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Responses. Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář Translated by Ryan Scott & Kevin Blahut (Twisted Spoon Press)

Responses. Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář Translated by Ryan Scott & Kevin Blahut (Twisted Spoon Press)

I bought this book because of the sequence which forms the second part – ‘crumplages’ of photographs, accompanied by quotes from Kafka – having discovered Kolář’s name online in relation to myriad forms of collage. These often gave names to ways of cutting, folding, juxtapositioning or distorting images I and many others already use in visual arts. Kafka’s Prague is an entertaining and thought-provoking sequence, with deconstructed and re-imagined buildings, reproduced in full colour, opposite brief and elusive fragments from Kafka, often to do with death, dreams and confusion. But it is Responses that has enthralled me.

Kolář drew on Surrealism and Dada in his writing and visual art, although he later moved beyond and away from these influences, and much of his art he considered visual poetry. In response to the Czech regime he lived under he made silent, visual poems, but even these mute texts had to be published in samizdat form to avoid punishment by the Communist rulers. By the early 1970s he was in exile, and Responses, a gathering of 71 sections of notes and reflection (he sometimes referred to it as an interview without questions) was completed in Paris. It would not be published until 1984, in Germany, and only now has it been translated into English.

It’s a fascinating statement of poetics, and as such is a product of its time and place rather than a manifesto or definitive statement, a fact the ‘Translator’s Note’ makes clear. It contains some grand statements about Art, as well as personal recollections, memories and asides. It discusses specific ways to write and collage, ponders the idea of fate, authenticity, poetic form, and how to find out about the world:

I said before I didn’t feel as if tearing, crumpling, and cutting reproductions and texts were acts of destruction. It felt more like a kind of interrogation, as though I were constantly querying something, or something were querying me. I asked myself: What was beyond the page, the letters, the picture, inside of it all? I knew something had to be there. (page 38)

This inquisitiveness underpins the whole of Responses, and is something I feel akin to, something I ask my students to be. Kolář is sometimes wilfully awkward: he won’t work with established forms; he dismisses his previous work; he perhaps clings to, and defends, what we might regard as outdated ideas of the avant-garde:

It would seem that experimentation and daring in art presents more than a danger to wrongheaded people that anything else. Start to think for yourself and you are more dangerous than anything that can be made. The truth is, all the power of art and literature largely comes from its ability to produce a shift to a new field of perception. (page 14)

I find these declamatory statements, which emerge from many quieter passages, provocative and thought-provoking, but Kolář is also aware the writer/artist has to contemplate and understand things for themselves, before they can create. ‘It’s imperative to appreciate poetry’s historical development’, he says, but goes on to suggest that ‘[e]very attempt at change and revolution came out of something’. (page 18) He also states that writers must ‘learn from those who are expanding it [the field of perception] towards other disciplines, whether in art, science, philosophy, or other fields.’ (page 15)

Kolář, however, had always been drawn ‘to locate the points of friction between visual art and literature’ (page 12), and suggests that ‘[t]he material itself gives you a chance to think differently’. (page 22) ‘For the poet, language is a type of understanding as well as misunderstanding’ (page 24), seems to me a powerful statement for those of us who struggle to navigate, filter and make sense of the 21st century world of (dis) information overload. ‘Form or content becomes trivial when we fail to notice the hidden meaning’ states Kolář (page 51). Responses is rooted in a different version of the world to ours, but it reveals a restless, creative, thoughtful artist/writer at work, whose ideas can still challenge and provoke.

I think every artist one day must, like it or not, try to effect what’s called a revolution: a reshaping and reinvention of poetry as a whole […] (page 17)

Rupert Loydell  21st January 2022

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

The short fictions in this collection engage with questions about the self, the nature of writing, the relation of the writer to the text, the ways in which we perceive reality, and how that reality is represented by works of art. These major themes encompass a number of other strands, some examined below, all of which is expressed in stories which are humorous, engaging and very readable.

In the piece ‘Retrospective’ there is a description of a machine constructed from various musical instruments as well as “old cans, even a plastic bucket”. The machine generates “…music that has no observable pattern. It is purely the product of chance.” This description of an automated artform presents another important theme of the collection, which is virtualisation, that is, digitally-generated experiences which, as these stories suggest, are encroaching more and more on the “real” world. In another story, a couple are entranced by birds singing in a tree in midwinter, only to find that the sounds are from wires and speakers installed by their new neighbours. On the same theme of the effect of the digital world on everyday life, the story “The Composer”, which describes how the narrator discovers a new composer only to find that they already have thousands of online listeners, expresses the anxiety caused by surplus of information in the internet age. The nature of art and the way in which people engage with artworks is examined in a number of pieces. In ‘Another Life (1)’ an art exhibition morphs into a visit to an African village, while in a companion piece, ‘Other Lives (2)’ the narrator returns to Nairobi from a drive up-country, to step from his apartment block into a “a large ballroom full of white people in expensive clothes”; both of these pieces point up the contradiction in how Westerners view art, particularly what might be termed “world art”.

