(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020)
(In-Out Productions, 1972)
Artist, writer, and publisher Ulises Carrión is historically remembered for his oft-quoted essay, “The New Art of Making Books” (first published in 1975 and republished over the years) in which he claims, “In the old art the writer writes texts. In the new art the writer makes books.” In addition to Carrión’s writing on theories of bookmaking, bookworks (his term for his art in book form), and mailworks (his term for his mail art), he also published several of his own bookworks. Sonnet(s) was first published by In-Out Center Productions (co-founded by Carrión) in 1972 as a typewritten staple-bound mimeograph book of 44 versions of Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet “Heart’s Compass” (1871). True to the ethos of Carrión’s own experiments in typography and plagiarism (his term for appropriation literature), Ugly Duckling Presse has republished this bookwork in a new form: as a trade paperback encased in a blue letterpress softcover. It opens with plain unpaginated pages featuring the 44 plagiarized sonnets, with lengthy backmatter including essays by bookbinders, poets, and scholars such as Mónica de la Torre, Michalis Pichler, and Annette Gilbert, as well as bibliographies of Carrión’s writing, a recommended reading list, and “A Note on the Edition.” (This backmatter is distinguished by the soft blue color of the pages and inclusion of page numbers.) As bookbinder India Johnson distinguishes in her essay, “To reprint a text is to reincarnate. To republish a book is to resurrect.” Here, Sonnet(s) is reincarnated into a new body, given a new afterlife in a new literary arts landscape.
It begins with the “Borrowed Sonnet,” a sly hint at what the contents hold, since nowhere in the original is the poet’s first author credited. Other poems include, “Capital Sonnet,” “Underlined Sonnet,” “Footnote Sonnet,” “Religious Sonnet” (with an “Amen” added at the end), and “Dated Sonnet” (with “Amsterdam, 9 April 1972” added at the end). The repetition of the essentials of the text makes flipping through the pages like reading a children’s spot-the-difference book. Poet and translator Mónica de la Torre opens her essay in the book with a reference to Carrión’s 1973 diptych: “Dear reader. Don’t read.” Made the year following the original publication of Sonnet(s), both have the same effect. Sonnet(s) takes a few pages before we realize the conceit, the repetition, and begin to look rather than read—spot the difference?
While Carrión certainly was interested in the materiality of language, and language on the page, this book is not an inventive exploration of how Rossetti’s words can transform the page space, and thus is not in the vein of concrete poets. “Rather than positing that poetic subject matter is what distinguishes a poem from ordinary language,” de la Torre explains, “Carrión’s proposition is almost tautological: a poem is a poem if it looks or sounds like a poem.” As writer and scholar Felipe Becerra notes, “it proceeds in a rather subtle, almost minimalist fashion, altering Rossetti’s sonnet one specific procedure at a time—one key at a time, even.” Sonnet(s) becomes then, not an exploration of language as much as of text, specifically typewritten letters—a prelude to Carrión’s later interest in contents versus container. The words themselves and their meaning become secondary (note here, my purposeful choice not to quote any lines of the poem, only Carrión’s chosen formatting of them).
Sonnet(s) is a humorous visual-verbal language game, one that rewards continued looking. In its reincarnated form, the poems are sequenced on facing pages, instead of the single page format of the original which had printing only on the right side—each poem replacing the previous like a flip-book. The endpapers feature a William Morris-era design, a nod to the still unnamed first author. In this new container, the blue backmatter pages take up more space than Carrión’s, suggesting the need for more detailed study and contextualization of his bookworks. But the essays also give the book heft, transforming a slim chapbook into a 100-plus page critical study—a very different container than the 1972 edition. Sonnet(s) gives needed weight to Carrión and an opportunity to both see and read him—Dear Reader. Don’t Read. The backmatter encourages us to go back and not read again, a necessary expansion of Carrión’s legacy.