The Word Returned

Reviewed by Cathy Courtney
Art Monthly, London

‘The Word Returned’ finds Ken Campbell, the erudite blacksmith of the book art world, in full command. Rightly, the book lacks page numbers; it would be absurd to think of it as anything but a totality as the eye moves through the dos-a-dos structure. The closed work gives nothing away, not even a title. One experience of the book is to move quickly through it, catching images and phrases like lightning flashes as they rise from the darker surfaces. Arrested by the opening spreads, I didn’t take the latter route until I had learnt the vocabulary by going through it slowly, and it was almost two hours before I came across a text, towards the end of the first section, that had been written by Campbell to record an extraordinary Yorkshire sky; so clearly had the book communicated by then, that I found in the poem seven of the words I had noted in response as I travelled towards those lines. Equally impressive and a signal of Campbell’s mastery of ‘The Word Returned’ is the fact that the juxtaposition of poetry commemorating a personal experience in the years of making the book (1994-96) with archaic quotation appears to be quite natural.

The archaeology of the book mines Campbell’s past work and his printing processes as well as cross-cultural literary and religious traditions. There are technical quotations from ‘A Knife Romance’, and ‘Tilt: the Black-flagged Streets’, and the structure of each page was first defined by the subdivided sections achieved by printing from one or other side of a wooden board used in the past as a ‘stage’ to hold level the printing plate. Crucially, a section of the comet’s tail from ‘Night Feet on Earth’, was discovered impressed within the board and it was this detail which went on to provide the key emblem for the work, first undergoing transformation under the influence of an Apple Mac. Having scanned the image onto the computer screen, Campbell manipulated it to represent a pair of angel’s wings (everything in this book is paired not just once but repeatedly, creating a continuous incantation that rises and falls as the leaves flow round). The book’s smaller images ultimately move to enfold a Jewish blessing which builds gradually throughout the book in tandem with the line ‘on my left the great angel Michael … on my right the great angel Gabriel’, but the symbolism is stretched still further by distorting a section of the wing image within the computer to achieve a pixillated version that looks like a simplified city skyline…