American Letters & Commentary defines itself as “innovative,” “challenging,” “daring,” and “diverse.” In this issue, John Phillip Santos reviews the poetry of John Matthias, saying that his “work imbeds us in his mind’s ceaseless flow of intimate memories, archival citations, insurrectionary readings, free associations and liberated play that seeks to unsettle the unexamined phenomenology of the reader’s attention to the world.” These phrases characterize ALC 23 as a whole.
This issue is dedicated to topics on the future of the book. ”Newer media swiftly flips forms,” Brian Dettmer tells us in his statement about his book-based art, and though this issue is not technically “new media,” ALC both literally and figuratively requires us to flip our notions of text and context as surely as Dettmer does himself. Russell Jaffe’s mad-lib poems, Carmen Giménez Smith’s repetitive “Phantoms in the Pantry,” and D.E. Steward’s name-dropping “Marcote” are all printed sideways. Fun, maybe; certainly a kind of “liberated play,” readings so “insurrectionary” we ask “why?” Or maybe we just enjoy the rotated volume.
Thus the images of Dettmer’s sculptures deserve note. As an artist, he begins with an existing book whose edges he seals and then sculpts with knives, tweezers, and surgical tools. “Nothing inside the books is relocated or implanted, only removed. Images and ideas are revealed to expose alternate histories and memories.” His piece “Tower of Babble” is a varnished tower of twisted paperback books whose edges have been cut to expose words and phrases in tiny print that, close up, exhibit an eerily predisposed juxtaposition. “Western Civilization 5,” a huge tome wrapped around itself, looks from the top like nothing so much as the agonized cross-section of a felled tree. From the side it resembles an intricately molded column, the words “Oldest Civilization” and “Metamorphosis” winding around its finial. “Saturation Will Result” appears as a plain cream-colored set of encyclopedias nautilus-mounted against a rectangular pedestal from one angle; from another, color illustrations and diagrams hang willy-nilly from the books’ severed pages. These images, like Santos’s discussion of Matthias, are a synecdoche for the magazine as a whole: one relatively familiar kind of text from one point of view, but from another, a different object altogether.
Or sometimes the other way around. At first Eric Anderson’s “[In the Yellow Nearly Red Glow]” (like the illustrations in Dettmer’s sculptures) looks almost random, almost as repetitious as a villanelle, only clearly not one. But then you reread the first line: “Suppose coincidence is a temporal field overlapping”—and you see that the rest of the poem presents a series of coincidences, reds and yellows and couples and wines and weather, which, overlapping as they do in time, are nothing if not repetitions with minute and meaningful variations. (I liked the poem very much.)
Ander Monson’s short essay “Mirror Work,” a commentary on Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s book Between Page and Screen, does the same trick. Monson begins by referencing John Conway’s automaton Game of Life. “Maybe you remember the pixelated bits [from the game],” he says, “if not, you’ve probably got a screen, so perform a search.” I did (you should too), and in the analogy’s radiated light, Monson, Borsuk, and Bouse make astonishing new sense. Conway’s “pixelated bits” live, multiply, or die, constantly changing their shape and direction depending on what’s adjacent to them. Some units fall away almost immediately. Some live for a long time. Some seem to reproduce endlessly: “it’s hard not to see in this one future for the book: not obsolescence for one or the other, but a fused existence . . . How stable must a text be to be a book? . . . This play between this book / this screen / and us strikes me as a stable lifeform, one likely to be repeated.” An unfamiliar reference becomes a brand new way to perceive a beloved object.
Joan Retallack’s provocative opening essay (nearly) ends by acknowledging that “the putative future of the book is much more complicated than these paragraphs . . . can contain.” But taken all together, the reviews, art, poetry, and prose in this issue of ALC represent the complication, the complexification, the punning play of word and reader and writer that constitute the present future of the book. Every item—from Amy Wright’s unclassifiable “Prose Translation of Emily Dickinson” to Josh Wardrip’s speculative fiction “Furthermore” and to Richard Greenfield’s prose poem “They Will Bluff Me (To Influence Me)” and everything before and after—every item is a totem of the strange new directions our print world may be headed. “It is infinitely adaptable,” Wardrip’s narrator says, “not only does it freely expand, but it may also continually modify its existing constitution.” And Greenfield says, wryly, “The expiration date [is] viciously scratched out. It [fits] so neatly inside.”