(REVIEW) Surface Tension, by Derek Beaulieu
Greg Thomas frames Derek Beaulieu’s new book of processual, photocopier poems Surface Tension (Coach House Books, 2022) within the trajectory of the ‘arrière-garde’, post-internet concrete poetics, Bob Cobbing’s trio of ‘collected poems’, and the contemporary symbolism of advertising.
‘Poets owe nothing to ‘poetry’, least of all deference.’ Derek Beaulieu, ‘A Poem Should Not Mean,’ Surface Tension, Coach House, 2022. ‘A fundamental mistake is to regard poetry as a branch of literature. It is not. It is best regarded as one of the performing arts.’ Bob Cobbing, ‘What the Tape-Recorder Teaches the Poet.’ Typescript, 1985. [Papers of Bob Cobbing, British Library, London.]
Concrete poetry of the 1950s-60s has been defined by Marjorie Perloff as ‘arrière-garde’: as a branch of experimental literature (or intermedia art) that collated and shored up the advances of the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes by presenting them in condensed, self-reflexive forms. Such an idea explains the tendency, in influential early statements such as the Noigandres group’s ‘Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry’, to ‘treat…the propositions of the earlier avant-garde with respect bordering on reverence’.
If this interest in shoring up has led, in diluted form, to one too many ‘homage to…’-type concrete poems, which can feel fusty and alienating to the non-initiate, the idea of the arrière-garde also opens up the more magnanimous possibility of a living network of 21st-century, post-concrete poetries, that would consume and proliferate their late-20th-century origins. All of this is a long-winded way of framing Derek Beaulieu’s decision to present this new book of processual, Letraset and photocopier poems in the diminutive square format used for Bob Cobbing’s (1920-2002) classic trio of ‘collected poems’. Suitably enough, the first of these, Bill Jubobe, was put out by Beaulieu’s Canadian publisher Coach House in 1976 (Bob Jubile followed in 1990 and Kob Bok in 1999, both from English presses.)
That gesture is a less integral marker of influence than the various statements reworking the ‘Pilot Plan’ and other pronouncements of early concrete that appear in Beaulieu’s gnomic, fragmentary accompanying essays. Compare ‘Literature is not craftsmanship but an industrial process where the poem is a prototype rather than artistry’ (‘Form is Never More than an Extension of Content’) to Haroldo de Campos’s (1929-2003) definition of concrete poetry, ‘not as craftsmanship but…as an industrial process. Its product is a prototype, not the typical handiwork of individual artistry’.That example aside, however, Beaulieu seems less engaged by Haroldo’s minimalist, post-Productivist concrete poetics than by the messy, improvisational, performative tradition embodied by Cobbing. (This is not just a matter of the non-legibility of both poets work as framed by the statements prefixing this review.)
True enough, across several pages of this book we find beautifully precise, balletic arrangements of Letraset type (such as ‘Euphemia Asleep’), which retain a certain constructivist rigour in their symmetrical and palindromic forms. But these long-form pieces are subjected, across their later stages, to a kind of productive mutation: manoeuvred across the photocopier plate they start to stretch and bubble, spreading like molten metal or pools of industrial run-off. Such effects, strongly reminiscent of Cobbing’s photocopier poems of the 1980s-90s, are most obvious in the gorgeous, finely-striated long poem ‘Dendrochronology’, in which lines of type seem to mingle with the strata of layered page-ends to create a contoured, topographical poesis. Over the last few pages, we seem to be zooming in ever closer on a particular point on the map, as if seeking out the microscopic life dwelling on the typographic steppe. Again, all this is all redolent of Cobbing, specifically the sequential logic of his book-length photocopier poems, which often home in with ever more granular detail on a particular spot on the reproduced page.
In Cobbing’s case, the ‘processual’ tag applied to his photocopier work signified a sense of poetic composition as an ongoing, endlessly unfolding mixed-media creative process. A single ‘poem’ would be birthed across multiple visual, sonic, and embodied planes, so that the original form often became buried or irrelevant. It’s clear that Beaulieu adheres to a similar credo through the visual reworkings of his poems that proliferate online, albeit sound-based performance seems less central. As he notes in ‘Form is Never More Than An Extension of Content,’ ‘photocopiers don’t just reproduce invoices and documents, they introduce beauty and sway, noise and reverb.’
But perhaps a more interesting subtext to Beaulieu’s incremental manipulation and distortion is the critical position it suggests on the contemporary symbolism of advertising. In ‘All that Signifies can be Sold’, Beaulieu asserts – echoing various pronouncements of Eugen Gomringer’s – that ‘like a logo, a poem should be instantly recognizable…The McDonald’s golden arches, the Nike swoosh, and the Apple logo, best represent the aims of contemporary poets.’ In a world where ‘logos consciously wash over us,’ why not ‘let poetry do the same’? ‘Why not create a logo advertising modern poetry modern art?’
The lack of critical friction implied here with the languages of capitalist persuasion – with symbolic systems that have coaxed us to the brink of ecological collapse – might well seem problematic. But the point is that the poet ‘can swerve the beauty away from the sales pitch’. By Beaulieu’s account, these little mirrored ciphers, these webs of transfer decal re-coded as lacquered toner, draw on the shopper’s desire for instant comprehension, the quick sales pitch, without rewarding our accompanying, interpolated desire for consumption. We are given beauty – on hyperactive, 21st-century terms – but denied for our own good the illusion of reward: of purchase, of the consummated desire that beauty tempts us with. There is nothing to sell here: or, as Beaulieu puts it, sounding like Mallarmé: ‘Poems are…the advertising logos for the shops and corporations that are just beyond reach’ (‘All that Signifies Can Be Sold’.) 
It’s not clear what, if any, the next step in this rewiring of consumerist yearning might be—nor, therefore, whether the political impetus behind these poems can be seen as useful. But such statements present Surface Tension as something more than visual surplus or froth. These are poems to be feasted on, mopped up, slid across, but they also seek out a critical response. They are anti-advertisements, logos for non-existent products, palindromic mirrors held up to the bottomless pool of our longing.
 Cf. Mallarme’s ‘flower absent from every bouquet’ in “Crisis in Poetry.” The use of outmoded technologies such as letter-transfer and old-school toner photocopiers seems to be connected to this refusal to adopt the languages of advertising precisely. “Letraset, for example, is now mainly used by scrapbookers and hobbyists,” Beaulieu informs us in “Madge, You’re Soaking In it.”
Text: Greg Thomas
Images: Cover Image: Coach House Books, All Other Images: Derek Beaulieu