[Hiding Press; 2020]
John Pætsch is a poet and philosopher from Philadelphia. His new work of experimental poetry from Hiding Press, Ctasy, -of shapes off shore, is a confrontation, each poem subverts expectations, challenging the reader’s perceptions and understandings of form. The first provocation comes at the beginning: from the moment the reader picks up the thin, turquoise book, they are invited to navigate the question of how to begin. Traditionally, of course, the front cover is where you start and where the book seems most familiar. “Ctasy,” is printed in the lower right corner, but when you open it, the upper inside cover says “-of shapes off shore.” And then the cover folds out, presenting readers with a hand drawn map. The note beside the map reads,
along the solid line; a non –
linear reading would
flow, in any order.
Along the dashed and
Alternate Text: The hand drawn map is a collection of curves and swirls, connecting five words – Raoul, Ctasy, Coyl, Chrysta, and Treat. Some lines are solid and some are dashes. Both solid and dashes have arrows pointing in one direction. Raoul is enclosed by ellipses of both dashed and solid lines. Chrysta is within a solid triangle. Ctasy is to the left, treat down and right from that. Chrysta is about Treat and directly right of Ctasy, at an angle. Coyl is just above Chrysta. Ctasy, Treat, and Coyl are in the spaces between solid and dashed lines. A series of 8 lines project diagonally from the lower right corner.)
On the opposing page reads, Pætsch writes:
and that there be never offered to the eyes of
of him in charge of the sack
-How It Is
The book is divided into five sections identified as cycles that imperfectly correspond with the headings, posted on each of the green cardstock pages, that divide the sections. “Ctasy,” on the cover invokes the cycle that is presented first (I don’t say “first cycle”, as the poet has gone to great lengths to persuade me that the presented order and the order of meaning are not the same). Within each “chapter” are sections numbered I through III. The numbering starts over several times within each chapter, and always in repeated sets of three. “Treat Cycle” is presented next, followed by “NOT NOW CTASY,” which corresponds with “chrysta” on the map. “coyl cycle” is encountered fourth from the cover, leaving “Raoul I” (there is no Raoul II) as the section closest to the back cover, which folds out and presents these images:
Alternative text: On the left page are eight multi-sided shapes arranged in pairs, vertically. They are labelled 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. On the opposite page are six shapes arranged as three pairs – 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. 7 is on the lower right of the first page and is the largest shape. The numbers do not correspond to the size or number of sides. The image looks old, like it could come from an antiquated geometry textbook.
I wanted to begin this discussion of Ctasy, -of shapes off shore as readers first encounter the book. Much of the pleasure of reading these poems springs from Pætsch’s challenge to readers to figure out how to make meaning of and within this book. A reader will certainly discern patterns of organization the poet has intentionally placed in their way, but, through the map at the front and strategically repeating themes throughout, the poet also destabilizes the apparent organization of the text. In figuring out how to approach the book, each reader solves the problems of chronology and connection in their own way, helping to shape the meaning they encounter and their overall impression of the work.
According to the map, the book can begin in several places, though it’s challenging for a printed text to represent non-linear progress as effectively as digital, and I did wonder how Ctasy might exist and function as a digital text. The sections are related thematically, but not consecutively, and only through perceiving commonalities in the imagery and construction of words do themes and movements emerge. These themes and movements include animals passing through metamorphoses, light refracting in water, alternate spellings and abbreviations, and antiquarian diction of natural philosophy. Language describing defunct concepts still contains meaning and through reorganizing and recontextualizing that language, meaning can, like an insect, morph into something wholly new composed of the same original materials.
