David Vichnar of Equus Press continues his series of mini-reviews covering the best of contemporary independent small-press production, each instalment dedicated to some (usually three) of their most recent & interesting titles. In the seventh instalment, the focus is on Evan Isoline’s Self-Fuck Press.
According to their mission statement, the title SELFFUCK is designed “to suggest masturbation, ontological violence, ambiguity and transmutation,” & ambiguous/transmutative feature in their further self-descriptions:
The subject of SELFFUCK is ocular and Dionysian; a dark, bodily plexus where cinema is related to death, voyeurism to god, architecture to entheogenic travel. […] SELFFUCK is a parasitic text-organism from outer space that induces visual hallucinations which slowly and painfully devour your brain. SELFFUCK is an animistic religion of nothingness. Death before death. SELFFUCK is a primitive cult of the future. A giant arachnid with peep holes instead of eyes.
In this instalment of collective mini-reviews, focus will be on three recent small experimental chapbooks/textual objects by Evan Isoline, Mike Corrao, & Dale Brett.
Evan Isoline’s chapbook is, first of all, a textual object with its particular material presence: written in old-school-font all-caps, on differently-coloured pages, with footnotes denoted by alchemical symbols occupying the nether regions of the pages. No wonder Mike Corrao’s Full-Stop Review spoke of “a web of surfaces” constituting “an object with permeating aura, drawing you in.”
(O!) THE SCARCITY OF GORE OR MVSHY VMBRA is radically experimental in its refusal of the common crutches of fiction like character, setting or plot: I mean, there is a narrative “I” trapped in some hallucinatory movie theatre screen, which it alternatively views & occupies while having cosmic/orgasmic experiences of union with the cosmos, but that’s really the he & the she of it, plotwise.
Instead, Isoline’s text seems driven forward by exploring the audio-visual properties of language as printed matter to be read (out loud): there’s a distinct voice that deals with the bodily (presence, presents, production, & products), but equally strong is the text’s sustained interest in reading & viewing, in reading as viewing, as some kind of book-cinema. It is in combining these two interests & approaches that bio meets technological. To take but the opening page:
I CAME TO THIS THEATRE TO BURY MY UMBILICAL CORD WHEN THE MOON WAS STILL RIPPLING AT THE CENTER OF THE SCREEN. ON THE WAY, I STOPPED TO MARVEL AT A PARTIALLY BURIED SUNDIAL. I COULD TELL THAT I WAS BEING FOLLOWED. DESPONDENT ACTOR WITH FACIAL SKIN GRAFTS. I CANNOT SPEAK.
COMMUNICATING THROUGH PANTOMIME I BEGAN TO SELF-TRANSLATE THE UNDERGROUND WORLD INTO A DEVELOPMENTAL PHASE OF LANGUAGE. THE THOUGHTS IN MY DARK VOICE SOUND LIKE A FILM TRAILER. I DROP THE TICKET STUB IN THE DARK BUT I’M NOT A PANTOMIME, I HAVE A TENDENCY TO HARM MYSELF LIKE A SILENT FILM ACTOR.
THE SOIL MAKES A SOUND AS YOU UNDIG YOURSELF AND FORGET ABOUT THE DIAGRAM OF A SEED. (2)
In what at first reading seems like a loose stringing of nearly free associations or the pasting-together of randomised cut-outs, Isoline touches on concerns central to his text & to writing/reading as such. Striking of course is the filmic setting of the action on a “theatre screen,” the narrative I’s voice “sounding like a film trailer” & its dumbness likened to that of a “silent film actor.” The inability to speak points to how this is the movie theatre of language-on-page, the narrative I engaged in the silent activity of writing, its pantomimic “developmental phase of language” (its gestures as captured on page) “translat[ing] the underground world” of its mind’s shadowplay. The “facial skin grafts” point to a prosthetic sense of another identity implied in assuming any & all fictional selves, & the “umbilical cord” & “the moon” occupying a “theatre screen” suggest perhaps how the visual drive towards viewing/reading ties us all together to one source of nourishment of, & how just as cinema & fiction, nature “herself” is full of “borrowed” light reflections.
This might be “reading into” & “over-reading” Isoline’s text, but this brief demonstration is meant to point towards its generative potential: reading it means rewriting it means viewing it means zooming in on different things. Which again is brought home in the text itself by the phrase “diagram of seed” — the text becomes a schema of semantic nodes, to be rearranged & recombined by the reading process, thus to sprout new meanings & interpretations thereof. That bio– is techno- & vice versa is the force driving many of Isoline’s most “deranged” & interesting metaphors & metonymies: thus one reads that “orgasm is a little silver screen” (3), that “pain is a diagram” (4), that “the fiction of the orgasm is a cinematographer’s inclination” (7), that “a seed is blindfolded cocoon” (8), that “the moon is a tidal wave of blood” (12), that “the withdrawal of happiness is death’s sun” (13) etc. etc.
