Beyond the Threshold of the Letter:
Concluding Chapter of
Voyage to the End of the Word

by Renato Barilli

But true fission in our case must be found in the courage of some artists who assault the last threshold of what belongs to language, that is, the unity of the phoneme or the grapheme, its intactness and delectability. Perhaps this is also the moment that we go beyond the confines of "literature" to pass over into visuality and sonority. And in fact there are visual artists and composers who with increasing familiarity and naturalness are able to perform such a passage. However, we should reflect on the fact that "normality" and the recognizability of the single letters, in the realms of both sound and vision, have such a cohesive Gestalt force, that they are still present and active even after having been diminished, eroded, or partially corroded. Literalness, if not literariness, simply projects its reflexes, causing its light to filter thoroughly through into the darkness of 'material of expression.' However, it is a Turin artist, Arrigo Lora Totino, tactically joined to the 'visual" circuit, who has most frequently dared to attack phonematic unity by eroding and corroding the patterns of letters. He used spot-shaped erasures, or adopted more regular criteria of intervention, such as, for example, certain obliterating strips with regular contours exterminating and blotting out everything that is in the way. Balestrini and Monari, instead, proceeded to their cancellations by intimating, so to speak, to all the adopted techniques to respect the unity of the letters, leaving them intact, in conclusion circling and flowing around their bodies like water that does not damage the piers of a bridge. In fact, intraletter erosion has no relevance for the meaning but results in enjoyment only for the eye or the ear.

As to what concerns the ambivalence between these two senses (sight and hearing), on this nobody could overly insist.' Intra-letter experiments attacking the body of single letters such as those present in Lora Totino's work remind us of this ambivalence. Such exercises in fact have both a graphic-visual and an acoustic side, the latter being perhaps more suggestive. Lora Totino, that is, repeats the operation of biting off phonemes also in sound: "he records on tape the result of cancellations brought about by electronic means, thereby obtaining sharp caesurae. But unfortunately all this realm of sound comparisons must be left to the acoustic imagination of our readers, although it should be an integral part of the present investigation (we have to remember that it is situated almost always in the shadow of a potent divinity, Phoné, superior to Opsis in giving pleasure: remember Freud's and Saussure's similar assertions). This would be an easily resolvable technical problem nowadays; we could add to the present little book a flexi-disk or a cassette containing examples of the sound executions of intraverbal poetry. But the current state of technology and of the market would entail an intolerable aggravation of costs of production and distribution. Therefore, we must rely on the reader's good will 'to act out" the scores offered to his or her single and private performances, their individual intervention being increasingly needed when we approach the lower zone of our topological classification. In the "upper zone," in fact, the good lexemes and morphemes impose their ideal and mental unity that correlatively requires a neutralization of sound to the total advantage of a silent reading. On the contrary, as the relevance of homophony increases, the importance of oral execution grows in proportion. This is what people are discovering these days in Italian theaters and plazas (nor should we forget the particularly audacious, pioneering role played by art galleries). Although with different results, the variety of success of these performances, and of their reception on the part of the public, is understood and justified along the lines that we have been sketching: where semantic and syntactic values of the phrase prevail, the values of oral performance become marginal, if not a direct obstacle. Silent reading, in fact, needs much time for reflection on meaning, to appreciate semantic cross-references and difficult intellectual implications. By contrast, performance is almost obligatory and, in any case, gratifying when homophony comes into play and fleshes out the sound values.

Besides, it's not enough to speak of an oral-sound performance. The emissions of sounds must be accompanied by gestures, facial mimicry, a global behavior. These are acts that are again subject to visual operations, even if no longer within the system of correspondences through sound segments and graphic traces according to the criterion of phonetic alphabets. This is why it is legitimate to follow Lora Totino also in his 'gymnastic poetry" of Futurist origin: there he accompanies the pronunciation of a phoneme and a syllable with all the weight of his body, whose materiality is fixed through photograms that are either superimposed or obtained through long exposures, according to the technique already practiced by Bragaglia in his Futurist photodynamics. This technique creates a sense of passing time and movement, although the view is still static. Today the problem of registering the duration of the gestural performance is also resolvable; it would suffice to add to the book a cinematic film or a videocassette, but this would entail the usual cost increases. Thus, it again occurs to us to invoke economic integration and imaginative execution on the part of the benevolent reader. Besides, in this case the cinematic sequence of Lora Totino's phonation succeeds in being eloquent enough, even if it remains static.

