Transitory Poetics is a new review series by Toby Altman focused solely on current and upcoming chapbooks.
In a recent history of the chapbook, published in The Guardian, Chris Martin writes that chapbooks are “still extant in their own curious way.” Like so much of contemporary poetry, chapbooks seem curious, anachronistic, somehow out of step with the rest of culture. For poets, though, chapbooks are the primary currency of innovation. The chapbook is the place where emerging writers announce their ambitions, where poets excluded from the patriarchal and racist mechanisms of traditional literary publishing often find refuge and possibility. The chapbook is also disposable, transitory, in a way that books rarely are: they can thus be sites of looseness and improvisation, defiantly un-sober. Within contemporary poetry, chapbooks are vitally extant. There’s nothing curious about it.
Yet chapbooks are rarely reviewed, especially in major venues. The widely (and justly) praised recent issue of The New York Times Book Review which purports to rehearse nothing less than ‘the year in poetry’ does not mention the existence of the chapbook. And why should it? Contemporary poetry criticism is obsessed with the book, and so books get reviewed. This has important effects on the culture of poetry and the ambitions of poets: for instance, it often feels like the book is the natural unit for a poetic project, and for a poetic career. Chapbooks are treated as steps toward a book, rather than objects and projects in their own right. Yet the best chapbooks resist this imperative. In the ways they stage poems and in their physical designs, they do things that books can’t.
In this column, I hope to investigate the aesthetics and the politics of the chapbook, on its own terms. I plan to do so empirically, by reading and reviewing as many chapbooks as I can. I don’t necessarily have a theoretical agenda, and I certainly don’t claim (or want) a total view of chapbook culture. Rather, I hope that this series spurs other critics to write about chapbooks, to consider their materiality, their integrity as projects. I think we need to collectively develop better critical language for talking and writing about chapbooks. For someone like Chris Martin, chapbooks are anachronistic survivals, relics of past modes of publishing. On the contrary, I think that chapbooks represent the future of publishing (if I may use such a grandiose phrase): a future in which publishing is dispersed, virtuosic, and unbound by the imperatives of book publishing.
This month I reviewed three exemplary chapbooks, all published in 2015: Mel Coyle and Jenn Marie Nunes’ Hymn: An Ovulation, Carleen Tibbetts’ to exosk(elle), the last sugar, and Chen Chen’s set the garden on fire. I have chosen them for their particularity, their idiosyncrasy: indeed, they each seize the chapbook as a space to deploy such idiosyncrasy. These chapbooks suggest that the ‘future of publishing’ is rather futures, a widening gyre. Let’s hope the center does not hold.
Hymn: An Ovulation by Mel Coyle and Jenn Marie Nunes
Bloof Books, 2015
Hymn: An Ovulation is a single, continuous poem. Or it is a set of aphorisms, each titled “HUM <W> ME.” Or it is a fairy tale about the Greek Goddess Hera, the Fogwitch, and the Dr., trapped in a landscape dominated, and thus determined, by capital and its patriarchal imperatives: “happy nude year! to give her some idea of the landscape it’s backside bodacious and gentrified January.” Something about this long poem exceeds comprehension. Every time I read it, the poem somehow grows, expanding the scope of its critique to contain more and more of our collective and fucked reality.
In part, this is because the poem contains so much stuff. Often, the poem becomes a breathless litany of things, people, and ideas: “Malcolm X / HUM <W> ME / prescription drugs / HUM <W> ME / tailored pants / HUM <W> ME.” Unlike language poetry, with its sometimes absurd faith in the revolutionary force of formal gestures like parataxis, Hymn does not locate its political potential in this rangy, virtuosic set of juxtapositions. Indeed, Hymn recognizes that the juxtaposition, confusion, and profusion of objects are themselves a strategy of power. And the poem itself almost compulsively produces such confusions. “Hera sends an SMS text message to Dr. to confirm. the forest is overdrawn.” Here, the poem collapses, brilliantly, the financial and economic depredations of capital: the natural world is already money, already debt. Consequently the possibility of escape is already captured by capital: “Hera finally has enough credit card points to get the hell out of here.”
Instead, Hymn locates political potential in its refrain. Repeated five or six times on every page, “HUM <W> ME” punctures the obsessive accumulation of data and debt. In the poem’s opening lines, the words are ascribed to Hera herself: “Hera heard yr prayers electric / hum w/ me she said.” Yet, as the words are repeated and repeated, they acquire a kind of autonomy: they become the site of an expansive and collective voice, a voice that we are, of course, invited to join. The refrain is less a call to action than a call to a shared subjectivity, an invitation to a kind of musicality that interrupts and obstructs the logic of capitalism and patriarchy. “HUM <W> ME / into the strap-on forest,” the poem begins, inviting us into a kind of sexual space which discards reproductive logics and their smoothly progressing generational temporality: “first comes <3 / then comes rabbits.” “She wants time as obstruction,” write Coyle and Nunes: through their metronymic refrain time does indeed become an obstruction, an interruption, which relentlessly returns.
