Charles Lock

Anne Blonstein: to read: a page

No point reading from beginning to end, nor setting forth from top left in the linear and progressive expectation of reaching the bottom right of the page with sense and syntax, order and argument, intact. Let the eye, rather, wander over the page, treat each page as a field, each area of type as a building, a room, a stanza. Take the opening poem of "and my smile will be yellow" (there seems no reason not to observe the sequence of pages) and the eye is drawn first to the bold italic of the title:


You follow me into the shadowed room


Shadows tend to fall, like italics, at an angle. As a title shadows and overshadows a poem, so spatially a title roofs a poem, casting its darkness over the room, its darkness perhaps to be figured in terms of semantic limitation or interpretative guidance. Already we must notice that the 11 lines of the poem are (all but one, apparently) justified along the right-hand margin, as if each line were traversing leftwards, countering our normal trajectory of reading. Normal, that is, for those who use the roman or a related alphabet. Hebrew, of course, runs from right to left, and the opening poem of the sequence would then be "y en su vuelo" on page 66. In a Hebrew book that would be paginated first. This book gives us the 'normal' sequence of pagination while submitting, cryptically, to the order of chapters in the Book of Isaiah: 66 chapters yield 66 pages.


We return to our first overshadowing title. Let the eye follow the right-hand margin to the fifth line where there's (from the right) a slight indentation to a vertical bar, that typographical upright pole used to represent a graphic stick in Hopkins, and revived in the recent work of Geoffrey Hill. We note that the field of italic type ends here, and note also that there are four words in the first four lines set in roman: "where … dreamt and rhythmed". In the fifth line one word is in italic: shadows. This is not poetry that rewards consecutive linear reading, so let us continue to make our approach around the frame, or to reconnoitre the perimeter fence. Bottom right the eye will be troubled to see a single lunula alone in space:  )   . This last line draws my eye as it would be drawn in a painting, not here to the vanishing point, but to a highlight, a point of lexical shining:


to cite      a language (housed  )


The parentheses embrace 'housed' and house it, and yet they leave that little space, threatening or liberating, space to turn, room for manoeuvre, or a space of the unknown, of fear. We live, said Nietzsche, in the prison house of language. It's not language but 'a language' which is to be cited. House in Hebrew is beth: beth is the first letter of the Hebrew scriptures: bereshith / in the beginning. Not to begin with aleph, for that would be to usurp another's prerogative. Yet    a corpus of beginnings     where corpus does the work of textual body, lexicographical body as in corpus linguistics (we'd prefer corpus etymology) as well as that body minimally required for the casting of a shadow. Hebrew is a language cited: that is, to be moved, to be set in motion, or summoned. To cite a word or a phrase is to move it from where it was, and belongs, to here: an uprooting, an unhousing and a rehousing. When rehoused, things don't fit so well: the brackets are a bit too wide. The last lines of the poem form a notariqon of four words from Isaiah 1:26 which has much to do with dwellings and rehousings and beginnings:


And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city.


The city is Zion: who follows whom therein? Zion as the unattainable, the elusive, the goal: this is a figure for what is foreshadowed by the shadowed room. We will not arrive, nor will we feel housed by meaning. But in the getting there, the there of language, our eyes and our ears will have been challenged as by little else in all that's written, or known as writing.


The lay-out, the distribution of words along the line, the unexpected use of fonts, the absence of punctuation, yet the presence of analphabetic (non-phonetic) markers; the uncertainty of syntax: this might be enough to discourage the reader. But there are other modes of reading, non-linear or concentric. And there are also pictorial modes, as suggested by the bold of the shadowed title. There are no shadows in texts, only in drawings or paintings. Nor, in texts, perspective, scale, vanishing-point; not even a view-point. Yet in Anne Blonstein's 'text' it might be said that all these are present. As our eyes search the field's edge for a way in, we will notice some system that regulates the number of lines in each page of the sequence: the persistent shortness of one line, often the fifth. We will begin to see the poem as a cryptic image, encoding narratives of which we are but dimly aware.



You follow me into the shadowed room


you will learn that this is a room


where a story is told · and yet there is hardly any real narrative

structure |                                                                      


Which does indeed confirm our suspicion that there might be a story here, if (as Kafka declared of hope) not for us. In reading, the title is syntactically integrated with the first line. Look again, however, and see that the poem's first word is not in italic: we are disappointed in 'where' for it seems not to belong with the italics around, and therefore not to be entitled to play the syntactic role that would be so befitting. That it is 'where' that is out of sequence or synch or font suggests something of the amazements of space in Anne Blonstein's writing.


the speculative gesture of what is being told ·             


Speculative: to look out, to look forward, to look beyond what can be grasped and conceived. A gesture involves the same hand and arm that could be grasping, could take captive the conception. Yet this gesture leaves fingers unfolded, in a gesture that extends both towards us and towards the room, that beckons us: 'You follow me'. Ah, but do you follow me? Or should we start again?


