Saturday, October 3, 2009

A-E-I-O-Upgrade ! ! !

The EUNOIA juggernaut vowels on!

EUNOIA, with its 70 page title poem in prose in which each chapter (there are five) restricts itself to one vowel, must be the best-selling collection of experimental poetry over the last ten years. It’s certainly the only such book for which the original edition has had twenty-three printings (out of Coach House Press in Toronto).

There’s also a British edition, published last November. It’s quite a production, a beautiful hardcover in dustjacket and wrap-around band with a bound-in silk ribbon bookmark. And the first British paperback edition has just been released too.

Earlier this year, Coach House published a EUNOIA oddity: a super-limited edition (twelve copies only, apparently) which includes only two of the five chapters of the title poem, along with, in the words of one bookseller, “visual information . . . relating to percentage of lexicon used, lexical distribution maps, and a reproduction of "The Tedium is the Message" by Bök’s partner in crime Darren Wershler Henry.”

And now, right now, there’s even more: the newest version yet of EUNOIA, a version that should be exciting news to those who love Bök’s work. Coach House Press has just published – and I quote (including the capital letters) right from the copyright page – an:
of the book.

Yes, we now have an UPGRADED EDITION of EUNOIA, and I like it!


Okay, you right now are probably wondering: has Bök done anything to “Eunoia,” his famous even iconic title poem? Well, you can relax, or be disappointed: that poem isn’t changed at all. It’s the magnificent same as it ever was.

But there are changes, both in the book’s look and contents, that well justify the UPGRADE appellation. Obviously, the front cover has been tarted up. Though that word – “tarted” – isn’t really fair. “Tarted” connotes something overdone as well as flamboyant, and I don’t think the former applies here, even if the cover’s now bright and even sassy where previously (in the original edition, imaged at the bottom of this post) the look was a bit staid.

Maybe the best way to put it is to say that the cover has been “Rimbauded up.” On the new cover, each vowel of EUNOIA is set at the bottom of a colored stripe that corresponds to the color assigned to it in the first line of Arthur Rimbaud’s famous sonnet “Voyelles”:
A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles
No translation, I trust, is necessary here. The new EUNOIA cover a la Rimbaud’s palette or vision (with the addition of a grey stripe for the letter “N”) is a great idea. It’s smart and sharp.

The new cover is so startling that the book, I swear, seemed to leap into my eyes earlier this week when – not knowing what the heck the book was – I walked by several large stacks of them on a shelf at the Small Press Distribution (SPD) warehouse in Berkeley. With the cover turned face out this new edition will look great in bookstores (those that stock experimental poetry, that is, and thank goodness there are still a few):


The cover’s use of the colors from Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” also smartly foreshadows the major thrust of what’s new inside EUNOIA. You see, the new upgraded edition adds a half-dozen poems to its second section, for a total of nine additional pages, and all the new poems relate directly to Rimbaud’s sonnet.

As you may remember, or by way of prefatory explanation if you’ve not read Bök’s book yet, EUNOIA has always had a second section that follows the lengthy title poem which opens the book. The second section’s titled “OISEAUX,” because (as Bok explains in the book’s afterword) it’s the shortest French word that uses all vowels (Eunoia, of course, being the English word with that distinction).

The poems in the “OISEAUX” section serve (again as stated in Bök’s afterword) as a tribute to French precursors to Bok’s “Eunoia,” and specifically to Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” and to George Perec, who wrote the amazing La disparition (1969) [in English A Void], a 300 page novel that never uses the letter “e,” and Les revenentes (1972) [in English The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex], a novella in which “e” is the only vowel used.

In the original edition of EUNOIA, there were five poems in the “OISEAUX” section. They were nice, but as a section it seemed a bit sparse. At least that’s what I think now, when I compare it to the UPGRADED EDITION, which adds six poems to the original five, thus more than doubling the section’s size. As I’ll try to explain below, what makes the new edition so exciting is not just the number of new poems, but the richness and fun of those poems (I do not, with one exception, discuss the poems carried over from the original edition).


