Orientated by Manuals

Tony Williams, All the Rooms of Uncle's Head (£6, Nine Arches)

Tony Williams's exquisite and visually stunning All the Rooms of Uncle's Head is one of those rare pamphlets that remind you what little books can do and be and why writing and publishing and buying and reading this sort of thing matters.
The pamphlet presents a series of reconstructed - and, I presume translated, although the pamphlet doesn't specify this - hand-painted ceramic tiles made by patients of the German psychiatrist and art historian, Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933).
According to Williams's helpful opening note, the tiles reproduced in All the Rooms
were only discovered when the building Prinzhorn lived in was being renovated in 1986. Most of the tiles, Williams comments, "were smashed, but a significant remnant were able to be pieced together with some hope of accuracy." And what a piecing together Williams has done: each page reads like an act of reclamation, a re-gathering of broken things and lost lives, sad and beautiful and felt.
Recalling various visual poetries ranging anywhere from Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés
to Johanna Drucker's more recent work with letterforms, Joan Retallack's Icarus Ffffaling, as well as the daily scrub of daybooks, the often private spontaneity of notebooks, the typographical beauty of each page is perhaps one of the most immediately arresting qualities of this pamphlet. Each sonnet is surrounded by capitalised text in large font which itself is hemmed in by a sequence of seemingly unconnected adjectives and phrases. Equally, each crack or join in the tile is marked on the page by a thin line; missing pieces are represented by blacked-out areas. Sometimes there are so many missing pieces that the page can seem more a record of loss than rearrangement.
The incredible Franco-Egyptian writer, Edmond Jab¸s, has commented how 'we always start out from a written text and come back to the text to be written, from the sea to the sea, from the page to the page.'  There always emerges on the page before us a blank spot, a blindsight, that experience where, according to the neuroscientist, Antonio R. Damasio, a person actually sees more than they are consciously aware. It is how that blindsight is read that counts.
The notion that all writing is, in one form or another, a process of re-writing has a long history, stretching back at least as far back as Moses's breaking of the tablets or the Kabbalistic tradition of the breaking of the Vessels, where, according to Luria, God's light proved too much for the vessels meant to contain it and the vessels displaced or shattered. In both cases, the world, here and now, is out of place, composed of the shards of this broken light, these shattered words. According to the Zohar, 'in every word shine multiple lights.'
Susan Handelman: 'Thus in Kabbalah, it is not only the tablets of the law that are broken. The universe itself has undergone a primordial shattering; God has withdrawn; the Vessels are broken; the divine sparks are lost in the material world. As Scholem reads it, Kabbalah is a great myth of exile.'
It's a personal kind of exile in Williams's pamphlet. Here, I think, reading well involves being out of place, unsure, unsteady; it entails equivocation. It is to set off, to wander, to go looking, but to find myself travelling in circles, further away, elsewhere. In so doing, it necessitates that such reading be counter-intuitive, that it proceed in fits and starts, with questions and effacements, in manners always turning, always bouncing against the limit of what it is has not been quite possible to say: blindsights, pieces.
Rosmarie Waldrop: 'The spark given off by the edges of the shards, the fragments, is stronger the more abrupt the cut, the more strongly it makes us feel the lack of transition, the more disparate the surrounding texts.'
As Maurice Blanchot puts it: 'There was something like a word that could not be pronounced, even when one succeeded in saying it and perhaps because one had, at every instant, and as if there were not enough instants for the purpose, to say it, to think it.
' Surfaces can be difficult to read and the slate is never really wiped clean no matter which scourer is used. Besides, it is not always easy to be what one says; matter lost in grammar and convention, and convergence too is the edge of letting go.
Waldrop, again: 'I love David Mendelson's false etymology that derives the word "mosaic" from Moses, from the breaking of the tablets.'
Williams doesn't specify how he came across the tiles, how he went about putting the pieces back together - the problems of reconstruction - or the heightened issues of translation that must arise from such source material. Perhaps this is a good thing because it allows the pamphlet to stand on its own terms. But, given the archaeological questions the pamphlet implicitly seems to want to open, I couldn't help but want a little more information about the processes Williams went through: how he came by the tiles in the first place, how he went about piecing them back together, and why. But I've always been orientated by manuals and there's always some part of us to be relinquished.
This is a wonderful pamphlet. Buy it. Read it. Be glad.

    © Nikolai Duffy 2012