Ark Codex +/- 0 (Calamari Press, 2013) is one of the most ambitious works of experimental poetry I’ve ever seen. If your interests include visual poetry, collage, the history of the book, textual materiality, eco-poetics, or the poetics of disaster, this book will haunt you from the shelf, because it never stops unfolding, and every time you put it down, you know you have left many crevices uninvestigated. (To give yourself an idea of what’s going on with the book visually, along with some insight into the author’s process, watch the book’s trailer video, which might be most metal book trailer ever made.)
While I was reading Ark Codex +/- 0, I couldn’t help remembering when, a few years ago, my boss at my first job in publishing tasked me with reading the Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover. As I slowly churned through its hundreds of pages of explanations of what is to be done in every conceivable literary corner a writer, editor, or publisher could paint herself into, I found there was something eerie about its all-encompassing approach to what had seemed to me to be a field with limitless possibilities. As Ed Park put it, “It’s as though, in the wake of some crippling apocalypse, everything you need to restart civilization could be found between its covers.”
Ark Codex +/- 0 is a poetic collage narrative of just such an attempt, though it goes out of its way to disregard literary convention, as one might find it in the CMS. The authorless book—that is, no individual’s name is found anywhere on the binding or cover, and there is no title page or copyright page—represents an attempt by a fictional future scholar to decode collage texts left behind by a civilization restarting after the Anthropocene period, in which we now live.
As Miami is currently being swallowed by rising tides, as catastrophic storms of every sort have become the norm, we see more and more writers contending with what will happen to civilization in the wake of climate change. We have seen the rise of documentary/activist eco-poetics, phenomenological eco-poetics, and we have seen many variations on elegiac, lyrical eco-poetics. Disaster poetics began with the advent of the atomic bomb, and the neurosis caused by the constant presence of potential annihilation lead to the publishing of many volumes of poems that imagine the effect of nuclear holocaust. Now that almost all evidence points toward a much slower, more inevitable cataclysm, it only makes sense that we wonder what will happen to intellectual culture in the aftermath.
Ark Codex +/- 0 presents itself as a series of found documents, the captain’s log of a post-Anthropocene version of Noah’s ark. Each of its 154 glossy pages features a hi-res image of an earthy, muddled collage of language—some handwritten, some typed—painted imagery, and scraps of book pages, all obscured to varying degrees in the palimpsest. Below each collage is a prose translation of the image and language above. Each translation is roughly 100 words long, always on five fully justified lines, with consistent word spacing. The consistency of the printed text contrasts with the wild inconsistency of the language found in the collage, which is assembled to approximate English (with bits of French), but often strays from the use of the Roman English alphabet, utilizing in its stead various particles of Cyrillic, Greek, superscript, subscript, and French. However, these variations are relatively consistent, allowing the reader to quickly adapt to this idiosyncratic sign system.
Reading this language actually requires the reader to perform a sort of translation, though the non-English language is itself, essentially, English. The process feels simultaneously alien and familiar, not unlike the popular cinematic depiction of post-apocalyptic landscapes, where familiar landmarks point out that this used to be New York, Los Angeles, London, etc. Similarly, the language in Ark Codex +/- 0 used to be English. The ark’s log seems to be a document of reconceiving language in a world that has been not just physically destroyed, but intellectually and culturally decimated as well.
Just as the alphabetic frame of reference is wide and eccentric, the diction borrows from various fields. Mathematical language is combined with the language of genetic biology, biblical allusion, computer programming, and sea-faring. Likewise, the collages include pages from anatomical, botanical, cartographical, mathematical, musical, and dictionary texts. In these collages of we find evidence of an attempt to capture everything that is needed to begin again; hence the title Ark Codex.
However, just as the book documents an attempt to capture the entirety of civilization, there are signposts along the way warning the reader against any kind of certainty. In section 0:1:9 (the pages aren’t given traditional numbers), the translated text reads, “<<Don’t believe a word edgewise to anyone claiming authorship>>-the ark writes itself.” On the following page, the collage reads “<<HERE LIES <<RED HERRING>>” and the translated text reads “<<I>> am telling you straight that I’m not telling you what to think.”
By insisting upon its own indeterminacy, Ark Codex +/- 0, can feel extremely obscure. The language is disjunctive, allusive, and punning. Much of the language in the collages is unreadable, and seems to only correspond in part to the translated text offered below. The source texts excerpted in the collages are not named. What lead to this apocalyptic state of the world is unclear. While there is a somewhat track-able narrative in the text regarding the building of the ark, the collection of species, and the navigation of the flooded landscape, what actually saves the book from coming across as a needlessly opaque is the seemingly endless rewards in viewing any single page. Each collage is so dense, and features so many different lingual and graphic forms of signifying—i.e. utilizing red text for emphasis as was done in the medieval manuscript era, thereby identifying itself with handmade, arcane practices—that the book seems increasingly meaningful the more time you spend with it, in spite of its indeterminacy.
Ark Codex +/-0 is available from Calamari Press
Michael Flatt is a PhD candidate in the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo. He is the author of Absent Receiver (SpringGun Press, 2013) and with Derrick Mund,Chlorosis (Bon Aire Projects, forthcoming).
Over the past few months, Joseph Mosconi, known for his work with the Poetic Research Bureau in Los Angeles, has re-released several of his works as free .pdfs via Poetic Research Bureau Publications. These include: 33° Houdini, originally a Xerox appropriation of the turn-of-the-century text by Harry Houdini in which each of the first 18 pages is placed at a 33-degree slant, and which concludes in a rather unceremonious modification; Word Search, which places Robert Creeley poems into a magazine-style word search format; and most recently, Demon Miso/Fashion in Child, a color-theory-oriented collection of absurd names for supposed foodstuffs, placed in the 80s Burger King font. The concerns of Mosconi’s work reflect those of the Bureau, self-stated: “appropriations, impersonations, ‘compost’ poetries, belated conversations, unprintable jokes and doodles, ‘unoriginal literature, historical thefts and pastiche.”
Perhaps the most inscrutable of the works Mosconi has made available through PRBP is Galvanized Iron on the Citizens’ Band, which derives its title from the military and trucking acronyms GI and CB, and opens with a big-ole fucking question mark. What follows is a series of found-text word combinations of hypermasculine slang of the sort that circulates in the GI and CB communities, presented in headline-size font. Apart from the title, no reference is made to the process Mosconi employed or the source of the language.
It’s perfectly possible to read Galvanized in five minutes. Blasting through its decontextualized snippets of unkempt lingual bursts feels a bit like watching an episode of TV Carnage’s Casual Fridays. Of course, the text proves more rewarding if one resists the urge to speed-click through its 500-some words. Limiting himself to just one phrase per page—the longest comprised of eleven words, the shortest, three—Mosconi asks that the reader take a little time to consider: In what discursive context might “Double-Digit Midget Walked On Ya” be relevant? What are the concerns of a community bound by its affective sneer? Where exactly do “Retarded Over-Trained Children Flash For Cash,” and do you want to find it?
The conceptual frame for this project distinguishes it from his more recent work. The stridently irreverent homophobia—of course a staple of phallocentric linguistic cultures—takes center stage with its “Crotch-Rocket Cowboy,” “Smashed Assholes,” and “Bag of Dicks.” Mosconi’s tour through the truck stops and barracks of Middle America is replete with this brand of lot lizard yuck-yucks, and the degree to which the reader is meant to take pleasure in the playfulness of this language is left open-ended. Though disgusting, though teeming with repression of homoerotic fantasies, and though imbued with an insane degree of toxic affect, unquestionably the result of years being fucked over daily in the capitalist and military economies, there is pleasure to be found in the absurdity and the soundplay represented here.
In spite of the found-language process use to create Galvanized, Mosconi’s piece forms a subjectivity and a context for its experience. We are located by the clipped gerunds and colloquial pronouns of working class speech, as well as the well-trod clichés of masculine aggression. A bowl of “Cigarette Soup Half Cheese” places the speaker in a dilapidated diner. We find him in a strip club observing “Crabs Within A Cage Four-Legged Go-Go Dancers.” References to corn flakes, kiddie cars, and phone booths places him in a space of economically depressed nostalgia, like the one felt driving through poor white rural towns, with muddy lawns strewn with the toys and tools of a previous generation.
What Mosconi’s work does best, though, is point to the way that readers attempt to make syntactic sense of seemingly nonsensical language. “People Tank Despair Box,” for example, drives the reader to combine these words in pairs in search of a familiar object: people-tank; tank-despair; despair-box. In this case, none is forthcoming, yet the combinations are fairly evocative. “Moon Beam Goon Squad,” however, provides a pair of familiar pairs, and we can sense that what brought these together is their shared –oons and spondee stress. Almost each page of this text provides a different wrinkle of that particular pleasure.
Galvanized Iron on the Citizens’ Band is available for free at the Poetic Research Bureau
Michael Flatt is a PhD candidate in the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo. He is the author of Absent Receiver (SpringGun Press, 2013) and with Derrick Mund, Chlorosis (Bon Aire Projects, forthcoming).
Since 2010, Gauss PDF has published eighty-nine .pdfs, .docs, .movs, and .zip files that explore questions of appropriation (see Christine Jones’s The Vision of Love, which reworks and recontextualizes the Mariah Carey tune), medium (see Joey Yearous-Algozin’s Air the Trees, which uses Word’s corrective underlines to create treelike images), the profane (see Josef Kaplan’s One of These Cocks Is Mine, which is every bit as NSFW as it sounds) and scale (see Nicolas Mugavero’s Eight Million Copies of Moby-Dick, which is ostensibly exactly what it sounds like, though I didn’t count them). Gauss PDF’s catalog makes for a great introduction to the widely various scene of contemporary conceptual poetry.
