Chris Vitiello

A Review of Three Chapbooks
Summer 2005 Book Review Section

 

Daniil Kharms, The Blue Notebook (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004), $5
Trey Sager, O New York (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004), $5
Maureen Thorson, Novelty Act (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004), $5

www.uglyducklingpresse.org

          I grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, and I used to skip high school to bus into
the city and meander around. One day I was reading in the Hirshhorn Museum sculpture garden while a
class field trip from an elementary school for the blind was visiting. The kids were all over these bronze
Henry Moore and Rodin sculptures and Alexander Calder stabiles – I guess they had special
permission to touch everything. But the kids weren’t behaving like sighted kids do on a playground,
clambering around jungle gyms. Instead they were laying their open hands on everything, crawling their
fingers over every surface, with their heads turned away as if they were averting their eyes. And they
were talking, talking, talking about what their hands were feeling.
          Initially, you look at Ugly Duckling Presse books with your hands, and you handle them around
the edges like a photograph that you don’t want to get oily fingerprints on. You feel the book’s weight
as you cradle its spine across the middle of your curled fingers. You may notice that the title has been
letterpressed and run an index finger through the indentations of the letters. You thumb it open, curving
the front cover with the pad of your thumb to splay the pages. And you flip through the pages before
you read a word. It’s a fine book experience rather than a trade book experience. Ugly Duckling has
produced a good number of such chapbooks, and they undercut the preciousness of the fine book
experience by banishing the colophon and copyright information to the back pages. Once your hands
finish with the initial pleasures of the Ugly Duckling book object, your eyes should go straight to the
work printed therein.
          So it is with a trio of their chapbooks from 2004: poet Trey Sager’s O New York, poet
Maureen Thorson’s Novelty Act, and a second edition of Daniil Kharms’s The Blue Notebook
(Matvei Yankelevich, tr.) from their Eastern European Poets Series.
          I am a Daniil Kharms fan, discovering him out of the blue in George Gibian's 1971 book Russia's
Lost Literature of the Absurd: A Literary Discovery while working in a used bookstore in graduate
school. I was reading Russell Edson at the time and noticed the formal similarity – one-paragraph
fragments and scenarios usually stopping short of story. But the psychologies beneath Kharms’s work
are political, and Edson’s Freudian scenes seemed instantly pointless. This self-erasing notebook entry
was written on January 7, 1937
                    There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either,
                     so he was called a redhead arbitrarily. He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth.
                     He had no nose either. He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he
                     had no back, he had no spine, and he had no innards at all. He didn’t have
                     anything. So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. It’s better that we
                     don’t talk about him any more.
          Branislav Jakovljevic’s afterword to The Blue Notebook hints at Kharms’s situation as a poet
under Stalin, publishing only two poems in his lifetime before their absurdism attracted censors, fleeing
unsuccessfully into children’s literature, and then retreating altogether into private notebook writing. This
book consists of consecutively numbered notebook entries, some only a sentence long – 28 entries
written over just more than a year. It gives you a sense of how the function of writing changed for
Kharms as his situation was squeezed and bent by national politics.
          The notebook becomes a state – and the writing within it, its geography – in which Kharms could
live regardless of his personal contradictions (“Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter.”) or self-
determinations (“To have only intelligence and talent is too little. One must also have energy, real
interest, clarity of thought and a sense of obligation.”). The semiotic claustrophobia of these epigrams,
lists, and tenets is codified on the page by designer Anna Moschovakis. Overall it feels like a secret or a
hidden message. You haven’t bought the book; you have paid for the right to have found it.
          Trey Sager’s O New York is an opposite book, featuring a fabulous cover collage by Alina
Viola Grumiller running across the spine onto the back cover. It’s like if Max Ernst did an exquisite
corpse with himself. You will lay the book out flat, pages down, the moment you get it, and you’ll return
to the images the way you return to particular stanzas within the body of a poem.
          Sager’s poems have a minimalist Frank O’Hara feel to them in the way they don’t narrate a walk
through the city as much as they take their linearity from it. The two longer poems in the book are
comprised one of tercets and the other of couplets – the lines rarely more than a word or two long – but
they read similarly to “The Economy” which is a several-page paragraph of double-justified prose. The
title poem is an elegy for O’Hara’s or maybe even Joseph Cornell’s Manhattan, which was a fecund
and possible place, now supplanted and corrupted by web-commercialism:

