Beyond the Illegible on Boundary Ave
by Terri Witek
In The Greatest Invention: a History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts, Silvia Ferrara demos how particular marks become more abstract as larger groups of people begin to accept them as “language”: she explicates way past bird images trapped on their little stone islands on Rapa Nui and the iconic example of cattle-heads simplifying to still usable alphabetical A s. At some point her argument elegantly turns back on itself: while images tend to simplify with use into signs, in the future the very future of signs will be images.
Her arguments about unreadable ancient texts (Linear A), like her arguments about iconic asemic texts (the Voynich Manuscript), depend on a version of the same point. Marks become simpler as a community that agrees about them forms (or doesn’t ) repeatable systems. When particularity is the point (asemic texts) or the context and pattern are lost, these constructs can seem stopped in time, a half-buried city. But today under the spell of good weather and her very readable book, I wonder what happens if we simply keep moving beside or with any mark as if we only know it moves along too. Don’t worry about matching content or pace. Drop re-rendering fears and the urge to explain as fake modes of salvation. Even if we don’t quite follow the plot, if we let a few things go, if we keep moving in ways that offer both resistance to meaning and expand our notions about it, we may also refuse ways of becoming smaller and safer.
Today’s walk includes some beautiful street markings that detonate further thought. Some people, presumably through training and use, “understand” these markings: they help the group assemble versions of the street. Even I extrapolate from the most common mark, a sequence of round blue dots: is this something about “water lines” ? But really I’m an outsider, a walker listening to Brazilian music whose Portuguese I can only partly decipher: one translation: “samba is a song of war.” But meanwhile I’m also seeing/reading “occasional line + blue circle” These words and the sight of them contain several kinds of content already, as do the marks on the street. So while I don’t understand what I’m seeing the way the group for whom they are intended does,there is a lot to consider (in other words, I’m working, too). Maybe another walker will see/read something similar: filled blue……stone sides … line…. line… Could reading/seeing without trying to fix/stop it expand the city beyond the city as well?
Meanwhile, 2 crows swoop down then away from a power pole on which a little hawk’s just landed. Black marks on gray sky. Caw caw. The hawk (not a big one at all) fluffs a bit but stays silent.
Contemporary asemics play back to known systems, of course—-Rosaire Appel’s wonderful music score “notes” and Dona Mayoora’s red and yellow lines that recall both sunsets and page poems. Jo Yarrington’s unpreserved (though there’s a photo) seashell sonnet. Renee Gladman’s architectural spaces around newspaper print. The asemic field is bustling with practitioners, and definitional moments still occur – just a few weeks ago I heard “asemic= w/o semantic content” as a kind of explanatory subset of visual poetry (larger, hazier). To me, such explanations feel like we’re trying not to forget something. And I can’t help thinking that as asemic signs pose in front of us they do stand for something (semantically) in any given space. But this isn’t my work assignment. At the moment I’m walking down one side of a street and will walk back up the other. If this were a script from Easter Island, Ferrara would say I’m moving boustrophedonically (!) : “following the path of the ox” every other line runs in the opposite direction. A then A. In 2023’s version, I walk each side of the street facing traffic because I can’t hear cars behind me over the tunes in my ear buds. I guess I should say at least part of me’s facing the music. That is, the object of the hour isn’t seeing/reading blue marks: it’s walking with heartbeat increased, walking and war songs.
But seeing/reading what we don’t quite ever follow might be a simple way to conjoin pleasure and resistance. Some days this matters. Walking back to the dorms after a poetry reading, a group played “what book would you take to a desert island?” (count votes from your own inner libraries here). The next day I asked the very large-minded Robert Hass what he thought he’d take–he shook his head impatiently (fluff and settle): he’d only want books in languages he couldn’t understand. How naive our group’s heartfelt picks (many of us had argued over the same ones) seemed then. So what mark-making keeps us circling the island, heart rates increasing? How long will we let ourselves see/read the island without trying to own it?
A current, wonkier example from another excellent poet, Jena Osman, who talked on a recent panel about using a translation app on her phone to read Japanese snacks. These had been ordered after she and Amze Emmons had visited Japan, where Jenna reports she didn’t, for once, feel short. She felt bodily readable, this to say, though without knowing Japanese. Back home, delectable souvenirs for the mouth arrive by post. Hence the translation app. Which read the snacks and then, still moving, began translating the Pennsylvania tablecloth beneath them.
That example, moving phone over cloth, might also be what painter Luca Molnar means when she asks a class to push their work along by what she calls “unrigorous research.” Use anything you are already using, she means, meaning tik-tok- and wikipedia, meaning that label or that friend you asked about last week’s dinner or protest. Later, by fractured text and not quite getting it together to meet, along with another friend we began a meandering discussion of “rigor,” a standard at our school we feel similarly grumpy about (two of us are studio people; one is a 19th century scholar). The scholar finally said rigid, said masculinist. Someone said rigor mortis. Someone meant to say unrigorous but it came out unregulated. To un not to own: unrequited. We all understand where we don’t want to go.
Maybe one way not to bury a city is to think that nothing about it is a mere fragment of something greater. That nothing is ever unsee or readable. Something’s broken or overdripped but there it is: each mark exists when we encounter it. In sequence, usually–and for as long we can bear to stand up to/with it (I resist you and love you, street) and keep moving. The next time I pass the power pole, no crows and no hawk. A further pole’s broken and tied with a blue striped ribbon. I’m nearly home. A swaddled shape on concrete curls like roadkill– a dropped towel printed with tire tread + palm trees. 2 more circles to go. 6 minutes. Thump thump.