Review from Dublin Review of Books. Review by Afric McGlinchey
Divided into four parts relating to the seasonal Celtic festivals, the book is written in the form of poetry, prose, monologue and dialogue. The beauty of its form is that it so perfectly marries the content – fragments of writing about fragments of consciousness. The text is often flush left or flush right, with hieroglyphs – enfolded leaves and hearts, a raindrop, a house – accompanying each titled section. Other visually stylistic devices include condensed overlapping text, paler mirrored text and redactions.
The arresting cover image shows the amber eye and velvety black pelt of a panther, echoed in negative form a few pages in. An element of the book is this balancing of opposites: an image and its echo; internal/external, animus/anima, visible surfaces/hidden depths.
As with a Google search page, about:blank suggests an empty space, implicitly waiting to be populated. Wyeth does this by beginning with what the narrator sees through his window, gradually spinning this image outwards to embody glimpses of the city and its inhabitants, and to attribute thoughts and feelings to them. Feeling his way gradually, via these multiple perspectives, the narrator finds that he is exploring the slipperiness of identity, examining the very nature of self and perception in this ambitious experimental work.
I had the sense that all the conjured characters represent aspects of the writer’s self, including the animals: a missing cat, a caged panther, a lone swan. Another recurring “character” is the (solitary) moon. The setting is Dublin, but although familiar places are mentioned – Rathmines, Portobello, Grosvenor Square, Rialto, Dublin Zoo – the city’s physicality is barely present, or at least, its pulsing, crowded, noisy citiness isn’t. In any case, our primary interest is in the interior life of the speaker(s). We are witnessing “a mind thinking”, to use Elizabeth Bishop’s expression, or, as Wyeth puts it, “darts of thinking”. Windows and mirrors appear frequently, and it is through and out of (the barrier of) these that the world is viewed. However fragmented and unallocated the narrative might be, its fluidity echoes the canal, as well as the meanderings of a mind traversing the city via image, dream, reflection, observation, intuition, emotion.
To go back to the original speaker looking out of his window. What does he see?
He observes a man getting into / or out of his car. The man locks it and walks away, then realises he’s forgotten something and goes back. We don’t see what he goes back to fetch, or if in fact he found what he was looking for. But the act is a symbolic one, as the point of view swivels at this point, and the observed stranger becomes the “I” – something that recurs throughout this collaged narrative.
In the prologue, we meet an immigrant leaving a charity shop. In the subsequent sections, we see a homeless person on a park bench, a girl under a tree, the speaker sitting at a canal bank, a writer-neighbour on the other side of railings, a woman glimpsed through the window of a passing bus. For the most part, images are of nature, usually in “tamed”, contained or framed form: the roses in a suburban garden, animals in a zoo, the swan on the canal. Aside from a couple, the characters are solitary, or outsiders, like Wyeth himself.
Some of the strangers are given names and existences manifested. We flicker into the mind of one, then another. The anonymous woman on the bus becomes Claire, and the pedestrian who glimpses her from the street is named Stephen. From both an interior and an exterior point of view, the reader experiences a form of sublimated voyeurism: “Claire’s aware that … Something seen is something taken.’
Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and his Modernist masterpiece The Waste Land come to mind as unacknowledged but arguably central sources of inspiration, with similar patterning of the text and similar mythological references: “When the fisher king eats too soon / he suffers a mortal wound.”
The allusion to the fisher king’s “wound” opens up the narrative themes to wider interpretations. In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King, also known as the Wounded, or Maimed King, is the last in a long bloodline charged with keeping the Holy Grail. The “wound” (a sword pierced his thigh) is usually understood to refer to the king’s “castration” or impotence – his loss of vitality, his inability to reproduce an heir to take over the guardianship of the Holy Grail. His impotence has also affected the fertility of the land, turning it into a wasteland. So, he turns to fishing instead. There are deeper and wider meanings too: the Fisher King is also associated with the hero’s journey towards self-knowledge.
