What Makes Love is Everyday
Stone Girl E-pic, Ed Baker (525pp, Leafe Press)
I suspect this book might be Marmite... depending on the willingness of the reader to work, it'll either be loved or hated... nothing between... no grey, just black or white. Why? Well, in relation to most mainstream offerings, E-pic is unorthodox in form - relying heavily, as it does, on graphics to augment and complement the texts which, themselves, are visuals, handwritten or typewritten, tumbling down the pages or clustered around sketches reminiscent of the scratchy outsider art of Daniel Johnston or of later near-pornographic Picasso. In his foreword, Conrad DiDiodato describes Baker's work as, 'a combination of haiku-inspired minimalist writing, Eastern calligraphy and the artist's penchant for choosing the right material,' which, in this case, is a love affair that results in pregnancy and childbirth.
However, that's not to say the narrative is linear. Rather, the book, using the space afforded by its large format, is divided into five volumes - four shorter textual/graphic sections and one final long textual section - each containing threads that are repeatedly revisited in the same way as the mind is drawn back to the same principal aspects of any given situation under analysis. Indeed, the first four sections could be taken to be there to appeal to the fantasising, imagining part of the brain, while the fifth appeals to the symbolically rational of another. Or, at a different level, the first four could be taken as highlights that lead to the detailed overview in the fifth. Whichever, this is the crux of how to read it - the whole is greater than its parts - dipping in simply doesn't work. E-pic needs to be allowed to absorb, if not wholly consume, the reader in its completeness.
In 'choosing the right material' to achieve this completeness, Baker has created a work crammed with explicit sexual references, whether in the graphics or texts, that juxtapose the lustfully tender physicality of love-making with the purely parturient... not so much the usual poets' fare of sex and death, but, rather, sex and birth. And, there's something very poignant in such a juxtaposition - after all, what else is there as important in life as the drive to see the species survive, whether intentional or accidental? Sexual politics aside, there's also something very poignant about this expression of the duality of the female body, as both a pleasure-centre and giver-of-life, that a straightforward, linear love poem would struggle to provide.
Throughout, symbolism plays a large part in the texts, particularly in relation to the two principal characters who are referred to as stone (her) and mind (him):
with the female, stone, being a reference to the procreative powers of Mother Earth and the analytical, poetic and wise nature of the male being the mind. Given the various forms the female takes, stone becomes rock and even, to accentuate the liquidity of her position, lava. The child, being the issue of stone, is, naturally, referred to as a pebble. The male, mind, is reflected in several references to poetry:
did you yet get
that version of
I suppose that you
want me to send
another love letter
and, concluding the entire piece:
In fact, the liquidity of their situation, in general, is symbolised not only by lava, but by numerous other references to swimming and to water in its various forms... pools, rain, snow, water-birth etc. Water also forms the basis of the irony of the piece - her escape from Vietnam was by sea (more water!), despite associating boats with her unfaithful husband who would often use his own pleasure-craft for entertaining his young conquests.
This Vietnamese connection is worth mentioning, not only for its importance to the water symbolism in the text, but also because of the opportunity it affords Baker in relation to the linguistics he employs. Where others may have incorporated foreign words/phrases in such a way as to have them stick out like sore thumbs, like markers to show just how clever or well-travelled they are, Baker simply adds them into the mix of word-play he uses... the split words, the tumbling/scattered words, the triple columns and so forth... so that they fit comfortably with no sense of pretentiousness or ostentation. Indeed, if anything, for me, more than the graphics, it is Baker's innovative, intuitive word-play that shows him to be worthy of DiDiodato's epithet, 'this remarkable American poet'.
kicho ui tugge
chae bae ha da
Yet, above all, what makes Baker even more remarkable is that, despite the availability of Vispo, the computer-generated visual poetry that's been flooding the internet for the past two decades, he has avoided it like the plague, maintaining an artistic integrity that's pure and traditional... an admirable integrity that's attributable directly to calligraphy, collage and minimalist writing. Though, how could it be otherwise? The electro-mechanical drone of a computer would be hard to reconcile with an artist for whom, 'Everything comes out of silence and goes back into silence'.
© John Mingay 2012