Category Archives: critical theory

Robert Zend – Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: bpNichol


Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha

          In the last installment, I began my exploration of Robert Zend’s affinities with Canadian cultural figures, starting with Marshall McLuhan. The next two installments will discuss ways in which Zend’s work was transformed through exposure to Canada’s poets and artists. Here I’ll focus on his kinship with avant-garde poets such as bpNichol and the sound poetry group The Four Horsemen, and artist Jiri Ladocha.

Robert Zend and bpNichol

          Among Canadian poets, bpNichol produced a body of work that is most closely akin to that of Zend. Most obviously, both expand their range to include concrete poetry, typewriter art, sound poetry, and multi-genre works. In addition, both weave an intensely social poetic fabric; embrace a processual aesthetic; incorporate metapoetic gestures; exhibit playful, free-spirited qualities; and explore cosmic themes. There are fundamental differences in their work, of course, some of which I will try to address as well.

The Process Is the Message

          Ample evidence points to Zend and Nichol as writers and concrete poets concerned as much with the processual paths leading to thoughts and decisions — both conscious and subconscious — that become a part of the reader’s experience, as they are with the published product. Fortunately, neither was averse to discussing the process and evolution of their work. In Nichol’s case, we have Meanwhile, a generous selection of essays and interviews edited by Roy Miki. And of course the multi-volume The Martyrology itself, which Nichol describes as a “poetic journal,” is a testament to his interest in exploring process. In Zend’s case, works like “The Key” (a story told in footnotes, arising from a collaboration with Borges) and “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (a multi-genre essay recounting the evolution of Zend’s typewriter art) demonstrate such an approach. As well, an examination of the documents in the myriad boxes of the Zend fonds allows the researcher to traces interconnecting strands among works and to understand Zend as a writer and artist fascinated with journey as much as destination.
          In an interview with Pierre Coupey and others, Nichol addresses what writers sometimes call “writing on the mind,” or as Nichol explains it, writing that “reflect[s] accurately the processes of the way the mind works”:

I keep going back to this, of how consciousness works. Like in The Martyrology, I would bring in names very briefly, or characters very briefly or faces very briefly. Because it felt to me like that was the way you encountered people in real life. You’re walking down the street, you’re feeling things all the time, you see somebody you meet very casually, you know their name. You might never meet them again, but for that moment they’re there, and that’s all you know about them. Whang — they’re gone. So I let all that stuff into the poem, I let in a bunch of maudlin things because it felt to me that it was all part of the process of moving through something. All those things actually collide with your consciousness, so I left them in. But it makes for a very strange poem.1

In the following example of such “strangeness” from The Martyrology, Nichol writes of spending an evening with poet friends:

                an evening spent with friends —
                bissett, Arlene Lampert, Janine & Robert Zend
                — that list enters the writing again
                like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
                the details of my life dragged into the poem
                in part at least
                immaterial as the leaf
                as any life
                as the fleeting impressions of this cold October night
car slam2

Nichol moves freely and conversationally between naming friends and more metaphysical musings (“immaterial as the leaf / as any life”). He then jolts the reader into consciousness of the materiality of both life and writing with the auditory reality of a “car slam.” This passage also displays Nichol’s famous self-reflexivity, bringing into the writing the act of writing itself (“that list enters the writing again . . . the details of my life dragged into the poem”). The result is a linguistic texture of a life lived, suffused with an awareness of being in the moment, observing details as they happen and jotting them down for later reflecting and shaping (he was not at all averse to revision).
          Zend also embraced a processual aesthetic, and tells of enjoying drafts and sketches as well as the completed work:

Picasso . . . published a huge book containing his sketches for Guernica. For me, turning the pages of this book is [as] interesting and enjoyable as looking at the finished mural itself.3

He was also acutely aware of the ever more reticulated network of cognitive associations over time that lead his work in different directions. His description of the evolution of his typescapes demonstrates that although his brief but remarkably intense period of creation of this typewriter art may seem to have been “spur of the moment,”

the moment on the spur was, in fact, the final eruption of hidden forces boiling and whirling for years under the surface.4

          For Zend, eastern spiritual traditions wisely de-emphasize originary creation:

Artistic creation is often compared to divine creation, but the mystery of the beginning (the tale that God created everything out of nothing and will annihilate everything at the end) is a special note in our Judeo-Christian tradition. According to other — more Eastern, or more ancient, and, perhaps more sensible — traditions, the thing called Nothing doesn’t really exist except in the human mind as a concept; consequently they speak about world ages separated by global catastrophes in which the death of a past age coincides with the birth of a coming age. Thus the concept of creation in the beginning and the end of the world is replaced by that of eternal change.5

          In his customary highly visual style, Zend observes the continual fluctuation between process and product in the evolution of his typescapes, in which

I had succeeded not only in expressing my entangled subconscious
in “finished” type scapes
but I also had kept a clear account of the mysterious “process” of creation
so that one day I could write it down with the most acute clarity, so that it would be just another finished product.
PROCESS 4 235 W6

The triumph of that account, however, is tempered when he describes an inscrutable encounter with his six-year-old daughter and understands that the product is never finished but continues to produce still more threads in the “entangled subconscious”:

