Searching for the blank page
By James Davies.
Aeido, James Mclaughlin, Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011
‘I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket’
– John Cage interview in documentary Listen
‘He also performed events so subtle that most people ignored them’
– Simon Anderson on Ay-O in The Fluxus Reader edited by Ken Friedman
Knives Forks and Spoons publish some real gems and James McLaughlin’s Aeido is one of those. Aedio comes from the Greek to sing. The work can easily be defined as minimalist: it has few characters per page and hence a lot of white space. Most of the pages contain combinations of letters which could perhaps be fragments, abbreviations or with no origin from words in common use; in this sense it can be easily linked with the work of P. Inman. Many pages simply have dots (full-stops) on them; and one page, page 31, has nothing on it at all. In what way is singing happening here? The title suggests the infinitive and indeed the imperative. Aeido along with pretty much every minimalist work in any genre that I can think of is about joy. This is a beautiful work, mostly carefully crafted, (apart from a few niggles which I’ll go into later) which leaves the reader in something near Zen states throughout most of the collection.
It’s best to start with an example. The first page (page 5), one of the most densely populated, is as follows:
On a day when
ivy/ 2 formal
On a day when singing happened? On a day when things were perfect? I do this in retrospect to reading the rest of the collection. There are no definite answers. This is not a closed poem/page. But presumably at Aeido’s centre is ‘singing’ as a intuitive and very human act.
Courier or a font similar is used in pages 5-9. This then switches to mainly Times New Roman or something similar. Courier makes a return on page 25, 29 and possibly page 26. I’m not sure what I think about this lack of uniformity. On the one hand the different use of materials means that different words have different values and this detracts from a minimalist reading and makes it conceptual. On the other the use of the ubiquitous dot (or full stop) also changes according to the font. This could be seen as an exploration of materials, where the image-character is the same but is remixed/covered. The change in font when applied to the letters is not particularly subtle; one is quickly aware that it has changed but it took me a while to imagine that the dot would also change according to the font. The dot is slightly thicker when bold too. There are also some dots in my copy which aren’t fully filled with ink (14, 16, 20, 24, 30, 34). These things matter; this isn’t in any way a comment on the print quality of the book rather, what is on the page is what is on the page and with the lack of ink on the pages of Aeido we have to work hard with what ink there is. And although this has nothing to do with the type of font used it changes what is essentially the same message in a number of places. Let me be clearer on this. From page 34-39 each page is blank apart from a single dot. These dots are not positioned in the same place. They are emboldened I think. This is interrupted by the most clearly communicative page, page 40 which reads in full ‘tell me that’s not beautiful’. Page 41 is also a dot of the same size as pages 34-39 but this time not bolded. It is indeed beautiful yet it really is a shame the authorial comment on page 40 had to be made; too personal. It seems completely out of place. Response to minimalist work, in my experience, is either that the work is incredibly beautiful or that it doesn’t move someone at all: no in-between. Therefore this page 40 takes out the Zen. Those who ‘get it’ don’t need persuading and those who don’t get it won’t be persuaded by page 40.
The book which runs out on page 46 is so beautiful in most parts that it could have done with running on for a further 20-30 pages; of course I am being greedy. If it had have done I might have had too much of my fill. And also it could have easily played out on its signature: the dots. What follows pages 34-40 is a return to a still very limited but slightly more populated page. These are the subtleties that Aeido shares with the performances of Ay-O. You really have to engage to see these things. I even got a magnifying glass out to see if the dots which aren’t completely coloured in black are perhaps a quirk of the font; my detective work proved inconclusive and seemed to say yes and no like an unclear decision for television referee.
Fonts used for page numbering, if used at all in minimalist texts, are so vital as they have such an impact on the poem since the texts, without fail, discuss the politics of the page. The page font used in McLaughlin’s Aedio has its quirks. 7s have the shakes and the 8 looks like it’s been penned in afterwards, as if the manuscript wasn’t set straight. This peculiar font and the politics of page numbering is alluded to in a number of places. For example page 43 reads in its entirety: .38
Page 44 has only two characters ‘7’ and ‘~’. There are four pages which have the figure ‘1’ on them, one page that has one written as a word but with a dot intruding ‘on.e’ and one page has a figure ‘5’ and yet another with the word ‘five’. This is surely a discussion on our linear reading habits. Page 15 proves the final piece in the jigsaw and has the phrase ‘7sh’: sevenish?
Just like Cage’s bucket dots are dots in Aeido and not a representation of a dot. And the blank page on page 31 is indeed a blank page poem or a part of the sequence. Not a representation of a blank page or a blank page at the end of a book or before a new sequence begins. It’s another beautiful statement. A blank page as you can imagine is very similar to a page with only a dot on it. But that they are juxtaposed and that the ‘dot’ pages carry so much information highlights, in the most effective way I’ve seen, the information that a blank page carries.
There are other nice touches such as page 15’s joke where the word ‘dot’ appears between two dots. Also the questions that Inman, Saroyan, Coolidge, etc. have posed are here too. How do we read ‘rs’ page 19? Should it be in the logical world of everything being the case, i.e. ‘rs’, or in the duck-rabbit world of ghosts, traces and codes, for example ‘roosters’, etc?
But of course to conclude we must end with the dot. It is the dot which does the quiet singing, which is the loud-whisper that runs through the book. The final page I’d like to discuss is Aedio’s most conceptual, page 13, with its perhaps loaded ‘id’:
The literal word ‘id’ of course plays on the ‘I’ of the phrase ‘i’d’. Whichever be the case, ‘id’ or ‘i’d’, there is a metaphorical mind (a body) which seems to be walking around this dot. It is the closest I’ve felt to looking at something in a book as a three dimensional activity. I felt like I was able to take a walk around the dot in the same way I can with any work by Carl Andre. Just like the best bit of a Carl Andre being the light switch in the corner of the room, I was able to glance up from the page at the light switch in the corner of the room where I’m writing this now and say ‘you too my friend are part of the poem’: a kind of silent singing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Davies is the author of Plants (Reality Street) and two e-collections The Manual Handling Process (Beard of Bees) & Acronyms (onedit). He is editor of if p then q, former editor of the cult poetry object Matchbox, sometime collaborator with Simon Taylor as Joy as Tiresome Vandalism and is one of the organisers of The Other Room poetry night and website.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 29th, 2011.