Sunday, January 15th, 2006
In preparing my review of Yunte Huang’s Cribs last month, I went out of my way to consider the book’s layout and non-verbal textual markings in developing a reading of the book as a whole. I credited Huang-the-author for the distinctive irregular stripes running up and down the book’s pages, along and amid the words. Since the review appeared, communication with Huang and with Tinfish editor Susan Schultz revealed to me that these non-verbal elements of Cribs were in fact the invention of Kristina Bell, the book’s designer.
I stand by my reading of Cribs, but I wonder why, with Bell’s credit in the book’s interior, I was still unable to ‘see’ her contribution for what it was, even while I was preoccupied with ‘seeing’ it on the pages. I’m particularly struck by my failure to see because, as the editor of my own new press, I’ve learned that a designer’s selection of typeface and layout becomes the first interpretation of the poem, the medium through which the book’s readers encounter that (perhaps?) immaterial entity, the poem itself.
This shade of thought has in turn colored my reading of the chapbooks that have accrued around my house and in my field of vision as of late. These include Own Your Own by Mike Topp, from (apparently?)Future Tense; ma(I)ze Tassel Retrazos by Carlos M. Luis and Derek White, published by White’s Calamari Press; Lucent Amnesis by Marianne Shaneen, published by Brenda Ijima’s Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs; and the gorgeous online The Border Triptych featuring poems by Eduardo C. Corral, essays by Rigoberto González, and artwork by muralist and activist Noé Hernández, published by Web del Sol.
Each of these works establishes a unique dynamic, not only between words and visual art (or artisanship) but also among the writer’s hand and those of the printer, publisher, designer, and other contributing artists in producing the text as a whole.
Mike Topp’s Own Your Own is whisper-light, a nifty eight pages, and about the size of a deck of cards. Its blue-on-cream lozenge-patterned cover evokes the paper that might line the drawers in a rooming house habited by Willy Loman. The pieces inside may be described as ‘bits’, not only for their brevity but also in that they resemble comedians’ patter; the inventions of Messers Edson and Tate would be at home amid the hucksters who speak these poem-lettes, such as an auctioneer who chews his way through a description of a zither before realizing the object before him is a dulcimer. The longest and strangest bit is "Easy Lobster Rabbit," in which the speaker(s?) gets hilariously tripped up in looping and loopy recipe-speak: "You’re going to need a small pan with a handle. So you better have that—that little pan with the handle. You’re going to need a small pan with a handle," the speakers insist, before moving on to the need for hot toast points. A note on the copyright page credits the "support" of Future Tense in producing Own Your Own, but the book’s ephemerality and McSweeney’s-esque typeface suggests that this pamphlet-like number was a joint-production of Mike Topp and the Zeitgeist itself.
If lightness in all senses of the word defines Topp’s chapbook, ma(I)ze Tassel Retrazos by Carlos M. Luis and Derek White has an evident heft, and bears the luminous, ripe-to-the-point-of-decaying colors that typify Calamari Press productions. The images created by venerable Cuban visual poet Luis are hypnotic and layered; blotted watercolor fetal forms are torn away to reveal partly-legible writing, diagrams, bone- and building- structures underneath. The prose of Derek White’s hyperbolic dream journey thus seems not so much written next to as inside or underneath Luis’s images, occasionally bleeding through. The first installation is called "Going Through Puberty in a Foreign Tongue," and this redolent title serves as an apt figure for the protagonist’s scramble in and out of mother tongues, Mothers’ Holes, courts, courtyards, lakes, buses, houses and closets, chasing after a lover/sister occasionally named "Corn Tassel" who eventually becomes indistinguishable from the speaker himself. He, we suspect, supplies the "I" in "ma(I)ze Tassel." If the journey resembles the creation myth of a First People, it also serves as a creation myth for the first person, as ‘I’ struggles to locate his origins but becomes increasingly tangled in the roots he unearths:
Beneath the Hole was yet another thrust fault. I could feel the surface with my fingertips. It was chock full of chards of pottery, seeds, biological matter and a secret technology I knew ‘I’ could never understand during my lifetime, even with a proper education. I recoiled and tried to speak, but my voice only cracked a notch. Was ‘I’ a witness or participant to this specialized propagation? My own genetic line of red ants was visible in my perpetually peeling palms.
In the final image, the speaker’s body seems to be decomposing, becoming one with the compost in which he digs. And yet this passage appears at the beginning of the book; decomposition, it seems, makes this protagonist either porous or essential enough to pass through his journey’s many borders.
ma(I)ze Tassel Retrazos calls up the etymological meaning of the word "text," a piece of weaving; not only does the narrative fray and reknit itself, but word and image have equal weight in weaving the text as a whole. Both are changed by their proximity, which makes their separate borders seem to bleed and dissolve. The whole evokes a world larger than the protagonist’s knowledge or experience, as the images close over his story, just as the earth itself decomposes and closes over the individual. In this regard, the book’s informal construction (though 44 pages, it is saddle stapled with a cardstock cover) speaks to both its theme and its process; this text is always about to break down and be made into something new.
