This sumptuous, sensuous, colour drenched book is, before content is addressed or even thought of, a delight to look at: rich red, mustard yellow and scorched orange abound, like looking at the world through technicolour goggles. As always with Knives Forks and Spoons, the production values are high. Neiva describes the work as illustrating his shift away from asemic practice, which can be described, albeit somewhat imperfectly, as writing without semantic content, and towards averbal practice, which we can assume means writing without words. This is not strictly true, as words do appear in averbaldraftsone&otherstrories, but they do not function as signs or signifiers. Rather they are simply part of the palate. This is language as material, forcing us to abandon our habitual linguistic norms and approach language as we would an image. Each page is as vibrant and vivid as the panel of a fresco.
The book raises interesting questions of context and the effect of context upon perception. At the end of the book is a list of where many of these pieces were exhibited in galleries. What difference would it make to see them hung on a wall, rather than presented on a page, to encounter them as visual art rather than poetry? The experience cannot but be different, for here we are studying the representation of the thing rather than the thing itself. We could think of this book as simply a catalogue, like a series of photographs of oil paintings or marble sculptures that might be sold as a memento of an exhibition, but this would be to miss the point. By presenting the work on a poetry imprint without any of the conventional surrounding text commonly found in an exhibition catalogue, this is a book that demands to be experienced as a book, a demand furthered by the presence of the word stories in the title. When we pick up a book we are primed to expect text, but here there is, for the most part, no text. The reader is straight away thrown off centre by the realisation that they are not really a reader at all. To engage with this book, the reader cannot simply passively receive, but must instead actively engage. These pieces do not offer obvious meaning and so the reader must make their own meaning, if indeed it is meaning that they want. To read the work, we must also read the frame around the work.
Although the pieces presented here could be described as visual poetry, they cannot be located in the canonical lineage of the form – Gombringer, the de Campos brothers, Noigandres etc. – all of whom were largely typographical and worked, in the main, directly on paper. Neiva’s work, although no less visually striking, does not have the same basis. Many of the pieces here are constructed using found material, particularly the sequence &otherstories that comprises the second part of the book and was made using materials found in the vicinity of a packaging warehouse. The most obvious reference point is Kurt Schwitters, particularly the smaller collages he made shortly after coming to Britain in the 1940s, constructed from bus tickets, scraps of newspaper and other ephemera. As with Schwitters, the apparent disorder and randomness is deceptive. This is no magpie’s nest. The material here is crisp and cleanly presented on the page according to its own internal geometry. Neiva speaks elsewhere of working according to constraints, and in averbaldraftsone&otherstrories we can see that in action in two ways. Firstly, there is no clutter. Neiva has used his materials economically and with precision. Each image is sparely arranged, like an abstract painting. Secondly, each piece seems to have built according to the limits of what was to hand, Neiva restricting himself to assembly and arrangement. Here, the environment itself has become a constraint. Like a woodsman taking only the timber he can find on the forest floor to build with, so Neiva constructs the poems in the &otherstories sequence from what the world presents him with. His is a heuristic poetics. In a time of superabundance of content and previously undreamt of freedom in the manipulation of material, Neiva’s disciplined, almost ascetic approach is an interesting counterpoint, a subtle refusal of capitalism and consumerism.
The pieces in the first part of the book, whilst consistent with Neiva’s rigorous methodology, are slightly different in character. Here, we see more authorial intervention. Text is more prevalent. Materials are marked and indented and carry the trace of human activity. Still, however, we see the same attention to the character of materials, the same radical sensitivity. Constraint based work often contains one non-constrained element, what Magne and others associated with Oulipo called the clinamen. Here, Neiva breaks the spell of averbaldraftsone&otherstrories only once by placing an uncaptioned monochrome photograph of a group of men in suits, some carrying straw boater hats, in the middle of the first section of the book. The image is annotated with gnomic glyphs that may have been added by Neiva, or may have already been on the image. The presence of this spectral image has the effect of bringing the reader up short: a break in transmission, a subliminal frame. Neiva does not explain it, as he does not explain anything. No authorial guidance is offered by him throughout the book. Each of these images stands alone, allowing us to make of them what we will and to make our own connections.
averbaldraftsone&otherstrories is an example, if examples are needed, of the importance of publishers such as Knives Forks and Spoons who make it their business to get behind experimental work and give it the attention it deserves. A mainstream publisher would simply not touch a book as cryptic and tangential as this. This enigmatic, angular, elegant, paradoxical work, so Spartan in its aesthetic, yet so luxuriant in its realisation refines our ideas of what visual poetry can be.