The text stages a process of repetition-with-difference, of variation & replication. During its slow process of semantic snowballing, it gathers a rather idiosyncratic ensemble of phrases, each of which adds their share of disorienting effects. These are not usual figures of speech that would lead meaning “elsewhere”, somewhere “beyond” & “deeper,” but they manage the very opposite. Corrao notes how in such and other unexpected twists of phrase, “Isoline forces us to remain on the surface. There is no fantasy for our escape. We must remain in this tactile realm. We must engage with the purely visual qualities of the book. The page itself.” And by becoming a pattern of surfaces, Isoline’s language “becomes visual. A motif which, when viewed enough times, is skimmed instead of read. Each word an image which you have become familiar with.”
Finally, perhaps, regarding the mysterious title. At the halfway-mark (although unpaginated, the pages are marked by different colours as orientation markers), the “I” enters “the diagram” & feels “the dead algorithm” of its “slimy cocoon” (13), & on the last page, the “sun of orgasm” is said to have a “mushy surface” & the “silent film actor” tears off his bandages & screams: “O! THE SCARCITY OF GORE!” (25), but other than that I haven’t found much more by way of “elucidation.” Umbra, of course, denotes the very condition of a movie projection viewing as well as the invisible speaker within a written text, & “scarcity of gore” might speak to how saliva & sperm are the fluids oiling Isoline’s textual machine, not blood. Other than that, the meaning of the title, just as so much of the rest of the text, seems a spermatozoid in the dark, waiting to “undig itself” in the many re-readings/rewritings solicited of its readers.
The commonalities of Mike Corrao’s AVIAN FUNERAL MARCH with Isoline’s O! THE SCARCITY OF GORE are as numerous as its differences from it are instructive. Corrao’s is another text staging a process of phrasal recursion & thematic variation, an abstract narrative placed between an “I” & a “you”, only this time featuring a set of other characters & with even less distinct teleological movement. Corrao’s is another piece of prose spatially arranged, only instead of all-caps alternating with footnotes as in Isoline, we get individually typeset pages with differently-sized & -densified text.
So that on the most superficial level, the pages—some empty with 5-to-7 screaming Gargantuan lines, some filled with minute text quietly running on the border of intelligibility—come to resemble the differently busy sheets of score music, a quiet solo here, the roaring ensemble there. After all, this is, as per the title, a “Funeral March.” What the “Avian” refers to, is a slightly more complex matter.
Instead of Isoline’s techno-biology, Corrao’s text is invested in mytho-ideology, as brought home by the opening lines—featuring concepts the text keeps circling around—“anthropocene crawl through the luminous / topographies of coral and stone” (2). “Anthropocene” here is treated as plural & is immediately in contact/contrast with “topographies” other than it, of “corals” and “stones” — but these primal & more “originary” structures only come after it.
In Corrao’s text, the Anthropocene underwrites & circumscribes any illusion of escapism: unlike for Isoline, for whom the marriage of the techno- & the bio- is the end-result of self-affective imaginative activity, for Corrao the two are always-already one: the world is a “rhizome of my making / weaving labyrinthine inside myself”, its “ontology crawling through infrared” (3). As we hear later, “the anthropocene finds text where you left it and brings new life in shape of substance” (17), the anthropocene becoming the kind of Derridean text outside of which lies nothing.
The mythological side of things has been brought into relief by the publisher’s blurb, characterising AVIAN FUNERAL MARCH as “breathing a miasma of autoclaved cell cultures, or deadly endospores, the DNA of an ancient, occursed organism awakening inside your mind,” speaking “to the healing power of a sacred automutilation.” Anthropocene is marked by the expansion of the human into all fields of existence, & so soon enough we start hearing of “bird-superior god with lateral appendages” (11) & “a man made out of bees (14), & “ontologists” are joined by “ornithologists” & even “apiologists” (9), experts on the modes of “being” of birds & bees, or “the avian shape of ontology” (13). How this progression comes about is instructive:
ontologist begin expedition in search of holy antiquity
find temples made from feathers and decadent meat
pray at stone altars and feel bulbs inside self
study shape ontology of primeval beings and
begin to resemble ornithologists
note swallow curvature and bathe
in hot tar and folding glass (8)
The I/you interaction takes place against the backdrop of a chorus of “avian deity followers,” & gradually the “I” morphs into “a hundred headless woman” (sic) & the “you” morphs into “her baby eviscerated” (20). There is “someone missing” throughout & “green detectives” investigating their absence (17).
Most conspicuously, a certain “minotaure” inhabits this labyrinthine text, marked by a lower-case “m” & the French spelling, who is becoming “a new Someone” (14), the mythological hybrid creature born of a sexual perversion. It is this “minotaure” that concentrates the avian & labyrinthine motifs, bringing home the point of how all (mytho-)poesis engages with a breach of order, & how creation is somehow a prosthetic & thus perverted nature, & how all art is concerned with hiding its artifice.
