A Measure of Off Language

Jim Leftwich
April 2017


















A Measure of Off Language

Martino Oberto letter [da “tool”, n.1]/om (1965)

We begin at the top left, as usual, and are immediately diverted from our proposed
reading-route by a large textual bollard, a burst of scrawled handwriting which after a moment
of looking seems to read “off language” — the “off” is clear enough, but the “language” appears to
have been written twice, an “overwriting” by analogy to overprinting — encircled and in quotes.
To the right is a smaller encircling containing an illegible letteral scrunch: omslobero — maybe if
the letters could be pulled apart it would read: om oberto (and maybe I am making that up).

Above that is a legible letterstring: “Fuorisaciq”. The descender of the ‘q’ extends through the
center of the “om” below it.

Some of the page is legible and in English. Written from bottom to top along the right margin, to
be read with the page in landscape, is the following, “marchia linguistic for a measure of —
[written as ‘ofF’] — language”. A measure of off language. Off language again appears at the end
of this phrase. Returning to the top left we encounter what resembles a zaum list poem along
the left edge of the page:

off luiu

Beneath the large textual bollard described above the words “off language” are written plainly.
The next line however is not so clear:
disabled universe
dissundered universe
disengendered universe
disheveled universe
I considered “dispatched” and “diagnosed” but decided there was too little subletteral evidence
to seriously propose them. To the right a half-circle flourish, which begins at the bottom of the
double baseline beneath the disordered universe, encloses three-fourths of the textual universe
occupied by the phrase “young philosophy”. Above that, scribbled-over, is probably “Abstract”
but maybe “Closet” or “Cold street”. And to the left of that — though all I can honestly claim to
see is the letterstring “lettozape” — I find the word “letterscape”.

The double baseline is followed by two lines of x’ed-out writing and overscribble, all of which is
followed by another baseline.

“I read the lingering Abulafia at no snow shovel in Bretton Woods, cavalcade of breath and
exotic shit on display and backwards, asymmetrical martyrs of inaction, no exit upon inspection
is free to enable a frolic of chokeholds in the cold.”

Of course it isn’t there, isn’t there exactly or even entirely implicitly, but I refuse to be confined to
a realism of reading, as if a poem is a quarterly report on energy conversions and investments.
A poem is an incessant report on energy conversions and investments, investments of energy in
the conversion of energies, high-energy constructs and discharges — from the writer to the
poem, from the poem to the reader, from the reader to the poem, from the reader through the
poem to the reader as another writer. Realism is only an ism, is always outdated and externally
imposed, always an agenda of power against anybody’s reading of a world — that’s why the
writing must be radically open… and that’s why the reading must be equal to what is being read.

Below the baseline are four more lines, followed by another baseline. These lines represent the
Abstract letterscape:

“curvature circulates curiously, oblong in front of lawyers and limousines, benedict-toed
blood-boots scry the squared circle twice, happiness is a steel-toed floodlight on your nose,
crayola by 5-greed sneaking sleet through the slippery streets, chances are cheese voltage zoo

If we aren’t making an attempt to read it, then it can only be some kind of outsider art. But it is
not any kind of outsider art. It is writing. It is poetry, and it is stripping our dendrites from their
comfortable lattice. It is training them to climb on their own, and not to get too attached.

The next three lines are even more densely overscribbled.

“off helmet humus talus Talmud language sinus parking lot beekeeper, meathis, pounce therein wherewithal verbatim, wisdom of frozen formica, rote meanings maya parsec eel-limen attic
lewd lexical clambake in the basement, gone to meet the fleet of poets on the mountain, Texas
neon eros, scanner, scannerose, batten the lemons Maine, hone tooth sails, Rhododendron nevermore.”

