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Review of Avatar by Douglas Barbour

CBRA, 2008

From its cover image, through its many concrete pieces and various Oulipo-inflected poems, to its notes at the end, Sharon Harris’s Avatar is a highly author-constructed work. It’s also a playground of contemporary poetics, for if Harris is anything, she is a playful artist; poetry (art) is fun, joy, and love at work.

Beginning with “information technology is not the future,” an assertion much of the book contradicts, Harris offers a visual poem based on bpNichol’s famous “Blues,” in which she turns the “’love’ lattice” of the original into Braille. Other visuals use Braille or Morse code to “translate” other concrete poems into something new, and more wholly visual. By the end of Avatar, she will have offered readers (viewers) a whole alphabet’s worth of “figures,” many of which seem to have left every aspect of language behind, except in their titles.

Most of what looks like more conventional poetry turns out to be based on some rule or construct, such as acrostics, or, in one case, “a prayer of keyboard commands.” The second section, “Fun w/ ’Pataphysics,” is oddly enough the most straightforward, a series of definitely imaginary answers to the kinds of questions authors face all too often. They are witty and delightful, and suggest that Harris comes by her sense of play honestly.

Despite its experimental nature, and the degree of emotional distancing its many visual and linguistic games ensure, Avatar insists that its core value is love. The last piece in the book, “Manifest O,” argues that “[t]ruth always gets destroyed by language,” and suggests that “[t]he body knows” what words often hide. Harris seems to desire something beyond language, which may be why she trusts so much in those concrete visuals; but in the end, she says she’s “not saying that the word is dead or that words aren’t beautiful.” No she and we still need words, and she wants them to help us “practice loving everyone,” a highly idealistic desire for poetry. In Avatar, she tries to live up to this ideal by offering her readers as many different challenging delights as she can.