CHAPS by SARAH MANGOLD and DANA WARDCHRIS PUSATERI Reviews
Picture of the Basket by Sarah Mangold
(dusie kollektiv, 2006. Downloadable here.)
New Couriers by Dana Ward
(dusie kollektiv, 2006. Downloadable here.)
For better or worse, chapbooks belong to the category of ephemera. Produced furtively and dispensed like contraband, their transient nature causes many to question their “enduring worth.” Often considered secondary to longer and more expensively-produced “book-books,” they garner little notice and even less critical attention. They are, in the words of their numerous detractors, little more than printed indulgences—the bon-bons of the poetry world. As part of a market logic in which the cultural value of an object is determined by how much money surrounds it, many readers view with suspicion a book that is traded, bartered, even gifted—as if its very mode of distribution made its contents suspect.
But dismissal, as we all know, is simply an inability—or more often, an unwillingness—to deal seriously with something. If one explores the history of the chapbook, one will unearth a rich past. Descended from such forms as the pamphlet and broadsheet, the chapbook was originally meant to dispense information about current events to a community. Poetry chapbooks serve a similar role: since they are quickly produced, they represent what is new in poetry. Longer books often spend years in production, waiting for their numbers to be called, while chapbooks appear at a much quicker clip. It is this immediacy which makes the chapbook among our most intimate formats. But while poets spend considerable time pondering the notion of “community,” they frequently ignore the fact that few formats have done as much to link writers with their contemporaries.
About two years ago, dusie magazine—the online brainchild of Swiss-based US expat Susana Gardner—rolled out its first issue; scarcely a year later came Dusie Press, an imprint which has since published perfectbound books by Elizabeth Treadwell, Logan Ryan Smith, and others.
In the winter of 2006, Gardner invited forty-two poets to participate in the dusie kollektiv. Each poet would write and produce a chapbook in sufficient numbers to ensure that every other participant would receive a copy; in addition, an electronic copy of each title would appear on the dusie website for free download. That summer, forty-two writers produced forty-two small books and sent copies of their handiwork to forty-one others, located all over the United States and Europe. A loose community formed around this project, for as Derrida writes, “the offering is never a simple thing, but already a discourse.”
I was the recipient of two such gifts from a pair of poets whose styles were so divergent that I could scarcely believe they could be accommodated by a single project. The first, Picture of the Basket, written by Sarah Mangold, provides an intense and intricate line, one whose montage seems a lesson in compression culled from the Objectivists. John Olson once quipped that Mangold’s poetry was “like Reznikoff at a sewing machine,” which seems an apt description, if one bears in mind that the machine is guided by a human hand. In Olson’s analogy, the machine is the writing process: the joining of two planes to form a shirt, an airplane wing, or a recollection.
Mangold’s poetry operates in the space where the present becomes the past. As we read, we note that this chapbook is filled with days: its component poems are titled “Day 1,” “Day 2,” and so forth. The clipped yet precise lines ask of the reader what method acting demands of the actor: a “sense memory” where the stimulus is attached to an idea, a line, a fragment that carries with it all of its past contexts. Mangold tells us of:
tasks and arrivals
a definitive the
it is possible to disappear
upstairs into immaculate research
if you’d like to speak
yes there are institutions
These institutions—and their attendant conventions—manufacture the very past that Mangold’s poems hope to cross-examine. Her treatment of history (and its relationship to the present) is where Mangold most closely resembles Charles Reznikoff. Her poetry is a kind of testimony, one in which an historical context is introduced. Because legal testimony occurs under oath, the witness is asked to tell the truth. Anyone with a television set is familiar with the phrase: do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God? This is an important distinction: the witness is not sworn to recall events; she is asked to answer questions truthfully.
My reaction to the word truth is a physical one: I flinch when I hear it. And why this reaction? Well, for me, truth is not unlike similarly nebulous terms like happiness, liberty, and postmodernism: it is an abstraction made meaningless through overuse. But for me, Mangold’s search for truth—for believable testimony, for “poetic” truth, if you like—is about more than rescuing abused terms from meaninglessness: it is about affording the past a luxury usually reserved for the future. Mangold’s poetics regard the past as the province of possibility, one in which events are unsettled and far from static.
the return flight is becoming longer
how the heart bends
bravely entering into
being the younger
These poems are intensely meditative and deliberate, almost monastically so. Their personae are pronouns that, having been introduced, fall away gracefully like dancers. These “Days” and the lines that comprise them are finite intervals, in the process of being reduced to carbon. As Mangold writes, “I have a way of seeing but it’s almost gone.” When a way of seeing is gone, one’s observations have ceased being a day and have now become a “Day.” It is the transfer of particulars from the present tense to the past, and the codifying of memory, from sensory perception to the written word, which in its turn will be revisited, revised and reified. The present becomes the past which becomes the present.