The first two new poems in the UPGRADED EDITION, Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” in the original French and Bök’s translation of that sonnet, open the “OISEAUX” section. It’s an apt vowel-centric way to start the tribute to “Eunoia”’s precursors.

I’m not qualified to fully evaluate the merits of Bök’s translation, but I have compared it to a half-dozen others. Bök tries as much as possible to follow Rimbaud’s rhyme scheme, which some translations almost entirely forsake, and does so without any line-end clunkers.

I also like, really like, how Bök in his translation, when he comes to the three line stanza (the next to last one in the poem) that concerns the vowel “U”, seems to, when possible, embrace words that use the letters “v” and “w”. Those consonants, neighbors to “u”, obviously echo the look of that vowel, and it really shows, on the page and in the eye, when the lines are read:
U, the waves, divine vibratos of verdant seas,
pleasant meadows rich with venery, grins of ease
which alchemy grants the visages of the wise;
Just look at the beautiful peaks and troughs in those lines: U - w - v - v - v - v / w - w - v / w - v - w. I just (warning: baby talk pun ahead) wuv how Bök uses here the three letters visually!

Bök in his translation also does something interesting with Rimbaud’s enigmatic word, strideurs, a neologism (so far as I can tell, at least) that appears in the first line of “Voyelles” final stanza:
O, suprême Clarion plein des strideurs étranges,
Many translations take what must seem an easy path with strideurs; Paul Schmidt for example, translates the lines’ last two words as “strange stridencies.” Bök, though, goes with “strange sonnet.” “Sonnet” for strideurs is an idiosyncratic choice. I like it, however, its self-referentiality (to the poem form within which it’s used), and that it is a risk, a wild one actually, where most others translators play it safe.


The next new poem in the UPGRADED EDITION immediately follows the translation, and is “Phonemes.” Bök in the book’s afterword describes it as, “a homolinguistic translation of ‘Voyelles’, preserving the original sequence of the vowels.” Bök strips away everything from Rimbaud’s sonnets but the vowels, then makes new words (in English) that use those vowels in the order they appear, arranging the fresh words that surround the re-used vowels so that there is a couplet for each Rimbaudian line. So the first line of “Voyelle” (vowels italicized):
A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles
becomes in “Phonemes” (vowels again italicized):
Phantoms, infernal
without refuge or return – phonemes
And on it goes, for the entirety of Rimbaud’s sonnet. This could not have been easy to do. This is inventiveness, creativity spurred by (self-imposed) limits, pure and not so simple. Sometimes nonsense, sometimes with echoes of “Voyelles” (Bök in the poem singles out and comments on each vowel, as Rimbaud does in his sonnet), “Phonemes” fascinates.


Bök next re-prints his homophonic translation of “Voyelles” (English words that evoke the sounds of the French) from the original “Oiseaux” section of EUNOIA. In the UPGRADED EDITION, however, the poem’s title is changed from the original “Voile” to “Veils.” The new title is more elegant and closer in sound to the French, and I assume that’s why it was changed. This poem is noble effort, given that I don’t think the sounds of French correspond to actual English words as easily as, for example, Latin (see Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus) or Greek (see David Melnick’s Men in Aida, or just listen to Homer recited aloud). Here’s a line that I think works especially well in “Veils,” preceded by the Rimbaud line whose sound is its source:
Silences traversés des Mondes des Anges

Cylinders versus diamonds / a decision.

The next new poem in the UPGRADED EDITION is a stunner. “Vocables” is a perfect anagram of “Voyelles.” Like “Phonemes” discussed above, this anagrammatic re-arrangement preserves much of the structure of Rimbaud’s poem, such that each vowel, after being identified, receives a poetic description, and the rhyme scheme remains intact. I’d have to type the entire poem (and Rimbaud’s too) for you to fully appreciate Bok’s achievement. But here, for a taste of the poetry in “Vocables”, is its next to last stanza:
U (a universe, expressed as a murmur of tides,
all its perplexing maxims, exquisite suicides;
dim minds, transcended by vivid, hexadic prisms);
That’s a very cool word, “hexadic” (it somehow almost looks like what it means) and the phrase “vivid, hexadic prisms” suggests something so unusual and marvelous that it might as well stand for the poem as a whole.