There is plenty of comedy in these stories, and in fact, the comical elements are often the most disturbing. They come into play particularly when dealing with the absurdity of contemporary life and the infantilisation of culture. In ‘The Wedding’, the ceremony is held on a bouncy castle, and “One of the highlights was Julia’s mother falling over during the exchange of vows”. Another story gives us a childhood idyll, in which the narrator watched each year the spawning of fresh-water fish, turned into a “wildlife hotspot” complete with children’s fish-costumes.

The story ‘The Character’ is an important one in terms of this collection; it investigates notions of freewill and determinism in the voice of someone who could well be a character in another of the stories, aware of, and trying to comprehend, their own fictive nature:

“Though seeming to choose freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine… I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power.”

The style of these stories is generally spare and understated. Where variations occur, it’s when the texts are parodying certain types of discourse. Some of the stories read as pastiche of certain styles, lightly shadowing the originals, including historical narrative and the essay form. The story ‘Theory’ is a pastiche of old-fashioned literary criticism, as is ‘Verne’s Nemesis’ in which a discussion of Verne’s work merges with the theme of identity running all through the book. The story ‘The Library’ seems like a key text in this collection, investigating the relationship between fiction and reality, and the blurred no-mans-land between them. The story ends “The library was there, unlike the past, always available to be rediscovered, reinventing itself continually in the light of fresh associations”; a description which could be applied to the stories in this book.

Although there are elements of dream-psychology in these stories, in general they are less dreamlike than literary; their characters are entangled in a text which reflects their confusion and instability, but which also frames their existence. One speaker says “I was no more than a diffuse presence without definite character”, describing how her “identity was seriously in doubt… Until then I had made little impression on the narrative”.

The book has an epigraph from Kafka, and as well as that major influence, the texts are reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Beckett. The pieces use a combination of first-person and third person (often referred to only by a Kafkaesque initial) and are by turns funny, poignant and disorientating. Reading them late at night in a period of insomnia can, as I can attest, be a disturbing experience. Which as good a recommendation as any.

Alan Baker 27th July 2021

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Kate Durbin’s work has been compared to Kafka’s and Beckett’s in its approach to the surreal, and her new book Hoarder’s certainly captures what is absurd in the culture of spectacle that is evident in the AE network’s television show, Hoarders. The reality show episodes focus on a single person or perhaps a couple who feel compelled to hoard objects. These objects come out of a culture based on the idea that consumerism solves problems and brings joy and gives us a voyeuristic look at the result of what is essentially someone’s mental illness. Durbin’s prose poems mix what the participants say about themselves as she describes what the camera is showing. The result is commentary on why they consume what they do and what we are consuming spiritually through our viewership. It is an exceptionally powerful collection that left me often sick to my stomach and moved powerfully by the humanity that the collection seems to suggest we return to. 

     For me, the most compelling poems are those where the people profiled clearly need help or they will suffer physically from their hoarding. For example, she writes about Alice, who takes in cats to care for but is not able to do so. Alice has stopped cleaning up after her cats who relieve themselves in her house. Here, Durbin uses italics when quoting and regular type to describe the camera work. She writes:

I feel awful, I’m a failure and that’s how my whole life has been one fresh shit among old shits.

My cats probably have worms, they probably have ear mites, there’s probably feline leukemia, feline AIDS running through black kitten whose hind legs won’t work lurching across the floor

I had a kitten and there was so much ammonia in the air that its eyeballs popped out grey cat with its eyes crusted shut.

I don’t even know how this started hiking boots under the bed, soles thick with shit (102-103).

Here and elsewhere, the characters profiled on the television show seem to be calling out for help, but their needs are ignored. Instead of providing help, we are asked to indulge in the spectacle of the moment. 

     Underlying the collection is a discussion of what this kind of culture is doing to the environment. After all, these are people reacting to trauma, whose society has told them that if they purchase more and more things they will heal themselves. In 2001, the president went so far as to say that consumerism was an act of patriotism that fought against terrorism. The sheer weight of the objects described is overwhelming. One couple has so many books that the floorboards are beginning to bend. Another woman keeps tapes from 40 years of compulsively recording television. Most people have objects that would seem random except for the commonality that they are meant to bring pleasure. There is very little here that has a function. Mostly they are objects like Barbie Dolls and other toys no one can play with now gathering around them.

     Kate Durbin’s Hoarders is incisive and brilliant. I could call it surreal, but it accurately captures what is on the screen, and the way we have been asked to view other people. 

John Brantingham 8th June 2021

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