Karl Young review of Alison Knowles "Spoken Texts"

by Alison Knowles

Left Hand Books
Station Hill Road
Barrytown, N.Y. 12507
160 pp.; $18.00, paper; $40.00, cloth.

Review by Karl Young

Alison Knowles has produced some magnificent book art, including Gem Duck, a printed edition whose visual base is offset facsimile of what photocopy connoisseurs used to call "wet" xerography, and The Book Of Bean, a book so large that you can walk through it, sit on a chair mounted on page 9, eat bean soup in it, and use it as a performance space. Although Spoken Texts draws on her previous work in book art and performance, the main emphasis of the book is on text. These texts are from scores for six radio plays (and a translation/adaptation of one of them into French), originally drafted for West German Radio and later reworked for live performance.

"Bean Sequences" opens the book. Throughout her opus, Knowles has concentrated on ordinary things and the way people have used them. Beans occupy the center of this exploration. As a basic food, nothing could be more appropriate. As humble as a food can be, beans can provide the center of a nutritious diet, as they did for Native Americans for countless centuries before the coming of Europeans, as they still do for many people throughout the world. Beans can be a source of pride for those who grow them and a source of humor for anyone. On the simplest level, many languages include such expressions as "he's full of beans," and jokes about farting are universal, as basic to joking as beans are to eating. Puns on beans and being seem an appropriate response to existentialism for someone coming out of the first phase of Fluxus: a phrase like "Bean and No-thinness" in the context of Fluxus could match Samuel Johnson's kicking a stone and saying "thus I refute Berkeley."

On the first 18 pages of "Bean Sequences," the names of different types of beans in different languages are set in various type faces, sometimes horizontally, sometimes going down the page. The poetry in these names is hard to miss: "small white" probably takes its origin in simple description; "belcher" may derive from jokes; "Haricot Abondance" may come from a sense of prosperity -- or hopes for it; "McCaslan" may be named after a farmer or botanist; "fagiolo di luna" could come from humor, or description, or a sense of poetry; "Haricot A La Reine" could come from a desire for prestige -- it just might include a bit of subversion; "Seventy five day mammoth melting sugar" probably comes from a combination of the above. Whatever the beans, the names reflect the lives of the people who lived by them. The names give us a glimpse into the hopes, fears, desires, aspirations and accomplishments of generations of people, and the first function of this sequence is simply to let the names of the beans speak for themselves in small, discrete poems.

Hand written text runs around the bean names. Beginning in the mechanics of evolution, this free association text includes the nutritional value of beans, the symbiosis of beans with other plants, fights for beans in Brasil, beans in religion, the symbolism of beans in dreams, beans as omens and as part of such folklore as banshees, and, of course, a story about a child who put a bean in his nose where it later sprouted. The generous and casual progression of this text around the fixed names of beans strikes a pleasant balance, and present an unpretentious view of life and history.

The last five pages of "Bean Sequences" typifies much of the writing in the rest of the book. As elsewhere, Knowles edits the writing of naturalists into poetry. In his introduction to the book, Charles Doria points out Knowles' affinities with Homer and Hesiod. Here is a sample:

    Wild bean and Florida velvet yield to oats and beggarweed.
                      Nothing in the pod when you grow your own.
Blue lake and Tendrette, a little extra room in the row.

The beans lead everywhere, as Knowles suggests in her notes on "Fishes of the Philippine Seas": "With some time to spare in any library I open the card catalogue to the word 'Bean.' Using this system at Northwestern University I discovered the researches of a scientist named Barton Appeler Bean who kept journals and did drawings from the steamships Blake and Albatross in the early 1900s in the Philippine Seas." Knowles opens this section of the book with descriptions of fish living at great depth and brought up to Bean's ship. This segues into descriptions of the whale shark Rhinodon, and finally into the beaching of one of these giants after it had pulled the small boats that hooked it for some distance. This is a poem of mysteries brought up and made plain, a precise paradigm of Knowles' writing style. Of course, sometimes the search for clarity can result in being pulled out of control by the thing you're trying to comprehend. Knowles has no objection to this, and welcomes it when it comes. An earthquake began when Knowles was performing this piece at San Francisco State University in 1979. She writes "We all ran outside, leaving the recording equipment running. Since this was the only recording of the earthquake, it was played on a local radio station."

