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To immediately grasp the innovative nature of Afton Wilky’s debut volume Clarity Speaks of a Crystal Sea and to begin to appreciate its exploration of language’s materialities and its playful stretching of the conventions of the codex form, one need only consider its front cover. Even on the outside, we begin, it seems, in medias res: in place of where one might expect bibliographic information — for example, the book’s title, the author’s name — one already finds a piece of the poetic text extrojected into the paratext or, from a different perspective, a visually compelling textual fragment that nicely doubles as cover art. This is a book that one would have no trouble judging by its cover as the cover is already the beginning (if one can even speak of a beginning) of the book. The strategy of making the work’s framing apparatus a part of the work itself — as if the aesthetics of the work were encroaching upon the threshold between art and non-art — was a familiar one to the modernists; we can think of T. S. Eliot’s curious notes to The Waste Land or Constantin Brancusi’s pedestals, which trouble the distinction between sculpture and base, or William Carlos Williams’ and Marianne Moore’s practice of making a poem’s title double as the poem’s first line. Wilky is actively extending this tradition as she immediately beseeches the reader from the front cover to “read the wight thought.” There is a noticeable homophonic play with the word “white” (Wilky, after all, makes expert use of white space in the book), but if we interpret “wight” to mean “moving briskly or rapidly; active, agile, nimble, quick; swift, fleet” (OED), we are well prepared to follow a flow of thinking-through-language that always — and tantalizingly — seems to slip out of view. Indeed, in order to follow the string of alliterative sibilants (“seams seize seas seethes sembles . . .”) which races across the cover we would need to read across the edge of the cover and continue onto the reverse side: “seek in saysaw stance astir astir.” Wilky’s compound “saysaw” suggests that the process of reading Clarity is a sort of seeking which requires being attuned to both saying and seeing, a seesawing between sound and vision with one’s sensorium astir.
The fragmented text with which Clarity begins is part of an erasure (and larger appropriation) of Walter Benjamin’s unfinished epic of fragments, the Arcades Project (1927-1940), an experimental cultural and philosophical study that takes as its starting point the arcades of nineteenth century Paris. Wilky’s front cover piece draws on the following found text, which comes from Benjamin’s D Konvolut (“Boredom, Eternal Return”) (in fact, within Wilky’s book many of the erasures come from this particular Kovolut or “File”):
“Read the wight thought,” it turns out, is a poetic redaction of Benjamin quoting Nietzsche, an appropriation of the great Frankfurt School appropriator. Wilky’s method, her miniaturist attention to detail, her heeding of language’s subatomic life, is a direct homage to Benjamin, who had searchingly theorized how “to carry over the principle of montage into history . . . to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event” [N2, 6]. Wilky has photographically documented some of her “precisely cut components” — some of them have the look of paper assemblages — giving her book a rich sense of depth and texture:
These artifacts are labeled in a way that echoes Benjamin’s method of cataloging and suggests the presence of a larger corpus of sculptural cutouts. “069.15 S,” pictured above, yokes together two quotations from the Arcades Project: the text in front is from the nineteenth century socialist thinker and activist Louis-Auguste Blanqui while the text in back, which appears as if it were sutured to the first strip or even printed on the obverse side of the same strip, is from the literary critic and journalist Léon Daudet. It is a suggestive confluence of phrases, one coming from the C Konvolut and the other from the D Konvolut. It is something like a chance but charged encounter on one of Benjamin’s city street corners; in a note from the F Konvolut, Benjamin wrote, “Only the meeting of two different street names makes for the magic of the ‘corner.’”
Wilky’s second major found text is food writer Harris Salat’s article “The Beauty of Nori” from Saveur Magazine. This is one of the magazine columns which Wilky erased, creating, to use her own Joycean coinage, a “textureecho”:
The recurring figure “Haada” — who is somewhat reminiscent of the character “Toge” from Tom Phillip’s groundbreaking A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel — was created by altering the name of Yonetsugu Hatada, the nori farmer whom Salat visited on the coast of the Ariake Sea. Salat’s article might seem an odd source to cite though Wilky seems to playing on the fact that, according to Salat, “nori was developed by traditional paper makers who applied their craft to press seaweed growing in Tokyo Bay into edible paper.” Indeed, one of Wilky’s photographed paper sculptures resembles wispy strands of seaweed, an elegantly minimalist origami imprinted with barely legible letters of text.
What is ultimately striking about her various erasures is that, in her cutting process, Wilky intentionally leaves behind a scattering of stray marks, like bits of Morse code made of tiny remnants of letters’ ascenders and descenders, showing evidence of what Benjamin might call the collagist’s hand (“A story,” Benjamin famously said, “bears the trace of the storyteller, much the way an earthen vessel bears the trace of the potter’s hand.”) In contrast to, say, Jonathan Safran Foer’s well-known erasure of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, Tree of Codes (2010), whose complex process of die-cutting produced an extremely clean and polished look, Wilky chooses to present the staticky residues, the messy remainders, that remind us that, as she said in a recent interview, “‘clarity’ is an illusion, the product of erasure or overlooking. ‘Clarity’ is still out looking for itself.” Clarity, then, should be considered an important contribution to the tradition of cut-ups, textual collage, and erasure not only because of the textured and textural beauty of Wilky’s artisanal efforts but also because of their philosophical implications. A voice from Clarity — perhaps it’s Wilky’s — announces in a meta-poetic moment: “I ve cut out every word and letter but the blinkers / ! / and the stammering whispers [ / the covert harvestries.” In cutting away, in erasing, Wilky reveals to us the often unacknowledged or repressed phenomena that lurk beneath clarity’s surface, the blinking activity behind apparent blankness. The fact that clarity is non-self-identical allows her to draw on such a compelling, if covert, harvest.
Wilky also well exceeds the technique of erasure by incorporating a heterogeneity of various components: Clarity contains, among other things, concrete poems, instructions for experiments, typographical forms, cross-gutter compositions, handwritten notes that range from the highly theoretical (there is a reference to Gérard Genette’s term “architext”) to the poetic and neologistic (“shine of the crystal array of thousandic”) to the more mundane (“NEED A STRONG SPINED BOOK FOR SUCH NOTE-TAKING.”) Clarity amounts to a formidable, “strong-spined” scrapbook poem, a genre which Rachel Blau Duplessis has called “a domestic, artisanal, hobby-horse genre” and “the demotic form of the encyclopedia poem.” What Wilky compiles here is not so much a Poundian guide to culture but fragments that always centrifugally point to the sublime proliferation of meaning.
At the end of Clarity, Flim Forum has included a foldout 8×17 poster, which features one of Wilky’s collages, a radical splintering of the already splintered Arcades Project. It is an unruly morass of language, not a crystal sea but a sea of words saturated with the suggestiveness of partial significations. I have the copy of the poster hanging now on the side of my bookshelf, as a reminder that the books which it houses are only tenuous organizations of the great chaotic mass of discourse which surrounds us.