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The Book Which Does Not Exist by X, Ex Nihilo Press, 400 BCE. ISBN # 0-00000-000-0. Price: N/A.
by Briggs Seekins

A great many readers of contemporary American poetry have been quick to dismiss X's The Book Which Does Not Exist. As the highly regarded poet and critic Donald Hall stated during a recent AWP interview: "It is difficult for me to see what benefit there is in reading a book which does not in fact exist." However, it is fair to say that X foresaw much of the criticism with which his work would be met and the terse evocation that appears on the first page of the book seems almost designed to be an answer to that criticism:
     And slowly but surely X is gaining an enthusiastic following among many younger and more experimental writers, especially on the East Coast and in certain University towns of the Mid-west. These writers, intoxicated with X's almost sublime audacity, seem to regard the enigmatic X as a kind of prototype for the Nietzschean artist/Ubermensch, viewing The Book Which Does Not Exist itself as a Zarathustran achievement, the highest possible statement of individual artistic integrity. On the other hand, The Book Which Does Not Exist has also garnered considerable interest among Left-wing literary critics who feel it subverts the overall philosophical impulse which lies behind the Capitalist system. In the most recent issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly, important critic and philosopher Fredric Jameson wrote: "The Book Which Does Not Exist is above all a thumbing of the nose aimed at the Protestant work ethic, that desire which is central to the mechanisms of a late Capitalist culture, the desire to create and to achieve."
      The Book Which Does Not Exist
has generated more interesting discussion than any poetry book in recent memory. But my interest is in calling attention to the work itself, hopefully articulating and emphasizing at least a few of X's considerable aesthetic achievements.
      Without question, X's most obvious poetic influence is Pound, particularly the Pound of the Pisan Cantos. X employs the same cut and paste approach to imagery and shares with Pound a keen interest in the entire breadth of human civilization. In the following remarkable passage from the poem "Highway Rest Stop, 3 a.m." X employs five different languages within a space of seven lines, including Shakaricarian, an obscure dialect of ancient Sumerian and one which many experts previously believed did not exist:
     While X is clearly indebted to Pound, I see a perhaps even closer, if more subtle, affinity with Marianne Moore. Like Moore, X is above all else a shrewdly intelligent, oftentimes ironic, moralizer. Also like Moore, he is prone to creating his own complex and idiosyncratic forms. While he does not employ syllabic meter, exactly one third of the poems in The Book Which Does Not Exist contain exactly 81 words. 81 is of course the square root of nine which also happens to be the square root of three. Each of these 81 word poems contains three stanzas of 25 words each with a final, "orphan," line of six words, six of course being three two times. Numerous world cultures have viewed three as a magical, even a holy, number; most notably perhaps were the followers of Pythagoras in ancient Greece. Again and again X revisits the theme of mathematical structures in general and man-made forms in particular. In the poem "While Contemplating the Gateway Arch in St. Louis," for example, X demonstrates how a given form at once offers exciting new opportunities while also rendering other opportunities forever closed:
     Because The Book Which Does Not Exist doesn't actually exist, X is able to assign any year he chooses for its publication date. Obviously this would be impossible for those less adventurous writers, who insist on writing actual books and are therefor forced to publish in one of the years in which they happen to reside. Many critics have maintained that the publication date of 400 BCE is just a bunch of arbitrary and cheeky absurdism on the part of X. But such flippant dismissal shows a true lack of critical erudition. More thoughtful critics like myself have been quick to note that 400 BCE was the year of Thucydides' death. Thus X is able to metaphorically establish a link between himself and that first and most celebrated of Greek historians. And here we perhaps get our strongest indication of precisely what X sees as his task in not writing The Book Which Does Not Exist-for it is in the role of historian where X believes he finds his true calling. And indeed, once the link with Thucydides has been established it is impossible not to hear the echo of Pericles Funeral Oration in X's own "Elegy For Those Who Have Fallen":
     If the primary, most important, goal of art is to move us then the lines I just did not quote clearly prove that X is an artist of the highest magnitude. The critic of course always labors with the desire to convince and convert. But I realize that many readers will remain too conservative to accept a work as revolutionary as The Book Which Does Not Exist. And for those, like myself, who are already believers, my own words can only appear as a pale rhetorical shadow beside the brilliant light of the original work. Probably the best thing any of us can do is simply revisit X's remarkable book, finding renewed pleasure and insight each time we do. And beyond this, we can only wait patiently and hope passionately that X will not write again. And the sooner the better.

Briggs Seekins is currently working on a manuscript entitled: Did Poetry Prolong the Vietnam War?: Echoes of the Heroic Couplet in the Correspondences between Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.


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