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),
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.
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.
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.
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
lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have
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
anything. So we don’t even know who we’re talking about.
It’s better that we
don’t talk about him any more.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Sager uses line and stanza breaks to emphasize
double-entendres or create turns and reversals, like in
this section from “The Member”:
can kind of
& some geese
gaggle of horses
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
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
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:
pears and angels, your mother’s house.
I would not like potpourri.
not country pine.
find I am naturally quite scented.
chimney is wreathed in plastic stems.
front porch in macramé.
neither do I now collect,
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
could have been your friend for war,
woman who would deliver you
her unbending heart
all that’s bought and sold
love’s now totally discredited name.
I feel that my emotionalizing the formal
characteristics is reductive, but then I feel that the “now
in the last line is melodramatic, and not in any ironic way. And
I think that signifies.
poems Thorson works with and against this calm affect for humor
“Ocean” opens with this quatrain:
early years were cold.
were heavy snows, and light ones.
froze in our glasses.
that was summer.
The speaker sets off for a warmer climate, one with an ocean “that
wanted to watch a seagull dive
them and hear it laugh
hunger, and not because
cold blood had crystallized.
“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.
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.