Terri Ann Quan Sing reviews Axis Book 1: ‘Areal' by a.j. carruthers
AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’
by a.j. carruthers
Reviewed by TERRI ANN QUAN SING
Ambitious beyond itself; larger than the sum of a single collection; AXIS is a ‘lifelong long poem’; it is the first book-length installment spanning axes one through thirty-one. Since the publication of AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’ an additional eighteen or so axes have been published in various journals in print and online; and Vagabond Press have just announced that AXIS Book II will be coming out later this year. So in anticipation of the impending release of Book II, let’s start at the beginning with AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’ by a.j. carruthers.
An ‘axis’ is a straight line around which a body⸺figurative or physical⸺rotates. Throughout most of the collection the page is split down the centre; to columns of text form ‘hemispheres’ (untitled, 14) in parallel to one another across the gap; the AXIS; and this interval is crossed and subverted in the course of the collection. The recurrence of a gap bifurcating the poems suggests a focus on relationality. Relation across the gap; possibilities of frisson, dissonance, subversion, rapprochement, and wreckage emerge. ‘I wanted / to sometimes tell two different stories at once, and / sometimes tell one story twice. Well-worn form: the / split page’ (untitled, 13). ‘Areal’ makes reference to space; an areal is a geographical field, or field of thought; the gap making visible the interstices between fields produces dynamism throughout the collection.
Sometimes subverting its own convention, twin pillars of text flow down the page, but cross over and interleave in a DNA formation (Axis 5. ‘Aria’); or, words tilt and tumble down the page a dry, falling leaf swaying from side to side (Axis 11. ‘Assemblage’ -below); crossing the AXIS, musical notation with latinate letters floating side to side movement gives a sing-song feel, a slow gravity pulling softly down on the page out of word-processor enforced alignment (Axis 4. ‘Act’); producing a sometimes nauseous aesthetic. This collection yawns open to the edges of the visual and sonic possibilities of language; words, sounds and symbols play out on the page; notation, typography, and found-arrangements of speech.
Indeed, ‘play’ might be a guiding principle for approaching AXIS as a body of work. In the Derridean sense of the possibilities for movement and difference within any given order. These poems serves as ‘An improvocation’ (untitled, 13); they are playing with given language and meaning. ‘These poems are systems’ (untitled, 12); improvisations provoking new questions and new entries into old ones. The collection begins with an untitled ‘entrance’; an ‘overture’ functioning as a sort of glossary; an ars poetica; an opening orientation to the work, the reader, the world. ‘These gaps gap registers. Vectors’ (untitled, 22).
In his constant play with, across, and between the axis, carruthers offers a discordant discourse to the idea of ‘hybridity.’ AXIS could be read as a ‘hybrid’ text; mixing musical notation, concrete, and sound poetry, the poetic, the political, the philosophical; but this idea of ‘hybrid’ or ‘mixing’ is itself problematic, since these divisions are artificial in the first place. The reader that I am has in common with carruthers a mixed Chinese and European heritage. Giving us both (from the perspective of certain historical ways of taxonomising ‘race’) an uneasy relation to genre. From this vantage, one rejoices in reading this work as, in part, a response to being bifurcated by hegemonic orders; a resistance to the irritation of having to answer to the axis⸺borders made to appear natural and inevitable. In this context of racialised-reading the words ‘blazon me’ from Axis 7. ‘Arise’ come to mind⸺
you know what
‘blazon me’, repeated, becomes an imperative verb; ‘blazon me’⸺something to be done to the speaker. To blazon; to make a catalogue of the subject; a description of appearances. Historically, (white) women have been the typical subject of the blazon, made popular by fourteenth century italian poet-scholar Petrarch. Turning the conceit inside out, carruthers’ evokes and inverts the courtly love poetic tradition of lovingly dissecting a sweetheart. The love affair between reader and poet is at stake; to paraphrase: read/write me. Blazon me⸺as what? To be taxonofied, to be pinned like a butterfly under glass, to name is to ossify and carruthers’ work resists this capture. In Axis 13. ‘Antiphonal’ he again references this impulse to quantify, again in imperative grammar⸺‘reach for the dictionary. / Reach for the dictionary’. Blazon me; name me and record that naming for all time in the aspirational immortality of poetry. Then again, perhaps by naming our shared racial heritage here I am pinning us both under glass. Performing the wrong move of keeping score being fixed by the sense of dichotomy (Axis 7. ‘Arise’ -see above). ‘Q. Should I ask? Is my / question wrong? / Is my question wrong?’ (Axis 13. ‘Antiphonal’). In Axis 8. ‘And’, small supporting words (articles, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs) turn up in the gap; left to fend for themselves, expressing a refusal of fixity; playing on the limits of genre: ‘receptive | to | infinities / suspicious | of | limits / language language / language’. Resisting the reification of binary thinking, carruthers often plays with portmanteau⸺‘madeupword in tinted aureolin sunglimmer sung’ (Axis 30. ‘Androgyne’).
