How to write in the time of Trump and Putin? In words and images, John Matthias, Jean Dibble, and Robert Archambeau give you an answer to consider: find the muse of amusement and the reality of facts and twin them: you will arrive at "Revolutions," which instructs us on the possible meanings and uses of poetry in an Age of Emergency. These collaborators sing of methods of representation and ways to make new. Visually stimulating, linguistically innovative, this is work of invention and innovation to help us survive. From eidolon to Eisenhower, from Eiffel to Eichmann, the leaps keep us on our toes. There is much consolation in the anxiety of forms.—Maxine Chernoff
That's the jacket copy got Revolutions: A Collaboration, a book I co-wrote with John Matthias, with images by Jean Dibble. It's just out from Dos Madres Press and looks great. But what's it about? There's no easy way to say, but I'd start with this: it takes scenes from the life and works of the great Russian poet Mandelstam, crosses them with events from the life of John Matthias, and bends everything toward a fictive realm, all the while commenting on the nature of cognition, memory, and the (possibly redemptive) imagination. Here's an example of one of John's poems with my commentary (the "HIJ" is a fictive character based on the three consecutive letters of the alphabet H, I and J, and the poem uses words from the entry for those letters in the dictionary based on a kind of Oulipo-derived formula):
From THE HIJOFIT
Poems by John Matthias, commenatry by Robert Archambeau
is the method of the new hussars;
the tsar’s unhappy; bless him
and applause aplenty bring to his tsarina.
All bells toll this inauspicious hour.
Peasant absentee shuns orthodoxy of
the Bishop of Pah. It reigns down from clouds
O hallelujah crowd and ever after: Winds blow
across the steppe, the messenger
caught up in mass and mission
fails in the individual soul: Everything’s for sale,
especially oil, soil. Ahph! Our brother’s pipeline
sabotaged by cabbage claims. Borsht!
Poetics is no longer worth a pension
even for a splaygirl in from Budapest. Anapests –
the three red accents on her breasts.
Hazard me a guess, dauntless guest of hap-
penstance drinking vodka at our happy hour.
That was the moment. That was the power.
Hapax Legoman was his love, who
drove a nine and twenty for her dower.
H is for Haslam’s History
Who are they, then, these new hussars? And who’s the windblown messenger caught up in mass and mission? Who, also, is our brother, and who the splaygirl come from Budapest? “Hazard me a guess,” we hear. I’ll hazard this: they’re all from Haslam’s History, or close enough. Dull critic that I am, I won’t mimic Matthias, no. No, I’ll explain.
Silas Haslam’s History of the Land Called Uqbar exists only in one place—or three, depending how you count the reality of immaterial things. For the most puritanical of enumerators, it exists only in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The hero of that story comes across a mention of Haslam’s History in the bibliography appended to the last article of a stray volume of the fictitious 1917 Anglo-American Encyclopedia, an imaginary illegal reprint of the eminently real Encyclopedia Brittanica of 1903. This imagined version of a real book is, in fact, the second place, other than Borges’ story itself, where Haslam’s book stakes its tenuous claim to reality. But the encyclopedia article that mentions Haslam faces great challenges in its claim to existence: besides being a construct of Borges’ imagination, it is apocryphal even within the story born of that imagination. There, it exists only in the possibly unreliable testimony of a secondary character—some copies of the encyclopedia lack the article, and we have only the testimony of this character to indicate that at least one copy does indeed contain four extra pages describing Uqbar.
Strangely, Haslam’s History has a greater claim to existence than the encyclopedia article in which it is mentioned, as characters in the story discover it mentioned in the catalog (the third place of its existence) of a bookshop. To be precise, they discover it in the catalog of Bernard Quartich’s bookshop—a real shop, opened in London in 1847 and open there still. Whether Haslam’s book ever existed in the catalog of the venerable Quartich’s, I cannot say. Doubts abound, but scholars have yet to assemble the catalogs of Quartich, dispersed as they have been over the globe for a hundred and sixty years and more. So we just don’t know for sure.
But H is not just for Haslam’s History, nor for “Haphazard,” or “Hij,” or “Hijofit.” H is also for “Hermeneutic code.” Of the five communicative codes described in Roland Barthes’ S/Z, this is the one that most frustrates and satisfies readers. It refers to those elements of narrative that are not explained, that raise enigmas and set us hunting for answers. Sometimes, as in the detective story, we find those answers, our hermeneutic hunger satisfied with a great “aha!” But sometimes an author—wily, sly, or incompetent—frustrates us in our search. Sometimes they make us fall into what Barthes calls a “snare”—an enigma refusing to be resolved.
We might say that the reality of Haslam’s History in Borges’ story is a snare. Except that Borges is more wily still. His story isn’t just about the dubious existence of things–it is about the influence of nonexistent things, their propensity to multiply and become real. Through machinations too arcane to articulate here, artifacts not of Uqbar, but of Tlön—a fictitious realm from the literature of Uqbar—begin to manifest as actual objects in the real world of Borges’ story. What was caught in the hermeneutic snare is unleashed in the world itself. If you don’t believe it, try Googling “Uqbar” or “Haslam’s History.” You’ll find they’re mentioned, now, not in one place, or three, but many thousands. Borges sent them from the narrow valley of the unsubstantial to the broad fields of ubiquity.
Who, then, are Matthias’ hussars? And who’s the windblown messenger? We don’t know who they are. But we know where they are: they’re in three places. They’re caught in the poet’s snare–from which none of them shall escape to make a horseman’s charge, or deliver a messenger’s missive. And they’re in an artist’s image, in colors they never knew or wore. And they’re in this commentary, now. They are snared and stuck forever, and they begin to travel.