Only a Sudden Flaming Word

By Blair Brennan

“Words are things”; so says the Judge, in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In the grip of McCarthy’s sanguinary tale a reader might look for solace. “It is only a story and these are only words” one might say for reassurance but McCarthy has already doused that bridge with kerosene. “Words are things. The words he is in possession of he cannot be deprived of. Their authority transcends his ignorance of their meaning”[i][1]. It does not matter if we were once ignorant of this fact; words are things.

McCarthy’s book is about blood and time and the west. The mythic west remains a potent symbol, a complicated hybrid of history, weather, geography and popular culture. During its recent centenary, my home city celebrated with pancake breakfasts, fireworks displays and a festive cattle drive through the downtown core of Edmonton, “the northernmost North American city with a metropolitan population over one million”[ii][2]. Like much of the Canadian and American west, my home city and province, is a place where more than 100 years of Hollywood hard-sell (remember, The Great Train Robbery was made in 1903) collides with a legacy of working farm and ranch families who, like everyone here, have been effected by successive waves of oil based boom and bust economy.

It never occurred to me that I might make art about this place. I’m not a landscape painter. I’m not interested in geography or weather and only slightly curious about history. I am, however, fascinated by myth (including the mythic west), magic, ritual, and language. To some extent, these interests have been consolidated in a recurring feature of my text based art -- steel branding irons and the marks they make. In construction, my implements are similar to functional livestock brands. However, separated from the seasonal ritual of farm and ranch, branding becomes highly symbolic. It is writing that combines repetitive ritual acts (heating and branding) with primal elements: fire, steel and “skin” (leather, rawhide, clothing, books, drawings, photographs, and the occasional art gallery wall).

The branded text includes initials, acronyms, magic spells, curses (both kinds), palindromes, punch lines, other marks of symbolic import – word-things, both grave and ridiculously glib with power that extends beyond any literal reading of the text. A branded mark on leather or rawhide looks like crispy bacon. Blood flowed and organs once pumped and beat on the other side of this support, a guarantee that any story written on this “page” will contain blood, time and something of the mythic west. Even when looking at burnt paint on gallery walls or the burnt paper of a drawing or book, it is not hard to imagine that the canvas for this mark could have been alive and kicking (perhaps even human). Branding irons, and the marks they leave, create a palpable uneasiness that is distinctly different than that of any other written word.

I might aspire to noble thoughts, like Yeats idea that “Earth herself may be only a sudden flaming word”[iii][3], but the truth about language and me lies in less reputable literature (though Yeats might still approve), a lurid occult book called The Evil Eye. “There is abundant evidence in all lands of the value attached to certain words, usually written, though they may be merely uttered, to keep off evil from, or to bring good to the user”.[iv][4] Cattle men, who lived here before me, may have shared my belief in apotropaic words. In Cattle Brands and Cow Hides, Hortense Warner Ward suggests that prehistoric magical inscriptions became marks of ownership. To this day, Ward explains, stock brands are a combination of rudimentary legal protection and psychic defense[v][5], putting into words my intuition that forged steel branding irons are a sort of magic wand.

Writers, more frequently than visual artists, have been allies in my exploration of the magical function of language. McCarthy and Yeats (as mentioned), William Blake, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Elliot, powerful southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews, and the irreverent Beats have been important resources for my own word-work. William S. Burroughs writing and his use of Brion Gysin’s[vi][6] cut-up technique have been especially influential. Burroughs writing and visual art have been described as an attempt to disrupt the “controlling structure”[vii][7] and “restrictive logic of language”[viii][8]. This seems a noble aspiration and one that I hope might be advanced with a kind of irreversible and apocalyptic word-magic where words are made of fire and steel and written on the skin.

[i][1]Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (New York: Vantage International , 1992), 85.
[ii][2] Wikipedia online encyclopaedia, s.v. “Edmonton.” (accessed June 20, 2007)
[iii][3] William Butler Yeats (Edited by Richard J. Finneran), The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama, and Prose (New York: Scribner, 1997), 23.
[iv][4] Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The Evil Eye: An Account of this Ancient and Widespread Superstition (New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1989), 400.
[v][5] Hortense Warner Ward, Cattle Brands and Cow Hides (Dallas, The Story Book Press, 1953), 3-4.
[vi][6] Though born in Britain, Brion Gysin spent his childhood and early adolescence in Edmonton. Little information has been published on Gysin. For those interested, I highly recommend John Geiger’s Nothing is True Everything is Permitted The Life of Brion Gysin (New York: Disinformation, 2005) or
José Férez Kuri (editor), Brion Gysin Tuning in to the Multimedia Age (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2003)
[vii][7] Mark Luce, “Burroughs’ Impact Universal,” Lawrence Journal-World, Sunday July 21, 1996, (accessed January 12, 1999).
[viii][8] Mark Luce, “El Hombre Visible,” Kansas Alumni Magazine, no. 1 (1997), (accessed January 12, 1999).