Incremental Overlay:
the Artwork of David Miller

Keith Jebb














The question of poets’ art in contemporary British innovative poetry is in need of answers.  But what it is, what relates all the aspects of the question, is a little difficult to grasp.  Since Bob Cobbing started sliding text over the bed of a photocopier, slurring his words into snailtracks of decaying signification, there has been (here, as previously elsewhere, but now these decades here at least again) this fascination of (not so much with) the boundaries between text and art.  To hear Laurence Upton vocalize in live performance the almost type-shapes of his visual works is a limit-point in creative synaesthesia, a grand, unreasonable but fiercely rational gesture.  Though perhaps more event than gesture, more horizon than event.


David Miller is better known for the ongoing sequence of prose poems Spiritual Letters (sections of which have been published by Stride and Reality Street), than for his work in visual text or text-art.  His prose poetry is a kind of anecdotal limestone, a concatenation or conglomerate of related fossil stories caught in the act of evolution, of transformation into something next.  It is a rich, fragmentary art.  But the visual poet is a careful minimalist, an incrementalist, making almost unnoticeable variations on a few simple themes or motifs. As well as a number of magazine publications, his artwork has appeared in two rare small press volumes: Commentaries (tel-let, 1999) and Commentaries (II) (Runaway Spoon Press, 2000).  The latter (which I have seen) contains ten images, nearly all of which I have seen several other ‘versions’ or ‘takes’ of.  Some of these, like the scribbled out rectangles (of text?) with the single revealed sentence—‘Waking: a figure of stars seen through a glass wall.’—are only distinguished from each other by the configuration of the rectangle, or rectangles, some of which have no text at all, and by the energy and freedom of the pen-strokes, which define how completely the underlying text is obscured.  The overall effect is of a kind of Carl Andre version of Tom Phillips’ Humument.


There is more apparently scribbled-out or overwritten text in Miller’s artwork than there is apparent text.  And when the text appears, it is often handwritten, sometimes scrawled or illegible, or else, if typed, cryptic.  One piece is a fragmentary printed text poem, the only visual element of which is a line, ruled diagonally down the page, connecting the two words ‘Turning’ and ‘Peregrinations’.  One could write a lot about the text, how it connects the wanderings of exile with the Shekinah or divine presence, how the word ‘Wrenched’ begins the poem and how the isolated word ‘luminal’ is printed in bold, but is fenced off in square brackets.


But personally, right now I am most interested in Miller’s use of ink.  And this only really appears in those pieces which are reproduced in colour.  One form appears on the covers of two broadsheets published in a series by Kater Murr’s Press, which Miller edits (Two Poems by Alyson Torns, 2003, and hide white space by Keith Jebb, 2005).   A block of drawn rectangles forms the base for a series of ink-wash loops, the ink fading from indigo to a kind of faded turquiose, depending on the loading of, or pressure on, the brush.  In common with his usual method, Miller produced many versions of this in one sitting, taking the same printed rectangle base and varying the number and energy of the looped strokes, all of which seem to spring from the bottom of the picture and reach the top edge of the rectangle that defines the limit (about A4) of the field of the visual space.  The best way to experience these works is to see a whole series of them, and to come to understand a kind of articulation in the strokes, as if you were reading a script in a language you cannot translate except in terms of its own expressive energy.


This idea of the untranslatable brings me to the latest series of Miller’s visual poems, ‘Untitled (visual sonnets)’, some of which appear in this journal.  It wouldn’t take a genius to take a brush, drag fourteen lines across a page and call it a sonnet.  As a concept it’s up there with the worst of Brit-Art (conceptual art that doesn’t understand concept), but then, fourteen lines doesn’t make a decent sonnet either.  We recognize the sonnet—almost uniquely in the catalogue of traditional European verse forms—as a sequential unit.  This is a serial art, and it is the fact that there a probably a couple of dozen or more of these visual sonnets (plus some considered failures by Miller) produced over several sittings, that makes them at all significant.  The drag of the lines, where, for instance, the brush has part-lifted to almost break the contact with the paper; the subtle chromatographic effects of the ink; the energy of the never-straight, never quite parallel lines: these are the articulations of the sequence, and like any innovative poetry, seeing one poem never gives you enough to go on.  See three, four, half a dozen, and you can literally discriminate.  There’s the trace of energy in the brush strokes, of course, but beyond that basic expressionism, there’s the ghost of language.  These differential grids are nothing but in a sense what we work with all the time, unwittingly, beneath the social and political codes, the root elaborations of signification, difference and deferral as such.  Raw material: the slug trail form of text.