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When Words Were Magic: Opening The Ox House

Teo Eve
Mon 16 May, 2022

When you read, do you pay attention to letters’ shapes, how they carve the white space around them? Teo Eve explores the beauty of letters and his new book 'The Ox House'.

If we search our memory’s recesses, I’m sure we can all recall a time when Latin letterforms were indecipherable, abstract and complex artworks we had to learn by rote; 52 signs (upper & lower case) with no referent in the real world that could, as if by magic, store information, transmit thought, and make music 一 despite their stationary silence on the page.

We can probably all remember (before these signs became banal, automatic, instantly-recognisable) the sheer love of wordplay every child displays; the wonders of orthography. Bubble writing, the skill it takes to make the graffiti ‘S’, playing with different cases to REPRESENT EXCITEMENT!; the joy of mastering the alphabet song and memorising, at last, the arbitrary order these signs hold in the alien system known as ‘the alphabet’.

Letters are beautiful, magical things, whose wonders we take for granted.

My debut poetry book, The Ox House (forthcoming in July 2022 from Penteract Press, a publishing house established and run by University of Nottingham alumni Anthony Etherin and Clara Daneri), aims to make letters strange and mysterious again. Its initial 26 poems, each named after a letter of our alphabet, are accompanied by unique visual artworks, black-and-white homages to the illuminated letters of Medieval manuscripts, the richly-decorated capital forms that marked the start of a new chapter or section of a text. These detailed and colourful letters were painstakingly painted by hand, representing, in a world where written words were scarce and literacy levels were low, a respect for the letterform we have lost in an age whose relentless proliferation of written media has rendered words cheap, characters’ omnipresence hinting towards disposability & misuse.

Words are powerful, letters are magic, and with their use comes a responsibility our politicians and media often ignore.

By othering their shapes and probing their (at least in English) arbitrary phonetic qualities, The Ox House asks its readers to slow down and think about the letters, and words, they use while simultaneously presenting a letteristic- and calligrammic-informed playfulness that shows that letters are not just powerful tools, they are also minimalist artistic masterpieces forged over thousands of years of evolution and cultural inheritance.

I first conceived of the idea of what would become The Ox House after paying a visit to the British Museum’s ‘Writing: Make Your Mark’ exhibition in 2019, a fascinating exploration into the history of our alphabet’s development & use. It was there where I first learnt, as per the title of Lyn Davies’ gorgeous account of our letters’ individual histories, that A is for Ox; that our contemporary capital letter ‘A’ derives directly from the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph representing an ox head. (and yes, you guessed it, ‘B’ is for house 一 so when we are saying ‘alphabet’, we are essentially saying {in a roundabout way of twisted ideogrammic-to-orthographic-to-phonetic cross-linguistic translation} Ox House).

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Excerpt from Lyn Davies’ A is for Ox, charting how the ancient Egyptian Ox-Head hieroglyph became our letter ‘a’ over time

As a kid, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Something about the colourful art, the pantheon of animal-human hybrid deities, and the beautiful but opaquely mysterious hieroglyphs captured my imagination from a very young age and never let me go 一 though it did ease its stranglehold a little as I got older. My visit to the ‘Make Your Mark’ exhibition reignited my passion for the seemingly vastly distant (culturally as well as temporally) civilization, sparking an academic pursuit into just how our compact alphabet of 26/52 signs derived from ancient Egyptians’ apparently endless set of symbols, as well as giving me a newfound appreciation for the (inseparable) visual art and writing traditions of Ancient Egypt.

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‘I’ from The Ox House, as previewed in The Book of Penteract

“Most pertinent for the philosophy behind The Ox House (if such a thing exists), was the ancient Egyptians’ belief in the magical power of the written word.”

