Retinal Workout by Jesse Hilson

AETUI: PENTAGRAM POEMS. Jessica Hagy. Inside the Castle, 2022. 227 pages.

When I was a kid my best friend Bill and I loved Mad Magazine, Spy vs Spy, and other assorted comic books for kids, along with a certain kind of publication I’ll just call “joke books.” I can’t remember all the titles but they were small books that would fit in your pocket and frequently they had a sexual or otherwise offensive charge. One book I remember, Truly Tasteless Jokes, was nothing but pages and pages of jokes about dead babies. “Q. How do you unload a truck full of dead babies? A. With a pitchfork.” Stupid sick wretched novelty crap from the 1980s.

AETUI by Jessica Hagy, the cartoonist and blogger known for creating whimsical and insightful Venn diagrams and graphs on the popular website Indexed, is light years away from that in content but the format reminds me of those joke books. The book is small and the 110 entries all have a more or less repeated morphology: a misshapen stretched pentagram, and underneath that, a simple list of five simple word-concepts corresponding to the points of the pentagram, then the facing page shows another list, of ten line-segments that illustrate some relationship between the concepts or words in the pentagram.

It’s all very simple and clear on the surface, and easily lures the eyeball in. This is where Hagy’s book gets tricky. Her decisions about what to make of these interrelationships between words are marked with enough playful wit and invention that quickly the reader’s circuitry can become overwhelmed. But it’s a pleasant kind of overwhelmed that in some ways may be meant to echo, on the page, the sensation of data-intake we in 2022 have as we negotiate graphs, menus, cascades of advertisements, and other visual interfaces online. I’ve never seen any of Hagy’s other work before so my retinas and eye-muscles were unprepared for the workout they were about to get.

It’s hard to explain this eyeball-to-cortex tennis match without examples. On page 34 we have figure number 14, entitled “Whatever floats your boat.” Beneath the pentagram there is a list of five -isms hinting at an array of eroticized perversions: “A = Voyeurism, B = Exhibitionism, C = Masochism, D = Sadism, E = Capitalism.” On the right-facing page, the list of ten possible line segments illustrating relationships between the five -isms proceeds: “AB = Open drapes, AC = Internet stalking your exes, AD = Rubbernecking, AE = Reality television, BC = Social media, BD = Revenge porn, BE = Stripping, CD = Suicide bombers, CE = Employees, DE = Employers.” Concepts are blended in a set cycle of rotating interpositions that make perfect sense: stalking exes on the Internet is indeed like voyeurism crossed with deriving pleasure from seeking pain for one’s self, and then, clicking one position over, we have to nod our heads, stung by the insight that social media is often the terra firma of exhibitionist masochists! The combinations are sharp; they are simultaneously brain-teasing and for the most part perfectly clear as good jokes should be.

Elsewhere the interconnections in the diagrams are not as clear, and this is where the material of the book veers into an area that may be deemed more poetic. The pathways of associations that Hagy opens up in her lists can jar us out of linguistic complacency the way a poem can. In figure 44, “What gets put down,” with A = Rabid dogs, B = Brutal books, C = Tired babies, D = Car windows, E = The weapon, we are shown with AE the shotgun used to end a rabid dog’s misery, and with BE how censorship may be a weapon to kill brutal books, but to think of CE, “a lullaby” as a weapon against tired babies takes us aback for a second. The magic trick of the book is to show how words have a multiplicity of meanings and shadings when combined with other words. I couldn’t quite make out the significance of the title, AETUI — no matter, it is all part of a gently forbidding esoteric package that doesn’t need to be delved into too deeply, like a cartoon imp protecting a doorway to a secret library.

The pentagram diagrams, warped and torqued out of whack (using the book as a flip book is fun, you get to watch the pentagram flail about on the page like an electrified starfish), are there to serve as a visual focus, a “locking-on” point for your mind to conceive of the five interrelated listings. The suggestion of arcane magical spells is implied by the ubiquitous five-pointed star. The frothy, accessible simplicity of the book’s design, almost for design’s sake, sets AETUI among the most coveted art-book-objects that have come out in recent years from Inside the Castle, a painfully cool small press in Lawrence, Kansas “specializing in works of literature from the ‘expanded field.’” Imagine a literate bathroom humor book designed by Edward R. Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, with a dash of satanic panic provocation added for countercultural spice.

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