Hyperrhiz 06: Reviews
Michael Peters, vaast bin: n ephemerisi
West Virginia University
Peters, Michael. vaast bin: n ephemerisi. New York: Calamari Press, 2008.
The subtitle of Michael Peters' vaast bin is "n ephemerisi." The "n" suggests multiple connotations. The letterform "n" connotes images of earlier pre-letter hieroglyphics for "snake." The symbol "N" connotes an algebraic operator or indicates a natural number, or perhaps functions as a scientific symbol for a unit of force. Of course, it also slurs sound-wise into the suggestion of "an," so that the subtitle oscillates between 1) "n ephemerisi" as a technical operation on vaast bin, multiplying or channeling force (n) from or into ephemerisi; and 2) "(a)n ephemerisi," a description of the book vaast bin, as if to say "an essay" or "a journal" or "a monstrosity." The polysemy of letters is at work throughout Peters' book. The poetry shifts discourses in a continual movement from a meditative language of philosophy and existence, on the one hand, to an almost-concrete play with typography, punctuation, on the other. The visual is reinforced by drawings included on pages facing individual poems. Do the drawings separate the poems or accompany them? Do they accompany specific poems and provide commentary? Do they comment on the entire work? It is hard to say. Certainly the many excerpts from vaast bin appearing in poetry journals over the last several years also include the drawings; and Peters also maintains a practice as a film artist and musician, offering performances where texts, drawing, film, and sound form a complex intermedial spectacle and statement.
The title vaast bin is one example of polysemy at play. The first word of the title is not "vast" but "vaast" and Peters frequently stretches bin to "biiin," suggesting a typographical slurring, though the consistency of this — where it is easy to read "biin" and hear "been" — makes the slur comes as much on the sound of the word as on the word form. The middle letter in bin appears sometimes as the letter "i" and sometimes the number "1" (as it does on the book's front cover). The conceptual play of the subjective I and the singular 1 is intentional. Among the concerns of Peters' poems are the subjection of the writer into systems of notation, on the one hand, and the turning subjective of the objects of such systems, on the other. What holds this together, of course, is the book's typographic polysemy: the semiotic potential of the visual-vocal field, where the sounded letter "i" meets in allusive ways with the "eye" that sees.
What is "ephemerisi" and what of the combination "n ephemerisi"? Surely it may be read as the start of a dictionary definition, indicating that ephemerisi is to be taken as a noun. It is, in fact, a noun, though a somewhat uncommon one. Look up the word in the OED and you find it refers to particular insects such as mayflies or moths that live and pass in a day. This ancient usage — it goes back to Greek texts — supplies the etymological origin of the more familiar word "ephemeral." The concept of the briefly-lived ephemerisi is aesthetically-infused. Imagine the insect as beautiful in a delicate, fleeting, and evanescent manner. What else but this is ephemeral? The figure of the ephemerisi floats through Peters' book. The poetry concerns the temporality of the moment and the "now," particularly in relation to the apparatus of inscription in formal systems, where such systems would include writing in the most general sense, as well as specific mathematical and technical notations. One problem raised by these concerns is the very condition of reading a text: by definition, an ephemerisi disappears and is always at least in part already gone. In vaast bin, however, the aesthetic figure of the ephemerisi pulls this problem towards an allegory of the relation between readable inscription in formal systems and the disparities of passing time. In other words, the ephemerality of the now and its writing down is enunciated in these poems in a poetic voice that never really risks lasting only for a day. The aesthetic figure of the ephemerisi is always there in 353 short, carefully crafted and controlled poems. The form of the book — Peters' book as well as the vast historical solidity of the book as form — is part of the allegory involved: the book's enunciations (each poem, each return to meditate on the inscription of temporality and subjectivity) are the killing jar that captures and pins to the page for display, as it were, the ephemeral ephemerisi.
Along with mathematical notation, Peters invokes the language of machine technology, specifically printing techniques and computer operations. The poetry thematizes typographic and punctuation symbols as objects in the world. The symbols become poetically-charged in the writer's existence and almost function as characters in the poem. For example, Peters meditates a number of times on the virgule or slash (/) and the similar but more slanted solidus or fraction bar. His point is an invocation of temporality and being. The virgule as divider between two elements, for example, suggests joining and mixing, and points towards a next moment, a "more to come," as well as echoing as a name of Virgil the Roman poet and Dante's guide. The point is the technical functioning of such operations even in the most everyday language. The language of the computer is more marginal overall in vaast bin, largely a matter of references to assembly language or programs, but feels prominent since these references enter immediately into contemporary horizons of reading that highlight computer media in all writing. As a result, Peters' vaast bin seems in some way about technology and media. Other reviews of the book pick this up and run it through a theoretical lens to announce that Peters' book is an apparatus or a kind of computational writing machine. This sounds very up-to-date and is no doubt true, but what kind of machine is it?
