Thursday, December 1, 2016



ALPHABET NOIR by Nico Vassilakis
(CL Books, 2016)

[First printed as an Introduction to ALPHABET NOIR by Nico Vassilakis (CL Books, 2016)]

Into the Noir

In the beginning was no sign; it was too dark. Or not dark enough.

In the beginning was the sign, the spoken, gestural, written light. Or the dark, inside out.

The written sign was the beginning of written language. The power of the originary sign remains and sustains while the kinds of signs and the complexities of signs have increased and continue to increase, in space, light and dark, on pages print and digital, in and out of body. Nico Vassilakis’ work is rooted in this beginning but also in the perpetual becoming of language.

The letter is the pivot, the fulcrum. The word is an oar. The letter is the river you can never step in twice. The word names the river and stems its flow. Vassilakis’ poetic is intensely focused on documenting the letter in its pre- and post-word state of being/ness.

The letter is not the building block. The letter is a building itself, the process of meaning processing the language building meaning. Vassilakis works at the DNA level, unraveling the signatures letters encode, embody, enact.

I have always appreciated that Vassilakis believes in his readers; his work does a lot of thinking but it does not do all of the thinking for its readers. It possesses but is not possessed by its own hermeneutics.

The thing you do not want to do is
explain everything.”

I have known Vassilakis’ work for over 25 years. A hallmark in multiple genres—visual poetry, poetry, performance, or in his critical writing as demonstrated in this book—is how the work itself is thinking as it is doing its work. It’s thinking in the act of creating, on the act of creating, for the act of creating.

“say deceives                                     writing retrieves
say conceives                                    writing relieves
say what you mean                           writer of invisible ink
to say it ends is false                         this writing continues”

Vassilakis wants the notion/s of letters living life outside the constraint of a word scrum to be available to all. The reader may get stymied, curtailed by the ephemeral nature of letters’ lived life: how does one explain, or frame, or undergird this phenomenon, this deliberate fabrication, this tenuous cloth and this whole cloth of language that lives in us as much as we live in it? The letter our cell.

Vassilakis wants the reader, in this book, to read how a visual poet verifies and validates their seeing, their life of sight, and he wants the writer to read seeing. He hopes to magnify and multiply and for a moment enable the reader to dislocate his/her eyes, to see language, its material, happening and happening and happening. He wants to push the reader and the writer who reads seeing and is interested in writing visual poetry, the letter casually mounted over the mantel in hopes it will disturb and disrupt and get passed down to other readers and writers.

Alphabet Noir has two movements: implicit and explicit arguments on the poetics of the letter, the space/s of meaning before and after the word. The first movement is more suggestive, ellipitical, transitory, a verbal cognate of Vassilakis’ visual poetry. The second movement, the notes section, pulls the curtain aside on to the background of his work, deeply rooted in shared contexts, ways of seeing that may not be as old as seeing but are at least as old as the first written sign.

Now is the time for you to be the beginning and the becoming. Into the noir is into the light.


Crag Hill has been engaged with the liminal spaces between letters, words, and images—the images of words—for over three decades. With Bill DiMichele and Laurie Schneider, he co-edited Score, a magazine devoted to concrete/visual poetry that presented the work of poets from dozens of countries through 20 issues. With Nico Vassilakis, Hill co-edited The Last Vispo Anthology (Fantagraphics, 2012), a project that documents the art of word/image as it prepares to pivot off the page. His most recent book, a series of 52 poems, is 7 x 7 (Otoliths, 2010). He teaches English Education at the University of Oklahoma.

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