Beyond transformation and transportation, there is a transgression at the heart of ma(I)ze Tassel Retrazos: Derek White is the publisher of Calamari Press, and thus the publisher (egad!) of his own book. The historically transgressive status of the chapbook, which is both pre- and post-corporate, may be appropriate for this kind of punk-publishing. Which leads us to another question about chapbooks: does chapbook publishing break down the authority of authorship, while elevating design, or does it make the several authorities of author, designer, and publisher more visible? At the very least, the artisanal chapbook admits the presence of the designing hand(s) on every page. The buoyantly collaged, single-color covers that grace the chapbooks of Brenda Ijima’s Portable Press read like exuberant endorsements of the texts inside. These plus the scrappy black-and-white interior pieces create a certain live motion around the poems’ margins that make the reader anxious to dive in and find out just what Ms. Ijima is so excited about. The effect is particularly felicitous in the case of Marianne Shaneen’s Lucent Amnesis, itself a collage assembled from "deciphering notes scrawled in dark movie theaters" during films. This fragment-based poem creates a kind of continuous pun between the written text and a cinematic one; clearly both are figured when "this illuminated manuscript/can be read in the dark." At other moments, the poem takes advantage of cinematic illusion and, perhaps, errors in transcription to create imagistic double exposures like this one:
optical illusions of a deer
leaping through traffic on the golden gate bridge
captured and killed
people being led from a hole in the ground
you have to be very careful
propelled backwards through double exposures
of buildings, now invisible
Risk and beauty pervade the imagery of Lucent Amnesis, and the oddness of the poem lies not just in its juxtapositions but in the way Shaneen makes the invisible cinematic medium perceivable in the images it relates, as when buffalo graze "with a light-sensitive coating on their tongues." Turning from Shaneen’s delicately poised images to Ijima’s vivid cyan back cover is like stepping from a theater into bright day.
The hand of the designer is both visible and somewhat wanting in the on-line chapbook The Border Triptych; frustratingly, the texts may only be read through a list of links, and the format does not allow the reader to leap from author to author, among texts, or even back to the mainpage easily. Still, Triptych, a substantial collection of poetry, prose, paintings and interviews with the poet Eduardo C. Corral, the poet and prose-writer Rigoberto González, and the activist and artist Noé Hernández, is richer in images and ideas than most conventional books by a single author or in a single medium.
If one works through The Border Triptych sequentially, according to the links posted on the site, one begins with Eduardo C. Corral, and, in fact, with the interview which precedes his poems. Corral’s interview is absorbing, smart and various, and includes both family anecdotes and soundbites such as "Mexico, like the Western canon, must be voraciously consumed, and occasionally regurgitated." His poetry ranges from the warm and confidentially shocking ("I learned how to make love to a man/by touching my father"), to the painstakingly descriptive, to the formally achieved. Sonnets recounting border crossings are nimbly controlled while touched with the absurd; a related elegy notes "After a storm saguaros glisten/like mint trombones." Humor is always surreal in Corral’s work; like a finger touched to a live wire, it unlocks his exactitude and knocks some welcome excess loose. My favorite poem in this selection is "Poem after Frieda Kahlo’s Painting The Broken Column." Though description carries the ekphrasis, arresting moments of fragment, quotation, revision and repetition give the poem its, yes, queerness:
Under the cold scaffolding of winter my love took me for a walk through the desert. My breath crumbling like bread.
Under the cold scaffolding of winter my love took me for a stroll through the desert. My breath crumbling like bread.
Under the cold scaffolding of winter my love took me through the desert. My breath crumbling like bread.
This poem has the riskiness and boldness of gesture everywhere apparent in Corral’s interview.
Rigoberto González contributes ‘The Essay Chapbook’ to this triptych; his series of essays recounts a single bus journey with his father. The narrative is fluid and compelling; psychology, metaphor, and description ride easily together on this elegant surface, and the allegory of constant transit speaks both to the immigrant condition and to the always-arriving quality of the text’s electronic medium. The same may be said of the linguistic border crossing of Noé Hernández’s dual-language interview, which profiles his breathtaking youthful exploits from Mexico City into revolutionary El Salvador and, more recently, into the wilds of North Carolina. The translator of this article is not identified; is it Hernández himself? Meanwhile, Hernández’s paintings propose yet another kind of border crossing; his muscular, glowing figures are at once mythic and palpably real. They seem ready to leap from their linen and canvas backings, their Dali-informed tableaux, and cross into the 3-D world with their strangeness and strength intact.
In his interview, Hernández speaks of his current goal of making a Latino cultural presence in North Carolina, where a growing population of immigrants is present but invisible. The Border Triptych may work analogously by presenting not just the New Critical objects created by these three artists but also their voices, photos, backgrounds, philosophies, and email addresses. If the conventional chapbook makes visible the collaborations that bring texts into published form, this type of electronic chapbook poses a new possibility. It is published, but not finished. It invites its readers not only to view the text but to enter into literal communication with its authors. The Border Triptych hopefully portends not just further collaboration by Corral, González, and Hernández, but also a network of potential collaborations raying out from this site.
POSTSCRIPT: Since the posting of this review, it’s been made known to me that the designer of The Border Triptych is the novelist Bino A. Realuyo, who also serves as Web Del Sol Chapbook Editor and Web-Designer. Realuyo conducted all three interviews and translated the interview with Noé Hernández. The Border Triptych may be accessed at http://www.webdelsol.com/f-writ-tab.htm.
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