfect visual “echo” of Creeley’s poem, especially the stanza “Spaces wait / faced / in the dark / no waste.”

The same series contains Ian Stephen’s and Will Maclean’s witty and charming artist’s book  A Semblance of Steerage.   The only non-verbal image here is Maclean’s semi-abstract cover drawing of a stylized rudder, captioned “you learn to trust the keel that’s under  you.”  But can we so trust?  The eight accordion pages that follow each have three bands of text (top, middle, bottom of page).  The top band is a one-line title (e.g. “RUDDER for a  Mirror,” “RUDDER in teak,” “SEAN’S TILLER,” “BEN’S RUDDER,” “RUDDER to share”).   The center of each page has a little free-verse poem, usually in the form of a  proposition, as in

a semblance of steering
provides procedure


an offcut rudder:
counterbalanced curves
for a wee keel

where “counterbalanced” describes the intricate sound structuring –itself a “semblance of steering”– of /k/ and /iy/ phonemes.  The bottom band provides a kind of commentary on the other two: for example,  the lineated text above is followed by a sentence in italics with justified margins: “(this rudder, claimed by my son as it fell from another rudder under construction, has not yet found a vessel).”  But on the final page, the page has only a top and center band:

SKIN of varnish

the sheen that seals the finish
on the diving blade

where the pun on “finish” provides an apt conclusion to the book’s nautical fantasy.  The “diving blade” is what remains.

In Series 5/2 (April 1994), Alec Finlay gives us a remarkable collaboration between the Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña and the Scottish Edwin Morgan called PALABRARmas  / WURDWAPPINschaw.   The work consists of two square (5”) pamphlets, the first containing an explanatory letter Vicuña wrote to “Eck” (Alec Finlay) together with a glossary and short poetic fragments.  As the glossary suggests, Morgan provides the Scottish equivalents to Vicuña’s Spanish paragrams.  Thus the title “PALABRARmas,” an elaborate paragram on the power of the poet’s words (“palabra”= “word”, “labrar” = “to work”, “armas”= “arms”, “más”= “more”), becomes, in a sly variant of the complex original, “WURDWAPPINschaw” (word weapon-show).  Or again, the frontispiece couplet, quite formal in its articulation–“Las palabras desean hablar / y eschucharlas es la  primera labor!”  — becomes the down-to-earth “Wurds wahnt tae spik! / Lisn!  thon’s yer furst wurk.”

Vicuña’s letter to Eck, partly written in short prose paragraphs, partly in phrasal units, separated by small cruciform designs,  deserves to be cited at some length:

In the Mayan letters Olson speaks of ‘their leavings’, (what the Maya left), but in     Spanish ‘sus dejos’ would be ‘their way of speaking’, the delicate manner in which a     mother speaks to her child when no one is listening, a form of being in sound. . . .

And it is the double aspect of this ‘leaving’ that interests me, the fact that it is     practical (utilitarian) and transcendent (full of other possibilities) at the same     time.

This is how I see our own words.  Perhaps because I see Spanish from the point of     view of Quechua, and vice-versa, a word for me in any language is multidimensional,     and is charged with ‘hidden meanings’ as we can see. . . .

Vicuña’s real obsession with verbal “leavings,” she explains, began in London in1974, where she was living in exile after Pinochet’s military coup.  “This time it was a new set of words”:

ver  dad
dad  ver
(truth: to give sight)

And she explains:

Edwin Morgan’s translations (so close to cons te llation,
latir is the beating of the heart)
is more than a trans
it is an installation in the language of poetry.

“More than a trans”:  this surely is the point.  Open the second folio and you find, on facing pages, the words:

conrazón hericht

Delete the “n” from “Con razón” (“with reason”) and you have “corazón” (“heart”)– an echo, perhaps, of Pascal’s “The heart has its reasons,” as well as a representation of the familiar opposition of heart to head. In Morgan’s Scottish version, the “hert” (“heart”) contains withn itself that which is “right.”  But the isolation of “ich” “(German “I”) personalizes that heart, even as “her  t”  points back to Vicuña.  But then her paragram isolates the “co,” suggesting that these poets are truly collaborators.  Not a translation, as Vicuña has said, but a “constellation” or “installation” in the language of poetry.

