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Words and Pictures at Western New York Book Arts Center

Poets and Printers

Poems and Pictures: A Renaissance in the Art of the Book runs through April 2 at WNYBAC (468 Washington Street).

Modern era poetry and art, art and poetry, books from the UB archives are currently on display at the Western New York Book Arts Center.

The poets represented include the likes of Robert Duncan, Ron Padgett, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Robert Creeley. The painters and drawers include Jim Dine, Joe Brainard, R. B. Kitaj, Andy Warhol or members of his crew. And sometimes one and the same individual takes on both roles, such as the protean Henry Miller.

The poetic and visual arts imagery alike tends toward the surreal. Which can be another term to mean obscurity. So that in some cases, obscurity is asked to illuminate obscurity. Not always successfully. Sometimes obscurity seems to be the real point.

Moreover, the exhibit is a bit hamstrung by all the items being under glass. So that you usually can’t see more than a page or two of any item. (But what can you do? These are very valuable objets d’art, these books. But not as books for reading. Their value is that over the years they will provide immense fodder for doctoral dissertations—that no one will read, either.)

Sometimes, though, the art and poetry combination works well. For example in a broadside sheet (there are a few of these, too, on the walls and partitions around the glass cases of books) with a kind of comical murder by strangulation drawing by R. B. Kitaj, and love poem (I think) by Robert Creeley that starts out, “I wanted to kill her./I tried it, tentatively,/just a little/hurt. Hurt me.” And ends, “But when/now I walk, when/the day comes/to trees and a road,/where/is she. Oh, on my/ hands and knees, crawl-/ing forward.”

An ink sketch by Larry Rivers of a vaguely post-coital scene is linked with a poem by Frank O’Hara about a possibly imaginary jungle river excursion wherein the scenes along the way begin to seem more like paintings than reality. Paintings in an art museum, the central feature of which, of course, would be the gift shop.

The woman excursionist observes, “‘How like/lazy flamingos look those floating weeds!’” And one of them narrates, “The nose of our vessel sneezes/into a bundle of amaryllis, quite/artificially tied with ribbon./Are there people nearby? And postcards?”

An accordion fold-out book by Angus MacLise, illustrated with fin-de-siecle decadence figures from Aubrey Beardsley, is called “Dead Language.” The long litany nonsense poem with end-numbered lines runs on like this, “second day of the cat 1/day of the iron scepter 2/dog days begin 3/day of the eikon 4/second 5/third 6/fourth 7…” For pages.

Among the wall-hangings, a poster by Wes Wilson in psychedelic swirls and lurid colors features a long and rambling poem by Allen Ginsberg that occasionally rises to a kind eloquence of music (“the Monk in the 5 Spot who plays/love chord-bangs on his vast piano/lost in space…”) or Whitmanesque eloquence of sexuality (“I want the orgy of our flesh, orgy of/all eyes happy, orgy of the soul/kissing and blessing its mortal grown body,/orgy of tenderness…”), ending with a vision of homoerotic apocalypse (“For a new kind of man has come to his bliss/to end the cold war he has borne/against his own kind of flesh/since the days of the snake.”).

Among the poets who do their own art, Steve McCaffery’s works feature swarms or clouds of typewriter type, perhaps with some significant verbal content, but in a point size so small you’d need a magnifying glass and some substantial free time to try to look and see. The Henry Miller broadsheets feature rough portrait head shots of a man and a woman scribbled over with doodles and graffiti words and phrases that occasionally take on a tincture of something like poetry. For example, “The icy white maiden-head of love’s logic./The gorilla of despair beating his breast with immaculate gloved paws.”

A book with words by Ted Berrigan and artwork by George Schneeman is said in an explanatory note to have been done more for the artists’ own amusement than as a serious book, and in a desultory fashion over an extended time period, a main event of which was the Vietnam War. The end product has a roughly anti-war look, but makes no compelling argument, verbally or artistically, against the Vietnam War or even war in general.

There will be a reception at WNYBAC on Wednesday, March 30, 7-10pm, with an introduction to the UBPoetry Collection by Michael Basinski and James Maynard, and a reading by members of the UB undergraduate poetry group The Pronouns.

jack foran

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