Sylph Editions, £12 (paper)
Knopf, $35 (cloth)
If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
Graywolf, $25 (paper)
Some of the most exciting poetry being written today is not just poetry. It is poetry mixed with prose, poetry combined with visual art, poetry that plays off the idea of the book itself. You can find hybrid work in hand-sewn chapbooks with creamy papers and on the wide-open space of the Internet, produced by tiny magazines on the insides of vintage matchbook covers and by giant New York publishing houses in deluxe, cased editions. The best genre-bending books are conscious of their form and attempt to snap the reader out of a passive position. They ask that the reader take in everything, from frontispiece to endpapers. Their writers don’t pretend to be sages or to have all the answers. Instead, they use the multiple possibilities of the book itself to open surfaces for further inquiry.
Over the last fifteen years, there has been an explosion of small presses, chapbook festivals, and arts centers offering classes in artisanal printing and celebrating all things book. But for all their apparent newfangledness, book arts is a tradition that goes back to the Pre-Raphaelites, who collaborated with a group of like-minded individuals in book design, and to poets such as William Blake, who combined their own artwork with their texts. Historically, small- and micro-presses are welcoming places for cultural outsiders and the avant-garde. They are also places where women writers flourish.
If you haven’t put your hands on books and magazines from presses such as Kelsey Street, Slapering Hol, Ugly Duckling, and Forklift, Ohio, whose most recent issue arrived in freezer paper and tied in butcher string, protecting a cover that resembled a piece of frozen meat, or if you haven’t assembled one of Epiphany Editions D.I.Y. books before reading, you are in for a treat. The three books discussed here mix artwork, prose, and poetry, exploring divides and juxtapositions. Anne Carson and Anne Michaels, in different ways, put the various parts of their books into conversation. Deeply invested in the potential of silence, they use both language and design to generate energy and approach the ineffable. Matthea Harvey uses visual and verbal divides to see what they have to say about power, re-invigorating that thing often sold at your nearest Hallmark shop, the illustrated poetry book.
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In recent years Anne Carson has published the monumental elegy Nox; the long-awaited follow up to Autobiography of Red, Red Doc>, which won Canada’s Griffin Prize; a translation of Antigone with artwork by Bianca Stone; a pamphlet about Albertine, Marcel’s beloved in Remembrance of Things Past; and the mixed-genre chapbook, Nay Rather. Part of the Cahier Series from the London-based Sylph Editions, Nay Rather is an elegant meditation on translation and the struggle to capture meaning on the page. As in Nox, Carson does not write directly about loss; she assembles, with her partner Robert Currie, various materials that surround it—photos, stamps, scraps of paper—mixes it with a translation of Catullus and her own fragmented poem, and arranges it in a massive accordion binding so that when readers open the box, they begin to be put through a process of grief.
The first three-quarters of the hand-stitched book alternates between an essay about “the rage against cliché” called “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” and a poem ordered by a random number generator. Aptly titled “By Chance the Cycladic People,” the poem is framed in color-contrasting boxes and accompanied by drawings and gouaches by Lafranco Quadrio, who also did the book’s wrap-around band with a wave design.
In the essay, Carson writes about the painter Francis Bacon and his approach to truth in art as a mode of acting, as Gertrude Stein said, “so there is no use in a center”:
[Bacon’s] subjects are birds, dogs, grass, people, sand, water, himself, and what he wants to capture of these subjects is (he says) their “reality” or (once he used the term) “essence” or (often) “the facts.” By “facts” he doesn’t mean to make a copy of the subject as a photograph would, but rather to create a sensible form that will translate directly to your nervous system the same sensation as the subject. He wants to paint the sensation of a jet of water, that very jar on your nerves. Everything else is cliché.
How does Bacon get around cliché? By throwing paint on his nearly finished canvases, his “intention is to disrupt its probability and to short circuit his own control of the disruption. His product is a catastrophe, which he will then proceed to manipulate into an image that he can call real. Or he may just hang it up.” For Bacon and Carson, bringing chance into the creative process—tossing a sponge at an image, using a random number generator for a poem—is an act of humility that calls to mind Islamic artists who deliberately include a mistake in their finished work. Anything else is hubris.
Carson says that “most of us, given a choice between chaos and naming, between catastrophe and cliché, would choose naming. Most of us see this as a zero-sum game—as if there were no third place to be: something without a name is commonly thought not to exist.” We choose cliché, she says, because it comforts us. Carson wants to avoid it at all costs, so she explores that third place, a space highly charged with meaning that cannot be expressed or located but whose potency can be felt.
