Review by Eric Morris-Pusey
couplets and questions
The Silent Academy
5 × 5 in. closed
Soft-cover perfect binding
5 × 5 in. closed
Soft-cover perfect binding
“Imagination,” author John Higgs begins his foreword to Andrew Shaw’s couplets, “isn’t what it used to be.” The statement was true enough when he first put it to paper in February 2019, the world just as full of the mass-produced, the oft-repeated, and the strictly-enforced as it is today. A little over a year later, that sentence is all the more accurate, with many of us confined to or only feeling safe in smaller and smaller spaces — and often finding our imaginative worlds shrinking just as much as our physical ones. Shaw’s couplets and its spiritual sequel questions are an adrenaline shot for imagination, an inoculation against the lack of it, an invitation to create. They are also, as Higgs notes in his introduction to couplets, a game.
To emphasize these books’ playfulness is not to minimize their impact or imply that their object is (solely) to create fun; like all new experiences, encounters with the poems in Shaw’s books are as likely to be disorienting or upsetting as they are purely delightful. Rather, the books invite us to a sort of Kantian free play of imagination: a boundless, or at least less-bounded, experience of the world in all its surprise and complexity.
Each of the tiny poems in these two volumes had its first incarnation on a small white luggage tag, which Shaw would hang in a public place for an unsuspecting reader to later find — bringing art and poetry from the gallery or bookshop into the “ordinary” world outside and disrupting that ordinariness in the process.
The presentation of Shaw’s books ensures the poems function as well printed and bound as they did on the street. Behind unassuming gray covers, the pages of couplets and questions consist of much more white space than lettering, and forego page numbers or standard capitalization and punctuation — as Shaw says, “Accurate navigation isn’t always as useful as we think.” Each couplet or question is centered, surrounded by the void of the empty page.
To call the great blank space around each of Shaw’s poems a canvas on which the reader can paint their own meaning might be a touch maudlin or oversimplified, but in a way it’s true, too. While any text is necessarily a collaboration between the writer and reader, couplets and questions foster this collaboration more consciously than most.
The juxtaposition between the text and its surroundings, whether the inert whiteness of the page or the gently swaying branches of the tree supporting a tag, serves as a way of simultaneously demanding attention for the text and demonstrating how small that text is when weighed against everything else. This sense of paradox, as in a Zen kōan, invites meaning-making rather than stifling it.
The poems themselves utilize the same hyperfocus and sense of impossibility or contradiction to encourage artist-audience collaboration. In the minimalist tradition of haiku (but without the syllabic and linguistic strictures which Shaw worries lose something in translation) they rely on only a few words to communicate their concepts and images with the reader. Shaw uses specific language but often foregoes broad description, inviting the reader to experience the surreal and sublime in a radically accessible way.
When Shaw writes of “a detailed map / of the loneliest street” in couplets, he knows that the map I picture will differ in almost every way from the one he had in mind when writing the poem. These books succeed in both their profundity and their accessibility precisely because Shaw is not trying to communicate a specific idea or experience of his own, but inviting readers to more imaginatively and playfully encounter theirs. Even the process of reading can be re-framed: the lack of pagination means that there is no correct way to approach Shaw’s works, that opening to a random page and spending ten minutes or an hour with whatever you find or don’t find there is perfectly true to his process and intention.
The game of couplets and questions, in other words, is consciously designed for two or more players. Shaw goes first, writing a small poem that describes or asks us to consider something that we can’t experience in a strictly literal way — but we have a role as well: not to answer the question correctly, solve the paradox, or provide a rational explanation, but to be changed by the encounter. As he says in his introduction to questions, “It’s in the not-knowing that authentic self unfolds; habitual thinking is disrupted, and truly new events can take place.”
The sense of collaboration and openness central to both the creation and consumption of these two books does feel truly new, or at the very least incredibly rare — a thoughtful and necessary challenge to the idea that creativity is in some way exclusive. Shaw’s writing and visual presentation encourage us to step outside the world for a moment and view it from a different angle: wonderfully askew.