My handwriting has always been execrable. Cramped, crabbed, sotted, befuggled. Never mattered how hard I tried – after the first few sentences, the forms collapsed into a grapheme porridge pretty much only I could read, and even I only mostly.
I always thought it was impatience – hand not keeping up with thought. I was just too smart for my own embodiment! is how my thinking went. My a’s lost their stems and decayed into c’s, my f’s forgot their cross strokes and masqueraded as long l’s, my p’s omitted to close their loops, all were just too keen to get on to, well, to whatever came next.
I open my journal at random for an example and come upon notes for the course that gave birth to this blog.
Egypt/n Book of the Dead
y is hell underground? b/c that’s where rot is
the ecological imperative – to make also highest the lowest on the foodchain – the microbes + maggots that discompose the corpse
Ex: invent a verbal decay process and enact it
Ex: build a poem out of recycled objects / objs in yr recycling bin. (e.g. collage of beer bottle labels; contrap/n of cut coop plastic)
Around the new year I revisited Dumuzi to overhaul and conclude him and made a discovery. In certain brief and to me potent inscriptions I found I wanted to drop my descender hard and strike my cross stroke fast.
Something, in those moments, that had been chained felt freed, an energy. The stroke could go as long hard far high fast wide as it wanted. As I wanted. As it in me wanted out of me. And what else happened was the rest of my hand began to clarify. The above is hardly beautiful but you don’t need my translation of it.
As if, in letting those flights of energy forth, the rest of my script could quiet down, take time to make the mark in the time given to make the mark. I felt I had felt Olson’s projective for the first time at the nerve ends – as matter in, of, motion.
I tried it out more general. And Dumuzi got altered lots by it – rather shockingly naked journal pages, and junk mail scraps inscribed with myth bits in a hand that feels a bit cuneiform a bit calligraphy a bit graffiti.
But my thought here isn’t to rehash that. It’s first to acknowledge just how bloody hard it is to work with handwriting – the deep habit our script is in us. And second, just quick, to give a few pics of how I’ve worked since with script, my scriptural breakthrough.
These are from Overject, a translation project I’ve recently brought back into the shop for smashdown and overhaul. The source text is a really rather minor poem from The Exeter Book, a miscellany of Old English poetry with a few real knockouts – “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “The Ruin” – and a lot of stuff not much translated.
The one I’m working with is often called “Maxims” or “Gnomic Verses” but I’ve called it “Proverbs.” There’s something about its mix of sententious piety and anxious disjunction that strikes me as prematurely postmodern.
Proverb ia Disject a, tries to release the anxious poem from the pious poem by means of wayward translation methods.
The first method is diplomatic transcription. Usually that means going from manuscript to typescript, getting as best you can the peculiar individual features of inscription into the uniformity of typesetting. Like drugging clowns to dress them in army fatigues!
My approach is different. I translate the handwriting of the Exeter scribe into my own handwriting. Here’s the scribe’s version:
Takes me three passes to get to my version. On the first, I do the script I told you of, let all the energy into ascenders, descenders, cross strokes they want. And damn but don’t it feel nice to.
You’ll notice, three lines from the bottom, leftmost character, I’ve translated the scribe’s sleepiness. Not by translating some error directly, no slavish copying here, but by allowing my momentary inattention, my slip of a modern “w” where I should have writ the rune ƿ (wynn, “joy”), to stand and be overwrit, just as the scribe has done elsewhere (e for æ, say) when he’s drifted off.
How subtle this translation process gets. Best to go slow, not to assume anything, the least stroke might paralyze you.
Second pass is to set, roughly, the outlines of the characters.
Third fills them in. This is the fussy part. If at the start it’s quick expressive sweeps of the pen – I toss the sheet and start over if I’ve got too in my head (the Sharpie is a perfect compass) – at the end it’s meticulous distribution of microns of ink, glasses off, eyes a couple inches from the receptive surface (and still I eff it up in six places).
Not an improvement, nor deprovement, from dear anon’s, nor proof of no sort, but a difference. But a difference that makes a difference? Amn’t sure yet. I think it’s a base text, ground for sthg. more to grow upon, not sure what, annotation, emendation, error compounded upon error … well, stay tuned, if you wish.
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