January 20, 2022

"Operating on Words" | essay/review by Douglas Messerli (on three books by Bob Brown)

Operating on Words

by Douglas Messerli

Bob Brown words (Paris: Hours Press, 1931); new facsimile edition published 2014, with an Introduction by Craig Saper.
Bob Brown, editor and author Gems: A Censored Anthology (Cagnes-sur-Mer, France: Roving Eye Press, 1931); new facsimile edition published 2014, with an Introduction by Craig Saper.
Bob Brown The Readies (Bad Ems, France: Roving Eye Press, 1930); new facsimile edition published 2014, with an Introduction by Craig Saper.

In his 1974 anthology Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry 1914-1945, Jerome Rothenberg introduced American poet Bob Brown to those of us of a certain generation, hinting at the wealth of visual poems the man had created and describing his writing, based mostly on the poet’s 1916 collection, My Marjonary (announced for publication by my own Green Integer press), as bearing close kinship with the later New York School writers.
    What a marvelous surprise and wealth of information we have now suddenly been provided by Craig Saper, with the facsimile publications of three little-known Bob Brown collections, words, Gems: A Censored Anthology, and The Readies, that not only take Brown beyond Rothenberg’s purview, but reveals the innovative poet had created an entire series of genres not only far ahead of their time, but still quite original today.
     words, at first reading, might appear simply to extend the kind of poetic experimentation that Brown was working on in My Marjonary. If one simply leafs through this facsimile edition—the original published by Nancy Cunard’s important Hours Press in 1931—the poems appear to have a great deal in common, from their witty wordplay, and off-the-cuff observations, to the semi-confessional observations of Frank O’Hara and even Ted Berrigan. A poem like “The Passion Play at Royat,” for example, might even have been written in a prose version by Gertrude Stein as she wandered through a small French village with her dog Basket, observing the other such animals on her way:

                        There is no great gulf between the
                        Love life of the
                        Dogs in the village street of Royat and
                        Other dogs or even human being

Although the slightly more prudish Stein probably would not have made the beast-human connection, and certainly would not have observed, as Brown does later in the poem:

                        They bark and bite, snarl and scratch
                        Purr and piddle, play ceaselessly at
                        Even as talkie actors in gilt ritzyrooms.

Certainly the last two lines are pure Brownisms, representing as they do his love of lively word combinations (fornication and copulation) and his immediate reference to popular culture. I don’t remember a single occasion when Stein described herself and Alice sneaking out to the moving pictures. 
     Like Stein and even Pound, however, Brown is an unapologetic, pure-bred Amur-i-can, employing colloquialisms whenever he gets the chance, even while discussing God’s creation:

                         It’s all right God
                         I understand you’re an altruist
                         Plus God
                         I know you had a high purpose &
                         All that God
                         In breathing your sensen
                         Semen-scented breath
                         Into clay pigeons Chinks Brazies
                         Yanks Frogs Turks and Limeys
                         It’s a great little old world you made God
                         But now I’m ready for another eyeful
                         Mars Heaven Hell &/or
                         What have you got Gott

So Brown sets up a sort of fallen angel situation, quickly moving on, more like E. E. Cummings than any other American writer, to a kind of visual wordplay that can be read down or across.


                         If I                                 I would only

O                                   O

Darling                          Sit

O                                   O

Were marooned on a     Dry-eyed in its center

Little old                       Scanning of the seas

Eye of an islette            For you

Dear                              Dear

Who else could write a love poem, depending upon which way you choose to read his columns, that simultaneously sings a song of his imaginary love while wailing out the loneliness of the poor, marooned darling with her cries of “O O” and “Dear Dear”?
     Even more excitingly this poem, titled “La Vie Americaine,” begins with a purely visual element that combines time, daily meals, and money, with golf, the talkies, and “tail-chasing,” presumably of a young girl such as his later marooned darling.

What is even more amazing about this page of poetry, however, is the little black smudge that appears at the left side at the very bottom of that page. The smudge, in fact, is one of many such poems produced microscopically in the volume so that the reader, if he desires to peruse it, must take up a magnifying glass. I have long had one lying upon my desk, given to me by someone, I presume, who thought, as I aged, it might become necessary. Thankfully, my tired old eyes were restored with what optometrists describe as “second sight,” a condition in which I suddenly found myself, after years of resisting bi-focal glasses, able to read very fine print despite the fact that at distances everything remains a blur! But even my magnifying glass was insufficient to read these tiny offerings; fortunately my companion Howard brought out a sharper set of magnifying glasses which he had to better make out the visual images in old-fashioned photographic slides—once a necessary tool for any art curator.
      The micro-poem on this page, for example, reads:

                                 I, who am God
                                 Wear lavender pajamas and
                                 Purr poetry
                                 Should I who am God
                                 Dirty my ear on the ground
                                 Striving to catch the
                                 Idiotic waltzing lilt of
                                 Rhyming red-eye dervish
                                 Twirling white pink poet mice
                                 In union suits?