Like Eliot’s hesitant Prufrock, the speaker in about:blank grapples with existential questions and doubts. But while the characteristics of Modernism include a sense of urban alienation, self-interrogation and the quest for identity, and we see all these themes in about:blank, we also witness an attempt to empathise, to become “one” with other characters.
“I have known the eyes, known them all,” says Prufrock. In about:blank, we are constantly drawn to eyes, to the act of seeing, not only from the point of view of the protagonist but from perceived strangers’ perspectives too. Viewpoints circle and coil back on themselves, until finally, the world itself is looking through our eyes.
This clever multi-perspective was initially used in an early, Forward-shortlisted poem of Wyeth’s, “Google Earth”. It’s a perspective that also recalls Jorie Graham’s approach. Her focus throughout all her collections is on the perceiving subject as well as the perceived world. She also experiments with linguistic structures in which to pay attention to the world as it is played through the mind and vice versa. These ideas of self, world, perception and language all lie at the heart of about:blank.
To draw awareness to the complex overlapping themes, there are no fewer than ten quotations at the beginning, from Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, James Hillman, Carl Jung, Robert A Johnson, Clarice Lispector, Joseph Campbell, Norbert Weiner and Harold Pinter. While this extensive list is an acknowledgment of influences, Wyeth’s wide-armed embrace of serious subject matters is a light one, his signature punning wit occasionally adding levity to otherwise serious questions:
Headlights, ghost trails chasing the dark knight of the soul
… perhaps she’s averse to her verse ‑ Ha!
Other repeated images are punned too; for example, the various meanings of motifs such as “coin”, “rose” and “stick” are all played on. Puns and decontextualised clichés (another favourite) can be risky devices, but Wyeth just manages to toe the line between impishness and seriousness. At one point, there’s a play on his own name, reaching for the finger of God:
A figure bends down and hands me a cold drink.
I lift my arm towards it, Adam reaching for God
in the Sistine Chapel as if all life depended on this fizz
So it isn’t too far-fetched to speculate that the title is intended as a pun too, and this collection is a manifesto, or self-portrait of the writer’s own psyche: about:adam
I realise everything that I
is just the surface, and that what is true is blank. (my italics)
Ironically, by simply enacting those words on a page, the author erases blankness. And, as writers know, our own personal syntax reveals an integral aspect of our identity.
If language is one defining “vehicle”, a car is another. In about:blank, it becomes another “character” or motif: it’s a cat prowling the streets. It is female, and male. It’s a capsule. The steering wheel symbolises the cyclical journey, returning again and again to the same questions.
One question about:blank asks is how to sound out the body’s dark hollows on a “verbal contraption” (as Auden described it). Language is seen to be limited, to show only one aspect of the writer’s intentions, evoking Prufrock’s question: ‘What is it that I miss?’
Words must be some kind of cybernetic hoax
There is no way
you are going to grasp
what I first imagined,
and second set out to express.
Has language altered our reality
that we move in a hall of mirrors…?
According to Wyeth’s Calvino quotation: “The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language … what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.”
Certainly, language appears to be failing the characters in about:blank. Where attempted conversations do occur, such as with Stephen and Medbh, or Stephen and the writer-neighbour, there is a disconnect between the characters, who speak at cross purposes, much like Beckett’s two characters in Waiting for Godot, or Pinter’s two couples around a table in his screenplay of Langrishe, Go Down, a novel by Aidan Higgins.
Words on a page can be aided, of course, by the use of myth, motif and transference. In the real world, language may be all we have. We feel that the primary speaker in about:blank is agonising between making a decision (the phrase “very soon I will open my mouth and say something” is repeated over and over, in smaller and smaller print) or ignoring the “something” that “happened” (or didn’t) and taking refuge in the “womb” of familiarity instead.
He is experiencing a crisis, a fear of missing out on the “fizz” of life, that in about:blank is conveyed by a feline presence – or absence. As well as the disappeared domestic black cat, there’s also a black panther in the zoo, who symbolises the caged beast in us all:
exhibited burning instinct
thick panting blankness bore into her.
