In a Book of Fog: V Manuscript’s Salamander’s Wool

Salamander’s Wool. V Manuscript. New York: Inpatient Press, 2023. 221 pages.

It is not uncommon to encounter depictions of the grimoire—a book of spells that states the names of demons, their purposes, the means to summon them, to call for company, ail your unkind neighbors, imbue them with bad luck or swelling tumors, set them aflame. It is more rare to come upon grimoires of a more sentient nature. Not as speaking, devilish objects, but rather as the folded flesh of an obscured creature, its mouth curling around each bend, only capable of whispers and subliminal gestures.

Through a small, unassuming volume—a white paperback—an author labeled as V Manuscript (itself a suspicious projection of the book) has written and designed a collection of poems which reach towards this rarer, seemingly more unstable, physical form of the spell book: one that does not need to be read, but instead is able to speak the spells itself, if only through the quiet fragments it projects into the mind of the reader.

Salamander’s Wool, the book in question, is split into thirteen sections, unnumbered, with titles like, “HERMAPHRODITE of REANIMATING DEW” or “a BOOK of GOD is a LUCIFER,” each adding to this dramatis personae of occult, gnostic figures. Beneath the list is a name, Argot of Azoth, which might take on many meanings—argot which often means a kind of jargon or lingo is combined with azoth, the fabled alchemical solvent (which is also on occasion spoken of alongside mercury). I do not know if this figure is the holder of the azoth’s formula, or a member of some alchemist’s inner circle, or a patron of mercury. Their position is unclear—perhaps even contained or imprisoned by the book itself.

The first poem reaches out towards them, the presence in the text: “Azoth / A and Z of the gods / unbind / in the ash of things” alluding to some prominence, power, stature. Azoth, the essential agent of alchemy. Their name repeated across many lines, many stanzas. Each stanza itself a thin column, offset or skewed. The lines delicately balanced atop one another, forming together as a pillar of smoke, or the writhing body of a serpent.

[ of words ]
regeneration, and their approximate order
& the Poets                        write with fumes
                        Dragons without revenge
            their Power
                           shall leaf and flower

            Swift Wanderer
                   ( you must wander as the eyes )
     the eyes have a vision° 
     a ligature

Two voices emerge from the text. First there is the orating poet, dictating these spells and odes to the reader, maybe with the hopes that they too will do the same. Behind that is the fainter presence, almost undetectable at first, lingering in the mouth of the first, flittering their tongue, mutating their words, corrupting the base-text. At times wholly interrupting its host through italicized passages or sectioned-off stanzas—separated from their column by thin black lines.The language of the poet is fused and split. Phrases like “revolving vessel” and “alchemical mistake” become “revolvessel” and “alchemistake.” Adoration for traditional divine figures like Elijah and Lucifer are distorted into textual forms. Lucipher, scriptionysus, sigilucifer, bacchus-diary. The poet begins practicing a “syllabic sorcery,” through the manuscript. As if influenced by some unseen hand, “where the words are / PREPARED FOR GOD.” (9)

It is difficult not to understand the poet as a subject of possession as the book progresses—as if this undetectable presence, in some ways the text itself, has burrowed into the poet’s psyche—whether that be through the act of writing the book (perhaps even in the same handwritten manner that medieval monks had done long ago) or upon reading the work after it had already been produced. Our own position is unclear. We participate as only a pair of the “40 eyes upon an unknown book,” (48) watching as it performs this strange form of bibliomancy, not scrying meaning from random pages and paragraphs, but in altering the text itself: a projection of the being onto its inanimate counterpart. The transformation of the body by its unexorcised demons, rearranged through “hiddententional” (91) practices.

