Definitely Plural: Some Recent Artists’ Books

February 4, 2021

In recent years ekphrasis, the figurative use of descriptions of visual art, has gained popular interest among poets. I don’t wish to add to the discussion but will look instead to other practices involving poetry and visual art, questioning certain categorical notions, ill-defined as well as practically limiting.


The artists’ book — for me plural and collaborative in its purpose and production — merits more detailed attention than it has generally received. Too commonly such a book is regarded as the result of a strictly individual process of book-making, in which a person writes, designs, prints, binds, and publishes an exceedingly rare object. The enterprise invariably suggests the Arts and Crafts movement and, perhaps worse, a lingering hint of Yankee do-it-yourself-ism.


The history and practice of the artists’ books I find most interesting have their roots in the historical avant-gardes, beginning with various Futurisms (Italian and Russian) and their extravagant efforts to redefine — in fact, revolutionize — poetry publication. For these radical practitioners, poetry required a projection away from the self or, in F.T. Marinetti’s words from the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” (1912), “the destruction of the literary I.” By the second decade of the 20th century, experimental poets and artists across Europe were imagining artforms outside the self: Futurist painting’s simultaneity, for instance, or Cubo-Futurism’s vectors of imagination and words as such. Poets and authors worked closely with printers and artists, and their collaborative explosions of typographical fantasy forecast the techniques of concrete or visual poetry, as well as the freedom to move from poetry to painting to politics, in dynamic and sometimes idiosyncratic ways, that would characterize the neo-avant-gardes of the 1950s and ’60s.


The artists’ book (definitively plural) came to be an event, an encounter between poet, visual artist, and designer, producing “something else” beyond the work of each individual. It’s difficult then to write about artists’ books, as one is talking about something prior, discursively speaking, to talk. One must account for the correspondence of two essentially different practices without the terminology customary to either. Describing these collective projects, one cannot sometimes help but feel as if one’s chasing one’s tail.


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The first of the new books I’d like to talk about is Scenes of Everyday Life, poems by Richard Milazzo, with reproductions of mixed media work by Aga Ousseinov (Tsukuda Island Press, Tokyo-Hyama, 2020). On the title page of this 208-page volume, we learn that it was “published on the occasion of the exhibition, Aga Ousseinov: Celestrography, at the 53rd ST. Library, New York Public Library, N.Y., February 4-March 31, 2020.” Also, in Milazzo’s preface (remarkably replete in analyzing the project, and not in the least coy or artfully evasive), the poet describes very different practices as just that: “As for the relation between the poems and the images in this book: sometimes I see it, sometimes I don’t. Like my shadow. I did not do the pairing. I asked Aga to do this difficult, if not impossible, task, knowing in advance and unfairly it was impossible.”


The result is a volume of extraordinary correspondences, with the visual and literary work on facing pages illuminating each other, without the hint of illustration by either artist. The pages are an embodiment of poet Jack Spicer’s dictum “Things don’t connect; they correspond.” It’s highly unusual for the visual artist to choose the pairing of poem and art work, and Milazzo’s extended preface with commentary on each artwork also breaks with tradition. If one considers that the poet also designed the volume, then there are multiple translations in this most comprehensive example of livres d’artistes, making it sort of compendium for the process of collaboration.


Of the many specific pairings in Scenes of Everyday Life, I want to draw attention to the pages where Ousseinov chose to place opposite Milazzo’s “Proof” his own Garden of Earthly Delights Simulation Facility (2017). In the book’s preface Milazzo, a well-regarded art critic, describes this visual work at length and explains (as designer) his choice to put the work’s reproduction in a circular frame: “We see Ousseinov further indulge his appetites, this time for all the elements of his Celestographic still lifes but in a syntaxless, contiguous form, free-floating in a celestial realm resembling space junk liberated from any past, present or future utilitarian value.” At the bottom of the righthand page, Milazzo’s poem is dedicated and dated: “For Gaetano Dal Broi, in


memoriam. Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 3, 2016.” I quote “Proof” in its entirety, not only for its beauty but also to underscore its resonance with Ousseinov’s “Celestography”:


What kind of god takes a man with a soul

     as all-embracing as yours

and lifts him away? An angry, jealous god,

     or one who simply does not exist?


But I shall crawl along with the rest of you,

     and pretend when it rains, these are his tears;

when the light invents shadows,

     these are your mourners;


and when he goes missing when it matters most,

     which is more often than not the case —

witness this lacuna —

     you are the proof he once existed.


I repeat: what kind of god

     lifts such a godly man away?

Perhaps an inhuman, ungodly god

     who simply does not care.


