Thursday, February 19, 2009

0 to 9: The Complete Magazine: 1967-1969

Edited by Vito Acconci & Bernadette Mayer

Let’s, for once, look at the book. Not just content, but object. Why not discuss the thing at hand, in addition to the thing intimated by the text? Ugly Duckling Press has, as part of its Lost Literature series, gone to great lengths to not only reprint the entire run of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s ‘0 to 9,’ but also to revive and return the magazine to its physical actuality. In lieu of simply being a new printing of this rare text, this reissue embodies a faithful recollection of the magazine itself, with all its emphasis on the disposable. And I refer to disposable as Les Levine discusses it in issue 5, as he locates that “the importance of the disposable in essence is that it changes property into service.” For instance, the six blank pages that comprise issue six have been photocopied from an original copy of the magazine, instead of being represented by six clean sheets. These six photocopied pages, though, encapsulate the tension of Ugly Duckling’s reissue, as the reader is confronted with a shelf-ready reproduction of the disposable. A relic of the disposable to save for future reference.

That is, students and curious readers alike now have access not only to the texts that nominally comprise this New York-based journal, but also to a rough approximation of its dimensions as object. It would be naïve, of course, to pretend Ugly Duckling’s lush, deluxe compendium of all six issues, with its accompanying facsimile of “Street Works,” offers an experience identical to that of holding an original copy and palming through its rough pages. But while accounting for such empirical discrepancies, this collection still corroborates Acconci’s stated claim in his introduction, that he “…could use words only to mark a place on the page, [he] could use words only so that they could be negated.” By that, I mean ‘0 to 9: The Complete Magazine’ is a book only in the sense that a book serves as portal. No, it would be more accurate to call it a point, a foci to move from – someway to mark a horizon outwards. The book as compass.

This tendency is strikingly severe in Acconci’s own contributions to ‘0 to 9,’ but the reader may also look elsewhere throughout the journal to confront these tensions - the book as object as opposed to book as textual vessel. Look at Clark Coolidge’s included work, such as his ‘Six Works’ in issue 3. Here we become aware, cognizant to the point of possible discomfort, of the presence of the page as message. Each of Coolidge’s six pages consists of two or three lone lines, positioned right in the dead center. The lines themselves, buffeted by an oppressive whiteness, do nothing to aid immersion. Take, for instance, “is/ an/ ly,” or “and ec-/ cross a.” The very impenetrability of this poetry, as well as its central positioning on the page, focalize the reader’s attention upon the words – a tractability, a clear presence of. We arrive at the wordness of the poem. Yet, at the same time the reader is alerted to the very confines of the page, it has its limitations - a boundary over which there is more. Lichtenberg writes “ A book is a mirror: when a monkey looks in, no apostle can look out.” ‘0 to 9,’ in instances such as Acconci’s aggressively system-based work, or that of Coolidge as well as Jackson Mac Low, evokes a mirror in its impenetrable flatness – that it is a ghost of a reality privileging artifice. Surface is privileged over depth.

Compare Coolidge’s “Pages from Suite V.” from issue 6, ‘0 to 9’s’ last, with the earlier ‘Six Works.” We are confronted here with the diligent perseverance of narrative. The poem itself runs along the top and bottom margins of the page, with each word centered. The poem can be read, from top to bottom, as “taps/ buns/ keys/ ohms/ cans/ arms/ lads/ inks/ hats/ gars/ airs/ ores/ peas/ bars/ hips/ inns.” But then, that of course presupposes that one is not reading vertically across the poem’s eight pages before any horizontal progression. Reading in that fashion transforms Coolidge’s poem into “taps/ keys/ cans/ lads/ hats/ airs/ peas/ hips/ [before returning to the first page to read the bottom lines] buns/ ohms/ arms/ inks/ gars/ ores/ bars/ inns.” Questioning the trajectory of a reading then also questions the stability of the page and the book itself.

Regular readers to this blog may remember my discussion of Charles Olson’s “The Maximus Poems.” I discussed the act of physically rotating the book in a circle in order to follow the spiral of text. In that instance, Olson activated a physical site beyond the book’s immersive conventions. Coolidge manages a similar effect through his use of the page’s field to disperse its fixed gravity. Look at how by pushing the two words on each page to their very margins Coolidge brackets the dead white of the page’s center. A narrative arc is developed between the two pieces, at least for those readers also familiar with his contribution to issue 3 of ‘0 to 9,’ as Coolidge reverses his projective placement to elicit the same effect. The point of the reader’s attention is negotiated and questioned, possibly moving off the page –even so, Coolidge relocates this point of attention off the page, while remaining in reference to the page.

