MAZE POEMS, a hybrid collection by David Harrison Horton, reviewed by Daniel Barbiero

Whether as poetry, personal revelation, or simply the transcription of the dynamic play of the uninhibited mind in flux, writing that evades deliberate, conscious direction has the potential to convert language from a practical vehicle of plain communication to an otherly-textured medium in which words are brought together and narratives are shaped on the basis of associations of sound, form, and oblique resemblance in addition to, if not instead of, conventional discursive logic. David Harrison Horton’s Maze Poems, a set of shaped texts produced by way of what the poet describes as a kind of automatic writing, read like the traces of a creative mind following its own path, wherever it happens to go.

To create these texts, which he characterizes as “part poetry, part essay, and part visual art,” Horton first laid out hand-drawn, rectangular paths as labyrinthine structures which he then filled in with an unbroken sequence of words representing a single, continuous stream of thought. The texts necessarily conform to the paths’ lengths and angles, taking the shape of solid, discursive formations in which words are connected end-to-end in a run-on fashion as they follow a route of abrupt turns and reversals. Depending on where it falls within the maze, a string of letters may be read conventionally from left to right, or else right-to-left, top-to-bottom, or bottom-to-top. What Horton has created is a kind of visual puzzle crafted with a capriciously multi-directional, boustrophedonic style of writing in which words and phrases break in arbitrary places, carving the text at strange joints. Any turned corner might introduce an unexpected caesura or force one to reconstruct words from letters arranged in retrograde, pushing the rhythm of reading into odd meters and delaying the decipherment of the text’s meaning. This dislocation of ordinary reading habits is a deliberate strategy on Horton’s part, meant to focus awareness on how meaning accrues through the interaction of the reader and the text.

The texts themselves delight with their refusal to conform to conventional categories of genre. Many of them read like meditations or ruminations on ideas that begin with a recognizable logic, but gradually slip their discursive leashes to stray into alien territory. For example, the text that begins “Without time, the argument goes, there is no being” moves from an ontological speculation to an observation that social class, like other of the givens that define our individual situations and possibilities, is simply a contingent fact—an accident of birth. The point of transition comes with the phrase “time is monetization,” a turning inside out of the cliché “time is money” that wryly translates the metaphysical concept of “time,” with which the text opens, into the notion of “time” as a value within a financialized economy.

Other texts construct meaning by setting up chains of associations internal to language. Take the text beginning “A vector and a vortex,” which reads in full:

A vector and a vortex set against a series of medieval conclusions regarding the capacity for human knowledge and an odd desire for assonance over rhyme in longer passages to tell a tale once of ten told but not so now

Already from the opening noun phrase, we seem to have entered ground where words are assembled on the basis of their sounds rather than on what they denote. The text itself makes reference to this rhetorical strategy when it declares its “desire for assonance over rhyme in longer passages.” The sense of the sentence as well as its momentum is driven precisely by assonance by way of its pairings of like-sounding consonants and syllabic stress patterns: “vector,” “vortex;” “assonance,” “passages;” “tell,” “tale;” “ten,” “told.” Because it announces the poetic tactic it embodies, it’s intriguing to think of this text as a case of automatic or semi-automatic writing unself-consciously attaining self-consciousness.

True self-consciousness does seem to appear at times, as when one text begins by describing itself as “[t]rying to ensnare the shape of thought while mid process …” before going on to do just that by creating a set of conceptual linkages through the off-center, yet discernible, family resemblances of a car in a garage to a bison on the range to the old buffalo nickel to a time when a nickel carried its full value (“was money”) to a person’s thoughts being valued as serious.

Horton generally seems to enjoy losing himself in the play of thoughts and their associated verbal images, allowing him to paint word pictures as he does when he describes an Ozark landscape populated by old pickups sitting in fields “like sad ghosts of someone’s youth and hard times,” or vividly imagining characters like the old woman “with heavy grocery bags and a drastic limp worrying about how life was passing her by with a sack full of fruit and a very dodgy hip joint.”

These texts were originally handwritten in blue ink in an unlined, unpaginated sketchbook that the present edition reproduces in facsimile. Navigating these mazes with Horton’s own handwriting as a guide further slows down an eye used to the uniform appearance of typeset words, and fosters the patient reading and decoding necessary for the full enjoyment of these pathways through the verbal imagination.

Maze Poems, by David Harrison Horton. Arteidolia Press. 52 pages. $16.00, paper.

Daniel Barbiero is a double bassist, composer, and writer in the Washington, D.C. area. He writes on the art, music, and literature of the classic avant-gardes of the 20th century and on contemporary work, and is the author of the essay collection As Within, So Without (Arteidolia Press, 2021).

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