Released in 1956, Rythmetic by Evelyn Lambert & Norman McLaren is frequently misinterpreted as a one-dimensional educational film with a bit of humour to keep things entertaining. Numerals and mathematical shapes move in controlled, lyric gestures upon a crisp blue background. Spreading across the screen in geometric patterns, the numbers bump and chafe, spawn anew, and add and subtract themselves in the dance of arithmetic operations. Writing in 1976 for the Canadian Film Institute, Maynard Collins described the film thusly:
“Following the heels of a teaching assignment in India for UNESCO, this amusing non-verbal lecture on the subject of mathematics reveals…feelings about the inadequacies of communication between peoples of different cultures and languages. After toying with several ideas for making a truly international film, [McLaren & Lambert] settled on Arabic numerals as probably the most understood method of communication, far more so than any other alphabet.”
It may be comforting to a viewer grasping at meaning to place such autobiographical motives at the heart of the film, but a serious question arises: would two visionary animators put their talents toward an aim so plain, so didactic?
To attempt to answer the question, we must discard the impulse to place such importance on the life of the artist as source of inspiration, for there are many ways of reading this film. One possible avenue is found in the work of another often misinterpreted Canadian artist, the poet bpNichol.
To scholar Kit Dobson, “the best thing about reading bpNichol is the impossibility of reading bpNichol,” arguing that attempting to read his poems through the lens of personality and personal relationships has “limited how his work might be understood.”
When I first watched Rythmetic, I was instantly struck by the similarity to Nichol’s series of poems “probable systems” that uses cryptarithms (mathematical games with arithmetical operations where numbers are substituted for letters or other symbols) in an attempt to quantify the ephemeral. Take this example from 1974:
probable systems 4
this one’s for james joyce in his worst bummer
= 6 + 1 + 9 + 20 + 8
= 8 + 15 + 16 + 5
We are shown the work of his process and gain access to what Paul Dutton has described as the satisfaction we get from watching someone else’s original thinking. Having proved faith equals hope (literally and not by metaphor), Nichol cleverly illustrates the expressiveness of mathematics for speaking directly to the human experience.
The same emotion is at the heart of Rythmetic. The shapes don’t always follow the rules: they jump, bounce, dart across the screen, and, only after significant effort, settle. At one point, a mutating zero explodes the arithmetic attempting to contain its energy. The symbols police the numerals while the numerals bristle against the strict control.
This is no artless arithmetic. This is the lyric struggle of a life: to define yourself against the rules of a society that you could not help being born into, sometimes with success and sometimes not. Like Nichol’s “probable systems,” Rythmetic “analyses and expresses the unfolding of its own creative process” and invites the viewer to participate in meaning.
Really, though, when has math (or life) ever been simple?
J. A. Brown, T. Trowbridge and J. Szabó, "The poetic metrics of bpNichol," 2009 IEEE Toronto International Conference Science and Technology for Humanity (TIC-STH), Toronto, ON, 2009, pg. 933-938.
Dobson, Kit, "Openings: bpNichol's Ephemera," Open Letter 13, No.8, Ed. Lori Emerson, 2009, pg 9-18.
Nichol, bp, a book of variations: love-zygal-art facts, ed by Stephen Voyce, Coach House Books, Toronto, ON, 2013, pg 176.
Utako, Kurihara, “Norman McLaren’s Animated Film Rythmetic as Temporal Art,” Bigaku (Aesthetics), No. 15, The Japanese Society for Aesthetics, Tokyo, 2011, pg 116-124.
Listen to the subtle melodies of assonance, the call and response of slant rhyme feeding the reader through to the turn. Notice the repetition of single syllable words, an insistent rhythm. Owen uses sound like a lure, seduces the reader with music.
The poems of Somatic are inspired by the life and work of Austrian painter Egon Schiele. Published twenty years ago, this was Owen’s first book (the author gifted me a copy at a reading we did together) and the verse is grounded in the themes she continues to explore: art, love, death, desire, and the nature of the muse.