The last pages are reserved for Carson’s six experimental translations of a single fragment by Ibykos from the sixth century B.C.E., translations that use language from, among other sources, her microwave oven’s owner’s manual. The choice sounds arbitrary, but it befits Carson’s efforts to create meaning out of chaos. In her catastrophized translations, Carson limits herself to words found in single poems and passages from Donne, Beckett, Brecht’s FBI file, an interview with Kafka, signs in the London Underground, and instructions for her new 1000-watt oven. The sequence demands the active participation of readers, asking them to look for connections across a wide range of vocabularies and contexts. She seems to be riffing off Roland Barthes’s ideas about the “third meaning”: that which is outside literal meaning or the symbolic. It is felt but unsaid. It is akin to desire: eros “powerfully, / right up from the bottom of my feet / shakes my whole breathing being.” In Donne, desire “justifies my one whole lunatic escape”; in Beckett, it “kisses me goodbye. I’m dead. (Pause).” Words from the subway advise the speaker to “expect delays all the way to the loo” and the microwave says desire “will burn your nose right off.” By elegantly interweaving essay, poem, and translations, Nay Rather finds an intensity in the heightened contrasts among these different forms.
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Time and again, Anne Michaels revisits how the forces of history and the flux of time shape relationships. Her novels Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault are extended conversations, and her poetry focuses on the changing distance and power structures between characters, such as Marie Curie’s address to her husband, Pierre. These dynamics have driven her writing for nearly thirty years. It is natural, then, that Michaels would become involved in collaborations, first with the novelist and painter John Berger in their lyrical book Railtracks, originally a site-specific performance piece but published with photographs by Tereza Stehlíková, and now with the artist Bernice Eisenstein in their spare elegy for Michaels’s father, Isaiah.
Correspondences, like Carson’s Nox, uses an accordion binding. It begins with Eisenstein’s haunting portraits of major artists and thinkers who lived during Europe’s twentieth-century upheavals and the horrors of the Holocaust. Quotes from Eisenstein’s subjects float beside her gouache paintings, combining word and image in ample white space. Eisenstein’s limited palette and fine gradations of color are balanced by her long brush. Next to a luminescent image of W. G. Sebald, for example, are lines from The Rings of Saturn: “And yet, / what would we be without memory.” In other pieces she splices quotes, such as passages from Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, into a single piece. If you lay it out on the floor, the book becomes a gallery wall, at the end (and flipside) of which you find Michael’s long poem. (In Nox, Carson uses only one side of the page.) Like Eisenstein, Michaels does not rely on minute details but works in bold verbal strokes and atmospheric suggestions. The poem interweaves apostrophes to her father with sections devoted to the friendship of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs. She calls the frisson of these conversations “the third side of the page”—an idea reminiscent of Carson’s “third place.”
Loosely lineated and without exposition, Michaels’s half of Correspondences shows a speaker in the midst of grief. Michaels’s father immigrated to Canada from somewhere near Poland’s shifting eastern border when he was a young man, some time before Germany’s 1939 invasion. That most of the family he left behind died during the Holocaust is a weight he carried the rest of his life; the burden of survival became part of his relationship with his daughter. Michaels has written sparingly about her father in her previous work, but here, she portrays him as generous and caring. He says to his children:
I implore you,
it is all I ask: do what you love, only
choose work you love, no matter what it is.
Not like me, making nothing
out of nothing.
He doesn’t recognize that what he made was a loving family; it was his lasting work. Even in death his presence is near, maybe even more so than during his difficult final years, and the speaker imagines she sees him near his grave, through the eyes of a creature camouflaged by a tree.
I will not say I was not
afraid, seeing your will equal my yearning,
transforming matter this way;
even as I felt the cost of it,
this later shattering effort of love,
Shifting from the present to the past and back to the present “this,” Michaels speaks to her father as if he is there. His eyes become a recurring image. Despite his progressing illness, what seems to be Alzheimer’s, his eyes’ expression does not change. No matter what is physically occurring to his body, she sees the father she knew in his gaze.
Many of Michaels’s lines rely on a “this” or a “that” missing an antecedent, a strategy of leaving things unsaid. The abundance of white space is part of her effort to “keep the surface as simple as possible, / without acrobatics or overstatement.” Through its insistence on simplicity, the book enacts the struggle with language in the face of a primal loss: it is “impossible to understand an object / without its story, / the brutal, the blessed particularity.” Yet she withholds particularities in her poems. The book itself—the “third side of the page”—is as close as she can come to speaking about her father. She wants the dynamic space of silence to express the overwhelming nature of grief.