In Axis 22. ‘Annals,’ the reader reading for the autobiographical ‘I’ is disrupted. carruthers gives form to de- or rearrangements of the world; a resistance to ossification in the constant play of sight and sound⸺ ‘I, i, an you’ is bolded in the axis space in the centre of the page, the speaker/s continue: ‘Suspicious / of hybridity / we choose / not convergence / but specificity // Something new / is happening, you sing // (All, the commons)’.
In fact, throughout the collection the ‘I’ is never alone⸺but instead we read/hear a ‘choralyric’ (Axis 15. ‘Abut’); a poetic-political ‘capacious form’ (89)⸺this collection speaks to an ethics of relationality so important in a world that is increasingly split along certain axes. This work is ‘A chorale. Choral poetry as an improvocation / of the epilyric ‘we’ […] written under the influence of choral & cosmic / harmonies. […] Speaking / in registers I hardly know’ (untitled, 15, 16). AXIS is polyvocal; with many different voices speaking in concert; sometimes to each other, sometimes over one another. The formal split down the centre of the page draws a constant attentiveness to relationality. carruthers writes⸺‘As instrumentalists / must learn to play with two hands, and intone up to / 4 to 5 voices simultaneously […] so / I have tried to learn as a poet how to play on several registers at once’ (untitled, 12).
Formal musical language and symbols are used throughout⸺‘A notational poetics. The origins of / this project, Axis, are obscure’ (untitled, 12). Obscured to myself as someone who is not so literate in musical notation; and there is also linguistic notation. In Axis 31. ‘Apostrophe’ the reader/performer is invited to read the adapted linguistic notation of Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chow⸺not literally, but according to what the symbols on the page suggest to them. (For an example of carruthers’ sound work please see carruthers’ recent work ‘Consonata’which includes letter-notation and an audio recording.) So readers like myself needn’t fret when they approach a space of their own illiteracy⸺with references to, or lines in Latin, Cantonese, French, Italian, Greek, musical and linguistic notation.
The letter is a symbol and sound. It is caught in the eye and throat; in the play of light and vibration. Of course poetry is always linked to the living breathing body (of the reader, of the poet, & of others) carruthers makes this relation inescapably physical; stage directions, indicate that this is live, living, action, happening in multiple times and spaces not strictly confined to the page; imperative instructions meant to be embodied; that go beyond the page; recalling the work of Langston Hughes and Yoko Ono, among others. Stage directions in parenthesis; or ‘pianissimo’ ‘allegro’; indicates the volume and pace in space and time; ‘four trombones’ or ‘three voices counted as two’ ‘[laughter.’ ‘ (hum of / a bass clarinet / following / the tin / tones of / a honky-tonk)’ (Axis 12. ‘Addenda’). A call and response across the axis. ‘The law of the people is unwritten, choral intersector enters the universe’ (Axis 3. ‘Axiom’).
AXIS Book I : ‘Areal’ conjures and calls readers into ‘a literary commons’ (untitled, 15). Voice, score, notation, image, typography, sound, performance; AXIS sounds out the poethical in a polyvocal world; it is a virus that disrupts normative habits of reading; an expansive poetics reaching toward our collective future/s and the future/s of this lifelong, long poem.
TERRI ANN QUAN SING is a poet and writer living in Naarm. You can find her on twitter here.