Michael Aiken Reviews Dave Drayton

14 March 2017

haiturograms by Dave Drayton
SOd Press, 2016


Dave Drayton’s Haiturograms is a brief but confounding volume, available as a free PDF download and print-to-order book from Sydney-based SOd press. Like Drayton’s other work, HaiturogramS is driven by formal constraint and innovation within that constraint.

One of its most immediately apparent features is Drayton’s explicitly concrete treatment of pagination and typography, in tandem with combinations of letters that often don’t elicit a morpheme and, more rarely yet, produce coherent words or phrases. Such prominent attention to form over meaning suggests a highly procedural poetics, a poetics of applied machination. That appearance gives rise to recollection of the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets, or even perhaps uncreative writing like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, and their playful (to some, infuriating) confrontations with convention. The anagram-like appearance of some sequences at the margins of Haiturograms and the repetition of certain sounds within the body of the poems particularly brings to mind the Oulipoean poetics of writers like Christian Bök.

Like much of Bök’s work, Drayton’s haiturograms are dominated by extreme disruption of syntax and grammar. Despite this, his ongoing distressing of the formal environment throws up flashes of lyric intensity, like ‘one sobs, main echo stabs one’ in ‘iii.’ (No titles are provided so I’m following the numbers, though there’s also an argument to be made that what I’m referring to here as a distinct poem is actually just the fourth part of one continuous work). Particularly notable in what for the most part reads like a free flow of games, fragments and pointedly playful not-narratives, is the sometimes startling impact the introduction of an ‘I’ can have, for example in ‘v.’:

WETHI
ETIWH
EWTHI
WTHEI
WHITE

STIDEON          we, this tide on a street
ENIDOST
SONEIDT          I, when I do stare, stew
DIOTSEN     
DOTSINE          this one I’d test raw
IDONTSE
TONESID          the idiots enter as white dots in Easter

ASTRE               I don’t set one’s id
AREST
ESTRA
TERAS
ASTER

The (false) sense of a narrative purpose is tangible as soon as that lone pronoun appears; not only in the context of verbs like ‘I stew’, lending personality to the subject, but also tangentially, with the implication that ‘the idiots’ who enter have been designated such by that same (judgmental, scathing) subject. This is a powerful demonstration of how the need for a sense of human identity with which to relate, can influence our ability to make sense of – or engage with – a work of art.

The combination of lyric effect and formal phenomena in Haiturograms leaves the reader in a confounding place, particularly in the broader context of constraint-driven experiments like those mentioned above. Indeed, is this work procedural? If so, what is the procedure? As mentioned, at times there appear to be multiple variations of anagrams present, but without clear consistency. At other points, aesthetically pleasing lines emerge, but with a prevalence so rare as to constitute failure if they are the procedure’s purpose. 

To interrogate these poems further, I decided to go outside the text. Not far outside, but to other work of Drayton’s: the poem ‘Rough’. Again there is a procedural nature to the work, one both more immediately inviting to the act of decoding – given the greater prevalence of whole words and phrases – but also more confounding for those phrases’ failure to consistently produce complete, sensible sentences. But is meaning-making a fair criterion? After all, grammar and sentence structure are hardly things we expect of poems. But are these even poems? Why doesn’t Drayton use titles? Or are titles to be found in some of the combinations of letters in the margin?

Such questions naturally arise, but they do little to help with analysing whether these poems work. Are they good poems, on their own terms? If they are procedural or uncreative, do we need to read them if we’ve already read Goldsmith? Uncreative writing seems a celebration of the process of writing itself; is writing with no need of a product or purpose. Goldsmith’s wilful manual duplication of a newspaper, for example, intentionally traps the writing. Process as nothing more (or less) than that process. But is that what Drayton is doing here? And if so, why read it?  

These haiturograms can be ‘read’ entirely visually, yet are so difficult to make intelligible at a glance as to effectively function as unread(able) visual works, being / appearing rather than meaning. They can also be sounded out, read for what remnants of meaning they contain. As noted, Drayton’s uncollected work like ‘Rough’ is even more susceptible to the latter approach, given the prevalence of whole words and phrases. Yet even there the poem again slips away, the ‘lines’ never quite matching up. It’s curious too that ‘Rough’ is published in Plumwood Mountain, a journal of ecopoetics. Is this to say it is an ecopoem? And if so, is this also true of the haiturograms? Clearly that answer depends on a definition of ecopoetics. One interpretation of the term might be that it’s poetry (or art more broadly) which engages with or is ‘about’ one or more ecologies; how meaning, or at least aesthetic apprehension, is made of or with (or against, or by) ecologies. Given we are all the product of and inhabitants within one or more ecologies, the formally disruptive character of these poems argues for the notion that they are all informed by ecopoetics; we all of us are subjects to and observers of the formal conventions of writing, and therefore our ability to describe and apprehend in writing, to aestheticise and perceive our environments, is shaped by those conventions. In a further, meta-system sense, the distortions of grammar, syntax and word relation in Haiturograms act not unlike a reordering of an ecological set of relations, or its dissolution. What remains is the matter, the physical meat of the language and the opportunity to rewire those relations. 

Asking questions like ‘why these letters?’, ‘is this a title?’, ‘what the fuck am I supposed to make of these clusters of letters that appear to hold significance for someone?’, draws attention to the materiality of language, to the experience of letters and writing as a place we inhabit. This may well be the most purely ecopoetic of ecopoetics, highlighting how writing more than any other art form can engage with and expose the nature of its own ecology; an ecopoetics about the ecology of writing itself. Drayton’s marks on the page only create meaning within a habitat, a culture. Their disruption, fragmentation, stammering start and restart of shards of that culture say multitudes about the condition of that ecology and of ourselves. 

The term haiturogram, as far as I can tell, is Drayton’s neologism that appears to contextualise and contrast itself with heterograms – a form in which no letter appears more than once. By contrast, haiturograms appear to be ruled by slow change (evolution perhaps) within a semi-limited set: each opening line contains a base selection of letters, most of which are retained in each iteration within the individual poem, with enough substituted out and in to eventually achieve transformation. For example, the first five lines of the opening page:

I.
i. ion stars
ii. a this on
iii. chase to sea
iv. tackier rack
v. type on rot

II.
i. instore death
ii. one acts
iii. tradies once
iv. is thank cue
v. is acute
vi. deaf stove
vii. hour set

III.
i. at silent
ii. our teeth
iii. what elk is
iv. say no to us
v. we this tide
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