An interesting polyphony develops as the poems accrue. Subtle shifts in voice help the poems differentiate themselves, but have the effect on this reader of too much too soon. I wanted to dwell for longer with some sounds, rhythms, rather than following “their fine disturbances.” (42) Maybe it’s just the collection is short and no dominant voice develops fully. Still, if there is a through line, it is of distance, the poet-observer, Owen conscious of the humanity of the artist and of his subjects, the viewer and viewed, “the white brushed so lightly / around the brown / was done to suggest spirit, / the body’s other skin.” (34)
Owen’s interpretation of Schiele urges a drawing close of the dark, sexual, and for whatever reason ‘forbidden’ by society: “to take the darkness and draw / it ever deeper.” (41) The sexuality in the poems reflects Schiele's art, the times, and the character, but it also points to empowerment through sexual liberation and the freedom of living outside societal norms. Schiele paid a steep price when he was jailed for public immorality. He was never the same after:
With twenty-four days, your self-portraits
changed, the eyes no longer flaunted
a haughty pose of youth but become pools,
disturbed by stones so huge that ripples
bellied out over the surface, blind and unceasing.
“Prison, Neulengbach, 1912” (46)
There’s that music again, delivering the tragedy of Schiele’s life and the intense beauty of his art in equal measure. The narrative is black but the buoyancy of the language ensures accessibility to darkness. Somatic stands as a testament to the dangers of the rebel life and of non-conformity, and at the same time, prophets the necessity of following one’s truth, whatever the consequence.
This month's reading features special and exciting readings by local authors ryan fitzpatrick, Deanna Fong and Geoffrey Nilson. And Ashley-Elizabeth Best is joining us all the way from Ontario to launch her much anticipated debut book of poetry.
Please join us at The Lido, 518 East Broadway, Vancouver, BC. Doors at 6 p.m. Readings at 6:30 p.m.
Admission is, of course, FREE. And we'll catch the last hour of Happy Hour at The Lido.
This event takes place on unceded Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh land.
Poetry in the Park is back again for another great season of spoken words. Come check us out every Wednesday in July and August at the Bandshell in beautiful Queen’s Park!
Summer 2016 Lineup:Dates Features
July 6 Jordan Abel, Joanne Arnott & Ray Hsu
July 13 Candice James & Geoffrey Nilson
July 20 Elizabeth Bachinsky & Erin Kirsh
July 27 Cecily Nicholson, Manolis & Kevin Spenst
August 3 Jónína Kirton & RC Weslowski
August 10 Kyle McKillop & Timothy Shay
August 17 Susan McCaslin & Rob Taylor
August 24 Raoul Fernandes & Johnny MacRae
August 31 Wayde Compton & Renee Saklikar
im excited to be a part of this wonderful local event series in New Westminster.
Excited to announce that my chapbook, We Have To Watch, has been selected for presentation as part of the 30th Annual Two Days of Canada Conference on "The Concept of Vancouver" that will take place on 13-14 October 2016 at The Centre for Canadian Studies at Brock University.
There will plenary presentations by Rita Wong, Richard Cavell, Michael Turner, Lisa Robertson, and Roy Miki — and a special keynote public address by George Bowering, Canada's first Poet Laureate and two-time Governor-General's Literary Award winner. The conference will involve a rich melange of artists, activists, and academics. There will be papers, discussion forums, music performances, poetry readings, visual art, and public lectures.
The 30th annual "Two Days of Canada" conference at Brock University, the oldest Canadian Studies conference of its kind in Canada, invites scholars, artists, writers, and activists to broadly think through the conceptualizations of the histories, presents, and futures of the city. Papers and panels will consider the conceptualization of the arts, literatures, and politics of Vancouver, and the interconnections these concepts have with other scales of engagement, including the national and planetary issues in which Vancouver participates.
More Info and To Buy Issues Go to the Qwerty Website
This weekend my videopoem, Headache Summer, will be shown as part of the 2015 Visible Verse Festival. Details below>>>
An evening of videopoems* curated and hosted by Ray Hsu.
*videopoem = video art + poetry + creative ingenuity
Presented by The Cinematheque since 2000, Visible Verse is one of the longest-running video poetry festivals in the world. Video poetry is a hybrid creative form bringing together verse and moving images. Visible Verse selects its annual program from hundreds of submissions received from local, national, and international artists.
On the occasion of the 2015 festival, The Cinematheque says a fond farewell and expresses its great gratitude to Heather Haley, founder of Visible Verse and its curator and host from 2000 to 2014. We welcome Vancouver poet Ray Hsu into his new role as Visible Verse’s artistic director.
Admission is $11; attendees must have a Cinematheque membership which can be purchased for $3.
Advance tickets can be purchased online: