about:blank, by Adam Wyeth, Salmon Poetry, 116 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1915022028
Adam Wyeth has previously published four critically acclaimed books with Salmon Poetry, in various genres – poetry: Silent Music (highly commended for the Forward Prize) and The Art of Dying (an Irish Times Book of the Year), essays: The Hidden World of Poetry: Unravelling Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry, and drama: This is What Happened. An audio production of about:blank premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival, performed by Olwen Fouere, Owen Roe and Paula McGlinchey (disclosure here – yes, that’s my sister). So it’s not surprising to find that his most recent publication is a hybrid of genres.
Divided into four parts relating to the seasonal Celtic festivals, the book is written in the form of poetry, prose, monologue and dialogue. The beauty of its form is that it so perfectly marries the content – fragments of writing about fragments of consciousness. The text is often flush left or flush right, with hieroglyphs – enfolded leaves and hearts, a raindrop, a house – accompanying each titled section. Other visually stylistic devices include condensed overlapping text, paler mirrored text and redactions.
The arresting cover image shows the amber eye and velvety black pelt of a panther, echoed in negative form a few pages in. An element of the book is this balancing of opposites: an image and its echo; internal/external, animus/anima, visible surfaces/hidden depths.
As with a Google search page, about:blank suggests an empty space, implicitly waiting to be populated. Wyeth does this by beginning with what the narrator sees through his window, gradually spinning this image outwards to embody glimpses of the city and its inhabitants, and to attribute thoughts and feelings to them. Feeling his way gradually, via these multiple perspectives, the narrator finds that he is exploring the slipperiness of identity, examining the very nature of self and perception in this ambitious experimental work.
I had the sense that all the conjured characters represent aspects of the writer’s self, including the animals: a missing cat, a caged panther, a lone swan. Another recurring “character” is the (solitary) moon. The setting is Dublin, but although familiar places are mentioned – Rathmines, Portobello, Grosvenor Square, Rialto, Dublin Zoo – the city’s physicality is barely present, or at least, its pulsing, crowded, noisy citiness isn’t. In any case, our primary interest is in the interior life of the speaker(s). We are witnessing “a mind thinking”, to use Elizabeth Bishop’s expression, or, as Wyeth puts it, “darts of thinking”. Windows and mirrors appear frequently, and it is through and out of (the barrier of) these that the world is viewed. However fragmented and unallocated the narrative might be, its fluidity echoes the canal, as well as the meanderings of a mind traversing the city via image, dream, reflection, observation, intuition, emotion.
To go back to the original speaker looking out of his window. What does he see?
He observes a man getting into / or out of his car. The man locks it and walks away, then realises he’s forgotten something and goes back. We don’t see what he goes back to fetch, or if in fact he found what he was looking for. But the act is a symbolic one, as the point of view swivels at this point, and the observed stranger becomes the “I” – something that recurs throughout this collaged narrative.
In the prologue, we meet an immigrant leaving a charity shop. In the subsequent sections, we see a homeless person on a park bench, a girl under a tree, the speaker sitting at a canal bank, a writer-neighbour on the other side of railings, a woman glimpsed through the window of a passing bus. For the most part, images are of nature, usually in “tamed”, contained or framed form: the roses in a suburban garden, animals in a zoo, the swan on the canal. Aside from a couple, the characters are solitary, or outsiders, like Wyeth himself.
Some of the strangers are given names and existences manifested. We flicker into the mind of one, then another. The anonymous woman on the bus becomes Claire, and the pedestrian who glimpses her from the street is named Stephen. From both an interior and an exterior point of view, the reader experiences a form of sublimated voyeurism: “Claire’s aware that … Something seen is something taken.’
Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and his Modernist masterpiece The Waste Land come to mind as unacknowledged but arguably central sources of inspiration, with similar patterning of the text and similar mythological references: “When the fisher king eats too soon / he suffers a mortal wound.”
The allusion to the fisher king’s “wound” opens up the narrative themes to wider interpretations. In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King, also known as the Wounded, or Maimed King, is the last in a long bloodline charged with keeping the Holy Grail. The “wound” (a sword pierced his thigh) is usually understood to refer to the king’s “castration” or impotence – his loss of vitality, his inability to reproduce an heir to take over the guardianship of the Holy Grail. His impotence has also affected the fertility of the land, turning it into a wasteland. So, he turns to fishing instead. There are deeper and wider meanings too: the Fisher King is also associated with the hero’s journey towards self-knowledge.
Like Eliot’s hesitant Prufrock, the speaker in about:blank grapples with existential questions and doubts. But while the characteristics of Modernism include a sense of urban alienation, self-interrogation and the quest for identity, and we see all these themes in about:blank, we also witness an attempt to empathise, to become “one” with other characters.
“I have known the eyes, known them all,” says Prufrock. In about:blank, we are constantly drawn to eyes, to the act of seeing, not only from the point of view of the protagonist but from perceived strangers’ perspectives too. Viewpoints circle and coil back on themselves, until finally, the world itself is looking through our eyes.
This clever multi-perspective was initially used in an early, Forward-shortlisted poem of Wyeth’s, “Google Earth”. It’s a perspective that also recalls Jorie Graham’s approach. Her focus throughout all her collections is on the perceiving subject as well as the perceived world. She also experiments with linguistic structures in which to pay attention to the world as it is played through the mind and vice versa. These ideas of self, world, perception and language all lie at the heart of about:blank.
