Patricia DienstfreyPatricia Dienstfrey

Working Note for “Love and Illustration”

The pictures in the chapbook Love and Illustration have their history in a fascination with the visual aspects of the letter o and with its numerical presence in the alphabet. An o, to my mind, is primitive and elegant, more than it appears to the eye. In its numerous semiotic correspondences, o is easily seen to be of imagination’s subtle image/medium relationships. The letter’s recombinant qualities -- as the form is reduced, enlarged, segmented -- are, among all the letters of the alphabet, unique. O’s are simple, balanced figures; at the same time, they are paradoxically full and empty, one and many; neutral and expressive. The form, o, seems to be, basically: code.

          *   *   *

Robert Duncan, in a statement of his poetics, refers to important influences on his writing as “virtus,” supernatural or divine powers. As o’s have made a claim on my imagination, they have linked me to other writers. Fascinations held in common have become virtus for these illustrations.

The first virtu that comes to mind is the power that is in syllables and phonemes. It is found in the Gospel’s “In the beginning was the Word” and in the myths of Orpheus. Then there is the Hasidic tale in which, in a world made of sound, the Rebbe loses concentration and, making the sacred sounds out of order, creates a monster.

Second, o’s, in the context of these illustrations, take on the qualities of the miniature and the toy. Their adaptations evoke childhood play as Giorgio Agamben refers to it in Infancy and History:

A look at the world of toys shows that children, humanity’s little scrap-dealers, will play with whatever junk comes their way, and that play thereby preserves profane objects and behaviour that have ceased to exist. Everything which is old, independent of its sacred origins, is liable to become a toy. What is more, the same appropriation and transformation in play (the same illusion, one could say, restoring to the word its etymological meaning, from in-ludere) can be achieved -- for example, by means of miniaturization. . . . The essential character of the toy -- the only one, on reflection, that can distinguish it from other objects -- is something quite singular, which can be grasped only in the temporal dimension of ‘once upon a time’ and a ‘no more’ . . . [pp. 70-71, trans. Liz Heron, Verso, London, New York, 1993]

Another virtu is a childhood love of picture books and pleasurable memories of being read to. What linked hearing and seeing was mysterious. Later, when I read to myself, I could enter a between-state in which I arranged different picture/text combinations. When there was a time lapse between the text and picture -- for instance, when a plate showing Hansel and Gretel walking through the woods dropping crumbs on the path appeared pages later at the moment when in the story the witch is showing the children the oven -- narrative linearity was displaced by a new formal essence.

A fourth power at work in this chapbook is Velimir Khlebnikov’s notebooks on syllables and phonemes. A nineteenth century Russian Cubo-Futurist poet, Khlebnikov was also a mathematician, natural scientist, and linguist. He believed language to be basic to human organization and in his notebooks developed a protolanguage that he was convinced would initiate world harmony. He kept notebooks on syllables, assigning them numbers and attributes, and a book of number nouns in which numbers were assigned to actions from which he composed manifestos and poems.

Pattern in nature and in art is another virtu. There is the idea that the phenomenal world is composed of only a few basic patterns (see Luis Borges’ The Craft of Verse, Gertrude Stein’s early writings on human typology, and Peter Stevens’ Patterns in Nature). Sometimes I am surprised by patterns that come up as I write. Or are they just amazing coincidences? One makes its way into Love and Illustration, which links my experience of a first word with one recalled by Walter Benjamin in “A Berlin Chronicle.” In Benjamin’s memoir, the word was “love” and came to him at the age of three. In mine the word was “romance” and was experienced at about the same age, before I could speak. For Benjamin, the setting was in a Tiergartenstrasse park close to the Hohanzollern labyrinth:

At that time, it is true, it must have corresponded more than closely to what was waiting behind it, for here, or not far away, were the haunts of that Ariadne in whose proximity I learned for the first time (and was never entirely to forget) something that was to make instantly comprehensible a word that at scarcely three I cannot have known: love. [trans. Edmund Jephcott, Schocken Books, New York, 1978, p. 4]

In my memory, I was in our apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts on a back porch glassed in for an extra room. The word rose in response to a view of something “romantic” seen outside -- a boy and girl, ten or eleven years old, wrestling and laughing in a snowbank. The word “romance” was exhaled as a single breath onto the glass where in the cold air it condensed into an o that stood for the unpronounceable word and its scene.

In Love and Illustration, the raw feeling of living in a world taken apart is put to use in the deconstructions that o’s permit. The book is given an ending that replaces “romance” and “love” with a third word, “devotion” in the recounting of a Russian folktale, The Beautiful Vasilisa. Devotion drives this tale as a love that is present without name. As well as being beautiful and courageous, Vasilisa carries in her pocket a gift presented to her by her mother on her deathbed -- a talking doll. With the doll’s magic powers on her side, the girl manages to bring light to the village from the hut of Baba Yaga, the witch who has day and night under her control. The girl’s cleverness, goodness and beauty capture the prince’s attention and they marry, fulfilling the tale’s romantic ending. “As for the doll,” the tale says, “Vasilisa carried it around in her pocket until the day she died.”



[From Love and Illustration, a+bend press, San Francisco, 2000.
a+bend press -- Jill Stengel]


BIO: Patricia Dienstfrey is co-founder of Kelsey St. Press, which has been publishing innovative  writing by women since 1974. Her most recent book, The Woman Without Experiences (Kelsey St., 1995), was winner of The America Award for Literature. Dienstfrey’s work appeared in Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, edited by Mary Margaret Sloan (Talisman House, 1997). She is currently co-editing, with Brenda Hillman, a collection of essays entitled The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, which will be published by Wesleyan University Press. Dienstfry lives in Berkeley, CA.



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