Tuesday, December 20, 2011



speaking off centre by James Cummins
(Dusie, Switzerland, 2009)

corporate geese (Volume V) by Christopher William Purdom
(226 Press, 2009)

Kitchen Tidbits by Amanda Laughtland
(Sacrifice Press, Oregon, 2010)

From Here. Poems by Zoë Skoulding and images by Simonetta Moro
(Ypolita Press / Dusie, 2008)

TWO HATS appear when applauded: an improvisation by Raymond Farr
(Dusie Press, 2007)

5 chapbooks

speaking off centre by James Cummins
Its small size, heavy cover, colored endsheets, and sewn rather than stapled binding make speaking off centre a visual object, not just a poetic one; clearly effort has gone into producing this superior little chapbook. The book combines words with visual embellishments (like lines or arrows, varying font sizes, close attention to the white spaces of the page) and tongue-in-cheek humor. The first page of the book, for example, features the word “ample” hovering over the high-quality grayscale image of an apple. Like this obvious pun, tensions between what is written and perceived carry through the rest of the book. Cummins explores “space” in his series of poems, making each poem “forceful / w/in / space,” “collapsing / into space,” or “entering / the / smallest / of / spaces.”

Emphasizing the idea of space through language, and reinforcing the notion through font size, word placement, and visual emphasis, the poems encourage readers to read the words, follow the arrows, and receive the images simultaneously. The experience is not overwhelming, however; there are plenty of pauses in this spare and intriguing book. All the poems are small—fewer than ten lines—and some pages display only a single word. We get used to the silences in these poems, “the spaces between / reading,” as Cummins says, and become immersed in the carefully curated world of the book. By the time we near the end of speaking off centre and encounter the lines “carbon cravings // from inside our … … ….”, the series of ellipses seem almost a form of Morse code, looking outside of language and the book, into the open space of the larger world for its referent.

corporate geese (Volume V) by Christopher William Purdom
This unassuming chapbook begins with section “13: Signage,” so we immediately know we’ve entered a project in progress. Purdom’s work is described on the back cover as “twenty-four short poems about our relationship with God, nature, ourselves, and each other,” but this description is both too broad and too narrow. Snippets of found language are included in the poem “15th Street El Stop: Six Billboards in a Row,” which ostensibly quotes the signs verbatim in lines like “Listen to church sermons online. / This holiday season, find your style for less” (2). Purdom continually references current culture and technology, like “Wikipedia” (9), “HTML tutorial” (9), and “Michael Phelps” (18). As well, the poems can be self reflexive, describing “Crazed inflamed typing / Colon right paren / Colon right paren / Colon right paren” (6). At times these poems are dense, relying on an omission of language to create speed; in the poem “yet another chair story,” (4) Purdom writes “my safe mind meld second life / rent vixen avatar who / you are taste buds rearranged / silverware on the table / rub compulsed knife refuses.” The poem is ostensibly about “chaos” (4), but even if its language and form are designed to reflect this, Purdom neglects to provide entrance into the poem’s narrow space. Later, in “redundant pose,” Purdom writes “between projected graphed drawn / knees congruent dress advise / propose heels first force announce” (23), and while the word choices are often interesting, the poem as a whole forgets to draw readers in. Perhaps an understanding of Purdom’s previous Volumes I-IV would better clarify what Volume V is reaching towards. Or, perhaps corporate geese doesn’t desire understanding; these poems’ consistent interiority finds a certain freedom.

Kitchen Tidbits by Amanda Laughtland
Kitchen Tidbits is a small pamphlet of poems centered on a theme—these are “inspired by magazine articles and advertisements from 1943,” according to the note on the back cover. Laughtland captures the retro feel of the poems’ source material in their content, offering up information about “dehydrated soups” (4), “potato crust pie” (5), or “extra pale beer” (11). Even further, the poems reflect the narrative stance of the alluded-to advertisements; most poems make a direct address to the mythical, stereotypical housewife. The poetic address to this absent “you,” rather than offering a relatable “I,” creates an interesting tension for the reader. Readers are inclined to feel spoken to directly, even chastised, by these ladies’ magazines. The title poem, for example, explains, “You know how hot things must be / served piping hot and cold things // icy cold, but it’s these sorts / of simple things you might be apt // to forget…” (8).

