Chapbook Verse is a new feature of OmniVerse, created and curated by Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel, highlighting one of the many chapbook-only or chapbook-focused small presses in the world of poetry by selecting two or three of their recent releases for review.
In this edition of Chapbook Verse, Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel reviews two chapbooks from Ugly Duckling Presse: Sandra Liu’s On Poems On and Corina Copp’s Pro Magenta / Be Met. From the Ugly Duckling Presse website:
Ugly Duckling Presse is a nonprofit art and publishing organization whose mission is to produce artisanal and trade editions of new poetry, translation, experimental nonfiction, performance texts, and books by artists. With a volunteer editorial collective of artists and writers at its heart, UDP grew out of a 1990s zine into a Brooklyn-based small press that has published more than 200 titles to date, with an editorial office and letterpress workshop in the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus. UDP favors emerging, international, and “forgotten” writers, and its books, chapbooks, artist’s books, broadsides, and periodicals often contain handmade elements, calling attention to the labor and history of bookmaking.
Chapbooks have an unfortunate and unnerving tendency to be marginalized or forgotten as ephemera, unmoored as they are from the kind of increasingly digitized archiving and reproduction which full-length books tend to enjoy. Of course, this can also be freeing, as chapbooks are thereby open to all kinds of forms and methods of production, in many cases calling attention to their ephemeralness or handmade qualities. Both the enlivening open-endedness and relative impermanence of the chapbook form thus inspired me to start this series. Not only did Ugly Duckling Presse seem like an obvious press to feature, with their declared and clear devotion to the physical craft of the book, but I was also impressed and inspired by their online archive of their out-of-print chapbooks. As you can’t actually buy them, there’s a sort of bittersweetness to their preservation, which strikes me as almost a lament and celebration of their fleetingness at once. Nonetheless, I’m heartened that someone else has been moved to document both the existence and disappearance of chapbooks so thoroughly. Each chapbook has been preserved in an e-reader format, faithfully reproducing the original design through colour scans of the covers and interior — a lovely nod to their utterly physical nature.
To that end, I can’t tell you how excited I was to receive a hand-addressed manila envelope containing Sandra Liu’s On Poems On and Corina Copp’s Pro Magenta / Be Met in the mail. This is perhaps part of my own dorky nostalgia over receiving actual mail, which I won’t bore you with — suffice it to say that a small experience like this had me primed for the kind of handcrafted intimacy that to me seems unique to the chapbook form.
On Poems On, UDP’s most recent chapbook release and the one that happened to be on top when I opened the package, understated its constructedness and, much like the poems within, telegraphed its presence with an atmospheric quality. There’s a sort of lightness and hazy minimalism to the design and the physical feel, and yet there’s nothing unsettled or fragmentary about On Poems On; despite this lightness (or perhaps even because of it), it knows exactly what it is and feels complete in that sense, a sound inhabitant of its own space.
Delving into the specifics of the poetry itself, I’d say this sense also comes from the poems’ tendency to feel focused and expansive at the same time. The first few poems are very sentence-based, seeming almost factual, but immediately there’s a sense of deliberate reorienting and unraveling in the language. The second poem, ‘Static,’ presents itself as two poems stitched together, the subject oscillating between a description of tectonic plate movements in Southeast Asia and reports of social unrest in the Middle East; the natural thematic parallel to be drawn between these two topics gives way to a jagged, meandering form on the page, and the displacement of the verbs throughout the syntax invites further confusion as subjects and antecedents become unhinged and collide like the mountain ranges Liu describes being birthed:
From New Guinea, a stretched
archipelago, grenades, AK-47s,
household bombs and machetes alternate with an underwater
topography, flats of nadir in several areas of the city and extended
leading to Halmahera,
itself comprising four peninsulas, each,
a 12-year-old boy, drawn out by congeries of islets,
traversed by SUV.
There’s a deeply geological sense of unraveling and recombining language here, as well as the physical brutality of landforms accelerated by the violence of modern warfare.
Indeed, this chapbook seems concerned especially with the origins of things, particularly through their shape and structure; each poem sets out to identify a history through its composition in an almost geometric fashion, discovering angles and layers through nested, investigative sentences and lines. The probing, thorough nature of the poems also brings a surprising and moving closeness; the precise cataloguing of minerals and sudden, un-hyphenated rupture of words across the line breaks in ‘Xs’ lends an immediacy to the otherwise abstracted, almost academic bodies in the poem. The following poem, ‘Take a look at this,’ masters this sort of fragmented intimacy, presenting a scene of isolated particulars (‘A plastic bag; an apron, maybe a skirt; / a plastic bag. My glass acts like it’s melting.’; ‘An action figure in a floral print housedress / walks away from the market. Grocery bags included.’; ‘A burst of kitchen steam. A flickering TV. / A woman, another one, a granddad moving around’) that is more unsettling and humanizing than if it had been laid out in a straight narrative context.
