Land of Forgiveness
Tom Hibbard reviews
HEKA, by Michael Basinski
This piece is 1,000 words or about two and a half pages long.
In his lettrist epic, HEKA, new from Factory School in San Diego, Michael Basinski makes a prophetic statement, though it is without the use of words in the common manner. It is as though words have become controversial or dirtied. It is as though simple sentences are prohibited by the censorious authority of intellectual corruption. Our thought has become enslaved by ‘worldliness’. We are prohibited from making sense, relegated to idly toying with our typewriters. With rationality beseiged, Basinski, it seems, does not really want to use it anyway. ‘Hear my silence’.
HEKA succeeds in being prophetic because it does not use words. Words no longer can be taken at face value but have become a symbol of ineptness. The book achieves an archeologic, multi-civilization feeling by its careful unearthing of the grey trail of ravaged words and letters, lava-encrusted conversations, rustic morality, forgotten names, sifted sadly through by the author as if to say look at this that once was and might have been.
History is the record of divine paradox, showing the human tribe at once ridiculous and pre-eminent. Only the ‘debris’ is capable of expression. What is functional gives no indication of lasting meaning. Using the various messages of evolving media, Basinski has made a record of spaceship earth’s five millennia journey to coming to grips with its own impotence. He has constructed a mysterious, Stonehenge-like monument to commemorate the end of its three-hundred-and-sixty-degree trek through the wilderness of self-destruction.
In the beginning was the ancient fertility that accompanied the birth of Man and every of Man’s fellow creatures, each speaking its own language. Light danced excitedly on top of the darkness. Every action was a discovery, represented in Basinski’s text by a cascade of uncontrolled, muliti-sized ‘o’s.’ It was a bubbling ‘Cornucopia’ of prefixes, suffixes, etymologies, big and little, thrilling verbs, awe-inspiring nouns, romantic articles and annoying prepositions.
It began with a sense of the divine, of primal ‘Hades’ and mythical mountainous lands, of Persephone, ever returning, ever refreshing agricultural activity with the sobering reminder of elemental divisions — birth and death, life and dying, Allah and Vishnu, Nanna and Ningal. This beginning repeats itself each day in so-called mundane activities, in the cuneiform of the populace of our limited human capacity for creation — ‘gutters,’ ‘wicker,’ ‘art forms,’ ‘Wrounds,’ ‘conindiophores.’
It is this elemental level of life that Basinski has well portrayed — this homeric voyage of the intellect, this Joycean descent to the labyrinthine core of existence. In this unpaginated, one-hundred-twenty-five-plus pages, he has pieced together from out of the office shredder a next generation of The Cantos, a Paterson of recycled estuaries, a Grand Coulee Dam of visual poetry. His poems are put together with Ariel’s skill of chemical reactions on molecular levels, constructing the amino acids that spark existence.
This isn’t something about which you argue. It is something that needs to be demonstrated. The problem is that once heroic Odysseus has made the first voyage, nothing remains for subsequent voyagers. We lose the sense of voyaging. Once the flood of Noah has washed away the curious Tastee Freeze anthrax of pompous nut-cases, the process of infestation immediately begins all over again. What’s the point? The journey is futile.
But Basinski doesn’t think so. For this reason he has taken a step back from straightforward speech. He doesn’t want to add to the filth. He wants to create something vastly and incorrigibly different. He has given his heart its head. He has mixed in a feeling of overall purpose. It isn’t a question of grammar or spelling. He has started with the broken kidding words and Latinate scripts and communications that surround words and are made up by words and look like words and proceeded to embody some of the cataclysmic incompleteness that wars with words when they have run amok.
He has even gone to the lengths of drawing — these hand-writing-utensil movements so closely associated with words — such things as artichokes, toadstools, bags of candy, bags of typographical freudian slips, bags of parenthetical drunken degenerated personalities, bags of survivor vegetable sex organs.
The real mystery of life is that humanity has survived its own intelligence. This book is a cartoon representation of a shy divinity that is able to tolerate its creation, that seems to have a touching sympathy for it, that seems even to love it the way a mother loves a still-born child. It is an attempt to express a sense of creation based on forgiveness and knowledge rather than blindness and rage.
One section, late in the book that I especially liked, was a series of verbal combined with symbolic images that might have been titled ‘Nights Along the Nile’ or perhaps ‘The Roman Era.’ And then the final apotheosis of not exploding but imploding words, letters, symbols crammed without spaces into columns of justified type, seeming to fall as through dimensions, as across light years of unknown memories — square, narrow, impenetrable — ahead toward Brave New Worlds of virtual post-Orwellian parchment, undivided in the commitment to an absurd hope in life as a society that may hold onto reason at times only as an aesthetic.
Jacket 16 — March 2002
This material is copyright © Tom Hibbard
and Jacket magazine 2002