Friday, November 26, 2010

Pulled off my shelves #10: “It looks like ink spilled on a piece of paper.”

Last week’s column focused on books written in the interrogative: books where every sentence posed a question. Last night I was out for dinner with friends and our conversation ran to books that use psychiatric questionnaires as compositional tools. Unlike last week’s books that posed questions as a compositional strategy, I could think of a few texts that simply answer questions posed by other authors.

Dan Farrell’s The Inkblot Record (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000) gathers patients’ responses to Rorschach tests (abstract inkblots used by psychiatrists to help patients uncover subconscious issues and enable discussion of those issues, a form of free association) from 7 different textbooks and presents those results in alphabetical order. No record is given of the initiating inkblots, and all responses are gathered into a single text, distancing the results from any one patient:
Shape. Shape and appendages. Shape and head; climbing. Shape, black bear, no real body. Shape, colouring, white and grey stone. Shape inside a heart effect, a real heart. Shape, it has no head, part of a tail, more nearly a moth with open wings, colour has nothing to do with it. (61)
The alphabetic sorting, coupled with the enigmatic nature of the responses, creates a poetic structure. A chant-like rhythm develops through repetition:
Yes. Yes. Yes, all of it again, these white parts would be the eyes and mouth I suppose. Yes, all of it looks like an abstract of some sort … you see the veins, different muscles, veins are usually in red. You try to allow for everything, but something unexpected comes up, things don’t go your way. (105)
The design of The Inkblot Record underscores Farrell’s text: all the text is full-justified and set in a san-serif typeface which create dense rectangular blocks of text (denying any inkblot-style “readings” of shape). Additionally, The Inkblot Record’s cover denies authorial extrapolation; there is no author photograph, biographical sketch, endorsements or blurbs. Dan Farrell remains a faceless creator, just out of reach of the reader.

Craig Dworkin’s “Legend (II)” is the sequel to a now non-existent original. Dworkin’s poem “Legion” was a recontextualization of all of the true/false questions in the Minnesota Multiphastic Personality Inventory. The original “Legion” would have been a perfect addition to last week’s column of interrogative novels. Despite the fact that the test has been widely discredited for psychiatric usage, Dworkin was still asked to remove the piece from circulation. He willingly did so, but replied with a sequel. “Legion (II)” consists solely of his answers to the questions posed in the original – now redacted – “Legion”:
No. True. False. False. False. False. False. False. Not especially. Uh, not really. False. No. Um, no. I guess that’s true. Not really. Uh, no. No. False. No, but what a convoluted question! Of course not, that would be crazy. Not really. Uh, no. Yeah. True. False. True. Uh, false. No. Some of it. True. No. No. Uh, true. I wouldn’t call that an artist.
As I briefly mentioned in the comment stream of last week’s column, Ron Silliman’s “Sunset Debris” consists entirely of questions (a poetic addendum to my focus on prose). Christian Bök uses the initial 100 questions from “Sunset Debris” as prompts in a conversation with the A.L.I.C.E. chatbot. Bök’s “Busted Sirens” consists of Alice’s answers to Silliman’s questions:
Yes, I think that this is hard, but I’m not completely sure.
Yes, I think that this is cold, but I’m not completely sure.
I suppose that it does.
Yes, I think that this is heavy, but I’m not completely sure.
Yes, I always have to carry it far.
I can’t really speak for them.
Yes, I think that this is where we get off, but I’m not completely sure.
The blue one, I think.
We are just having a little chat.

Author of five books of poetry (most recently the visual poem suite silence), three volumes of conceptual fiction (most recently the short fiction collection How to Write) and over 150 chapbooks, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. A collection of his critical writing entitled "Seen of the Crime" is forthcoming from Snare Books. He is online here. You can read "Nothing Odd Can Last," from How To Write, here


derek beaulieu said...

a few poetic addenda which work within similar poetic constraints:

- Katie Degentesh's THE ANGER SCALE (Combo, 2006)

- Dan Farrell's "Avail" in LAST INSTANCE (Krupskaya, 1999)

- Charles Bernstein's “A Person Is Not an Entity Symbolic but the Divine Incarnate" in THE SOPHIST (Sun and Moon, 1987)

Jonathan Ball said...

I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the fact that The Inkblot Record thus serves as a Rorscach test itself, in which the reader "recognizes" patterns and perhaps even "sees" her/himself in the collated responses.

Anonymous said...

Love this, derek, and it's timely for my course.