Tag Archives: Toronto Reference Library

Robert Zend (1929-1985): Poet without Borders – Preface with Portraits


Preface with Portraits

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All images of work by Robert Zend are copyright © Janine Zend, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend. Family photographs are reproduced with permission from Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori.

     Welcome to Robert Zend: Poet without Borders, my illustrated exploration of the life and work of the Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. The slide show above consists of photographs from Zend’s family and creative life as well as artistic portraits and self-portraits.
      This project is the result of several months of research, interviews, and writing. It has become very dear to me, and I hope that you will enjoy the results. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post installments, including biographical sections about Zend’s life in Hungary and Canada, and sections about his Hungarian literary roots, Canadian cross-pollination, and international affinities and influences.
      I’ve had the pleasure and honour of speaking with members of the Zend family (Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori) and of viewing texts, artworks, and other artifacts and memorabilia in the private collection of Janine Zend, for which I offer my deepest gratitude. I’ve also had the opportunity to research the extensive Zend fonds at the University of Toronto Library’s Media Commons. I’d like to thank curators Rachel Beattie and Brock Silversides, who had to put up with many a yelp of joy as I found such priceless artifacts as a photograph of Zend playing chess with the great French mime artist Marcel Marceau — on a chess set of Zend’s own design. These conversations and experiences have greatly enriched my understanding of the life, mind, and work of Robert Zend, for which I am very grateful.
     As I worked on this project, I became acutely aware of my limitation of not knowing the Hungarian language. There are works by Zend in Hungarian that are as yet untranslated into English, and many documents in the Zend fonds that are written only in Hungarian. Nonetheless, I am fortunate that so much was either written by Zend in English or translated into English by him, often with the assistance of John Robert Colombo and others. I sincerely apologize in advance for any errors or omissions in what follows, and encourage correspondence from anyone with greater knowledge on the subject than I. If what I have written stimulates interest in Zend’s life and work, then I will consider my primary goal to have been accomplished.
     The next installment, which will appear on this blog in a few days, will feature the premiere of Linelife, a previously unpublished visual work by Zend to be presented in digitalized form as a short animated film.

If you’d like to receive notification of these installments on Robert Zend, please use the email subscription feature to the upper right. And please kindly spread the word to anyone who might be interested. Your comments and feedback are most welcome.


Next Installment: Part 1.
Linelife: Premiere
of a Rediscovered Treasure



I am grateful for the kind assistance and generosity of the following:

The family of Robert Zend: Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori

Rachel Beattie and Brock Silverside, curators of the Zend fonds at Media Commons, University of Toronto Library

Edric Mesmer, Librarian at the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection and Curator of The Center for Marginalia, and the other wonderful librarians of The Poetry Collection for their research assistance

Brent Cehan of the Language and Literature division of the Toronto Reference Library

The Librarians in the Special Arts Room Stacks at the Toronto Reference Library

The Librarians at Reference and Research Services and at the Petro Jacyk Central and East European Resource Centre, Robarts Library, University of Toronto Libraries

Susanne Marshall (former Literary Editor for The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Irving Brown

Robert Sward

bill bissett

Jiří Novák

Camille Martin


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