Text Loses Time by Nico Vassilakis
(Many Penny Press, 2007)
It reposes on the rug like a dark weight, spangling its cover’s bright oblongs. Here more than ever, in the objecthood of book as object, is suggestive a first and stone-like materiality, soon itself to be “unearthed” as Nico Vassilakis’s most weighted language:
tumble, yellow area
Each of these terms, we feel, develops a dialogic between spatiality and promised, potential mass. There is an equivocal tension here between what holds and what threatens to drop away. Our language, in general, so often seems fixed, “magnetized” -- by the very visuality of its signs, by the histories of its references, by the groundings of our speech -- into some sort of weighted permanence. Yet what to make of such apparent intransience? For how easily our language may “fall”, snapping off into its own weightless nowheres . . . How swiftly our language can abandon its status as reciprocal magnet, becoming a “mere” picture, tumbling, in this instant, through structured voids of sound, sight and sense.
The poem quoted is from the sequence “IN( )BETWEEN: and how powerfully those disturbing central brackets mark the falling space of language I’m attempting to describe. Within the brackets, a space develops. But what is its status? We will see. For the moment we can remark how Vassilakis’s syntactic compression, evidenced strongly here, is what allows this writing’s many tensions to develop. Such contrast of language’s simultaneous weight and weightlessness would not be possible without this careful lexical reserve, which fashions this space into an almost sculptural arrangement.
Sculptural, yes -- for the poem not only visually recreates the “falling” of its words, but makes them culminate, and then accumulate, in an eventual horizontal spread of disorder, colour, “area”. The magnet of language holds, but then, transformed to “pictures”, tumbles. Yet what is this end “area”? It is, as we’ll see, not an entirely negative space, for though simplified, flattened, it is also coloured, and bursting with the potentials of a new spectral light.
We are dealing then with a language which falls, or risks falling, or defies falling, into its weighted middle, its bracketed “between”. Not only a language though – also, a subject:
“your light is…”
more of me
in the middle
From light-filled consonants we descend into the heavy material m’s, round and slightly foreboding in our mouths. The initial fragment of speech trails away, and its speechlessness is replaced by a silent centrality, a subject standing in an entre, which the tone of “never” has tinged with regret. This “never” recurs again shortly after in the sequence, and is again spatially determining: “I’m never anywhere.” This language which seemed so heavy, this subject which seemed so established, and this book blissful, in its latent weight: is nothing left of this organization? Is all stripped away now, so that only, as Vassilakis puts it: “chaos works”?
There is of course, we have felt it, an extraordinary benefit to our “tumbling”, a new kunderian lightness of being which accompanies this removal of self and space’s “blocking in”. For holes are also windows, and in “the middle” of the eye, where the hole of the pupil rests, is the possibility of a new perception. Nick Piombino’s lucid Afterword underlines this ambitious perceptive project in Vassilakis’s work: this is, as Piombino says, “image, emotion and meaning, not banished or distorted but reconsidered, reinvented within a visual/verbal nexus of focused perception.” After this reconsideration, there are, as Vassilakis puts it, “Pieces missing” and “Eyelids lowered”: but out of this new darkness and disorder, something else may begin.
It is like a process, then, as Vassilakis says in “Flat Out”, of an “organized dying”, in that such falling may make us feel that we are inexorably led into the absence of textual and referential decomposition. Yet we see, and feel, immediately and intensely, in Vassilakis’s constant and vigilant constructions, that this decomposition of writing can lead, albeit sometimes circuitously, to its subsequent recomposition. It is recomposed via points of new perceptions. These perceptions are formed from out the horizontal debris we initially arrived at after all “tumbled” away. In this new space, language finds itself, perhaps, with difficulties, under the aegis of a freer form: “It reveals itself. It putters along. It thrives too. A wonderment, also torment. Would you lean in and rummage about?” The rummaging is necessary; the torment too is necessary. And in this new state: “The details are obvious again.”
Even more than a phenomenology, this poetics is also, then, an epistemology. It is about the acquisition not only of a new perception, but also of ways of knowing via such new regards. As Vassilakis says in his interview with Piombino:
“As you stare at text you notice the visual aspect of letters. As you stare further meaning loses its hierarchy and words discorporate and the alphabet itself begins to surface. Shapes, space relations, visual associations emerge as you delve further. Alphabetic bits or parts or snippets of letters can create an added visual vocabulary amidst the very text you’re reading.
As when you are perched on a mountain’s peak though the panoramic view is fetching you tend to focus on an interesting pebble at your feet. Something quantum about it.”
