Fourteen Polemical Postcards
Ugly Duckling Presse ($12)
by Ross Hair
The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard showcases fourteen “polemical” postcards, with accompanying commentary, by the British poet, artist, editor, and publisher Simon Cutts. A number of these postcards were originally published by Coracle, the press and gallery that Cutts started in South London in 1975 with the artist Kay Roberts. Since relocating to Tipperary, Ireland, in 1996, Cutts has run Coracle with his partner, U.S.-born artist and writer Erica Van Horn. In all this time the postcard has become, as Cutts explains, “an idiom in itself, a form in its own right,” the diversity of which has remained intrinsic to Coracle’s activities. The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard imparts the possibilities of the format in this context while also reflecting some of the primary concerns of Cutts’s broader poetics.
A number of the postcards in Cutts’s selection display an acerbic wit directed toward the monolithic sensibilities of the art world and its institutions. Described by Cutts as a “thank you card sent to erudite librarians who are not perplexed or overwhelmed by the edifice of the artists book,” Artists Books are a Hurdle (2013) questions the reductive nature of such bibliographical classification by way of a blue printed letter press legend: “Artists Books are Hurdle / you have to Jump to find / More Serious Librarians.” “There are,” Cutts comments, “finally, just good books, interesting books, books indeed without category, that reside in the mind long after any over-convenient classification has seemingly been placed on them.”
As much as it is a thank you to librarians, Cutts’s card also acknowledges that cataloguing itself requires creative nous. It is perhaps not surprising therefore to find the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry the subject of Cutts’s critique in The Ruth & Marvin Sackner Collection of Tie & Dye (1992). This garish card—comprising purple and blue rubber stamp marks impressed on single-sided pink blotting paper card—lampoons the type of work frequently categorized as “concrete.” Recalling in his commentary the arguments concerning the “narrower” (or “pure”) and “wider” modes and conceptions of concrete poetry in the late 1960s, Cutts implies the need for more discriminate and nuanced ways of understanding and processing such a variegated body of work. Without the critical acumen to comprehend it, “visual poetry” (much like the artists book) is as trite as the psychedelic tie-die patterns that Cutts’s card parodies.
That Cutts’s sympathies are with the narrower remits of concrete poetry is borne out by the recurrence in The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard of one of its most trenchant advocates, Ian Hamilton Finlay. Indeed, the title of Cutts’s pamphlet (and the 2005 postcard included in it) alludes to Finlay’s re-appropriation of French Revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just’s statement: “The world has been empty since the Romans.” Saint-Just continues: “But the memory of the Romans fills it. They go on prophesying liberty.” This card, what Cutts calls “a lament for the absence of the postcard in our daily lives,” has its corollary in a later card from 2013 which, like THE WORLD HAS / BEEN EMPTY SINCE / THE POSTCARD was published by David Bellingham’s WAX366 in bold letterpress capitals on thick card stock. THE WORLD / EXISTS / TO BE PUT / ON A POSTCARD adapts Mallarmé’s famous statement in his essay “Le Livre, instrument spiritual”: “que tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre” (“the world exists to end up in a book”). If, as Cutts suggests, the postcard marks and communicates what occurs in the world, then it is all the more empty without these modest records.
The domestic, an enduring keynote of Coracle’s modus operandi, is the subject of a postcard, published by Coracle 1993, which reproduces Robert Doisneau’s iconic photo of one of the key figures behind the underground press Le Editions de Minuit, Madame Yvonne Desvignes (the pseudonym of Yvonne Paraf). As Doisneau’s photo indicates, Desvigne’s Paris apartment became the hub of the clandestine press that the writers Jean Bruller and Pierre de Lescure founded in 1941 during the German occupation. Sitting in her kitchen next to a book press, Desvigne stitches together pages of the press’s first title, Bruller’s novel, La Silence de la Mer (1942) which—somewhat appositely considering Coracle’s own recourse to commercial letterpress printers—was handset by the printer Claude Oudeville whose main trade was greetings cards.
“The polemics of ‘underground’ and hand-distributed publishing are fully endorsed by this classic photograph,” Cutts explains. Doisneau’s photo was later used for the cover of Cutts’s book, co-published by Coracle and Granary Books in 2000, A Smell of Printing: Poems 1988-1998. Although the stakes have never been as perilously high as they were for the French Resistance publishers, Coracle has, nevertheless, observed much of what is suggested in Doisneau’s photo. Thus, as much as it is a “eulogy” for Desvignes, Cutts’s card is also an assertion of Coracle’s own in-house economies.
Indeed, Kay Roberts has recalled how, when Coracle operated from a former shop in South London, the upstairs kitchen was where the collating, sewing, folding, and numbering of publications took place, invariably against a background of music, conversation, and meals. That spirit of conviviality is extended in many of the postcards featured in The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard, which acknowledge friends and allies including the poet and publisher Stuart Mills, the art collector and curator David Brown, and Fluxus artist Ben Vautier.
The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard is perhaps ultimately a compelling polemic for the postcard itself. Cutts’s examples remind us that, in all senses of the word, the postcard is the most apposite of missives. It is a robust and adaptable format whose far-reaching effects belie its minimal means of production. As much as the ease and expediency of its distribution, the postcard’s resistance to simple categorization makes it adept at bypassing official channels and institutions as well as the categorizations they impose. Cutts’s cards confound such reductive pigeonholing by encompassing, often in a single card, poem, aphorism, and graphic art. Above all, however, it is postcard’s ephemerality that Cutts’s examples convey most incisively and affectionately: the record of a specific context, observation, or occasion otherwise all too easily missed.