The reader is transported back into the era of these advertisements, and we are constantly reminded that the housewife in these poems is generally incapable. Because she needs help, she may “Write for our booklet” (5) and “Send for free labels, tested recipes // and instructions” (9). She is assured, after reading the poem “Try Making Peanut Butter at Home,” that “It’s not too hard” but she shouldn’t “expect // as creamy and smooth a butter / as your grocer sells in jars” (6). The poems are funny and resonant, highlighting the inferiority of the 1940s housewife. Still, they’re never particularly surprising. The excitement of Kitchen Tidbits comes not from language, form, or idea, but from the sense that a conceptual and critical complexity underlies these otherwise straightforward poems.

From Here. Poems by Zoë Skoulding and images by Simonetta Moro
Author Zoë Skoulding explains this collaborative project: “Simonetta sent drawings from New York, I sent poems back from Bangor in North Wales, and the sequence developed as a conversation” (back page). Moro’s full color images are round, with crisp or wavy edges, and often seem like microscope slides, presenting some tiny blur of scenery or action as if in a drop of water. These images are interspersed throughout From Here, making the relationship between poem and image rewarding to trace. The poems are “where the glass holds me in / place” (II), showing “translucent bodies where place / comes through in washes” (IX). The visual and verbal collaboration takes on qualities of a true conversation, a consistent compositional back and forth that allows From Here to unfold organically. In the image “Weatherlines,” the amorphous, map-like dotted lines that trail over a muted sea or skyscape may preview the whorls of “thumbprints where / each line is your next move” (XI) in a poem coming a few pages later, but they seem equally suitable when read as a response to an earlier poem where “things get cloudy under / coldfronts of diplomatic pressure” so “I signed on the dotted line” (VIII).

Despite this cohesion, From Here also emphasizes disjunction. Just as the poet and artist are conversing across physical distances, so too does the book call attention to breaks in time and space. The twelve 9-line poems are minimally punctuated, emphasizing the unit of the line over the sentence. Line breaks such as “you carry history from a / to b in planetary drifts across a lens” (I) or “a curve of thought spiraling / into where I might be written a moment ago / there were futures…” (VI) disrupt sentence structure and reframe readers’ expectations. The constraints placed on the project—its sequence, its conversationality, the limitations in length and appearance imposed on the poems themselves—make the resulting chapbook consistently ambitious and rewarding to read.

TWO HATS appear when applauded: an improvisation by Raymond Farr
Farr cites Marianne Moore’s line “I was leaving Boston wearing two hats” as the “matrix” for the series of poems contained in this chapbook. Farr’s poems offer a slanted and heightened view of the modernist poet, as they are populated not by the Moore readers may know but by a “Two Hatted Femme Fatale” (17) who is “‘saucy’” and “the most secretive / of personages” (7), a “maiden aunt in panties” (9) who will “conga till dawn” (10). Readers will be best served taking Farr at his word and understanding his poetic series as “an improvisation,” a continuous playful riff only loosely based on Moore’s line and persona. Even as Moore’s presence is reduced to “a sentence altered by two hats / altering a sentence” (18), Farr’s enthusiastic telling, retelling, and reforming of this sentence becomes enjoyable to witness.

Using full typographical range, exploring capitalization, brackets, spacing, italics, and other visual interruptions through the verses, the author reliably returns to Moore’s line as his inspirational source. The “two hats” return again and again in the text; they may be an “azure blue… / with leopard skin” (7) or characterized as “bourgeois” (7), “redoubtable” (11), or “expedient” (13). In this chapbook, “A lamp post / wearing two hats” (11) is just as likely to appear as “a woman wearing two hats” (12) or even “a cat in two hats” (15), but the continually evolving return of hats in these pages offers an accessible entry into what is a compellingly strange and impulsive poetic journey.


Genevieve Kaplan is the author of In the ice house (Red Hen Press, 2011) and editor of the Toad Press international chapbook series, which publishes literary translations.

1 comment:

na said...

Another view of Raymond Farr’s TWO HATS APPEAR WHEN APPLAUDED: AN IMPROVISATION is offered by Bob Marcacci in GR #10 at