Thus Brown creates a kind of blasphemous commentary about the God he addresses in the other part of the poem, explaining his aversion to the kind of literary conceits usually used in poems addressed to the “All Mighty,” a commentary continued in the last stanza of the larger font size poem:

                                 Fancy in poetry
                                 Now that aeroplanes
                                 Anchor to stars
                                 Is a trifle old-fashioned

In this case, at least, the micro text comments on the larger poetic effort.

In other cases, such as in “To a Wild Montana Mare” (once more, a poem that can be plumbed by reading down its two columns or across), however, the situation is reversed, as the poet ponders the nude Lady Godiva in the larger poem, and merely uses the micro-poem to suggest how little he was moved by Romantic icons such as the Sphinx and Mona Lisa.

      Accordingly, the smaller, hidden texts, are not necessarily more outspoken or radical in either their subject or their linguistic usage. And often the “parallel” poems seem to have little relationship to one another, even if the reader is somewhat encouraged to try to discern links between the two.

      While we might expect the micro-poems to represent something created to escape the hands of the censors such as Robert Hooke’s Micrographia—an issue of much more importance in Brown’s anthology of poems from 1931 titled Gems—for Brown the nearly unreadable texts, as Saper argues, play the role of something more like “squibs,” small jokes and commentary, much like the mistakes from other publications one used to find at the bottom of the columns of The New Yorker, a genre in which the poet had had success early in his writing career.
      Moreover, the varying sizes of these texts, in their alternation of focus, point to Brown’s continued interest in a “writing machine,” in which one would be able to adjust the size and speed of texts while reading them. 
      Finally, the micro-texts suggest, as Saper implies in his useful introduction, other popular genres such as the spy story, with its constant references to hidden texts and disappearing ink, or of mainstream forms of concise writing styles such as stock-quotes, the fine print on food labels, etc., all of which call attention to themselves by their near-impossibility to be deciphered by the uninitiated reader. Certainly, for Brown, his experiment in variable type through his own poetics shares a great deal with Duchamp, a figure who greatly influenced him, and who himself, as Saper reminds us, “tried to sell his optical art-toys like a street vendor in front of his prestigious art exhibits.”

In Gems: A Censored Anthology, Brown more thoroughly explores the issue of censorship, beginning with a spirited and, at times, quite hilarious send-up of the entire modern history of censored or culturally frowned-upon texts. Like bootlegged liquor, he argues, the more a text is deemed to be unfit for certain readers the more its value to rare book dealers and, particularly, the young entrepreneurial men and women who bring back texts from overseas and publish, in special editions, what is deemed “obscene” writing. These individuals, whom he jokingly refers to as “book-leggers,” can make a good profit if they know where to look, particularly in a time when censors are so busy blocking out passages in great works of art such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, Djuna Barnes’ Ryder, and the writings of Havelock Ellis (several others are mentioned). Outlining the major forms of censorship from time immemorial, Brown’s introduction alone makes it worth reading the book; and given the continuation of such censorship of books in school libraries and on university reading lists even today, Gems is a book worthy of our attention. Along with Norman Douglas’ wonderfully obscene collection of Some Limericks, originally published in 1928 and reissued in the 1960s by Grove Press, Gems demonstrates the poetic liveliness of many popular forms, which revitalize language pulling the poetic away from the whimsical old maids and professorial fuddy-duddies who struggle to deaden poetry and language itself. 
      As if to out-do Douglas, Brown proposes a much more radical alternative. Taking absolutely prim and proper poems from Shakespeare to the Victorians, many of the works written particularly for children and young adults, the poet applies to select words the large black censor’s stamp, used particularly in wartime to delete sensitive correspondence and to prohibit then-contemporary readers from being sullied by obscene passages. Of course, by using the same tools of the censor to excise words from Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Shelley, for example, he forces the reader to fill in the missing words, often with alternatives that truly are obscene and blasphemous. At left I reproduce Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven,” a poetic rendering that I invite any reader to scan without a blush if not a series of outright guffaws—all of his own imagination!
      Certainly there is something dilettantish about these poetic renderings, and after a few pages of reading such works, the joke grows thin. If nothing else, however, Brown has certainly proven his point about the censor’s ink, and through his use of these utterly boring, mostly Victorian works—the selection itself serving as a satire of anthologists like Francis Turner Palgrave, whose The Golden Treasury was long perceived as an uplifting compendium of morally “worthy” poetry—has simultaneously satirized the poetry that used language in the ways he most opposed. Certainly there is not a better example of the manipulation of “found poetry” in existence. And once again, Brown has made good use of popular genres in order to create radical experiment.
     Perhaps his most radical experimentation had less to do with the actual texts used as with how that language was presented and disseminated. Through the late 1920s and the 1930s, Brown argued, quite seriously—although many interpreted it as another comic enterprise—for a new Reading Machine, a kind of forerunner of a fiche machine that would run microscopic texts through a viewer which could be sped-up, slowed-down, and enlarged to various degrees. For Brown this machine would make it possible to produce an entire work on the head of a pin, or, as he expressed it in a poem in words: “In the reading-machine future / Say by 1950 / All magnum opuses / Will be etched on the / Heads of pins / Not retched into / Three volume classics / By pin heads.” 
      With the intention of showing off his machine, Brown also edited a collection of works by various writers, some rather traditional, others experimental, and many now unheard-of, which he described as “the readies” for his machine. The anthology itself, except for contributions by Stein and a few others, seems not so very interesting. But then, Brown was presenting himself as an anthologist, than simply selecting texts that might demonstrate the flexibility of his invent.
      The ideas behind his reading machine are fascinating, in part because Brown saw it not only as a kind of futurist machine that is not today so very different from the Kindle and other computer-based operations, but argued for a new kind of language to accompany it. Saper and others have, somewhat convincingly, suggested that these linguist-wists (my own combine from twists of linguistic expressions) parallel the kind of computer-based languages we see today in Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail expressions. 
    Frankly, I think Brown-talk—what Stein hinted as being a kind of “Bobbed Browning,” or, playing his game once more, I’ll describe as “Bobs-ledding,” was far more complex and interesting than today’s Twitter talk. In The Readies, published by his own Roving Eye Press in 1930, Brown posits new combinations of words such as “Verbunions” (Verb, into verbosity plus “I know my onions”), Shellshallow (an echo of the Yankee shell game played with a dried pea and three walnut shells), and “Springish sappy” (Bliss Carmen’s “Make Me Over,” Mother Nature, when the sap begins to stir), doubtlessly the author’s undying tribute to the greatest of Canada Dry poets.
     But the creation of new words, for Brown, was clearly not enough. As he suggests in his last chapter, “A Story To Be Read on the Reading Machine,” it is the combination of these newly-minted words, without all the everyday fillers such as “the,” “of,” “and,” “to,” “a,” “in”, “it,” “I,” etc. and most forms of punctuation, which he replaced primarily by the hyphen, that truly matters. Four lines will have to do as a sample of his verbal-ized (“verbally energized”) writing:


