Book Review: A Humument, 5th edition


This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.

A Humument, 5th edition

A Humument, Fifth Edition
Tom Phillips
Thames and Hudson, 2012
384 pp.

What began as an exploration of literature under the guise of a “treated novel,” the fifth edition of A Humument (Thames and Hudson, 2012) has developed into something other than merely a hum(an) (doc)ument. As its creator, Tom Phillips, more appropriately its illusauter (illus(trator)aut(hor)(paint)ter?), wrote in the afterword to the original 1980 edition, the work was always meant to be “less than what it started with…a paradoxical embodiment of Mallarmé‘s idea that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.” However, it has ended up as a work greater than a book. What started as an experiment to see what would come from the “first (coherent) book that [he] could find for threepence” has turned into a cult phenomena and more.

With each new edition, it grows, asymptotically, more human.

In fact, much more. It has become a monument to the dynamism of humanity, the changing in dialogue, visual perception, and language – a goal much more expansive than the mere treatment of W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document. Evolution is a more appropriate word for the ways that the text has changed; it honors its heritage in form, but in practice is much more developed from generation to generation.

From the first printing, Phillips always meant for the work (originally dubbed a novel) to be an index of change. To see this, simply compare editions. Wholesale, the pages are different between each. Phillips uses the same pages between editions to effect views ever more contemporary. To see how far the work has come, the first Thames and Hudson edition’s (1980) text on page four reads:

see, it is / feminine / this was broken by poetry, / read on, / emotions

whereas the fifth edition reads –

pasted on to the / present / see, it is / nine / eleven / the / time / singular / which / broke down / illusion.”

Same page, dramatically different text. Every subsequent edition destroys the previous. To compare any version with the 1980 book form or 1966 collection now resident in Miami’s Sackner Archive would reveal a translation from page to page just as dissimilar. In another example, the original 85th page, complete with art deco styling, “undecayed / the long / strange enchanted silence/musical strings vibrating – / shell of / a note / first performance / under the trees” is juxtaposed against its progeny in the fifth edition: “three / three / f / our / This / silence / vibrating – a / heart / echoing / listen / toge / playing / toge / the life about him.”

And, not only the text is changed. Navigating Phillips’ “rivers” (what he deems the white spaces leading the reader through a given page), the art created on the rest of the page is stunningly different. His role as illustrator gives the pages new life, color where there was none before, movement where there was less or none at all.

Just as the change of text in a digital age where the mutability of files is only as sacred as the number of times we click “save,” the massive differences between volumes are not only enviable, but awe-inspiring.

To call back to page four, the fifth edition includes various imagery related to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, rather than the geometric presentation of its ancestors.

His updates are not always to a greater effect, however. Some changes verge on the unreadable. Page 33 in the original editions was much more clear in terms of text (if not in apparent intent): “he had / when first / two necromancers, love / coloured it with colours and filled it with objects of ambition, / softly”. While the newer version of the page is a different text, the deletion and design of it is somewhat confusing as to what the entirety of the treated poem should read, beginning “as years went on, / you began to / fail / better,” the river of text ending. However, much of the page’s design leaves text exposed. In some cases, as in the cited example, it is almost as if the author is poking fun at his own intentional failure. In others, it’s intensely dismaying.

So what should we consider the book — a novel? A book of poetry? Weighing in at 384 pages, it defies the notion of poem and is unwieldy; poetry books should be read in one sitting.

It is impossible to grapple the work in its entirety, so discount its role as a traditional novel. Perhaps this confusion is the point, though. Each page is so dramatically different from its predecessor. There isn’t and can never be a through-line or narrative – Phillips never meant for that. In addition, Phillips also never meant for the work to be read sequentially.

To call it a novel would be a misnomer; to categorize it as a poetry collection would be just as false. This brings us back to the role of the work as a monument or, more appropriately, testament. As a testament, it has to witness the peculiarities of the age to which it is a witness. With the rise of the Metamodern in world literature, it is strange that a book such as A Humument stands the test of time and vision better from edition to edition as it ages. But, Phillips’ commitment to the revision, a true “re-seeing,” creates a compelling collection of which every edition is a must own.

Or, maybe it is truly the first and last edition of a “human document,” paralleling the human spirit — it wanders like us, wends like us, it changes into ever-morphing forms. Each edition a deletion of memory, even with flaws — just like us.