New York

Dick Higgins, “of celebration an morning”

of celebration of morning is the latest book by poet/artist/composer Dick Higgins, an early creator of Happenings, a co-founder of Fluxus and founder of Something Else Press. In its original form, of celebration of morning was a cycle of 80 20-by 30-inch panels which have now been gathered into a large, beautiful book whose pages are montages of photographs, photo derivations, line drawings, poems, musical scores, rhetorical questions and symbols from the I Ching. Together, these pages compose a narrative or a “poly-semiotic fiction” as Higgins calls it, about a young musician/dancer named Justin who overdoses on drugs while struggling to make the transition from boyhood to manhood.

The book is divided into monthly sections that document a year (August to July) in Justin’s life. This chronological narrative is counterpointed by, and interwoven with, a number of non-linear elements and organizational devices that provide alternative readings to the story. The individual pages, or “worlds” as Higgins calls them, are self-contained in both form and content; combining diverse media in random arrangements, they suggest open-ended and shifting meanings and can be interpreted independently or cumulatively. Higgins himself recommends a non-consecutive, indeed a cyclical, reading of the book. The meaning of of celebration is constantly in flux, as the reader chooses between different relationships and progressions.

The “polysemiotic” format allows Higgins to depict his protagonist from different points of view and within different contexts and as a result the reader experiences a cross-section of the spiritual, moral, intellectual, physical, psychological and social forces that converge to define Justin’s world. His handsome body provides the visual focus of the book. Most of these images depict him frolicking or meditating in the nude within natural settings, and thus place Justin’s passage from boyhood to manhood within the seasonal cycles of nature—as well as in relation to the cosmic forces represented by the I Ching. The pictures of Justin consistently emphasize the lithe vitality and expressiveness of his young body. But the exuberance in these pictures is dampened when juxtaposed with the verbal commentaries that surround them—especially the words of the narrator.

The narrator, whose voice is heard in the poetry that comprises the main body of the text, has a complex though unspecified relationship with Justin. An older man whose marriage was childless, he obviously seeks to live vicariously through the youth. His envy, possessive love, guilt-inducing criticism and thinly-disguised homosexual desires are constantly foisted on Justin.

The boy’s innocence is undermined by the narrator, but his voice is complemented by the author’s rhetorical questions, present on every page, which query both Justin and the reader about the nature of identity, the schism between image and reality and the elusive meaning of love.

The reader eventually concludes that Justin won’t survive, but only by inference. We are merely given a series of understated visual and verbal clues that are never made explicit. The details of the young man’s death—like his life—must be fleshed out by the imagination.

Shelly Rice