Jamie Hilder
Shelfed Gallery

Abbas Akhavan
Elizabeth Zvonar
Colleen Brown
Steven Brekelmans
Gabi Dao
Marina Roy
Eleanor Morgan
Reyhaneh Yazdani


I can remember the excitement of learning that words can be split with a hyphen and continued on the next line down. “Swimming” is the word that comes to mind, since it carried the lesson of splitting not only at a syllabic junction, but in the middle of a word that has repeating letters. I would guess that I was seven or eight when I learned it. It would have been before I used terms like “syllabic junction,” but I would have understood it in the same way. It was how things worked, and I was interested in learning how things worked. I can remember a similar pleasure learning how to properly use a semi-colon in university. I would guess that I was twenty or twenty-one when I learned that it connects two independent clauses, a phrase I also learned around that time, or that it could be used to reduce complexity in a list (perhaps introduced by a colon, which I was often using where I should have been using a semi-colon).

Then there are the language lessons I am less proud of, in part because they came much later: in my early thirties, realizing that Parisian meant Paris-like or somebody from Paris, not the way I had been understanding it, as “patrician”; that Genevese meant the same thing as Parisian, but for Geneva, and that it was different from Genoese (Genoa); that there is a subjunctive tense in English (I learned it in French and Spanish before English); and the difference between when to use “less” and when to use “fewer.” My father, the son of a working-class grammarian, would always correct my sister and me if we ever used the construction “and me,” telling us that it was “and I.” I was in my mid-twenties when I learned about prepositional objects, and when to say “and me” versus when to say “and I,” and took pleasure in letting him know how he was wrong. But now that I know, I can’t utter either phrase without doubting myself, or without feeling like a class-traitor. I feel the same sting when I identify misuses of less/fewer (“I have less friends…”) or the subjunctive (“If I was to…” instead of “If I were to…”). These are complex feelings, having to do with notions of home and privilege. I’m prouder of other stupidities. I was in my early forties when I learned that if there are “hints of blueberry in wine,” it doesn’t mean that winemakers put blueberries into their vats or barrels as part of the fermentation process. I am less ashamed of the age at which I made that discovery than I am being proximate to or participating in conversations about wine. The only way wine was talked about in my family was about how much cheaper it was to buy in boxes, or how much money you saved making it yourself. “It’s drinkable” was high praise.

So I’ve been pleased to learn from Reyhan’s Aakh while it’s been on the shelf. It’s an alphabetic poem, one that intervenes in the Farsi word aakh. I rely on Reyhan’s definition of the word, since I don’t read or speak Farsi enough to even recognize the components (alphabetic and diacritical) of the word to research it further. But I trust that she knows the language that is one of her homes. She defines aakh as similar to but more complex than the English ugh. It’s a word of exasperation, but one that is pleasurable to say because of how rooted in the body and breath it is, like a groan or a sigh, or the bilabial trill (like a raspberry but without using the tongue) that can sometimes stand in for a reluctant laugh.


Reyhan sees nuanced versatility in aakh, as a word-sound that can signify impatience as well as joy, melancholy or peace. I wonder how the English word ugh differs in comparison. It seems to do half of what aakh does, but I can’t imagine it being used as an exclamation of pleasure: “Ugh, so lovely to see you!” or “Ugh, it finally worked!” There are noises English speakers make in those situations, and while we might transcribe it as “ah!”, that leaves out the pharyngeal, or guttural, consonant. It’s possible that English, as a language, denies this pleasure of the throat in its emphasis on the sounds of the exasperative. I won’t guess why that is. No language can be expected to encompass the body in its entirety, though some languages are less uptight about it than others.

It’s difficult to think about the pleasure of uttering “ugh,” or the sound that “ugh” was initially meant to signify (a sort of cough, a previously unarticulatable utterance of impatience or disgust), because the situations that call for it are generally unpleasurable. There’s also a difference between saying the word “ugh”—which might require a meta-understanding of the word (“this is where I would be expected to use the sound that ‘ugh’ refers to”)—and uttering the sound that has been around for centuries (OED’s first lexical record of the term goes back to the mid-18th century). That sound is more expressive, and sharper than the pronunciation of the word meant to represent it. It’s similar to how “haha” and “guffaw” necessarily diminish laughter when they’re not being used sarcastically.