Reading through the chapbook is sort of like an archaeological dig through the units of language; from there, the poems hone in on smaller and smaller levels of syntax, as ‘Think Piece: Body Found Unnaturally Arranged’ unearths the phrasal unit by eschewing conventions of punctuation, capitalization, and syntactic connections. There is also a deepening investigation of the purpose and application of language, as ‘On Poems On’ confronts the book title’s ambiguous, forward-propulsive structure in two different approaches to horseshoes that work through polar effects, comparatives, and the rules of grammar. And near the end, ‘I in river’ takes this work of further breaking down language to its logical conclusion, operating at the level of the letter in an arithmetic, addition-and-subtraction logic to the themes begun in ‘Static’ of ecological movements and breakdowns and human interference, now charged with the irrepressible urgency of the personal pronoun echoing through that repeating ‘I.’ In this way, On Poems On examines as much construction and development as it does replacement and loss, all as necessary conditions of the evolution of the earth, of language, and of civilization. Liu’s deliberate, probing lines inhabit the slow, factual inevitability of the long march of geological time and human invention, but at the same time are electric and bursting with the energy of the particular, syntax and sounds colliding like atoms rubbing together to move massive plates of emotion and thought.
Pro Magenta / Be Met is, at least formally speaking, as different an animal from On Poems On as it could be — the two titular poems are bifurcated by the construction of the book itself, so that each cover of the book is actually the front cover of either Pro Magenta or Be Met, and each poem is contained within its own translucent, skin-like endpapers, separated from the other by a slightly exaggerated spine. The book has a playful, distinctly made feel, much more a conscious book art object than On Poems On. This sense of conspicuous physicality and of two distinct objects reflecting each other lends a satisfying feeling of wholeness to a book that is essentially two long poems conjoined — again, I never felt that smallness, that sense of a fragment, that I might have assumptionally associated with the chapbook form.
That feeling is also due in part, of course, to the poems themselves — both poems seem to operate in terms of opposites or pairs, using the contortions between those terms to open up a continuum of ever-evolving language that lends itself to a sense of vastness. In Pro Magenta, there is particularly a focus on being seen and perceived as a static thing versus outward expression as a living and changing form; the short lines create a tightly twisting logic, constantly turning and realigning to different places and feelings. A long skein of interrelated instabilities develops: from the opening invocation, ‘Antagonist, … / never be the house- / Hold perfect soil and / Ideal climate,’ the poem constructs a shifting montage of possible times and places where nothing concretely is. Pushing myself through the enjoyable syntactic gymnastics of the lines, I felt a strong emotional undercurrent of colour (some of the propulsive brazenness of the title, Pro Magenta, perhaps) — right from the beginning, the echo of ‘violent’ in ‘violet’ informs the aggression of recreating an object as image in the next few lines: ‘Force a whale / Under the point / Of the green pencil’; this in turn lends a special ominousness to the eventual appearance of the title colour a few pages later:
An agent is
Coloring her lips in
With this color
Agent is six
Now and his
Coloring book is Art
Nouveau Figurative Designs
By Alphonse Marie
Mucha Jr. and he is
Filling in the Fall
And Winter lips with
There is a sense here of forcing life into artificial things by a basic, visceral solution — the addition of colour, particularly in often gaudy fashion to which children often lend themselves — and this in tandem with Copp’s often unpunctuated, accelerated line imbues the poem with an urgent sort of fullness. From the often genericized masculine and feminine pronouns that haunt the lines to the conscious pattern in colours (vibrant, often in the pinks and purples, feminized and aggressively so), there is a distinct gender opposition present as well, or at least of femininity warring against some abstract strangeness.
