Typography: Prosthetic Hand (Reflections on Ronald Johnson’s Ark)

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Ronald Johnson’s long poem Ark is organized around the architectural metaphor of a utopian monument, a sort of grand midwestern Watts tower, erected on the plains of Kansas. Its major sections include beams, spires, pillars, and arches, not to mention its culminating radio-transmitting dymaxion dome atop the whole.

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Yet for all the grandeur of its design, there is one section that has always intrigued me most, and which insists on its elemental manual character: Beam 18, which is simply a hand print:

Ronald Johnson, Beam 18, from Ark

Ronald Johnson, Beam 18, from Ark

Is this to be understood as a poem, like the other numbered sections, a poetic text in which the inky graphic traces of the hand represent a sort of abstract interlacement and metrical form?  Or is it intended to exhibit the sheer virtuality of poesis dwelling in the biologically evolved human hand, which in turn metaphorically refers to the civilizational, history-founding, city-building techne of architecture?  Is it an “image,” intended simply as an intriguing visual illustration to the text? Or is its primary character that of an “index,” a device for pointing, like a typographer’s mark–

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–a way of drawing our attention to the hand of the author as poetry’s architectonic “foundation,” as Johnson calls the first third of his poem.  Is it the unique, autobiographical signature of the author upon his text, continuous with it yet other than text?  And is this a poem to be “read” at all?  What would “reading” a handprint mean?

One author has suggested that Johnson’s handprint in Ark is connected with his practice as a concrete poet: “For many years, Johnson identified himself as a Concrete poet; the handprint derives from Concrete poetic practice. Later in ARK Johnson ‘writes through’ the Psalms of the Bible and calls the results ‘Palms’.”  (For this remark, see: http://unknownhypertext.com/ark.htm.)  I think this is certainly true for Johnson, but it still begs the question: what is the relation between the imagistic and typographical practice of “concrete poetry” and the apparently non-symbolic (either verbal or visual) indexicality of the handprint?

I note two key aspects of Johnson’s Beam 18 that give us some sense of the conclusions he may have drawn, at least intuitively in his poetic practices.  First, Beam 18 emphasizes the gestural aspect of the hand, metaphorically suggesting that the hand’s gestures in intimate, oral communication may be metaphorized by the arabesque incisions of the skin covering the organ itself.  Speech and print are brought into proximity through the figural reserves of the hand, which expresses itself in both discourse and writing with eloquent grace.

Second, however, the handprint is the sign of the living hand’s alienation and distanciation, even its physical death and disappearance (which in the case of the recently deceased Johnson, is literally the case).  Consider Rainer Maria Rilke’s beautiful meditation on the temporality of the hand, holding a photograph of his father, which is now for us but a monument of a poet’s hand that has long disappeared from anything but the tokens of his own words, printed in books:

“You swiftly fading daguerreotype
in my more slowly fading hands.”

(Photograph of My Father, New Poems)

In another post, I noted the connection Walter Benjamin drew between gesture and citation, gesture and interruption. The imprint is no longer singular, but reproducible: a type, the emergence of a typography out of the unique, living, mobile gesture.  Beam 18 “cites” the hand, seizing the gesture in its passing, by interrupting its continuation in action and severing its syntactical connection to other acts and movements it might possess in life.

Johnson’s hand, as manifested in Beam 18, partakes of a conception of form-giving as bound to a logic of stamping, imprinting, impressing, typing, a deep cultural logic that Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe identified as “onto-typo-logy.”  This logic posits and iteratively reproduces, as its necessary outcome, an original model and its typical copy. This dual, split structure results from a founding poetic event that once divides type and original and gathers them together in a referring relation, which binds them mutually to one another through mimesis.

Johnson’s hand, in short, is an image of typography as prosthesis, a medial and mediating “extension of man,” that tends towards substitution and displacement of its living original by type-signs.

El Lissitzky

El Lissitzky

Importantly, however, it is also an image or figure of prosthesis, hence not merely an exemplar but also a reflection on the typicality it exhibits itself.  Johnson’s hand, then, extends its gesture not just to the extent of its manual grasp, but across Ark as a whole, with its extraordinary typographical range, from graphic images to iconically shaped stanzas to metrically functional typographical forms to standard verse forms to prose paragraphs.  His page, populated by these various forms, presents poetry itself as a manual “craft,” not in a traditional sense, but as a field of tensions and relaxations, approximations and alienations, approaches and retreats of the hand.  Sometimes the hand in his poem appears singular and intimate, sometimes as a sign of the “typically” human, but sometimes lost in material and technical mediations in which its human traits become almost indiscernible.

The hand becomes an intricate architecture of digits and networks in Johnson’s poem, reaching down into the roots and soil of the prairies, and up into the technological ether of radio waves and transmission towers.  For Johnson, hand is pure no-where, from whence it launches its gestures beckoning to good-place.  Hand, in Johnson, is the utopia of creation, only waiting to unfold.

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