Wednesday, June 1, 2022

rob mclennan : The Pain Itself, by kevin mcpherson eckhoff

The Pain Itself, kevin mcpherson eckhoff
Insert Blanc Press, 2021







In certain ways, one could see the whole of British Columbia poet and editor kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s ongoing work as a series of explorations into refreshing perspective through language, seeking new ways to explore how language shapes, distorts, refreshes and recreates meaning. Working through very much an engagement with what the late Toronto poet bpNichol referred to as “serious play,” he’s produced an enormous amount of oddball works over the past fifteen years, including the full-length collections rhapsodomancy (Coach House Books, 2010), easy peasy (Snare Books, 2011), Forge (Invisible Publishing, 2013) and Their Biography: an organism of relationships (Book*hug, 2015), as well as a wealth of chapbooks, including Document One (Martian Press, 2006), Channeling Voices (ungovernable press, 2008), Game Show Reversed (Book*hug, 2010), dissections from their biography (above/ground press, 2012), faux foe (above/ground press, 2018), Circadia (Gaspereau Press, 2018), an excerpt from BABYLON AD PROPHECY (serif of Nottingham, 2019) and dieting Herb Wit (above/ground press, 2020). His latest work is The Pain Itself, a book composed as a translation into a placeholder language as an experiment in translated meaning, as he writes of the compositional process at the end of the collection, “THE PROCESS ITSELF”:

Lorem ipsum is a placeholder used by graphic designers to develop a project’s visual layout without being distracted by any particular semantic content. The origins of lorem ipsum have been traced to sections 1.10.32-3 of Cicero’s thesis on the existence of pain, De finibus honorum et malorum (The Purposes of Good and Evil). This manuscript recreates Cicero’s 5 volume tome using lorem ipsum in place of Latin, which was then translated into English using QuickLatin 1.2.9e and Google Translate, followed by a thorough spellcheck courtesy of Open Office and MS Word 2007, according to the conventions of Canadian English. The source text for this book originates from eight online placeholder generators [.]

In five sections—corresponding with the five books of Cicero’s original work in Latin—eckhoff performs a translation game of telephone, translating the Cicero’s Latin into lorem ipsum through online generators, and that new text, subsequently, into standard English. Although eckhoff’s project is clearly far more ambitious (and grander in scale), there is something reminiscent to the structure of bpNichol’s infamous Translating Translating Apollinaire: A Preliminary Report (Membrane Press, 1979), a collection that Gregory Betts, as part of the bpNichol Digital Archive, describes as “A series of poems based on experimental translations of a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire. […] With contributions from Hart Broudy, Dick Higgins, Steve McCaffery, Richard Truhlar, Karl Young, Douglas Barbour, Cavan McCarthy, and John Pepper.” Both projects examined the curious shifts and reflections of what retained and what shifted, moving beyond the source material to a second round of subsequent translation. One should note, also, that there are multiple version of Nichol’s piece, including one translated into Klingon, as part of Darren Wershler’s (then Wershler-Henry) Nicholodeon: A Book of Lowerglyphs (Coach House Books, 1997).

eckhoff has long been engaged in the possibilities of meaning that emerge through manipulated texts, composing works through unexpected turns, gyrations and inexplicable connections, and The Pain Itself pushes the collision of words and phrases into an area that not only allows for but is purposely constructed to embrace the unexpected, and even nonsensical. Call this, perhaps, a “Translating translating Cicero,” if you will, as a project entirely centred around play and surprise, and a new way of phrasing and other possibilities of meaning. A new way of phrasing, one could argue, leads into new possibilities of perception, and of thinking, all of which is entirely dependent upon meaning, as opposed to simply dismantling it. To paraphrase Vancouver poet Meredith Quartermain, words can’t help but mean.