Suceeding pairs like “pensar / paiense” (with their play on “think,” “sorrow,” and “weight”)    carry on the poetic dialogue.  And Morgan has an uncanny way of letting the Scots dialect draw out the implications in the Spanish words.  On the final pages,  Vicuña’s


el dón

with its installation of “pardon” in the midst of gift-giving, finds a nice echo in Morgan’s




where the “gie” (“give”), repeated twice, takes precedence over the need for forgiveness.  Where Vicuña stresses the need for “perdón,” Morgan’s response stresses the gift itself.  A gift evidently “for” the reader.

If Vicuña and Morgan are still producing a fairly pure Concrete poetry, most visual writing today–I am thinking of Bruce Andrews or bp nichol, Karen Mac Cormack or Susan Howe — uses the resources of spacing and typography, phonetic spelling, rebus, and paragram so as to contest the status of language as a bearer of uncontaminated meanings and to question the one-way linear flow between poet and reader.  In this sense, visual constellation (the lamination of the paradigmatic onto the syntagmatic axis) can produce what Steve McCaffery has called a “carnivalization of the semantic order”   A stunning example of such “language graphics,” is Joan Retallack’s new book AFTERRIMAGES (Wesleyan, 1995), whose very title (“AFTER” + “RIM” + “AGES”) announces the possibilities latent in the most ordinary of words.

Newton, Retallak reminds us in her frontispiece, citing a reference in the OED, “suffered for many years from an after-image of the sun caused by incautiously looking at it through a telescope.”  But, speaking in the voice of her phonetic alter ego “Genre Tallique,” the poet revises this linear Newtonian notion:  “We tend to think of afterimages as aberrations.  In fact all images are after.  That is the terror they hold for us.”  Indeed, after– as in Wallace Stevens’s “I do not know which to prefer / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes,/ the blackbird whistling / or just after,” a passage which becomes, in Retallack’s scheme of things, “After whistling or just_________”– is a basic, perhaps the basic “form of life” today, where ever image, event, speech, or citation can be construed as an “afterthought” or “aftershock” of something that has always already occurred.  Hence Retallack’s witty example (on the same page) from the Manhattan Project physicist Victor Weisskopff, who recalls that the explosion of the first atomic bomb was accompanied by a Tchaikovsky waltz, coincidentally being broadcast by a nearby radio station.

The AFTERRIMAGES sequence which gives the book its title has 34 pages, no two of which look alike.  Each page serves as a kind of afterimage for the other,  the lamination of citations from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lilly C. Stone’s English Sports and Recreations, or from “Genre Tallique” herself, creating a set of tantalizing “language graphics.”  Here is page 7:

[figure 1]

The poem’s perspective is that of a “sage of the ectopic eye” (line 8).  Displacement–again, afterimage– is the order of the day.   “Vol low on radio”:  the initial chiasmus followed by a rhyme, rather like the pop song that may be on the air, might be glossed by Wittgenstein’s remark, in Culture and Value, that “Everything we see could also be otherwise.”  Fire (in Tangier?  in the mind?) is announced not by smoke but by an alarm, the alarm gives rise not to sound but to smell, and the tenselessness of dreams and mathematical formula is, in a “logical series of unsolicited occasions,” compared (in a tiny afterthought) to the genrelessness of poetry.  And now, unsolicited, the lines just proferred are written through (in the manner of John Cage, one of Retallack’s chief mentors) to yield phonemic and morphemic after-echoes.  The vowels e, I, and o are extracted from the displaced or “ectopic” eye in a spatial layout that makes seeing difficult.  Then the “ec” is extracted as well, “topic” (not named) taking us back to the “topic” of pre-Socratics and Augustine above.  But finally there is only the “s” of “occasions,” and that “s” also attaches itself to “ec” in the preceding line to give us an X.   “Unsolicited occasions,” it seems, produce the most interesting new poetic formations.

