KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsLiteratureReading

THE PAGE AS A VISUAL FIELD: NEW BOOKS BY ASIYA WADUD, GRACIE LEAVITT, & EVE EWING

IN A RECENT ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, Carol Ann Johnston notes that “The early avant-garde’s play with poetic language as visual art grasped the change in poetic emphasis from aural to visual […] The influence of Cubism and Dadaism encouraged poets to see the page as verbal collage.” Johnston rightly calls attention the transformative work of poets like Stephane Mallarme and William Carlos Williams, whose writing questioned – and substantively revised – prevailing ideas about aesthetic pleasure. Yet the seismic shift that Johnston describes encompassed not just writing, but also, the book as a physical object. Texts like “A Throw of the Dice,” “The Corset,” and Spring and All questioned our most basic assumptions about typesetting, white space, and the boundaries of the printed page as a unit of meaning.

Three contemporary poets build on the early avant-garde’s experimentation with the page as a visual field, offering us collections that expand our sense of what is possible within a bound and printed book. Gracie Leavitt’s Livingry, Asiya Wadud’s Crosslight for Youngbird, and Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches share a commitment to language that performs its meaning across the vast expanse of the page. In many ways, these writers’ highly performative language calls attention to its own containment – by grammar, by genre conventions, and by the preconceived ideas that readers bring to the book as a cultural artifact. Indeed, Ewing, Wadud, and Leavitt make visible, through their innovative artistic practice, this containment of voices and texts.

As each collection unfolds, we are offered language that breaks boundaries – between the written and the visual arts, between representation and metaphor, between types of aesthetic experience – rendering us suddenly aware of the limitations we impose upon language before it has even begun to unfold before us. For some readers, this presentation of language might be jarring, even irreverent, as we are not used to texts that make their own rules. However, as Ewing herself reminds us, “The space was always there.”

 

*        *        *

 

Leavitt’s Livingry often reads as an exercise in scale. Here, we are offered poems that are slim and tersely lineated, white space overwhelming the texts’ seeming smallness. Yet the language in Livingry resists this categorization, reacting against any possible description of the writing as diminutive, orderly, or neat. Leavitt invokes textual difficulty as an aesthetic gesture, and the careful withholding of meaning becomes a purposeful part of the reader’s experience. In this way, the interplay of the poems’ visual appearance and their metaphorical richness, and their relative scale in relation to both the page and the work that’s asked of the reader, creates a provocative tension, a spark that ignites the collection.

The poems themselves read as dense soundscapes, as Leavitt eschews the semantic meaning of words in favor of their sonic richness. Reminiscent of Zukofsky’s sound-based translations, the poems in Livingry challenge our limiting definitions of meaning and coherence, envisioning the poem as a space in which to offer alternative frameworks for thinking, storytelling, and elegizing. She writes, for example, in “Loose Leaf,”

This morning
the mystery
shattered itself, but I
don’t want to
only ornamentally
absorb, therein
sly call perhaps
to a part and
separate.

Here Leavitt offers lines that are as charged as they are minimalistic. Though parsed out two or three words at a time, the language in this sonically vibrant, singing poem overwhelms the seemingly small rhetorical space in which it is housed. What’s more, as Leavitt transitions from “morning” to “mystery,” from “ornaments” to their inevitable “shattering,” it is the moments of rupture, the pauses between each measured line, that set off each line’s intricate and tangled music. For Leavitt, “to be a part and / separate” is a necessary part of the poem’s work, a metaphor for lineation as much as it is for the poem’s appearance on the printed page. Leavitt reminds us, subtly and skillfully, that poems are visual compositions, even – or especially – when we fail to realize it.

 

*        *        *

 

Electric Arches expands on Leavitt’s consideration of poetry as an inherently visual endeavor. Filled with original artwork, handwritten notes, and poems on black pages, Ewing’s poems challenge our culture’s fixation on book publication as a way of claiming authority within a linguistic landscape that is inherently unstable. What’s striking about Ewing’s work is the way she embraces this uncertainty.