                    content
                    watching
                    homophones

                    kick & punch
                    weakly
                    agreed

                    to be bound
                    & called
                    boss, boss

                    harder
                    turn on
                    yr computer

                    crash
                    can’t we
                    save us

                    thousands
                    getting
                    the business

                    end over
                    time
                    is money

Sager uses line and stanza breaks to emphasize double-entendres or create turns and reversals, like in
this section from “The Member”:

                    I can kind of
                    counterfeit in

                    btwn a Canadian
                    goose

                    hunter & some geese
                    are verses

                    & guns
                    one’d rather be

                    a gaggle of horses
                    shooting for

                    the hills

You read “Canadian goose” and then find that “goose” is not a noun but an adjective for “hunter,” and
the poem turns sinister once “guns” is read, but then when “shooting” is found to be not something
happening from the gun but the escape of horses “shooting for the hills,” the sinister tone is as-quickly
revealed as artifice. Sometimes Sager’s shifting of expectations on the breaks surprises and pleases and
multiplies meanings; sometimes it makes reading an activity of suspicion and manipulation and makes
you feel suckered. At its best, it does both simultaneously. Sager enacts the fact that the poetic line can
take you from anywhere to anywhere else, and the artifice of his structures becomes more the point than
his lyricism.
          Maureen Thorson’s book Novelty Act is very different again, containing twenty sincere and
lyrical one-page poems, many of which have the look and feel of sonnets, though they are neither
rhymed nor strictly formal or metric. The book has a star motif through it – the vertical position of the
star along the right margin of each recto page signifies where you are in the book like how a page
number does – which makes the poems feel like items in a kid’s collection, like stamps or cassettes or
baseball cards. And many of the poems have familial images and scenes – mothers and fathers, friends
and homes.
          Consequently Thorson has a consistent voice with a measured and gentle irony that either lacks
or sublimates anger. In “The House of Craft Doesn’t Give a Damn for You” she calmly refuses the
“soft, corrupting tchotchkes” in a mother’s house:

                    All pears and angels, your mother’s house.
                    No, I would not like potpourri.
                    No, not country pine.
                    I find I am naturally quite scented.

                    The chimney is wreathed in plastic stems.
                    The front porch in macramé.
                    No, neither do I now collect,
                    Nor would I like to start.

She is steadfast yet polite in her rebuffs, which is emphasized by Thorson’s quatrains of discrete lines
with their initial capitalization and end-punctuation. But you sense some ruffle or judgment in the
enjambed conclusion:

                    I could have been your friend for war,
                    The woman who would deliver you
                    With her unbending heart

                    From all that’s bought and sold
                    In love’s now totally discredited name.

I feel that my emotionalizing the formal characteristics is reductive, but then I feel that the “now totally”
in the last line is melodramatic, and not in any ironic way. And I think that signifies.
          In other poems Thorson works with and against this calm affect for humor and poignancy.
“Ocean” opens with this quatrain:

                    My early years were cold.
                    There were heavy snows, and light ones.
                    Water froze in our glasses.
                    And that was summer.

The speaker sets off for a warmer climate, one with an ocean “that moved”:

                    I wanted to watch a seagull dive
                    After them and hear it laugh
                    For hunger, and not because
                    Its cold blood had crystallized.

          The “summer” line is funny in that “when I was a kid we walked to school uphill, both ways”
way, but the laughter becomes self-conscious, even desperate, when you get to the seagull, crying out
as it freezes to death. Despite the unnecessary word “cold,” it’s a note of counterpoint and finality
against the stayed form of the poem, something I wished would echo throughout the book.
          The line “I really don’t feel like risking it” from “Domesticity” makes me think that Thorson is
about halfway to where she wants to go – a poetics of controlled expression. Hopefully Ugly Duckling
will give us the next Thorson book too.