The dressing up box in my daughter’s room is dangerous. One moment I’m daddy but, sporting a witch’s hat, I’ll have her shrieking from the room in abject terror. As the fabric of the universe warps, any item I’m holding – a wand, a stick, a Very Hungry Caterpillar – will turn into an instrument of untold power. Blokes don’t go in for hats much these days, more’s the pity, as we’re depriving ourselves of an everyday theatricality that would enrich our world but, when we stumble into the right shop – a gentlemen’s outfitters with period ashtrays screwed to the changing rooms’ walls – we’ll model hat upon hat as if our admittance to the Royal Enclosure depended upon it. The archeology of our language has yet to come to terms with our hatlessness as, every day, we’re prepared to ‘eat our hats,’ at ‘the drop of a hat,’ in a room ‘as black as your hat.’ When we’re done, we’ll ‘hang up our hats,’ keeping our new secret ‘under our hats,’ etc, etc, etc.
Kevin Reid’s and George Szirtes’ Wordless is a riot of the surreal and Reid’s cover image, a bowler hat set between a knife and a fork, immediately sets about mining the most absurd idiomatic reaches of the English language while, with perversity, Szirtes’ text asserts itself against the images with all the exclamatory power that simple sentences and statements can muster: ‘There was never a doubt. There was only ever the absolute. / The hat in itself was neither surreal nor mundane. / It was a hat for God’s sake!’ Reid’s shape-shifting, metamorphic hat suddenly stabilizes for a moment before surreal images like Magritte’s Golconde spring to mind, and hat images and associations spin off again.
It’s tempting to impose order and meaning on the suggestive interplay between words and images but the text resists such reductiveness and, before long, the reader is disorientated but the sun, the objects in the frame that should provide fixed points of reference, does not stay still either. One image shows a mask ‘reclin[ing]’ against a glass of water and Szirtes’ verb jars with the image. Knocked off balance, I can’t tell whether I’m looking at a glass, or at an oak tree – in the Michael Craig-Martin sense of the thing. In one photo, even a toilet develops a face and a personality.
That Reid and Szirtes have managed to disrupt so many of ‘the rules’ is impressive. Szirtes’ prose poems prevent anyone looking for meaning in classical poetic technique and, as they’re presented as intertitles, the whole proceeding feels like a phantasmagoria, a magic lantern show. In Wordless, Reid and Szirtes pull a marvellous rabbit out of the hat.