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  • Maria Sledmere

(REVIEW) Cloud Cover, by Greg Thomas

A tracing paper concertina stretches around a black jewellery-style box with another piece of paper in it

Maria Sledmere unfolds the delicate concertina of Greg Thomas’ Cloud Cover (Essence Press, 2018), exploring a concrete language of partial obscurity and playful chiaroscuro.

For right as in that Ark were contained all the jewels and the relics of the Temple, right so in this little love put upon this cloud be contained all the virtues of man’s soul — Unknown author, The Cloud of Unknowing

As though it were a photographic negative, I hold a little square of translucent paper to the light to read: ‘However you turn / it around you will / find that it reappears before your eyes’. What is this ‘it’, I wonder what scene I’ll find inside it? A little box arrives bubble-wrapped in the mail, and inside a square-shaped concertina unfolds to reveal the words ‘cloud cover’ reiterated from different angles. The box resembles a little black jewellery box, so you expect to unfurl a necklace and catch the weight of its chain in your fingers, and instead you get the wafer-thin pages, 50 x 50mm on tracing paper. This is an artist’s book by Greg Thomas, author of Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland (Liverpool University Press, 2019) and member of the wonderful, Nottingham-based band, Food People. To hold this book is not to read by chain, but by fold. Hold a paper square to the light; its printed grey text is a play of light and shade. Cloud Cover, the publisher describes, ‘is a permutational poem printed in a semi-transparent concertina booklet. it is designed to be partially legible from any combination of standing position and viewing angle’. This partial readability is a making space for blur, for the blind-spot — the unknown, the hidden.

What if unknowing were something you could inscribe through writing? In Nilling (2012), Lisa Robertson writes: ‘Chiaroscuro is also the technique of the uncanny. I am etched with unknowing as I continue. I have crossed into a material reserve that permits a maximum of intuition, the “as if” of a speculative thinking, which is outside of knowledge’. Thomas’ book teaches us that cloud writing embodies this mode of unknowing, the flickering indeterminacy which Robertson identifies as chiaroscuro (the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting) and Ada Smailbegović, in Art in the Anthropocene (2015), as a descriptive poetics which can render ‘perceptible a more variegated sense of the kinds of change that dynamically constitute the present, thereby opening the unfurling edge of this present toward the future in indeterminate ways’. Nilling, an obsolete auxiliary verb meaning to be unwilling, is surely also a play on nil (zero) — a contraction of that Latin for ‘nothing’, ‘nihil’. For all the grandiose invitation of a jewellery box, Cloud Cover teases with the sense of a poetry barely there. Its minimalism evokes preciousness, but its play is not reducible. ‘Clouds get traction as a metaphor', writes Alexic C. Madrigal, ‘because they are shape-shifters, literally’. You could hold the poem’s concertina to the wind and it would flap like a sail, change pattern and shape.

What of this flickering affordance of reading? Robertson is interested in an uncanny textuality which is always in the realm of intuition. The uncanny is an experience of indeterminacy, a slipping through meaning and time, an overlap. Upon first opening (unfolding) Thomas’ booklet, I assumed every page to have the identical ‘cloud cover’ text stamped on it; my coming to realise the subtle variations in lettering and orientation (some words seeming backwards at certain angles) was uncanny. Like mirror writing, the uncanny comes from having one’s own position in relation to the writing foregrounded: visibility itself flickers, and sense can shift by a trick of the light. ‘Nothing’ is the risk of cloud sense if clouds provide metaphors for everything: oversaturated with meaning, they become meaningless, nebulous, hazy. ‘Cloud cover’ depicts a meteorological as much as semiotic event: there is an experience of partial obscurity, what Robertson calls an ‘inchoate shape’ of meaning which threatens dissolve and reassembly. The thin edge between pages I experience as a kind of eclipse between each perceptual frame: one square casts variegating obscurity upon the other. With Instagram, we are trained to see in squares, unfurling from one another in contrast and relation. Cloud Clover recalibrates this cognitive geometry of the square to a processual sequencing of iteration and distortion.

I ask Thomas about the inspiration behind Cloud Cover and he points me to a fourteenth-century book of Christian mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing. In this text, God is shrouded in a ‘cloud of unknowing’, ‘a darkness’ which can be accessed only through love, not ‘the light of understanding and reason’. We are instructed to ‘prepare to remain in this darkness […] always begging for [god] you love; for if you are ever to feel or see him…it must always be in this cloud and this darkness’. This negative or apophatic theology is a semi-transparent halo around the composition of Cloud Cover. For all Barthesian metaphors about the author as god (consult the old chestnut, ‘The Death of the Author’), we can approach this text as we approach a sense of the cloud itself as a place of constant dwelling. This is to know we can never fully grasp in reason the ‘meaning’ imparted from the author as a godlike entity; my experience of this is that the author as the reader’s projected entity begins to dissolve, which makes space for generative interpretations of the text. The author is never quite one thing, but a chiaroscuro of forms and varying voices, registers: as Keats says of the chameleon-like ‘negative capability’ of poetic character, ‘[it] is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade’.

