The Father Costume, Ben Marcus & Matthew Ritchie. Artspace Books, 2002. 56 pp., $20.
The beginning of all wisdom is to look fixedly on clothes . . .
till they become transparent.[i]
The Father Costume is an innovative narrative collaboration of visual and textual language woven by Ben Marcus and Matthew Ritchie. It is a scatological fantastic journey of two boys caught out at sea with their father fleeing some menace that plagues their home. Set within a surrealistic world of water in which clothes alter behavior and time itself can be worn and discarded like cloth, this is an adventure of something close to freedom or identity.
This book thrives on the disjunction of identity and offers an interesting parallel to Loss Pequeño Glazier’s description of “innovative text” in his Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries. Glazier asserts the innovative text, "offers the perspective of the multiple 'I'" and, “it recognizes the importance of the materials of writing to writing itself, an engagement with its medium.”[ii] The Father Costume is not a digital work in itself, although probably produced in its entirety on electronic devices, but it is multimedia even if static. Ritchie’s art uses its own language to relate Marcus’ telling of the story. The reader is engaged in the narrative through both language mediums, visual and symbolic.
“I could not read fabric. I had a language problem. My brother spoke a language called Forecast. It consisted of sounds he barked into a stippled leather box. When my father wrapped my brothers hands in cotton waffling, my brother could tap out a low altitude language on the floor, short thuds of speech that my father held his listening jar to. On the short nights when the sky was stretched too tight and the birds struck against it like pebbles on our roof, my brother slept off his Forecast expulsions in a sling hanging from our door. He cried softly inside his mesh bag while I dotted our windowsills with listening utensils, in case a message came in the night.”
There is a limitation of language and the narrator freely admits the problem, wishing to say his father’s name yet cannot make the sounds. His brother speaks a language called Forecast. The father wears a costume of himself and mostly ignores the narrator's attempts to communicate. This again recalls Carlyle, “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life.”[iii]
"If it were up to me, I would not come from a place where fathers leave their houses by boat. Where fathers kill a costume and leave heaps of cloth like grave sites in their wake. I would choose a world of straight grass roads, with only famous years, with only days of actual light, where a metronome might be silenced by the right kind of sunlight. I would choose a house free of kill holes where a mother still stood upright and walked the rooms, using a soothing medical voice entirely free of cloth."
It’s a dicey subject, this term innovative, but Glazier sees the innovative text (although Glazier’s interest is pointed towards digital poetics) as language in a constant state of flux, conversion or adjustment. Text that moves with change to create mobility that alters from perspective to perspective, in an anti-environment of sorts. The narrator is not human but bridges humanity through a compounded perspective on the I, the common articulation of the pronoun.
“The three of us crouched down in the at the writing hole in the center of the room. It was moist that morning, rimming with foaming soil, so my father fitted the mouth with linen and the reached his arm deep into the hole . We all took our turns…. The radio would not keep still, buzzing like on the counter top as if an animal were trapped inside it. Some other family must have died that day, because our house had too much electricity. If too many people died there would be lightening in our room.”
In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle suggests an inverse perspectives on clothes: “for our purposes … a Naked World is possible, nay actually exists (under the Clothed one)"[iv]. Clothes are a both a survival necessity and symbolic identity system intertwined. A fabric is equally relevant as a language for the construction of I, self, and me. In terms of language, the personal pronouns provide insight into humanity on the basis of what is internal, invisible and what is external to it, the I and that. That external is understood in terms of normative logical understandings of the individual perceiving it.
“We packed out things into clear burlap sacks that hung from our shirttails. Father took down the windsock and inhaled the last remnants of yesterday’s air for strength. He passed the sock to my brother, who lazily wiped his face with it before fitting it onto an unused portion of his costume. He spoke three Forecast sentences into his scarf before kissing it and wrapping it around his neck.”
Marcus never provides only one understanding of his environment, it is an illusion woven throughout this work like the tapestries that make up the characters’ costumes. All identity becomes a weaving of narrative that becomes a linen of self. Ritchie’s art creates a structural design of disjunction to the text as a visual language creating its own symbolic narrative. One looks to the pictures for help in setting surroundings, places or times. Again, this is a limitation of language. The images bring environmental backdrops, some water scenes, others of fabrics, with sepia diagrams alleging that a structural design operates both independently over and dependently within the systems of nature. This is a universe based on water and is to be reflected upon.
Marcus is a remarkable writer who can successfully blend emotion with a unique context that is interesting and of interest to the contemporary reader.
Geoffrey Gatza edits BlazeVOX from Buffalo, NY.