Page 21, by contrast, has only a tiny morphemic afterimage–

”s[     ]ent” with its visual reference to “silent”:

[figure 2]

Here Retallack uses spacing and citation for effect: “your c u p I s l e a v I n g a r I n g o n my  t a b l e”  comically deflates the distinction (the obsession of two-year olds) between what’s yours and what’s mine.  For one thing, if we’re seated at my table drinking, say, tea, “your” cup is not really yours at all, because it comes from my set of dishes.  Then too: “cupis” suggests “Cupid,” “cupidity,” “cupiscence,” and so on.  And cupidity is  just what “you” are being accused of by the owner of the table.  From here on the poem plays with mock reference, as in “RHYTHM and FORM,” which might be the title of any one of a dozen handbooks on poetry, Old English saga and Latin verse, the language always running away from its source as in “ad sequitur” instead of non-sequitur, and the “moping virgins”–or are they “versions”–of gendres/genres. There is always space for revision: the word “virgins,” etymologically quite unrelated to “versions,” does sound like it.  Then, too, a virgin is known by someone’s version of a particular woman’s history.  Might this virgin have aversion to sex?  The message, in any case, has been “s[     ] ent.”

Each of Retallack’s poems plays with such versions, with the revisions of what she calls in one of her ideograms (p. 20) “c r e e p I n g l o g o p h I l i a.”   I conclude with a meditation on coincidence (p. 11):

[figure 3]

Although she draws on remarkably varied sources  (Chaucer, Mrs. Charles H. Gardner, the Vatican Library Book), all the “events” in Retallack’s sequence go together; they really are a “thicket” (that etymologically rich word) of   “CO………………..INCIDENTS.  But the reader of the above poem can never know “what really happened”; Uncle Herbie’s ominous “last words,” for instance are followed by the line “but only one etc.”  where “one” (as opposed to “ten” in ten o’clock” can refer to almost anything.  Perhaps he only had “one hour to live” or even “one day”;  perhaps“only one” person heard him, and so on (“etc.”).    William Carlos Williams wrote a poem called “The Geometry of Trees”; Retallack’s poem refers to that title, embedding it in the phrase “nature’s soft geometry.”  But line 7 also has an interesting repeat: “nature’s soft” is grammatically like “geometry’s trees,” with the further anagram on ress and strees, two morphemes whose juxtaposition produces the afterimage stress.

“Strees” seems to contain the “riddle of the three sleeves.”  And that riddle actually makes good common sense: nature has a rinse cycle, culture a spin cycle.   But what is it that comes out of this washing machine?   Another “thicket” in the form of “TIGHT   LITTLE    GREY    CURLS.”   Those cycles embody the “rin” / “pin” of nursery rhyme:   Rinny-Tin-Tin swallowed a pin. No wonder the after-echo in this poem is



The cycle has run down, ending with the mere growl of “GR.”

I am often asked whether poems like these can be recited, whether the poetry reading is still relevant, and how Retallack (or comparable poets) go about reading such texts.   Clearly, the poet (or whoever recites the work) can activate what is a visual / musical score.   But it may well be that oral performance cannot render the full pleasure of a text like the above.   My own sense is that Retallack’s are poems designed to be seen, that they require a viewer  who will take in the visual play of the lines “natures / rin/ secycle”, “culturess / pin / cycle.”   Not quite concrete poems (for here not every word or phrase participates in the process of visualization and materialization), these “afterrimages” represent the turn visual poetics is taking in the age of hypertext, the age of “random access mem-O-rees” (12).  It is a turn that suggests a genuine transformation of poetry-as-we-have-known-it.


Ian Hamilton Finlay, “Letters to Ernst Jandl,” Chapman: Ian Hamilton Finlay Special
Issue, ed. Alec Finlay, 78-79 (1994): 11-12.

Hugh MacDiarmid, Letters, ed. Alan Bold (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), p. 703.

The are available from Morning Star Publications, 17 Gladstone Terrace (ground floor), Edinburgh EH 9 1LS, Scotland for £20 per series, or through Small Press Distribution, Berkeley.