In these moments of corruption and mutation, where lines of poetry fuse, split, infect their surroundings, the book begins to feel alive, an organism in and of itself, the text only a tattoo on its otherwise unblemished skin. A serpent slithering across its chest. Rorschachs applied by “our illiterate forebearers.” (13) Frequent depictions of metamorphosis—often through Ovidian images of the misgendered Hermaphroditos and the transformations of the mortal into a fixture of nature—may allude to a more humanoid origin for the text. Someone/something punished by an angered deity who has turned them into an inanimate object. That consciousness still lingering in its vessel, hoping to escape. But then we have arrived in the midst of a second liminal transformation: after they have become the book, but before they have fully shaped this new body into something more befitting of their personage, something capable of luring in its victims, and speaking its incantations through their mouths.

There is a certain feeling of discovery and danger while reading Salamander’s Wool, as if we are using a Ouija board to access the garden of earthly delights. By reading the book, we participate, regardless of desire, in this necromantic process. Language infects the mind. It lingers in our head, even after only a glimpse. Words anchor to the brain stem. “The Divine Arousal of Letters,” an erotic articulation of language, presses each line into the forefront of your brain.  

On a handful of pages, illegible, cacographic typefaces pull your face closer to the page, they lure the reader to focus on certain passages, to attempt to read them. The incantation is inescapable. And the book appears immutable. The title, Salamander’s Wool, refers to a textile made from asbestos. Immune to fire, carcinogenic. Even by being in the presence of the object do you risk your health.

But behind the intentions of the otherworldly figure, cracks begin to show. Later in the text, lines form between stanzas like sinew, tethering one limb to another, as if to hold stable. Defeated phrases, coded by farce and mistaken posturings, like “ascetic arrest” (142) and “a path to poetic error” (131) surface. The physical vessel doesn’t appear stable, as seems to be the nature for most of Ovid’s subjects. The act of transformation is haphazard, born of strong emotion. The Salamander’s Wool seeks a “DETANGLING POEM,” something not so much malicious as it is utilitarian. Another tool, another instrument—its effectiveness unclear—but the intention of which seems to be freedom, the right to be alone and autonomous.

Throughout the text, most often in the opening pages of each section, there are ink-saturated images of animals, alchemical symbols, alembics, vessels. They seem to be photocopies from old manuscripts or medieval paintings, isolated scenes from larger tableaus. When they surface within the poems, set in line with the thin columns that comprise the text, meaning is evoked that cannot be articulated through common language: reine sprache, pure language, manifesting as crude drawings or pictographs. Perhaps as a small mark in the larger lexicon of an unknown tongue, another attempt by the contained being to spread its influence.

Notably in the concluding poem, the text column’s tight slithering begins to drift apart. Letters take up more of the page, separate words from one another, distorting the grimoire’s voice into disembodied fragments, echoing from every angle. But as the column expands, it is suddenly stopped. A pictograph appears. It looks as if it could be a salamander, or a winged ouroboros, a mutilated jellyfish. It cuts through the expanding noise, and drags this language back into its cohesive state saying, “I am an Adept Elijah ! / adorned from a dewdrop.” Reassembling the text through this moment of identity and recognition, the being states its name and returns to form, reinstating a “SIGILLIC AMBIEN[CE]” (211) upon the text, if only briefly, to mark its final words.

After this invocation, the text ends. Although the book does not. It continues for a few dozen more pages, as more photocopies appear, unlabeled, framed by thin black lines: again fragments of larger works, emblems from the marginalia of manuscripts, ill-produced photographs of sculptures, diagrams of alchemical equipment. In these final moments, it appears as if the Salamander’s Wool, or V Manuscript their self, has found language to no longer be an effective tool. Or perhaps they have lost the means to speak, reduced or condensed into just the image as-it-is, leaving us with these eccentric instructions for the exorcism of the creature from its prison, as if to say, here is what you will need. Here is how you can release me.

Mike Corrao is the author of numerous works including Gut Text (11:11 Press), Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede (11:11 Press), Desert Tiles (Equus Press), and Smut-Maker (Inside the Castle). His work often explores the haptic, architectural, and organismal qualities of the text-object.

As an artist and designer, his work has been featured in the catalogs of 11:11 Press, Fonograf Editions, Apocalypse Party, Inside the Castle, and other presses.