Elsewhere in the narrative, the speaker is concerned about retrieving “the internal feminine” and the “forsaken masculine”: “The coming together of two primal forces / (which) breaks the binary into multiple voices.” This is a voice resisting the binary, trying to reclaim both feminine and masculine aspects of themselves.
During Stephen’s encounter with the writer-neighbour, “They look at each other, something crosses between, and that something is an animal.” As well as the obvious sexual frisson here, implicit also is the idea that, by tapping into the feminine aspects of the writerly self, that elusive “panther” might be roused.
Mostly, it is what remains unspoken – subterranean, hidden, primal – that feels key to the entire work: “all those coats in the closet”, while elsewhere, “our thoughts, like old water, continue to stir”.
Weaving through the textured text, one key message is both poignant and sincere:
I’ve been dithering in the dark all my life
Part of the quotation from Carl Jung suggests that, like the life of a plant, “true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome”.
Wyeth seems to agree:
a ribbon of wind begins to hint at what cannot be known
When poetry is poetry, nothing is said; it’s nature itself keeping watch.
And yet, at the same time, a certain confiding intimacy allows for emotional resonance and reader access, particularly when we witness a personal crisis of conscience:
Can you close the door on the person who brought
to the threshold in the first place? The moment from
side of the mind to the other, from the
bottom of the body to the top, from the quotidian
of milk and bread at the corner shop to a
At times, we, the readers, are addressed, and the writer makes us complicit both as voyeurs and as characters:
What does this glimpse tell us about ourselves?
It tells us what we want to hear. It tells us we are on the bus, having been
glimpsed by someone on the street.
There may be a faint picture within you now and yet I have not
mentioned any distinctive details.
The final poem in the collection introduces a kind of transcendence where a thirteenth century young Muslim scholar meets a stranger, whose question to him remains one of the great mysteries. But it provokes a lesson in long silence, after which the scholar learns to access the powerful medium of meditation, and to “become” “the lover, the beggar, / the parched earth, the unfurling flower”.
Genre-bending, confessional, speculative, self-conscious, textured, analytical, about:blank is as poignant and complicated as identity itself. More than that, it’s a writer’s journey and also an exploration of the complexities of our relationship to each other and to the world. Wyeth is adept at sustaining impetus while gesturing towards moments of profound feeling alongside structures of questing thought. By portraying different subjective positions via his narrators, he is able to accommodate multi-faceted ideas, and the attentive reader will find things here that feel importantly true of the human psyche.
Review in The Long Poem Magazine. Reviewed by Ross Moore
One of many ideas explored in Adam Wyeth’s about:blank is the space between something and nothing, or what might germinate from almost-nothing. In the preface, about:blank is glossed as both an I.T. term for ‘a momentary hiatus before the required window opens’, and as ‘a starting point’. Technically, and somewhat pedantically, in computing terminology ‘about:blank’ is a page that belongs to the web-browser rather than the internet so it could well be taken as a starting point rather than a ‘blank’ or dead-end reached along the way. The epigraphs to the volume quote from Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. In response to ‘They’re blank, mate, blank. The blank dead’ the character Hirst responds: ‘Nonsense’.
From the start then, Wyeth emphasises that the ‘blank’ his collection explores is a blankness with potential. Early in the volume he writes:
I look at the sky and realise I can’t move, I am paralysed by this thought.
The wind blows grains of sand on my face.
