Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Theo van Doesburg, Still Life: The Table

As an Edge Hill University Writing Studies and Drama undergraduate beginning in my home town of Ormskirk the Modern Drama module at the start of the second semester of the second year in January 2003, we in the class were told by our tutor to bring in anything at all, an image, text, or something else, that summed up for us the word 'modern'. Modo, of the moment.

For the Poetry & Poetics components of the three year course the entire theoretical contents were drawn wholly from American modernism, beginning in year one with Pound's A Few Don'ts and terminating at the end of year three with Charles Bernstein's seminal essay; I Don't Take Voice Mail: The Object of Art in the Age of Electronic Technology.

The poems themselves came from the first two Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg edited door-stoppers, poems for the millennium anthologies one and two: Postmodern Poetry. Volume One: From Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude, and, Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium.

The night before the Modern Drama class, I was trying to find something to bring in that summed up the word 'modernism', and was flicking through volume one of the Joris and Rothenberg anthology, which, for those unfamiliar with it, contains a lot of extremely crazee stuff, far more bonkers than what we have today, most of which is merely derivative of the original stuff.

Only a handful of poems from the entire 1000 pages leapt out at me. One was a late poem from 1930 called Screaming My Head Off, written by the poet of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, just before he committed suicide, and whose mad but coherent and forcefully poetic voice stood out from all the typographical experiments devoid of any real meaning like a light in the dark.

The other poem that made worthwhile my late night trawling through the textual lunacy that had not aged well, and that I brought into and read at the first Modern Drama class, as an example of the one thing that encapsulated what I thought the word 'modernism' meant, was a self-aware timeless-present voice narrating this list poem by the Dutch visual artist and writer, Theo van Doesburg; who made me laugh out loud on first reading it.


All muddled up
A glass of tea
Some cups
Some pots
And get a fresh look
at what’s lying there –
This is the shadow
of the shadow of
a candlestick!
A piece of paper
& a can in blue
white &
An ash tray with
a pipe stem
& a very heavy book
in blue & yellow
with something that looks brown
inside a black can

And the candle there!
The light! The light!

And a mist around them
& their glow
Some spoons
Something that’s gleaming
on the gold rim of the
And there’s another piece of paper
on which lies: a red match
a couple of blue pamphlets
a little piece of string atop
a small red box
And then the cloth!
Half a chair
there in the mist
a little further back
And how the yellow cloth becomes
& that much softer
And then here
                          and here
here on the paper’s
garish white
are two black nails
one that looks real & one a silhouette
my hand
my hand
a hill with murky caves
in which a rafter lies
between two clumps of clay
wedged tight

Translation from the Dutch by Jerome Rothenberg