The search for meaning in poetry is a tricky journey to undertake: it often involves an analysis of reoccurring themes and images, coupled with an understanding of the poet’s previous works and the reader’s own experiences, all the while considering the specific form, diction and syntax. From this amalgam what a poem means is going to be greatly subjective and flexible; yet the actual reading process is usually fairly linear and consistent from person to person: we read left to right, top to bottom.
A gorgeous collection of concrete poetry, Aethel uses a variety of fonts and spatial layouts, contrasting and shifting between each piece. Each poem presents a new jumble of text, an arrangement of letters and fonts shaped into amorphous bursts on the page. Each work is imbued with a certain grace, a rounded beauty that leaks from one age of the page to the next. The more eye catching pieces are the ones like “Blood of a Concrete Poet” and “I Think Therefore I’m Not Sure” that use the American Sign Language hand diagrams and brief arrows as a unique way to portray movement and construct new phrases from visual matter.
But trying to decipher a true meaning from each poem will leave a reader breathless and frustrated. Aethel is unreadable in any sort of convention sense. The poems are densely knotted, Rorschach images splashed and splurged across the pages. Mancini complicates his audience’s reading process, breaking from the initial impulse to read traditionally, and in turn drawing attention to each reader’s individual means of constructing a relationship to a text. To draw a bottom line emotion or message from these poems is not the goal. Aethel was created in order to spend hours climbing in the ever-new nooks of each poem, to sit and read and analyze, then re-read again, to be ingrained in the process.
Mancini further offsets the urge to scrutinize the pieces typically with very cutting, often angry titles like “This Poem is Making You Smarter” and “When Roger Came in Me it Felt Like a Hot Douche”. Immediately the reader is confronted then with the idea of meaning and authorial intent. Some might be tempted to read the titles of the poems and then constrict their understanding of the poem to that very title, limiting their analysis and ultimately handing the author nearly full control of the poem. In Aethel the disjunctive poem titles separate that notion of authorial intent from the actual work: the meaning making process then becomes more and more subjective, less constricted by the authorial stamp and more dependant on the initial visual interpretation.
The titles underline an interesting and reoccurring technique within Aethel that is really what makes the collection such a rewarding work. The reader is constantly bombarded with the question of how does he/she make meaning? As a reader flips carefully and slowly from one work to the next he/she gets the sense that the puddles of language and letters are at the base of sentences, that at some point, perhaps in other poetry collections, the images and impressions created so vividly might evolve into a more recognizable species of poetry, but as it is, Aethel is a stunningly complex pool of words, a primordial soup of language.