Derek Beaulieu’s advanced variousness

Derek Beaulieu. Fractal Economies (Talonbooks 2006).
Derek Beaulieu. How to Write (Talonbooks 2010).

Derek Beaulieu is a poet of many parts, as these two books, published four years apart, demonstrate. In all his work, he is a high-end conceptualist, but, unlike, & perhaps despite, some of the best known workers in the field, he tends to keep something of the personal in his work, that reaches out to his readership, seeking what I would call engagement rather than disengagement. Indeed, there is much in both these books that entertains.

Fractal Economies pushes concrete poetry further along the lines of its historical possibilities, utilizing various technologies to move away from the ‘clean concrete’ of such originators as Eugen Gomringer toward a rougher, dirtier concrete presentation. In his ‘an afterward after words: notes toward a concrete poetic,’ Beaulieu theorizes his practice in terms of a tradition & practice that seeks a way beyond a capitalist economy that controls even language at its highest, poetry. He argues that letting machines collaborate with authors, indeed, letting their ‘glitches’ do the ‘writing,’ so to speak, breaks the connection between inscription & authority; & he suggests that what emerges from this practice, ‘the “inarticulate mark” of concrete poetry ultimately expresses a poetic of disgust and exclusion.’ Well, I am no theorist, & as I look at the admittedly ‘unreadable’ pieces in this collection, I find not something disgusting but an odd beauty. Perhaps I come to concrete poetry too attached to art (drawing & painting), but I see these works as full of strange beauty, ghostly memories of other works, like some of bpNichol’s ‘ghosts,’ for example. Yes, there is a deliberate refusal of meaning here, but there are hints of possibility, new alphabets of shoes & pants, abstract language & line scapes, little jokes we get even as we don’t understand. This is a wholly engaging collection of visual delights.

Beaulieu produces a lot, & other books have appeared in the years between these two, many demonstrating his commitment to a poetics of conceptualism. On the whole, How to Write lives up to Craig Dworkin’s encomium: ‘derek beaulieu consistently produces some of the most baffling, oblique, unreadable – and ultimately, on reflection, absolutely logical and necessary – works of conceptual poetry now being written.’ Although I might take exception to ‘unreadable,’ a term of high praise for the work of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith, but not quite right here. I think Beaulieu has what might be seen as a flaw in constructing such work, a desire to have fun, & therefore to give his readers some fun too. When he sets out some restraint or baffle before raiding texts, these end up providing both a means of editing (if there’s excess, it’s an excess of control) & of keeping the results short enough not to bore. Even the title piece, with its rampage through 40 books looking for sentences with the words ‘write’ or ‘writes,’ holds a reader’s attention, not least because his chosen texts are, in their various ways, interesting. Indeed, the shades of the found narratives appear in this & ‘How to Edit,’ especially, as well as tonal attachments from the base texts; most allusively entertaining, of course, for those who know them. Others are downright funny, such as ‘Nothing Odd Can Last’ (a series of questions on Tristram Shandy) or his ‘re-contextualization of all the text in Roy Lichtenstein’s oeuvre, 1963-1973.’ How to Write is worth reading.

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