RSS Feed

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Yi Shun Lai, author of Not A Self Help Book and weekly columnist in Writer magazine, is a New Yorker who honed her craft writing for the J. Peterman catalog. Yes, that J. Peterman. So, on face value, it might be surprising that her latest book recounts a grueling journey into the world of outdoor adventure sports. However, the brisk, 46 page, Pin Ups is exactly that, a portrait of the author’s sporting experience. It begins with a childhood fascination with BMX racing, progresses through skiing, hiking, and windsurfing, and finally culminates with her love for adventure racing. However, while Yi Shun’s passion for the outdoors radiates from the page, at its core, Pin Ups also presents a more personal and universally relatable story, the quest to discover one’s identity.
The memoir opens with Yi Shun’s childhood where, like many of us, her search for meaning relies upon the emulation of media figures. In her youth, her mother supplied her with copies of Teen magazine in an attempt to sway Yi Shun into more traditionally feminine interests. Instead, she perused them and cut out articles on BMX biking and football, already drawn to outdoor sports, but participating vicariously through the girls on the page.
Later, throughout college and living in Manhattan, she attached her identity to the activities of the men she dated. With each new relationship came a new fascination, from volleyball to windsurfing to mountain biking, each discovery a step further to an understanding of herself. However, none of these pursuits inspired a genuine passion. Still, Yi Shun continued to stay active. In her words, “When you are hungry, you’ll eat anything.”
Her journey comes to a climax when, through camaraderie with other women, she discovers adventure racing. It is a teamwork centric, outdoor sport that involves a variety of activities, including mountain biking, trail running, paddling, and rock climbing. Through adventure racing and the people she meets both on and off the trail, Yi Shun comes to embrace herself as a woman, a minority, and an athlete.
Naturally, finding oneself comes with the acceptance of some ugly truths. Yi Shun experiences a classic, dreaded moment, the oh god, my parents were right. During a trip to Carmel, California, she enjoys the quaint, diverse area and considers moving there. In this moment, Yi Shun is distressed to realize that her mother had been correct. She enjoys the traditionally comfortable, upwardly mobile lifestyle. However, Yi Shun takes this jarring realization in stride, as we all should when moments of sudden development strike. Through work and family, she finds the way to balance her want for comfort with her yearning for the dirt and the danger of the outdoors. Such a response is admirable and should be looked upon as an example of how to embrace the uncomfortable realizations that accompany personal growth.

In the most tender and moving passage, she recalls herself walking through Manhattan on a particularly windy day when she spots the shadow of a woman.
“”(She was) Brisk and efficient, collar popped against the wind, making her way around the corner. “Hm,” I thought to myself, echoes of my father’s sentiment creeping through my brain, “that’s the kind of woman I want to grow up to be.” It was a split second before I realized that the shadow belonged to me.””

Fully realized, brisk in pace, and deep in meaning, Pin Ups is a motivational and thought provoking piece reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Laura Bell’s Claiming Ground. Yi Shun has crafted a book that is essential for anyone who feels a calling for outdoor competition or who has ever wondered what it really means to be themselves in this complicated world.

Little Bound Books has also published work by L.M. Browning, Heidi Barr, and Will Falk.

Andrew Hughes 2nd February 2021

simmering of a declarative void by Robert Kiely (The 87 Press)

simmering of a declarative void by Robert Kiely (The 87 Press)

We poetry fans are well-accustomed to techniques for maximizing indeterminacy: cut-ups; parataxis; minuscules; lacunae; absent or unmatched punctuation; exiguous titling; wide leading to disassociate each line from the next; words used deictically but without their situation-of-utterance; and severely occluded references. To take an example:

my mooring is mist and zoos
and with no sunset i roll on
the sky bends buildings
an asteroid is no clarity

Some readers think such poems don’t like them. Others that they are just shy. This poet, after all, used to self-identify as ‘RK’. Others still will mark the contemporary ambience of disparate and disjointed information. What we are no longer subject to, however, is the elitism of old High Modernism, which once presumed a reader with a lifetime’s ticket to the leisured classes, but nowadays one with fifteen minutes to spare, a search-engine and a love of puzzles. So, the quatrain above – thanks, Internet – is a reworking of an eighth-century Chinese poem by Meng Haoran. And its first line’s unaccountable reference to ‘zoos’, for instance, is a pun on the characters zhŭ (islet) and zhōu (boat). Boom, boom! Besides the genial waggishness, the repeated point is that there’s nothing hermetic at the rainbow’s end; the pleasure is in the process whereby, among other things, you discover some Tang poetry that you’d’ve never gotten around to otherwise.

