I received d.p. houston’s poetry collection, Boite de Vers, in the post last week. It’s completely unreadable, but not in the sense that it’s bad. It could well be, but I have no idea because it comes in a sealed box. There are apparently five of these sealed boxes in circulation, and mine is lettered A. Like the hypothetical box containing Schrödinger’s cat, the precise nature of its contents are indeterminate. I could break the seal of strong black tape and open it, of course, but doing so would alter it. Not least because I’m then required to commemorate this action by filling in the attached label, marking a cross or tick ‘to indicate whether or not the intrusion comes to be regretted’. It feels like a puzzle, or even a personality test: what kind of person would open the box?
There are some tantalising clues on the accompanying printout. ‘The books in the box are real and the work within almost entirely unknown in this country’, it states, displaying a picture of the contents unsealed, but face down. There are 137 poems and I even know some of their titles: ‘The World According to the Confessions of Lasser Vice’, and ‘Project Sonnet’. They sound intriguing and funny. Possibly a bit dirty, too, as the collection comes with a teasing ‘trigger warning’ of unsuitable content. ‘Parietal advisory’ cautions the box: not a typo, but wordplay, relating to a partition, or a walled-off cavity or container.
Books in boxes are a peculiar species, but not unheard of. BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates from
1969 is probably the most famous example. Issued in this way with its chapters separate and unbound, the story can be rearranged in any order. Marc Saporta’s Composition Number 1 was published earlier that decade and, more experimentally, allowed readers to treat its loose leaf pages either as stand alone narratives or part of a sequence. More recently, Anne Carson’s Nox (2010) used a box to house its long, accordion folded meditation on grief and translation, incorporating the fragments and scraps of her brother’s life. Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012) likewise uses a box to accommodate an unconventional format. Part model, part graphic novel, it is to be assembled and played with as much as read. Boxes allow books to do different things, then, to take different forms and to be read and manipulated in unusual ways.
But d.p. houston’s Boite de Vers is a different proposition. Here, the box is not a mechanism designed to free the book from the constraints of the binding, but just the reverse: to entomb it totally. It’s not to make it readable in a different way, but prevent reading completely. Comparisons are hard to come by, but perhaps it’s more like an item I encountered recently in the Cambridge University Library Special Collections. The Hyakumantō darani (FG.870.1-4) is a Buddhist invocation – a kind of prayer on a slip of rolled up paper. It’s one of the oldest printed texts in the world, made using a woodblock in the 8th century. But it’s not meant to be read. Thousands and thousands of such texts were produced, each sealed inside the hollow body of a miniature wooden pagoda, about four inches high, then placed in a temple. The text inside was concealed from human eyes. Its hiddenness is what gives it power.
Boite de Vers works in a similar way, breaking the circuit between reader and writer in a way that generates the frisson, or the frustration, depending on your perspective. It’s a conundrum, hovering between one state and another. While it remains sealed, it’s ‘a conceptual piece intended as an incarnation of obscurity.’ It’s less a work of literature than an artistic provocation. But opening would shift it from one state to the other. The uncertainty is the point of this quasi-literary object. The contents could be mind-blowing or mediocre but, as the notes on the outside of the box put it, ‘why take the chance?’ Boite de Vers translates literally as box of verse, but it’s also the French for ‘can of worms.’ Everyone knows it’s never wise to open one of those.