Gregory Betts reads derek beaulieu’s Flatland

Derek Beaulieu’s Flatland: A Romance of a Crisis in Form

Beaulieu has produced an unreadable book. This raises, to my mind, two immediate questions. First, why produce a book that is unreadable? Second, what makes it unreadable? Well, the latter is the easy question: there are no words to read.

That, though, is not exactly true – this is a book overloaded with paratextual words; words that wrap around the project, defining it, but without being part of its inner chamber. The 98 pages of textual content comes complete with an afterword by Marjorie Perloff, a 165 word blurb on the back, quotes from Kenneth Goldsmith and Marc Boutin, and a 75 word description of the publisher’s series in which the book appears (Information as Material, of York, England).

No doubt, these paratextuals and the literary power of the names put forward to endorse the project are in place to remind us that we have not been swindled into buying an unreadable book with no “content,” even if it looks that way on first glance.

What do they say about Beaulieu’s Flatland? The publisher argues that Beaulieu’s book belongs to a current of art and literature that reworks previous sources rather than attempting to create something new – the world is already “full of objects.” Such projects “generate new meanings” by reusing/reducing/recycling existing material. Boutin argues that Beaulieu’s text actually exists somewhere between form and content; that he manages to recuperate ideas “embedded in writing as communication,” implying that the book exudes a kind of metadiscursive evocation of what it means to be a writing. Goldsmith argues that the book is a perfect reconciliation of mechanical writing (a la his own method of uncreative writing) and the tradition of experimental visual poetry. It is, he notes, a visual translation and creative transcription that is yet “non-illusionistic”: real without realism.

Each of these amounts to being gestures toward the beginning of a theorization of why the project is and what it does without ever addressing what or how it is. But for a project that is devoted to the physical letter as object, and in turn sublimating the physical letters into his diagrammatic representation of the position of the individual letters in E.A. Abbott’s Flatland (1884), the object and the method of creating the object ought to be recognized as intimate with the work’s ultimate significance. This is where Marjorie Perloff steps in.

Perloff’s afterword describes Beaulieu’s system and explains it through its relation to his previous work in experimental writing, including his various campaigns against lyric poetry. Perloff reminds us of Wittgenstein’s distinction between the language of information (in which poetry participates) and the language-game of giving information (from which poetry (often) escapes). Beaulieu’s book, she argues is “an exercise in sameness and difference” that shares in the Oulippean spirit of violation and revelation. She offers nods to the pataphysical tradition, to Gertrude Stein, and even to an oblique quote by Wordsworth about obliqueness in quotable lines. Beaulieu, her short essay seems to imply, is at the centre of the literary tradition rather than blurred on the far horizons of radicalism.

Beaulieu’s text itself is a series of straight lines arranged much like a seismograph shooting left to right, top to bottom. The lines represent tracers of an individual letters movement down the page of the original text, creating constellations of recorded movement. Visually, they look like the discarded gamecards of Joshua’s simulated nuclear wars in War Games. Ignoring the paratextuals for a moment, the book is, literally, a collection of lines jumbled together in an ostensibly meaningful way. The nature and function of their meaningfulness, however, is ambiguous – it’s where Perloff turns to pataphysics, Boutin to metadiscursivity, Goldsmith to uncreative writing, and Beaulieu (in a quote in Perloff’s piece) to Deleuzean rhizomatics. My instinct with a book of this nature is to stay closer to the physical object.

In fact, after the shock of a book of poems that include no letters, the next most noticeable thing is the overwhelming presence of the line. This makes perfect sense: the book he transmogrifies is a wickedly original narrative set in a world of two-dimensional space. Lines in 2D, as anybody who played the original Castle Wolfenstein knows, are the same as walls in 3D. Concrete and visual poetry has thoroughly deconstructed the icon, but here is a book that deconstructs the hegemony of the poetic line. Beaulieu explodes the mundane tyranny of striped poetry for the universal openness of constellated poetry.

