(This review originally ran in the Brooklyn Rail. And yes, that is a Magritte on the cover.)
As I began composing this review, I typed the word “language” incorrectly as “linguate”: tongue-shaped. According to the glossary of orchid terms — a lexicon based on the taxonomic works of Linnaeus, which I found, of course, online — the word refers to the shape of certain orchids. My “mistake” then seemed serendipitously appropriate to a discussion of Philip Meersman’s extraordinary (indeed, multi-linguate) concrete, visual and sound poetry: his work is tongue-shaped, and shaped by tongues.
Meersman is a Belgian-born poet and performer with an international reputation. His oracular work, often written in several languages, both partakes of and reinvents the languages with which he has come into contact via a personal touchstone of radical openness that grants readers access as co-creators/-translators. Instead of a Table of Contents, Meersman supplies a “Writer’s Cut” with no page numbers, suggesting that one meander around for a while. The piece that opens the book, “Declaration of Art Entering Into Force On the Date of Publication,” is a contract between the poet and readers/listeners:
Philip Meersman, Poet-Performer; [etc.] Considering that it is important, in
order to ensure the maintenance of artistic relations, that performances
should not commence without previous warning; That it is equally important
that the existence of a state of art should be notified without delay to other
Artists; Being desirous of concluding a Convention to this effect, have agreed
upon the following provisions:
Article 1: The Contracting Artists recognize that the performances must not
commence without previous and explicit warning, in the form either of a
reasoned declaration of art or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration
A footnote explains that the audience, as signatories, comprise the “[etc.]” of the first line. The contract contains eight articles, and is both a written and visual conceptual performance located in the desire to explore (and to gently pillory) ideas of permission: what is or is not acceptable in a “state of art?” (The reader/potential signatory is also invited to imagine what that “state of art” is, and what the experience of living inside of it might be.) There is even a place for the ambivalent in Article 2:
Neutral Artists, nevertheless, cannot rely on the absence of notification if it is clearly established that they were in fact aware of the existence of a state of art.
The idea of artists relying on an absence of something to confirm what they were, to begin with, cognizant of, is wholly charming.
The first section of the collection playfully deconstructs the elements of Belgian chocolate in French, English and product code. “This is Belgian Chocolate/Ceci c’est du chocolat belge” is a list poem of codes for all manufactured Belgian chocolate, and “Chocopromo (Belcolade)” is a lyric chant, in English, of the products of the Belgian chocolate manufacturer Belcolade. The collection’s next section, “L’Origine du Monde: Genesis 11:1-9,” refers to the Tower of Babel story, where humanity’s common tongue was confounded by an insecure Jehovah — the real original sin, perhaps. The first poem in that section, “Message To a Past (For Voice, Morse and Wailing),” is a fascinating piece that incorporates Morse Code:
Ah-bout-you ou-ou youwouwauwwawau
have I IyayaI IyayaI lyayal lyayaI I have
never ever ever eve ever ever never
written wrote wrung never ever written not knot no
To “read” a piece like this requires that the reader hear and incorporate sounds which seem like opposites on the spectrum of expressive communication. In this context, though, the visual sense of the poem interpolates those two ends and imparts information, especially after you do a little Googling and find out that the first two lines are “SOS.”
Meersman’s style and thematics suggest Khlebnikov and Marinetti, with a bit of Yevtushenko’s “The City of Yes and the City of No” and Voznesensky’s “New York Bird” thrown in. Visually, the concrete poetry of Khlebnikov and Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen also come to mind. Meersman is a visual artist as well, so the look of the poems on the page — the balance between white space and text — is important to the reading/hearing. The book’s design recalls the work of Lazar Lissitzky (El Lissitzky), the Russian artist, designer and architect who influenced the Bauhaus and Constructivist movements. One poem, Multzumess (a pun on the Romanian word “mulțumesc”/thank you), “a simultaneous poetry writing experiment,” was composed with several other poets at a literary conference in Romania in 2009. Essentially, it is a “heard poem,” transcribed from mishearings, comments, jokes and jibes written in a notebook by Meersman and other attendees at the conference while panelists were speaking on a dais. Massively playful, the poem sprawls anarchically across fifteen pages and utilizes at least four known languages and several more fonts. Such fluid play recalls Zaum, the linguistic experiments of Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh (who declared in his Declaration of Transrational Language , that zaum could “provide a universal poetic language”).
I’m mindful that I’ve been mainly comparing Meersman’s work to that of long ago poets, schools and movements, and I’m mindful also of the end-games, rooted in historical circumstance, of those schools and movements. I agree with critic and scholar Brian Reed who wrote, in a Jacket piece of April 2005 (about Elizaveta Mnatsakanova’s 1983 article, “Khlebnikov: Limit and the Unlimited Music of the Word”): “Khlebnikov’s arguments . . . suggest that once freed of limiting particulars people will at long last recognize that they are ‘continuous links in the universal soul’ and part of ‘a single entity.’ This liquidation of historical memory and individual difference in the name of communal uniformity might have appealed to an avant-gardist in the thick of a civil war, but it looks very different today, in the wake of nearly a century of mass murders carried out by totalitarian regimes . . .”
True. But might not striving to be free of limiting particulars via a universal communication — shaped by tongues describing a radical openness — be a worthy intention of poets once again? If this is Meersman’s goal, he has both quietly and loudly succeeded.