Even more so in Be Met, which turns Pro Magenta’s opposition of perception/creation to the question of an individual as a participant or as an actuated self — here the issue of the feminine is interrogated more overtly, as the more confrontational title would suggest. The ceremonial tone to the opening of the poem (‘And she stood before / Them as a whole’) is quickly undercut by the heavily torqued line that similarly makes Pro Magenta so activated, here perhaps even more fragmented:
While I redress
Clear scratch or re-
Rivulet, what I’d
Sell to buy that
Colour is also heavily present in this poem, acting with the shattered lines like flashing little facets of light that bring an explosive expansiveness to the taut language in a similar way to colour’s role in Pro Magenta. If anything, Be Met is even more direct and aggressive in this way; there’s a rapid, almost fierce oscillation between the kind of antiquated ceremony in the poem’s first lines and a ruthlessness that sounds unsettlingly contemporary: ‘think / Like a Marketer / And create myth / At the car win- / Dow.’ The poem is punctuated with oddly cold little bits of economics like these (‘Say I weep for / Inflation’) which, in conjunction with the sprinting syntax, convey something more like frustration than mere commentary or lament; Be Met has an air of determination and biting humour that gives a spark of aggression, almost a challenge, to such a relentless influx of emotion, perception, and judgment like few other poems I’ve read. With the final, heavily cinematized image of loneliness and the drifting, ephemeral last two lines: ‘Class and the / Fog one has,’ the poem takes a clear trajectory from presence to a sort of vacuousness, suggesting a symbiotic relationship between the two in these overly ceremonialized spaces of society and business. Both poems, separately as well as in conjunction, use an extremely compacted space (16 quarter-sheet pages or fewer) to entertain a book-sized exercise in poetics of memory, creation, and femininity; Pro Magenta by pushing a creative spirit into the exhausting proliferation of experience, Be Met with a shattering reimagination of the dullness of self-presentation.
Both of these books accomplish an almost atomically singular feeling of totality, like naturally occurring elements, but through radically different means of both execution and presentation. There is, however, a shared sensibility that language is an implement to unravel and uncover the skeletal truths behind history and memory, rather than one to simply recreate experience. On Poems On does this, as I mentioned before, by building an almost geological scale out of its language and sifting through the many layers of narrative and expression, while Pro Magenta / Be Met prefers to confront the vagaries of time en masse and allow the synaptic (or, should I say, syntactic) connections between events to do their investigative work. And lest I state the obvious, both books arrive at their aforementioned sense of the all-encompassing primarily through their poetics; however, as chapbooks, their feeling of object-ness, their physical completeness, must be noted as well, and I am pleased to say that this is represented excellently (and with striking diversity) in UDP’s design. Both have a conscious sense of having been crafted, of having arrived at their state of completion, but also of having made it there almost invisibly. While On Poems On, with its clean, symmetrical design, feels as light and invisible in your hands as if you were simply experiencing language out of some deep collective well of knowledge, I can’t help but be appreciatively conscious of this fact, which in turn communicates the book’s physicality through something wonderfully approaching a paradox. Pro Magenta / Be Met has more of a sense of a body, of a gathering and containing, and yet retains an unobtrusive form when read that strikes a balance of intimate and yet pleasingly antiquarian craftedness that embodies what are, to me, some of the crucial and most beloved aspects of bookmaking.
While UDP’s excellent catalog is certainly guided by the various bold and capable poetics represented therein, it never lets you forget that such poetics are conveyed to you by personal, physical means. Each aspect of their press, as they themselves proudly advertise, feels informed by their attentiveness to the labor and craft of bookmaking: their curatorial eye toward work that is deeply rooted in the physicality of language and its formal and semantic evolution; the inventiveness of the book design that purveys those aesthetics; and particularly, once again, their consideration of the history and impermanence of the book form in their archiving. Presses like UDP remind me that the advent of the e-reader and other forms of digitizing books don’t have to be a death knell for craftmanship in bookmaking. Indeed, the successful cohabitation of physical and digital forms at UDP suggests something like the opposite: that this kind of attention to archiving and preservation afforded by the digital form will not only give the physical form space to flourish, but may indeed encourage greater attention to craft and innovation as books become even more purposefully physical things. Having both a dedication to handmade, carefully designed books and an impulse to preserve them all in the increasingly less-ephemeral internet reassures me that UDP and their fellow small presses will provide no shortage of thoughtfully and thought-provokingly designed chapbooks for our consideration and pleasure well into the future.
Illustrator: Nils Karsten
Perfect-bound. 28 pp, 5.25 x 7 in.
Publication Date: 2012
Click here or on the chapbook’s cover photo for information from Ugly Duckling Presse, including how to order.
Pro Magenta / Be Met
Hand-bound. 32 pp
Covers printed letterpress
Publication Date: 2011
Click here or on the chapbook’s cover photo for information from Ugly Duckling Presse, including how to order.