les échiquiers effrontés by Mark Young
Luna Bisonte Prods, May 2018
27 pages / Amazon
“Derrida, of course is the primary proponent of bricolage which, more than anything else, is the term I would use to best describe my poetry.” —Mark Young
Mark Young’s new collection is an experimental work. Many articles and books have attempted to answer the question, “What does ‘experimental literature’ mean?” The Russian Formalist, Viktor Shklovsky, proposed that experimental art is a technical “device for making strange” and that experimental writing draws “attention to the use of common language in such a way as to alter one’s [sensation and] perception of an easily understandable object or concept.” I hesitate to categorize les échiquiers effrontés out of respect for the subjective and improvisational process employed in its creation. Here, I intend to share my own reading of the text rather than attempt to decipher any intent or message on the author’s part.
Mark Young is a highly-regarded writer living in Australia who has produced dozens of books. He has been featured in jacket 2 and other venues, as well as, by the Poetry Foundation. Editor of the online journal, Otoliths, Young promotes innovative poetry, visual poetry [“vispo”], and artwork. The improvisational meters and rhythms of jazz characterize Young’s work, and William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jorge Luis Borges are among his literary influences. On the back cover of les échiquiers effrontés, the author provides a prose poem about his inspiration for the book: “[Marcel] Duchamp’s Nude came eddying down the staircase carrying a chessboard and some sort of dictionary ‘Your move,’ she said.”…“I never won again. A readymade Mark, he called me.” The book has been summarized as “conceptual and surrealist visual poetry constructed on chessboard grids,” and, by highlighting Duchamp’s Surrealism, Young makes clear that his collection is a product of unconscious processes.
Chessboards constitute the dominant element of the book, providing coherence and unification of 24 visual texts, in addition to, one erased quote (by the military officer [cum strategist] and writer, François de La Rochefoucauld) and two visual devices—one based on a poem by artist-poet-sculptor, Hans Arp (p 15) and, the other, a reworking of one detail of the painting, “Mona Lisa” (p 27). A chessboard is an 8 x 8 grid of squares upon which two persons play a game of strategy to “checkmate” an opponent’s King. In the abstract, the board may be viewed as a map or table and the squares as fields or cells, respectively. Young positions words, images, memes, photographs, or other visuals in cells that can stand alone or in relation to one another. Similarly, each chessboard can relate to others—or, not—enhancing imagination, playfulness, and complexity. The chessboard, also, can be divided into strips or diagonals, permitting additional visual, interpretive, or other, permutations. Individual images may repeat in one or another way. Nelson Mandela, for instance, is mentioned in Young’s prose poem, and the politician’s photograph appears in a cell on page 16. Repetition, most notably associated with Gertrude Stein’s writing, is a common hallmark of experimental literature.
Close “reading” of les échiquiers effrontés reveals multiple layers and scales. One might view each chessboard as a table with mathematical qualities since each cell [square] has a numerical identity. Thus, the upper left-hand square can be quantified as, Row 1, Column 1, and so on. Also, cells surrounding images may be viewed as frames, just as the chessboard, itself, frames the complete composition which is, in effect, a construction of pictures within pictures. Variation and flexibility characterize the text, surrendering freedom of interpretation to the reader, as all Postmodern creations do.
Titles may or may not relate to particular grids. Often, a title repeats words in corner squares. In a few cases, titles appear to have no relation to the compositions to which they refer. Young’s inclination to uncouple titles and works is a convention that seems designed to give each component singularity or authority on its own, without interdependence. An interesting feature of the elements superimposed (seemingly at random) upon squares is that, in addition to the colors themselves, many have multiple meanings. For example, “Persephone” is both Queen of the Underworld, as well as an analogue synthesizer. Similarly, “sigil,” a word used in Young’s prose poem, is a symbol, sign, or seal and an e-book editor. “SMURF” is a comic character, as well as, a symbol of freedom. Duchamp is a chess player and an artist. The symbolic importance of Duchamp to les échiquiers effrontés cannot be overestimated since the Surrealist-as-chess player is a strategist, as was La Rochefoucauld, and, like Young, an artist who minimized the boundaries between art and life.
Young joins a long tradition of artists employing the chessboard in visual, or in this case, vispo, works, generally, in depictions of opponents playing the game. Used as an avant garde device, however, the chessboard has a Cubist quality seen most famously in the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky (e.g., Compositions X and XIII, “Decisive Pink,” “Continuous Line,” and “Small Dream in Red”). Young’s inventiveness is apparent in each component of les échiquiers effrontés, as well as, throughout the book as a whole. This collection is a tour de force demonstrating that his reputation as a noteworthy innovator is well deserved. I am eager to experience where Young’s imagination and compositional abilities take us next.
Clara B. Jones is a Knowledge Worker practicing in Silver Spring, MD, USA. Her books, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming.