Chapbooks: A World in Your Pocket

A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (Slapering Hol Press, 2008) by Liz Ahl
Japanese for Busy People
(FinishingLine Press, 2008) by Judy Halebsky
Further Adventures of My Nose (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2nd edition 2008) by John Surowiecki

This review originally appeared in The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Summer 2009.

A book, but not. Smaller, easier to produce, and deeply rooted in the history of publishing, the chapbook insinuates itself where full-length books cannot. And somehow the chapbook soldiers on even in this age of digital derring-do. For me, an excellent new chapbook leaves any webzine in the cyberdust. Similarly, that perfect loaf of French bread cannot be share a Wikipedia entry with the hamburger roll. Sure, they’re both carbohydrates, but…

The most obvious advantage of the chapbook is the thematic unity a writer can create in the shorter format. This can be seen in the Camber Press’s annual prize-winners, always honest and startlingly current. The Packing House Cantata (2006) by William Trowbridge packs gritty and/or slick-with-blood tales of Chicago’s abbatoirs that ring with truth both literal and metaphorical. The 2008 winner, The Sniper and the Spotter by Karen Zealand, pulls the reader under the current of longing, love, and a near-hopeless desire for healing that struggles to cleanse the American mom and her lover, an Iraq war vet. Each Camber Press volume, without padding or digression, presents its world forcefully, and however rough the content, the single-mindedness exploration of theme is harmonious and deft.

Other venues, such as Finishing Line Press, also specialize in this more morsel-like booklet. If (according to Poets and Writers magazine) the average chapbook costs around $500 to produce, a publisher can take a chance on a new voice, as Finishing Line did with Judy Halebsky and her Japanese for Daydreamers. While young talent waits to strike it big winning a book contest (and Halebsky was a finalist for both the APR Honikman First Book Prize and the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books), a chapbook can begin to share work as a dense, possibly tangier collection a longer volume finishes ripening.

Halebsky’s collection dances between cultures, walking an American/Japanese tightrope inspired by the popular textbook, Japanese for Busy People. Basho makes several passing appearances, and although so do 26th Street and Stanley Park, cool whip and lotto tickets, the evocative slant-wise method of traditional Japanese verse transform the usual post-modern American side-winding. There’s humor too, in titles such as “Zen Monks Talking Big” or details such as the homeless man whose “broke, hungry, will work” sign flips to reveal a second message: “quality sperm available/ bargain price/ everything included.”

The greatest charm of this chapbook is the embedded study of words as they slip between languages, gaining, losing or shifting meanings. The pictograms with accompanying transliterations further layer the implicit meditation on language itself. In her poem “Water Voices,” we see how one translation springboards the poem:

a water heart
means how to swim

how to make yourself float
how to be light enough to laugh
to float when it’s already dark
and the doctors have their X’s and O’s
and the birds are already south
and the leaves have fallen to puddles and sidewaks and ditches

how to float with no mooring
the jasmine in Berkeley in December
the gingko leaves yellow in all corners of the street
the way we prop ourselves up to dawn

Halebsky has a light, deft touch, brought out optimally in this condensed collection. Enigmatic but fragrant lines, mysterious half-translations that birth a flight of melancholy/wry imagery, and the speaker’s alternating digestion of an elusive darling father and cherished but ill mother—all intertwine to conjure a tonal unity. As a promise of more to come from this poet, Japanese for Daydreamers fulfills one of the great destinies of the chapbook form: to mark the halfway point in the development of a book.

Cohesion also characterizes Liz Ahl’s A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, winner of the 2008 Slapering Hol chapbook competition. Her work here pays homage to the grand tradition of nature poetry, but without sentimentality or prettifications. Beauty still jolts us alive in her lines, but the human world’s imperfections and meddlings are in constant gentle juxtaposition. From the lyrical “Intertidal” to the amusing “The Bat in the Dorm Room,” from “Famous Trainer Drowned by Killer Whale” to “Signs, Spring,” Ahl asks whether we can learn to coexist with nature in a way that neither presumes to tame nor denies the paradox of our concomitant “oneness” with and separateness from Nature with a capital “N.”

A Thirst That’s Partly Mine asks how we can approach nature rightly. In “The Mushroom Poem,” we see the writer haunted by the mushroom’s otherworldiness. She admits that “Part/ of me loves the mushroom. Part/ of me wants it gone,” and sees one answer to that tension in writing itself:

Each day the mushroom grows,
widens, yellow-specked, stretches—
until, finally, I have
to turn back from the window,
to start writing this poem.

The poem—and, indeed, this very wise collection—turns upon the poet’s knowing that we can barely grasp the very edge of what Nature is.