This deconstructive agenda also connects to the original text, which was intended as a satire of the constraints of Victorian society. If we read Beaulieu’s text as a satire similar to Abbott’s, his critique is lodged against those practitioners (especially the supposedly experimental practitioners) who never question or challenge or allow for the serious interrogation of this aspect of the poetic apparatus.

However, Beaulieu’s radical disruption of the physical typography of poetry doesn’t strike me as exclusively satirical. Further, it reminds me, less of the early, mid, or late twentieth century poetics swamped in irony, cynicism, and other manifestations of the punk spirit, than of a contemporary to Abbott just on the other side of the English channel – Stephane Mallarmé.

With the Symbolist movement exploding one year after Flatland appeared, Mallarmé was already devoted to his idea of a pure poetry: poetry that escaped rationalism for ecstatic, experiential symbolism. The less rational the symbolic content, the more potent the purity of the symbol. From this line of thought came his extremely enigmatic and hermetic “A Throw of the Dice” – the functional initiator of contemporary visual poetry. Mallarmé’s sense of the crisis of verse (an idea that anticipates Wittgenstein’s language-game, as Kristeva has noted) created an opening for poetry with unlimited potential:

Poetry is the expression, by human language reduced to its essential rhythm, to the mysterious meaning of existence: its gift is the authenticity of our existence and it constitutes the only spiritual task. (Letter to Léo d’Orfur, 27 June 1884)

In many respects, Beaulieu’s non-illusionistic constellated lines fulfill Mallarmé’s attempt to push his own verse into an essential rhythm ruled by mystery and spiritual potential.

Beaulieu’s work participates in the tradition of visual poetry that grows from Mallarmé idealist sense of the libratory and revolutionary potential by physically breaking language open and uncovering a dormant purity. Some today might be tempted to mistakenly call this Romanticism, though it could be characterized as romantic. Indeed, Beaulieu confesses a romanticism, an idealist significance, of a similar nature in a paratextual element I have not already mentioned – on the cover even, in the subtitle. For here he himself, by including Abbott’s original subtitle, characterises the book as “a romance of many dimensions.” This romance transcends the satirical aspects of the work (as well as the swindle) by pointing a way out and through the conservatism that binds us to a flat earth and to straight lines.

Beaulieu’s unreadable book synthesizes Abbott’s satirical use of space with Mallarmé’s idealistic rupture of space. It embodies its own romance of the crisis of form.

Gregory Betts is the author of If Language and Haikube. He is the Co-Editor of PRECIPICe literary magazine and curator of the Grey Borders Reading Series. He currently lives in St. Catharines ON where he teaches Avant-Garde and Canadian literature. You can read an interview with Betts here.

Find a previous post on Flatland here.

More on Mallarme:
Un Coup de Des (pdf)
One Toss of the Dice

Opening Lines: rough notes and thoughts toward an essay

At the launch of Freehand Books here in Montreal on Friday night I picked up Marina Endicott’s novel, Good To A Fault, and as she took to the podium, read the first few lines. Actually, it was the first line. That was enough to compel me to buy the novel, which I did, right then. Sadly, this occurs far less frequently than I would like. In fact so many first sentences compel me not to read the book that when one compels me I don’t stop to think about it, as in the case of Marina Endicott. Rather, I immediately, and very gratefully, buy the book.

But what is it that compels? There seems to be no real formula–not a certain kind of sentence that leads to a certain kind of text even. What is it about the texture of language that can occur in a single sentence that compels a person forward or not?? The consciousness of the writer? The subject? The wording? What is it about a first line in particular? This is not a poem, this is a novel, there will be hundreds, thousands of words to follow, and yet–so often the energy is caught and crystalized in that first line.