PROCESS 5 270 W7

Thus Zend believes that there is never true poetic or artistic completion, but instead an ongoing process of associations between creation and quotidian existence, an attitude shared by Nichol, especially, as we’ve already seen, in The Martyrology.
          While Nichol usually references postmodern linguistic and critical theory to make his point, Zend more typically refers to ideas from world religion and mythology. Although their theoretical approaches diverge, nonetheless they are both swimming in the same avant-garde waters, radically questioning habits and traditions of thought and writing.
          Another difference is that whereas Nichol found in the poetic journal “a logical model upon which to build formally” in The Martyrology, Zend found in dreams the ideal cognitive model for his fractured and shape-shifting narratives of Daymares and some of his poems. For Nichol,

the journal is almost always present as an element in the continuous poem. Its partialness, incompleteness, serialness and, yes, processualness, make it a logical model upon which to build formally. Certainly, in my own work, its use of intimate detail, of private reference & temporally tied specificity, has worked as a formal framework for The Martyrology and for part of what The Martyrology attempts—the building of a life work in which the building of a life is also reflected.8

On the other hand, dreams-worlds and the journeys and digressions of the conscious (and subconscious) mind provided Zend with a model for exploring the strange world in which a mysterious darkness reigns, whose law is

falling-apartness instead of coherent concentration; obscurity instead of distinctness; spaciousness instead of linearity; dispersion, instead of fusion; overlapping, instead of separateness; indefinity, instead of expictness; womb-like roundness, instead of erect angularity.9

Each chose a different paradigm — Nichol the journal and Zend the dream — but their explorations of the mysterious movements of consciousness as multi-layered and meandering are on parallel (if non-linear) tracks.

Parties and Gossip

          Another point of convergence between the poetry of Zend and Nichol is that it is often intensely social, as the above passage by Nichol remembering a party with friends demonstrates. For Nichol, such naming was part of bringing lived experience into the process of writing, as in a journal. He also stresses that “one of my intents in naming, on a first name basis, people encountered in the course of the text [is] to recreate that . . . parallel emotional experience . . . as part of the reading experience.” Mentioning proper names is “part of the gesture of story-telling,” to “locate the narrative in a moment of reality. That was their entire function.” Using proper names is also

a deliberate confrontational device, an attack, if you like, on naïve notions of biographical and psychological criticism, since “David” is many Davids and the “I” is more than a biographical gesture.10

          In a similar way, Zend’s poetry is often laced with social interactions — autobiographical or semi-autobiographical — as in a poem in which he and twenty-five co-workers (“at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards”) construct a fantasy room complete with carpet, bookshelves, flowers, and a record player, where partying and love-making help them to escape the soul-numbing workday.11
          One of his most striking “naming” poems is “Prelude and Fugue,” which involves a complex web of gossip surrounding a poem of Zend’s. Here are the first two stanzas:

I wrote a poem to A(mbrosios),
I read it to B(elinda),
Then gave it to A(mbrosios)
Who showed it to C(ameleon)
Who mentioned it to D(olores).

I didn’t really like what I’d written about A(mbrosios),
But B(elinda) wept when I read it aloud),
That’s why I gave it to A(mbrosios) because B(elinda) wept.
C(ameleon) liked the content but didn’t like the form
and told this to D(olores) who didn’t read my poem at all. 12

Despite the alphabetic naming, which tends to generalize persons almost to the point of anonymity (or at least fictiveness), I view such instances in Zend more as an apparatus of story-telling than a postmodern attack on notions of individual biography. Nonetheless, it’s clear that both he and Nichol share, along with many other poets of their time such as New York poets Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, a desire to incorporate interactions with their network of friends into their poetry, bringing elements of the personal, narrative, and lived experience into the texture of the poems.
          Zend brought a social dimension to his concrete poetry as well, especially in a series of “portraits” in hand-written Hungarian, as in “Vera” (fig. 1). I can’t comment on the Hungarian but only admire the ingenuity of the shapes and guess as to the kinds of characteristics they suggest.

VERA 300 W


          The excerpt from Nichol’s Martyrology above includes a metapoetic gesture in his incorporation of the process of writing into the poem:

                — that list enters the writing again
                like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
                the details of my life dragged into the poem
                in part at least13

Another example from The Martyrology shows Nichol addressing writing to a different effect, that is, not self-reflexively to announce the incorporation of lived details into the poem, but to meditate on such non-transparent use of language:

this is a voice speaking
reflecting in reflection

metaphorically the page is a window

it’s not

i try writing on the glass &
the ink won’t hold
the mind won’t hold
writing i try in the dream &

this is a pen moving on paper

metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper


memory trace

place to place &
a poem because of it
part of poem this time
not always the case14

Nichol’s metapoetic “reflecting in reflection” arises from the desire to critique assumptions about the transparency of signification: the transparency of glass, the window-on-the-world that is text assuming its role in transparently conveying meaning. Such transparency will not absorb ink, will not draw attention to itself as a writing surface to bring into awareness its own material presence; nor will it allow language to reveal its own incompleteness and semantic slipperiness. As Nichol says in ABC: The Aleph Beth Book,


For Nichol, the autonomous poem, oblivious to itself as created artifact, constitutes an artificial separation of poem and poet, whereas the “artifice” of self-reflection liberates and breathes life into the poem.
          Zend’s poems also often describe the act of writing, as in the following short poem, which opens his first book, From Zero to One:

Someone writes with me
his fingers clutch my waist
he holds me tight leads me on
holds me tight again

The poem done he drops me
I feel diminished
and with surprise I read
the part of me he wore away16

Here, Zend’s metapoetry functions differently from Nichol’s. Whereas Nichol critiques language as a transparent conveyor of signification and incorporates the act of writing into the poetry, Zend dramatizes the illusion of the writing subject as autonomous, intentional author, by imagining the poet taking the role of the writing implement, and some other force wielding him to write the poem. In this respect, Zend’s metapoetics seems more related to Spicer’s notion of the poet not as a consciously created self with an autonomous voice, but instead a conduit for language channeled from some other source.
          Zend’s most significant metapoetic exploration, of course, is Oāb, in which each character in turn writes into existence his own two-dimensional child, who then attempts to stretch beyond the limitations of his world of ink on paper. We can see a similar kind of metanarrative at work as in the short poem above: the otherness of the writing subject, unaware (at least in the beginning) that he may be being written by another.
          In the excerpt below from Oāb, Zėnd (a semi-autobiographical character in Zend’s creation myth — note the diacritical mark on the name — contemplates the constraints of the world of his son, Oāb, compared to his own more expansive perspective:

