First of all, an alphabet book


Options
, Christopher Gutkind (poems) & Trevor Simmons (drawings)
(55pp, 6.00, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press)


This book from the publisher The Knives Forks and Spoons Press is a very good example of this publisher's engagement with formally innovative poetry, sometimes to the extent that the idea of the book can become a negotiation.

First of all, Options
is an alphabet book. Here, the illustrations are on one page and the lettering on the facing page. The letters tell their story, and the illustrations tell theirs. They compliment each other but are independent. Poet and artist have said any poem could have gone with any illustration and vice versa. (The illustrations don't contain the letters - more on the illustrations later.) It is the whole alphabet but not in alphabetical order (though it begins with 'a' and ends with 'z') and partly because of this has such a feeling of inclusiveness that it could easily include many more letters besides. The opposite of Velimir Khlebnikov's 'will reform all alphabets wiping out unwanted letters' from Lightland (translated by Paul Schmidt, 1997).

Options
is also a bestiary, like alphabet books for the main part are, but here the letters, having only letters and not whole words, are anonymous and disembodied, but are not amorphous. They take on human properties, or sometimes pass properties on to those within the poems without taking on the properties themselves. Here is letter 'V':

            V
is seemingly
              virtual

            almost
in variant
              ways

            sometimes a voice
              is so veiled:

            inviting and vacating
              in drifts

'V' goes on to reveal itself even more Cheshire Cat like, ending 'already / vanishing over / itself // ready / to void its / flesh.' There is a seeming naturalness of diction, and with their length, the longest poem has twenty lines of about this length, which gives them the feeling of strokes by a master calligrapher or even a puppet master. Like in the best of these artists' work, there is a layering to them, and the feeling of control from within the production itself. The switches in meaning don't appear too jerky but are smoothed with the perception more is going on underneath. The facing illustrations also help to slow down the pace at which the poems are read.

The poems, or letters, have vulnerability and a generous humour. Here quoted in full 'B':

            B
because
              you are

            pushing out time
              looking down and back-front:

            bearing up
              people say and say
                what else


             is blue?

               besides the sky
                 played

            and
              broke
                in.

Some of these poems seem like personal memories and comments about others but are not tied down enough to form characterisations, and yet feel like individuals, and not collaged from many samples. At the same time they appear to be actions of a more generalised type, brought about by the fact of being simply letters of the alphabet. Here in full:

            O
I can't say
              so well:

            I'd open inside
              an opening usually
                closed:

            outer things coming in
              orgy inner things coming out:

            operating
              in spaces around
                glances

            mixing
              any ordering

            of our
              selves.

The contrast with Abeceda
by Vitezslav Nezval is interesting. Nezval had the dancer Milca Mayerova dance the shapes of the letters and other associated shapes coming from his poems. Their combined performance/work made into a book by Karel Teige in 1926. The shapes of the letters are the driving force behind his poems, although alliteration and assonance with the respective letters plays a part. The juxtapositions and shifts of meaning are more external and surreal than those coming from the more psychologically considered spaces of Gutkind's poems. Both Nezval and Gutkind delight in the sounding of letter 'R'. Here is Gutkind:

            R
is reeling
            in the sounds
              again

            by the pond
              a group of geese razing
                the grass

            rip-rip

              rip-rip


While the poems hold onto a base through their alliteration, and the letters having been given attributes, there is interaction with the outside or the rest of the poem. There is fracturing or rather a fractal breaking up between the dimensions of what is individual and what is external to it, till the borders can become unclear. But at the same time the attributes of the letters still hold.

This is further enhanced and subtracted (both of these) by Simmons' illustrations that, tentatively, I will describe as de-cohering cityscapes, caught in a flash or barely managing to hold together, sometimes with extra stuff piled in or stuff taken out, though they are more than this and have a power on their own, with an abstract energy.

A quote from discussions between Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel in The Singular Objects of Architecture
(2000, translation by R. Bononno, 2002), I think describes some of what happens in this book. 'These are the means by which architecture creates a virtual space or a mental space; it's a way of tricking the senses. But it's primarily a way of preserving a destabilized area.' Both artist and poet do this latter, independently and together.

        James Harvey 2010