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Review of Crayon Poems by SJ Fowler (Penteract Press, 2020)

Colin Herd

"But even as I speak, I put the wax by the fire, and look: the residual taste is eliminated, the smell goes away, the colour changes, the shape is lost, the size increases; it becomes liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it, and if you strike it, it no longer makes a sound. But does the same wax remain? It must be admitted that it does; no one denies it, no one thinks otherwise. So what was it in the wax that I understood with such distinctness? Evidently none of the features which I arrived at by means of the senses; for whatever came under taste, smell, sight, touch or hearing has altered - yet the wax remains."


- Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

Descartes went nuts for the materiality of wax, captivated by its plasticity, impermanence, changeability, metamorphosis. It's not surprising. Wax as a material is so suggestively malleable, so excitingly soft.

These same qualities characterise the poems in SJ Fowler's new book Crayon Poems from Penteract Press: the scrawl and rub, the imprint and the residue, the smush. Wax is a material with a memory (it can take your finger print), it can seal a letter. And in the hands of SJ Fowler it can create the most exciting weird textures and forms.   

Perhaps the most obsessive, rich and full study of the materiality of wax is Michelle E Bloom's Waxworks: A Cultural Obsession (2003). There's a section in that where Bloom considers Ovid's Pygmalion and the ways in which "the dissolution of wax" is linked to the "dissolution of gender boundaries" (45). In Fowler's Crayon Poems I feel like gender and a lot of other socially constructed strictures besides are constantly being dissolved, melted, in the thrilling greasy, waxy scrawls. The book is populated by genderless bodies and faces that look linguistic as much as anything else, saturated with the animated loops of script.  

There's one piece, for example, called 'Way Overboard', in which a scrawl of letters congeals for me into "Water Board Confessions", "Water Bard Confessions", and "Watl baro confessions", with what could be three alphabet-creatures, teeth and eyes and tails in a squeeling "eee" I don't know what they're frightened of? Themselves?  Like Stephen Ratcliffe said of the drawing poems of Robert Grenier in Fowler's Crayon Poems, the "words are also physically in space". And because of that suddenly the kinds of tidy neat meaning arrangements we're so used to start to melt, bleed, congeal, emulsify etc. I think of these poems as events of a sort - they convey an immediacy of composition - the event of the drawing itself - but they also need to be sort of rubbed, felt with the eyes, in the event of the reading (as all poems do). 

In another Crayon Poem, "Visual Rinse Wig", a green and blue fretwork of o's and smileys also includes a dr's note scribble: I think I can make out "it's good" or "I like chaos" or "to be good", "other" "commas", "another person's freeze"  

In an accompanying essay, Fowler emphasises crayons through their associations with childhood, the child-like freedom to "do text without planning": "If creatureliness drives the images in this book, then wonder drives the text"

Lynn Maxwell has also emphasised this aspect of wax as a material in the brilliant book Wax Impressions: "we notice that it almost has a prelapsarian status". 

I love this artwork by Cy Twombly and the accompanying poem by Ross Gay. The phrase in the interview with Gay is "nestiness". Oh I love that word in relation to Twombly's drawing but also these drawing poems by Fowler. Nestiness, which also suggests messiness, nastiness, and nesting - text maybe too somehow although I am not sure how. This sense of gathering a waxy scrawl around oneself for protection. 

Another wonderful artist of the crayon is Minnie Evans. And while he worked in coloured accountant's pencils rather than crayons, I also saw a connection here with the work of Frank Jones, whose spatial visions of creatures are haunting, moving and somehow liberating.  

It's hard to know what to make of these gorgeous poems other than to wonder at their spiralling, insistent forms. 

After reading this book a few times now, I feel like I have been left in a hot car to melt for a while: my mind is an oily, joyful, lipid goo. 

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