What does a successful merging of craft and concept look like in the letterpress book? Is it possible to make a book whose contents and presentation instigates conversation of sorts with the craft of letterpress printing, that is not distracting or dismissive of skill or of the driving content behind the book? At “The Hybrid Book: Intersection + Intermedia” conference earlier this month in Philadelphia, I took the opportunity to talk about Inge Bruggeman’s Simple Harmonic Motions (2001), as an example of a letterpress book that, beyond satisfying its content, brings into play ideas about craft, art and letterpress printing.
Every so often I will present a profile on this blog that describes a favorite letterpress book, either one I have long admired, or a book that has recently caught my attention. Bruggeman's book resides in both categories, because whenever I spend time with it, it sends my thinking in new directions.
Simple Harmonic Motions, carries poetry by Hank Lazer, and is printed from polymer plates. Because the book acts as a vehicle for literature, a reader might be lulled into an expectation of the book delivering just that--a satisfying typographical presentation of literature. Once a reader begins to page through Simple Harmonic Motions, however, he or she finds that the book integrates multiple sign systems, both literal and implied, and employs a surprising strategy to question assumptions about a letterpress, literature, and reading.
Bruggeman seeks to bridge the divide between sound and vision, between the silent perusal and the poetic performance. The title page introduces a spherical motif, carried throughout the book, that echoes the dimension of the mini-disc held enclosed: the spoken. Along the bottom runs the verbal equivalent of Morse code, in some combination of: dah-dah-dah dah-dit. Its syncopated character echoes the rhythmic word play in Lazer’s poetry, as when the first stanza ends, “thelonius all alone.”
Here is letterpress delivering systems of meaning that collide or reflect, each seeking to convey thought into the air and the reader’s ear and mind, through language, image, and sound.
Once the poetry begins, the Morse code converts to dots and dashes, as if to remove literary competition, although the sounds of the dots and dashes reverberate in the reader’s subconscious. Along the top edge of the page runs photocopy transfers of sound waves. The text of Lazer’s poetry, presented in a spare typography, carries handwritten annotations that post-date its printing. Periodically in place of a poem Bruggeman presents an image of a mouth, speaking, caught within the circlet, a collage of texturized photographs and charted sound patterns.
And at the end of Simple Harmonic Motions, Bruggeman closes the circle, by making an endless book and delivering a surprise. We complete the poems and turn the last page to find….a second title page!
Here, Lazer’s name is gone; this is Bruggeman’s version, and the sound waves above carry us into this second sequence, anchored by the mystery of an unreadable text. Bruggeman has reprinted the poems in a smudged state, breaking typographic rules, refusing comprehension. Now the “dah dah dit dit” reappears along with the collages, as these alter-languages advance into prominence. If we wish to solve the puzzle, Lazer’s handwritten dates remain, and lead us to the same dates on each poem’s original presentation, which happens to be--on the exact opposite of the page.
Why present this secondary unreadable stream, which appears cloaked, held back?Perhaps it serves as a subconscious echo of the original reading, of what remains buried, as we try to recall a poem months later. For me, any effect is heightened by the fact of the printing medium of letterpress, accompanied by its historical connotations with classical typography