I have two books in front of me, both of them strange in shape: Novoneyra’s Os Eidos and Jonathan Williams’s Blues&Roots. Os Eidos is squat. Its green spine calls to me from the bookshelf, an inch lower than its neighbours on the shelf. Ediciones Ardora (Madrid, 2010) in a note on the inside back page say “we have used Garamond and Zurich type on 90 gr. light ivory oria paper on the inside, and banded linen keaykolour card of 300 grams for the cover.” Their care for materials would appeal to Williams, who spent his life as a printer of quality editions of poetry, both his own and that of others. He had his own Jargon Press, although the edition I have of Blues&Roots was issued by Duke University Press, in Durham, North Carolina in 1985. It is almost 30 centimetres tall. I keep it in a different place on the shelf.
Williams was born in North Carolina in 1929. Novoneyra was born in Parada de Moreda in Lugo, Galicia in 1930. They did not know each other and I doubt they even knew of each other. They come together now through my interest in walking poets. Their deep local significance will have localists looking askance at me for picking them out. For example, Lori, came to work as a volunteer on Carmen’s farm from Asheville in North Carolina and I showed her Blues&Roots. She took it away and read it.
“I recognise all these places,” she said the next morning. “I can hear the voices he puts on the page. But you are an Englishman living in Spain, what are you doing with this?”
I came at both poets by walking through their territories- Novoneyra’s Courel, by frequently doing the Camino de Santiago over the past ten years; Williams’s Smoky Mountains by following an urge to visit Black Mountain College where he studied in the fifties. This is the place where that eccentric genius Charles Olson started writing a different kind of poetry, read deeply and widely and pulled the whole of geography and history into what he wrote so that you could almost feel the earth turn beneath your feet while you read his words.
From that grandiose height, let’s go down and look at something beautiful and specific.
A Pileated Woodpecker’s Response to Four Dogwood Berries
This is a peculiar poem where the text- a sequence of sounds- has fewer syllables than the title. Williams gives all his poems long titles. They are presented as found objects, encountered on walks through the Appalachians. Sometimes, as here, they are short and visual, at others the recording of longer conversations. Being faithful to the sound is a large part of their charm and authenticity.
Compare the woodpecker to Novoneyra’s bird:
NO BICARELO do bico do brelo
canta o paxariño.
bicarelo do bico do brelo.
Here the song of the bird (paxariño) has its word-sound correlation in bicarelo do bico do brelo which means something like “the peak of the beak of the branch”. The poem invites us to consider the relationships between sounds and shapes: what exactly does the mouth do at b,b,b? What does it do with o,o,o,o,o? And then that internal rhyme elo/elo?
The poet took the word object a stage further than this by painting it out. The image shows the same poem painted by Novoneyra. Notice how the x in paxariño stands out from the looping calligraphy around it. This is the axis with the louder phrase above and the fast, dense echo below. It seems to be a suggestion of how the poem should be read. And notice how the o has become an angular v shape in the writing, as though Novoneyra is telling us not to linger on the o sound except once o paxariño.
Novoneyra called these calligraphic versions of his poems ergografismos. They look like Japanese ink paintings from a Zen monastery. Japan is an appropriate place to look for the origins of this kind of work. The Imagist tradition was one of the roots of verbal/visual poetry in the English language. Ezra Pound’s Faces on the Metro calls on a Japanese aesthetic for its defining image of petals on wet bough. Both Novoneyra and Williams have something Japanese in the exquisite precision of their images and in the lyrical sharpness of flux and passing. In 1995 Novoneyra came to collaborate with a Japanese poet, Ayako Sugitani, in a collection called Camelio xaponés.
The extreme terseness of both poets begs a comparison with haiku.
The first poem in Williams’s collection is:
A Valediction for My Father, Ben Williams (1898-1974)
all the old things
are gone now
and the people are
This poem sets a tone for the whole of Blues&Roots, which is tender, charming and thoughtful but always gives the sensation that things are passing away. Compare it to this simple poem by Novoneyra:
Chiove pra que eu soñe…
(It rains that I might dream…)
In the image you notice that he uses a lighter mark for the words of the poem itself. The verticals come close together and the whole poem is tilted on its axis. This becomes a visual embodiment of the rain itself. The thick dark date 1953 allows the rain to float away from us.