Ewing destabilizes, through her provocative visual experimentation, our idea of the book object as finished, static, and not subject to change. By transitioning from typewritten text to handwritten notes and drawings, Ewing questions the way our culture elevates the finished product, while devaluing the processual. Indeed, Ewing places seemingly impromptu notes squarely within a perfect bound book, carving a space for experimentation, improvisation, and play within a form heretofore reserved for language functioning as product and commodity. Ewing writes, for example, in “the first time [a re-telling],”

This time she screamed at me. ‘You little nigger! You almost hit me with that bike! Go back to your nigger Jesse Jackson neighborhood! I told my mom and she told me the flying bike should only be for weekends, but okay, I could use it just this once.

It is important to note that the second half of this passage is handwritten, beginning with “told me the flying bike…” For Ewing, breaking free of cultural stereotypes requires re-envisioning the forms of discourse that bear oppression into the world, that give injustice its form and structure. The transition to handwritten notes, then, becomes politically charged, as Ewing gestures at a version of personal and shared history that could be opened to substantive change, strike-throughs, and revisions.

What’s more, Ewing reveals the book object, and the textual economies in which it circulates, as being bound up in existing mechanisms of power in our culture. She provocatively challenges the ways we assign value to language, as one tends to revere finished, typeset, bound product over the artifact of its process. For Ewing, process is where the possibility lies, since in this liminal space, the rules with which we are familiar no longer hold.

 

*        *        *

 

Wadud’s Crosslight for Youngbird blends the hybrid forms with documentary poetics and the lyric essay. Like Leavitt and Ewing, Wadud calls our attention to the preconceived ideas we bring to the book as a cultural artifact, and the assumptions we make about language before it has even begun to unfold before us. Crosslight for Youngbird takes as one of its primary considerations the arbitrary categories we impose upon types of writing, distinctions that are actually more fluid than we tend to acknowledge. Wadud shows us that it is hybridity that creates a more complete account of shared experience, an artifact of cultural memory that is more just and more true.

Like Leavitt and Ewing, Wadud summons the reader’s preconceived ideas about form and genre by attending to the work’s appearance on the printed page. In “home 16 ways,” for example, the pristine prose paragraphs create a semblance of order, and artificial sense of unity, which the language itself interrogates and unravels. We encounter “a younbird” and its “able wings” alongside “bismillah calca” that “makes da bone firm.” The reader is rendered suddenly and startlingly aware of the expectations they likely bring to prose – that the text will be consistent in the texture of its language, that it will be uniformly accessible and transparent in its meaning. Wadud provocatively writes against these readerly expectations of form and genre. Here, her audience is rendered, at turns, confidante and linguistic other, as the text is at certain moments suddenly inaccessible. By rendering us aware of the limitations that we impose upon prose, if only by looking at it on the page, Wadud ultimately works to foster more open-minded reading practices. For Wadud, seeing the limitations we place on language, and seeing the ways a containment of voice is gradually internalized, is the first step toward change. And for Wadud, change begins in language, as this is very foundation of the social order.

She writes, for example, in “Calais, onward,”

empire wrought boundless
mollusked isle full of light
moored light come light
a sepulcher if not
mark a journey supplicate
pray mohammed
and Fatima
pray amira

Here Wadud creates a sense of “boundlessness” within the language of empire, ultimately working to expand what is possible within it. Like Leavitt and Ewing, Wadud uses the page as a visual field, creating a semblance of order and unity if only to call attention to their inherent artifice.

Wadud, Leavitt and Ewing build on a Modernist inheritance of visual experimentation in poetry, ultimately using collage, hybridity and performative language to challenge the limitations the reader impose upon their own voices. In doing so, these three gifted writers offer an expansive aesthetic, a poetics of inclusion and dialogue. By allowing many types of aesthetic experience and meaning-making to exist together in the same rhetorical space, they ultimately expand the boundaries of the book as a cultural artifact, allowing it to hold a shared history that is more just, more luminous, and more complete.