But Corrao’s ornithological archaeology ventures even further, & his “you” ultimately coming to “resemble an ibis with wings severed” (32), i.e. the Egyptian god Thoth, the deity of wisdom, writing & other tricks & subterfuges. Since as always with Corrao, this is ultimately the mythology of writing a text that has—as per the publisher’s blurb—“the undulant and peristaltic form of something that doesn’t know what it is yet. Tactile, sensual and organic. Entropic. Liminal. Ritualistic.” In other words, AVIAN FUNERAL MARCH is a text performing an archaeology of textuality, a text becoming a sentient entity that “attempts to birth itself” (21), that is “crawling out of self and collecting tongues” (28), a text that says, “I am the body that every word rest [sic] upon” (23).
No wonder the publisher’s blurb for Dale Brett’s Violet Torus speaks of “a textual crystallography that simultaneously accretes and erodes like a phantasm or a waveform.” Its thirteen sections, again positioned halfway between “poetic” spatial arrangement & “prosaic” narrative drive, are each named after a mineral (“Amethyst” followed by “Vivianite”, “Aquamarine”, “Adamite” etc.). And sure enough, “Amethyst” speaks of a “body blurring / bright purple” (4) & of “crystalline violet light” (5); “Vivianite” speaks of “trails of phosphate” that “leak from / our decaying remains” (13); “Aquamarine” mentions “the chatoyancy of the resultant cabochon of this relationship” (17) & “memories cool[ing] off in a canister of cyan beryl” (18). In short—these texts of human words engage with the world ruled by the vocabulary, processes & laws of geology. This textual mineralogy poses the question of how are texts like minerals?
A tentative answer to this zany question might go something like: Minerals are compounds made of such immaterial stuffs as table elements in combination with oxides & hydroxides & water molecules that, under the right conditions, consolidate into hard-felt things. Texts are also compounds made of similarly immaterial stuffs like letters (also elements of tables), words & empty spaces that, under the right conditions, coagulate into heart-felt things.
Consolidation & coagulation—of what? Speaking of “the soft and harsh contradiction that I love to flirt with in my work,” Brett has said re Violet Torus in an Expat Press Interview that he “compiled it during a break from writing the novel [i.e. Faceless in Nipon] to essentially forget about the manuscript” when “feeling a bit giddy and loved up about life” but “there is also enough darkness there too though.” In a 3AM Magazine Interview, Brett spoke of his attraction to “the dichotomy of the ethereal and the destitute; the soft and the hard; the smooth and the harsh/mega-abrasive,” a dichotomy that “essentially underpins the abstract imagery employed to achieve the desired carnal effects at the depth of the surface” in Ultraviolet Torus.
So, a bringing-together of dichotomies, or as “Vivianite” has it, “tiny moments to para-morph our / burgeoning relationship outside in” (12) & “Adamite” recasts as “Waxy, / words / back and forth an intermediate solution to our imbalanced chemistry” (24). The human “relationships” in question are largely physical, intimate, sexual, & yet their casting as chemical crystallisations utterly alienates them—the principle underlying Ultraviolet Torus’s poetic defamiliarisation. As when “Rhodochrosite” opens,
Radiant teeth sing in embedded sockets,
molars whitepinksoftsugared and glowing. Her
bleached out smile hints a supraliminal glimmer.
—How can I see?
—How can I feel too?
Of course, white-pink is recognisable as the colour of the titular mineral. And if the “setting” inside of the oral cavity producing a “bleached-out” smile can be said to “anthropomorphise” this scene, it is still one that asks to “see” & “feel” a human mouth as one only rarely gets to do. Shortly after, Brett treats us to these rhythmical sequences:
Sounds will end,
—blood will run,
—every reflection lost.
Vibralux thrums in our bones. Shared trajectory breaks down the chemical bond as we find an exit.
fabric lustreless but not
l u s t l e s s
under the visible moon.
And again one is left wondering where this interplay between the interiorly experienced bodiliness & exterior reflections & fabrics, & their “shared trajectories” might lead to. That there is something kinetic to this collection of lapidary texts might again seem counterintuitive — that is, before one realises stones are vectors & end-results & primal causes of movement. And it is on the note of “moving on” that the final piece, “Tourmaline,” concludes — not incidentally a mineral combining the words “tour” & “line”:
My still thoughts wade deep into the etched
surface of the side-table, smooth and plush.
The trigonal properties of our creation always
had an expiration date in mind.
Markings in the hardened stone indicative that
it’s time to move on. (56)
“Time to move on” — a concluding envoy & send-off par excellence. Moving on, then: My next instalment, in roughly a month’s time, will be devoted to Hesterglock Press.
© David Vichnar, 2021