GENEVIEVE KAPLAN Reviews
Five chapbooks by Michelle Detorie, C.J. Martin, Jaimie Gusman, Lisa M. Cole and Brad Vogler
Fur Birds / Parrot 14 by Michelle Detorie (Insert Press, Los Angeles, 2012)
There is no table of contents, no front matter in this slim packet. Instead, the chapbook-length poem Fur Birds immediately begins: “I am 15. Female. Human (I think),” suggesting readers must question the narrator of the poem. As we continue to read, we find more clues to tell us who—or what—is speaking through these poems: “We lived in a burrow….I licked my paw” (4), sister has a “tail” (4). The poem ends, “Tongue to paw. Paw / to ground. Pause. / Pause. Repeat.” (16).
The characters in Fur Birds include “I” (having “For hands, fur birds” (16)), “we” (I and “sister”), “you” (“you turn your eye,” “you pull wire from your ribs,” “you’ve been so complicit, so cruel” (5)), and “she” (perhaps the narrator addressing herself: “she thought this to herself before / bed every night for a week” (10). On the other hand, “she is my twin scissor” (13)). The surreal qualities of the world inhabited by Fur Birds are foregrounded. Objects are always important; the book is full of “old bones” (4), “sour birds” (5), a “dead seal” (7), many branches and sticks (9, 14, 15), “metal / chains a-linking” (16). The characters are equally animal as they are human, the setting both wild and tame: “everything seemed fine until / we rolled [the seal] over and saw / the blood” (7) and “each of us was asked to speak” (9). The speaker wears “clothes” (15) but “ate grass” (4). The journey the book takes readers on is a strange one, for sure, but it’s definitely one worth joining in on. Ultimately, Detorie reminds us, “No matter how we look at it – we are either all together or else we are all alone” (13).
Lo, Bittern by C.J. Martin (Atticus/Finch, 2008)
Lo, Bittern immediately demands a reader’s attention. First, the book itself is beautiful, careful. Handsewn, with heavy paper French fold covers, it arrives in a protective plastic sleeve. The physical unwrapping that must occur prefigures the kind of work readers will need to be ready to do, content-wise, once they begin reading the poems inside. The book has two parts; the first, “Lo, Bittern,” consists of 24 pages, and the second, “The Islands 1979,” is four pages long. Is each section a single poem? I can’t be sure. The first line on each page is frequently in all-caps: “--HARDEST WAS LIMIT IS LEFT, UNTOLD” or “ADS ELISSIVE, 1979.” Some pages begin with an even larger and more separate line—“PARTITION” and “PARTITION RUIN.” But these titles and first lines are inconsistent, and there is no table of contents to guide me.
Since I’m a little unsure how to proceed, I let myself read the poems as driven by sound: “None lo, so founder-pt. (Nor beltus be, / though nothing could: hills, hills, down, / root, left, roots, the, het” I read. I find pleasure in noting, “Of passage as of pasturage,” which I hope is what is expected. The language itself is an object in Lo, Bittern, it’s clear. Martin frequently abbreviates words down to their smallest forms (“pt.,” “w/,” “yr,” “wch.’s,” “tho,” “nt.”) or combines smaller into larger ones (“admixture,” “midmost,” “unnumb,” “be-loved,” “parcelside,” “memory-me”). Or, words are broken: “eas / ily,” “dis / posal,” “adde / d,” “me- / chanic,” “ac / cord.” While I may not readily comprehend the content of the poems here, I always understand and respond to their sound and speed: I read quickly or slowly, according to Martin’s conducting.
Lo, Bittern’s poems are alternately troubling and exciting, and the chapbook is certainly an object worth holding, exploring, and listening to: “Old forms remain what are / day labor and / alter, bitter, memory-me.”
One Petal Row: by Jaimie Gusman (Tinfish, Hawai'i, 2011)
Gusman’s seven-poem chapbook is most obviously tied together by the peculiar figure of “Anyjar”—simultaneously a god, a vessel, a father, a lover, an object, a metaphor, a vision, and even the self. In various poems throughout One Petal Row:, Anyjar speaks (“Anyjar…lectured us on the art of collecting”), Anyjar emotes (“Anyjar gets mad”), and Anyjar is spoken to (“Anyjar, have you lost interest in our home? we ask”). Sometimes Anyjar is totally mundane: “filled with change,” “cradle[d]…under your arm,” and “left…/in the snow, on a doorstop, / or wrapped in newspaper.” But Anyjar is also larger than life. In the poem “On repetition,” Gusman writes, “our house is roof-deep in water…the jar cannot contain it.” The poem continues, “the Anyjar / is not only a decorative or an alembic / but a systematic approach to the epistemological discovery of collective remembrance.” However, such a system is always undercut; in the previous poem, readers learned that “The Anyjar is not anything not all at all.”