…I’m writing this poem
which grows like the white mushroom
and I am skeptical and
wary like the crows; I am
black against it, skittish and
citified, never having
written a mushroom poem

But the collection doesn’t assert that we cannot experience a genuine bond with the beyond of Nature. Pondering the “revival meeting” of spring peepers, or sooty juncos, “Their tiny hollow bones/…jazzed into flight by my shadow,” Ahl knows affection and wonder, though she reminds us it’s not a two-way street. When nature responds to us, it’s not out of love or wonder, but misperception, as with the peepers:

so happy to see the gigantic beams
of my brights as they sweep past,
two crazy moons
they want to serenade

She maintains a distinction between human observation (from her house, in her car, on her deck, while reading Oedipus Rex) and the realities of the natural world. Then for fun she turns this on its head, and projects like crazy in “How the World Will End,” perhaps to contrast our human inability to remain in balance/connection with the deeply and irrevocably inter-connected elements of nature:

The earth will start thinking
about how the moons snores all night.
How it used to be endearing, sweet.
How it’s not anymore.

Summer and winter will have a secret affair,
leaving spring and fall angry and confused.

The fox will stop chasing the rabbit,
but the rabbit won’t realize it.

The roots will storm off in a huff,
crying to the tree,
Why do we do all the work around here?

The poem climaxes with “The stars will want to say something,/but won’t.// The universe will refuse to take sides,” giving the last word to that ultimate neutrality of Nature, which humans cannot achieve.

Impossible to describe this book without reference to its seductive physical presence. This sensuously clean volume demonstrates the exquisite care given to book production still by some rare publishers; the cut-away window of the front cover permits a glimpse of the inside print of stylized water droplets, which appear first on translucent and then on opaque paper, perfectly aligned so as to seem a single image, followed by paper of quality so high you want to rub your face on the pages.

Tied with Slapering Hol for the grand prize for book production is Ugly Duckling Presse. On the forefront of avant-garde publishing, their creation of book-as-object is always meticulous and even reverential. Unlike Camber Press, which has a signature style shared by all its chapbooks, UDP prides itself on book design that responds directly to the call of each text. The square, sturdy book-jacketed presentation of Leonard Schwartz’s The Library of Seven Readings (2008), for instance, contrasts the tall, see-through-end-papered Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense (2008), whose earthy yet elegant cover pockets a CD of text with music inside the front cover.

My favorite UDP chapbook, though, had to be John Surowiecki’s rollicking Further Adventures of My Nose, detailing the relationship between speaker, nose, nose’s tumor, nose’s escape from speaker and resulting travels (or, read: speaker’s alienation from nose when tumor is discovered). Formally elegant verses lend a delightfully perplexing dignity to the whimsy here, the voice sometimes mock-serious and the underlying brush with death seriously serious. Swift descriptions are lush and striking, as in “A Nose of Color”:

He has become a nose of color;
unfortunately, that color is purple,
darkening to ruby unparagoned,
color of Crab, of shadows sliding
along fresh morning snow…

In “A World w/o Odors,” we enter the new deprivation:

This is a darkness of another kind, a place
of dead shapes & flat sounds where nothing
rides on the air, where lilacs & the ocean
are only sad movies of themselves.

Humor slides into every crevice here, subtle and otherwise; the nose signs one note, “Miss you to pieces, yr Nosenkavalier,” and even treatment is handled with a signature hybrid of leger-de-main and earnestness in “Mme. Curie & the Radium Girls”:

Her clothes, notebooks, even her hankies
can’t be touched. She & the dial painters,
the Radium Girls from Bristol, CT
Clocktown, USA, whose noses are black,
scabbing & all but decomposed, are still
hopeful that the luminous element, Ra
——————- At. Wt. 226 At. No. 88,

the jewel aglow inside Mont Pitchblende,
can be—dare I say it?— miraculous again.
What has eaten at & disfigured them can be
my nose’s salvation, ammo shot from gamma-guns,
forming ropes of firefly light, ropes of hope.

The themes of alienation and connection across distance spar energetically. The traveling nose writes home, missives that form poems such as “E-mail from My Nose [Egypt]” and “E-mail from My Nose [Stratford-on-Avon].” Remote-seeming characters such as the nurse Irene, the King of Spain, the speaker’s mysterious ex, Y——- surface, disappear, and reappear in the saga of the nose/the speaker’s recovery. Yet as in any mythic quest, the nose travels full circle, having exiled the dangerous “Herr Timple” (Tumor + Pimple) and returned to healthy union with the speaker: “I’m all right. My nose is all right./ Everything’s all right. In fact, everything/ can’t be anything but all right.”