The primary concept in this collection is instability, and how meaning is preserved through and in spite of instability. The speaker observes, “it’s like trying to write numbers on ceaseless tonic.” On one of the first pages, we encounter three variant spellings for Ctasy: Ctasy, Ctsy, and Ctace. “Ctasy” reads like an echo of “ecstasy,” but is different enough for it to form a new term and to destabilize the connection to the apparent root. Ecstasy is a transcendent state, one in which one’s internal state of being overwhelms them, overtakes sensory experience, such that the internal state of joy is the primary essence of being. Ecstasy is not easily achieved, at least spiritually or intellectually, and all cultures have directed religious and secular philosophy toward understanding it. It is also slippery, changing, never the same; one’s ecstasy is another’s nightmare, one’s transcendence is another’s rejection. Ecstasy, though usually presented with a common spelling, is not one state, but many. Indeed, throughout the various sections, words are presented with various spellings and abbreviations, all of which emphasize Pætsch’s point: meaning is not inextricably tied to the symbol, but instigated by the form of the symbol, even if that symbol is impermanent or mutable in itself.
If Pætsch’s poems showcase the instability of words – the molecules of the symbolic order – then drawing imagery from antiquated science and natural philosophy texts represents the opposite end of the ontological spectrum. Empirical science attempts to explain everything; and what makes science humanity’s most successful, beneficial, and destructive ontology is that it attempts to explain observable phenomena in the world around us. Concepts must have a physical referent. Science is indivisible from the one true common language, mathematics. Surely, these supra-ideological traits of science must represent our closest approach to, if not stability, then at least something we might recognize as order?
The poet reminds us that meaning is not truth, and through employing antiquated, often defunct, scientific language and concepts, we must acknowledge that even languages claiming to refer to an observable order (aka science and math) are in constant flux. Meaning is implicit in the maelstrom of words and ideas, but it can never transcend its context.
Pætsch thoroughly disabuses us of the notion that order prevails anywhere, and everywhere. He does so by drawing much of the imagery in Ctasy from antiquated science or natural technology texts. The poet warps the meanings of these texts, splicing them with original syntax and who knows what else. It is this repurposing of proto- and early scientific texts that reminds readers that all is in flux – not only within our universe, but especially our understanding of it.
Released from my crustacean identity to obtain the quality of a sponge,
a porous simultaneity, a participation that on the night when
[inaudible] played was an emulsion of stars, palindromes, and
anagrams inexplicably recalling my namesake [cstasy?] bearing me
to the reverse of the weaving where the same threads & colors form a
What does it mean to be released from the crustacean identity to become a sponge – a “porous simultaneity” passively siphoning its existence? In the chain of evolution, a crustacean would appear further along than a sponge, more of the goal than the starting point, but in Pætsch’s poem, evolution is reversed. A sponge resembles a colony of micro-organisms, despite being a very simple organism itself. Crustaceans have complex invertebrate bodies with advanced senses like vision and appendages capable of manipulating its environment. However, the unity of the crustacean presents a limitation in the poem, one the simpler and less united sponge does not suffer – individuality. “[inaudible]” is a pivot point, a retreat back into the symbolic order of “palindromes and anagrams.” Language, like anatomy and physiology, can take many forms.
In Ctasy, meaning is implicit in disorder. It may be hard to pin down or agree upon, but even if a reader starts in the middle and reads backwards, the words and the images they form will offer the same puzzles and complications to the reader. The strategy on the poet’s part here appears to be deliberate repetitions and alterations that repeat similar variations on a limited number of themes and concepts, so that readers are forced to encounter these concepts and ideas no matter where they start or which direction they head.
The second part of the title, “- of shapes off shore”, emphasizes uncertainty as a concept central to this collection of poems. Straining to see or make out a shape is a familiar optical sensation to most people and a powerful metaphor for uncertainty. Refraction, the ways water or other substances bend light, is a scientific concept suited to explain a phenomenon of uncertainty in human vision. Perhaps poetry is a philosophical or aesthetic version of refraction, a way to explore uncertain meanings and unclear images. An inherent trait of human eyes, all people see “shapes off shore” — whether submerged or somewhere along the curvature of the horizon — as warped and indistinct. The image reminded me of Stephen Crane’s classic short story, “The Open Boat,” in which a group of adrift shipwreck survivors are unable to secure help from people on land because as a ‘shape off shore’, others were unable to ascertain their distress. Crane’s shore resembled Pætsch’s, only on a simpler existential level. For both, the shore is safety and the illusion of clarity. It is a primary, relatable perspective for terrestrial animals like us. The sea, bottomless and anatomically hostile to human bodies, distorts our vision and understanding, and yet we continue to look into it. Is the sea language? Is the sea ontology? Isn’t ontology language? Can we capture our own shapes, recognizably, in words or do our words always remain indistinct, like shapes off shore?
