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Tom Jenks

Lost Sonnets, Catherine Vidler (Timglaset Editions, 2018)

78 Composite Lost Sonnets (Prote[s]xt. 2018)

Published by Swedish and British imprints respectively, Lost Sonnets and 78 Composite Lost Sonnets are companion pieces, engaged in oblique, eloquently angular conversation. To call Vidler’s sequence(s) ‘non-verbal’ would be a misnomer, implying something is missing. A better term would be ‘extraverbal’ where the option of conventional semantics has been refused in favour of the universal language of line, shape, space and colour. Vidler’s work could be described as asemic, in that is (mostly) wordless, but can be more properly aligned with concretism and visual poetry. Vidler works with computer technology, assembling, replicating, configuring and micro-manipulating her compositions using image editing software, but there is something pleasingly old school about both books, which have the feel of being instinctive, handmade and human.

Lost Sonnets is a beautiful object in itself: square, coil bound, elegantly minimal. The book opens with a series of pieces consisting only of blue lines, some straight, some curved, others more eccentric, but conceptually unified in their insistent reference to the sonnet form, with the number of elements in each always amounting to fourteen, the number of lines in a conventional sonnet. Like Ron Padgett’s ‘Nothing in That Drawer’ or, perhaps more aptly given its visual character, Mary Ellen Solt’s ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’, Vidler is here both referencing and deconstructing the form, reducing it to its numerical sine qua non whilst acknowledging its validity as an expressive mode. She does this, seemingly paradoxically, by using the form to establish limits, which Oulipian Georges Perec argues writers must have ‘in order to be totally free’. Vidler’s limits provide her with a means of progression. Throughout the Lost Sonnets sequence she draws, redraws, argues with, strains against and bends her systemic boundaries without ever actually violating them. From this creative tension come works of extraordinary beauty. As the book progresses, the pieces become denser. Shapes, notably rectangles and squares, take over from lines. Splashes of colour appear, counterpointed by black, including a single, Tristram Shandy-ish solid black page. Some seem chaotic - overexposed instamatic prints scattered to the winds or a card index for a looted, Borgesian library, but this is deceptive, for all are bound in thematic harmony by the governing numerical constraint. The middle section has a constructivist or suprematist aura, notably Malevich and his ‘Black Square’. No sooner do these shapes drift across our perceptual field, however, than they are gone again and the lines return but fainter, distressed, a little ragged, no longer locked in formation, allowed to meander and find their own resting points, as if Vidler’s formal fragmentations are themselves fragmenting.

This notion of recursive deconstruction is explored further in 78 Composite Lost Sonnets where things begin to get really meta.Vidler explains in the introduction how the composite pieces are made from pairs of the original Lost Sonnets using what she terms the ‘fold in’ method, where the first in the sequence is paired with the last, the second with the second from last and so on until all the original sonnets have been transformed. Some pairings seem to be natural counterparts, the bold, ordered lines of the sequence’s opening section blending smoothly with the fainter, more free-spirited lines of the closing section. Towards the middle, however, the meetings between the pairs become more confrontational, a rolling maul of lines, angles, squares and rectangles seemingly at war with one another, jostling across the page in pursuit of territorial dominance. At no point, however, does Vidler lose control. 78 Composite Lost Sonnets is in one sense aleatory in that it is driven by the chance pairing of images which (we assume) Vidler did not envisage when composing the original Lost Sonnets, but the composite sonnets are not random. Vidler has not simply mashed the constituent parts together and hoped for the best. Rather, she has managed the evolution of her meta-concept through inspired artistic intervention. Some composites see the first half of the pairing dominating, some the other way around. More often, they become synergistic amalgams, with Vidler employing a range of techniques, overlaying, rotating, effacing and interweaving to create new compositions which transcend their procedural origins. Although familiarity with Lost Sonnets adds another layer of appreciation to 78 Composite Lost Sonnets in that we can see for ourselves the workings of the ‘fold in’ process, the sequence can be equally enjoyed in isolation. 78 Composite Lost Sonnets is a subtle sensory bombardment, a trigonometric trance track, visual poetry in a fugue state.

Whilst others have re-imagined the sonnet visually (the aforementioned Solt for instance, or Jeremy Adler’s ‘The Pythagorean Sonnet’) I cannot think of another writer or artist who has done so with such drive, sustained imagination and diligence, taking the form to the nth degree and beyond. Vidler foregrounds the mathematics of the sonnet form, reminding us, as Charles Bernstein says, that when it comes to poetry ‘there is no such thing as natural’ and the creation of literature is always, as Veronica Forrest-Thomson notes, an act of artifice. The work that results is not, however, formulaic, cold or mechanistic. Lost Sonnets and 78 Composite Lost Sonnets are mystical geometric meditations on what the sonnet form can be and can do. Truly innovative work opens up new territory and Vidler does that here, blazing trails across an enchanted, geometric wilderness.

Read more about Lost Sonnets at https://timglaset.com/2018/09/27/catherine-vidler-los-sonnets/ and 78 Composite Lost Sonnets at http://www.hesterglock.net/protesxt-books.html

 

 

 
Copyright © Tom Jenks, 2018