from im and not this, Greg Thomas
SPAM zine, 2021
Just as certain words tend to show up suddenly in every corner of one’s life (i.e., the “frequency illusion”), I have noticed that the same thing applies to certain colours, like the bright turquoise of Greg Thomas’s from im and not this (2021, SPAM zine). As a book of visual poetry, the first thing I am inclined to remark upon is the cover, and this particular shade of blue that I’ve been encountering repeatedly since the new year began — which is not to say that this book follows any particular trend in book design, since it predates this review by a couple years now. There’s something synaesthetic for me in this colour, and its appropriateness for the collection in front of me. This blue reminds me of an uncorrected photograph of a signal-clipped sky, brighter than usual, the exposure turned up so high that the apostrophes disappear.
A guiding phrase greets me on the inside page: “Simple poems change the most.” Immediately we are primed to expect simplicity, and provoked to anticipate change. The first poem of the collection delivers on both of these fronts, with the letters “lk” and “oo” arranged in an unassuming stack. Like the famous figure-ground vase, the poem presents the reader with a multistable image. To my eyes, it vacillates between two things: first, I see “look,” and then, because of the monospaced font, I see the number “one” or “1k.” A thousand looks for a single poem.
Further along, Thomas addresses this concept of multistability directly in a poem that begins with the word “boustrophedon,” referring to an ancient Greek writing system in which subsequent lines are visually reversed. What looks at first like an acrostic square, or a wrist stamp for an underground literary club, finally decodes into a series of switchbacks. The “eye” of the poem swims in multiple directions, following an ox as it plows a winding path.
For me, this structural play often yields a special kind of embodied reading. If I was attentive to my eye movements in the previous poem, it’s my breath that I’m conscious of in the next one, which reads “lips tongues / larynx lungs.” Like a public speaking exercise one might encounter in a theatre classroom, each of these words locates a particular set of speaking muscles, and draws one’s awareness to the flow of air as it passes through each of these vibratory structures. No doubt, this description might also apply to the words on the page.
As if shaken out of alignment, or seen in double vision, a later poem reads “spires / spines” with the line spacing overlapped, so that the two words appear to blur together. A third word, not yet written, seems to appear among the other two — namely, the very concept of “alignment.” The alignment of the words, the alignment of the concepts, the alignment of the eyes, and the alignment of the entities themselves, spine and spire. In attending to the shifting structures of the book, I experience the shifting structures of the self.
Indeed, this is a book of transmutative alignments, misalignments, and realignments. Another poem explores the quantum superposition of various interlinking prefixes and suffixes: “monu,” “ary” “ment,” “mo,” and “al.” To reproduce these fragments linearly here is to disrupt a dynamic visual ecosystem, but, at the very least, it should convey the sheer multiplicity of verbal entaglements that seem to dance across every page.
I am reminded of the scribal error known as “eye-skip,” the way that one’s eyes dart over words and sometimes misapprehend them. Thomas’s collection lives in the moment of the eye-skip, the flicker of words wherein face becomes vase and vase becomes face. To similar effect, a number of the book’s single-word poems such as “lessunless” function as rhetorical accordions. These inventive portmanteaus seem to expand and contract like a bellows. Or, in keeping with the solar imagery of this poem: they refract outwardly like light through a prism. Their apparent simplicity is a lesson in less-is-more — but also: less and less, less sun, less sunlessness — unless?
With every expansive word of from im and not this, I can sense the very lung capacity of language being expanded to its utmost potential. Though many of these poems can be inhaled in a single breath, they work like a blast of pure oxygen, allowing us to dive deeper than one might have thought possible at first glance.
Matthew Tomkinson is a writer, composer, and researcher. He holds a PhD in Theatre Studies from the University of British Columbia. He is the author of oems (Guernica Editions, 2022), Paroxysms (Paper View Books, 2022), For a Long Time (Frog Hollow Press, 2019), and co-author of Archaic Torso of Gumby (Gordon Hill Press, 2020).