Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Bob Brown (1886-1959) wrote pulp stories and cookbooks, journalism and screenplays, ethnographic studies and modernist poems, plus he imagined a machine for reading—and a process for reading, and a new way of writing for said reading, said machine—which served simultaneously as a manifesto for and critique of certain trends. Reduce the word to essentials, he said, but, like Stein’s, his surgical interventions lend qualities of hypersignification. Design a device on which to “read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to, and I want to,” he wrote, but the consuming “I” of such a sentence, steely focused on efficiency and speed, is laughing at those who want to ride along with him. Talking pictures have replaced the word, he says, but then he prints poems in such miniscule font one has to peer through a magnifying glass, focusing tool and attention on the shape of letters, back to squinting basics, slowed down by the technology of print.
Each of these three books—republished via the work of Craig Saper, who is completing a biography of Brown and here revives the Roving Eye Press to issue copies of texts that were, originally, produced only in very limited printings—engages the act of reading in challenging, humorous, innovative ways. The Readies features Brown’s manifesto for and examples of a new mode of machine-aided reading, roughly following the pattern of the ticker-tape machine. While framed as a rejection of “the cumbersome book, the inconvenience of holding its bulk, turning its pages,” the experiment here seems far more an exploration of the ways technology reshapes our desires, our perceptions, our basic behaviors. We want, now, to “browse,” Brown wrote—an early usage of a term now commonplace, a prescient imagining of an activity now ubiquitous. Yet Brown’s conception of browsing is as much playing catchup with the scroll speed of the reading machine as it is skimming along for essentials in dense text. Indeed, he calls for removal of all inessential text, a language that strives to be post-Word: “A dot and an angosturian dash with an hermaphroditic hypodermic hyphen is all that’s needed nowadays,” he writes. His “smashum” words are, in Saper’s terms, “a type of condensed anagram or portmanteau word,” slung into a stew of quick puns such that we get served bits like:
I tremble lest the Rooseveltian Harangueoutanging Rough-riders of the Word bully us back to the Hog-Latin of our youth for full esoteric expression, or drop us into the inky pool of twinkling gypsy thieves jargon, or even invent for our punishment an international crook-word-code like the one uncovered in Brazil.
Shortening words I understand better than dragging them out. Eftsoons: linking letters in festoons I abhor. Underslung German dachshund, blown-up bumpy blimp, sausage words may be salivary to the starving mind but they’re enough to shatter my meticulous monocle.
Brown then offers us a sample story to be read on a reading machine, the whole thing a string of words, hyphen-linked, building up by association the story of a farmboy musician’s adventures (“But-hadnt-really-great-geniuses-crawled-up-stuckup-their-manes-their-lionized-heads-throguh-just-such-slide-?-Harry-kept-aloof-like-back-home-his-nose-above-barnyards-still-Maw’s-clinging-vine-clean-smelling-buttermilk-boy-.-Fellow-musicians-loved-blondes-Harry-loved-his-Art-”), which, in its playful engagement with words, is far more like a tender button and far less like anything either mechanical or novelistic. To me it seems that for all the talk of being jolted by our tools past language and into a default futurism, Brown manages, between the rat-a-tat tattoo of hyphens, to convey real relish for words, tossing them, as he puts it “in the air an armful, as a child reveling in autumn leaves / Loving the crisp rustle as they cascade about my ears.” Words, far from obsolete, have a life of their own in these pages, and for all his investment in corralling them into moving strips to stream past our eyes and convey their contents in the fashion of an assembly line conveying products out of the factory, Brown strikes notes of and references to the precise opposite state, one of silent contemplation, stillness and presence in the emptiness of “the restful blank page for Poor Yorick in Tristram Shandy.”