His cosmos is one of my galaxies
his galaxy is one of my planets
his planet is one of my poems
he lives alone on it17

But Oāb, the filial creation of Zėnd, wonders what lies outside those limits:

What is beyond the four
edges of this paper?
Another paper? And beyond that?
Another and another and another?
How many sheets of paper
lie beside each other?
How many sheets of paper
are contained in what?
And what lies after
the last one, on the other edge?18

If on one level Oāb is Zėnd’s textual progeny, then the perceived limitation of the paper’s range signals the circumscription of authorial perspective as well as that of the signification of the created text. Oāb’s yearning to expand his world and become more autonomous alarms Zėnd (again, the character), who in his hubris would like to think he possesses and controls his writing.
          Oāb and The Martyrology both contain so many metapoetic passages that one can practically point on a random page and find such reflexive gestures — indeed, self-reflexivity is part of the fabric of each work: writing that self-consciously creates worlds as it proceeds, commenting along the way on that act of creation.
          bpNichol’s self-referentiality in The Martyrology occurs within the personal and meditative framework of journal writing, traditionally a genre in which the writer meditates on events, but not usually the event of writing itself. Nichol continually shatters the mimetic illusion in a convergence of writing and life, and a blending of poetry and critical theory.
          Zend’s fundamentally metanarrative premise in Oāb, on the other hand, arises more from his dramatic playing out of authorial creation and intention. The multi-layered drama of Oāb also alludes to other contexts of creation: biblical and generational. Although the name “Zėnd” suggests a semi-autobiographical character (as do many of Zend’s poems and stories), the work as a whole has a mythic or allegorical quality, and the reflexivity of Oāb serves to explore questions of authorial desire and illusion within that framework.
          Of course, metapoetry and metanarrative were very common during that period of concentrated experimentation in poetry and fiction (not to menton their occurences throughout the history of literature). Nonetheless, I find it instructive to compare the self-reflexivity of these major multi-genre works by Zend and Nichol — contemporaries who lived in the same city and who were certainly aware of each other’s work, even if they were not close friends — for their differences in approach as much as for their similarities.

Typewriter Art

          During the 1960s, Nichol began experimenting with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In the end, he produced more handwritten concrete poetry than typewriter art. Zend, on the other hand, produced about as much concrete poetry as typewriter art, the latter during an extremely concentrated period of feverish creation. It’s interesting to recount Nichol’s and Zend’s stories of coming to their visual work without much influence from predecessors, as well as to note the many points of similarity in their work in each genre.
          Nichol relates that he came to concrete poetry and typewriter art with few examples and no clear idea of the history of such work. In the early 60s, he was studying the Dadaists and the visual poetry of Kenneth Patchen. Addressing this relative isolation, he states that

There were hardly any examples; I had nothing that I could actually look at. The whole problem with what is known as “avant-garde” literature in the 20th century . . . is that it’s like we’re dealing with amnesia; we’ve got this repressed tradition so that . . . when you start writing this way, you end up regurgitating a lot of what’s already been done because you can’t get your hands on the stuff. So you literally have to make your own way. In a way I made my own way, so that when I look at some stuff I can say, as some reviewers have said, “Hey that was done in Berlin in 1981”; I look at it and say “Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921.”19

NONOSISI          Similarly, Zend tells that he came to typewriter art with no knowledge of precedents. By 1978, he had already produced a body of work in the category of concrete poetry, and was approached by John Jessop to contribute to the International Anthology of Concrete Poetry he was editing. Jessop selected forty, some of which needed to be re-typed or translated from the Hungarian original.
          Zend, famously a procrastinator, didn’t complete the work on time but instead began to create new concrete poetry. At first, he typed lines of repeated words onto paper, cut them into shapes, and glued them onto paper on which he had typed another word repeated in lines — see fig. 2 for this kind of early experiment with the yin and yand symbols. Then he had an idea:

I could get rid of the glue by using a sheet of paper as a “negative” and placing it on another sheet, the “positive.” I typed across the holes of the negative onto the positive.20

He found that this method “gave a much more 3-dimensional look . . . than the former glued version.”
          He then discovered the range of textures he could create by superimposing various typed characters. Through a series of trial and error, he finally succeeded in creating polished and complex works. Fig. 3 shows the process from sketch to finished typescape, which looks rather abstract but is actually a “stylized representation of the almost invisible fine lines on the silvery crust of a sea shell”:


My low-resolution reproduction does not convey a faithful sense of the delicacy of the textures, so I’ve cropped a portion of the finished typescape to show a detail (fig. 4):


The differing weights of the question marks forming the overlaid shape suggest that he varied the pressure applied to certain typed characters to give the effect of shading.
          Nichol relates that his typewriter art evolved from visual and verbal puns, such as the following minimalist poem:


Nichol dubbed “warbled” and other more visually complex poems such as “ASEA” (fig. 5) his “ideo-pomes.”

ASEA 250

          At a certain point, Nichol decided not to continue with typewriter art, preferring to draw his concrete poetry by hand, citing the

more direct connection with the body—I’m actually shaping the individual letters with my hand . . . . The form is moving into my body—it’s moving into my own musculature—it’s like an intimate involvement with the architecture of the single letter.22

          However, some of the work that he did produce in this genre shows him and Zend thinking in a similar vein about overlapping forms, as a comparison of Nichol’s “precarious poem” and Zend’s Peapoteacock reveals (figs. 6 and 7).


