(This is a page from the book Domain of Images about the pictorial sense of the pages. This will be expanded spring 2015.)
…some pages can be read as a viewer might interpret naturalistic pictures: the passage in which Mallarmé invokes a shipwreck is set in a falling motif, and isolated lines are vignettes of the scenes they describe. The line describing man as “bitter prince of the reef” is itself an atoll, and there are plumes, sails, and other shapes in Mallarmés images and in his typesetting. Those are, in a way, introductory moments, informing the reader that the poem’s typography is trying to express its grammatical structure. As the reading deepens, the few overtly visual correspondences fade into metaphorical visualizations of rhetorical and grammatical devices. “Jamais,” for example, is isolated on its page, where it resounds against the white paper like a single loud word echoing in a silent room.
But in the end such “concrete” devices are only accents on the fundamentally anti–pictorial nature of the entire typographic and expressive project: and that is to represent hasard, the meaningless, chance and momentary “place” or configuration. As the final page declares, the poem itself is a “constellation,” something that seems to have meaning but does not, an act that is intensely deliberated but ends up meaning “nothing.”
Un coup de dès is anti–pictorial in that it forms its picture of arbitrariness by flowing without interruption across frames and pages. It is a beautiful paradox: print, behaving as print always does, forms the best representation, the best picture, of something unrepresentable. Mallarmé’s poem is the most reflective conversation between typographic page and written meaning that has yet been produced, and it demonstrates with great persuasiveness just how close print and pictures are, and yet how difficult it is to ever fuse the two.