I mentioned earlier how ‘0 to 9’ reconfigures the book as a point. ‘0 to 9’ refutes a comfortable read; it may rigorous shift from Emmett Williams’ ‘musica: a dantesque litany for nine voices” where all instances of certain frequently used words from “The Divine Comedy” are suitably collated, to John Perreault’s scrambled sonnets in which the words are ordered alphabetically. Instead, we are given a pinpoint at which to recognize a particular time and place – New York in the late sixties.

‘0 to 9’ is a product of its time in the best sense, concerned with a movement outward that may occasionally come off as clumsy and naïve, yet always retains a courage and ambition. The “Street Works” are fitting summation of Acconci’s concern within ‘0 to 9,’ as he further investigates the printed word’s relationship to geography and place. The texts within “Street Works” read more as instructions, or vestigial remnants of an active event, as Acconci dutifully records “Four situations using streets and identification,” and the general circumstances, listed as “Street Works II; April 18, 1969; 5 to 6 PM; 13 St. to 14 St., Fifth Ave. to the Ave. of the Americas.” A self-reflexive eye of language turned to language has perhaps been submerged and the emphasis has shifted towards language’s ability (or inability) to manifest an actual place or moment. One is reminded of Ugly Duckling’s attentive presentation of this collection, which both moves the book towards an authenticity while also emphasizing it as a reproduction, a doubled object.

In issue 5’s Les Levine essay, “The Disposable Transient Environment,” he refers to disposability as “…an industrial vernacular, a description of process.” An industrial vernacular is an important phrase, as it links language with production (extending to commoditization). Language, especially when we refer to the printed word, is inherently tied to the industrial – moveable type manifested perhaps the first real simulation of the unique. A book’s inherent uniqueness can be solidly dismissed by anyone who cares to walk into Barnes & Noble and check out the piled copies of “The Alchemist” or “The Secret.” The object has been mass-produced. The original run of ‘0 to 9’ privileged the uniqueness of each individual copy of the magazine. Each copy of issue 4 had a different cover, since it was cobbled together from different book jackets lying around Bernadette Mayer’s apartment. Elsewhere, Vito Acconci’s “Act 3, Scene 4” hinged upon each of issue 5’s 350 copies containing a different line from a work of 350 lines. This piece, it should be noted, is also interesting as it relates the unit of the line to that of a commodity; each line signifies a saleable object. Ugly Duckling chose to reprint the collection with only a single line from Acconci’s piece: “across the lake region, the middle Mississippi Valley, and…” maintaining the conceptual partiality of the work in favor of archiving the full text for posterity’s sake. Yet, the fact that each of the editions of the 2006 collection contains the same line from Acconci’s piece reinforces the archival artifice of the book.

I have paid gross negligence, up until this point, to the great poet Bernadette Mayer, both her wonderful contributions to ‘0 to 9,’ as well as her vital editorial influence. For this, I apologize. If ‘0 to 9’ is to be evaluated as a point or foci, it is as one in flux. Bernadette Mayer’s presence helps to further illumination the magazine’s peculiar journey. Acconci’s continued reputation, even though he studied literature and creative writing at Iowa, rests upon his performance and conceptual art. Though his concerns continue to possess syntactical and linguistic relevance, the focus has moved away from that of a “poetic” community. Mayer, on the other hand, has like many New York poets, enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the art world, yet she continues to create and illuminate within the context of poetry. She prefaces her introductory statements by saying “ Vito and I created ‘0 to 9’ as an environment for our own work, which did not seem to exist anywhere else.” An aside – we return again to issues of print, page and place.

But Mayer has most definitely found a place within the community of open poetics. Acconci writes of Mayer that by the final issues of ‘0 to 9,’ “…she had plenty of other magazines to be in, even the New York School took her in, she reinvigorated it…” Yet while Mayer’s work represented in the earlier issues of ‘0 to 9,’ as well as much of the wonderful poetry she has published elsewhere, does pursue the lyrical through a thorny opacity, it would be unfair and inaccurate to simply characterize her as a second- wave New York School poet. Consider her contribution to issue 5, “Definitions at the Center of the Newspaper, June 13, 1969.” The page as geography is wonderfully evoked in the poem, as Mayer lists the words present at the center of each individual page. It is true that Mayer manages to elicit a mystery and awe from such systems-based poetics of which Acconci seems so dismissive. There is a humor in page three, for instance, where the center is “at the left elbow of Billy Graham,” as well as a strangeness to page 24’s “at the edge of a map” or page 36’s “at the empty space near a word.” Again, I apologize for not discussing Mayer’s excellent work in further depth. I will be tackling her most recent collection, last year’s “Poetry State Forest,” out through the great New Directions, hopefully in the very near future.

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