Danielle Vogel’s Edges & Fray is a beautiful, complicated braid of a poem, constructed as a nest for the self’s incubation. It is a book about writing, yes, but more: it is a kind of living-writing, a “never not writing.” This is writing as weaving, with the hands folding the beams that connect the eye to the world into a new fabric. We “come to language / as architects of relation – -” Vogel tells us, “but sentences are not secure”
we take them up as planks
and make unstable geometries
a book arrives in threads —
Vogel tells us she writes from an “impulse of arrangement,” and you see that here. Facing these lines, on the preceding page, a series of photographs shows birds nests strung with thread. A connection forms between the visual and worded images. A simple equation is made—the book is a kind of nest—but it deepens into an extended, ontological metaphor. Throughout the book, Vogel evokes the nests of grebes, warblers and wasps, the kingfisher and weaverbird, the long lineage of non-human nest builders, and compares their techniques and materials to the memory and language, paper and ink that have accreted to become the book. She says,
we read debris and make seemingly complete shapes
what we experience :
a series of fragments
and the ethereal impulse
of an entirety
nests have taught me about the minuscule – –
– – that haunts toward the whole
the book becomes a breathing record
Each photograph presents the jagged edge of a nest, zoomed into abstracted colors and rough shapes. An egg of focus reveals here and there the frayed, rippling brim where in addition to twigs and grass and string the builder-birds have woven:
Copper wire, comic strips, thread, yarn, buttonholes, stamps, newspaper remains, horsehair, a single red postage stamp, bones, burlap strips, handwriting, small bolts of cotton, snake skins.
No romantic landscape, each photo is set against a gray, portrait-studio-like backdrop. What was once
a loose heap
of unwoven sticks
lodged in the forks of a branch – –
is an image only now, branchless and bird-free. Fragmentary, bereft of original context, these images act as a kind of virtual remainder. For all their lack of a physical location, their presence seeds space. They mark, in fact, an access point into the kind of inner architecture and inhabitation that is this book’s whole project.
We’re dealing here with
a catalog of correspondence
between something whole
and a part of that whole
The ethereal gap joining these two orders of being, like the hollow of a nest itself, becomes the ground for the poet’s—and the reader’s—becoming. Feeling this conceptual braiding happening, recognizing the power of the individual threads while dissolving in the spaces between them, is one of the richest experiences you get reading Edges & Fray.
Fundamental to this feeling is the recognition of another “unstable boundary : the body / the book.” The body that would hold the book—its spine and leaves—in its hands. The book that would blaze the nervous system, hijack the vision, and excite the heart that runs its blood. It’s a mesh border, defined by transmission. Language suffuses the body. Just as,
starts its nest
with a disk
or some “bird-species… pull out their own body hairs and bind them with silk,” the debris of the body—its histories and breath—are integral to the book. “Self-secretion is a narrative editing process.” To hold the book, to read it, is to occupy language’s bonded, “momentary enclosures,” to actively ensnare yourself in the mechanism of its assemblage, which is—perhaps paradoxically—the way into “that strange, entangled expanse of one’s own interiority.”
The nest of the book lets onto the inner landscape wherein the poet incubates her becoming-self in the substance that’s formed her so far. That substance, formed into the “loosely thatched paragraph” landing
upon an awkward bale of noise
where I forage feeling into shape
makes demands of its own, of course. This is no less than the force of history and culture. Taken as received, it’s overwhelming and leaves one trapped, not sheltered. Vogel reminds us, “not only beautiful things / happen in nests,” but she doesn’t take any of it as received. Rather, it is the shaping, the arranging and foraging that remakes the given into something that supports.
a bird leaves
to return, leaves
to return again;
weaves a thing
presses its breast
against the circle
against the weave; no,
the weave becomes
If “Edges & Fray” feels like the building of a nest, “: slowness, time—” feels both like the eggs it would protect and examples of the filaments from which it has been woven. Each of the section’s prose paragraphs offers origins for the book. In some of these Vogel was very young and the book began as she tied her family members’ shoelaces together under the dinner table, or it began as her cousin tenderly removed beetles from her hair. It began when she snuck a strand of uncooked spaghetti out from under from her mother’s watchful eye, or when her father threw her into Long Island’s Great South Bay. Many of these beginnings are funny, even triumphant. Others speak of fear and sadness, mortality. The book began when she comforts her little brother as he fears death. “It began when my mother died,” she says. “I am watching her dark hair flare auburn in the golden hour.”
Love pervades these tiny histories, but even the gladdest is bittersweet. By siting the beginning of the book in so many locations, across so many points in time, Vogel calls attention to the unceasing re-creation required by her project. The nest, made of the debris of past constructions, previous, apparent wholes, is impermanent as a whole itself. Even so, the same vibrational energy that its components brought to it will be carried forward into each of its pieces’ new beginnings and future lives.
This is no small thing. Vogel ends her book:
It began when I placed a word in my mouth as one might place a stone. It began when I swallowed it. To absorb its frequency. It began when I placed a word in someone else’s hand. When I arranged sound. To reach the body, but also beyond it. Above it. To levitate the senses. The day. Into the air, with only the voice. To make a nest big enough for time.
Her word has reached beyond your body, and has brought you—you make her sounds with your mouth—into that momentary eternity where poets and birds transition from shelter to flight.
Tom DeBeauchamp‘s work can be found at The Rupture, Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, and elsewhere. He lives in Portland, Oregon.