The next new poem in the UPGRADED EUNOIA is “AEIOU” and it probably is the simplest of them all, and right now, it’s my favorite of the bunch. Bök here strips away all consonants in “Voyelles”, capitalizes the vowels that remain (and also removes diacritical marks), eliminates all the spaces between them, then puts the resulting text down on paper, preserving the fourteen lines and stanza structure of Rimbaud’s sonnet. Get it?

Here are the opening four lines of, respectively, Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” and Bök’s “AEIOU”:
A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour de puanteurs cruelles,

And so it goes for another ten lines. “AEIOU” works on the page, and wonderfully, even as just a fourteen-line monument of type/text, a kind of visual poem. But more than that, the ol’ mind, craving meaning, searches for significance: are there words hidden, puzzle style, within the strings of vowels? How about patterns – repetition and variations – within and between the lines? Regardless of what you do or do not find that way, the point is that the poem engages, locks the mind in, for a good (double-meaning / pun intended here) spell.

“AEIOU” really opens up when it read out loud. It becomes a cerebrated celebration of vocalized vowels, dang nab it, and what other poem can claim that distinction?

Vocalized vowels, including in words made of single vowels, or those that aren’t but sound as if they are, are fundamental language tools. Profound ones too, what with the relatively free passage of breath through the larynx and oral cavity. A. Ah! EEEEE! Eye. I. O! You.

More than just key tools, stand-alone vowel sounds when said aloud are also a great language joy, a primal joy at that. It’s no coincidence, I submit, that the refrain of the classic children’s song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is E-I-E-I-O and not, for example, B-L-B-L-R or some other breath-restricting tongue-twisting consonantal cluster. The E-I-E-I-O joy, I do believe, comes from the liberty of relatively unrestricted breath moving through the contraption by which we make speech. Humans love liberty, and vowels spoken aloud allow us to use our freedom, from within to without.

When pronounced into the air, Bök’s “AEIOU” taps into that same kind of E-I-E-I-O liberty and fun. Give it a try, will you, and say it loud and proud, I suggest, with a bit of rhythm, of whatever kind makes your backbone slip or shakes your groove thang. Here again is the poem’s first line, hyphenated to help the eye-mind-laryngeal coordination:
Fun, yes?!


The final new poem in the new EUNOIA is a visual one. It’s titled “H” and it’s dedicated to the late great Canadian poet bpNichol whose favorite letter, Bök explains in the afterword, was – you guessed it – “H.” Here’s the poem:

According to Bök’s afterword, “the structure of this image is modelled upon the rhyme scheme found” in Rimbaud’s “Voyelles.” I can’t yet explain how that works here, and may never deduce or stumble upon the method (I’ve tried reading it vertically, horizontally, upside-down, and what-not), but that’s okay. As I’ve said before here in the glade, I Love A Mystery. Besides, “H” grabs attention just via its visual impact. There are connections, gaps, the suggestion of a maze (amaze), ladders, maybe even a hint of some diagrammed molecular structure, and of course plenty of repetition and variation to keep the eye-mind going.


And so for now, that’s a wrap. In case I haven’t been entirely clear, I’ll spell it out – vowel it out – here: Bök’s UPGRADED EUNOIA – E-I-E-I-O!




Kate Durbin said...

This new edition looks & sounds great, Steven.

Anonymous said...

just might be a
mirroring of one of those 1959 IBM 1491 machine language manuals... with a bit of an addendum:
I was operating and doing plug-boards (407s,etc etc) in 58 and switched into running 1401 s and 7070 s(

Bok must be about that age/experience..

Café Zen said...

This a great party book: to be read aloud and passed around. Maybe the funniest book of po ever...