Mail-art by IUOMA member Jen Staggs (Dallas, Texas, USA)
December 21, 2010 - On the heels of her "Alexander" chapter (and that is an intended pun), I received a card from Jen Staggs with the poem above. I'm calling it a poem. I am enjoying it as well as puzzling over it, and it seems to fit in with all these mail-art language experiments going on presently, including Fluxus words, da da revivals, and Burroughsian cut-ups. This piece does have a structure: the letters of the alphabet. And of course with the inauguration of the "26" collaborative mail-art book project here at the IUOMA some of us witnessed with shock and awe some sort of bizarre global dismembering of the alphabet, mostly by a visual poetry contingent. On top of it all - and you can never underestimate the workings of chance operations - I was e-mailing back and forth with an IUOMA friend information and observations about the symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. For a time he disappeared into Africa, was a gigantic influence on T.S. Eliot, and I am a perpetual admirer of Jack Spicer's "A Fake Novel About the Life of Arthur Rimbaud" (it's not a novel). Anyway, re-reading my edition of Rimbaud, I came upon this poem that I haven't read in a while that has some relation to what Jen Staggs wrote. I'm sure many are familiar with it, but maybe there are some who are not:
by Arthur Rimbaud
Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O: you vowels,
Some day I'll tell the tale of where your mystery lies:
Black A, a jacket formed of hairy, shiny flies
That buzz among harsh stinks in the abyss's bowels;
White E, the white of kings, of moon-washed fogs and tents,
of fields of shivering chervil, glaciers' gleaming tips;
Red I, magenta, spat-up blood, the curl of lips
In laughter, anger, or besotted penitence;
Green U, vibrating waves in viridescent seas
Or peaceful pastures flecked with beasts -- furrows of peace
Imprinted on our brows as if by alchemies;
Blue O, great Trumpet blaring strange and piercing cries
Through Silences where Worlds and Angels pass crosswise;
Omega, O, the violet brilliance of Those Eyes!
This is a sonnet (I'm really unhappy with this translation I found) but the more important structural element is that it's built around vowels: A-E-I-U-O. And each vowel is assigned a color. And then the vowels are associated with images. If you use your imagination a bit, it's not hard to see this poem transformed into vispo combining images and letters. The suggestion is clearly there. And it shouldn't be at all hard to understand why I'm calling this a foundational document in the emergence of what we call today visual poetry. In fact, I'm really surprised no one has made this into a visual poem. Maybe someone has. For all you Punk Era mail-art fans, Rimbaud was an idol for many punk types in the U.S. (I'm catching the drift just how different it was in Britain). A passage such as: "shiny flies/ that buzz among harsh stinks in the abyss's bowels..." helps explain why - sort of visionary grossness. "The Drunken Boat" was huge.
The point being, artwork using the alphabet or subsets of the alphabet have a presence in many areas of the avant garde that contribute to mail-art. To get ever more esoteric, there is Louis Zukofsky's "A" (an 800+ page poem about the letter A that took I think about 50 years to write - he had intended to do the whole alphabet, but never made it past the first letter). Ron Silliman is currently engaged in a similar project and is making, I think, a bit more progress. Strange waters are these; beware the alphabet. The address-side of Jen's card was characteristically wonderfeul:
As ever Jen, many thanks. And it IS always thought-provoking work you send.