        The editor of these three volumes has set up a site to show off a version of Brown’s Reading Machine. I couldn’t quite get it to work on any of the selected texts, but I was able to get the sense of its ongoing motion through a tutorial of the machine. Although one can alternate the speed, stop it, or even go back, the text itself, however, moves forward, unfortunately, without serious intruding, moves at its own interminable pace, stealing from the reader the easy possibility of or accidental (but sometimes fortuitous) opportunity of repeating, interrupting, or even skipping over passages. The endless scroll from left to right almost scolds the reader not to jump ahead, in, and about a text, intentionally slowing down and quickly moving forward again. While this can, in fact, be accomplished on Brown’s machine, it reminds of using the fiche—a machine I tackled for several years while working of my Djuna Barnes bibliography—trying to tame it from its mad rush forward and leaping moves backward, attempting to adjust its distorting lens into a position between microscopic and giantized. Frankly I would miss all those simple American conjunctions and pronouns, the repetition of so clearly defines American syntax, as opposed to Brown’s hobbled-together word combines.
      But no one can deny Brown his rapacious hunger for words or dismiss his endless attempts—as he expresses it in the very first lines of his 1931 collection—to “operate” on words:

                 Operating on words — gilding and gelding them
                 In a rather special laboratory equipped with
                 Micro and with scope — I anesthetize
                 Pompous, prolix, sesquipedalian, Johnsonian
                 Inflations like Infundibuliform
                 Only to discover by giving them a swift
                 Poke in the bladder they instantly inspissate
                 And whortle down the loud-writing funnel.

Like a madly inspired doctor, Brown prods, pushes, and cuts his words into and out of meaning until—I swear—he might even awake T. S. Eliot’s etherized patient. If there is, most often, something slightly clumsy about Brown’s insistent linguistic embracements, he seldom shied from his commitment, determining to never abandon his love of words, even if he had to create his “Superb swirling compositions / On my back where even I / Cannot see my masterpieces” (“Lament of an Etcher”). 
      We can only forgive Saper if he somewhat overstates the greatness of Brown’s poetic achievements, while profusely thanking him for sharing these significant, nearly-forgotten contributions. Knowing Brown makes American poetry profoundly more interesting.

Los Angeles, October 30, 2014
Reprinted from Hyperallergic Weekend (January 3, 2015), published as “Language Lessons: The Poetry of Bob Brown.”



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