To draw awareness to the complex overlapping themes, there are no fewer than ten quotations at the beginning, from Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, James Hillman, Carl Jung, Robert A Johnson, Clarice Lispector, Joseph Campbell, Norbert Weiner and Harold Pinter. While this extensive list is an acknowledgment of influences, Wyeth’s wide-armed embrace of serious subject matters is a light one, his signature punning wit occasionally adding levity to otherwise serious questions:
Headlights, ghost trails chasing the dark knight of the soul
… perhaps she’s averse to her verse ‑ Ha!
Other repeated images are punned too; for example, the various meanings of motifs such as “coin”, “rose” and “stick” are all played on. Puns and decontextualised clichés (another favourite) can be risky devices, but Wyeth just manages to toe the line between impishness and seriousness. At one point, there’s a play on his own name, reaching for the finger of God:
A figure bends down and hands me a cold drink.
I lift my arm towards it, Adam reaching for God
in the Sistine Chapel as if all life depended on this fizz
So it isn’t too far-fetched to speculate that the title is intended as a pun too, and this collection is a manifesto, or self-portrait of the writer’s own psyche: about:adam
I realise everything that I
thought I was
is just the surface, and that what is true is blank. (my italics)
Ironically, by simply enacting those words on a page, the author erases blankness. And, as writers know, our own personal syntax reveals an integral aspect of our identity.
If language is one defining “vehicle”, a car is another. In about:blank, it becomes another “character” or motif: it’s a cat prowling the streets. It is female, and male. It’s a capsule. The steering wheel symbolises the cyclical journey, returning again and again to the same questions.
One question about:blank asks is how to sound out the body’s dark hollows on a “verbal contraption” (as Auden described it). Language is seen to be limited, to show only one aspect of the writer’s intentions, evoking Prufrock’s question: ‘What is it that I miss?’
Words must be some kind of cybernetic hoax
There is no way
you are going to grasp
what I first imagined,
and second set out to express.
Has language altered our reality
that we move in a hall of mirrors…?
According to Wyeth’s Calvino quotation: “The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language … what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.”
Certainly, language appears to be failing the characters in about:blank. Where attempted conversations do occur, such as with Stephen and Medbh, or Stephen and the writer-neighbour, there is a disconnect between the characters, who speak at cross purposes, much like Beckett’s two characters in Waiting for Godot, or Pinter’s two couples around a table in his screenplay of Langrishe, Go Down, a novel by Aidan Higgins.
Words on a page can be aided, of course, by the use of myth, motif and transference. In the real world, language may be all we have. We feel that the primary speaker in about:blank is agonising between making a decision (the phrase “very soon I will open my mouth and say something” is repeated over and over, in smaller and smaller print) or ignoring the “something” that “happened” (or didn’t) and taking refuge in the “womb” of familiarity instead.
He is experiencing a crisis, a fear of missing out on the “fizz” of life, that in about:blank is conveyed by a feline presence – or absence. As well as the disappeared domestic black cat, there’s also a black panther in the zoo, who symbolises the caged beast in us all:
Every inch of it
exhibited burning instinct
thick panting blankness bore into her.
Elsewhere in the narrative, the speaker is concerned about retrieving “the internal feminine” and the “forsaken masculine”: “The coming together of two primal forces / (which) breaks the binary into multiple voices.” This is a voice resisting the binary, trying to reclaim both feminine and masculine aspects of themselves.
During Stephen’s encounter with the writer-neighbour, “They look at each other, something crosses between, and that something is an animal.” As well as the obvious sexual frisson here, implicit also is the idea that, by tapping into the feminine aspects of the writerly self, that elusive “panther” might be roused.
Mostly, it is what remains unspoken – subterranean, hidden, primal – that feels key to the entire work: “all those coats in the closet”, while elsewhere, “our thoughts, like old water, continue to stir”.
Weaving through the textured text, one key message is both poignant and sincere:
I’ve been dithering in the dark all my life
cooped up in a womb
Part of the quotation from Carl Jung suggests that, like the life of a plant, “true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome”.
Wyeth seems to agree:
a ribbon of wind begins to hint at what cannot be known
When poetry is poetry, nothing is said; it’s nature itself keeping watch.
And yet, at the same time, a certain confiding intimacy allows for emotional resonance and reader access, particularly when we witness a personal crisis of conscience:
Can you close the door on the person who brought
to the threshold in the first place? The moment from
side of the mind to the other, from the
bottom of the body to the top, from the quotidian
of milk and bread at the corner shop to a
At times, we, the readers, are addressed, and the writer makes us complicit both as voyeurs and as characters:
What does this glimpse tell us about ourselves?
It tells us what we want to hear. It tells us we are on the bus, having been
glimpsed by someone on the street.
There may be a faint picture within you now and yet I have not
mentioned any distinctive details.
The final poem in the collection introduces a kind of transcendence where a thirteenth century young Muslim scholar meets a stranger, whose question to him remains one of the great mysteries. But it provokes a lesson in long silence, after which the scholar learns to access the powerful medium of meditation, and to “become” “the lover, the beggar, / the parched earth, the unfurling flower”.
Genre-bending, confessional, speculative, self-conscious, textured, analytical, about:blank is as poignant and complicated as identity itself. More than that, it’s a writer’s journey and also an exploration of the complexities of our relationship to each other and to the world. Wyeth is adept at sustaining impetus while gesturing towards moments of profound feeling alongside structures of questing thought. By portraying different subjective positions via his narrators, he is able to accommodate multi-faceted ideas, and the attentive reader will find things here that feel importantly true of the human psyche.
Afric McGlinchey’s most recent publication is Tied to the Wind, a hybrid memoir of a nomadic childhood, published by Broken Sleep Books: https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/product-page/afric-mcglinchey-tied-to-the-wind