The syllable Om is referred to as aksara (literally, letter of the alphabet, imperishable,
immutable) or ekaksara (one letter of the alphabet). Om is the smallest mantra (Sanskrit, a
thought, thought behind speech or action). Om embodies the essence of the universe. The
universe arose from sound. As sacred sound, Om is continuity, it coheres. Om is a bow, the self
is an arrow, Absolute Reality is the target. Om is big, bigger than China. Om is nebulous (think
of the Horsehead Nebula, the Cat’s Eye Nebula, the Eagle Nebula, The Triangulum Emission
Garren Nebula — very big and very nebulous). Om is vague (indefinite, indeterminate, unclear,
celar, approximate Tzara, ambiguous). It can and will mean almost anything (while seeming to
know next to nothing about everything). Don’t stop now to think you know anything about where
we are. We are not about to settle for any less than that which we have already lost or given
away. If you know how to set the river in motion, then you know how to sit and watch it flow; if
you don’t know, someone will have to teach you. Someone will have to stop you from trying to
push the river, and teach you how to sit and watch it flow, watch it until it no longer flows, until
you are no longer watching. Only then can you learn how to set the river in motion. In Sanskrit
“yantra” means “device for holding or fastening”. A yantra is a visible mantra. In Sanskrit
“yantra” means “instrument, contrivance, apparatus.” At home in the deity as in a poetics of
anarchist sorcery, the yantra arises in triangles, hexagons, thought forms, diagrams and artifice,
dysraphic gematria, raphesemics (the seme is in the seam), quasi-calligraphic pansemia,
writing-against-itself, subjective sdvigological postulates, the eight gandharvas nested in
concentric lotus petals, invisible equilateral recombinations, subletteral permutations, lamps on
birch bark condensed to traditional patterns of bindu, and representations of the shamanic
fungus emanating from a central talisman.
Madhu Khanna has written: “Mantras, the Sanskrit syllables inscribed on yantras, are essentially
‘thought-forms’ representing divinities or cosmic powers, which exert their influence by means of
sound-vibrations. It is put forward in the Tantras that the entire world is symbolized in mantra
equations, as the mantra is essentially a projection of cosmic sound (Nada = the principle of
vibration born out of the conjunction of Siva-Sakti, the Absolute Principle). Yantra and mantra
are always found in conjunction. Sound is considered as important as form in yantra, if not more
important, since form in its essence is sound condensed as matter. Inseparable from yantras
are the subtle vibrations which help to intensify their power. These sound elements are often
represented by letters inscribed on the yantra, and in principle all yantras are associated with
mystic combinations of Sanskrit letters. The inner dynamics of the yantra can never be
understood in isolation from the system of sound dynamics, as the two combine to make up the
complete ‘definition’ of the divine. The yantra-mantra complex is basically an equation that
unites space (akasa), which in its gross form appears as shapes, and vibrations, which in their
finite forms occur as the spoken or written word.”

Following the dense overscribble we have three lines of abstract subletteral components
presented as a graphic score for seeing/sounding/singing/signing into any kind of sense we
choose to select and settle into.

The first line might be:

u – ic – \/ c || \/ upside-down ‘L’ – c | \/ c \ | c|

The next line could be:

V \ n c \ backwards ‘c’ – < |/| c / ^ \ c -| v upside-down u <^

And the third line may be:

7u|-u V |c\ |\|c\ c| |V cl cl nd backwards ‘D’ na

The fourth line begins a significant shift in marks:

c|/-c-M upside-down ‘u’ | backwards ‘D’/M

followed by a different kind of marking pattern, maybe


all of which is in either case scratched through.

In the last four lines Oberto begins to reassemble the marks into recognizable letterforms and

e|a L 7 ] x\CWa ana an and
dna ana nan dnand nd nd nd
nd nandndndndndndndndndndndntnd

It is important to remember that this is a poem, it is writing, it is meant to be read, or at the very
least it is given to us as readers under an assumption of trust, the same kind of trust that every
writer extends to all potential readers, that an attempt will be made at reading. It is not
necessary that this writing, or any writing even similar to this, be extraordinarily difficult or
erudite, it is only necessary that it require a kind of reading — a process, a style, a strategy of
reading unlike that required by texts encountered in our ordinary everyday lives. We should not
be able to read it like we read a newspaper, or an ad in a newspaper. We should not be able to
read it like we read a billboard, or any kind of signage. We should not be able to read it like we
read a television screen during a baseball game, with the names of the teams, the score, the
number of outs and the inning in a strip along the bottom, and the number of pitches thrown by
the current pitcher and the speed of the most recent pitch in two columns on the right. We
should not be able to read it like we read a computer screen, no matter what we have on the
screen. And, most importantly, we should not be able to read it like we read a conventional
poem — though reading conventional poems should give us at least a little training for reading
Oberto’s OM.
We have to make our own decisions about how to navigate what we have been given. It has
nothing at all to do with any notion of “anything goes”. The range of possibilities we are given to
explore is actually quite constrained. And those constraints are felt, at every step, with every
decision, as we improvise our way through the materiality of the text. We work against what we
are given, if only in order to keep going, to keep the river of thought coursing through the mind.
And, we work against ourselves, to prevent ourselves from freely inventing streams of
consciousness, contexts of content as if cut from the whole cloth. If every idea is a starting point
— and it is — then we quickly find ourselves in danger of leaving what is specific to the poem
behind, and following our own subjective postulates ever further from what we are given. We go
as far as we need to go to complete a looking into a reading of each section or line of the poem,
and then we stop — new paragraph — and return to the next area of the poem we wish to
address. With such a reading-into-writing process we will produce a text riddled with loose ends
and exits, entrances and extrapolations, potentially endless starting points for vast areas of

This text is a mutant prose poem masquerading as an essay. If you get to the end you should
know where you want to begin.

Image available at GAMMM​, edited by Marco Giovenale​

da V.Accame, Il segno poetico, Spirali, Milano 1977

Read Oberto’s essay, off language

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