          A key difference in their typewriter art is that while Nichol brings linguistic and conceptual play to the fore, Zend emphasizes the aesthetic and symbolic, using typed characters to create varied and delicate textures that form emblematic images, as in Uriburus; or that create visual or verbal puns, as in Peapoteacock, a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock; and Sexerpentormentor, an image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Nichol’s typewriter poems most often must be read to be appreciated; their typed shapes add to the plurality of meanings that arise from the fragmentation and recombination of letters and words.

Concrete Poetry


          As early as 1963, Zend was beginning to experiment with spacial configuration in his poetry, adding visual movement complementing the meaning, as in “Dragonfly” (fig. 8). bpNichol also produced a number of such poems that take the shape (or suggest the movement) of an object or experience, as in “sunthrutreespassing” (fig. 9).


Nichol created a number of such concrete poems in which the letters and words more or less mimetically reproduce some feature of the object they spell out. Zend created (quite literally) hundreds of them to illustrate the play-learning of Oāb and Ïrdu in Oāb.
          As we have seen above, Zend also created a series of portraits as concrete poems, sometimes drawing the small letters to form lines and shapes, as in “Erzsi” (fig. 10), and sometimes typing them, as in “Judith” (fig. 11) (see also “Vera,” fig. 1).



In most of these concrete poems, the words and letters are as important as the shapes in contributing to the effectiveness of the portrayal.
          In such portraits, Zend’s concrete poetry has a social component, whereas most of Nichol’s work in this genre tends to be (as far as I can tell) almost exclusively metapoetic, conceptual or representational. Zend’s concrete poetry that he created as a result of his friendship with mime artist Marcel Marceau, as well as that which created under the influence of Japanese traditions, will be explored in later installations on international influences and affinities.
          Zend’s most prolific and sustained contribution to concrete poetry is contained within the two volumes of Oāb. Until this work, most of his concrete poetry is mimetic on some level — imitative of a person or thing, or else creating textures for a more or less representational work. In Oāb, however, the concrete poetry is interwoven with the dramatic metanarrative.
BPNICHOL 2 250          Both Zend and Nichol delighted in alphabet games, including the creation of artificial alphabets and strange fonts. Zend’s playful use of the alphabet in the visual poetry of Oāb is related to Nichol’s concrete poetry experimentations using the letters of the alphabet, giving sculptural materiality and playful drama to the irreducible components of language. Fig. 12 is an example of Nichol using comic-book-like frames, riffing on the letter “A.” Fig. 13 shows images from three pages in Oāb, in which names and letters personify the characters they represent, playing out various dramas in Zend’s myth of authorial creation—sometimes also using comic-book frames for the parade of Oāb and Ïrdu’s games.

OAB 3 4 6 250

          Zend also shared bp Nichol’s interest in the calendar, specifically with the naming of months, in his concrete poem “The Months of the Super Year” (fig. 14), which is part of a “super-calendar” for humans to track time if we ever populate a “super-universe”:


A comparison of this work with Nichol’s “Calendar” (fig. 15) shows a similar structure but a different kind of fragmentation in the names of months:


While there is no evidence of mutual influence in Zend’s and Nichol’s rendering of the calendar months, it is worth noting that both were experimenting with language in related ways, taking apart the names of the months and arranging them in such a way as to reveal something about the nature of mutability and expanded temporality. Where Nichol’s approach to the months is fragmentary, Zend’s is recombinatoric.

Sound Poetry

ZENDOCHALAND CREATION OF WORLD 270          Another dimension to Zend’s multi-genre explorations is his sound poetry. In addition to composing and performing his own, sometimes in collaboration with others, Zend also performed on at least one occasion, according to Janine Zend, with The Four Horsemen, the sound poetry group to which bpNichol belonged along with Steve McCaffery, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Paul Dutton.23
        Zend was no doubt influenced by the explosion of Canadian sound poetry during the 1960s and 1970s in his unfinished manuscript of sound poems from 1979, Zendocha-land (fig. 16), which was to be collaborative effort with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha. He proposed to Ladocha twelve to sixteen “poem-paintings” to be presented in a dynamic relationship with the art. Fig. 16 shows a draft for the sound poem in that collection about “the creation of the world,” which arises “from nothing: H / from breath / H / ether becomes air becomes water becomes solid ever denser / new vowels are born / new consonants are born” and new “combinations develop.” The trajectory of the sound poem follows that of creation and destruction: “Life appears on the back of cold rock planets . . . but when the creation reaches its peak / the end begins / the machine runs down” and all is once more nothing, “where it started / long ago.”

Splitting Words

          Nichol and Zend are kindred poets in their linguistic playfulness; both delighted in creating puns and fragmenting words into phonemes and letters. Nichol shares his love of wordplay with Zend, whose puns extend to his typescapes. For example, Zend’s Peapoteacock (see fig. 7 above), a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock to form a visual and verbal pun, shows a playful punning that is similar to the Nichol’s delight in verbal inventiveness, as in his most well-known minimalist poem, “Catching Frogs”:

jar din24

The following is a more extended example of word fragmentation, from Nichol’s The Martyrology Book 5:

each street branches in the mind
puns break
                    words fall apart
a shell
sure as hell’s
ash ell
when i let the letters shift sur face
is just a place on which images drift25

Compare this with an excerpt from Zend’s “Ars Poetica”:

There are poets who insist
that poems can only be written
about glbvx
in the style of iuiu

