amongst books

amongst books

Monday, January 15, 2018

above/ground press fav chapbooks of 2017 - part 1

i've been a subscriber to above/ground press for more years than i can remember. my shelves are full of magazine holders that are bursting with yellow and blue and orange and green covered chapbooks by poets i would have never have heard of, had it not been for the prolific publishing of rob mclennan through above/ground press. as part of its catalogue, above/ground press also includes several titles of mine, for which I am extremely grateful.

since 2018 marks the press's 25th anniversary, no mean feat!, i thought i would go through last year's subscription and write about a few of the chapbooks that  i most engaged with. by my count there were 39 chapbooks in 2017, which is a helluva lot for one publisher. i'm going to be writing over a period of time in dribs and drabs about these chapbooks. bear with's part 1... and it's in no particular order.

above/ground press favs of 2017

Matthew Johnstone, ( Kiln ) (December)

When I think of a kiln, I think of an oven that heats up glaze and clay in order to make solid ceramic objects that are either purely functional or artistic. I think of something that contains and transforms, the change of state from liquid to solid, impermanence and permanence: “thing/lays now unthing,”(Kiln’s preface). and how the metaphor of the kiln extends to the body (Muzzles). The poems lead me to a metaphysical musing on the nature of existence, the ephemeral and the eternal, our miniscule status or place in the larger scheme of things. I like the way the chapbook moves from minimal spare spacy poems to prose poems, all offering tangible and sensual imagery: “other country/metal wet” (station, wound) and then back to the minimal and spare poems again ( strobe, opposite what ).

Natalee Caple, The Appetites of Tiny Hands (November)

I’m already hooked by the title. I think of ee cummings, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” from “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond.” The chapbook is a reprint of the 1997 above/ground press publication. I’m glad because I wasn’t reading contemporary poetry back then nor was I aware of the interesting publications coming out of above/ground press. I have had the pleasure of reading Natalee’s “A More Tender Ocean” (Coach House Books, 2000). These poems remind me of the poetry in the aforementioned book. There’s a gentle and understated quality to the work. The poems are at times playful and at times deep. The imagery is stunning, dreamlike and visual. These are hopeful poems and I’m glad they’ve been brought into the world once more. The afterword, written by Natalee in 2017 as she looks back on herself a decade before is quite lovely to read as well.

Philip Miletic, Marginal Prints (January)

As someone who is an inveterate dog-earer and scribbler in the margins of books, I was already interested in this chapbook from the opening quote by Dorothy Livesay,
In the margins are all the notations
sniffs of sun, sand
ribs of your bony structure
strands of your colourless hair
these beckon curl and wind
words to the edge of the page
fly out all over
                                                from enchanted mouths

Dorothy Livesay, “This page my book”

which follows Philip Miletic’s dedication to “all of those whose prints were left behind.”

Philip Miletic begins by making a connection between reading and the body, reminding me of Je Nathanaƫl by Nathanaƫl (Book Thug, 2003).

This 20-poem sequence (counting the x that precedes the numbered poems) is an erotic and intimate love note from the speaker of the poems to an unnamed you who has left notes and marks inside a book or books. Theses are spare poems with lots of space in between the words for breath. I have dog-eared a poem that resonates:


a ghost of pause
                        time without
and within

Sarah Fox, Invisible Wife (February)

I’m a sucker for a good opening quote or epigraph. After a dedication to
the Great Goddess and to the memory of Alicia Hughes, this chapbook begins
with a quote by dancer Eiko Otake about the role of loss in art. I’m
already simpatico with both Otake and Fox.

I found the poems in this chapbook to be creative, whimsical and relatable.
I liked how the poet engaged with artists such as Frida Kahlo and Ida
Applebroog, an artist I hadn’t heard of before. It was clear to me from the
opening quote that I was going to enjoy the work and discover kindred artists.

These are feminist poems. Many are poems that deal with a woman in her later years, which is refreshing to me, as I am in my mid fifties. I found the need to write about each poem because, although the themes carry throughout, each poem is very different in style, emotion and tone.