Oddly enough, in yesterday’s Globe & Mail, TF Rigelhof started a review of Endicott’s novel with the opening paragraph in question:

‘Thinking about herself and the state of her soul, Clara Purdy drove to the bank one hot Friday in July. The other car came from nowhere, speeding through on the yellow, going so fast it was almost safely past when Clara’s car caught it. She was pushing on the brake, a ballet move, graceful – pulling back on the wheel with both arms as she rose, her foot standing on the brake – and then a terrible crash, a painful extended rending sound, when the metals met.”

In a time of conceptual novels and genre bending poetically charged, intellectually rigorous, prose–the kind the Hound prefers to chew on–what is the appeal of such a straightforward opening line? “Thinking about herself…” This is not a grand line, and given my own troubling of the self in contemporary literature, it’s surprising that it caught me. “Thinking about herself.” There we are, in a singular mind. And next up? Soul. Is that fresh? There is certainly confidence in the voice. And clarity. But for whatever it’s worth, whatever I end up thinking about Endicott’s novel, it will be scored by that initial introduction and my sense of feeling for one reason or another, inexplicably drawn in. I will have to come to terms with my own relationship to that first line–no need for the second, though the second is great, and leads to the third which increases the stakes considerably. A directness, a sense of urgency. And so on.

The game Ex-Libris (once available at the British Library though apparently not anymore) is based on the question of what makes a good opening and closing line. Players are given the synopsis of a novel and at the toss of a coin must write the first or last line of said book. This is mixed in with the real version and after hearing them all read out loud players must guess which one is the real line. Points are made for guessing the real and writing a convincing enough line that others choose your line.

And what lines usually win? The short and punchy? The long and descriptive parallel structure? The out of left field? The two word surprise? Just to complicate my own position (shaky as it is in any case), it is far too often the less tantalizing lines that are the real first lines. Apparently the power of a good opening line isn’t its flash. Though something startling is good. Perhaps the Endicott line struck a cord with me–after all I am enamoured of vehicles. And I admit that the third (of many) drafts of my own first novel (which exists in an entirely different form now), also opened with a crash scene. Mine involved a mother and four children in a remote mountain pass having narrowly missed flying off into a canyon, sliding instead into a hard, snow packed cliff in the Monashees (a range in central BC). It gets at the conflict alright. It gets the story moving, it shows that there will be risks, that there be skid marks, and near misses–in short there will be repercussions.

But I changed that opening, as well as the entire structure of the novel because it seemed too familiar, too novelistic…predictable. Too fiction-world real. And yet we have this very realistic scene given in plain language in Endicott’s hands and voila, compelling. Now, I haven’t read Endicott’s novel, but after hearing her read for five minutes I bought a second copy to give away. There was something vibrant, and clear in the prose, something that promised intellectual and emotional engagement, that was quick moving, but thoughtful, not overly descriptive, but attentive in the right quantity. A novel in the complete opposite tradition of the last novel that made me buy it and think about it and read it compulsively which was Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence, a 50,000 word sentence that has much action, much description, much movement, and none of it in the traditional sense. I can’t give you Place’s opening line because the line doesn’t end until the novel ends…but here a slice of the actual opening:

The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there’s no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one, O, we’re knee-deep in this one, you and me, we’re practically puppets, making all sorts of fingers dance above us, what do you say, shall we give it another whirl…

Tension, risk–no sense of narrative. None is wanted in Place’s hands. (You can read about the writing of Dies in two interviews linked to the right of this post). And yet that opening compels! Why?

There are of course the celebrated openings, Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick often cited as “best ever.” Austen’s, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Tolstoy’s, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Or Toni Morrison’s incredible: “124 was spiteful.”

Other favorites: Jeanette Winterson’s “It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock,” from The Passion. Paul Auster’s “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not,” from City of Glass. Of course Beckett: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (This from Murphy, though I could go on just thinking and praising the opening lines of all Beckett’s work.) Joyce of course, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed,” and I am a sucker for the opening of both The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit

The immediacy of the “I” when done right makes it difficult not to turn the page. Here’s the opening of Russel Hoban’s dark dystopian novel Riddley Walker:

“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.”

The elegantly understated “For a long time, I went to bed early,” from Lydia Davis’ translation of Proust, and Roth’s “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise,” from Portnoy’s Complaint. Did the line “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” prepare us for the dark meditation on power in Coetzee’s Disgrace? Atwood certainly sets up The Handmaid’s Tale up well in the short and apt “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

But is the role of the first line different in a conceptual novel? Must it compel in a different way? Or is the desire to be compelled the urge that must be quelled? Gail Scott’s Heroine begins simply, “Sir.” Mary Burger’s Sonny is one of the most beautiful and powerful innovative novels I’ve encountered in the past decade. I “read it” several times (flipping here, there, admiring) before making myself read it straight through as I would a traditional novel (the effect of which was devastating and I’ll report on that in another post). That novel, told in shards (sharper than fragments) begins simply, “This boy raised rabbits and kept them in cardboard pens in the yard.”

On the other hand, Carol Maso’s much talked about Ava, which I’ve never been able to read straight through, begins “Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance,” a line less compelling. It is a novel of great beauty, but not having ever been able to read it through I can’t actually describe its successes as a formal experiment. There are first lines that compel, but novels that don’t quite compel as compellingly as the first line. Say, Stein’s The Making of Americans, for example: “Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard.” That line has all the hallmarks of a great novel to come and yet, well, I admit to not making it through Stein’s Making either… Though it makes me no less a fan for it.

I can’t think of first lines without the now overly familiar, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” and “The sun had not yet risen,” from The Waves, and the startling, “He–for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it–was in the act of slicing a the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters,” from Orlando. Are these any more successful than the opening of Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out: “As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm.” I want to say yes. Partly because although there is movement in the latter, a sense of being funneled undeniably toward one’s future (as the novel further explores), there is not the sense of risk, there is not the tension either in the language or the meaning that compels the way one wants, and increasingly needs, to be compelled to read beyond.

Those rabbits in cages that Burger evokes make me shudder. I worry. Feel pent up, vulnerable. Wonder what they are doing there. How they will figure. Rabbits in a cage isn’t an astounding opening, but it works very well for Burger’s novel. And as they come back again and again, the reader experiences that kind of vulnerability. Powerful.

The sentence is a unit of writing. It is composed of words, and yet, as Silliman points out, “the utterance exists as a unit of speech prior to the acquisition of writing…” Am I searching for the sentences that seem plugged in to that? Or that offer a kind of connective circuitry that effectively takes me elsewhere? Thinking of the way Lydia Davis begins a piece (I’ll come back to her next time), or, as Silliman points out rightly, the precise wand-waving of Russell Edson:

A man opens a sardine can and finds a row of tiny cots full of tiny dead people; it is a dormitory flooded with oil.

And what of the short story?? Much to say about that, and the failure, it would seem to sufficiently innovate in that form (or for what is innovative in it to be relegated to the swelling ranks of the prose poem for lack of distinction). And of course now I have to think about first lines of poems. What does one need there? All of the above, only more condensed, more syntactical. Certainly one wants a mind…and if there is none?


Having moved on.

Jeanette Lynes

Jeanette Lynes, originally uploaded by johnwmacdonald.

Touring around with a new book. A slender, popped-up volume on the life of Dusty Springfield. It’s Hard Being Queen is a lot of fun and of course, it has teeth. From “The Producer’s Poem.”

She’s the sound of elsewhere, the struck note
you don’t hear every day. The alien trout
that melts your tongue then poisons you.
It would take so little, now, to throw her back
into the stream, walk
away. He wonders when they might graduate
to a whole word, an entire song.

“When it’s right,” she says. “It’s still not right.”