So far so standard. What makes this stand out, though, among the interesting groups of poets associated with vitrines like Streetcake, Spam, Crater and The 87, whose linguistic innovations encompass cut-ups, parataxis, minuscules, lacunae…? Mostly, in this case, the level of wit. Like judicious gifts, there are moments of scintillating clarity among the riddles. The exhortation to ‘trust nothing especially your own/ implants’. The artwork that becomes sentient and applies for its own funding. The fantasy that turns Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into a ‘pyramidal rubix cube’. The line saying ‘in the beginning were the minutes of the previous meeting’. And a terrific capriccio – too long to quote, unfortunately – that takes the locution ‘burning your bridges’ and explodes it into the realms of hilarity. The poet shows that they could out-entertain the mainstream if they chose. But like those bands that smother cute melodies in feedback, this book’s anxiety about how to write, read and live in the face of terminal crisis to either the planet or the economic system, and its simmering emotions about the current choice being made, means it has a wider objective in view. The approach looks understandable enough. Go undercover. Use a low-capitalised, low barrier-to-entry artform that’s a virtually non-saleable craft product. Ward off the hobgoblins of popularity with deliberate catachresis, recondite vocab and terrible puns, despite your unconcealable talent. And quietly create the new world within the old. I think this book is what revolutionary avant-garde poetics looks like right now, and it’s surely a small sign of hope. This tipster doesn’t recommend a ‘buy’. Certainly not. But definitely – and as the book itself is suggesting – a ‘participate’.

Guy Russell 31st January 2021

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Much has been written and said about Natalie Diaz’s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem. It is an extraordinary and complex book that discusses among many other things the long history of oppression in the United States of the Mojave people and the legacy of that oppression. As a nature poet however, I would like to focus on its power as a collection of nature poetry. Diaz discusses the function and power of water in California in a way that I have never seen it done before, directly addressing its importance to the person and the community and the casual way that we in the United States treat it.

            I live in an area called the Inland Empire just to the east and north of Los Angeles that is much warmer and drier than Los Angeles itself. My friend who works for the water district tells me that typically a drop of water that lands in the mountains near my house will pass through three people before it reaches the ocean. It must be processed and reprocessed if we are to keep up with water supply demands. Diaz lives even farther inland where there is much less water.

            There are people in inland California that treat water casually and do not understand its importance, and Diaz’s poetry illuminates the threats to it and its importance. In “The First Water Is the Body,” She writes, “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States — also, it is a part of my body . . . We carry the river, its body of water, in our body” (46-47). Here, she illustrates the connection of river and person. In a real way, the two are not just interconnected. They are one. A river is not just the riverbed, but the entire watershed of a region, and humans, who carry that water are a part of the watershed, so much so, that the water district considered the people in the Inland Empire are considered a resevoir themselves. We often forget this, but here and throughout the collection, draws our attention to the fact again and again.

            Having established the importance of all rivers to human existence and experience, Diaz then demonstrates how badly Americans treat all of their rivers. Perhaps, she does this most powerfully in “exhibits from The American Water Museum ” when she discusses the tragedy of Flint, Michigan where ill-conceived cost-saving measures ended up with lead being introduced into the drinking water. Though this happened years ago, the lead levels have been diminishing at a frustratingly slow pace, and people are not sure what effect this will have on the children of the area. Diaz uses the callous treatment of the people who live there as emblematic of the way water is treated throughout the United States. She writes of those children as she imagines a diorama in her Water Museum, “Now the children lie flat on the floor of the diorama, like they are sleeping, open-eyed to the sight, to what they have seen through their mouths” (65).