There are other themes in One Petal Row: as well: home, the ocean, love, family, gardens…. The poems reference pudding pops, “a pewter fork,” “delicious flowers,” “a two-seater / and a cup holder,” television sets, couches, ships, sand, backpacks, dinners, and coral reefs. The Anyjar’s peculiarity is particularly powerful because of the way Guzman juxtaposes it with ordinary daily experiences: we “discussed musical instruments as we chewed pen caps,” we have “nicknames,” and “We fog the glass, write.” These engagingly narrative poems resonate strange and dreamlike: “We decided to take a nap” and “We playback our reactions in the bedroom,” all the while both troubled and comforted by the looming figure of the Anyjar.
tinder // heart by Lisa M. Cole (Dancing Girl Press, 2012)
tinder // heart is a book of thirty prose poems, each numbered rather than titled. While the poems are in prose, Cole often uses a double-slash to create tension in the lines, and to act as quasi-line-breaks. This slash also reinforces tinder // heart’s recurring theme of how language and objects are seen, re-seen, and always inconstant. Readers encounter words that are repeated but broken: “darling” becomes “darl-ling” (5), the “leaflets on a terrace” turn into “leaf-lets” (5). Objects, too, morph easily from one thing to the next: “brain as body” is immediately followed by “brain as bullet // brain as lamppost” (8) and “body as map” becomes “body as road // body as landscape” (15).
Death, violence, and the afterlife haunt tinder // heart’s narrator. “Bullet” (8, 17) she echoes, “a bomb going off” (9), “blood” (6), a “razorblade” (19). There are ghosts (23, 5) and graves (27), “corsets & handcuffs” (13), “tarot cards” (7) and a “Ouija board” (23). But even as we “harvest the blood // sterilize the blade” (20) our expectations are shifted. It turns out “death is not a death—is not a death” (3). We must not “be frightened by doors, by gates // by things that creak open” (29) because “to un-bloom is not to wither” (24).
Cole’s book occasionally relies on tired tropes like “zombie eyes” (2) and “the animal in me” (21), but it continually—and importantly—also confronts more existential problems of the human experience. “I see all of these things // I see none of these things” (10) assures Cole’s narrator; “I veer sideways // I veer never-ways (always)” (19).
Fascicle 30 by Brad Vogler (Little Red Leaves Textile Series, 2013)
In Fascicle 30 Brad Vogler draws from poems by Emily Dickinson, cutting, modifying, and re-assembling to create his nine-page chapbook. While it can be tricky at times to precisely locate Dickinson—as Vogler writes, we “lose her / obtain her / lose her / yet obtain her” (3)—Fascicle 30 consistently projects an overall sensibility of the19th century poet. Lines like “you – He is ˟, and brave – I” or “My heart / The liberty to say –” evoke Dickinson’s stutter and pause, and her use of punctuation—dashes, capitalizations—in a sort of echo.
Not everything in Fascicle 30 is clearly sourced, however. Vogler writes, “I often wish myself- / a’bloom – No Bird // Dear, // If God is-,” and readers know that his poem 660 was elsewhere initiated by Dickinson. But if we look up Dickinson’s poem 660 (“’Tis good – the looking back on Grief – ”), we don’t find the expected similarities; Vogler is working from Dickinson’s manuscripts, and we must turn to this more obscure source material instead. Once we examine Dickinson’s original Fascicle 30—a group of twenty-one poems, handwritten on scraps of paper and hand bound—we begin to better realize how these two disparate little volumes might resonate.
It can be wonderfully satisfying to find the word “opon” in Vogler’s poem 657 and Dickinson’s 521, “bosom” in both 656 and 520, “˟ Exclusively – to save” in Vogler’s “659 (variant 2)” as well as Dickinson’s 539. Dickinson’s line “We love the Wound” in her poem 379 becomes Vogler’s “Balmless Wound” in 660. Vogler’s new Fascicle includes crossouts and typeovers and slashes, a sort of revision-on-the-page technique reminiscent of Dickinson’s drafting process. Vogler’s use of numbers recalls Dickinson’s title-free work; too, his poems 658 and 659 are noted as “variants,” reminding readers of the instability of source material while highlighting his compositional process. The Little Red Leaves Textile Series books are always beautiful, tactile products, and the format seems especially apt for Fascicle 30; holding the cloth-covered “lovingly sewn” object activates one more Dickinsonian echo to enhance our reading experience.
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of settings for these scenes (Convulsive Editions, 2013) and In the ice house (Red Hen, 2011). She lives and works in southern California, but you can find her online at The Forest and the Trees (http://genevievekaplan.blogspot.com/