At the least, it is a "vaast bin." The machine vaast bin is productive but "closed," in the sense of cybernetic systems that work non-adaptively with finite materials: in this case, a restricted set of words, images, literary forms, concepts, and so on. The closure is part of the aesthetic-illumination of the work through the writing voice of the poet. In the simplest sense, it is this that makes and works the figural machine of vaast bin. The 353 numbered poems are each titled with the book title, the number 1, a curly bracket, and a number. For example: "vaast bin 1 } 353." Why the curly brackets? Do they connote an operation or program at work, as if to say: here is an operation applied to "vaast bin 1" resulting in poem 353? Or do these poems perhaps constitute the products of some machinic process? Are the poems themselves the work of computer code (as in the "codework" of Alan Sondheim and others)? Curly brackets or braces are indeed common in many programming languages. The curly bracket can indicate an enclosure of a group of related statements or may indicate the elements in a set. All these possibilities are at work: the symbol can indicate shared qualities or disparate enclosure or repetition of the same. Its usage is undetermined. This is the success and limitation of Peters' book of poems: always more usage, though within a finite and foreclosed range of concerns. The book is not a residue of computational processes but a meta-residue of the writer's meditation on such processes. The brackets appear elsewhere in the text, at times beginning or ending a section, but never with a fixable method or argument. The connotations move freely between the visual, vocal, and semantic. How freely? Again, the container or bin of each poem is machinic because the writing poet is figured as machine. Another example: the repeated phrase "fields of labia" seems to refer to the visual connotations of curly brackets, extracting a psychoanalytic dimension that continues to turn the machine of the text onto the writer. Do curly brackets look like labia? Possibly, though surely they just as much like tiny limp penises, or some sort of neuter nub? The point is that these connotations — indeed, all those in Peters' book — run through the poet's subjectivity and via a libidinal economy. The machine at hand is the figure of this circuit of the poet and writing.
A bin is receptacle or basket, perhaps for waste or perhaps for something more valuable (as in a wine bin). It also connotes "two." Of course, one connotation is "binary" as the conventional digital encoding system for computers. Binary is not a product of computer culture but is much older, and Peters invokes processes of binarization at the basis of all notation. Two is an operation or procedure on one, a movement from a continuum or a unitary to a distinction or binary (echoing Hegel; or in the sense developed in George Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form, which influenced systems theory but also certain lines of contemporary poetics). One might say the bin of binary is a differentiation that the computer later implements technically through the framing hardware of microprocessor-based current differentials. The insight resulting from this approach would be media history driven by the philosophical problems of temporality and spatiality, of the subject marking the continuum. But vaast bin is not a digital computer. What are the receptacles in this book? The page as a bin for a mark. The mark (or re-mark or glyph) as a bin for semantics, phonetics, and for the vibrating visual interface of these domains. Poems as bins for Peters' meditations on all this, and so on. Such a crude itinerary reminds that the machine at work here is the writer's voice as a figure of writing. Think of it this way: everything written reads "this was written" whatever else it may read, and reflecting on and operating with this is one way of grasping writing. The pastness of inscription is sealed into every readable text.
Perhaps the horizon of an unreadable text would be the falling apart of the binary into the now of writing. There are plenty of examples of the poetics of the unreadable or open text. No doubt Peters' book allegorizes this open horizon through its suggestive polysemy. Surely it is possible to see the poet's meditation on the inscription of temporality and subjectivity as itself a residue of the process it meditates on. Surely it is possible to see the statements of the poems falling apart as pieces within a mechanism of writing, and arriving at a radical and transitive surface of writing across self and time. This is not the case here. Structure in vaast bin is calculated in relation to the writing poet as machine. In one sense, as Jean Piaget argued, every structure implies some genetic operation. To recognize a structure is to recognize a principle of construction and emergence. Literary forms present themselves as structures of this sort. The index at the end of a book or the organization of passages in the body of a book of poems (as in this case) appears as a structures resulting from certain operations. Just as an index is extracted in some way from the text, so too the passages in Peters' book appear as the output of some organization into units and orderings. What limits this possibility in vaast bin is the aesthetic figure or ephemerisi that situates (puts in a bin) the poems' calculation and production in terms set out by a literary critical aesthetics: by a poet cognizant of outcomes sought and points made. In Peters' allegory, structures are the poets' domain.
The suggestion of an unbound polysemy gestures towards the missing now of writing, but the semiotic processes of vaast bin just as easily become barriers that ends the gesture. For example, consider the poems' repetitions of "having bin" / "having been," as well as "will have been." These put into play an oscillation between the instrumental or technical possession of the apparatus — perhaps the page on which words are put or "bin" — and the existential axiom of being, of a being that is always a project in time. The repetitions oscillate precisely because of the unresolved question as to which is more fundamental. Do we deal with a technical apparatus that constructs being as locus and timing within its structure? Or is there being which inhabits the technical structures, the bins, through which we operate? The problem is suggestive of course, in part because it remains the central crux of writing, but Peters' success and limitation is that he remains focused on just this problem. Another example is the continual use of "noth," which suggests "nothing," as if "nothing" were the gerund of the verb "noth." The isolation of noth from nothing connotes an (until now) secret and undiscovered mode of acting, the act of noth. Or is noth a drunken "not," recalling the jazzy stutter of the very different poetry of Nathaniel Mackey, where the "t" slurs into "th" as if the negation of "not" were smeared on the tongue and the page? In the end, it feels Shakespearian and Parmenidean: nothing comes of nothing, ex nihilio nhil fit, since "noth" comes to feel like a private language, a special name alluding to some other story or scene with interior significance only.
A receptacle is open. It produces precisely by what it takes in and operates on. So too the real interest of binary for poets and thinkers in an era of digital computers is the fuzziness between its utterly empty formalism and its ability to operate on any material in the world, including the world. Little enters into vaast bin. This is not a failing of the book but does precisely delimit its self-operation. It succeeds in what it does: vaast bin writes the resonance between image-text-sound as a problem of disparate notation by a writer machine. As a result, Peters limits the writing within a formal, mathematical, and ascetic program. The writing lacks both the subject-less quality of a work that remains only at the level of inscription — David Melnick's Pcoet is a classic example — but also the incandescent and messy use of incoming data across the space-time of the poem that characterizes certain strains of contemporary poetics. It is useful to invoke the well-worn use of Charles Olson's projective approach that is foregrounded and problematized in the work of a writer such as Susan Howe but also surely at play in Peters' meditations on marking and dividing and operating on the page. Peters communicates the energy of projective verse and Maximus but not the immediate engagement with history and mythos that ultimately mediated Olson's voice. Peters' bin is empty for all its vaastness.