I think everything
repeat everything
eve and ryth and ing
also yreve and gniht
evth and ryng and tyrev too
can be poetry26

Steve McCaffery points out in an interview with Nichol that

In your playful destruction and reassemblage of words, the subject and its relation to meaning become a prime issue. If a reader can get beyond a distanced appreciation of (or irritation at) the display of wit in these pun productions, then a radically different subject emerges and one not predicated upon the orthodox logic of the sign. A subject deprived of unity and circulating as a textual effect among the verbal fission and the shattered syntax of the language.27

McCaffery’s observations about fracturing in relation to both poem and reader also relates to Zend. In their word-splitting, both poets are expanding the possibilities of language, and the string of fragmented words and recombined letters seems to unmoor words from their meanings so that when “the letters shift,” “sur face / is just a place on which im ages drift.” Depth of meaning (and thus the mimetic effect of language in which poems must be “about”) is transformed to a surface of drifting images, and this “too / can be poetry.” A different kind of reading is involved, one in which expectations of linearity and completion must be relinquished to appreciate the text. Such language does not merely fade into the background while a more or less straightforward signification plays out on a stage, but comes to the fore, compelling the reader to contemplate the materiality of language and to reflect on the slipperiness of its signification.

Inner Child

          Northrop Frye wrote that “Robert Zend never forgot that every creative act was first and foremost an act of free play.”28 Both Nichol and Zend have been described as taking a childlike delight in their manipulations of language and visual poetry. In a poem from about 1979, Zend writes admiringly of his seven-year-old daughter Natalie at play, and expresses the desire to “change the Earth into a gigantic playground / instead of the battlefield that it was made into / by our common enemies, the grownups.”29 Zend, who as a young man had written and published for children in Hungary, must have felt an affinity for the playful spirit of experimentation in the work of avant-garde Canadian poets such as Nichol, and in his adopted language he was constantly experimenting with wordplay and puns, as in a series entitled “Silly Rhymes,” perhaps created to amuse his daughter Natalie:


When you come to Winnipeg,
I’ll show you my guinea-pig.


I will catch you!
Better fly!30

Perhaps some day Zend’s early and popular publications for children written in Hungary under his pen name, “Peeker,” will come to light. Such verses above likely came naturally to him as he explored and delighted in the possibilities of English. Nichol also wrote for children, including the beautifully illustrated On the Merry-Go-Round; an excerpt from the title poem is reproduced below (fig. 17):


Cosmic Scale

          Lastly, Nichol’s and Zend’s poetry shares a preoccupation with cosmic themes and images, which often play out dramas of infinity and cyclical processes of life and death. Zend’s concrete poem “Scope” (fig. 18) is a thought experiment illustrating the interplay between micro- and macrocosmic scales, in which the the pupil of the human eye serves as an image of both the tiny and the vast:


In a similar way, the following poem by Nichol from The Martyrology imagines a dizzying and continually broadening span of time and space in relation to human lives, which “flare briefly” and vanish:

here on the galaxy’s edge we live out our lives in ignorance

the distance to the dawn bridge grows infinitesimally longer
our lifetimes flare briefly and are gone

highways stretch from the big bang outward
cycle back to our beginning31

Comparing Nichol’s excerpt with the one below by Zend, from a poem entitled from “More and More,” it’s clear that they were both fascinated by space and time on a cosmic scale:

Hasn’t the universe been exploding long enough?
No, not long enough. More.
Death. And what can follow death? More.
Should we buy a second house? More.
After our world tour, should we travel again? More.
When this poem is finished, should I write another? More.
The sun orders us: More. From the core of the galaxy of galaxies
a telegram comes to ours
which is forwarded down to earth
and when we read it, it says: More.32

The excerpt by Nichol relates cyclical processes on a grand scale to those on a human scale, whereas the excerpt by Zend relates the two to offer a compelling vision of infinity to the point of ennui, accompanied by the relentless refrain “More.”

In the Air

        A case could be made for Zend’s kinship with other contemporaneous Canadian poets who were experimenting linguistically and visually with the aesthetic approaches mentioned above. After all, bpNichol was not the only Canadian poet exploring typewriter and other concrete poetry and performing sound poetry; as Janine Zend points out, such things were “in the air” during the sixties and seventies. Zend befriended many Canadian poets, attended their readings, collected their books, and dedicated poems to them. Focusing the above comparison on bpNichol shows many points of convergence, and extrapolated to a wider community within Canada would reveal a matrix of themes and processes that Zend was aware of and drew upon for inspiration in his own work.

Next Installment — Part 8.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren,
and Glenn Gould

Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan


Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980)