Reading, or, I might say, travelling extensively in Scenes of Everyday Life is a rare experience, the likes of which are seldom afforded to readers of contemporary poetry. The book is a map for what the practice of putting together poetry and visual art may actually come to mean.


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In her most recent books, Silences (Omnidawn, 2019) and Alcune Nature Morte, or the Game of Life (Lithic Press, 2021), poet Martha Ronk meditates on what occurs beyond language. In Silences — and especially in the book’s first section, “Afterimage” — we discover an ekphrastic energy that crescendos with a poem titled, in fact, “Ekphrasis,” which bears an epigram by Max Picard that might easily serve to announce the entire collection: “Silence contains everything in itself. It is not waiting for anything, it is always wholly present in itself and it completely fills out the space in which it appears.” The poem enacts the “impossible silence” it first introduces, impelling the reader with the syntactic musicality of its first seven, seemingly interminable lines:


A speaking picture, impossible silence, out of which oceans, debris,

that undulating wing in the breastbone, in headswamp, low down

as water level, swampy tides, a still like spilling jagged architectures

of white cloth over a table, the torqued effort of blue, ochre,

the serif towards which she is heading, a leg lifted towards the gallery

shifting the weight of a body disappearing into crayon

and back again, staring into a figure posed and self-contained,


The concluding lines turn in on themselves and offer a perfectly unresolved resolution, baring the distinctive nature of Ronk’s vision of silence and demonstrating her unique ability to capture ordinary wonders:


yet what’s this back and forth between us and what to make of

someone who paints the face of a man who is painting, staring into

his own eyes, or of the pull of a silent rectangle, an unpainted bit

gripping tight, inexhaustible as yearning, unhooked from standing here.


Earlier Ronk starts off her poem “Magritte: the Kiss” with an epigram by Samuel Beckett: “To restore silence is the role of objects.” Her opening has reflection-recollection spilling over while the poet considers the inexhaustible “back and forth” of what defies writing: “Nothing looks the same or walks the same these latter days/ this face looking only to where it’s going, the coffee high/ the arching neck, the palm tree cracking the concrete once called to me.“ Then comes the conclusion — an elliptical half-line of verse: “Ordinary, luminous, wry” — an abrupt and haunting characterization of that out of which one tries making poetry.


Alcune nature morte or the Game of Life, Ronk’s collaboration with photographer Gianluca Muratori, is notable for taking place entirely “by the book.” In an introductory note, Muratori writes that the project was “born of a collaboration between a photographer and a poet, who as yet don’t personally know each other. Certainly they know each other’s work, but they have never spoken or met, and probably their meeting won’t take place until after the book’s publication.” The poet responds in her afterword:


This collaboration rests on the premise that juxtaposition illuminates, complicates, and energizes both the written word and the photograph. I began with some assumptions about Still Life painting and photographs that are borne out by Gianluca Muratori’s work: that still life painting or photography is often formal and includes domestic, often mundane, objects of the table set side by side and rendered with admirable and life-like exactitude.


Muratori complements Ronk’s description of the “formal”: “In this series of images I tried to face various styles, at first extremely formal, classic, to then come to a deconstruction tending toward the abstract.” Qualifying his method, he notes that his use of lighting aims at “an apparently stylistic incoherence made up of many, perhaps opposite ideas.” He concludes: “Beauty becomes somewhat less important than the ‘need’ for ideas […] to find coherence in the incoherent, not caring about facile readings.”


 Following a resplendent still life — banana, avocado, and mango, in hyper-intense detail, with highly saturated colors in illusionistic three dimensions — Ronk offers three short stanzas:


The color of an object is a wavelength of light

reflecting the arrangement of electrons

in the atoms of that substance


absorbs and reemits photons

of particular energies as the green-yellow of grapes

reflect back to your eyes


but also the color you remember grapes

to have been in a wicker basket

before prohibition when pickers went on strike


She enlarges her vision, emphasizing the role of photographic light to render the everyday unforgettable:


as light wraps around the bulb of liquid sweetness


and illuminates three dimensionality

and the amplified desirability, value, expense,

fruits of rarity arranged for display


Ronk completes her reading of the still life, turning her stanzas, with elegant lyricism, from the art historical, to the general and philosophical, and back again to the perfect detail:


as light turns them glassy with unnamable color

fragile as a Dutch beaker fallen on its side,

diffraction outlines the bare shoulder of a pear


the length of a torso along the shadow as it turns away

into Natura Morte, the future and present decay

and dust on the lens of all things.


As Muratori’s still lifes become less “classical” and more dream-like, the poems become almost severe in their compressed music. Again I quote Ronk’s page in its entirety to underscore the dizzying movement of her one-sentence verses:


Simplicity is never.