            Diaz’s insight into the way the United States is destroying itself is tied to her postcolonial perspective. It is, of course, the marginalized communities who suffer most from environmental degredation because there is a false sense that some communities are in some way divorced from the natural world. Diaz illustrates how wrong and dangerous this notion is.

John Brantingham 26th January 2021

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Dennis Callaci’s Five Ghost Stories is a book that I think could only have been written in quarantine. In five very short stories, Callaci explores the way that so many people’s interior worlds, or at least mine, have changed. This kind of exploration might have felt overwhelming. After all, we are still in the midst of the lockdown. However, it was refreshing. Fiction has the ability to let us know what we are not alone in the world, and that our pains and joys are shared. Callaci’s book did this for me.

I find myself often going into an interior space these days where I replay odd memories of my youth, meditating on things that I had forgotten but had a strange power when I was young. Callaci does so as well, developing a kind of David Sedaris approach to memory albeit intentionally without humor. So, in one of the stories, he writes a story of memory, two brothers putting together a model, the emotions of two children bent on finishing a project becoming all consuming. And that memory becomes powerful to the author and reader in the moment, reminding us that while the passions of youth might seem silly and strange now, when they were happening, they truly did matter to us. They were important and part of our formation. He discusses these early relationships with family members in all their complexity, laying out vignette memories and allowing us to draw out meaning for ourselves.

In ‘The Cemetery Calendar of Days,’ he creates a kind of alternative universe where a creeping disease and its political impact has created a world of tension where communities feel that they have to patrol to keep themselves apart from others. In doing so, he captures this current alienation that I am feeling as well. It’s not just that the characters in the story are self-isolating; it’s that they are creating a social climate that divides them even farther. This sense of alienation spills into the next story where the main character tries to help a woman the way his father used to help people. Her car has a flat tire, and he wants to change it for her, but she does not speak English, and he does not speak her language. She does not even roll down her windows for him though because our world is often terrifying, and she is frightened of him.

Five Ghost Stories reminded me often of the work of Meg Pokrass, flash fiction pieces that capture a moment in time and the emotion of it, and like Pokrass’s work, Callaci’s draws us into those moments to show us that what seems mundane truly does matter. 

John Brantingham 18th January 2021

Chaos and Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis Press)

Chaos and Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis Press)

In a world where movies and books often treat trauma casually and even glibly, Kendall Johnson’s Chaos and Ash from Pelekinesis Press gives us an inside view of what it truly is and what treatment actually looks like. Johnson is someone who understands trauma. He is a Vietnam combat veteran and a former firefighter who rushed into the chaos of wildland fires in California. He later became a trauma psychotherapist and consultant specializing in big events. He was a second responder to 9/11, the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles, wildfires across the United States, and the Northridge earthquake. He is someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with his trauma and others’, and where other books I have read treat the concept as an aside, Johnson’s book gives it the weight it deserves.

     That Chaos and Ash is a fictionalized memoir in flash and a few other forms is appropriate to the way he helps us to understand what trauma is. It is fictionalized to some degree to protect those he worked with. He does not describe the real events of his patients, but creates out of a lifetime of therapy. It is flash vignette because there is no clear throughline, nothing easy that we can find. There is not one simple thesis statement that can help us to understand the concept. Instead, what he deals with are fragments and moments that often do not make a logical kind of sense on top of which, he has not fully recovered all of the memories that he is trying to work through in this book. Much of what happened in Vietnam is coming back to him, and while a half-remembered event in most memoirs would not work for me, in this collection, that half-memory is the point. What we are getting is what it is to be inside the mind of someone suffering from this pain, and it is not easy, and it is certainly not clear.

     Beyond the flash, Johnson uses a few other forms as well to open up what he is talking about through the way he says it. He is also an abstract expressionist painter, and a number of his pieces are scattered through the book, giving us another path into his experience. He has poetry here and there. Later, he includes open letters to the NRA and Congress, one to parents and teachers, and a third to incident commanders. These take his artistic expressions that might be interpreted in multiple ways and add a more direct argument as to what he sees as the problems with the way society is working, how it throws us off balance. These multiple approaches help us to understand what he is talking about in a number of ways.