A perceptive victory arrived at then by an arduous stripping away: “The embedded text is unreadable”, and must thus be “unbedded”. Crucially, Vassilakis’ predominantly visual pieces, such as Negative Alphabet Alphabet, as well as being of a simple and achieved beauty, also importantly carry out this “displacement”. A displacement which is not so much, however, between words this time, or even between letters, as it is truly within the very letters themselves. For here is the arc of an “R” disrupted, here the upper curve of an “O” which does not meet its kin. Of course, we still recognize these new base elements of the language: but how strange they have become, how unlike the forms we traced, made familiar, during childhood. This is indeed the “new pebble at your feet” which Vassilakis has signaled for us. It is an even smaller type of disruption, to show us language’s strangeness; a minuscule act of ostranenie, displacing a supposed “essence” of letters in regard to themselves.
Let us be under no doubt then that this is a total poetics, though this does not imply, importantly, that it is a poetics of totalities. It is rather a wholistic vision in the sense that its diversity of positions and multilayered multiformities serve to reposition those stable linguistic and visual structures which stick, “magnetized”, to the self. This is in some sense, then, Pound’s melopeia, logopeia, phanopeia; but it is not the building of a Poundian ideology on those three pillars of poetic hermeneutics. It is the modification of perception via a wide-ranging poetics of sense and data. It is, in this way, closer to Zukofsky’s sight, sound and intellection, but somehow even more aware than the (ever-adorably) optimistic Louis of the dangers of language’s manipulations. Though the future is thought through here, this is no Marinettian Futurism; and abuse by influence, technology and imposition is never far from Vassilakis’s concerns: “I see you losing focus. It has something to do with the machine you’re using.” With this new space, after our falling, comes thus a new and combative freedom: “The liars are finding themselves wingless in these abundant winds.”
Lost and tumbling, we have not then the old forms to cling to, but rather the newer details made salient by a renewed sight: “The next tether is close at hand. It’s not about being different; it’s about being alone. Forever. A configuration makes sense, but geometries shift.” Thankfully they shift, and they must be made to; for the new configuration makes new sense, in turn. “Nothing remains of our talking” affirms Vassilakis in “The Colander”; but also “In the darkest of times you associate with anything.” This propensity towards association is important, for it is the way to climb, link by link, from out of one of language’s many pits.
A decomposition, then, of writing’s very material sense, sight and sound: but of what order is this “unmaking”? What else, on a grander scale, is it for? It is not quite, to my sense, though this is debatable, the very explicitly social underwriting of language accomplished by a Bernstein, Silliman, Notley, Kinsella. It is perhaps rather more the creation of that “opening” so dear to Hejinian : its political possibilities are palpable, but latent, and appropriately they come into effect later. Even in the impressive “Iraqed”, we are not here abruptly in the realm of the discursive attack. Rather, the act of taking to language spatially, sonorously, referentially, acts in Vassilakis as an initial appropriation, and the subject may then, more than ever, move within a new space of liberties, or even ideally, of acquired perceptive awareness.
All of this repositioning, however -- we have guessed it already -- importantly takes place, fundamentally, in time. For coinciding with the vertical -y axis of space, Vassilakis has set up a contingent x- axis of duration. And yes, text loses time, as the title says: the seconds slip, and the language ekes towards decomposition with the advancement of reading in a temporal march. We may build, however, our language up again, from the chronometric rubble of our readings. This is, then, a veritable Cartesian coordinate system, and the four quadrants thus developed are a map of poetic form .
We can build then, through the poem’s spatial propensities, our own Bergsonian durée réelle: a privileged time in which to read the poem, to make it ours, and to make it at once an integral part, and an agent, of our perceptions. Vassilakis’s vital, intelligent, complex poetics, is nothing less than a chance to unlearn some of our learnt ways of seeing and being, opening our eyes to a spectrum of possibilities which promises, albeit in an often uncomfortable way, to keep opening, and falling, forever:
open your eyes
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative literature at the University of Strasbourg, France. In 2004 he took his MA in twentieth-century poetics from the Sorbonne (Paris IV), and from 2003-2006 held a scholarship at the Ecole normale supérieure of the rue d'Ulm. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in Verse, The Argotist, Fascicle, Free Verse, Cross Connect, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Parcel, Cordite, Dusie, Eratio, Otoliths, Shampoo, among others. In 2006 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His first chapbook of poems -- Novaless I-XXVI -- is out now from Achiote Press. He is the editor of The Continental Review, and maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals.