I’ve been very taken with the explosion of concrete and visual poetry in Canada over the past decade or so, much of which seems to have been encouraged and developed, directly or indirectly, by Calgary’s derek beaulieu, whether through his own ongoing practice, his work through filling Station and dANDelion, or his publishing, both in the earlier housepress and the current NO PRESS. Across the country, there is an ever-expanding field of writers producing interesting work, from including Helen Hajnoczky, Jesse Patrick Ferguson, Max Middle, Amanda Earl, Sarah Cullen, and Donato Mancini. Joining this group is British Columbia poet kevin mcpherson eckhoff, with his first trade collection, Rhapsodomancy.
Utilizing a variety of forms, from text to shorthand to comic-book illustrations, to other created and found images, eckhoff’s Rhapsodomancy owes huge debts to the work of Steve McCaffery, bpNichol and Darren Wershler, the work of each of whom is referenced inside the collection in different pieces. eckhoff’s breadth of form and play is certainly impressive, expanding the range of what is possible through visual representations.
My only question about the book concerns his final sequence, “Gordian Dénouement,” in which he writes an alphabet out of knots, which seems slightly too reminiscent of Mancini’s own alphabet sequence, an entire alphabet around the @ symbol in his @phabet (above/ground press, 2003), later collected in Ligatures (New Star Books, 2005). eckhoff’s is an interesting take on such, but is it perhaps too close? Is this a knot that, finally, he could not himself untie? One thing I do appreciate is eckhoff’s short essay at the back of the collection, “Bibliomancy: notes on the manuscript,” included to allow new readers an entry point, and offering more familiar readers a broader scope, something beaulieu also did in his fractal economies (2006), and as did American poet Jessica Smith, in her Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002 – 2004 (Outside Voices/Bootstrap Productions 2006). As eckhoff begins his essay: “This project responds to two very obscure endeavours. Have you heard of John Malone’s Unifon? Do you remember Sir Isaac Pitman’s Shorthand? These two scripts attempted to replace the English alphabet with a complete and accurate visual system of phonetics. Both inventors struggled to reconcile the same dilemma: the English language contains approximately forty phonemes, but its alphabet features only twenty-six graphemes.”
Too often, collections of visual or concrete poetry exist as an extended series of plays with an extremely short list of tools, making eckhoff’s Rhapsodomancy of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary works to appear in some time.
rob mclennan is the author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, including the recent collection Glengarry.