It seems a glass holds water.

The water turns red and fizzes.

One loaf of bread for multitudes.

Across the globe rivers dry up.

The torso of a pear is not a torso.

Long necks of shore birds.

A model exposes a bare shoulder.

Simple is as simple does.

Each saying warped by light.

Whose language speaks bread.

Manna from the skies.

Fish lose the ability to procreate.

Bellies swell on the starving.

Seeing with shut eyes.

Water was a mirage cartoon.

Someone called the other simple.

Is there a pieman rhyme in Italy.

If there isn’t any to share.

Never is as simple as it gets.


In Alcune nature morte or the Game of Life, the coincidence of poet and photographer grows more complete and vertiginous. Page after page one’s increasingly aware that the way out of this labyrinth lies in total immersion. Or, as Ronk concludes in one of her  poems


each on the stem of life proliferating as things do

even on glassy surfaces, even in the script coils

like a child’s drawing of water or her more elaborate

pencil on the surface over and over repeat after me.


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The final book under consideration is poet Laura Mullen’s and artist John David O’Brien’s Verge, a limited edition of 50 copies, issued in 2017 by the Pasadena print-works Typecraft. Though Verge has been out longer than the others discussed here, I think its relative lack of notice and, above all, the project’s distinctive quality, make it worthy of attention. This collaboration between a Los Angeles-born poet (Mullen lives in Baton Rouge, where she teaches at LSU) and a Los Angeles-based artist is a sui generis in its coherence. Text and image are inseparable, roaming across the horizontal 9”x14” format like the view out of the enormous windshield of an 1960s American auto. The page tones are variations on green and aqua, with iconic Los Angeles landmarks such as the buildings of LAX or the futuristic Norm’s diner sign appearing in somewhat lighter tones behind the poet’s bold letters in Impact typeface. Mullen’s text leads off with “Meant to be seen as moving into out of reach that is,” and then moves along with seemingly haphazard conviction — “Meant to be marked as only available for an instant/ That is retreating being left behind that is” — driving us toward the bottom of the page that “Rises and disappears into that band of aqua across/ One edge of the windshield gone long ago now that.” We encounter words superimposed on a science fiction-like image (a satellite or naval mine, perhaps), both out-of-date and foreboding in its modernity, not unlike the city itself.


The LA horizon is always changing, always precarious, and the collaborators make perfect use of it. The city’s less-than-pristine air itself makes“negative space appear,” for Mullen, “an opportunity.” In this book, as in the landscape it works with, words and images collide and fall back into place, always pushing the reader’s eyes to scan the page in a herky-jerky simulation of moving on.


An added feature is critic and theorist Herman Rappaport’s brief afterword, where he reflects on the cultural experience that is the Southland, about which “one still has the sense that everywhere is an anywhere with some unique signifiers thrown in for laughs. These signifiers populate the LA basin largely as signs in the sky that point to some aerodynamic future everyone knows isn’t going to happen.” He ends by summing up the extraordinary encounter that is Verge:


John David O’Brien’s images of LA’s semiotics and Laura Mullen’s poetic text brilliantly exemplify the paradoxical experience of being in LA, of driving around congested streets and freeways underneath signs promising the very thing people came out to California in order to have but were cheated out of: freedom of movement and distance from others.


As with Scenes of Everyday Life, one of the collaborators (in this case, the artist John David O’Brien) was responsible for the design. While the book’s “windshield effect” was a mutual decision, O’Brien’s execution lends Verge special graphic vitality. The words startle, often sizzle in their unpredictable yet relentless justice:


make an opening indicate a meeting of desires or

what a flow the movement away here away until it becomes

as easy as breathing to want a part of a dead

cow finely ground the thick icy pour of white


One can’t begin to number or reproduce the varied visual and typographic effects in Verge. Suffice it to say that moments such as these, with the phrase “icy pour of white” working perfectly with the graphic elements, make the book a highlight of recent publishing projects in and about Los Angeles.


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Paul Vangelisti is an American poet, translator, and editor, and the Founding Chair of the Graduate Writing program at Otis College of Art and Design. His many works of poetry include Motive and Opportunity (Shearsman Books, 2020), Border Music(Talisman House, 2016), Days Shadows Pass (Green Integer, 2007), and Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 (2001). He is the editor of a number of collections, including Anthology of L.A. Poets (1972), with Charles Bukowski and Neeli Cherkovski, and L.A. Exile: A Guide to Los Angeles Writing 1932-1998 (Marsilio, 1999), with Evan Calbi.