Multiculturalism before Multiculturalism

          In the last installment, “Hungarian Literary Roots,” I traced some of Zend’s foundational influences in his native Hungary. In this section, I’d like to investigate the corresponding Canadian “cross-pollination”: writers and artists who inspired in Zend new aesthetic explorations. The 1960s saw an explosion of experimentation in the arts as well as paradigm-shifting ideas (to use Thomas Kuhn’s term) in cultural theory. Many of these would likely have been banned in Communist Hungary as decadent or counter-revolutionary. In his adopted country of Canada, Zend was free to delve into these new trends, to which he responded with a spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.
          I’m describing the influence of Canadian cultural figures on Zend as cross-pollination, for although his inalienable roots were in Hungarian traditions, his poetry and art that emerged since the 1960s blended aspects of both. His penchant for humour, mythology, and the fantastical, inherited from his Hungarian lineage, merged with ground-breaking Canadian ideas such as Marshall McLuhan’s theories on media culture and bpNichol’s avant-garde mixed-genre poetics. Knowing Zend’s delight in creating hybrid words like “peapoteacock,” I like to think he might have called such a hybrid of Magyar and Canadian influences something like “Magyanadian.”
          As this essay took shape, I’ve been continually reminded of the illusory nature of unified national culture in my description of literary lineage. Zend’s Hungarian influences included traditions from populations that immigrated to Hungary (as we’ve seen from the Budapest joke, which also provided a creative wellspring for Zend’s “spiritual father,” Karinthy), as well as poetry and novels from around the world, thanks to translations of world literature into Hungarian (including Zend’s own translations of Italian poetry). Similarly, Zend’s Canadian associates were often writers and artists who, like him, immigrated to Canada from other countries, such as poet Mary Melfi (Italy) and artist Jiri Ladocha (Czechoslovakia).
          In this respect, Zend’s work in Canada embodies a multicultural spirit — not only by virtue of his country of origin. His was among the crescendo of immigrant voices that eventually led to Canada’s official embracing of multiculturalism as a defining national feature in 1988 with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
          Although lineage can be documented, in reality the entangled network of influences is much more mysterious. Impossible complexity notwithstanding, what follows is an attempt to point out some Canadian cultural figures who had a transformative effect on Zend’s development as a writer and artist.
          And the most striking transformation of his work is due to the influence of the Canadian avant-garde. Although all of Zend’s early poems written in Hungary were lost to the chaos of the Hungarian Revolution, his earlier poems written in Canada in Hungarian, some of them unpublished, are likely a continuation of poems in a humorous and fantastical vein, sometimes with logical twists. Others are impressionistic, sometimes exploring dream states, more in the vein of Miklós Radnóti’s lyricism than Frigyes Karinthy’s modernist satire and science fiction.
          It is possible that Zend was influenced in Hungary by avant-garde culture, which most likely would have come from his knowledge of 1920s Russian constructivism. Janine Zend astutely points out that some of the concrete poetry in Oāb is reminiscent of such visual art. Certainly the work to which he gravitated in Hungary was influenced by European international modernism as opposed to traditional lyricism and narrative. However, I think it’s fair to say that his exposure to the Canadian avant-garde was transformative to his work, in ways that can be traced to specific influences.
          Among Canadian writers, Zend’s work is most closely related to the formally innovative writers of the 1960s and onward, such as the TISH poets of UBC Vancouver, including Lionel Kearns; other experimental poets such as bpNichol and Steve McCaffery; his fellow poets named “Robert” in a performing and publishing group called The Three Roberts (Priest, Sward, and Zend), and media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
          The following correspondences do not, of course, fully explore the breadth of Zend’s Canadian aesthetic affinities, and I’m no doubt omitting some important ones. Perhaps someone will take this topic as an opportunity to write a more developed analysis.

Marshall McLuhan, Lionel Kearns,
and Norman T. White’s Hearsay Project

          Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist who wrote about the effects of media and electronic communications on society, was a frequent guest speaker at the CBC, where Zend worked as a producer. Zend was obviously fascinated by his ideas; some of his works were written under the sign of McLuhan, such as the following short one in a series entitled “Tissues:”

The time will come
when there will be no time
only electronic circuits
and I will remember
what the dead have forgotten
what the unborn have planned1

In a futuristic world in which brains are replaced by electronic circuits, time, memory, and desire will have collapsed into a static omniscience in which every thought — past, present, and future — is always already immortalized. In such a world, total knowledge paradoxically becomes oblivion, a vacuous nothing (in human terms), since it is no longer parsed by the meaning-producing processes of remembering, forgetting, and planning. Birth, growth, change, and death would be equally meaningless. In a few linguistic strokes, Zend captures the essence of the age of electronic information, and we don’t have to exchange brain cells for circuitry to experience the effects of a culture increasingly reliant on electronic information storage.
          A closely related work is “The Message,” which Zend dedicates to McLuhan:

          The messenger arrived out of breath. The dancers stopped their pirouettes, the torches lighting the palace walls flickered for a moment, the hubbub at the banquet table died down, a roasted pig’s knuckle froze in mid-air in a nobleman’s fingers, a general behind the pillar stopped fingering the bosom of the maid of honour.
          “Well, what is it, man?” asked the King, rising regally from his chair. “Where did you come from? Who sent you? What is the news?” Then, after a moment, “Are you waiting for a reply? Speak up, man!”
          Still short of breath, the messenger pulled himself together. He looked the King in the eye and gasped: “Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.”2

“The Message” is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “An Imperial Message,” in which the dying emperor’s words, whispered to a messenger, never reaches its intended receiver, who nonetheless daydreams about the message’s content.3
          Zend’s parable tells the reverse tale of a messenger approaching the king, whose expectations are thwarted by the runner’s denial of the role of messenger and thus the very existence of a message. The messenger-who-is-not-a-messenger is himself the message—which is simply the fact of his enjoyment of running. The king, like a good consumer of messages, has failed to comprehend the significance of the medium of that message.
          In 1985, electronic media experimenter Norman T. White honored Zend several months after his death by using “The Message” for The Hearsay Project (fig. 1), a conceptual electronic art happening that took place in a span of twenty-four hours from November 11 to 12.


The story, minus the title, dedication, and author, was sent in succession to various countries around the world, in which each translator passed their rendition on to the next translator, in the manner of the children’s game of telephone, also known as hearsay. White reports that Zend’s “widow, Janine, was on hand to hit the ‘return’ key which sent the message on its way around the world,” from Toronto to Des Moines, Sydney, Tokyo, Vienna, Newport, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and back to Toronto. En route, “The Message” was translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, Welsh, Hungarian, and finally back into English. Not only was the text of the story transformed by the successive translations, but also the process “preserve[d] . . . the text distortions generated by typographical errors and by telephone-line ‘noise.’”4
          The following is a comparison of the messenger’s last words in Zend’s story and the end result of The Hearsay Project:

Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.


