Poetry News

A First Look at Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings

By Harriet Staff
Mirtha Dermisache, Selected Writings, cover

Critic and editor Will Fenstermaker has written at length about Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, co-published by Ugly Duckling Presse and Siglio Press and co-edited by Daniel Owen and Lisa Pearson, for the Paris Review Daily. Dermisache (1940–2012), an Argentine artist and practitioner of asemic writing (or "graphisms"), is long overdue the attention of the United States, and this publication collects two complete books and a selection of graphic texts from the early 1970s. "It’s not important what happens on a sheet of paper, the important thing is what happens within us," quotes Fenstermaker. An excerpt:

Dermisache’s letter-ish scripts twist and curl, bleed into amorphous shapes, and run cleanly across lines like telephone wires. She scribbles, fills in horizontal lines running one above the other, or blocks out polygons and abstract hieroglyphs into tidy rows. She writes in black, blue, seeping shades of red. Yet for all the shapes and forms, we recognize her marks immediately as language. They compose a sort of ur-language, which may, on occasion, vaguely resemble the sleekly linear letters of Arabic or the regimented cursive of South Asian abugidas, but follow no grammar or syntax. They fall into a tradition of asemic writing—writing without semantic content—that dates to the Tang dynasty, perhaps originating with two Chinese calligraphers affectionately referred to as “the crazy Zhang and the drunk Su,” who excelled at wild, illegible calligraphy. The movement was embraced in the avant-garde by Henri Michaux and Robert Walser in the twenties and later, in the fifties, by artists such as Cy Twombly and Isidore Isou. At a recent exhibition of Dermisache’s work, she was shown alongside her contemporaries Guy de Cointet and Gerd Leufert. In comparison, their works are more studied, as if they were composing semiotic tricks or compacting rather than expanding a thought. While avoiding language, they are nonetheless functions of it, in as much as their work hinges on expressing some linear idea. But if Dermisache wrote words, they were empty of meaning. She sought to free her lines from their tether to representation.

Nonetheless, Dermisache’s works do rely on some received wisdom—how could they not? 

Read more, and see more, right here.