Christian Bök reads Darren Wershler Henry

from The Tapeworm Foundry
by Darren Wershler-Henry
House of Anansi, 2000


andor gather all the equestrian statues from the parks and squares of the world and then place these statues together in a desert in order to depict a calvary charge dedicated to the greatest massacres in history andor write what you do not know andor write a three volume novel in french about a man who falls in love with a cookie andor take everything that is sculpture out of your art because sculpture is simply what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting andor shoot a man in reno just to watch him die andor assume precisely what it is that you must be questioning andor tell it for a thousand and one nights in order to avoid having sex with someone particularly undesirable andor forge a scroll that tells the story of jesus revealing the game of bingo to the apostles and then slip this scroll into a case at the museum housing the nag hammadi manuscripts andor stroll on in whether or not you have studied geometry andor print everything on scraps of paper stolen from the dumpster behind the coach house andor proceed as though edgar rice burroughs not william s burroughs is the author of naked lunch


The Tapeworm Foundry is a volume-length poem that itemizes a series of witty ideas for potential works of art that the author Wershler-Henry has imagined, but has yet to complete, due to a lack of free hours and money, good tools and savvy. Wershler-Henry demonstrates that, for the aesthetic intellect, ideas often accumulate faster than the poet can dispose of them, particularly during a time of economic cutbacks, when the ambition of the poet begins to exceed the resources available. Under such conditions, the work of art must often become more conjectural, finding its resolution not in reality but in thought. The poet must propose a task to be done rather than produce a work to be read.

Wershler-Henry issues a series of orders, each one separated by the conjunction “andor”—a word that makes room in the text for the discretion of the reader, who can at all times decide between two judgements of taste: either eclectic inclusion or cliquish exclusion. The poem responds to the modern milieu of information bombardment by presenting itself as an unimpeded bitstream of data, from which the reader might sample a single phrase of specific interest, while ignoring the remainder. The poem emulates the experience of channel surfing, leaping at random from one cultural fragment to another in an effort to evoke the most diverse variety of argots and epochs, genres and motifs.

Wershler-Henry does not hesitate, for example, to imagine a Merzbau built out of Lego or a Mondrian drawn on an Etch-A-Sketch. In the above excerpt, he invites the reader to respond directly to the innovative precedents set by artists as diverse as Guy Debord, Marcel Proust, Barnett Newman, Johnny Cash, Scheherazade, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and William S. Burroughs. He presumes that, when confronting the immense archive of the Internet, the work of the poet must take on an encyclopedic polyvocality, deriving inspiration from the whole gamut of cultural activity. He imagines a more democratic, conceptual regime, where ideas are so cheap that no artist can monopolize poetic genius.

Poets who discuss imagined projects with their peers often keep secret the most novel ideas, holding such gems in reserve as a kind of mental equity for future writing; however, Wershler-Henry indulges in a literary potlatch, completely exhausting his reservoir of ideas in order to start again from scratch. He gives away his own creative activity as a kind of freeware that readers can utilize or improve for their own poetic agenda. He suggests that all conceptual endeavours thrive upon such parasitic exchanges of information, much like a tapeworm infecting a community of hosts. He hopes that, upon reading his poem, we too might be bitten by his bug and become artists ourselves.

Originally published in the Globe and Mail. Reprinted courtesy of Christian Bök.

Portrait of Christian Bok by Charles Bernstein

Christian Bök is Canada’s favourite experimental, sound and conceptual poet. His pataphysical encyclopedia Crystallography (Coach House Books, 1994) was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2002), a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002. Bök is also the author of Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (Northwestern University Press, 2001. He is an internationally recognized performer of his own and classical sound poetry. You can read part of Eunoia here, and listen to Bok read Eunoia, and Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate“.

Darren Wershler Henry is a Toronto poet, writer and author most recently of The Iron Whim, McClelland & Stewart, (2006). A former editor at Coach House Books, he is now Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He recently published, with Bill Kennedy, Apostrophe: The Book, with attendant site.

You can find a pdf of The Tapeworm Foundry here.