Corpus Image

The constellation of the components Reyhan positioned on the shelf are made of painted unfired clay, pressboard, and paper. The field in which three of the word’s glyphs sit has small black hash marks that cover two of the objects, as well. Those marks are more uniform on the board than on the objects, which is likely a consequence of a flat board being easier to paint than the rough surface of unfired clay, but the significance of that difference can also suggest a field of use versus an utterance, a shift in scale from the immediate and present to the historical and constitutive. I remember seeing a segment of a corpus study in the context of linguistics, where a word is analysed in its common usage by listing the word or phrase in as many cases as can be collected. The words that precede and follow in relative frequency then become linked to its meaning. The collection of the phrases creates a kind of randomized mesostic, aided by digital tools of visualization, but with differently expressive purposes. The repetition is enough. I remember wondering about how to write corpus poetry, but I think a corpus is already, necessarily poetic.


The field of hatches in Reyhan’s work might then be read as records of the word’s utterances and iterations, with this particular, sculptural utterance/iteration standing on its own, as more immediately meaningful than all the others. The tilde, or Spanish virgulilla-looking piece resting on the straighter, but still slightly curved object appears confident. It signifies the vowel sound that allows the object it sits atop to be uttered. It’s a little like the dot in a lower case “i”: if it isn’t there, depending on the typeface, it can be a lower-case “l” or a “1,” though in both those cases, there are sounds that could emerge from the symbol. It might be more a case of half an “e”, or the lower half of a “y.” It makes me think of Aram Saroyan’s “A Poster Poem” (1965), which is both unutterable, in that it is not a letter of an alphabet, and completely familiar, as a sound somewhere between “m” and “mm.” I can’t say that the glyph is a letter, as I would with “em,” despite its sound being represented by “m,” without the vowel entrance. But I can imagine where Saroyan’s new letter, if it’s appropriate to think of that way, might function. What has Saroyan added here, so effectively to mimic the “mmm” sound, whose lengthening changes its meaning? : “mm”: what? Okay? Yes?; “mmm”: nice; aww; delicious; “mmmm”: careful; maybe; I’m thinking; impatience. It could be used to communicate agreement with someone while they’re talking, a sound that doesn’t interrupt but encourages. It could be a sound of struggle or displeasure, but not at a level that would require an “ouch” or a “mm-mm.” But what strikes me when looking at the poem is that I don’t have the language to describe it except through what I understand as “em,” and maybe what I understand as “n.” Add an n to an m, but without the sharp line edge at its top left corner? Add another arch to an “em”? Are ems made of arches? They certainly appear to be after looking closely at Saroyan’s poem. It’s the same feeling I get when looking at Cyrillic script. I know I can’t read it but I can’t help but think “that’s a backwards N, that’s a three, that’s a goalpost, that looks like a zero….” The same thing happens when reading early modern English texts, with the glyph that looks like a lower-case “f,” but without the line intersecting the stem of the letter, just joining it from the left side. I never found it quaint, or worth the effort to read, precisely because the frustration of not automatically recognizing it as an “s” sound never diminished.

But with a language that is farther from me, that I have no impulses towards, having no habitual, literary relationship to it, is less, or differently frustrating. The portion of the work that hovers above the shelf, flimsily attached to the wall, stands in contrast to the confident, reclined tilde. Its curves are thinner, less stable, and over the span of the exhibition have shifted with humidity levels and the strength of the adhesive. It is the breathiest part of the poem/sculpture. As a non-Farsi speaker, I imagine it more meaningful than the dot, the tilde, and the slightly curved line, but I don’t know. I’m at a distance from Farsi as a transcribed language, but less so from it as a spoken language, since I have several Farsi-speakers in my social and professional circles I could call on to ask. There’s an attachment I have felt to those speakers since having aakh on the shelf, which reminds me of the awe I feel whenever I hear somebody speaking a language I don’t know. Since I can’t understand what they’re saying, I always assume that they are smarter than me, because they obviously know something in depth that I know only superficially, if at all. I think they’re talking about politics or philosophy, or structural power imbalances. These aren’t explicit thoughts of mine, only impulses. But this is why I would much rather eavesdrop on non-English (and to a lesser extent, non-Spanish and non-French) speakers than English speakers, whose conversations I generally find uninteresting.

It’s that same awe, rooted in ignorance and admiration, that Aakh has reproduced every time I encounter it. I’m aware of other works by Reyhan that have dealt with silence, the notion of home in language, and the material representation of identity in clay, rock, and paper. This work seems to operate in a similar vein, and is perhaps a culmination of all those themes. It’s been a joy to listen to.