Surowiecki developed the 2005 first edition of the chapbook into a play, My Nose and Me, which won the Pegasus Award in Verse Drama and has been produced at AWP, The University of Connecticut, and at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater this February. Once again the chapbook functions to mark the growth of longer projects as they take shape.

My research into the lives and roles of chapbooks surprised me, revealing a number of recent collaborations. Denise DuHamel and Sandy McIntosh with their hilarious and poignant 237 More Reasons to Have Sex (Otoliths 2009), Elizabeth Alexander and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Poems in Conversation (Slapering Hol Press 2008), Edward Smallfield and Miriam Pirone’s Locate (Dancing Girl Press 2008), and even Surowiecki’s chapbook, which contains tiny, beautifully tipped-in prints by Terry Rentzepis that are a clear collaboration with his text: humorous yet dark, elegant yet modern. Each of these collaborations is original, focused, roiling with energy and invention. So again: how the chapbook affords experiments that most presses shy away from: too hard to produce, categorize, market, name.

Years ago I hiked the southern coastal trail in England, a couple of hand-made chapbooks in my pocket. I read as I walked, taking pleasure in words so portable, fresh again each time I returned to the page. Hundreds of years before, peddlers carried chapbooks, affordable to the ordinary person, often shared among many. About the length of a hand, weighing next to nothing, sewn together with thread, for many these were the first or even the only books ever owned. You could put one together at home tonight. You could cherish, as I do, worn copies of Elaine Handley’s Letters to My Migraine (30 Acre Wood Publications 2006), Denise DuHamel’s Heaven and Heck (Cortland Press 1988), Jared Carter’s Millennial Harbinger (Slash & Burn Press 1985), Sam Hamod’s The Famous Boating Party (Cedar Creek Press, 1970), or T.S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages (Faber and Faber, 1924), each perfect as itself, each a perfect droplet of its era, each fulfilling one or more of the chapbook’s missions: to provide a taste of further work to come; to present a tight collection of thematically or stylistically related work; to push beyond the usual limitations in a fresh experiment of voice, style or topic; or quite plainly to get some writing out into the world while waiting for a book contract. But don’t forget the body of the book: to fit in the hand, to satisfy the senses, to create an intimate connection between writer and reader, small and complete, without ego or fanfare.


Filed under Book Reviews

6 responses to “Chapbooks: A World in Your Pocket

  1. Pingback: Review of “A Thirst That’s Partly Mine” « Liz Ahl Poetry

  2. Lovely work! Sensitive and attuned. Thank you.

    • nancywhitepoetry

      Well, you’re welcome! These reviews appear first in THE SOW’S EAR POETRY REVIEW. Each time a new review appears in print, I post the previous review here online. Let me know if you know folks who’d like to be considered for a review. –NW

  3. Thank you so much for mentioning my 1985 chapbook, Millennial Harbinger, on your blog. It was published in a limited letterpress edition by Slash & Burn Press in Philadelphia. The publisher was the fine poet and teacher, Sally Jo Sorenson. I’m touched that you would think it still worth remembering.

  4. dear nancy white, fri jan. 15 usa from princeton,nj
    i enjoyed your sensitive and very beautiful essay; it was true, in that era so many of us had chapbooks, and they were inexpensive, easy to come by and often we didn’t realize how much joy they brought.

    i am honored that you remembered my book, The Famous Boating Party–it was a book I wrote when I\i was the happiest in my crazy life, while still in Iowa City and teaching at the Writers Workshop, and in love, and having the time of my life. i still feel, when i come open it at times, the same crazy happiness i felt then, and wish i could write those kinds of poems again, instead of so many serious ones these days.

    with affection and respect,
    sam hamod

  5. nancywhitepoetry

    Dear Sam Hamod–

    What a surprise and delight to hear from you. I too used to be “at Iowa,” only I was in fourth grade and worried about things like whether I’d get to play kickball at recess. I’m glad you were happy then, and crazy-happy even. I probably inherited that chapbook from my dad, who was in the MFA program (fiction) then. Part of what I love about it, besides the enormous energy and expansive voice, is its longing back toward the west. We had recently moved to Iowa from Colorado (and later headed to Wyoming as an Iowa antidote, though Iowa had its beauty too). I think I swam in Cedar Creek and did some important mud statuary there on its banks, but that might have been another creek.

    May there be more crazy-in-love-time-of-your-life times ahead. In the meantime, I’ll go on cherishing The Famous Boating Party and its fizzing chipmunk, miraculous skull, and Highway 84: you can’t miss it.

    Respect and affection back at you–

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