Fractal Economies (derek beaulieu)

derek beaulieu's Fractal Economies is less of a collection than a cross-section. It collects only a fragment of beaulieu's extensive forays into concrete poetry (poetry in which the physical form of the poem is foregrounded, and its meaning or content is relegated to a lesser position, or absent altogether), instead of being comprehensive.

beaulieu's work in particular is obsessed with form, with its meaning left to the reader to produce. Rarely does beaulieu use words in this collection, and sometimes he dispenses with letters. The result is a book that stands as both question and challenge: is this poetry—or even writing, for that matter—and why or why not?

“discourse on paranoia” is a fine example of a poem that blurs the boundaries between visual art and writing. The poem is an unsettling series of asymmetrical Rorschach-like blobs, created by pressing irregular pieces of packing Styrofoam onto ink and then paper.

The effect is truly disturbing—there is something about viewing the shapes that seems wrong, as if one was misreading some symmetrical Rorschach blobs, and therefore experiencing a “deviant” response to the test. But whatever the visceral reaction a reader experiences when approaching such a text—and beaulieu's emphasis on form is very much intended to provoke and question these visceral reactions—the poem raises questions about what can and cannot be considered writing.

Forget the boring, pointless, “but is it art?” posturing of the laziest critics of the avant-garde. “But is it writing?” is a much more valid and intriguing question, especially in light of the process involved in the poem's creation—just as if he had handwritten the poem, beaulieu has produced a considered and measured series of inked impressions upon a page, which have an aesthetic value (if only accidentally). Such poems explore the boundaries of what might be considered writing and what kinds of writing might be considered poetry.

When I first became acquainted with beaulieu's work through his first book, with wax (Coach House Books, 2003), I was skeptical about its value. But as I reread that book, I found myself impressed with beaulieu's writing, and particularly impressed by his visual work.

My growing interest led me to solicit some of his concrete poems for my chapbook press (The Martian Press), and the project eventually became a collaborative one entitled Call & Response. Going through this creative process with beaulieu led me to a better understanding of some of the issues with which he is attempting to engage.

beaulieu's major contribution to poetry in this country is his incessant foregrounding of the modes of production and the technological apparatuses surrounding the creation of poetry, and the possibilities inherent in rethinking the impact of these technologies on the “poem” itself.

Why more writers aren't engaging with these questions is beyond me (though there are a few). In addition to being a fertile field of poetic exploration, it seems necessary for the survival of a failing industry that writers and publishers begin to understand and explore the potential of technology in terms of the production of literature, not simply in terms of its delivery (the modern e-book, commonly little more than a scanned text, constitutes a serious failure of the imagination).

beaulieu focuses on somewhat outmoded forms of mechanical re/production, though he also engages with developing digital forms, but even when he is making pencil rubbings of refrigerator magnets, beaulieu manages to be more contemporary in his practice than many of his Canadian counterparts, who at times seem determined to convince the world that they live in log cabins, without electricity, surviving on grubs and epiphanies for ten months of the year.

beaulieu has chosen to include an essay at the end of the book, “an afterward after words,” briefly placing concrete poetry in the larger context of avant-garde poetics. Concrete poetry, beaulieu argues, “treats language as ‘raw matter' without a reinforced referent as a means to briefly interrupt capitalist exchange-based signification” (89).

My personal concern, that this moment is so “brief” to be insignificant, is not fully addressed, but beaulieu's “after words” nonetheless comprises some of the most concise theorization of concrete poetics that I have seen.

Some might argue that a book of poetry which needs to include an essay explaining its contents is too esoteric and impenetrable to be worth “serious poetic consideration.” To the contrary, beaulieu's visual poems, in addition to being wonderful aesthetic objects, question the role of art and the impact of technology in a world which is becoming increasingly technocratic, utilitarian, and totalitarian.

The essay, without oversimplifying itself for the sake of the uninitiated, offers the wary traveller a point of entry from which to explore the many possibilities of beaulieu's texts. Fractal Economies is an excellent starting point for beaulieu's oeuvre, and for contemporary Canadian concrete poetry generally.

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Jonathan Ball is a writer, filmmaker, and scholar living at www.jonathanball.com.

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