Reading through this chapbook, I am reminded of the painter Willem de Kooning, who was known for extensively revising his artwork. Having painted an image, he would study it over a course of days, weeks, or even months, adding detail as he went along. Vexed by his questioning, he would often paint over the canvas with white primer and begin anew. He would repeat this process until the layers of paint became inches thick, leaving a mini-history of images, each coat the accumulated evidence of weeks of painstaking labor. These effaced layers became part of the end product so that a painting contained its entire history.
There is evidence that Mangold works in much the same way: her deliberate and methodical lines belie a process of meticulous revisiting, similar to the way one would form an image on a canvas, only to efface it in favor of an emerging truth. Most witnesses are witnesses by accident: they are in the right place at the right time. For Mangold, the “right time” is wherever one finds oneself—it is an invitation into a fleeting scene slipping quickly between tenses.
If Sarah Mangold is Reznikoff at a sewing machine, then Dana Ward is Florence Nightingale with a staple gun. The poems of Ward’s chapbook New Couriers read like strips torn from the platonic bed and reconfigured into a bed of nails. And like a torture device, these poems ratchet the reader into an excruciating state of wakefulness.
Our youth was mild, & rusted
the western light’s bruise
covered up on our neck by grape
leaves, & by honeysuckle
always one stress past the play of the
line so it never occurs.
Here & there they are calling our number
the ants represent, represent
Despite his lyrical lines, Ward is no romantic. And if these poems are songs, they are songs of experience. Objects, like grape leaves and honeysuckle, are introduced, then scrubbed out because they are
always one stress past the play of the
line so it never occurs.
It is not the commentary, but the lyrical lilt of the poems themselves that erase the objects just posited. In the moment before the lyricism achieves flight, the lines unzip into enjambment so that no sooner do we rise than we are brought rudely back to earth with the force of a crash landing. In short, Ward denies the lyric its usual conceits—its song and lilt—by lending them and suddenly rescinding them, by granting and crudely reclaiming them.
The war you blew out of my hands laid its head in my lap.
I asked for its other names too
they swam in the pooled crystal wafers
I found in the ink
a set of trees lovely with age
given the leaves that are ensigns of May Day
The trebled green wicked & sweet
Because this small book is so fiercely aligned with action, it construes experience as an act that occurs even as one reads. While the romantic would mourn the loss of an earlier innocence, Ward concedes that he cannot mourn what he never possessed in the first place. In these poems, nature is not afforded its usual privileged place in the poetic landscape. Instead, all objects, be they natural or synthetic, are viewed with skepticism, as if the pastoral world was no less capable of duplicity than its urban, man-made counterpart. Appearances are exactly that—surfaces interpreted by our imperfect senses. Thus, when “the ants, represent, represent,” the insects themselves become secondary: they are defined by their actions. Each time the ants represent, they present themselves anew until their increase becomes exponential. They grow larger, more present, more menacing.
Psychology tells us that most violence originates spontaneously, and those who perpetrate it often mention the thrill of the moment, the instant when things cease to mean and proceed to “represent, represent.” In this instance, one action sets others in motion like a falling line of dominoes. Unlike Mangold’s work, in which the prolonged study of a singular interval renders it unbearably bright and sharp, Ward’s poems act. Where Mangold focuses on creating presence (as condition), Ward presents objects which are denied their semantics by the very ways in which they are animated. The images of New Couriers present and re-present to produce a frightful amphetamine lapping that is like the hungry sex of strangers. A chapbook both “wicked & sweet,” New Couriers presents a new view of the lyric: one in which the song is a scream.
Chris Pusateri is the author of four chapbooks, most recently Music for Film (Left Hand, 2006) and Flowers in Miniature (Big Game, 2006). Other new work has appeared in Xantippe, Verse, The New Review of Literature, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He lives in Lafayette, Colorado.