As, with such poetry, one always must, for there is little sense of progress: lexically we are taken by gerunds, participles, infinitives; syntactically we make do with fragments: propositions, statements, narratives we must learn to do without. And so we return, turning again to be told—in a rare proposition—that


| there are no answers ·                                  


not because there are none (how could we know, even that there are none for us?) but because


they would sabotage

the speculative gesture                                               


sabotage is recorded in English no earlier than 1910. From the French, the word signifies something analogous to throwing a spanner in the works, though the sabot is a wooden shoe. Where there's a shoe there's a foot, and metre, and the denial of narrative and narrative structure is matched by a denial of metrical rhythm: no regular foot is to be heard here. And yet:


they would sabotage

the speculative gesture of what is being told ·            


gives us a phonetic pattern that the ear can cherish. As the eye (both outer and inner) can admire the shape of the poem as itself forming a speculative gesture. In told we hear tolled, and may think of the bell's machinery so easily wrecked by shoe or spanner: clogged, let us say: the tolling sound its own gesture towards a shadowed elsewhere. And in sabotage we will hear the sabbat, which, disrupting the flow of days, throws its temporal spanner in the weeks.


Then the font switches from italic to roman, for just three words:



and rhythmed                                                     


which might give us some clue as to the obscurity of the conditions under which we must work. Within this book 'rhythmed' is the first of Anne Blonstein's characteristic coinages, here making a verb out of a noun, the better to keep the verb from moving: to impede, to clog. To use a noun as a verb is to confuse the word-classes, a form of lexical synaesthesia to match what follows, the italics restored:


| as if i had heard clouds · snow ·


The most seeable substances of whiteness, most silently seen, are now heard.


And once more in roman:


sound gravitations ·                                                          


as the acoustic acquires heaviness, and a downward trajectory: we tend to think of sounds being weightless and therefore rising, in lark-like levitations: here they descend, snow falling softly, softly falling, as do the spaces between the words, down the page as we in shadow look.


And then in italics (a lighter grey than roman) the noun (plural) from which, in the title, a past participle has been made:




as if these were or explained or made possible the hearing of clouds, sounds seen, words weighted. In spaced isolation, a noun prefixed and past participled:


|      engratituded      |    


: the grace and the recognition of senses stirred (both roused and mingled). Grateful to find shadows—to have stumbled among them—as figures of both a dark perception and a luminous imagination. For shadows, though in themselves no things, are the evidence of the solidity of things seen. We know that what we are looking at is a solid only because of the shadow it casts.


A space, a bar, then a little space and a white expanse opening on the left, pushing four words towards the right-hand margin:


and subjected from these

inner chambers                                                        


The collocation 'subject from' is eccentric: we expect to be subjected to, or (when a pilot in danger) ejected from. The collocation of verb and preposition reminds us of the throwing in -ject: to be subject is to be thrown under. To be thrown from and under (not quite 'out from under') is both submission and liberation, the release from these inner chambers, what we might call the stanzas within.


and subjected from these


occupies the mid space of the poem, the sixth of its eleven lines. This is the poem's narrow waist, the line's leftward blankness the non-space of reflection and chiasmus. (If there is a space in reflection or chiasmus it cannot be occupied, not even by a mark or sign.) Hold the page on its side (the right edge now at foot) and see a shape not unlike that of Herbert's angels in 'Easter Wings'. On the right side, all italic with just a few words in roman; on the left side, all in roman. We notice that there are white spaces between and around only those words set in roman. The keeping apart of words in italic is effected not by spaces but by a 'midpoint': a dot on a level with a hyphen. This is, I suppose, because one cannot read the difference between roman space and italic space. When we compose by keyboard we learn—yet somehow never learn—that, although we cannot see it, the spaces know perfectly well which font they're in.


The contrast between space and point begins to acquire a dramatic look, and once our eyes focus only on the analphabetic characters, not on the phonetic ones (the letters), we find other patterns: the colon in the seventh line now appears a broken pipe (as, typographically, a pipe's a broken bar), and we see a dynamic composition emerging from the six bars, one colon, two lunulae, one three-dot ellipsis, the six midpoints, and the eleven printed lines of varying length, conveniently hard of reading when viewed sideways. All this might remind us of the title of Kandinsky's essay 'Point and Line to Plane' (1926), an investigation of how the surface of the pictorial plane can be diversely asserted and disrupted by points and lines: this is a fundamental treatise in the defence of pictorial abstraction. Paul Klee defined a line as a dot that has gone for a walk, and the act of drawing as a line taking a walk. Reading a page from the side, its lines become visible as pictorial elements, as rain or bead curtains, stripes or furrows. These vertical lines are of different degrees of intensity, the ones on the left are more black, the ones on the right more grey. This suggests shading, and we might suppose the light to be falling in such a way that one half of the poem is the shadow cast by the other. Or that the poem is a furrow, one of whose sides is in light, the other in shadow.


random assortment of shadowing

nows       hows        |  variations on an identity in one . . .