Everything I’ve known before is washed away. I realise that everything that I
is just the surface, and that what is true is blank. (p.32)
about:blank is set in contemporary Dublin, a Dublin that reaches us through fragments and impressions. The volume opens and (mainly) closes in Grosvenor Square in Rathmines, moving through four sequences made up of prose-poetry, monologue, and a dramatic sequence. The collection’s formal diversity is likely related to the fact that about:blank was premiered as performance at the Dublin Theatre Festival in the summer of 2021 and also exists as a digital download. The fragmented form of the sequence can conceivably be viewed as a transcript of a performance piece as easily as the performance may be viewed as an adaption of a poetry collection. Adam Wyeth has commented that he had some type of performance in mind as he wrote about:blank and the formal hybridity seems intrinsic to the sequence. An intertwining of genres keeps the reader moving through the sequence with a narrator ostensibly searching for a lost cat, a glance between protagonists Stephen and Claire, the nature of what exists or doesn’t exist, all of which parallels the act of writing – the something out of nothing, that is maybe the archetypal ‘about:blank’. The sequence touches on issues of writerly control and appropriation (‘Something seen is something taken.’) More often what is emphasised are the dialectical possibilities within the different fragments and actions that the sequence alights on:
They don’t even exist, which is a crazy proposition, because we know very
well, or did, that two strangers, a passer-by and a passenger are always with us.
The glimpse passes in a second, but the thought attached to that glimpse
lingers and leads to something else, something hidden that must come out.
Wyeth’s regenerative imagery is a compelling feature. At one point, both the lost cat and the passing glance give way to the image of Claire remembering a panther in Dublin Zoo earlier in the day and they all converge in a traumatic episode:
. . . Two eyes the other side of the glass
like headlights, puzzled her out.
They shone into the back of her mind, just as her gaze
had entered earlier that day into the panther’s cage,
dead in the centre of its black pupils.
Its gaze now her gaze, totally dark and expressionless.
Sucked into the other side. A computer
wiped clean of its data. (p.56)
As the above suggests, about:blank repeatedly stresses the intrusive and determining nature of surveillance capitalism:
her life was not her own:
she was in someone else’s hands,
An image erased yet somehow known.
This is the way of no return. (p.44)
While this might be overly explicit, the sequence makes implicit connections between this form of surveillance and the act of writing, connections which Wyeth occasionally brings to the surface:
Has language altered our reality
that we move in a hall of mirrors,
what is thrown back at us? (p.42)
If this is an overly determined world, it is also demonstrated to be an associative one, but rather than a neat coherence of imagery the overall effect of is to provide fragmentary impressions, as though overheard throughout the city. The shifting genres also keep the tone impersonal, even as we eavesdrop on a protagonist’s thoughts. While the shifts in genre are dramatic, in later sections, ‘Yoga for Beginners’ and ‘The Wrongs and Rites of Grosvenor Square’, Wyeth continues to circle around his thematic preoccupations. A character, Medbh, asks an unfamiliar neighbour what she is writing:
Medbh Nothing? And you’ll keep working on it will you … I mean until you have something, concrete?
More than a few people, incidentally, use ‘about:blank’ as their home page on their web browsers, preferring this blank vista to the ubiquitous home screens of the search-engines. In this vein, about:blank might be taken as Wyeth’s exploration of the idea of the starting point, of blankness as a blank page or clean sheet. This is Wyeth’s third collection and it displays a courageous artistic restlessness. The majority of his previous work has consisted of skilful formal and lyrically modulated poems, which have garnered praise from, among others, Derek Mahon and Harry Clifton. It is quite something, for a writer at this stage, to so decisively take a leap into the about:blank.
LAUNCH INTRODUCTION SPEECH by poet JESSICA TRAYNOR - MoLI - Museum of Literature Ireland, Dublin - 13th October 2021
when we look out of the window
These lines form the last stanza in one of the fractured, fragmented poems in Adam Wyeth’s about:blank. They caught my attention on a first read and have wormed their way into my brain since then.
about:blank is a piece of writing that both defies categorization and pays homage to the great literary innovators of the 20th and early-21st century. It’s chimera-like, engaging in a process of making and remaking, of peeling away and collaging different viewpoints, times and experiences. It’s experience without ego, with the figure of the writer guiding these drifting spheres as they pass each other in a Dublin both strange and familiar.
