Tuesday, May 16, 2006



[Ways] by Barry Schwabsky and Hong Seung-Hye
(Artsonje Center and Meritage Press, Seoul and St. Helena, CA., 2004)

A small pale-blue book with the word “Ways” inside square brackets on the cover. There is nothing else. No author’s name, nothing but a plural noun in small type. The first page is blank, featuring a single white square (its margins black), mirroring a bigger square made of three black squares, one white, on the inside pale-blue cover. The page, therefore, is not completely blank, but almost. The book begins like this.

[Ways], by Barry Schwabsky and Hong Seung-Hye, is not a “typical” poetry book. It is a typographic book, though, in spite of the fact that all the fifteen poems within are regularly aligned to the left margin. It is a graphic book, a collaborative effort between two proper names that have attempted to fill the book’s space with black ink, making a delimitation of space. Schwabsky offers a progression of words, an ascending-yet-descending flow of letters and lines that eventually end on the top of everything, a gradual, patient escalation into blankness. Seung-Hye multiplies empty boxes and mathematically expands equal dimensions to animate the page-passing. A poetry flip-book, if you will, that should be read carefully but swiftly, without stops, holding your breath. It is a book to read in any direction, but always sequentially, one numbered poem after/before the other. [Ways] appears before me as a sophisticated piece of poetic machinery (poetry as sewing; the poem as a sewing machine) that proposes new ways of understanding poetry and graphics; a humble dissertation on the nature of reading lines, line-breaks and enjambments, subjects and objects, transitive and intransitive verbs left margins and “empty” spaces. As I write this I cannot but feel that I am betraying the beat-keeper that makes this book resonate with all its moving complexity. The main difficulty is speaking about it. A book that must be experienced, it can be read as a theoretical proposition on poetry as movement and of reading as motion. But it should also be considered a reflection on the nature of words and images in relation to space and what we consider “blank”, empty spaces, the whiteness of the wordless page.

“A page left intentionally blank”: such is the maxim of this book which is in itself one single poem fragmented into fifteen movements or, if you will, a series of fourteen poems and a coda or, possibly, a collection of fifteen individual poems that should be read in two opposite directions. This phrase, the first line of the poem numbered as “XIV”, will be fragmented, sampled and remixed throughout the book/poem, the last line of the poem numbered as “I”. Fifteen poems all composed with fourteen lines divided in seven couplets compose this flawless progression of signifiers that, through a regular pattern, proposes new ways of reading. [Ways] flows upward and downward, spirals only in two’s, like final, conclusive couplets of old sonnets that suddenly find themselves flipped, animated and turned something else, becoming a discourse of alternative meanings to standard signifiers.

[Ways], indeed, grows towards the top of the page, until the blank page, left intentionally blank, stares fixedly at us. We breath, excited, still puzzled and in awe, but the page is, again, not completely blank, but gasping with that infinite fractal box of multiplied little squares that increase, in all their stillness, gradually before our eyes. The page pulsates with its apparent blankness, light that grows brighter with the shadow of the squares. The page is yet another square, always contained from the beginning, still there until the end. The text is, literally, a matrix that recreates something similar to “a sky remanded Thoughtfully”. The book glares with little units of meaning (like the stars dreamed by Roland Barthes) that pierce the chest like the photographic punctum of a dead loved one staring at us from beyond a faded dot matrix of printed paper (“second loves/ love best”, from II). After the “blank page”, another poem, seven couplets like all the others, the solution to this mathematical puzzle that flashes with the self-awareness of a melancholic patient drunk with oblivion and neglect; a clarity that only the Dawn seen by mad poets can blur: “speechless words, afflicted/ pleasures, if not without”. [Ways] flips like infinite square doors and windows, a conditional interrogation on the nature of the poem as the perfect artifact of meaning; an exercise on mistaken beginnings; a reorientation of the couplet as the definitive not-closed stanza, in this case made up of possible false starts. After all, [Ways] can indeed be read as a “sonata for a sewing machine” (from IV), since it creates the effect of mechanical, repetitive punctures that create embroideries on skin. But Schwabsky’s and Seung-Hye’s book is many other things as well: it’s not a map, nor the written directions to arrive to a destination. It is instead different manners of achieving what could be seen as the opposite of poetry: the blank page. [Ways] gives the page, left intentionally blank, a signifying power that is almost blinding in its beauty. Ultimately, [Ways] grows into its coda like a profoundly painful love letter, like the lyrics to a naked song.


Born in Mexico City, Ernesto Priego is an essayist, teacher and translator. He is interested in everything having to do with poetry, graphic narratives and pop music. He recently released his first book, NOT EVEN DOGS(Meritage Press, 2006).


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