Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), 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). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“Even today the act of speech mimics that of coitus. The tongue makes the mouth’s womb productive. Our mouths still ache for their first divine function & it is for this reason that we receive so much pleasure when a tongue parts our lips or a mouth swallows our seed.” Thus writes Michael Stewart, in what he describes as “a kind of conversation” with the pseudonymous Horapollo Niliacus’s Hieroglyphica. Like that supposed magus’s interpretive gloss on a lost language, Stewart’s book is a fragmentary glimpse into a civilization archaic and allegorical. Narratives of a desert land, its warriors and diviners, mix with aphorisms, poetic pronouncements. And lines from apocryphal texts, as well as the original work of Niliacus, are woven into Stewart’s own poetry.
It’s an intriguing project—part fetish of the primitive, part romance of the word. Deconstruction meets congress, copulation as signification. “The Sacred Scribe instructs our daughters. She teaches them first the ways they are to bend their bodies & then how to guide their husbands into the gaps.” Myths of Hephaistus, sayings of half-imagined Holy Men, maggots and droughts, the component pieces of baboons—we are shown all of these things, half in and half out of shadow. There is a shrine, a map of the cosmos, musings on the architecture of the heart.
“All stories refer to the one story,” after all. As “the law & speech & the knowledge of time” mark the distinction between beasts and humans, so, too does knowledge of time draw a line between man and God. As the text says, “God is like a beast.” The baboons in the temple, like that Sovereign the symbols of which they monkey around in front of, are incapable of understanding those essentially human traits of abstraction, substitution, and the constant awareness of chronology, time’s passage. Writing, in short, predicated on a hoped-for future, a past already receding even at the moment of inscription—this is what we have, we humans, and locked inside this mortal grammar we conjure and speculate and chatter. At one point, this text blames “tax collectors with their knotted ropes” for the notion of seasons—“another of the Egyptians’ tricks,” as if some form of signification could really section off the stars, impose a framework of sense on the vast night sky.
“Each thing a man knows about this world distracts him from God,” this “translation” tells us, and this is true even for those things man knows about God, for any and all exercises in words. In hieroglyphics, of course, the signifier, as image, speaks both from within and outside of the sign system—a baboon may be a verbal modifier within the language, but it’s also an image of a baboon. The set-up of hieroglyphics, then, allows for imagination of the non-linguistic, giving us, as it does, a language that can be “translated” without necessarily being read. The squiggles around the interior rim of the burial chamber are not random forms and angles, they are tiny pictures, spelling out what appears to be a scene of sensual paradise or piecemeal records of the last harvest. Of course, within the language these images may mean a blessing, a curse. What’s so addictive about Stewart’s modern-ancient book is that it lingers on this double vision: hieroglyphics as the marks of a world before language and hieroglyphics as the original language. The tensions between beasts and men, priests and heroes, tax collectors and savage lusts, God and time—all of these play out in the doubled valence of this ancient sign system, and it is this drama that is expertly “translated” into the present by Michael Stewart.
Official Michael Stewart Web Site
Official Mud Luscious Press Web Site