JOSHUA HUSSEY Reviews
Velleity’s Shade with poems by Star Black and paintings by Bill Knott
(Saturnalia Press, Ardmore, PA, 2010)
Star Black and Bill Knott’s Velleity’s Shade (2010) flips the writer-artist collaborative roles from their 2007 Stigmata Errata Etcetera, which hosted poems by Knott and collages by Black. Velleity’s Shade pushes toward aesthetic outcomes that marry text and image, poems with paintings, much as their previous volume has accomplished. Like her collages from Stigmata that echo the monstrosities of surrealist artist Max Ernst, Black’s poems are assembled: her formal measures create defined orders for language that run in both high and low registers. Bill Knot’s paintings, on the other hand, are less about assembly as they are about textured forms pressing against each other, where shapes impede and create simultaneously. In both cases, poetry or painting, pattern arises from noise.
In Black’s writing, rhyme meets concept. This poetic collaging is its own kind of enjambment that relies on the separate energies of content and form, going so far as to ask which one creates the other. Rhythms can feel like slam when read aloud; playfully aural, they can suddenly turn conceptual, such as in “Uncle Elwood’s Niece”:
The room entered me and, ever since
whenever I meet someone for cappuccino
on Sunday, I’m asked if my sofa is blue
and, if so, do I have an oval room,
and, if I do, is the mantel wood? So
I prefer a different take on orchids; that
of a lemming on a ladder to heaven. My
room has no picture-hangers; its walls
are hapless. … (65)
Here, stanzas are crafted through subjective perceptions (“the room entered me”) of objective things. Thingness is certainly at stake here, and Black’s poems are endlessly littered with objects, that disperse throughout the book, suggesting associative relations through sound rather than meaning or significance.
In her opening poem “Apologia,” Black writes:
I’ve been reading the beginning of “D”—
dbb, daguerrean, dairymaid, dawk lost
in a datamation of thought, intrigued
by Scottish slang and Greek daughters
(obedient Danaides condemned to sieve
water in Hades… (1)
Like Mark Doty has written in his introduction to Stigmata, “this suggests a line of thinking built out of sound, the poet’s acute ear instituting then guiding a process of cognition in which music and meditation are inextricably intertwined” (ix). Music is certainly on Black’s mind in “Apologia,” yet she also draws focus to linguistic associations in a very psychological sense. Here the reader of a dictionary peruses the beginnings’ of “D” and quickly dissembles into scattered and subjective associations. Black’s words feel like Eddington’s arrows pointing us in some direction; those trajectories find purchase through relations that are sonic or content-driven. In “Twilit,” she writes,
…The past doesn’t hurt,
the past is divine, everyone
the same age at the same time.
Moving is a white lie, a soft arrow. (8)
Velleity, a word rare in contemporary use, connotes Christian rhetoric through the 17th-19th centuries. In his 1689 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke defines velleity in more empirical terms as, “the term used to signify the lowest degree of desire … that it carries a man no further than some faint wishes for it, without any more effectual or vigorous use of the means to attain it” (Book II: Chapter XX, “Of Modes of Pleasure and Pain,” 212). Locke equates “uneasiness” (agitation) with desire, which is experienced in the absence of an external object. He marks pleasure and pain as “simple ideas,” kernel forms that influence the passions. Velleity’s concept captures the lowest impressionable sensation for desire, but limits behavior solely to interest and inaction.
Much of Star Black’s text follows this lower level of passionate interest, but the title of the book indicates an attenuated form (the “shade,” or ghost) of an already enervated expression for desire. Black’s poems are generally metered towards a traditional formality, yet that formality varies such that its expression ultimately abandons completely normalizing pattern. At the formal level it appears the poetic desire to craft according to a single traditional meter is met with velleity, that is, limited interest.
Knott’s paintings balance the book’s content: if linguistic enervation is a poetic mode of expression, Knott’s geometric shapes are defined by the limits and edges that create meaning through opposition. Forces press against one another in these paintings: occasionally cogent features arise from their abstractions, and like Black’s poetry, we glimpse a form nurtured through creative structures.
Black, Star, and Bill Knott. Velleity’s Shade. Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia Books, 2010. Print.
Doty, Mark. Introduction. Stigmata Errata Etcetera. By Bill Knott and Star Black. Philadelphia, PA: Saturnalia Books, 2007. Print.
Locke, John, 1632-1704. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: With Thoughts On the Conduct of Understanding; Edinburgh: Printed for Mundell & Son, 1801. Hathi Trust, 2015. Electronic.
Joshua Hussey is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology where he teaches multimodal composition. His research is in the empirical measurement of immersive, haptic technologies. He recently constructed a MAME Cabinet for the Georgia Tech RetroComputing Archives, which allows patrons of the reading room access to classic videogames from the late twentieth century. His current teaching looks at folklore and myth in videogames and literature.