I Made an Accident
by Kevin Sampsell
Clash Books, 2022
Reviewed by Jesi Bender
It is a scientific fact that most human brains process images more readily than text. It goes in hand that most people are initially more attracted to a visual element in front of them over anything textual. Knowing this, it used to surprise me that so many people are afraid of constructing or interpreting something visual. As a longtime educator who specializes in visual literacy, I have seen students and faculty almost paralyzed when faced with projects that rely on images. To me, it seems that people feel text can feel safer because its flaws are much less immediately obvious. In Kevin Sampsell’s latest book, images far outnumber its text. For writers and readers, people rooted in the word, this might be uncomfortable. One might wonder how they are supposed ‘to read’ Sampsell’s art. I will give you a basic visual grammar to help you decipher. a6h4 core elements that I think are the root of all visual interpretation are: line, color, and composition (which I like to think of as mise en scene).
The first thing to strike me was Sampsell’s use of line. Line is the most basic visual element but it can also be its most dynamic. Line defines or outlines shapes and figures. More importantly, it can be used to convey movement and draw the viewer’s eye across an image. Sampsell uses line adeptly. Two seemingly disparate images are placed together and it is their congruent or antagonistic lines that either marry them in harmony or place them at odds with each other. Many poems in this collection too are about movement, what it gives or what it takes. In “Bathroom Graffiti,” he writes—
I’m going to write our full names
in an airplane bathroom
while it floats
and animals and babies being born
The narrator moves themself and the addressee across the sky. Their names, the core of their identities, pass over Earth and all things and moments happening on it (including the monumental moment of birth). One of the highlights of this collection, this poem showcases the issue of permanence and impermanence interrogated throughout this collection. Sampsell explores these ideas in both mediums through line and the idea of movement.
We all know what color is and that each pigment carries its own cultural or personal significance. Sampsell uses color to construe implicit meaning as well as to draw the eye. Often, monochromatic collages are punctuated with a complimentary color and where we see that color is often the focal point of Sampsell’s story. Other times, the author-artist uses it to imbue an image with vibrancy, without which it could potentially be rendered flat. Composition is another element to keep in mind when reading this collection. Good questions to ask yourself are what is included in the image and why? For example, throughout these pages, there are quite a few vibrant seashells, conches. They are mainly marbled pink (a loaded ((see: gendered)) color). They remind me of innovative photographer Grete Stern’s work and read vaginal to me. Why might Sampsell choose to juxtapose this element with a woman carrying groceries, or as eyes on a child’s face, or next to a choking victim? There might not be a perfect answer but the conclusions that you draw can lead you into new and original interpretations that even the author might have missed.
In the introduction, Sampsell writes about trying a literary exercise inspired by William S Burroughs called the “cut-up” method” wherein the author “physically cut[s] and rearrang[es] typed up stories.” Sampsell uses this method obviously in his collage but also in his writing. The result is surreal, compositions rooted in something mundane or quotidian but placed in relation to another component that suddenly makes it alien. Sampsell’s ‘accidents’ mirror how bizarre it is to be alive. Part of the price of the surreal is that meaning isn’t always discernible; for example, I struggled to understand what the poem “Battle Cry” was saying. Even if I wasn’t exactly sure about Sampsell’s intention with this piece, it reinforced how uncomfortable people can be with anything that cannot be easily labeled and made me ruminate on how meaning is individual despite all of our attempts to make it something shared. Maybe the point is that these images and these poems will say something entirely different to you than they do to me and that, even in these ‘accidental’ exegeses, we can find understanding.
I Made An Accident is a collection of poems as collage and collage as poem. It shows fragments of lives and dreams, reinforcing how surreality exists to prove how surreal real life can be. Particularly engaging (textual) work includes “Dog Lips”, “Countdown”, and “The String”. Sampsell’s collection is beautiful, humorous, and rich in surreal imagery, both visual and textual. It reminds the reader of the ways people try to create meaning in the hurricane of this whirling, oversaturated world. I Made An Accident illustrates that what makes the human race beautiful is the fact that we can move around even the most random objects and still find connection.
That moment when I know it’s right is the
moment when I’m somehow not present
It is there in front of
me and I see it and
that’s the end of it.