If the media of language and electronic transmission are the message, then the vaguaries and fallibility of those media are rendered transparent in this conceptual game. And the final words, “I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING,” seem oddly apropos and fortuitous, for to rise above all is perhaps also to become less visible as a medium to consumers of messages.
          Such theoretical concerns were emerging themes among TISH poets such as Lionel Kearns, who shares Zend’s fascination with the ideas of McLuhan: Kearns’ book of poetry By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface (1969) explores the ironies and paradoxes arising from mass media fallout on society.5 A prime example of Kearns’ preoccupation with media is “A Collage Education,” which “exposes television’s ironic juxtaposition of African-American poverty and pharmaceutical painkillers. . . . Kearns’ engagement with media culture also infuses poems of postcolonial irony, as in ‘Bleeding,’ in which Mexican Day of the Dead ceremonies are marred by arrogantly voyeuristic tourists and the intrusion of travelogue filmmakers.”7
          In other poems, such as “Medium,” Kearns more directly pays tribute to McLuhan:

Once I’d be filling up poems
with outrageous images
                    and impossible ideas
just to keep track of them
and let you know I’m here

Now I give you only
silence and blank paper
but this too
                    is a kind of message7

KEARNS BIRTH OF GOD  130 W          One of the most striking (and most widely anthologized) works from By the Light of the Silvery McLune is the concrete poem “The Birth of God” (fig. 2), which Kearns calls “a mathematical mandela embodying the perfect creative/destructive principle of the mutual interpenetration and balanced interdependence of opposites.” In its creation of an image of the binary from characters that denote the binary system, it might well also be an homage to McLuhan.
          An interesting counterpart to Kearns’ depiction of binaries is Zend’s Espanto (fig. 3), which creates the yin and yang symbol in Daoism using the Spanish words “no” and “si.” While I would not say that this work was directly influenced by McLuhan, it’s possible that the spirit of Kearns’ “Birth of God” was in the back of his mind when he created Espanto, which was, by the way, Zend’s first venturing into the kind of typewriter art exemplified in his collection Arbormundi.


          Kearns, White, and Zend responded creatively to McLuhan’s theories of media communications. And in this section I have confined myself to poems that effectively transpose McLuhan’s theories into descriptive, allegorical, or concrete-poetic form. But McLuhan famously upheld modernist and avant-garde poetry as an exemplary manifestation of changes in the nature of communication through their juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, disruption of syntax, and disjunctive narrative, as he relates in a 1969 interview:

I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of processes of cognition and creation.7

          It’s beyond the scope of my present project even to begin to document such vast and complex territory, which is being explored by such communications scholars as Darren Wershler and Richard Cavell. So I will close by simply pointing out that in a similar way that bpNichol, Zend, and many other poets of their time were drawing attention to the medium and materiality of language through disjunctiveness and fragmentation, poets and New Media artists such as Kearns, White, and Zend were exploring ways to make visible the media and effects of mass communication, which despite (or because of) its pervasiveness tend to fade into background noise.

Next Installment: Part 7.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha

Camille Martin

Emil Cioran: “Unconscious Dogmas”

“Unconscious Dogmas”
from A Short History of Decay by Emil Cioran

          We are in a position to penetrate someone’s mistake, to show him the inanity of his plans and intensions; but how wrest him from his persistence in time, when he conceals a fanaticism as inveterate as his instincts, as old as his prejudices? We bear within us—like an unchallengeable treasure—an amalgam of unworthy beliefs and certitudes. And even the man who manages to rid himself of them, to vanquish them, remains—in the desert of his lucidity—a fanatic still: a fanatic of himself, of his own existence; he has scoured all his obsessions, except for the terrain where they flourish; he has lost all his fixed points, except for the fixity from which they proceed. Life has dogmas more immutable than theology, each existence being anchored in infallibilities which exceed all the lucubrations of madness or of faith. Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par exellence, and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them.
          We all believe in many more things than we think, we harbor intolerances, we cherish bloody prejudices, and, defending our ideas with extreme means, we travel the world like ambulatory and irrefragable fortresses. Each of us is a supreme dogma to himself, no theology protects its god as we protect our self; and if we assail this self with doubts and call it into question we do so only by a pseudo-elegance of our pride: the case is already won.
          How escape the absolute of oneself? One would have to imagine a being without instincts, without a name, and to whom his own image would be unknown. But everything in the world gives us back our own features; night itself is never dark enough to keep us from being reflected in it. Too present to ourselves, our non-existence before birth and after death influences us only as a notion and only for a few moments, we experience the fever of our duration as an eternity, which falters but which nonetheless remains inexhaustible in its principle.
          The man who does no adore himself is yet to be born. Everything that lives loves itself; if not, what would be the source of the dread which breaks out in the depths and on the surfaces of life? Each of us is, for himself, the one fixed point in the universe. And if someone dies for an idea, it is because it is his idea, and his idea is his life.
          No critique of any kind of reason will waken man from his “dogmatic sleep.” It may shake the unconscious certitudes which abound in his philosophy and substitute more flexible propositions for his rigid affirmations, but how, by a rational procedure, will it manage to shake the creature, huddled over its own dogmas, without bringing about its very death?