I could (and would) write a book on all I’ve learnt (how the placement of hieroglyphs occasionally prioritised aesthetics over phonetic logic; how signs’ flexibility and detail allowed for practices impossible in English orthography; how many hieroglyphs shared a dual purpose, being at once pictorial and phonological), but this blog post intends to be less a labyrinth of hieroglyphs wrapping around a temple’s walls and more a papyrus-scrap. Most pertinent for the philosophy behind The Ox House (if such a thing exists), was the ancient Egyptians’ belief in the magical power of the written word. Indeed, the writing of hieroglyphs was seen as an act of life-giving, of bringing into existence. As Penelope Wilson puts it, hieroglyphs had an ‘animating power’, the writing of names bringing ‘to life’ their subjects. Conversely, ‘the complete removal of the name of a person’ (the erasing of rivals from monument walls was not unheard of) ‘could also remove their existence.’ Writing in hieroglyphs was not simply an act of record keeping for the ancient Egyptians; rather, the carving of words created worlds, which could be stamped out when the glyphs were removed.

What a stark difference from our contemporary culture, whose politicians & journalists & social media users irresponsibly pump out inflammatory & divisive nonsense with little thought for the consequences their words may wring. Words are magic: they have the ability to twist our synapses into thoughts & beliefs, but due to their overfamiliarity, we have forgotten their power.

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‘A’ from The Ox House, together with its visual artwork title

The Ox House uses a series of experiments to make letters seem strange and magic again. For example, ‘Y’ explores how our letter forms can be used as ideograms. ‘N’ reveals the tenuous relationship between orthography & phonology. ‘P’ & ‘W’ point to alternative systems of conveying thought. Many poems in the collection, presented opposite their not-so-illuminated artwork counterparts, draw explicit references to the shapes of the letters, asking us to look at them with childlike eyes, reminding readers of when we were young and signs were new. Reference to the ancient civilizations from which we inherited our letters and sounds (the Egyptians, yes, but also the Phoenicians, the Greeks, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and even early-modern typesetters who carved out the traditions of print culture from the frontiers of handwriting) remind us that our contemporary civilization is not exceptional or unique, but rather is just another step in a long march of cultures and that we, too, will one day pass on the torch.

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Detail from 'O’ from The Ox House, as originally published in Beir Bua Journal

Let us hope that when we do so, we do not leave our successors a legacy of irresponsible language use, but the memory of a culture that respected words’ worth, & treated letterforms as what they truly are: nothing less than magic.

The Ox House will be released by Penteract Press on 16 July 2022.

Catch Teo perform alongside Anthony Etherin as part of the European Poetry Festival at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green from 7:30 on the 25th of June.

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Bibliography

Lyn Davies, A is for Ox: A short history of the alphabet (The Folio Society, 2006)

Penelope Wilson, Hieroglyphs: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004)

About the Author

Teo Eve is a poet based between Nottingham & London. As editor of Silly Goose Press, Teo published Writing Notts 2021: An Anthology of Nottinghamshire Poetry, which was distributed freely around the city, & championed local poets’ voices. After being nominated by Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature, Teo was the UK’s Delegate to the 12th UNESCO Youth Forum in 2021. You can read about Teo’s experience as a delegate here.

Praise for The Ox House

‘Teo Eve's TheOx House is a visual feast for those who love the sight, sound and playfulness of language. This collection is a homage to our alphabet but enables us to see it in a new light, examining the intricate beauty in the shape, meanings and interpretations that we attach to these letters. Reminiscent of some of Nichol's work on letters and visual writing, The Ox House is a delightful array of work to read again and again, uncovering new things each time.’

-Nikki Dudley, streetcake editor and poet.

‘Just as the philosopher's hammer is needed to appraise what remains of the book after the death of the author, so the abecedarian's hammer will sound out what remains of the alphabet after the death of the letter. With Teo Eve's The Ox House, lettrism returns to its truth, the granular elements from which syllables, morphemes, and words emerge. But in returning there, it reveals that its truth is also its undoing. The letter is never merely in itself but always points to a realm beyond. The efforts of literacy come to naught unless the alphabet writes its own death, again and again. Thus the abecedaire becomes poetry, and the letters in this book point towards the healing of the world beyond.’

- Sascha Engel, founder of Strukturriss and author of Beyond the Alphabet

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