By splicing questions throughout diction of natural history, we’re reminded of immediate and situational uncertainty along with ontological uncertainty discussed thus far. For example, the poet writes,
milked by kept pupæ like moi, hatch at such a price that to be
poured back down yr own holes – when you cd purr out yr last days
in this rented cell—is an insult? “Are these minutes pre-paid? “Is
that a serious question?” “You tell us.” “Can you hear us through
the static?” We can’t build a case with this audio…. Brittle calcite over
The variant spelling of “yr,” refers us to both text messaging shorthand and early modern printing typeset for “your.” “Milked pupæ” anachronistically combines mammalian and insect physiology. Cell could be a room or the building block of organisms. “poured” and “purr” exhibit a phonic entanglement and the insult could be social or medical. The connection of the words in the questions to the context around them remains uncertain, just as audio disrupted by static never fully reveals the meanings embedded in the sound wave. Why someone would want to argue for “brittle calcite” – unliving, accreted matter – over “toxic flesh” – living in a tautological toxicity to itself – remains uncertain, but, of course, that is the point.
As you may have gathered, a reader can isolate any quarter or half-page selection of Ctasy, and pick the text apart like a forensic owl pellet. As an owl pellet reliably produces rat fur and bones, so any isolated text in this collection will contain layers of imagery emphasizing the universality of uncertainty and the idea that any meaning drawn is done so from disorder. Although, the poems don’t present pandemonium; they convey meaning in a non-linear fashion. The risk in abandoning, or at least minimizing, the directional dimension of the work is that the poet must convey the main concepts pervasively and so the imagery can feel repetitious. For example, “metamorphosis,” “larval,” and “larvae” appear frequently, symbolizing transformative and liminal states. I suspect I am at least as enthused about invertebrate metamorphosis as your average reader, but as a pervasive image, it’s pretty specific and all the larvae distracted me. This is simply one example, but the same could be said for bracketed words, ligatures, and abbreviations.
Ctasy, is either a very casual read, or not a casual read at all. You can pick the book up and enjoy the language play or you can examine it, trying to decipher and decode it. I struggle to see an in-between, which is ironic, because the book is about in-betweens, and about struggling to see.
There’s a museum on Venice Blvd in Los Angeles called The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Ctasy, shares commonalities with the MJT collections. Like Ctasy, the MJT deals in uncertainty presented through what appear to be antiquated scientific paradigms. Some of the exhibits, like the miniature trailer parks of LA, play with the dimension of size, while others, like the room where visitors interactively create cat’s cradles, draw attention to shifting shapes and forms. Some exhibits are art installations, some are historic collections, and some are art exhibits made to look like historic collections. A visitor can choose varying paths through the exhibits. They will never be quite certain what she is looking at.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a three-dimensional space. For something to be non-linear requires more than two dimensions. With Ctasy, Pætsch has drawn us into the same questions about appearance vs actuality, knowledge vs ignorance, stagnation vs instability. Existing with uncertainty can be disorienting, but it can also instigate creativity and wonder. The maps at the outset of the book attempt to add dimensions to the two dimensional, consecutively printed text. Are those dimensions depth and time? Are they memory and conjecture? Perhaps they are creativity and wonder. And creativity and wonder are good reasons to read Ctasy, -of shapes off shore.
Eric Aldrich’s recent work has appeared in Hobart, Manifest West, The Worcester Review, and The Arcanist. His novella, Please Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed, is forthcoming from Running Wild Press. You can follow Eric via ericaldrich.net or @ericjamesaldrich on Instagram.