-Reviewed by Suzannah Evans–
Derek Beaulieu has stated himself that ‘there is still no accepted critical vocabulary for concrete poetry‘, and I can agree with this; reviewing his work presents some challenges. He is the editor of the visual poetry section of UBUWEB and the author of five poetry collections, three volumes of fiction and 150 chapbooks / pamphlets. There is no doubt that this man is a linchpin of contemporary radical visual and concrete poetry.
Having said that, I had not heard of him before I received ZimZalla 005 through the post, an unusual item consisting of a cotton bag containing a magnifying glass and a miniature booklet not much bigger than a postage stamp. The whole thing was delightfully novel for my first ever Sabotage review, and challenged any pre-conceptions I might have had about reviewing poetry in print.
In this collection Beaulieu constructs images which use letters, rather than whole words (as with some concrete poems). The letters are combined with line drawings and this results in tiny intricate graphics, many of which are reminiscent of visual images that already exist in our day-to-day lives; staircases, map contours, chains of molecules, pieces of machinery. There is a great breadth of style in the graphics. In some the letters are easily recognisable, some are abstract and too tiny to read. The visual styles range from dot-matrix to calligraphy.
The collection presents some problems of understanding, however. I say ‘understanding’ instead of ‘reading’ because an attempt to read this as words or letters, from top left to bottom right, would, I think, result in some disappointment and a lack of meaning.
Having looked at other examples of Beaulieu’s work with letters on his website , such as this beautiful piece, swarms, I think that this collection loses something from its small size. It is condensed and delicate but at the same time it is not as visually appealing as something like swarms and I would be unlikely to go back to it repeatedly just for the pleasure of the images.
This collection sits somewhere between poetry and visual art, a depiction of familiar shapes weirdly altered. It forces the reader to look at letters not just for the sound given to them or the words that they form but for their visual properties. By positioning these letters inside half-familiar settings and arrangements Beaulieu asks the reader to examine language as a construction. This is enhanced by focusing on the smallest possible unit of language, the individual letter outside of the word, potentially somewhat meaningless on a first reading but becoming more significant in an investigation of shape and sound.