15 Jan 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Tina Darragh's 1981 chapbook On the Corner to Off the Corner contains prose poems largely derived from the language of the dictionary. Moreover, Darragh often takes advantage of the patterns suggested by the mise-en-page of a single page or opening (a spread signaled by the titles of the poems, which are taken from dictionary headers) [1]. Darragh is frequently drawn to the geometric figures that illustrate mathematical terms, and further she figures the page as a geometric space in and of itself. 

For instance, the poem "'-lent' to 'leptorrhine' for 'X'"opens, gnomically, with paraphrases of the definitions of gnomon: "removing a parallelogram from a similar parallelogram (by taking one of the corners) results in a shadow seen as a cylinder by squinting." The word denotes both the stylus of a sundial, as well as "the remainder of a parallelogram after the removal of a similar parallelogram containing one of its corners," a figure illustrated with a lettered line-drawing on page 970 of Webster's New Third International from which Darragh quotes. But her collage of dictionary entries goes on to suggest that the page itself might be curled into a cylinder; the poem continues: "cylinders are also obtained by twisting grain on a tree." The language comes from the definitions of gnarl ("to twist or contort"; "a hard protuberance with twisted grain on a tree"), which like many of Darragh's appropriations appear at the very lower left corner of the dictionary page, but that page itself is made of ligneous pulp that allows it to be flexibly turned. 

With the description of "taking one of the corners" to create the kind of depth that can cast a shadow, and the shifts in visual perception underscored by "squinting," we can begin to see the alignment of the book's titular corners with the corners of the codex [from the Latin for "tree trunk"] and those words — including the header ranges taken as the titles for the poems in On the Corner to Off the Corner — that the reference-book browser not only reads but handles with the haptic recognition of the page as a material object in three dimensional space. 

This sense of the page as a plane that both contains printed illustrations of geometric forms and also constitutes a geometric form itself comes to be fully realized in the poem "'mobilizer' to 'modern language' for 'U'". 

Beginning on the top left corner of page 920 of the 1967 edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, with Möbius strip, the first entry on the first column, the poem ends on the previous dictionary page, at the top right corner, where the first entry on the top of the last column finds -mo, the suffix used in bookbinding, abstracted from duodecimo, to indicate trim sizes. By making the two entries contiguous, rather than separated recto and verso, the poem performs a möbius operation with the fore-edge strip, the trimmed page-edge talking about page trim, as if the outermost edge of the page were in fact twisted and collated to join itself into "a continuous one-sided surface." 

The poem, in short, both talks about folding a sheet of paper in a book and imaginatively enacts the folding of the sheet of paper that contains the description. As another poem in the volume remarks: "The definition is surrounded by trees." The vaguely surreal statement is in fact quite literal, pointing to the conifer-pulp paper on which the dictionary — and Darragh's own displacement of its language — is printed. We may often imagine the defining materiality of artists’ books as an element of the artwork distinct from, or even in contrast to, the referential semantics of its text; in Darragh's case, in contrast, we can see a material imagination of the book emerge from the mere conjunction of the most literal, non-literary dictionary definitions and the most unremarkable trade-paper stock. 

[1] Tina Darragh: On the Corner to Off the Corner (College Park: Sun & Moon Press, 1981). A digital facsimile is available at

Craig Dworkin is the author, most recently, of Dictionary Poetics: Toward a Radical Lexicography [Fordham, 2020], from which the present post has been adapted, and Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality [Chicago, 2020]. He teaches literary history at the University of Utah.

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