The negative capability of cloud writing might be a weathering sense of fluctuation, fullness, emptying and adaptation that is as much about climate as the ambience of textuality and the physical properties of the book. I think of Josef Albers’ series, Homage to the Square (began in 1950 and ongoing for 26 years, until his death), which uses variations on a basic compositional scheme of squares inside squares to showcase experiments in perceptual intricacy. Of the paintings, he wrote: ‘They all are of different palettes, and therefore, so to speak, of different climates. Choice of the colours used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction – influencing and changing each other forth and back’. Where Albers plays with colour, Thomas plays with chiaroscuro and the appearance of language; a similar sensation of back-and-forth, or mirror-play, is effected. Each square interacts with the other: reading itself is an event of contingency yet carefully held in the book’s language system, a micro-climate.

Back-to-front, front-to-back: Cloud Cover can be read at all kinds of angle, the way that rain falls out of a cloud depending on the wind’s direction. Sometimes the way it catches your eye, the words slip around others: you might get clover, clod, cove, covet. In this refractive trick, we stay in the shape of a letter; the eye darts between the voluptuous promise of ‘v’, the portal of ‘o’, the doubling curves of ‘c’ — a kind of dithering (in the computational sense of intentionally applying noise to randomise quantization error) code. What is this ‘little love’ of which The Cloud of Unknowing speaks, not quite a jewel or a relic — something weighted, of quantitative value ­— but an inchoate sensation of what Robertson might call ‘erotics’ and what we might otherwise call reading, desire or indeed devotion. Nilling also leans into ‘milling’: as in, to mill around, to waste time, to move around in a confused mass, a crowd; or to break solid materials into smaller pieces. ‘The inchoate state’ of which Robertson evokes as a readerly one ‘isn’t knowledge at all’, but ‘a timely dallying and surge among a cluster of minute identifications’, a processing. In reading, we might become ‘unknowable’ to ourselves among the noise and interference of sense’s excess, its perceptive flickers, its uncanny divisions, its hermeneutic weathering (I borrow the term ‘weathering’ from Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis). ‘Milling’ is also a word from photochemical machining, denoting processes involved in photographic engraving. With its tracing paper etching and its boxed presentation, Cloud Cover draws attention to the concrete associations between material and symbolic engraving — if cloud were a name, what or who would it cover? Could we somehow wear it, or would it wear us? Like Thomas’ book, the strangeness of Nilling is the way it encapsulates this experience of division, break, scattering, meandering, and the constant potential of dissolve, of nothing, of aggregation and disaggregation. To read it is to experience a kind of rain.

If clouds rain, their outline is blurred into further obscurity. ‘The Problem of the Many’ is Peter Unger’s philosophical underpinning for nihilism: a proposition that nothing exists, including the philosopher. The problem proposes that we can never be quite sure of the definitional field of a cloud, since the dispersion of water droplets (which compose the cloud) is ‘a gradual matter’: ‘the boundaries of a cloud are a lot less sharp up close than they appear on the ground’. ‘And what holds for clouds holds for anything whose boundaries look less clear the closer you look’. At what point does a meadow stop being a meadow, when you remove its wildflowers, its birds, its grasses? Its constituent parts are somewhat nebulous. At what point does a cloud rain itself into nothing? Whether we agree with Unger about where this argument takes us, clearly the problem is a compelling one for the descriptive arts of poetry (cf. Timothy Donnelly’s recent collection, The Problem of the Many (2019)) and painting. In Theory of /Cloud/ (2002), Hubert Damisch argues that in Western art, ‘a proliferation of clouds […] signals the beginning of the dissolution of the text’. With its concertina formation (cf. Joseph Bathanti’s Concertina: Poems (2013) or the endless play of Etel Adnan’s accordion/leporello texts), Cloud Cover teases us with a cause-and-effect unfolding of linear time; but refuses this narrative structure in its cloudy, grey-skied tracing paper, its subtle repetitions, its sense of clustering and etched recapitulations. Tracing itself hinges deliciously between presence and absence, the original and the copy, definition and dissolve, the moment of writing and reading as a repertoire of mutual fold.

And all this folded neatly into a jewellery box. I am thinking of a Laynie Browne poem, ‘Protector #2 Your Personal Amulet’, where ‘This sonnet is your personal amulet / To be worn in instance of need / Or constantly held in the mind’. Perhaps there is something meditative and protective about Cloud Cover: we play with its folds and flickers as a way of staying in that space of the negative, swathing ourselves in its cover. A concrete poetry of process and reversal, Cloud Cover is a portable talisman, a miniature tab that opens into the wider text of The Cloud of Unknowing. And that cloud without definition that halos each reading, containing all, not to be entirely held, unknown. As I write this, the light glints; it starts to rain. What I want to say is obscured.

Cloud Cover is out now and available to order from Essence Press.


Text: Maria Sledmere Image: Essence Press Published: 30/3/21


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