to exosk(elle), the last sugar by Carleen Tibbetts
Zoo Cake Press, 2015 (sold out)
to exosk(elle), the last sugar is bound in gold thread, its cover a deep crimson on heavy stock. In its physicality, the chapbook conveys a certain lushness, an embodied richness. Or maybe it suggests a wounded-ness: it seems to have just been dipped in viscera. Either way, it refuses to settle the question. I entered this chapbook unsettled by pleasure and unsure of my body: what if I was the site or the source of the wound? Indeed, exosk(elle) suggests that pleasure is itself a kind of wounding, a violence exerted equally on the self and the world around it. As Tibbetts writes, “anything can be colonized, even pleasure.” Her poems go on to investigate that colonization, turning their analytical power on language itself as a site of mundane, yet productive, violence. “look, existence is really long,” she writes, “you spend it naming your pain in the pluperfect.” In these poems, language is barren—a monotonous record of a monotonous pain. And words themselves are mark of loss, of the absence that is the foundation of the self: “To assign adjective means to add to, to furnish with extras. / To furnish something means that to begin with, it was lack.” These poems use and manipulate the technical languages of linguistics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, but they also remain closely linked to the particular suffering of particular bodies. They outline the violence of gender itself, the way that authoritative and scientific languages constitute female bodies and subjectivities according to their own violent and misogynistic needs. “Nothing is ours,” Tibbetts writes, “even our speech when it disrupts.”
Consequently, the poems locate political possibility beyond writing and beyond language. “So we’ve come to the postverbal,” Tibbetts quips, from within the confines of the verbal. Later, she writes, “i want to un-join language.” It’s a paradox, of course, like writing “I die”—how can you un-join language in language? How can language be coaxed or forced beyond itself? These poems are dancing within that paradox, continually fighting to get free of language and yet habitually, even compulsively acknowledging their status as linguistic artifacts. As they bend syntax, they point both beyond it and back to it. This is not exactly a hopeful poetics. “We are locked in dialogue,” Tibbetts writes: her poems are therefore part of the prison or part of the lock: they describe the edges of the cell. The edge of the cell is the body itself: its capacity to exceed language. Toward the end, Tibbetts writes:
At the center of image cleft from eye, there is that alien kernel of
when, reduced to its minimal features, yields a leftover; the voice—
ultimate matrix of dismantled sounds
The voice exceeds its linguistic functions: it surrounds language and surpasses it, becoming a refuge, an escape, a reservoir of possibility that always frames the poem. “Why is voice the outcome and what is left in the remainder?” Tibbetts asks later. “Woman/dollbaby spectre/junction of elation & folly instrument,” she answers.
exosk(elle) asks us to find a language beyond poetry for poetry. “reach in and free your chest cavity of song,” Tibbetts commands, “come to the wet deep of thrill.”
set the garden on fire by Chen Chen
Porkbelly Press, 2015
“I was 13, I am 13,” writes Chen Chen in one of his elegant, extended meditations on desire and identity. The context—and context always matters in Chen’s poems, which weave around themselves a dense web of living circumstance—is the dawn of sexuality and the fractures it introduces into identity, body, and family. The poem in question, “Race to the Tree,” begins with the narrator hiding from his parents in a tree near their apartment complex; it ends with him at school the next day on crutches, telling the best boy on the track team, “the boy I liked”:
that I was just getting some extra practice
& wasn’t careful & guess now I’ll never be as good
as you this season. He looked at me
for a moment. Looked away.
– I didn’t tell him I spent all night in a tree
– because my mother slapped me
– after I told her I might be gay.
– I didn’t tell him that I hit her back…
The lines crush, in part because they are so nonchalant, refusing to sentimentalize violence. And they crush, in part, because they are so immediate: they elide the difference between then and now, so that we simultaneously occupy the moment and reflect on it. The immediate material of this poem, like many in set the garden on fire, is memory. But memory is both a living thing and an insoluble lump of the past that persists in the present—in all its difficulty, and its possibility.
Words like “lump” and “insoluble” may be too inelegant for these poems, which uniformly possess an animating lyricism. But I think they suggest the intractability of identity itself. In these poems, identity is intractable because it is multiple, at war within itself over its sources and obligations. Writing about his mother’s meat cleaver, he notes: “She’d brought both of us / all the way from China, but unlike me, it / stayed Chinese.” The trouble is that identity expands and changes, that languages are lost, and then found under difficult, changed circumstances. Or the trouble is the racist resistance of the adopted culture, which refuses to recognize the sacrifices and difficulties of immigrants: “Like with your family, my friend says, once we / moved in, they stopped calling us / hardworking immigrants.” Or, heartbreakingly, the trouble is the tension between family and sexuality, as when his grandmother insists:
“If I spoke English, then I would know what you really want.” My hands clasp together, sweaty, on my lap. I keep staring at the TV. “Don’t be so shy,” my grandmother says, “you’re seeing someone, aren’t you? She can be a foreigner, grandma doesn’t care. I just want you to be happy.”
The trouble is finally integral to the act of poetry itself, the occasion of its making. Chen writes not to seek solutions, but rather to document the fullness of the problem, as an embodied weight from which language emerges. Chen’s poems investigate identity with a kind of generosity. They retrace past traumas, to find in them the possibility of repair. In “Tale of the Heart & the Knife,” a friend observes, reflecting on Chen’s own descriptions of his parents, “You talk about them so tenderly…How do you do that?” He replies, “I have not always been tender. / So perhaps it’s a way of making up, talking about them tenderly.”
For poets or publishers interested in having their work considerd specifically for Transitory Poetics, please feel free to email Toby Altman: altman.toby [at] gmail.com