Bob Brown, Words, Edited and with an Afterword by Craig Saper
Words, by Bob Brown
by Craig Saper, Editor, with an Afterword
Rice University Press, Houston, TX, 2009
44 pp. Trade (Laminate), $26.75; trade, $29.45; wirebound, $16.45; eBook, $7.00; black & White, $13.98
Trade (laminate), ISBN: 978-0-89263-028-0; trade, ISBN: 978-0-89263-026-4; wirebound: ISBN: 978-0-89263-029-9; paper, ISBN: 978-0-89263-027-2.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
A companion volume to his ars poetica manifesto The Readies (see my review in the July postings of Leonardo), Words is one of the most amazing books invented, written, composed, and published by one of the most amazing authors of the whole 20th Century. Bob Brown (1886-1959) may be best known today as the ultimate representative of avant-garde poetry that has been burgeoning in the environment of the small press movement in the 1920s and 30s, but to stress his contribution to the hands-on exploration of literary techniques, ideas, and universes that are still far from being acknowledged today, would miss the point. Rather than being just a ‘minor’ experimentalist (minor in the sense of hardly recognized by mainstream literary historians), Brown is in the very first place an author who anticipated a number of landmark shifts that his own times could only dream of, such as the complete dissolution of genres, themes, and sociological levels and distinctions as well as the dizzying exploration of textual materialism (in the later tradition of the literary text as a ‘writing machine’, to follow the terminology coined by N. Katherine Hayles in her eponymous 2002 book).
If the encounter of ‘high’ and ‘low’ has become a commonplace of postmodern literature and culture in general, and if in the light of the blurring of their boundaries it is now possible to make now readings of the allegedly elitist High-Modernism (1910-1940) and its ambivalent reluctance to mass culture, no author probably went as far as Bob Brown in the joyful combination of the popular and the sophisticated, the commercial and the unreadable, the utilitarian and the useless. Having a (well filled) day-time job in the magazine publication business, and having covered enough pages to fill 10 lives of reading (in the beginning of his career he wrote among many other things novelizations, at the end he will produce a great quantity of cookbooks, he was also extremely active as an experimental poet, producing no less than five collections in the year of these Words). And in all the enterprises that he was undertaking, be it commissioned work or self-chosen experiments, the very materiality of the writing was the driving force of his inspiration and creative energy. His poetic work helps demonstrate it easily, but the same commitment to paper and ink, to the form of the characters and the dimensions of the page, to the relationship with genre and other constraints, constituted invariably the core of his poetics.
Words has been produced (for it is no longer possible to use here traditional words such as ‘to write’, ‘to transcribe’, ‘to compose’ etc.) in collaboration (and here as well the word ‘collaboration’ exceeds by far the usual partnership between printer and author) with Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press, at the intersection of various lineages that came together in the small press movement: first, the materiality of the text; second, the avant-garde tradition of art as stunt; third, the inquiry into the limits of reading (already initiated by the invention of the ‘readies’ as a quick-reading device aiming to compete with the speed of modern life and never art forms such as the cinema). Words is, simply put, a large format book (more or less an A4-format) containing two sets of poems. These sets, however, are not just two series of poems, like in a diptych, or a set of poems and their comments, marginal, translinear, or whatsoever. They are set in two different font-sizes, the first series in point 16, the other one in an astonishing point 3 (!) – construction that makes them unreadable by one and the same reader or, more precisely, in one and the same reading. The first series is utterly readable and the latter almost unreadable, unless the reader uses a magnifying glass –and even in that case some letters or words may remain unreadable, as became clear in the joyful and painstaking efforts to fabricate a modern equivalent of the original text, the ‘traditional’ technique of photocopying being insufficient to offer a new double of the original.
Words is often very funny, yet it is not a play. One can read it as a satirically distorted mirror of the literary climate of the decade or as a portrait of a certain avant-garde group (the Americans in exile). Brown is a great writer, funny, nasty, capable of shifting from one style to another in the same verse, always sharp and nervous, a literary master in one word. But he is also always very serious. The idea of proposing an ‘unreadable’ text has strictly nothing to do with a literary joke. It is part of a policy, of an economy of writing and writing that demonstrates the poorness of our traditional devices and habits as well as the ways to overcome them, for instance by using a machine (here a magnifying glass, elsewhere a microfilm reader, and so on). In that sense, it is of course not a coincidence that the Bill Brown’s work is being rediscovered now, at a moment of such intense changes in reading and writing. And as the (excellent) editor of this volume repeatedly argues: Brown’s work should not be read as an example of literary archaeology, but as an incentive to make a different use of what machines can help us do today.