     This is not a pornography of violence and trauma. Johnson is not simply laying out his and other people’s pain so that we might gain a kind of vicarious experience. He is creating a fiction based on his life so that others might see what moving forward means. He is making the point that this is not something to be cured through a couple of sessions of therapy. In fact, he is showing us that the concept of being cured is absurd. There is no such thing as leaving it behind but rather he is looking for ways to move forward through this kind of pain. 

     The main character who like Johnson is a trauma psychotherapist who has been to Vietnam himself is in therapy himself, and his psychologist helps him to deal with both the pain he lived and the secondary trauma of those who work with trauma survivors. He speaks to his therapist about the role he is expected to play and how he gets through it:

“I’m expected to project an attitude of ‘I’ve seen it all and know just what to do.’ That’s half the magic.” I felt myself going on the defensive a little. “And when I’m not OK, when I’m scared of the situation and don’t know what to do, I fake it. I guess I manage to selectively dissociate, to take note of my feelings, and then put them in a closet somewhere and get on with it.” 

“You certainly got good at that in Vietnam. And paid a price for it—you’ve been disconnected for years. Amnesia. Our work would have gone more quickly if you hadn’t been dragging around a pretty big sack of leftovers.” 

I took a breath and let it out slowly. “It may not be perfect, but I guess I get by.”

Over the years, I have enjoyed popular nonfiction psychology books, but none of them have shown me what real pain looks like as this fictional account does. Those books are often neat and their discussions give observations that are meant to be definitive. This is a discussion of how messy psychological pain is, how his experiences in the past are rubbing up against the way he is trying to help people in the present in his practice. Psychologists have often presented themselves as godlike, able to clearly and easily point to this or that and solve or at least identify the problem immediately. Johnson lets us know that such an attempt does not make a lot of sense because problems are layered upon other problems and the psychologist is just a human being trying to see the patient through the foggy lens of his past.

     For me, Chaos and Ash was refreshing. It is nice to have someone speak truth about something that should be taken seriously and so often is not.

John Brantingham 3rd January 2020

On the Banks of Damodar by Anant Joshi Translated Jayashree Naidu (Kalpaz Publications)

On the Banks of Damodar by Anant Joshi Translated Jayashree Naidu (Kalpaz Publications)

Poet and novelist, Anant Joshi’s contemporary novel, translated by Jayashree Naidu from Marathi into English, concerns the exploitation of subsistence workers by a coal mafia in the Jharkland state situated along the banks of the Damodar river. The narrative revolves around the practice by government workers of hiring impoverished people to ‘impersonate’ them and work in the mines at considerably lower rates than their salary. Some of the government workers meanwhile have other jobs during their duty hours or work on their own farms. The novel exposes the coal mafia and the ways they control illegal businesses selling off coal to other dependent businesses and delineates the elaborate systems of payments used to cover up the corruption. 

Marathi is India’s third most spoken language after Hindi and Bengali and is centred around the Maharashtra and Goa states of western India. It is an Indo-Aryan language with three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. The primary word order of Marathi is subject-object-verb and there is a lot of Sanskrit derived words in the language. The Marathi word for impersonators, ‘Baniharees’, appears to have no official English translation. This may be because it is a dialect word or because the practice of sub-hiring workers to work in your place is not officially recognised.

Written quite formally without ostentation, the narrative is more splayed than linear, outlining a chronology which explores the extent of municipal corruption and exposes the workings of the social structure. The novel has two strong female characters, Renuka, the senior police officer, and Kirti, a welfare office, and a sub-story around whether it is acceptable for a woman to provide for a man. The novel is very good at depicting male aggression, sexual harassment and the social situation of both female protagonists. The translation has formalised dialogue, occasionally over-written, includes some Bengali and untranslated Marathi words. I would have liked more of a multilingual approach to further illustrate the way access to and knowledge of key words impact on the various social relations under review.