In "Paper Weather" Knowles uses shorter lines and phrases. Faster shifts in subject suggest a quicker tempo. Notes on aquatic life run through the sequence, joined by observation of weather conditions, place names, bits of weather lore from several cultures. Names of scientists enter the sequence more frequently as it progresses, peaking with part of a dictionary entry for Joseph Priestly, giving an account of his parents' religious beliefs. Some riffs in this sequence create dramatic tensions in their elliptical isolation ("Wake to pace a roaring tunnel through each room of the house"), and such simple lines as the last in the sequence -- "seven blocks in St. Louis say four or five o'clock in the afternoon" -- imply tense enigmas.

"North Water Song" was composed as a tribute to John Cage on his seventy fifth birthday. Part of the text comes from Thoreau's Journal and performance instructions include readings notes from an I Ching hexagram. The sequence opens in winter, and the first major point of reference is the statement, "QUALIFYING WORDS DISTINGUISH WATER//BY ITS ORIGIN IN ICE." The second major reference point is a caption from a Chinese scroll depicting water control through dams and other structures. Other water management statements follow, leading to observations on mud and shallow water, which in turn open into plant and animal life in the shallows. Names of plants appear throughout, and the sequence ends in a list of names -- accepted or newly invented -- with water in them. The sequence could be read as a song for early spring, when cold fresh water is unlocked and activates plant and animal life and cooperative human action. The I Ching hexagram for the sequence is "The Family," and this poem celebrates families of all sorts.

"Setsubun II" also celebrates spring, based on the Japanese Setsubun, a New Year's bean throwing ritual. In this ritual, soy beans are thrown about the house (particularly in closets and other small spaces) to chase away evil spirits and invite good fortune. Much of the piece is based in texts by Basho, and in commentary on linked verse, ritual, and Chinese and Japanese mythic history. The lines move between poems and gnomic utterances and stately pronouncements. The main body of text is set in type, but additional longhand passages recounting Knowles' attendance at a more formal bean ceremony appear between blocks of type.

"Frijoles Canyon" includes information from fellow hikers in this valley of beans, as well as material from books on the area, and lore from indigenous peoples. Appropriately for a hiker's poem, observation of trees predominates, though lichen, heather, and other plant and animal life appear as the sequence progresses. The walk leads to notes on entering Anasazi caves, and the history and beliefs of the Pueblo Indians. Early in the poem, Knowles writes "The cultural other and the natural order are widely spread apart." The poem ends with "these they are Brothers of Light to balance." The following lines come in mid text: "With naming comes identity and comfort."

A performance of "Frijoles Canyon" is available on CD and cassette tape. I had some difficulty getting a copy: I was unable to reach Knowles, had some odd phone conversations, promises of copies that didn't arrive, and phone numbers that yielded recorded voices telling me that the number was no longer in service -- a wild bean hunt. It may be best ordered through Pauline Oliveros's Deep Listening Catalogue -- a good catalogue for performance art and new music. The recording includes several pieces not in the book in addition to "Frijoles Canyon." The pieces emphasize Knowles' interest in found music and music produced with simple instruments. The beans play their part even in this music: in "Paper Weather" and "North Water Song," for instance, performers are instructed to shake beans on a tambourine. Instructions in the book emphasize slow pace and lack of rhythm. As in much of the music of the last forty years, exploration of acoustics and contemplation of the nature of the instrument take the place of stimulants. Knowles' clear and steady delivery of text confirms the clear and steady nature of the text. Although there is some tense drama in such pieces as "Paper Weather," the main orientation of the work is toward serenity, toward balance, toward self knowledge.

Although Knowles has worked in many genres, she is probably best known for her performance art, particularly in the context of Fluxus. Although the emphasis of this book is on text, the book nonetheless underscores the serenity of her previous work in other areas. Perhaps it also underscores the serene, gnomic wisdom that has run through the movement all along. This is not to deny the importance of more outrageous work, such as the bizarre adventures of George Maciunus. But it is to affirm links with many other traditions. In "North Water Music," for instance, Knowles uses the I-Ching and Thoreau's Journals. This is appropriate in a memorial to John Cage since both were essential to him. But the ease with which Knowles works with both sources shows how compatible her approach to art and life is with 19th Century American quietism and ancient Chinese nature mysticism. Knowles use of other sources works in much the same way. If one premise of Fluxus is individuality and invention, another is respect for the efforts of others, contemporary or from the past or even the distant past. Does this make Fluxus sound like other movements in the arts? It should be so considered.

Copyright © 1995 by Karl Young

First published in American Book Review, Vol. 16, # 6.

Click here to go to Frijoles Canyon from Spoken Text.

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