Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Chapbooks

18 Nov

chap3chap2chap1chap4During overly hectic periods in my life, it’s sometimes difficult to find the time to invest in a full-length collection of poetry with an intensity that gives due diligence to the aesthetic, emotional, and poetic content of the poems therein. For this reason (among others), I enjoy reading chapbooks. Engaging a poet’s work within the confines of 15-30 pages enables me, as a reader, to spend more time with individual poems, to think about the conceptual framework of the entire collection in a more concentrated manner, and to do so in a relatively truncated time frame.

The past few weeks, for me, have been rather busy and, thus, I’ve not been able to dedicate my time to reading any full-length collections. Luckily for me, though, a stack of recently acquired chapbooks have gathered in my apartment; this was the perfect opportunity to read these little books.

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already aware that there is no dearth of wonderful chapbook presses across the country releasing limited-run titles. Of these, my favorite presses take an artisan approach to constructing their artifacts, creating books that demonstrate a particular type of craftsmanship, attention to aesthetic detail, and a general love of book-making. While I find presses that release chapbooks that embodied a D.I.Y. and/or zine-style approach to their artifacts interesting as well (but for different reasons), I find a certain pleasure in fetishizing a finely-wrought chapbook.

To this end, I would like to offer brief reviews of four chapbooks that are both well-constructed and filled with well-conceived poetry.

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Brown, Lily. The Haptic Cold. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013.

In “I Tie Down My Fill, Close the Sky,” the opening poem of Brown’s newly released The Haptic Cold, the speaker says:

When I went outside and spoke, metal
was coming out of my skin.
I spoke backwards and others
rotated the phrases back for me.

However strange we need to be to get there.
The skin’s scales speak of failure
to do something. Easy to fail all day,
then use the word to show
a state of non-achievement.

The speaker attempts to articulate herself, but she voices her phrases “backwards” and in a “rotated” manner, thus obfuscating her desired meaning or intent. Moreover, her speech, instead of communicating a message, effects some strange bodily transformation wherein metal comes out of her skin.

To this end, “I Tie Down My Fill,” and The Haptic Cold, in general, address a particular “failure” of language to do “something” which its speaker intends. But this “state of non-achievement” becomes an achievement in and of itself–at least to the extent that these poems disorient their readers, situating them in a linguistic field marked not by utilitarian ends, but by its ability to disrupt understanding through the “violence of artifact” and artifice.

As such, when we encounter strange passages, such the following lines from “Taxonomic”:

I swallowed the doorjamb’s

shine. The threshold
breaks off as I use it.
The water has a breeze

says the dog-eared lady
who owns both.

we need not so much worry about the poem’s discernible logic; but, rather, we should focus on the haptic effects that such linguistic and cognitive dislocations render within and upon our bodies.

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Falck, Noah. Celebrity Dream Poems. Portland, OR: Poor Claudia, 2013.

Falck’s chapbook Celebrity Dream Poems consists of twenty poems, each composed of four couplets that he titled after the name of a famous person.

The poet prefaces his collection an excerpt from Berryman’s “Dream Song 14,” which simply reads: “Peoples bore me.” While, no doubt, the epigraph acknowledges the vacuous nature of celebrity culture, these absurdist poems do not work in service of reinforcing this claim; rather, Falck’s poems enliven the celebrity machine by infusing it with quirky humor through a re-orientation of context. Take, for instance, the poem “Lebron James”:

There is a lake on the moon on fire.
I hold your hand and try to explain

everything as if it were written by
Dr. Seuss. I will not lose anymore

not in the dark, not in the park, Sammy.
Though, I will win seven rings in Miami!

Your tears came out as small green hams. You stood
near a window pointing to the fire on the moon.

Similar to the gossip and entertainment magazines found in the checkout lanes at the grocery store, the poem provides a brief engagement with a celebrity figure. But unlike those magazines—which frame their subject as person who is “Just Like Us” through images and captions of him/her performing banal tasks—Falck’s poem creates a little, surreal world for us to lose ourselves in momentarily.

And that world, populated by burning lakes on the moon, tears composed of miniature green hams, and an impromptu Dr. Seuss adaptation, is decidedly nothing like the one in which we normally find Lebron James. Instead, this world effects a bizarre yet enjoyable milieu, wherein an NBA superstar is a rhyming astronomer who watches the moon burn impossibly.

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Fortin, Jennifer H. Give or Take. Salem, MA: Greying Ghost Press, 2013.

Give or Take is a series of fifteen prose poems that, more often than not, offer reflective meditations on a particular subject matter. For example, the collection’s first poem “Hawaii” begins:

My work is to point out the inescapability of neglect and call for a slower, deeper interaction with it. As we reached the end of our inaugural experience of neglect, our attention returned to skin, the sonic sibling of skim. Neglect just means you don’t pick something up, and you don’t or can’t handle it.

While the poem’s title references the island state of Hawaii, Hawaii is never addressed throughout the course of the poem. Hawaii becomes the neglected object through non-engagement. Rather, the speaker presents us with other subjects, such as skin, skim, apples, doorknobs, and forks. Most importantly, though, she addresses the concept of neglect itself. To this end, the title of the poem is a “cheap kind of attention”: in other words, invoking a term for the explicit sake of non-engagement.

The subject matter of each prose meditation alters quite a bit from piece to piece. One of my favorite reflections occurs during the collection’s title poem:

There’s a “you”—probably now a me—described that morphs from character into concept via the inappropriate. The absolute is all over the place. “You” is all over the place. When it comes to assessing you’s emotions, it gets very serious. And anytime there are big feelings involved, tender complexity is not far away.

In this passage, the speaker of the poem investigates the protean nature of pronouns and the manner in which the second-person pronoun can sometimes refer to the first-person through a morphing of character. Moreover, these alterations in antecedents usually correspond to some “serious” emotional states that tend to involve a “tender complexity.” Just like pronouns and the emotional states affixed to them, Fortin’s prose poems are both tender and complex in concept and delivery.

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Kaminski, Megan. Gemology. Houston, TX: Little Red Leaves, 2012.

Megan Kaminski’s chapbook Gemology works through a troika of tropes: the word, the flesh, and the city. The collection, in many ways, seeks to collapse these three distinctive terms so as to render their differences unintelligible. Take, for instance, the following excerpts:

                                    Name me perception
                                    name me economy
rows of turnstops
lanes of traffic
halls cubicles queues
                 order number and sign
                 away my body
                 one department or another (4)

We implore you exhale city smoke and invite us
within garneted sanctuary damp cavern
architectures making way songs and bodies
rending walls porous to sound silken soiled (5)

Vowels roll drip down thighs
conjunctions across backs

I put on my city

city built line on line body on body
alphabet buried beneath street
concrete-riverbed-city
cross-sectioned-fluid-fattened (7)

Yes, the poet builds the “city” from “line on line” in the poem, but also of “body on body.” But these bodies themselves are made of language, such that “Vowels roll…down thighs” and one can find “conjunctions across backs.” The city, likewise, becomes a body, at the least to the extent that the speaker claims that she can “put on my city” as if it were a detachable skin. Furthermore, the city is language, wherein one can “exhale” it through articulation, capturing its “architectures” in “song.”

No longer can we tell where one entity begins and another ends. Instead, all three are enwrapped in a tri-folded chiasmus such that they are indistinguishable from one another.

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3 Responses to “Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Chapbooks”

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Review of Noah Falck’s Celebrity Dream Poems | Poor Claudia - November 18, 2013

    […] [Click to view other reviews by Joshua Ware] […]

  2. Reviews, Interviews, &c. – Jennifer H. Fortin - April 4, 2014

    […] OR TAKE was one of the best things Joshua Ware had read during a particular month. He reviewed the chapbook at […]

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