In his message from the “deathless, universal plasma” that opens Now It Can Be—Why Did It Fail Before?, a new collection of his “founds,” Bern Porter (1911–2004), “formerly of Belfast, ME,” recounts his long-time commitment to the practice of providing self-help and healing ideas “for the whole planet.” This book, Porter avers, “is a potent condensation of many of those founds from long ago, ones that have stood the test of timelessness in the plasma.”

The self-proclaimed “draftee into The Manhattan Project” offers a range of self-help founds appropriated from a variety of sources: books, magazines, brochures, advertisements, junk mail, etc. Curated by Porter’s long-time collaborator Mark Melnicove (who calls his friend “a da Vinci of the Atomic Age”), the messages urge us to consider new ways of considering the world in a positive, if often tongue-in-cheek, manner—dos and don’ts for a fractured universe.

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Peggy McKenna, Mark Melnicove and Bern Porter, photograph, 1991. Porter (right) was giving a speech in conjunction with a celebration of his 80th birthday at First Church in Belfast where he was poet laureate. Artwork by Carlo Pittore, born Charles Stanley (19432005), an American artist and activist. Photo courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum.

At times the communiqué is enigmatic. Under the heading “New Idea for a New Era” we read the single word “WITH” in quotation marks. Is this an invitation, an invocation, a prepositional proposal? Live with it.

The book is rife with upbeat bromides. “Tell your face you love it,” suggests one dispatch, meaningful guidance for the self-effacing individual. Other founds provide ideas for dealing with various ailments, such as “pain in the side.” The cure? “Put a pebble under the tongue.” On it.

There are all sorts of graphs and diagrams—and forms to fill out—to help you figure out the dilemmas of existence. In one, “I am not entitled to what I have” sparks a circular route of self-discovery related to stealing.

Elsewhere, “tame your acquisitive instinct” brought to mind one of Jenny Holzer’s renowned truisms, “Protect Me from What I Want.” Other sayings might be worthy of stuffed pillows: “Time is all the time,” “Own Your Own,” “Ask about anything but politics.”

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Cover of Now It Can Be—Why Did It Fail Before? featuring an ASCII portrait based on a photograph by Sarah Wells of Porter performing at The Ear Inn in New York City, 1979. Photos of book courtesy Mark Melnicove.

Porter’s founds also conjure Dada and surrealism à la Max Ernst collages. A large number six accompanied by the underlined “The Small World of Mr. Big”; “Nothing to Add” repeated nine times down the page; a hiking boot paired with “Don’t Bug Me While I’m Eating”; four vintage illustrations of budding things with the legend “B be B”—these and many other scraps of knowledge and guidance send one down rabbit holes of association and intrigue.

In and among these pensées and curious come-ons are several letters. On Guggenheim stationery G. Thomas Tanselle, vice president, rejects an application while George R. Robishaw, operations officer at Maine National Bank in Rockland, alerts Porter that he has found no errors in his statement. Then there’s a handwritten note dated 22 April 1974, addressed to “Bern and Meg,” in which the unnamed correspondent rescinds a Mother’s Day invitation. “Since it is a day for happiness for Mothers and you insist on antagonizing both your mother and me,” the nameless individual writes, “you are not welcome in my home or cottage.”

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Spread from Now It Can Be—Why Did It Fail Before? by Bern Porter. Photos of the book courtesy Mark Melnicove.

Visually, the book is a typographical smorgasbord. Letters, numbers, symbols, notations, schematics, and such scurry, spread, and spring across the white pages in a mélange of fonts. There is never a dull dispatch.

Kudos to Melnicove for keeping the Porter flame blazing. “Don’t blame potatoes” reads one found, a found I found to be foundless yet profound.


Bern Porter, Now It Can Be—Why Did It Fail Before? Ed. Mark Melnicove and Fredrik Averin, Portland, Oregon: The Idea of the Book, 2023. For the limited edition, click here, for the trade edition, click here.


Image at top: “Tell Your Face You Love It,” a found in Now It Can Be—Why Did It Fail Before? by Bern Porter. Photos of the book courtesy Mark Melnicove.