          To the fugitive, pregnant, the grief. And also, to the great or vast justice, the fermentation, not to amputate the life. To the arrows of the solitude, I free. We may be alive? The carriages, the mass and the god of the underworlds: The ill-advising modernism. Maecenas, to he/she/it is read, the Ides, the spice nor. But Aulus, of the disgrace which he/she/it needs, the avenging goddess. But some of the disgrace to the niche, the accusation requiring to be drank. Into the advertising, namely. To now the shovel, to he/she/it undertakes the ugly frizzling. The dark solicitation, if not. He/She/It may seek the lives. He/She/It flatters to the aught, itself, soft. Read: Even he/she/it is the tempter, namely. Into I free and also, he/she/it needs to the dislike and he/she/it is the temper, the temper! But, but by the bow. Moral, itself, the pain he/she/it may be. He/She/It may love he/she/it. May the advertising seek my god. Tomorrow, he/she/it will bestow beating, the sea different, soft. No. But the rib which, to the sugar of the incidentals, always, the spice, the temple, the cats. Into Aulus, the lore. But Aulus, the advertising requiring to be drank even needs the tank. For the god of the underworlds, huge, the feudalism nor the price to beating, but if not, Anneal, the Ides. I am tortured, but ugly. The voluptuous need, too, and the god of the underworlds. Dark, he/she/it was not. The cats consecrate the dignity, but not I. Free the Moors, the dignity. My god, the Ides, the lore, the corpuscular different. While and the pot to before to the javelins, the fermentations, the advertising, and read.

There is something, as well, of this project reminiscent to what Hugh Thomas has been doing through his mis-translations, translating poems into English from languages he neither reads nor speaks, or even Derek Beaulieu’s project of translating a single day’s newspaper content into colour form by subject. The exercise, in certain ways, becomes the project, and the final product an exploration into particulars of reading, seeing and experiencing. “Lately, I’ve been trying to train my retina to ignore the foreground.” he responded, as part of an interview around the then work-in-progress for Touch the Donkey, posted in December 2016. I would think it well past time that kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s oddball works start receiving far more serious attention. In the same interview, as he continued:

I think the relationship between foreground and background for me is political, insincere, deceptive, religious, embodimental. Foreground might mean “what wants to be seen” or “what wants to be seen as singular”, while background might mean “whatever is surrendered in the service of foregrounding”. Fig. 1. The stem only exists for the petals to be noticed. However, most writing—if it means to mean—reduces everything to foreground: in the flower example, a penlight shines on both stem and petals. Perhaps one way to think about it in language would be to focus on the more posterior parts of speech, like pronouns and prepositions. I feel this is, in part, how Stein’s writing generates an amplified background, by crafting densities of less tangible vocabulary. Another way might be found in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life or David Markson’s later novels, like Reader’s Block, which never really settle on a subject long enough for it to dominate the page, so that a sequence of diminutive foregrounds accumulate into some kind of total background.

I dunno. The purpose of placeholder text is to eliminate any semantic foreground in order to illuminate something that’s not always easy to perceive—design elements like margins, leading, gutter, etc.—and once the design is finished, the placeholder gets replaced. So, I guess the book’s original incitement involved shoving a background forward. And because standard lorem ipsum has a limited lexicon, something like 69 words, over the course of its 140 pages, The Pain Itself quickly begins to read like a cartoon backdrop that keeps repeating as it horizontally scrolls along.

I wonder if a text without foreground allows for apophenia: inventing/hallucinating a signal (subject) in the noise (scenery). Not sure why I value apophenia; perhaps I feel like it insists upon a reader’s agency or demands that comprehension becomes a collaboration. And I know this sort of reading usually feels uncomfortable, useless, and/or exhausting, but so does running on a treadmill or eating carrots everyday. Likewise, aiming my pupils beyond centre stage for more than a moment feels unnatural, which is why I trust it as meaningful action. It reminds me that looking is an active choice that can lend a kind of power to disregarded objects/ideas/people. It sort of reminds me, too, of John Cage’s 4’33. While the literary transposition of that score might seem best represented by a blank page, I suspect any writing void of anteriority would invite a like-spirited attentiveness to that which is easily taken for granted or surrendered in the service of foregrounding.








Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. His latest poetry title, the book of smaller (University of Calgary Press, 2022), a collection of prose poems, is now available, and he recently completed the final draft of his suite of pandemic-era essays, essays in the face of uncertainties. Originally composed during the first three months of original lockdown, this title is scheduled to appear this fall with Mansfield Press.

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