Among their recent releases is Angela Genusa’s Jane Doe, in which Genusa appropriates language without making appropriation itself the subject of the work. By taking appropriation’s legitimacy as an artistic process as a given, she puts aside discussions of aestheticism and process to ask questions about the way we live not only in the textual world, but as living bodies and beings. Jane Doe appears to borrow its language from websites like this one that advertise and sell vintage dolls. Here is one of Jane Doe’s thirty-six entries:
She has red head titian hair with bangs
which appears uncut. No missing plugs
noted; not sure if some may have thinned.
She has blue eyes, brown brows, and pale
butter yellow lips. She has no nose nip, no
green ears, no neck splits. There is a tiny
spot on lower left cheek with faint
greenish stain—hardly noticeable, unless
closely inspected (won’t show in picture).
She has all her fingers and toes and limbs
are attached. Right arm is not as tight as
the left arm. Her back and legs have few
minor, hardly noticeable, scratches. She
has a rattling sound inside her; not sure
The text immediately conjures an odd feeling of slippage into a kind of verbal uncanny valley. One associates the initial description with a woman’s hair, but once her bangs are described as appearing “uncut,” the analog begins to break down. This effect repeats itself numerous times within each piece. One feels again in this piece in the line, “She has blue eyes, brown brows, and pale butter yellow lips.” Once you reach the “rattling sound,” the effect is comedic, and this is often the case in Jane Doe.
More often, though, this slippage is a discomfiting reminder of how women’s bodies are critiqued, how men scan women for flaws and how women do the same to themselves and each other. “Her limbs and head are still nice and tight and in good working order,” (#19); “still,” implying it is only a matter of time before this is no longer the case. The endless search for parts that are “broken”—“Right knee is broken inside, and does not click, skin is not broken,” (#20)—brings to mind the chauvinist observation of “damaged goods.” And the bizarre nature of the categories of defects that are examined here—the collectors are forever on the lookout for “missing plugs,” “green ears,” “neck splits” etc.—brings to mind the ever-expanding laundry list of bodily details women must correct. One thinks of the ludicrous “thigh gap,” the lack thereof being a so-called problem that seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of an enterprising Cosmopolitan writer.
The cold, flat, repeating descriptions of bodies in Genusa’s work here also reminds me of the chapter of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 entitled “The Crimes,” in which the author presents crime scene descriptions of the bodies of victims of a serial rapist/murderer, inspired by a long series of similar crimes near Juarez, Mexico. The title Jane Doe implies the unknown identity of such a victim. Just as Bolaño’s victims often show the same types of mutilations, many having had a nipple bitten off, many of the dolls in Genusa’s work are said to have bite marks on their extremities, their noses. Some of the dolls are missing fingers or toes, presumably victims of a more innocent brutality. This attempt to simply report the objective facts lends the descriptions of the dolls the tone of a pedophiliac detective novel.
And yet despite these attempts to remain distantly objective, the collectors sometimes demonstrate a clear affection for their doll subjects, though always qualified by the acknowledgment of at least one imperfection.
She has the most beautiful full head of
oxidized hair I’ve ever seen. It is thick and
absolutely shining. She is perfect with big
brown doe eyes, rosy cheeks, real lashes
and pink mouth. No neck splits, no green
ear. Her body is in excellent condition as
well. Her legs work well and hold three
positions. Her hands are perfect with all
fingers present and no chews or nicks.
The only minor issues are a few pin pricks
on her right leg on the foot.
Despite seeming to be in love with this doll for her “oxidized hair,” “doe eyes,” and “pink mouth,” she still comes up short. She is “perfect,” “excellent,” except for her “minor issues.” And though the collector insists her pin pricks are something to be looked past, he does so, presumably, in order to preserve her value in the eyes of potential buyers.
But what is it that the collector seeks to buy and sell? The consistent use of feminine pronouns to refer to the dolls emphasizes the assumption of a personality, an ontology in the mind of the collector. Due to their anthropomorphic qualities, the dolls are subconsciously imbued with human qualities, and referred to as if they were people rather than a conglomerate of plastic, rubber, and synthetic fibers. Just as the line between object and person is blurred for children in the experience of playing with dolls, Genusa points that this line is never fully brought into relief as we become adults. Dolls are made to resemble us, and we can’t deny or ignore that resemblance. Our treatment and discussion of our anthropomorphized toys then is unavoidably an analog for the way we talk about people. And this is what makes this collection more than a little unsettling.
It seems ironic that in choosing to collect used dolls from a previous generation, these collectors have made perfection less attainable. If what one truly desired was a perfect doll, it would be easy enough to buy a new one from a toy store. The problem is that anyone can do that, while it takes a more skilled collector, an aficionado, to find the perfect used doll, one that has been owned so well previously, that perfection has become an integral, if fragile, part of her being. Her perfection becomes the collector’s perfection. It takes the perfect collector to locate and preserve the perfect doll.
Michael Flatt is a PhD candidate in the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo. He is the author of Absent Receiver(SpringGun Press, 2013) and with Derrick Mund, Chlorosis (Bon Aire Projects, forthcoming).