Karolinn Fiscaletti reviews a new edition of N.H. Pritchard’s influential collection of poetry.
N.H. Pritchard, The Matrix: Poems: 1960–1970 (Primary Information and Ugly Duckling Presse 2021), 204pp.
Originally published by Doubleday in 1970, The Matrix, N.H. Pritchard’s innovative collection of concrete poetry, quickly fell out of print. But despite the book’s scarcity, its energy and experimentation have made it a deeply influential work for many readers since its initial publication. This year, Primary Information and Ugly Duckling Presse have brought it back into the physical world with a facsimile reprint.
“Concrete” may be a misleading label for Pritchard’s poetic style in The Matrix. Language and form often run parallel in traditional concrete poems. Things take recognizable and related shapes. We read “un cigare allumé qui fume” as we watch the smoke rising. And to be sure, there are a few moments like this in The Matrix. The opening poem for instance, titled “Wreath,” consists of one capital O hanging airily in the center of the blank page.
But the shapes of Pritchard’s poems are more often mysterious, open to interpretation – clearly alive, but rarely obvious. Sometimes they are simple, quiet quatrains preceded by a bellowing title like “Dooooooooooooooooooooooooooom”; sometimes a single letter or word is repeated, tilted, inverted; sometimes fragments diagonally descend the page; sometimes long sentences spread out into strange grammatical constructions and unexpected morphemes:
W here quiet ly on ly go e s
k now in g the s h or e
w it h its sun dried hues
s ever a l b oats
l a n g u i d
be neath the d us k…
“Words are ancillary to content,” Pritchard writes as a preface to the collection. It’s true. In The Matrix, poems have two major considerations, two ways of living, each making use of language but divergent from standard linguistic meaning-making. There is the visceral body of the poem, constantly shifting, and there is the intuitive breath of the line, leaping, stuttering, riffing, breaking. Pritchard’s deep investment in this breath moves his poetics beyond the realm of the concrete and onto common ground with the projective verse of the Black Mountain poets. The jazz-like formal and sonic improvisations – especially in longer poems like “Aurora” – also evoke the poetics of the Umbra group, to which Pritchard belonged, and of the Black Arts Movement, which was most active during the years he wrote the poems that comprise this collection (1960–1970).
Pritchard’s style did evolve over the course of the decade. The Matrix is organized into three chronological sections: “Inscriptions” (1960–1964), “Signs” (1965–1967) and “Objects” (1968–1970). The earlier poems have more recognizable forms; the most experimental of them breaking words apart, as in the excerpt above. “Agon” is perhaps the least visually familiar of the early poems, completely inverting lines that are also fragmented into morphemic pieces. Not only must we proceed slowly to track bits of sound across the burst of caesurae, we must do so upside down, constantly reorienting ourselves.
The poems in the later years of the second and third sections expand on the visual experimentation. There are poems with all capitals, poems with varying font sizes, solid stanzas of ampersands, concrete shapes, lines appended by ellipses, lines comprised of mostly quotation marks.
But one element that remains constant through all three sections is repetition – from the chant of “or a mountain in a flame” and “or a fountain in the rain” in “Windscape,” to the nine pages of syncopated, rhythmic iterations of “uou” and “who” in “O.” While a single phrase repeated across multiple pages can be mesmeric (think of Robert Lax’s “one stone” pulling us into a trance), in these instances, it’s kinetic. The columns and rows and arrays practically vibrate with energy.
This could have something to do with the words themselves, ancillary though they are. The language of The Matrix is rife with the life of the natural world – trees, clouds, streams, heat, light, tide – placed into strange and sometimes astounding syntactical arrangements. Consider the brief poem “Preposition”:
The poem opens where it leaves off, “all” becoming at once confining and expansive, unfinished and final, alive in its relationship to the trees and in the breadth of its interpretations. This paradoxical capacity exemplifies the entire collection. The Matrix is, if anything, alive – timeless in its experimentations, and as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.
Karolinn Fiscaletti is a co-founder and editor of Old Pal, a literary & arts magazine. Her work can be found in Lana Turner, submission, The Gravity of the Thing, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere. A graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University and Portland State University, she lives and works in Portland, OR.