Enough Light

December 31, 2012

Contributor’s Marginalia: Maryann Corbett on “Query on Typography” by Malachi Black

For all our concentration on sound in poetry—for all our stress on giving readings and attending them, and on bright new journals that present the sound file along with the poem—most of us who love poems and who make them are writing them and reading them, mostly silently, to ourselves. We are using a medium that involves making marks on a surface, which we expect other people to pass their eyes over and make sense of. The marks, and the physical act of making those marks, thus become important in themselves, no matter whether the marked surface is paper or screen. That explains why, alongside the abundant supply of poems about poetry, there’s also an abundance of poems about the written word and letters and the act of writing. Writing such poems is a way of getting a new perspective by changing the focal length of the observation. Move in close, very close, and you see differently.

There are genres and subgenres of these observations. The writing hand itself, for example: As far back as the Exeter Book, a riddler in Old English talked about the three fingers of the pen-hand as travelers together over the black road of the ink. I’ve puzzled over paleography and penmanship in my own work. Then there are the individual letters. Seamus Heaney, in “Alphabets,” reinhabits the mind of the child learning letters and numbers, seeing at first only the shapes like “a swan’s neck and a swan’s back.” Another subtype involves seeing the letters as pure shape in a quirkier and more grown-up fashion, one we can see in Karl Elder’s “Alpha Images.” Yet another subtype uses a sort of pathetic fallacy of letterforms, investing the shapes of the letters with feelings. (It’s not surprising that poets do this, since type designers themselves do it.) Such poems make the letters, or the features of a type design, into characters in a narrative, as in James Merrill’s “b o d y,” and Sarah Sloat’s “Typeface #54” and others. Katrina Vandenberg threads together many different types of narrative connections out of the evolution of letter forms, all the way back to the Phoenicians.

Untitled, Cy Twombly

Malachi Black’s “Query on Typography” does something different from all of these, something a little more abstract:

What is the light
                   inside the opening
of every letter: white
                   behind the angles
is a language bright
                   because a curvature
of space inside
                   a line is visible
is script a sign
                   of what it does
or does not occupy
                   scripture the covenant
of eye and eye
                   with word or what
the word defines
                   which is source
and which is shrine
                   the light of the body
or the light behind?

The poem asks how meaning is made: by the figure, or by the ground? It only suggests the obvious answer, but in the course of asking it implies and recalls much else. Much of its multivalent meaning comes from linebreaks and minimalist punctuation, so that the reader can and should read the same group of words in several ways.

It does this trick first with the language of physics, since it begins with the basic question “What is the light,” and the linebreak forces us, at least for a moment, to see that unit of sense as a question in itself. But the more whole question is, “What is the light/ inside the opening/ of every letter,” a metaphorical as well as a physical question that wants to know how it is we come to understanding at all. Later, across a linebreak, we find more physics, with some geometry: “a curvature/ of space inside/a line….” References to the lines and angles and curves of geometry keep appearing.

But so also does the language of the religions of the Book. The poem asks “is…scripture the covenant,” prompting us to recall that Scripture consists of those two familiar Covenants. Reading on, we find that the question is longer: is writing “the covenant of eye and eye,” which can be understood as the two eyes working together as usual, or as the necessary cooperation of the writer’s understanding with the reader’s. And we go on: Is writing “the covenant/ of eye and eye/ with word or what/ the word defines”? “Word” of course is full of religious suggestion: the Logos, and the scriptura that is famously sola for many. The surface question is simply, What part of the operation is shape-perception, and when does meaning take over?  A deeper question is, Does the reader or the writer control? Sometimes we’re not sure which question or statement we should be perceiving. Is the poem declaring “the word defines which is source and which is shrine”? Or have we begun a new question: “which is source and which is shrine”? Is it “the light of the body,” the shape of the letter-form (there’s Scripture again, “the light of the body is the eye; if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light….”) Or is it “the light behind,” in the background? Behind the reader’s eyes? The writer’s? Some other mind’s, deeper yet? No question here stays put; it shifts its shape away from what we expected.

And as a formal counterpoint to the sense, the poem locates its sound devices where we don’t expect them. In a poem that seems to be in a/b half-lines on the model of Old English alliterative verse, the rhymes, slant rhymes, and assonances are all on the a halves, leaving the right-hand line breaks without any kind of chime where we most anticipate having one:

What is the light
                   inside the opening
of every letter: white
                   behind the angles

This feels exactly backwards, like white text on a black ground, until we reach the end and find that the poem ends with a a-line—

                   which is source
and which is shrine
                   the light of the body
or the light behind?

—clicking shut neatly with another long i—or should I say “eye”?—sound.

Is the poem’s observation profound, or is it a commonplace? Better, I think, to call it fundamental. A foundation of human vision is the ability to distinguish, to locate boundaries between one thing and another. I’ve read that in Islam, for Ramadan, the hours of fasting begin when there is enough light to distinguish a white thread from a black one. On time, which has no demarcations of its own, we impose limits because our minds need to mark off one thing from another. Consider the importance of dark and light for our minds, of figure and ground in our lives, as we will mark off one year from another tonight. Happy New Year.

Maryann Corbett

Maryann Corbett lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and works for the Minnesota Legislature. She holds a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota and is the author of two books of poetry: Breath Control (David Robert Books, 2012) and Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter (Able Muse Press, forthcoming in 2013) as well as two chapbooks. Her work has appeared in many journals in print and online, including River Styx, Atlanta Review, Measure, and The Dark Horse, as well as a number of anthologies. She is a past recipient of the Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. She has new work forthcoming in PN Review and Modern Poetry in Translation. Her poem, “Campus and Dinkytown,” appears with Malachi Black’s “Query on Typography” in 32 Poems 10.2.

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