Robert Zend’s “Typescapes”: Concrete poetry from a Renaissance man of Canadian letters

detail from Robert Zend’s typescape Peapoteacock

          A few months ago, I wrote a brief essay about Daymares, Robert Zend’s collection of stories, poems, and concrete poetry, one of his few books still in print. Zend (1929-1985) was a Hungarian-Canadian writer who immigrated to Canada in 1956, the year of the Hungarian Uprising. He settled in Toronto and worked for many years for the CBC. He was one of the most versatile Canadian writers, producing poetry, concrete poetry, novels, short fiction, essays, and plays. He was also a composer, a filmmaker, and a creator of mertz-like sculptures made of found objects.
          While researching the Toronto Reference Library’s holdings of Zend’s works, I came across a thirty-year old treasure in the Special Art Room Stacks: Arbormundi (Tree of the World), a portfolio of seventeen of Zend’s concrete poems created on a typewriter, for which he coined the word “typescapes.” Although Zend didn’t invent typewriter art, he did seem to have created it without knowledge of any forebears in that genre. Below is the cover page. Following this brief essay are five more samples of typescapes from Arbormundi.

          Zend’s typescapes are remarkable for their meticulous execution, which often involves superimposed shapes and figures. At the areas of intersection of these shapes, the effect is far from being muddied or heavy. Instead, they retain the delicacy that is characteristic of the whole.
          Part of the beauty of these concrete poems is the ethereal effect produced by the transparency of the overlaid shapes. The result of this diaphonous quality is that it is difficult to determine which object is in front or behind the other: The objects seem to blend into one another, a visual legerdemain made possible by the open spaces of the typed letters and symbols: a superimposed “x” and “p” gives little hint as to which was typed over the other. Therefore the realm in which the ghostly forms interact spatially and symbolically is flattened into a plane of shared patterns and meanings. Zend’s often punning titles also reflect this idea of blending, as for example in “Peapoteacock,” where he brings “teapot” and “peacock” into verbal and visual contiguity so that one is contained within the other.
          Another aspect of the beautiful intricacy of the overlaid objects is that the areas of intersection naturally produce darker areas, which form shapes of their own consisting of outlines of both objects (as overlapping circles in a Venn diagram produce a shaded area formed with arcs from both circles). The interplay of the shapes of each object with the shapes produced by their overlay creates an impression of both dialogue and unity between the objects.
          The miracle of these concrete poems is that from what must have been a slow and painstaking process of planning and execution using paper inserted into a clunky machine come visions of airy lightness and delicate movement.
         All of these effects harmonize with Zend’s recurrent themes of commonality and universality: the Other within the I, and the endless cycle of creation and destruction. They seem to be part of Zend’s spiritual expression of the continuities of life and death; as Zend puts it in Daymares, from the “prenatal . . . to the land of time-spacelessness; to the tiny centre point of our individual self which strangely coincides with the three-billion other human centre-points, with those of the dead ones, with those of our more ancient ancestors: swimming, crawling and flying creatures, rooting-stretching plants and perhaps even with the centre-points of other alien-living-units, of agitatedly swirling atoms and majestically rotating galaxies.”
          Below are five typescapes from Arbormundi, which was published by blewointment press in 1982. A note to the portfolio states that “Zend creates them with a manual typewriter; no electronics, computers or glue involved.”
          Following this sampling is a typescape by Zend based on a portrait of him by Hungarian artist Istvan Vigh.

Vivarbor (May 16, 1978)

Detail of Vivarbor

Orientopolis (Eastern city) (June 1, 1978)

Uriburus (April 13, 1978)

Rhumballion (May 14, 1978)

Peapoteacock (May 16, 1978)

Zendscape by Robert Zend, based on a portrait by Istvan Vigh

Camille Martin

4 responses to “Robert Zend’s “Typescapes”: Concrete poetry from a Renaissance man of Canadian letters

  1. Sonnet L'Abbé

    Thanks for this, Camille. Beautiful, painstaking work.

    Is there much else to contextualize arbormundi at the TRL? Zend’s philosophy, etc? I’m working on a diss about how plant forms are a perceptual ur-form that language formalists, particularly visual poets of the 70s and 80s, engage with in revealing ways … i.e. Ron Johnson’s ARK as both arbor vitae and imago mundi.

    I’m in TO in couple weeks and might take a look if there’s a chance the archive might have some of Zend’s comments about his own poetics.


    • Hi, Sonnet, sounds like a fascinating project. As far as contextualizing Arbormundi is concerned, Zend does write some exegetic/poetic notes on each typescape, and you might find some helpful things there. Example: in “Stormelancholix,” he draws a correlation between humans and plants – as I point out in my essay, he’s all about finding commonalities: “Nature’s children are all alike: trees have feet and head; creatures have roots and leaves.” His magnum opus, as far as I can tell, is OAB, a two-volume work of poetry, prose, and concrete poetry, a kind of fantasy of birth and creation, in which Zend creates Oab, who in turn creates his own being. It’s really a stunning work admired by Borghes and many others. Plants? Not sure you’ll find them there, but I don’t remember enough about it to say. But the opening essay in Daymares will give you some clues to his poetics and philosophical thinking in which he discusses the fertile earth as womb, etc., and in some of the stories are images of plant forms and growth, such as in “Dream about the Centre.” I know there are more typescapes and other works published by Exile Editions that I haven’t yet found – maybe there’s more at U of T Library. I hope this helps – best wishes on the diss!


      • Sonnet L'Abbé

        Thanks so much, Camille. Definitely incentive to check out the archive. I’ll let you know what I find!


  2. Pingback: from typewriters to telematics, media noise in Robert Zend | loriemerson

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