Machine Handwriting

REVIEW — By constraining himself to a limited page size and single letter form, Nico Vassilakis has developed a tight graphic vocabulary in this book. He pushes well beyond the lame parlor tricks of concrete poetry. I often find concrete poems out of place in language. The concrete poet visually forces the words into massive arrangements like a florist or like those photographs in the late 70s early 80s of people in the shape of candles or Coca-Cola bottles.

A concrete poets forces the printed word into the shapes of a rocket to increase the impact of a poem about intercontinental ballistic missiles. They arrange phrases in a crescent to describe the moon. They are particularly annoying in a poetry reading when the poet, unable to show off the hours spent laying his monstrosities out, is forced to raise the sheet of paper and explain, “this is a poem about cattle. If you can’t see, the words are in the shape of a cow.” I’ve wanted to play a joke for some time where I say I’m about to read a concrete poem about wind mills. “My poem,” I say, “looks like a wind mill.” And I hold up a photograph if a windmill and then read something like the Fo To Ah To Blues, which is complete gibberish. Sequence explores a microscopic, graphic faucet of language; the typographic quirk of repeated letter forms. These characters often aren’t phonetically related to each other, but have evolved a connection as the range of the Phoenician alphabet has been modified by handwriting reforms and the demands of mechanical reproduction. Sequence riffs on the shape of a lowercase Helvetica “n” or “u”. Since these are just toppled images of each other, anyway, the book minimizes it’s graphic gestures to the two legs and the half circle connector. Using this single shape, vassilakis has designed a series of glyphs and diagrams. It doesn’t take an avid type geek to find the images he charts out in the twenty-odd pages fascinating and worth the time to work out the internal rhythm of each composition. The cover is a nicely understated sheet of transparent vellum printed with “u” and “n”. The shapes overlap a 180 degree rotated shape. When I turned the page, it caused small moment of animation and then I turned the next page to a jumble of trial letter combinations sort of like the sound of the orchestra clearing its throat and introducing the audience to score’s various sounds. The first full page composition, the beginning I think, is a simple pattern of the two letter shapes. The page, in this case, is a floating 2 inch square block. The Helvetica letter shape is a modern sans serif typeface and has come to be identified with gigantic public institutions like the Department of Defense, hospitals, and street signs. The typeface incorporates some of the more fruitful modernist type experiments, namely the reduction of the alphabet into simple geometric forms, circles and lines; it also reflects some of the mid-century modification of old letterpress faces to a more durable photographic face. Helvetica doesn’t just appear on paper, but reproduces well as glass lettering, subway sign lettering on metal plates, and even as body text. It is interesting then, that vassilakis chooses this simple letter shape, with its machine friendly arch from one leg to the other to build Sequence. I would expect that there would be a coldly mechanical appearance to the work, but I was often struck by both the mechanical nature of the image-recalling refrigerator cooling coils, or a flea’s eye view of polyester, or radiator pipes and then the calligraphic notation of the lines, almost like music handwritten with a quill pen. The afterward by Mark A Sackner, thankfully is folded up and neatly out of way in the back cover. It goes about explaining Sequence in terms of concrete poetry and these poets various experiments with typewriters and so one. I don’t think really it captures the book. In a sense I can understand why it is included, being like linear notes to a score. The actual ‘text’ of sequence almost demands a kind of explication. Each page is like a Rorschach test and as I handed it around to everyone who came to my house last week, they would have to tell me what they thought each page represented. For myself, I had difficulty divorcing “n” and “u” from their vocal equivalents and I kept wanted to read the images out loud. Maybe it was the almost notation quality of Sequence. Anyway, along with this review are reproductions following are the first three full images and some Real Audio files of my readings. This book is worth owning. It is useful. You can use it for fabric swatches, as tattoo templates, as designs for metal grating, as bathroom tiles. Unlike poetry in the shape of a rocket these poems are not self explanatory and will provide hours of decoding joy.

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