tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE's Reviews > The Matrix: Poems: 1960-1970

The Matrix by N.H. Pritchard
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review of
N. H. Pritchard's The Matrix Poems: 1960-1970
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - June 8, 2015

I'm usually on the look-out for poetry w/ imaginative typography, for poetry that isn't just just constructed of parallel lines in stanzas, for poetry that uses placement as part of its vocabulary. Hence my interest in Concrete Poetry & Visual Poetry. Furthermore, I'm interested in poets whose work isn't supported by the status quo, often b/c of suppression of content &/or b/c of isolation from an economic mainstream, often b/c of classism & racism. Hence I search for work on small presses that may present unusual &/or unpopular &/or minority viewpoints.

N. H. Pritchard is a black poet, The Matrix Poems uses placement as a major part of its vocabulary, a most unusual combination. According to Richard Kostelanetz's "Why Assembling" (1973) "Only one one-man collection of visual poetry, for instance, has ever been commercially published in the United States, even though “concrete” is reportedly “faddish”; and since that single book, N. H. Pritchard’s The Matrix (1970), was neither reviewed nor touted, it seemed unlikely that any others would ever appear—another example of how the rule of precedent in literary commerce produces de facto censorship." ( http://www.richardkostelanetz.com/exa... )

Kostelanetz is certainly an expert on the subject, more so than me, but I still feel the critical 'need' to differ from him here: I don't categorize these poems as either Visual Poetry or as Concrete Poetry. I think of Visual Poetry as poetry in wch basic elements usually associated w/ language in its most conventional sense, letters & words, are repurposed as primarily visual elements w/o necessarily referencing their defined semantic content. Instead, the more 'expanded' semantic content may be referenced: letters seen as evocative gestures, eg. For me, Visual Poetry, even when it uses the defined semantic content of words, may not be using the visual presentation of sd content to embody it but may, instead, be incorporating words into a pictorial situation where they're 'matter' to be mixed into a more generally imagistic collage. See the Anthology Spidertangle (2009) for an excellent selection of such work (my review's here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/62... ).

Concrete Poetry, on the other hand, for me, is poetry in wch the visual appearance reinforces the defined semantic content w/ other visual elements irrelevant to this purpose not present. Take, eg, Aram Saroyan's simple example: "eyeye" in wch the word "eye" is doubled & conjoined to evoke the more usual 2 eyes of the reader. These distinctions are hardly hard & fast, they're ones I make that others will no doubt disagree w/.

For me, Pritchard's Matrix Poems don't seem to use the placement of elements either for primarily imagistic purposes or to 'flesh out' the definitions. His poems, while they're certainly more visually inventive than the conventional stanzas of parallel lines evenly spaced, strike me as more 'conceptually' ponderously placed, as mostly designed to prompt a path for the reader's eyes, to complicate the reading experience by making the words more present as objects but w/o heightening their defined semantic content in the process or making them primarily visual & ignoring or downplaying their defined semantic content. As such, while Pritchard cd certainly be lumped in w/ Concrete & Visual Poets, I find him to be somewhat in his own category.

The previous publication credits interest me. I'd like to see the original places to see what the other work w/in them is like in contrast. I suspect that Pritchard dramatically stands out: "Umbra #2, #3, #4; Athanor; The New Black Poetry, edited by Clarence Major".

The epigraph that precedes the table of contents in Matrix Poems is a quote from Pritchard himself: "Words are ancillary to content." The implication, as I read it, is that words aren't necessarily the primary carrier of content but are a part of a larger support system. In speech, body language would also be ancillary to content. Pritchard's use of positioning seems to be the main other half of what produces the content.

There's a formal strategy at work in wch "o"s in various sizes appear - mainly, but not entirely, as graphic elements on their own, like brackets. The 1st poem is called "WREATH" & consists entirely of an "O". That cd easily enuf be called "concrete" or a Picture Poem. The poem beginning on p 191 is called "O" as is the very last one. For those of us inclined to pay attn to detail, it's noteworthy that in the Contents the title listed for 191 looks like a lower-case "o" whereas on p 191 itself it looks upper-case "O". Again, in the Contents, the title of the last poem seems to be an upper-case "O" while on the page itself it looks more like a circle, round rather than ovoid. I don't see a typesetting credit so I imagine Pritchard chose the fonts himself. The "O" motif also appears on pp 17, 44 (marking the beginning of Pt II), 50, 68, 78, 86, 125, 126 (marking the end of Pt II), 138, & 185. Most of the time, they're circles. Circles are (perhaps, all-too-) easily read as symbols of tautological & regenerative completeness, as holistic. I prefer to just see them as a recurring visual element here - thusly, perhaps, making them akin to Visual Poetry.

Much of the poetry strikes me as evocative of leisurely, relaxed days spent in pleasant environments. Perhaps the closest poet I can compare him to is Ian Hamilton Finlay. One of the main techniques Pritchard uses is spacing between subunits of words:

"W here quiet ly on ly go e s" - p 3

What Pritchard's intention was, I don't know. The effect is multiple: it makes reading more difficult, it slows the reader, it makes the reader look at the words differently. "Where" becomes "W" + "here". In a sense it becomes 3 words: "W", "here", & "Where" (or a letter & 2 words if one doesn't want to accept "W" as a word).

