It may not fill a centuries-old Wunderkammer, but Visible: Text + Image (Two Line Press, 2022) is still a cabinet of curiosities. Between its covers is an eccentric collection of hybrid marvels — poems, fiction, and essays in translation, combined with altered and documentary photographs, graphics, and even mud drawings — that idiosyncratically explore how memory captures the visual, and vice versa.
The anthology fittingly opens with a latter-day rewrite of René Magritte’s “Les Mots et les Images,” an explainer originally published in a 1929 issue of La Révolution surréaliste. Many of Magritte’s works could be considered proto-memes; here, the writer and artist Verónica Gerber Bicecci updates his ideas on the interplay of word and image for our times — the “age of the calligram.” This charming and challenging graphic essay, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, contends that now, more than ever, “The image-text relationship is inescapable. In fact, there is no difference between them, only a problem known as logocentrism.” The project of Visible, inasmuch as it has a discernible goal (genuine art being goal-defiant), is to demolish the categories of word and image entirely. In their place is situated the notion of a single written (visible) language that observes both constituents as fundamentally identical: symbols that manifest meaning.
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In “Step of a Feral Cat,” a story whose narrator as well as its subject are unreliable, Marie NDiaye writes in the voice of a contemporary writer who professes to be writing a book about Maria Martínez, a Black Cuban guitarist and singer who attained brief celebrity in Europe in the mid-19th century. She may or may not be the subject of the Nadar portraits, one of which is reproduced here, of one “Maria l’Antillaise.” And the narrator may or may not actually be writing a book. Her aim is to resuscitate an unjustly forgotten figure — one who was the recipient of shockingly racist disparagement in the press, and who ultimately disappeared into the shadows of time — thereby heralding her own authorial brilliance. She means to expose the singer’s “own insolent genius, offering to the world the forgotten, enigmatic, and poignant profile of a talented and martyred woman, all while revealing the audacity, the perspicacity, the luminous vision of the author herself through the splendor of her narrative as well as by the very fact that she had chosen such a subject.”
As adroitly rendered from the French by translator Victoria Baena, the story ever so slyly reveals her ambition itself as fictional: when a Martínez doppelgänger stalks the would-be writer, she is unmasked by her guilt as a speculative author only — and coincidentally a consumer of cocaine and gin and tonics to the exclusion of all else. In turn she becomes consumed by jealousy and frustration. The Nadar portrait retains its stony silence while reader and narrator pursue their winding journeys to an unreachable destination. The narrator’s putative subject, like that of the lush photograph, disappears in the course of appearing.
The nature of invisibility, and the paradox of how it always makes itself discernable, is embedded in the form of Yi SangWoo’s experimental “As boats and buses go by,” translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won. Filaments of different stories break and regroup, blank pages interrupting the flow as if we are riders on the conveyance of literature, our view of the passing landscape momentarily blocked by looming structures out the window. Then we regain the vista of the story, but first we must reorient ourselves to the storyline we were in just before entering the tunnel. His story is “illustrated,” in a distant sense of the term, with a portfolio of six paintings done in mud by South African multimedia artist Dineo Seshee Bopape. The images are from a series that responds to “As boats and buses go by”; it is titled Convoluted Story, which constitutes truth in advertising. The paintings are ostensibly simple serpentine monochromes, but as we have twigged by now, there is always more than meets the eye in Visible.
Another of the book’s six contributions attempts to revivify a lost past through family photos, the sole remaining evidence of a Polish Jewish community eradicated by Nazis. This excerpt from “The Pepper Forgers” by Monika Sznajderman, translated by Scotia Gilroy, laments the impossibility of recuperating the past: “All these different realities, these lost worlds of mine, accumulate within this photograph and pile up ….”
Rodrigo Flores Sánchez’s “Closed Window” (translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers) addresses this wistful fact — that time narrows the windows through which we access memories — in poems and eerily altered photos. No matter if they were modified by accident, on purpose, or by being misplaced or misremembered; Sánchez implies that the changed pictures change the past itself. In “Celestial Bodies” the poet writes,
I pinned thumbtacks Into photos Into the eyes of all the photographs It was a strategy To forget about myself or else To shine a little ... They must be around here somewhere I'll find them in a drawer Were I keep Black holes
The final selection combines a translation from the French (by Eric Fishman) of writing from the Martiniquan writer Monchoachi, accompanied by arresting black and white documentary photographs by fellow Martiniqauan David Damoison. Depicting community, diaspora, and difference in France, the book’s final piece brings us back to earth, but a locale changed by the route we have taken to get here.
It is appropriate that a collection of multifarious works translated from many languages — Spanish, French, Korean, Polish — concerns cross-translation from the visual to the logocentric, and back again. Seeing is believing … that there are many ways to see.
Visible is a mystery about a mystery. And who doesn’t love a good mystery?
Visible: Text + Image, edited by Sarah Coolidge (2022), is published by Two Lines Press and is available online and in independent bookstores.