Thursday, May 20, 2004

with wax, derek beaulieu

2003, Coach House Books, 96 pages
isbn 1 55245 118 6, $16.95

Calgary writer, publisher and editor derek beaulieu has achieved quite a lot in the last few years, through his own work, his stints as editor for filling station and the revamped dANDelion magazines, and his work as editor/publisher of housepress, a self-described “micropress dedicated to radical poetries and poetics.” With his first trade collection, with wax, published by Coach House Books, a press that is also dedicated, currently and historically, to radical poetries and poetics (and one of the few Canadian trade presses, along with Talon and Mercury, that seem to even be interested in publishing visual work), it places beaulieu and his work firmly within that framework. A strong and well-built collection, first or otherwise, with wax is a series of overlapping sequences of works, from the visual splatter-like works of “calcite gours” and text-image “mondmilch,” to a series of short text works, each working against the other through the larger structure of the painted caves of Lascaux, France. Broken down into physical sections, the multiple sequences float through nine alphabetical caverns, including “a. rotunda,” “b. hall of the bulls,” “e. chamber of the felines,” “h. chamber of the engravings” and “i. lateral passage.”

The pieces themselves work through ideas of writing and reading, ideas of the text, and the diffusions between what he is writing, and what he is writing about, the ancient images left on the cave walls, whether “the sheep distinguished use from parchment / on the day it was paper” from the piece “epidermis” (p 47), or “writing snail mail works back from other / rejected notions” (p 11, “rotunda”).

The compressed blocks of text, which make up most of the collection, are short and sharp, and include some impressive breaks, packed with the fullness of history and a single moment, such as in the piece “lateral passage” – “records teach ivory wax surfaces printed & / bound together invent any roomful of people / second in the word codex made from wax or / made from wood still presribed for use we / usually mean growth /// (like father like daughter)” (p 37).

Still, there is a cleanliness to the book that seems to go against the nature of the work. It does feel odd to see such a clean reproduction of what is essentially “dirty concrete,” and makes me wonder if there might have been other ways to produce the book itself. As he writes in his afterward, “read the writing on the wall: the caves of lascaux cast with wax,” “these texts, like the walls of lascaux, are blotched and infected with a palimpsest of history and the process of printing; inked fingers have worked and reworked the ink, leaving scratches and burrs of meaning gathering in gours. the text is carved into the walls and leeched into our water.” (p 91).

beaulieu’s work, whether written or visual, leans the way of conceptual art, a la Christian Bok, focusing on large projects, whether the cave painting texts of with wax, or his current project, working on a series of paintings, each based on a single page of one day’s newspaper.

A subsequent version of with wax has appeared with Buffalo, New York’s Cuniform Press in an edition of 100 copies in the autumn of 2003 (despite its own claims of autumn of 2004, which as yet, has not happened), reprinting four of the text pieces from the previous – “head of a horse & three cows,” “the upside down horse,” “roaring stag” and “great black aurochs.” The letterpress edition was produced to benefit “the Rare Book School, an independent, and non-profit center for the history of the book and printing since 1983.”

originally appeared in WORD

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