"OLOGY" (p 8) goes a bit further in its placement-as-direction-of-the-eye insofar as there's a left column that spells out "a / see / d / r" downward wch then has the "r" continue on to become "r / i / s / e / s:" in an upward diagonal - w/ the "s:" being the top of the right column. This right column then descends thru "s: / to / gather / nes / t". The whole can be read as evocative of a bird picking a seed off the ground & flying w/ it to its nest. Again, it's close to a picture poem but the placement is more exploitative of a process than it is an image, it's time-based.

A similar semi-concreteness characterizes "AGON" wch has the poem upside-down starting at the bottom of the page w/ the title right-side-up at the top:

"b low C oo p e r Sq u are
the fun era r y late n e s s" - p 8

There's some ambiguity: "b low" can be "blow" or "below". Hence we have "below/blow Cooper Square the funerary lateness". Cooper Square being an area in NYC the poem's inversion makes me think of its being underground there, perhaps bodies buried, perhaps a burial ground not too different from the one not so far away uncovered decades later than this bk in October 1991 & memorialized as the "African Burial Ground National Monument".

This technique of spaces w/in words seems to be Pritchard's most common one. In "the own" (pp 53-55) the ambiguity of "blow/below" is both expanded & contracted: "an d a t he l as t" is difficult to resolve b/c the isolated "t" can be both part of "at" & of "the" but the "the" is syntactically odd whether it's "the" or "he". In other words, the pieces can be conjoined thusly: "and at the last" wch requires having the "t" do double-duty but the typical phrase of "and at last" is disrupted by the "the" or "he". The next line, tho, somewhat resolves this w/ " t he f irst is n ear" or "the first is near" making the "the" of "the last" more in keeping w/ the patter/n of " and at the last / the first is near". In the same poem, the phonetic abbreviation of "b" for "be" is less ambiguous in "b not shaken by the pat h" insofar as "bnot" is not a word but "be not" is semantically conventional.

"THE HARKENING" is another 'separation poem' (to, perhaps, coin a term) where slight irregularities make the reading process a little more 'bouncy':

"da dirt h o fsh all
sha ll we" - p 69

"da" instead of the or, perhaps, as a variant on "pa" or "daddy" cd make the beginning of this brief excerpt be "daddy dirt" similar to "mother earth" but the following "h" is more likely to conjoin in readers's minds as "dirth", a phonetic equivalent to or common misspelling of "dearth" - yielding "the dearth of shall". "shall" occurs twice: 1st broken into "fsh all", 2nd broken into "sha ll". The 1st combination has "fsh" wch can easily be read as "fish". SO, alternate reading: "daddy dirt fish all, shall we". This, however, is taken out of context by me here & a fuller reading might produce different or clearer results.

"GYRE'S GALAX" (pp 46-49) gets into quasi-permutational territory reminiscent of Brion Gysin from roughly the same time in Paris but not as systematic. I imagine it read aloud:

"Sound variegated through beneath lit
Sound variegated through beneath lit
through sound beneath variegated lit
sound variegated through beneath lit"

"VISITARY" (pp 64-67) functions similarly w/ stanzas like this:

"Where winged wings
Where winged wings
Where winged wings
Where winged wings
Where winged wings walk
Where winged wings walk
Where winged wings
Where winged wings walk
Where winged wings
Where winged wings
Dewinged wings
Dewinged wings
Wings dewinged
Dewinged wings
wings dewinged
wings dewinged
dewinged wings
wings dewinged
dewinged wings
dewinged wings" - p 65

As I wrote earlier, "Much of the poetry strikes me as evocative of leisurely, relaxed days spent in pleasant environments." "THE NARROW PATH" (p 74) is an unusually straight-forward example:

"Very due that being each one dwells
through errant woods of stone
and roaming unknown streams
where few prints mark the air
contested only by that dare
and the narrow path

"AURORA" (pp 87-124) is, perhaps, the most adventurous in the path it creates for the reader. The 1st page starts w/ "There", down a space diagonally right, "are", down a space diagonally right, "only", down a space diagonally right, "pebbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb" & the "b"s continue on at the same roughly middle-of-the-page position onto the next page & on to the next where the word is finished at the right margin w/ "bles". The next 2 pages both have "NOW" placed in their center, the next pages after that have a similar centering but of, 1st, "NO", 2nd, "w". As such "NOW" transforms into "NO" - ie" "NOW" w/ "no w". From there, the trip becomes considerably more complicated by a variety of placements & hummings. This wd be a great one to be read aloud in an attempt to honor the layout as notation - perhaps w/ multiple voices.

Beginning the section titled "III Objects 1968-1970" the poems do become more 'concrete' but, again, less for the purpose of semantic amplification than I usually associate w/ Concrete Poetry. EG: the 1st poem is a capital "A" made out of capital "Z"s. It's very neat, I'm reminded of later work by Karl Kempton. It cd be read as an encapsulation of an alphabet: A to Z.

All in all, I find Pritchard's work to be very sparse & very original. I'm not moved by it in an emotional sense, I'm moved by it in a physical sense. Take the 1st 4 lines of """ (p 187):

" " " " "
" " " red "
" " " " " " red " "
" " " " red " " " red"

I'm sure that the neat columns won't display correctly on GoodReads. The quotation marks ("""s) can be re(a)d as "ditto". The 1st line of "ditto"s can be read as dittoing the title. The reader is seeing "red", an expression meaning "being angry" - but the reader is also just reading, the reader has read "red", has re(a)d. What Pritchard means by this is somewhat opaque to me but it definitely seems symptomatic of an active mind encouraging an active reading. Thank you, Doubleday & Company, for having the audacity to publish this.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 20, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 9, 2015 – Shelved
June 9, 2015 – Shelved as: poetry

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