Dublin is a major character in about:blank. Cityscapes seem to exert a strange pull on writers. These Flâneurs – these Joyces and Calvinos – wander the streets, it seems, in order to see the city through the eyes of passersby. And what they find on their travels reconfigures our idea of the living city, raising questions about how we constitute a single city out of so many lives and perspectives, constantly jostling against each other. What happens when the act of looking occurs? How does this act effect the thing seen? And, to quote another of the poetic fragments:
In the Dublin of Adam Wyeth’s imagination, those seen and unseen are acted upon by forces beyond their own understanding. They’re transformed through the very act of being seen, through being imagined. They – like the figure of Claire – both exist, and don’t exist. In some sense of the word, they are blank: ghosts haunting the text. In a quote from Pinter’s No Man’s Land that prefaces the collection, however, the idea of the dead being ‘blank’ is dismissed as nonsense. In about:blank it becomes clear that blankness is not synonymous with emptiness. Rather, it’s the conceptual beginning, the space in which Schrodinger’s cat can be both alive and dead.
about:blank proposes that this space is endlessly fertile; a space in which the imagination can make entire universes. But the current that flows throughout, shaping the energies that make us is love; the love inherent in the potential of a book resting unread on a shelf, in the celebrations of the Celtic calendar, in the practice of yoga, in the works of Rumi, in the writer’s care for his creations.
So what do we see when we gaze through the eyes of the figures which populate about:blank? We see some familiar topographies; canal banks, the seaside at Irishtown, Rathmines Town Hall, the nearby park at Grosvenor Square. We see the inside of a woman’s apartment, we search for a black cat on a dark night. We try our hand at some yoga. We worry about the roses and the railings. We try (and fail) to become poets, we try (and fail) to understand the butterfly effect of a glance shared between a woman on a bus, and a man walking by.
And then something strange happens. As we read further we come to realize that we’re not seeing the world through the eyes of these figures at all, but rather, that the world is looking through us. ‘This’, as the poem tells us, ‘is what happens when we look out of the window/ all of the time/ everywhere/ now/ in Dublin.’
Adam Wyeth, like Joyce, is chronicling a day in the life of a city, but the question of which day is not so simple here. It’s both everywhere and Dublin, both all of the time and now. And although the figure of the writer may recede behind the scenes, it’s the generosity of this expansive vision that allows us to become wholly immersed in about:blank, and to emerge, again, changed.
Review: about:blank reviewed by Roisin Ni Neachtain for Crow of Minerva Arts Magazine (Jan 2022)
about:blank is a fiercely intelligent, philosophically complex book of poetry resonating with references to philosophy of language, existentialism, Beckett and Descartes amongst others. The poet himself discusses the process of writing it in reference to the “Jungian active imagination.”
Wyeth invites us here into a haunting, protean, rhizomatic dreamscape which forces us to question everything. Immerse yourself in its rhythm and language, let yourself fall into a trance and find some part of yourself altered.
The work is prefaced by several quotes but the one which struck me the most was Harold Pinter’s, master of psychological drama, of spaces. Instantly I thought of the quote: “no man’s land… does not move…or change…or grow old…remains…forever …icy…silent,” of how some memories remain frozen and others, perhaps most others, fade and change and continue to do so. But I also thought of a no man’s land, a terrifying and dangerous place between the trenches where deserted soldiers would hide and appear as “ghoulish beasts” to scavenge from the dead, which poet Wilfred Owed described as “the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.”
My mind was equally drawn back to Giacometti, the painted frame around his portraits, the sculpted figures, elongated, warped and distended in space for this is a book whose anxious, hallucinatory loops play with your perception and imbues its sensory space with profound questions and contradictions. It forges infinite connections while also imparting a sense of alienation.
The “blank,” a non-linguistic form, here both visual and auditory, reinforces this idea of a “structural transformation.” Myth, chimera and alchemy, Wyeth’s poetry challenges the reader’s reality through a richly imaginative, Joycean journey of his unconscious.