The other tradition from which verbal-visual poetry springs is Dada wordplay, such as the typographical experiments of Kurt Schwitters, for example. Williams was a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, when Josef Albers was teaching there. It closed in the fifties, starved out of existence by the suffocating culture of fifties America, but in its time was the focus of an enormous creative vitality. It was forward-looking both artistically and socially. Williams set up Jargon Press when he was a student. The immaculate and carefully-planned editions of key poetic and artistic texts form the bedrock of his reputation. He published many poets’ work including the first edition of Charles Olson’s Maximus I. It is no surprise that his mature work is rich enough to play with different threads.
Look at this one:
As a typographer, Williams finds the OO of coon irresistible to suggest eyes. He also likes the vertical play on the repeating shapes of oneononelone going down the page. The cross invites us to pick up the reflection of religious imagery and speech throughout the book. The lone pine makes us think of the song The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with its carolling “on the trail of the lonesome pine.”
It is funny. A piece of verbal, visual wit rooted in its place and playing on direct observation and reflections of local culture.
You chuckle until you consider that, since the eighteenth century, coon has been an offensive term for a black man in the southern states. And now you are caught in the dilemma of wanting the poem to still be a witty reflection of a raccoon in a tree and seeing a lynching behind it.
Let’s look at another poem that plays with the shape of the letter 0, this time by Novoneyra:
Cousos do lobo!
Caborcos do xabarín!
onde ninguén foi nin ha d’ir!
O lobo! Os ollos o lombo do lobo!
Baixa o lobo polo ollo do bosco
movendo nas flairas dos teixos
Ruxindo na folla dos carreiros
en busca da vagoada máis sola e máis medosa…
párase e venta
finca a pouta ergue a testa e oula cara o ceo
con toda a sombra da noite na boca.
(Domain of the wolf!// Gullies of the wild boar!// Lonesome places// Where no one goes nor should!//// The wolf! The eyes, the back of the wolf!//// The Wolf goes down through the eye of the wood//moving the branches of the yews//rustling the leaves on the paths//looking for the most lonely and most fearful stream…////It tracks along//stops and sniffs//pushes in its claws stretches out its head and howls with its head to the sky//and with all the shadow of the night in its mouth)
Coon=ollo: ollo becomes the wolf’s face. The sequence of os becomes the wolf’s howl.
Williams and Novoneyra both list place names- compare A Round of Nouns in Jackson County to Covallo de Doña Briosa! This is what Ignacio Castro Rey, in the introduction to the Ardora edition, describes as: “a sign of admiration that in some poems culminates the long series of names denotes a sensation of plenitude where the mountain and the eye, grass and ear are one.” Williams uses the same artistic strategy by giving a listing of names from the telephone directory.
They are of the same generation. They are both walking poets. They both make formal plays with the visual forms of the words they use as well as their significance. They are both defenders of the language of the place they live. Yet there are differences. Williams, for instance, maintains a distance from the idioms he so faithfully records and even gives us pronunciation notes- Carlos pronounced Carlus, for example- whereas Novoneyra speaks the language of his family. Unlike Novoneyra’s work, Williams’s is full of people, with their pithy phrases and their human needs: sex, eating, talking, relationships. The Courel, by contrast, seems to offer Novoneyra the opportunity for quiet, where the wind and the weather can be heard to speak and a leaf alighting can also talk. Beyond him the wolf is a dark archetype. Although both poets are modern, Novoneyra’s reading in the lyrics of medieval Galicia seeps through the pores of the verse. Williams, by contrast, only makes poetic hints at modernists such as William Carlos Williams: a pecka real ripe tomaters make us think of the plums, and then there is just a note to let you know, which nods knowingly at Williams’s more famous poem.
William Carlos Williams gives him an accolade on the back of the book, saying, “The democratic idiom is all there.” This is one part of the challenge of poetry since the Romantics: to take the voices of ordinary people and have them speak; to keep the seriousness of poetry without making art that is distanced from those people. Both Williams and Novoneyra share this intent.
Meanwhile, I am reading Anton Lopo’s imaginative biography of Novoneyra, A distancia do lobo (Galaxia, 2010) and finding that there is more to the politics of the poet than I could possibly squeeze into one blog post. I’ll come back to the theme.
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