The irreverent or questioning tone of the work is present from the beginning. In “The Bluebird of Happiness,” a poem about Frida Kahlo, we are told that “A woman’s Virgin Mary is a patriarchal thought//built into her womb,” A book’s contents are likened to a fetus.

In “The End,” a poem written in response to fellow Brooklyn poet, M C Hyland’s poem of the same title, a poem that is also influenced by other poets, Fox offers a witty series of short sentences that move from mortality to capitalism and then back to mortality again. The images are concrete and visual. They accumulate. There’s a sense of anger. There are plays on phrases, such as “Conceal and miscarry.” The association with the colour red and endings is present throughout, from the “end of menstrual trauma and bleeding on my bank statements” to “These garden plots red with beetroot and affirmation” to “Opening the red carpet, your beautiful gown, your jeweled sacrarium.”

“Say Something: A Performance for Ida Applebroog,” is a poem in three parts, which is to be continued past the publication of the chapbook. Applebroog is a New York artist and filmmaker, who is now 88 and whose work explores the themes of gender, sexual identity, violence and politics, according to Wikipedia. She is known for her drawings of her vagina made in 1969 and not exhibited until 2010.  I can imagine this poem as a chant at protest rallies. In the poem, Fox talks about freeing Pussy Riot and refers to “testicle detritus.” The tone throughout the three sections is one of disillusionment and despair.

“Invisible Wife,” the title poem, is a long poem in three parts. It opens with a quote from James Baldwin that invokes passion, and a quote from John Colburn’s book of short fiction “Invisible Daughter.”

The poem has the tension of a bad dream and opens with the image of a stone snake unwinding, unescapable. The second section begins like a fairy tale or fable, “Once there was a husband who took leave/of his wife and walked into the forest.”  The wife became a glimmer, every tree in the forest. The third section concludes with rancid butter, loneliness and the husband’s fingertip being bitten off by a bunny.  The invisibility of women is a theme throughout. “My heart is also invisible, to me./But it sings in tune.”

“Index” is a series of prose poems that ask questions and share grief and memories from girlhood to wedding to loss of virginity to ageing. They rail against age and defy expectations. There are certain repeated motifs throughout the chapbook and they are collected here, references to religion, to outer space, the references to animals: “my animal body,” a horse that has to be harnessed, (horse mentioned in the previous poem), the theme of escape, running away from, “the prolonged scream of an owl mauling a rabbit” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #4  in Fm in conjunction with being at the gynecologist’s: “These violins and woodwinds sound like children’s literature. Matriarchy and wild boars.” “Fox and cat chase scream.”

“First Aid Kit” is another piece that engages with art and with the need for artists to assert their voices. In this case the art work is “Dream Disaster, an installation by Maiza Hixson and Lauren Ruth” which includes a wedding gown with a red fanny pack labelled “First Aid Kit.” Not surprisingly, given its inspiration, this is a poem of protest about marriage between a husband and wife and the misogyny of the current American president. It is a forceful and angry poem at times and a thoughtful, compassionate poem at others. It contains my favourite lines of the entire chapbook, “My fake heart //shriveled-up. I reached deep/inside my wedding/and tugged it out.” And then later, “I’m imaging a tail on the wedding dress./A whip. Something ugly like driftwood./Something like a deer climbing out/of driftwood. Someone lifting/the driftwood up out of the river/they were crying into…”

The penultimate poem, “Save Me” is a gorgeous poem with long, energetic lines. It is a dance in place of death. It contains words in Spanish. It made me think of the mass shooting in Florida at Pulse in which queers were killed. It is a poem filled with energy and compassion, a kind of reimagining of creation.

The final poem, “WORDS FOR WINTER,” is a list of individual phrases in capital letters, that play on signs and to my mind at least, bumper stickers, but these are louder, and sadder and more hopeful.

Invisible Wife is a ride through anger, grief, delight, and frustration with the state of the world. It is imaginative and thoughtful. It is timely.

stay tuned for more! and more importantly, subscribe today!

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