In hearing the rhyme of nows and hows we might yet reject these impossible plurals and suppose missing letters in all that space that would keep the rhyme but change its value: knows, perhaps, and shows: (k)nowing and (s)howing being what this poet does, exceptionally.


To think of these poems as drawings or designs is to recognize the sheer inadequacy of citation or quotation. Words can be quoted, can even be put in italic or roman or bold: but how can you cite a space? Recognizing the centrality of space, one can hardly cite Anne Blonstein's words any more than one can cite a drawing. Although the poem is made up entirely of symbols available on a keyboard, their arrangement is so precise that the only adequate means of copying is by pasting. Pasting is an interesting process, rendered banal by ease. For it is akin to stencilling (or tracing, or rubbing), in that it involves area rather than line, and shows a blind respect for spaces. In citing words in this essay I have been anxious to get them right, not only in terms of the customary expectations of precision, but in spatial terms. And where one can say confidently that the words are in the right order, correctly spelt, one cannot be sure that the spaces are anything but approximate. (There are numerical encryptions at work in these poems, possibly derived from 66.) In writing about this poem I have realized the perimetric sense of about, for this is a poem (as are all of Anne Blonstein's) about and about which we may go. No teacher or critic should be so rash as to offer to take us through this poem. We may think of space as the necessary condition for movement, yet space on the page is entirely resistant to moving through. For to move would be simply to negate the space: one's eyes must instead rest on that space until the words around it are optically transformed into inky areas, somewhat darker than the space, become solids and their shadows. And then other dimensions and ratios may become apparent, as design (spatial) and discourse (linear) play against each other, to no end.


Not to no purpose, one hastens in a new paragraph to add. For this is a poetry that challenges readers as only poetry can, and as poetry seldom does. All the sensory separatenesses and psychosomatic coordinates by which we regulate our being, and render our lives bearably banal, are here returned, unwanted. What's


exercised on an inner keyboard                                               


is brought out (the ex- of exercise) as black on white (white surrounding and infiltrating black) in an outward stanza that yet, by its graphic incisions, reaches within.


Writing can be thought of as a discursive linear representation of speech. Or it can be thought of as a craft, calligraphic, aiming for beauty and balance and design. In the words of Tim Ingold [whose Lines: a brief history (2007) is to be commended to all readers of verse]: why should we think of writing 'as an art of verbal composition rather than manual inscription?' In the former sense, the choice and order of the words is of the utmost importance: all is concerned with meaning. In the latter sense, however, value inheres in the shape of each letter, the harmonious arrangement of letters within words and words within the page (or any other surface). It may be of an interest not merely biographical that Anne Blonstein's verse is impeccably designed and prepared for printing, each mark, each space precisely identified and measured. Yet the poet herself 'composes' with pencil and paper, in a 'hand' that is surely calligraphic yet that displays such precision that one might think it beyond the control or competence of any human hand.


These poems take their lines on walks, quirky and eccentric, giving us much to look at. The work (the craft) of the poet as compositor is also the work (the imagination) of the poet as composer. All this to shape an identity in one … So the reader is asked to remove the bars that hold sight from hearing, text from image, shadow from solid, word from shadow. This is no whimsical game: there is an urgency in learning to read the world (our shadowed world) aright. It is as though the torso of Apollo had another message for us, or had reworded what Rilke heard: that we must learn to read all over again.


We say that we read maps; map-reading is a skill. It involves letting the eye rove without fixed trajectory until it lights on a landmark, a familiar feature or place-name. From there we take our bearings, work out our coordinates, and plot our movements. So with this poem, with each of Anne Blonstein's poems, we do not read them through; no more than maps do these poems have beginnings and endings. We should let our eyes and all our perceptive powers wander and drift; our ears may pick up a resonance, and then we 'light on' what each reader can recognize as important or familiar, appealing or demanding. There the walk can begin, as ours has, with language not quite fittingly (housed  ) ,  and where the walk ends—perhaps (restored  ), as at the first—is hardly significant, for there are no answers. Yet the reader's inner keyboard will have been touched, and struck.










A note from the poet

Charles Lock's reading of You follow me into the shadowed room is based on the unpublished manuscript of "and my smile will be yellow". Five of the poems in this sequence, including the opening poem, will appear shortly in the anthology Infinite Difference—Other Poetries by UK Women Poets edited by Carrie Etter (Exeter, Shearsman Books, 2010, pp. 66–72). There, while the italics and Roman of the poems is as in the manuscript, I decided that the titles should appear in bold only …