128 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 1-55128-121-X
DDC C811'.6





Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

Douglas Barbour is a professor of English at the University of Alberta.
He is the author of Lyric/anti-lyric : Essays on Contemporary Poetry,
Breath Takes, and Fragmenting Body Etc.


From its cover image, through its many concrete pieces and various
Oulipo-inflected poems, to its notes at the end, Sharon Harris’s
Avatar is a highly author-constructed work. It’s also a playground of
contemporary poetics, for if Harris is anything, she is a playful
artist; poetry (art) is fun, joy, and love at work.

Beginning with “information technology is not the future,” an
assertion much of the book contradicts, Harris offers a visual poem
based on bpNichol’s famous “Blues,” in which she turns the
“‘love’ lattice” of the original into Braille. Other visuals use
Braille or Morse code to “translate” other concrete poems into
something new, and more wholly visual. By the end of Avatar, she will
have offered readers (viewers) a whole alphabet’s worth of
“figures,” many of which seem to have left every aspect of language
behind, except in their titles.

Most of what looks like more conventional poetry turns out to be based
on some rule or construct, such as acrostics, or, in one case, “a
prayer of keyboard commands.” The second section, “Fun w/
‘Pataphysics,’” is oddly enough the most straightforward, a series
of definitely imaginary answers to the kind of questions authors face
all too often. They are witty and delightful, and suggest that Harris
comes by her sense of play honestly.

Despite its experimental nature, and the degree of emotional distancing
its many visual and linguistic games ensure, Avatar insists that its
core value is love. The last piece in the book, “Manifest O,” argues
that “[t]ruth always gets destroyed by language,” and suggests that
“[t]he body knows” what words often hide. Harris seems to desire
something beyond language, which may be why she trusts so much in those
concrete visuals; but in the end, she says she’s “not saying that
the word is dead or that words aren’t beautiful.” No, she and we
still need words, and she wants them to help us “practice loving
everyone,” a highly idealistic desire for poetry. In Avatar, she tries
to live up to this ideal by offering her readers as many different
challenging delights as she can.



Harris, Sharon., “Avatar,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/15892.