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If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is Matthea Harvey’s crackerjack follow-up to her award-winning Modern Life. She picks up where she left off with her prose-poems and images of broken toys, illustrating them with her own artwork: dreamy color-photographs, whimsical silhouettes, and pictures of embroidered machines that would make many a sewing teacher proud. The book is a postmodern Punch crossed with Edward Lear.
If the Tabloids Are True opens with a series of prose poems about an unlikely subject: mermaids. Harvey comes at that sentimental pop-cultural minefield with a string of cut-outs she calls “mer-tools”—half woman, half household object. The glittery Ariel is nowhere in sight. Enter “The Deadbeat Mermaid,” “The Morbid Mermaid,” “The Inside Out Mermaid” (more on her to come) followed by the mer-saw, the mer-rake, and my favorite, the mer-surge-protector. As fans of Modern Life’s Robo-Boy poems know, Harvey’s steady iambs, end-rhyme, and alliteration energize her prose-poems. The opening poem reads: “The Straightforward Mermaid starts every sentence with ‘Look. . . ’ This comes from being raised in a sea full of hooks.” A few pages later, she presents a “flipbook fable,” a “beautiful blur,” and a “distant distant shore.”
The mermaid poems are about cruelty, and because there is no place to rest, no line or stanza breaks, their world becomes enveloping—Heathers on the high seas with no way out. Mean girls, who “really love braiding,” castigate the Morbid Mermaid for her particular tastes—“Yuck, the necrophiliac is back”—and the half-tuna, who longs to join them, sends questions to the “Ask Serena” column in the teenage Mermag. With the ocean creatures policing each other and limiting ways of being, what thinking mermaid wouldn’t find it necessary to keep her true self on the inside and let her bodily organs hang out?
Engaged with the pull of binaries, Harvey heightens the tension between form and content, working with what she once called in a poem “Baked Alaska, a Theory of”—hot on the outside, cold on the inside. Division has long been one of Harvey’s abiding interests: the divisions of the self and the division of the individual from the community. Beneath her fantastical surfaces lies biting cultural commentary about the conformity of suburban life. Some of Harvey’s souls select their own society, as in “Woman Lives in House Made of People”: “They were lonely. I was alone. / Out of those two sentences, // I made myself a home.” Most of her figures, however, are divided from themselves by others: girls are trapped in a factory by an unseen boss, a sad boy named Rhyme is shunned by his classmates. Newspaper headlines shout about a birth at the zoo—“ABRACADABRA, / A NEW KIND OF ZEBRA!”—and the zebra mother, surrounded by hyena-like humans, tells the crowd, “We’re all / dominoes, dummies. Today it’s him. / Tomorrow it’s you, then you, then you.” Harvey’s speakers divide themselves and are divided by others: witness the conflicted teen “puppet snob,” whose name says it all, and Promvania’s Queen Lauren, who seeks recognition of her country by the U.N.
Nothing about Harvey’s artwork offers reassurance. Her images emphasize the isolation and dread that underlie many of the poems. Her diorama-like photos are packed with color, a bona fide gumball machine of cherry and lime. Yet the hula-hoops are abandoned and the hangers are bare. Attracted to shadows, she uses a shallow depth of field so that only a small portion each image remains in focus. She usually comes at her subjects from above, suggesting both an outsider looking in and some larger power (aliens? puppeteers?) looking down. The most striking sequence of images is a series of photos of melting ice cubes with plastic dolls and tiny chairs trapped inside. It is moving to see the miniature people facing away from the camera, the chairs tumbling through confined space. “Stay” suggests that their maker thinks they are safe in their prisons, but the forlorn toys are longing to get out.
Harvey hews to the tradition of the nineteenth-century illustrated book. Her artwork gives her readers clear guideposts as to how to read her poems. Like the arrow pointing to a spot on a blank globe on a plastic television in “One Way,” she is telling readers where to look. Unlike Michaels, who uses Eisenstein’s portraits to honor her father and a lost world, and unlike Carson, who revels in the past, Harvey locates tension squarely within her gaze.
Illustrations by Lanfranco Quadrio, inspired by his reading of Anne Carson’s texts. Courtesy of Sylph Editions.