On Writing: Given Time: Notes on Dimensional Poetry
by Karin Cope, Anna Heywood Jones, and Ryan Josey
What is a poem?
Is it always and only made up of words?
Or might it sometimes be a wordless thing, a space or gesture that, nevertheless, is not mute?
Might a poem have not simply rhythm and extension, but spatially speaking, dimension?
What if we were to identify a set of gestures and textures, specific interleavings of observation and experience, certain concrete traces of space and of the passage of time as poems as well?
Suppose I were to describe to you a room where each corner holds a stone and a jar of water. Painted in gouache in the corner above each stone are certain coloured forms, which spell out, if anyone knows the signage of nautical flags, the names of nearby places: harbours, towns, waterfronts,
spaces where the stones and the water in the jars have been gathered, and where events known only to the person who placed the stones, and certain select others, took place. Each stone is also painted, using a short series of nautical flags in gouache, with a verb that corresponds to the author’s memories or experiences of that particular place. After two weeks, each jar of water is used to wash its nearby stone, to erase the traces flagged there. The stones are then returned to their various watercourses and harbours. The jars are repurposed. The whole work disappears, save as memory traces. Is this poetry? And if it is not, why not?
This 2014 work, entitled Catch; Cruise; Play; Pray, Ryan Josey’s tongue-in-cheek queering of Elizabeth Gilbert’s infamous Eat Love Pray, first startled me into thinking about what I want to call Dimensional Poetry. I had been interested in what I called Visible Poetry – now a long-running experiment with the construction of poems from a mixture of photography, video and words – but with Josey’s instigation, I began to imagine poetry as something that might step off the page or screen and engage other disciplines than just these, particularly its nearest sibling and sometimes twin, music.
Indeed, in his artist statement for Catch; Cruise; Play; Pray, Josey argued that poems classically understood might be reconceived as “installations on the page;” accordingly, we might imagine certain installations as poems. To be sure, installations frequently demand of their viewers something like the concentration, slowness and tolerance for inaccessibility and structured silence that contemporary written poetry tends to demand of its readers. Perhaps more to the point, Josey suggests that every poem requires acts of translation, even those poems articulated in ostensibly familiar languages. As he puts it, “translation…is [always] a wall with two
sides.” Both author/maker and reader/viewer bring their experiences and understandings of connotation to any given work, but if it is poetry, no one can hope for seamless passage through its thicket of signal and association. As Josey writes of his own experiment with the coding of signal flags: “It draws a line in the sand. You can cross it, but it doesn’t let you in that easily.” In other words, no poetry without (over)investment on all sides. As Josey says, “You give me time; I’ll give you poetry.”
Now consider another work, this time a textile by Anna Heywood Jones, hand woven with wool and silk and dyed with colour extracted from four plants common to Nova Scotia – Goldenrod, American Elm, Staghorn Sumac and Hammered Shield Lichen – all harvested from the former St. Joseph’s Church site on Gottingen Street, Halifax, in 2015, not long before a new condo construction project broke earth there. Hung from the gallery ceiling in a three-metre drop, the half-metre-wide weaving features vertical bands of subtle colour: greens, gold, creams and charcoals. The centre of the work, where those vertical bands of colour have been largely blanked out, seems at once luminous and empty. Given enough time, you may begin to see that this space of loss – the result of a resist selectively applied to the fibres in the dying process – is also a space for contemplation.
The title of the piece is long and poetic in form and tells us much about the relationships between construction, neglect and several of the life forms from which Heywood Jones made her dyes:
_Filling spaces of temporary neglect,
they follow the path of disturbance,
rebuilding that which has been dismantled.
Weeds of subversion._
_Each speck of dirt scraped away,
not a seed left behind.
Such small deaths.
Significant in their insignificance._
In her artist statement, Heywood Jones offers a brief history and explanation of the significance of a work that honours and emerges from the destruction of various forms of vegetal life:
_During the period between the demolition of St. Joseph’s Church and the excavation of the site (2009–2015), plant life inserted itself actively within the space. The site became host to a variety of early successional, native, naturalized and invasive species, including the escaped babies of ornamental plants and trees.
These common “spaces of temporary neglect” speak of our current and historical circumstances of globalization, colonization and migration, as well as of the continual reverberations of capitalism – as vegetal life inevitably follows the path of human action, revitalizing spaces of disturbance and disregard.
The development of a single lot is a banal occurrence in our cities, an everyday thing. And yet, as I watched the excavators dig deep into the ground I was struck by the fact that these actions were revealing geological formations that have not seen light for thousands or perhaps millions of years. Each speck of dirt removed, all vestiges of vegetal life gone. Therefore, this work is in a sense a monument, or memorial, for the insignificant vegetal beings that share our urban spaces. And for the profound yet everyday interventions which humans enact upon the world. As the body of each plant is literally etched into the cloth, a textile impression of its being remains._
I ask you, are not such eloquent “textile impressions” resistances poetry?