Luca Patella represents another case of crossing various genre lines, under the sign of a global performance that involves literature, literality, writing, sound, and spectacle. In his well known public psychodramas Patella enjoys decomposing and recomposing appropriated verbal sequences by using more or less the intraverbal techniques that we have analyzed at length. 'Obsessive," for example, engenders the split syntagm "o se si vo," which lies on a dialectal level of upward confrontation with the original word, the bard and dramatic 'obsessive." [Translators' note: he Italian original reads as follows: "ossessivo / o se si vo." 1) o = or, oh; w) se = if; 3) si = yes, one (impersonal pronoun); 4) vo = I go.] Moreover, be also goes with the typical mentality that any sample of verbal material is sufficient to work on, so that it is enough to take up what is within reach. He starts with his full name, "Luca Patella," and ends up with 'capa" and 'tella" ("tellina") by simply cutting in different ways the continuity of the linguistic chain, and from there be launches amusing serial variations.

But let us leave this vast continent of performance, that in great measure goes beyond the confines of the present investigation, which is limited to the possibilities opened up by working on verbal material in any case. Let us return to classify some of the ways of breaking the 'literal" barrier. In reference to the economic publishing limits- mentioned above, we will cite examples from those artists who perform such violations by attacking the graphic rather than the sound material. In order to document this second range of violations we would want to include records or tapes, since only these can furnish a true account of the work of some internationally known protagonists - the Lettrists Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître, and later Henri Chopin, Bernard Heidsieck, François Dufrêne, Franz Mon, not to mention Lora Totino bimself. Here instead we close with examples of the work of Adriano Spatola and Plinio Mesciulam: the former is a certified well-known poet, who as the manager of the publishing business Geiger has among others the merit of having published a great number of texts we referred to in the previous study; the latter is a visual artist. This confirms that spheres of influence of their respective areas overlap.

Spatola has the ambition of being a total poet, and in fact we should also recall his oral performances. As explorer of intra-letter possibilities, he precociously felt that around the middle of the 60s a "man of letters" would collaborate hand in hand with the work of concrete and visual poetry. And in fact in his Zeroglyphics, published in 1966, he segments the printed letters of various bodies and characters and then recomposes them into a mosaic. This was a legitimate and pioneering operation not so much on the side of the "concrete" poets, who already then were working in this way, but for those like Spatola, "men of letters" who until that point had been living in the shadow of the Novissimi. Today, however, we can perceive the precise historical limit that made it a dated operation, since his intervention was brought about exactly on typeset graphemes, thereby maintaining that full respect for the printed word that was typical of concrete and visual research, paralleling Pop and Op Art. When the artist wished to pay homage to public stereotypes, and even if the legitimacy of dealing the "material of expression' was recognized, he or she would catch it as a fragment or particle derived from exact and impersonal forms of typography. Still, Spatola has certainly not intended to let himself be "ghettoized" in the low zone of our customary topological classification, that is, to the mere "material" levels of sound and of intra-literalness, but from there he has ascended the scale rapidly, and now, for example, he gives us irreproachable, almost classical, and therefore hyper-segmental poetry, intending to mock a hermeticizing Montale, full of emphasis and solemnity. Plinio Mesciulam, a restless, much experienced visual artist, made one of his most precise and stimulating contributions when, around ten years after Spatola's Zeroglyphics, he developed Macroscopie della scrittura precaria. By departing from casually handwritten documents, he has brought about successive, photographic, and by and by more offbeat enlargements, displaying as a sort of "epiphany' the aesthetic beauty and the sensuality of graphic material. The past ten years have also brought the transition from the cult of the machine age (and of the Gutenbergian printing press as machine par excellence) to the new 'soft' media of electronic derivation (from photo to film to videotape), which in their turn have allowed us to recuperate relatively ancient anthropological and cultural conditions, such as, for example, chirography, handwriting. This, therefore, lies at the intersection of a premodern (pre-Gutenbergian) era and a postmortem (post-Gutenbergian) one.

But what is of interest in Mesciulam's current work is that now we are truly at the end of the possibility of the materials of expression, of literality, at the end of the journey to the heart of the word. The last traces of what properly belongs to language are almost dissolved into chicken scratches and those blotches that the artist's impious gaze restlessly enlarges. And still there is nothing to fear: if we lose the last gleam of expressivity entrusted to the letter system, to the phonetic alphabet, other territories are ready to be opened where the alphabet no longer exists. Instead, there is iconic writing sign value of another order and structure. In these territories, another problem exists: the rapport between the graphic trace and the substrate that sustains it. This problem has been ignored or neutralized here, given that where phonetic writing still reigns, it is implicit that it more or less relies on the canonical surface of the page.

from Voyage to the End of the Word
Translated by Teresa Fiore and Harry Polkinhorn
Copyright © 1997 by San Diego State University Press.

For information or to order the printed book
go to San Diego State University Press

Return to Light and Dust Poets

Go to Kaldron

This is a co-operative presentation of
Atticus books and
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry