How To Do Things With Words by Joan Retallack
(Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1998)
“How to Do Things with Words”
How To Do Things With Words (Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1998), evokes an anticipation of something fresh, innovative, and unique on the landscape of modern writing. The title of Joan Retallack’s book denotes things visual, providing the key clue that this is not conventional poetry. Indeed, throughout my first reading of the book, I thought, “this woman must love mistakes, and little oddities,” only to find shortly after that Retallack is “a maker of novel devices… accused of loving too much the pathos of the typo…” (http://www.washingtonreview.online.com/retallack_words_review.htm, Jordan Davis, October 2, 2001).
Joan Retallack is a pioneer, a rebel, like the Fauvist painters at the turn of the 1900’s, who broke away from the conservatives of the French Academe. Called the Wild Beasts, they used intense, brilliant color in matchless applications to everyday objects, shaking things up. The Fauve movement comprised the best-loved painters of the 20th century, and was precursor to the Cubists, who gave depth and dimension to a traditionally flat, two-dimensional art. It might be construed to have been the parent to all the rebel arts in the last century -- giving artists the models with which to move out to the farthest wall in order to break through. The verbal and visual artists mentioned in this book were well known for pushing the envelope a great deal in their time, and in their individual “movement” -- and we hear their voices underneath echoing in these poems.
Retallack is clearly a visual poet, driven by the look of a page and the physical configuration of a written work -- her witty and playful experimentation prove a dedication to this seemingly formless structure. However, while looking for visual images -- the way words play across the page, whole and part words, broken in odd places -- Retallack the writer is also focusing on the words, presenting them tangibly in new ways precisely to be heard. She invents new forms, but rather than strictly for a specific visual or aural purpose she creates combinations of spaces and sounds. Thus, she is also a language poet.
The pages that comprise “Shakespeare was a Woman” most evidence the poet’s visual interest and skill. They also reflect the quote from a May, 1999, interview stating “the notion of genius is a masculine construction…one of large-scale power and authority…a particular kind of charisma -- a visceral connection between you and…smaller scale beings drawn to find meaning and direction…it’s an eruptive notion…I experience my energy as exchange…”
then appointed no hope
then no hope of
barren place & fertile the ditty does virtue
barren place the dog the ditty
no hope -ey’d appointed
[Editor's Note: In the above poem-excerpt, the words are presented in straighter columns than I can do with the Blogger format.]
These are words and phrases that as easily stand by themselves as connect to the others, on the page they share and pages that follow. They can be read across, down, up and seen as whole complete pieces within a larger-framework or as a continuum. At best, there are 10 phrases in total that repeat, are redrawn, and break down.
This search for language and experimentation is most evident in poems like “ditto Marcel Duchamps? ditto ditto Gertrude Stein?”, where the poet creates different forms (interview/prose/more than one story concept within the confines of an eight-page poem), presents varied concepts/viewpoints, uses unusual fonts to create and cross boundaries; and intersperses Arabic numbers, mathematical formulas, and other languages (including Astrological and alchemical symbols), with diverse factoids. She plainly offers stylistic homage, in several poems, to some of our best-known bohemian artists and writers -- Duchamps and Stein, as well as William Burroughs, and modern painter, Francis Bacon.
In “Here’s Looking At You Francis Bacon”, she creates an image that reminds you of Russian puzzle dolls -- an image inside an image inside an image, ad infinitum. The visuals are further compacted by literal hairline borders around the text. Some boxes have longer text than others, lopping off segments with different meanings -- but it all comes down to Descartes’ famous line -- “therefore I am.” Such poems required enormous amounts of strategy, development, and thoughtfulness.
"On the metro the man across the
aisle began all his sen
tences with "I prophecy" (p. 135)
[Editor's Note: the above poem-excerpt is featured within a box not replicable within Blogger format.]
…Missouri Fox Trotter is a three gaited horse Mars was 36.5 million miles from earth on
September 21, 1988 inside the house is a man inside the man is a brain inside the brain a box a woman inside the woman a brain inside the brain a house inside the house a man inside the man a brain inside the brain a bet on a Missouri Fox Trotter names Mars Prophesy…(pg 136)
. . . . . . . fox-trotting across the page
into the experiment in the woods the
house the woman the man the box
the brain the joke with therefore I am
[Editor's Note: the above stanzas are each featured within a box not replicable within Blogger format. The first box is also placed against the page closer to the page's right edge, rather than as shown above one directly atop the other.]
Moving inward one step at a time like those dolls (though size here is not an issue) to uncover each thought….
The London interview with Retellack informs us how real life chance drives her work, how she incorporates all of the arts to it. Strong knowledge of painting, music and other genres in writing, and a “guerilla theatre” background, provide us with a broader awareness of the writer’s politics and poetry. This might mirror the densely layered work of Bacon.
Her title suggests that she plays with words, building non-sense. It is not nonsensical, or lacking structure; this work is a definite and concerted desire to see what forms develop from chance, while making sense out what appears to be its opposite. Though some of this work is clearly ear candy, not all of the poems in this book are easily understood read aloud. Some pieces cannot possibly be spoken -- these works lose whatever inherent impact they offer because they are clearly meant for the eye alone to grasp meaning.
Joan Retallack is very skilled at doing things with words; her mind is playful as is her use of image -- these are neither mere pictographs nor do these poems turn to simple icon. Clever plays on words and puns -- “notes from the specific rim” (subtitle of “BE ING & NO TH’ ING NESS”) -- and constructed words like “mythunderstanding” make you chuckle aloud (especially if you lisp as I do), while pondering, in the poem “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE”, the slow and torturous death of a close friend, to a final wasting away. Retallack’s question is a lone consonant, a ‘Y’, followed by a list of numbers with no words attached, and no answers offered.
Retallack is quoted in the Olsen interview in discussing the focus of so much of her work “…it’s not that information or the use of language to give information are excluded from my poetics, it’s that …we have to bring language into the dynamic exchange…doing things other than giving information in addition to giving information, in complex multiplication of information.”
The writer has strong modernist sensibilities that cannot be ignored. Her awareness of vital present-day issues pervades to show that not all the work is diversion. This book is all about meaning -- “every code both rational and arbitrary” -- yet no two people will see the same things in this book.
Wendy Lynn Cohen is a writer and editor currently living in Los Angeles, California. Cohen is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles baccalaureate Creative Writing program in 2002. She continues to freelance for multi-disciplined commercial writing/editing/design projects, while executing varied creative fiction and non-fiction projects. In 2007, Cohen edited, The Devil Made Me Do it, a memoir of a renowned 1970’s film actress. She aided the self-published author in designing the book, its cover, and marketing its initial launch in mid-2008, garnering a coveted NPR interview and book signing at Book Soup, one of LA’s foremost independent book stores. Though not specifically a poet, her love of poetry was greatly heightened in an all-involving “…reading-poetry-is-reviewing course…[whose] syllabi were recognized by [the] National Book Critics Circle as innovative courses.”