The Unfinished Dream: An Exercise in Awakening by Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans: Sad Press, 2016

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They are the same. Same words. Same books. Other tongues. Only meaning changes. With time. Broken narrative    out   of   bounds where is the meaning in [your] life now? Can you trace the line beginning to middle to end? How can I know [myself] without the story [of myself] to tell?

The collaboration between Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans has created a visceral and eclectic artist book that evokes a raw and provocative sense of textual and visual meaning. Willow’s experimental writing style powerfully plays with language, writing it anew as boundary-less and beyond the borders of constricting social constructs. Words drift and dangle from the pages, punctured by Evans’ illustrations or fractured by blank spaces filling the absence of words. The interlacing of imagery and text presents the reader with a tactile experience, where the pages are alive with the feelings, thoughts and senses they evoke.

The body is intertwined throughout the book, where the tenuous nature of subjectivity materialises upon each page. The narrative voice grapples with the sense of self found within words, fighting with the continual strain and clash of meanings one attaches to the body. The cultural, political, and social structures that enforce certain modes of being are torn apart as the narrator declares: “I give myself this new name to take [back] the power I never had.” One must bind, tie and lace the text with the body: “I must become [the body of] the text”. The body becomes the blank page waiting to absorb ink, boundary less, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I unstitch [my] self.” The body becomes open, as the only recourse one can take against the daily attacks on subjectivity. The style leaves space for words to breathe, to let in the world and fill one’s lungs with the breath of others, as an unbound self “open to the flow of things to come.” The voice resounds as a protest against those who act in someone else’s name without consent – an apt protest given the most recent events of Brexit and the Presidential election in the United States, and the hatred these have emboldened.

The poem, Straif, continues this sense of protest and how one must “insert into that space the steel edge of thorn tip scribing”. The space being that of the past and future, the in-between of “[your] page and [mine]”, which is a space ruptured from its timeline, re-written by the ink bleeding on a surface wounded by violence. Words must break the silence, must speak from this space created by violence. As “writereader” of this narrative, the words express the power one has to act and to write the story anew. This poem has also been published in an anthology, #NousSommesParis, which captures the responses to the November 2015 Paris attacks and the horror of this day. The pen lines scrawled haphazardly across each page capture the reckless, nonsensical nature of destruction, the wound of this event that stains each body affected, like the ink that stains each page with words. It poignantly grasps a sense of the collective loss, empathy and ways in which one must not sink to the levels of those who wish nothing but violence and hatred upon others. From this space, this rupture, must come change.

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There is a raw, earthy energy to Evans’ illustrations that incorporate imagery of stars, tree roots and varying symbols. The illustrations are evocative and cohesively interlace with each other; as the faint lines of a fractured face yet to be drawn completely on one page becomes a fully formed embodiment on a later page. Or the faint lines of an anatomically drawn heart and eye hint of their presence behind a solid moon, only to appear in sharp focus as the narrator reiterates notions of “[in]visible”, “[il]legible” words that fall on “[in]different” ears and lay mute and unseen. The cut and paste technique is similar to that of Kathy Acker, as photocopied notebook pages juxtapose pages left free of lines, barriers and rules where words become dismembered from each other and ultimately the sentence they belong to. The anarchy of the text – the use of spacing, shifts in form and style, as well as the break in punctuation and grammar – reflects the ruptured sense of self, of society, and yet through this perhaps a chance to change, to “overflow these pages” and find solidarity through being open to others. Ultimately, the artist book challenges the position of the “writereader”, emphasising how we are all both writer and reader of our own narratives and those we create together.

Section B: Writing, is set out in the style of a GCSE exam question, which beautifully articulates the think-less existence of present day culture; where there are so many voices that no-one is truly heard, drowned out by the noise of a system that cannot hear or see those who do not fit the sequences of a life lived only inside borders: “Facts is all they want”. If you are not coherent, structured, living the “right” way and doing the “right” things, following the stepping stones that life has laid out, planned in advance, then what becomes of you, when you have lost the “plot”?

Take this pill instead. It will mollify your dreams, dispossess you of desires. And it will keep you safely tightly numbly suffocatingly bound within these pages of your life. There is nothing outside this story.

Drugged and disillusioned, the narrator voices the absence of living, or of living in-between, on the borders of “plot” – the structured existence that strips the self of thinking for oneself. These pills, promising health, happiness and to make things better, instead turn the narrator’s world upside down, words stop, thoughts stop, breathing stops. Subjectivity stops. Pills numb the protest, create an absence of self, living “between my life and your world”. Ultimately, the self that lives beyond the “linear syntagmatic narrative” cannot be fixed by a pill, but must learn to think, feel, and write the self anew, even when that may be outside the “plot”.

The remaining words echo poignantly as the last page is turned to a moon borrowing the sun’s light to shine – we are always fractured with words, words that are not our own, but that we, as “writereader” of our own stories, transform. There is a thickness to the silence, as the fractured narrative always leaves something unbound and the surrealist imagery punctures the text as deeply as the ink that writes itself upon each page, boundary-less and unafraid to cut through the lines.

Click here to buy The Unfinished Dream directly from Sad Press.

About the Publisher:

Sad Press publishes poetry chapbooks by individual authors and collections of experimental writing.  Based in east Bristol, Sad Press was set up in 2009 and has published works by Tom Jenks, Jennifer Cooke, Lila Matsumoto, Verity Spott & Megan Allen, nick-e melville and others.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing. 

 

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