Nudging the reader to purposeful, intense engagement and playing with the signifying possibilities of blanks are at the core of the other two Brown books reprinted here. Words pairs poetry in 16-point font with poems in tiny text (3-point font, it seems), while GEMS protests and pokes holes in the practice of censorship by reproducing canonical lines with dashes blanking out words in choice locations. In the first we get a tiny grid of words arranged in a concrete poem ostensibly addressing the death of words (and thus accomplishing a small-scale resuscitation). In the second we have a gimmick as easy as adding “under the sheets” to Sunday School prayers, such that from Wordsworth we suddenly get “I, too, have _ _ _ her on the hills” and from Coleridge, “Her loveliness I never know / Until she _ _ _ me. / O then I saw her _ _ _ _ _ _, / A well of love, a spring of _ _ _ _ .” A joke, but one that illustrates the irrationality of and thus undermines that which it protests against; as Brown says, “Prohibition leads to license; words blocks out, put under the black ban of the dash have a rare fascination for the reader. He will dash out his brains to find them out and make much more of them than they contained originally.” Censorship’s equation of literature with contraband allows Brown to fantasize about “bookleggers” delivering copies of texts (“something really hot from abroad, or a racy item from a local pirate or clandestine publisher”) to jonesing lit addicts itchy at the mere whiff of bound paper. Such an image makes fun of the censor’s obsessions, to be sure, but it also flags the real pleasures provided by that which the censor wants to silence. Likewise, adding dashes to classic poems is a gag, snarling against the infliction of a different sort of gag, but it’s also another act of resuscitation, making it new again. As Brown says in GEMS, “Pleasure in poetry comes largely from reading between the lines,” but such lines (like that blank page in Tristram Shandy) are laid out by words. In The Readies, tongue-in-cheek, he confesses a fear of “rotting, tumorish bad words,” by which doesn’t mean “curt, cute four-letter classics” but, rather, words that defy the terseness demanded by the technological age, “fourteen-legged lecherridinous centipidicular, ampapfibsimian enchondromatas) among my butter-cup-eyed innocents.” The naming of enemies here serves as invocation, suggesting an apt metaphor for the whole set of Brown reprintings: these texts are spells, bewitching us with the possibilities of language in defiance of and in response to restrictions.
Saper usefully offers historical context for Brown’s fight against censorship and engagement with fellow modernists, many of whom contributed their own “readies” for use in Brown’s machine (a simulation with some, from Pound and Stein for instance, is online at readies.org). Saper’s theories regarding Brown’s relation to contemporary “txt”-speak left me unconvinced (there’s a good deal more winking in Brown’s words, it seems to me, than there is a desire to pair semi-colon with closing parenthesis in sideways representation of a wink). Brown’s playfulness need not be read, either, as in any way less than serious, whether marking evocative blanks, contrasting measures of text, hyphenating associative streams, or otherwise tossing linguistic leaves. Consider the contrasting poems in Words, with, in big font, an address to the divine: “Yes God / I’ve looked around / Seen the quaint devices and / Funny commonplaces you bragged about.” “It’s all right God,” the piece goes on, noting the deity’s altruism and the notion of “a high purpose & / All that” before describing the infusing of God’s “Semen-scented breath / Into clay pigeons Chinks Brazies / Yanks Frogs Turks and Limeys.” “It’s a great little old world you made God,” Brown writes, “But now I’m ready for another eyeful,” on a page where, in a lower corner, like a tiny stamp, there is another poem, in miniature letters, wherein a voice declares “I who am God / Wear lavender pajamas and /Purr poetry.” Both of these paired pieces are jokey, to be sure (and not overly worried about being polite), but I read them both as sober behind the stage smile. The world around us has turned to machines, constantly whirring, dragging us along, demanding the shredded remnants of our attention with their staccato relay of instantaneously-obsolescent needs. And yet, Brown reminds us, we can be our own antidote: enunciating multi-sense syllables or singing out a story stitching together a whole row of tender buttons, tilting the plane to print sideways or small enough to serve as an amulet reminding readers of the act of reading, putting pen to paper to declare ourselves the God of whatever marginal white space we feel called to frolic in or simply leaning in to experience again for the first time the rustle or roar of some century-old phrase. A rose by any other name would.
As coda: Saper’s sense that the time to rediscover Brown is now seems more than right, and one extra (and very Brownian, I think) pleasure of these books is that reading Brown activates a kind of internal hyperlink to artists before, contemporary, and after, turning us back to other texts and turning us on again to the way some of our most dedicated wordsmiths have resuscitated for us the experience of reading (and writing). To read Brown, for me, was necessarily also to read Stein and Burroughs, to browse through Pound and look into Cooper, to return to cummings and discover—belatedly—so much more of Herbert.
Official Roving Eye Press Web Site