Toby Fitch Reviews Catherine Vidler

By | 12 June 2024

Selected Visual Poems by Catherine Vidler
Stale Objects dePress, 2023

In the late Catherine Vidler’s first full-length collection of poetry Furious Triangle (2011), a brilliant book of poems using regular old words, the spores to Vidler’s entirely wordless visual poems can be found. There are experiments in the microscopic, such as through anagrammatic play and her ‘20 one-word poems,’ the latter of which highlights the contradictory and proliferative meanings within single words:

norm wrestle individual nod tribute camouflage whole exquisite intermittent enterprise revelation overtone safari diminish freewheel hear hearing coloured remember footwork (15)

These experiments of “the infinite within the finite,” as Amelia Dale of Stale Objects dePress has subsequently described Vidler’s visual poems, expanded into the macroscopic, through generative experiments in form, such as with sestinas, villanelles, rondelets, and, especially, serial poems (Introduction to Catherine Vidler’s Wings). The first series of poems in Furious Triangle is all about stars, or stars in the absence of stars — a kind of negative suggestion that is at the core of Vidler’s wordless visual poems (where language is disavowed but everywhere). Take, for instance, ‘No stars tonight’:

26: //set the background to no stars
          echo “<ul class=\”star-rating\”>\n”;


93: c = *pattern;
          /* Collapse multiple stars. */
          while (c == ‘*’)


30: if ($rating->rating == ‘-1’) {
          echo “<li class=\”zero-stars\”><span


Here, the play with asterisks foreshadows Vidler’s play on Twitter/X, in which she authored the conceptual account The Asterisk Machine (@usefulstars), among other accounts, by posting an asterisk seemingly every day. But more importantly, in this poem, Vidler’s collapsing of multiple stars foreshadows her collapsing of language into a proliferation, or “span,” of shapes, lines, arrows, curls, swirls, and a plethora of other suggestive visual phenomena in her serial visual poetry projects. Moreover, in this poem, as in later poems of Furious Triangle, such as the serial ‘Source code poems,’ there is the emergence of a kind of algorithmic and/or permutational poetics which comes to full fruition in her visual poems (65-67).

Vidler’s poetry has always focused on worlds within worlds, and worlds beyond, and this was picked up on by Bill Manhire in his blurbed description of Furious Triangle:

Somehow she has gained access to a lens which is microscope and telescope at once,
and she arranges what she sees to make poems that are like her own starless night:
‘supple, fantastic, afloat’.

(back cover)

Everything in this quote doubles as a description of her wordless visual poetry: there’s Vidler’s “lens which is microscope and telescope at once.” There’s the way she “arranges what she sees.” And finally, the result of what she arranges: “poems that are like her own starless night: ‘supple, fantastic, afloat’.”

I first began corresponding with Catherine a couple of years after she published a visual poem of mine in 2011 in the online Trans-Tasman literary magazine Snorkel, for which she was the founder and co-editor with linguistics academic and somewhat lapsed poet Nick Riemer. She was its ongoing editor, alongside her husband Nick Smith who did the design and photography. Catherine was always very encouraging of mine and other poets’ work. She once wrote to me about our shared feelings of composing visual poems:

They [the visual poems in question at the time] are a realisation and concretisation and
transformative re-presentation/resolution of one of the most intensely felt personal
experiences that I have had in my life, something which has always been a part of me,
but which intensified and became critically pronounced since having children: It’s the
feeling of being entirely constituted by, and embedded in, the earthy realities of a
corporeal existence, while *simultaneously* being wholly constituted by, and
embedded, in the disembodied ecstasies of the imagination. And as I get older I feel
that this chasm between the two is closing, and I think that in fact the two are actually

(personal email, 2018)

Vidler’s venturing into wordless visual poetry is, from my perspective, an attempt to make one the “earthy realities of corporeal existence” and “the disembodied ecstasies of the imagination,” because, as she wrote, they are one, they occur in and come from the same body, even if our Western philosophies don’t always allow us to accept this reality. In the same email she described experiencing affective states, “flares,” which both triggered and inhibited her creativity.

While Vidler continued to write and publish some lyric poems, her visual poetry went through huge flares from the mid-2010s on. There seemed to be a turning point or transition phase during all the variations of her ‘Chaingrass’ series of poems, the first of which, Chaingrass, published by zimZalla in a spiral-bound notebook in 2016, contains 30 elaborate one-word calligrammes (shaped poems) derived from a Bill Manhire poem called ‘Falseweed’ (excerpted on the title page of Chaingrass):

I saw how breeze in the chaingrass
made the small chains sing,

I began to recall
how the words came knocking.

These shapely and mostly symmetrical chaingrass calligrammes vibrate on the page as if blown by wind, evoking, among other things, memory and music. In an interview with Petrichor magazine, Vidler wrote of the process:

My pieces attempt to respond to ‘chaingrass’ as encountered in its context of meaning
and music […] My personal response to chaingrass is intensely visual. It is also one of
sustained marvelling. The chaingrass pieces try to show this both in their numerousness
and internal permutations. They don’t know what chaingrass is or what it looks like, but
they do know it exists in the world. In this way they celebrate both its mystery and its

To enhance this mystery and presence, Vidler then took to creating visual permutations of each of these calligrammes, a project that was published later in 2016 as an expansive book in print under the title chaingrass by Stale Objects dePress, who published further permutations in subsequent online chapbooks, chaingrass night & unresolved chaingrass tiling in 2017, and chaingrass errata slips in 2018. The process by which a patterned permutation was made involved the selection of a fragment of text from a chaingrass calligramme using the “snipping tool” (in Microsoft Word and Paint), followed by the application of a range of treatments to that fragment, including multiple pastings, rotations, duplications, re-sizings, re-snippings of fragments of transformed text, re-positionings, and re-arrangements. These permutations were the beginning of her various radical and unique wordless visual poetry series, many of which adorn Stale Objects dePress’s new, and very welcome, compilation of her work, Selected Visual Poems.

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