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Robins, Corinne—American Book Review
Robins, Corinne. "If This You See, or Of the Making of Books." American Book Review 23.1 (November/ December 2001).

Writing in terms of letters and alphabets; the book as a container of words; the book as a shape-become-art-object; reading, reciting, looking and/ or seeing; orality and oral writing—today the flag of the spoken word newly flies above our heads. Jerome Rothenberg in his first anthology, Technicians of the Sacred, celebrated "a range of poetries" that included ceremonies of the African bushman and statements of the Nez Perce Indians. The anthology was in part dedicated to rescuing the oral poetries of many primitive religions and simultaneously providing an appendix of avant-garde writers. "Primitive means complex," Rothenberg explained. And Technicians of the Sacred launched the idea of ethnopoetics and helped make translations of early writings by the Aztecs and the Egyptians take their place in studies of contemporary poetics. Early poetry, the songs of aborigines and picture writings by American Indian tribes, were printed along with an ode, for example, by Pablo Neruda. In Technicians of the Sacred, the concept of the "now" became 5,000 years long.

Thirty-four years later, Rothenberg's new anthology A Book of the Book, edited with Steven Clay, ends with the poet Charles Bernstein's essay, "The Art of Immemorability." In it, he discusses writing in various alphabets emphatically not as a tool for remembering. Gertrude Stein, who looms large in this anthology (despite that her literal inclusion is limited to a small, abstruse poem), wrote a book titled To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, which is all about remembering, about fixing a child's continuous present on the page. Remembering her famous "when this you see/  remember me," the issues raised by Stein's writing are omnipresent here.

In A Book of the Book, "the book" means cuneiform tablets, scrolls, stones, paintings, and sheets of paper sewn together that at the moment may be giving way to cassettes and digital screens even as email takes over snail mail, as it becomes harder and harder to be unreachable and indulge in forgetting. Included in the anthology is an excerpt from "The Book as Machine," where Steve McCaffery and bpNichol list 21 facts that could alter your life, announcing "[t]he front page of a newspaper is the paradigm of typographic cubism." In the film Painters Painting, Robert Rauschenberg, unrolling a scroll of newspaper sheets pasted on a wall-size canvas, announced, "The newspaper is the best book there is, and my piece (wall work) is all about how to read your newspaper."

What is the difference between reading and looking? I took a poet friend to an exhibition of the painter Kitaj at the Marlborough and watched while she rushed about reading the titles on the wall before she stopped to look at a single painting. Words were her locators, what she literally sees first in the world, which in turn define for her visual meaning. And think about cubism. Think about words on the wall. Reading, as opposed to seeing, slows you down. Bernstein writes, "A medium is an 'in-between' in which you go from one place to another." And it seems to be beyond question that written words are that kind of medium.

According to Albert Manguel in his book A History of Reading, the oral tradition that stumbled and fell out of favor with the printing press first began to be undermined in St. Augustine's time with the "discovery" of silent reading. Silent reading is not a group activity. Silent reading is private, secret. And more and more this became the way, the end goal as people were taught to read. First you read aloud by way of learning, and then when learning was successfully completed, you read to yourself. Meanwhile, in twentieth-century avant-garde land (and in all of Rothenberg's anthologies), that oral tradition has become the writer's golden fleece.

The 69 writers—poets, painters, performers, scholars, critics, anthropologies, and historians—in A Book of the Book unearth the changing significance of the page surface. Johanna Drucker sketches a history of the artist's book as opposed to the tradition of livre d'artiste, which was a commercial endeavor promoted by various art dealers. "Artist's books," less easily understood phenomena, according to Drucker, "take every possible form, participate in every possible convention of book making, every possible 'ism' of mainstream art and literature, every possible mode of production, every shape, every degree of ephemerality or archival durability." Meanwhile, Cecila Vicuña's Libro Desierto/ Dessert Book sings of the lines (written or drawn) imprinted in the Nazca Desert. Are those marks "[w]ritings or drawings to be danced," Vicuña asks in a note on her poem.

Seeing becomes reading. And in several essays in A Book of the Book, earth and sky are equally surfaces to be read. But also there are writers included in the anthology that will have no truck with such generalization. Jorge Luis Borges, not unexpectedly, sets forth as an unarguable distinction between the eras of the spoken and the written word. "One speaks of telling the story and the other of books. A book, any book," he says flatly, "is for us a sacred object." And he ends his essay, "The Cult of the Book," saying, "We are the versicles or words or letters of a magic book, and that incessant book is the only thing in the world: more exactly, it is the world."

As opposed to—or alongside—Borges, there are half a dozen bookmakers or printers discussing the craft of the book, the Chinese art of writing, manuscript books, and the shaping of the book into a visual non-readable sign. The book's final essay by Charles Bernstein chooses to deal with the concept of writing "as a storage medium, in that it stores verbal language," and this brings us back to the book's original purpose… almost. I see that purpose as at once an investigation and celebration of avant-garde literature and art (book) objects. But the further question—for whom is the celebration intended?—is not easily answered. Unlike Rothenberg's earlier, more straightforward Technicians of the Sacred, A Book of the Book manages to be maddening and delightful at the same time. It sports a foldout of the collaboration between Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay, "La Prose du Transsibérien," an essay on futurism, and writings by Roland Barthes and André Breton alongside Dennis Tedlock's "Toward a Poetics of Polyphany and Translatability." So my guess would be A Book of the Book might be useful in literature courses focusing on avant-garde ideas. At any rate, it is a book full of enlightening and curious writings whose real value maybe lies in its open-endedness and refusal to be pigeon-holed.


Corinne Robins, poet and critic, is a contributing editor to ABR and the author of two poetry collections, the most recent being Marble Goddesses with Technicolor Skins from Segue Books.





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