Eric Cheyfitz: the “grand hallucination that we are talking with others”

“Those of us who live within the privilege of Western patriarchy live in an increasingly narrow psychic and social space. For we cannot afford to enter most of the social spaces of the world; they have become dangerous to us, filled with the violence of the people we oppress, our own violence in alien forms we refuse to recognize. And we can afford less and less to think of these social spaces, to imagine the languages of their protest, for such imagining would keep us in continual conflict, in continual contradiction with ourselves, where we are increasingly locked away in our comfort. Terrorizing the world with our wealth and power, we live in a world of terror, afraid to venture out, afraid to think openly. Difference and dialogue are impossible here. We talk to ourselves about ourselves, believing in a grand hallucination that we are talking with others.”

Eric Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism

Camille Martin

Gail Tarantino: Learning to Use a Spoon by Reading Braille


    I was excited today to discover the visual art of Gail Tarantino through three works in the December 2008 issue of Cricket Online Review. Her bio tells of her “not-so-secret desire to be literary” in her work, and her weaving of “compressed narratives and distilled description” with the “rhythmic and musical aspects of language.” Like artists such as Ann Hamilton, there is a conceptual sophistication in the way that Tarantino uses language in her work. Interestingly, both have used Braille. For the 1989 Venice Biennale, Hamilton rendered Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: the United States (1885-1915) into Braille in an installation entitled Myein. On a much smaller scale, Tarantino’s One Act in Cricket features a sentence in Braille:

Gail Tarantino, <em>One Act</em>

Gail Tarantino, One Act

    In order to understand the interplay among the images in the three horizontal fields, it is necessary to decipher the Braille, something that I at first resisted. But my curiosity prevailed and I arranged the work on my screen next to a Braille alphabet and proceeded to decipher the sentence, letter by letter, yielding the following:

        a spoon worked most effectively
        when he discovered the bumps
        an act of retaliation

    As I progressed, the act of decoding it became easier, due to my increasing familiarity with the configuration of dots and the fact that after a few letters, guesswork came into play. A long word beginning with “effe . . .” can be guessed pretty accurately. But the slowness of my reading made me aware of how much take reading for granted, in a similar way that I take eating with a spoon for granted. Mulling over each letter in Braille slowed down the process. My brain, racing ahead of my slogging pace, was thinking of various possibilities, leading me to make incorrect assumptions a couple of times. I was taking too long to think about the text, so my mind was impatiently filling in the gaps in an effort to understand.
    After deciphering the words, I realized that my effort was roughly analogous to a child learning to eat with a spoon: both are, as the title suggests, “one act.” This analogy is supported by the echoing of the shape of the Braille’s background colour, which is reminiscent of a spoon.
    Tarantino compels viewers who do not know Braille to experience the unfamiliarity of the text and the opacity of its meaning until we decipher it, letter by letter. And in the act of doing so, we become conscious of the configurations of dots in each letter, recalling our original experience learning to read as a child, tracing the shape of each letter, as well as discovering the shape and usefulness of a spoon. Our reward is discovering something about writing as medium for communication, its thingy existence, as opposed to it being a system endowed with inherent meaning.
    Significantly, the understanding of the Braille sentence is crucial to speculating on the meaning of the middle and top portions of the work. The middle portion consists of a series of spoons, one rather flat, like a knife, and the others in the familiar rounded concave shape.
    The top half of One Act consists of scores of what look like little bowls. Some are missing, so that the pattern echoes the Braille in the bottom half. They are also different colours, resembling perhaps little pots of paint or perhaps bowls of soup, or food in the concave part of the spoon, the reward of the savvy child.
    The question arises as to why Tarantino would describe the act of learning as on of retaliation, assuming that I am understanding the Braille sentence correctly. Retaliation requires first an act to retaliate against, so it seems plausible to assume that “he’ is retaliating against the opaque meaning of the spoon’s shape prior to his figuring it out, an opaqueness that strikes him as an act of hostility, which he counters by learning the usefulness of the spoon’s “bump.”
    Carrying over the ideas in the message to the analogy of learning to read, the Braille sentence might suggest the concept of violence in the act of understanding. This idea is expressed in a set of conceptual metaphors in English, such as “to attack (or tackle, or surmount) the problem,” “to struggle with the meaning of something,” and “to fight ignorance.” These all suggest that understanding is a process of overcoming that which we don’t at first apprehend: the child “overcomes” the spoon’s unintelligibility; the uninitiated tackle the illegibility of Braille. And that violence is a retaliation against the violence of opacity, of being faced with something that is (at first) illegible.
    Derrida’s theories on the violence of writing come to mind here, of writing regulating meaning, inscription as prohibition, law, circumscription. Before we deciphered the Braille, its meaning was opaque to us; it shunned our desire to understand it. Thus it might appear that Tarantino is turning the tables on the idea of violence inherent in writing, for the text (or the spoon) do their violence by remaining unintelligible, and the reader retaliates by learning and understanding. The violence of the reader is not the same as the violence of writing, for in Tarantino’s work, the reader’s violence is against illegibility. And meaning, interpretation, writing, and learning are not inherently acts of violence.
    I may be overreaching in my musings here, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this is the only way of approaching this work. As One Act implies, there can be many different rewards to learning how to use a spoon, as the many bowls of soup in different colours attests, and by extension many different ways to understand a text.
    In any case, I sense an acute intelligence at work in Tarantino’s work. It grapples with (to continue the conceptual metaphor) questions of representation, writing, legibility, and meaning in a condensed yet open-ended work. Did I mention that it’s also beautiful?
    I highly recommend her website, where many of her works can be found:

Works consulted:

Derrida, Jacques. “The Violence of the Page.” Of Grammatology. Tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Marsh, Jack E. “Of Violence: The Force and Significance of Violence in the Early Derrida.” Philosophy and Social Criticism. 35.3 (2009): 269-286.


Camille Martin