Sonja Sekula: Grace in a cow’s EYE : a memoir : by Kathrin Schaeppi
(Black Radish Books, 2011)
Verbo-visual Inventions: Kathrin Schaeppi’s Sonja Sekula: Grace in a cow’s EYE : a memoir :
Drawing on Swiss artist Sonja Sekula’s assertion that “writing is drawing”, Kathrin Schaeppi’s exhilarating first full-length collection is formed at the intersection of the spatial and the literary, an ambitious codex of the verbo-visual possibilities inherent in language and typography. These poems are rife with invention, a tumult of language and image that echo the paintings to which the poems are responses. Patterned with sound and silence, as with typographic invention, the poems are divided into sections composing a memoir of Sekula’s life and work and Schaeppi’s engagements with Sekula’s work.
Sekula herself resisted the separation of modes of expression, writing of word-images(1) and image-words, of colorwords and wordcolors, her oeuvre marked by vivid poem-paintings, picture letters, and calligraphic abstractions.
Sonja Sekula’s picture letter to Adrien de Menasche (1961)
In this collection, Kathrin Schaeppi re-imagines typography, riffing on her futurist forbearers. At the potent intersection of sign/symbol/meaning, hers is an argot as concrete as it is abstract. Tildes paired with the punt volat. A fleuron-like ornament or star: “snowflakes” falling like grace or grief upon the gray landscape of each new section and between lines, a pattern of stars falling, foretelling what is to come. The plus sign marking both “and” and multiplicity itself, the impulse of the manifold visually emplaced within the linguistic space of the poems. Musical rests shimmer, shudder, stutter over the rare pleasure of the words composed beneath their surface. Box forms, arcs, rectangles, mirror images, bridge forms, poems in frames made of letters, shapes that cross and re-cross the space of the page, Schaeppi’s work recalls Jerome Rothenberg’s total translation, the fullest possible recuperation of the idea—visually, graphically, aurally—in translation: Schaeppi’s book a fruition of and homage to Sekula’s desire to bring out a book self-illustrated...with the painting ‘mixed in with’ the writing. In these pages, Sekula and Schaeppi demand we study the space between the leaves, the space between the verbal and the visual, and the new space composed of both + in the air between.
Schaeppi’s “memoir” collages Sekula’s language with her own, composing a hybrid memoir, an archeology of a lost life—Sekula, after years of electroshock treatment, being wrapped in wet sheets and left alone, isolated from the community of artists she had joined in NYC, committed suicide in 1963—a tribute to the multiple erasures that Sekula was subject to as a woman artist, a lesbian, and one of the mentally ill. Lines drawn from Sekula’s journals, artist books, and paintings haunt the page. Traces of desire, of an artist at work, of woman’s life: now I know • that I am an artist, even when “The ‘Giants’ (Newman, Pollack Reinhardt, Rothko, Still and others)…/ / /…request fewer women artists be included in Parsons’ program.” These pages become a habitation. As Sekula stands at a window, brush or pencil in hand—where one lives—Schaeppi returns the vanished to presence: swoosh of ink / wash over canvas • a town dawns brushbound. To read these poems is to touch the curve of ache.
Schaeppi’s lines interrupt one another, layered or lathed, juxtaposed atop and across each other, voices competing to be heard. To be heard. In “Private Totem”, a litany of personal saints and a prayer, we hear Sekula ask, how have you helped me when I was most desperate. In between: “I am the blue-brown collage • one only sees • when not looking.” In “Poeme, 1951”, two texts signing/singing against and with one another, Sekula and Schaeppi speak against gaps of time and loss:
(Now is the 16th of 1951 in March) tip
to write a poem in my new home called hospital
Next Sunday we shall all jump out of
of a spoon
Signing to be heard. Between language and image lies the air between. Schaeppi records that air also, filling these hybrid poems with silences. The failed conversation of “Sample Gesture”, which dies as it begins, its voices stuttering into mute stillness. The great gap of white space between two lines beginning and two lines ending (“Improvisation, 1961-62”). The blank page of “The rooms, the holy (between), 1948”. What cannot be said, what silence speaks: “the distance from my eye to yours.”
Schaeppi has created a marvel of invention, hybridity, and stillness. A lamp in the darkness, a wild re-invention of the page that is as myriad in its forms as in its graceful passages though the language and work of Sekula. A dialog with what is lost and what remains, radiant and provocative, this is a fine beauty of a book: Kathrin Schaeppi’s Sonja Sekula: Grace in a cow’s EYE : a memoir :
(1) Following Schaeppi’s technique, quotes from Sekula appear in italics.
Marthe Reed has published two books, Gaze (Black Radish Books) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer with drawings by Rikki Ducornet (Lavender Ink), as well as two chapbooks, (em)bodied bliss and zaum alliterations, both part of the Dusie Kollektiv Series. A third chapbook is forthcoming from Dusie Kollektiv 5. Her poetry has appeared in New American Writing, Golden Handcuffs Review, New Orleans Review, HOW2, MiPoesias, Big Bridge, Moria, Fairy Tale Review, Exquisite Corpse, and Eoagh, among others. Her manuscript, an earth of sweetness dances in the vein, was a finalist in Ahsahta Press’ 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Contest. She has guest edited an issue of Ekleksographia and served as assistant editor for Dusie Kollektiv. Further information about her work can be found at her homepage http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~mxr5675/ and at the publisher page for Gaze: http://www.blackradishbooks.org/Reed.html