The double narrative of municipal corruption, of good versus evil, and the condition of women in a patriarchal society where incidence of reported rape has increased this century makes this a fascinating read. Indian novels are written and structured quite differently to the conventional English novel. I am pleased to have spent time with this one.

David Caddy 26th December 2020

The Continued Closure of the Blue Door by Vik Shirley (HVTN Press)

The Continued Closure of the Blue Door by Vik Shirley (HVTN Press)

Vik Shirley’s pamphlet Corpses, which came out earlier this year, was a work of exquisitely macabre humour. Her collection The Continued Closure of the Blue Door continues the preoccupation with mortality in its sequence of witty poems called ‘death & the girls’. The first four, which are in unpunctuated prose, chart the zany responses of various women to the unavoidable presence of the grim reaper. 

eleanor kept banging on that death was a charmless motherfucker a charmless motherfucker she’d say fairly vindictively this actually wasn’t true but then she’d witnessed him eating pork pie jelly whilst wearing sock garters so no one could really argue

The six ‘death reveries’ which follow are in the form of calligrams, the first in the shape of a coffin, the sixth that of a bottle. The speaker of the poems imagines her funeral, wake, and legacy, but rather than being maudlin these texts are a rich and furious evocation of life. The coffin is to be decorated with an array of eccentric illustrations and objects, and to act as a stage for an impossible dance performance. The funeral procession, a meandering text of increasing width and font size, is equally fantastical, a carnival parade of bizarre characters with music to match. I particularly liked ‘Death Reverie #5’, in the shape of a cross, which begins:

I want my guilt and shame to be left to

the Catholic Church. It seems the most

reliable place for it to be successfully

recycled.

The range of subjects covered by the collection as a whole extends well beyond mortality. The epigraph to the book is a quote from James Tate: ‘That whole day was like a dream leaking into our satchel.’ Shirley has said that Tate is a major influence, and there is a similarly absurd humour in the work of both poets, a transformation of everyday events into something strange and disconcerting, like the woman in the opening poem in the collection, who falls in love with her husband’s electric razor. 

Prose rhythms and cadences dominate in this poetry, though relatively few of the poems appear as justified blocks of text. The opening section includes lineated prose poems, and poems set as justified text but within a narrow margin. In the second section, ‘elephant’, the text is in an open-field format, but with each fragment of text terminating in a single or double forward slash. Some lines also have a slash/double slash within the line. The sequence describes the brief celebrity of its central eponymous character:

elephant out till all hours /

fallen in with /

            erroneous crowd /

                                                                        we ask / who released

                                                            the elephant /

the elephant watching /

smoking cigars /

Section IV, ‘the nervous tic’, like the first, groups poems in a variety of formats. ‘Nunchucks and Weather’ is a sequence of short lyrics. One of these describes how, despite having many visitors, a lighthouse has difficulty ‘meeting other structures / with similar hopes and aspirations.’ 

The final section, ‘the blue door’, returns to an open-field style but with a mix of font sizes for emphasis. Again some texts here use forward slashes, or in a number of cases vertical lines, as punctuation. ‘it’s not every day you find an opera singer in your tumble dryer’ is a wonderfully comic piece. Having discovered a tumble dryer singing ‘Che gelida manina’ (an aria from La Bohème) on an island in a lake, the narrator wonders who could be responsible:

                                                                              as the squirrels

                                             although fairly gung-ho and not lacking in chutzpah

where it comes to matters of nuts and trees   weren’t –

                                                      as far as I knew – familiar

                                           with the musical scores of Puccini

Another delightful piece in this last section is a set of reflections on a Barbara Guest poem, ‘Twilight Polka Dots’. The final poem, ‘Never been to Volkovo’, appears to be a collage of lines from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.  

The formal variety and inventiveness of the work collected here stretches the ‘prose poem’ beyond the confines of a static block of text. The playfulness and humour of the writing are highly engaging. It is an impressive first collection. 

Simon Collings 16th December 2020

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Lucy Ingrams poems in Tears in the Fence 72 impressed readers with their slowed down attentiveness to the moment and invigorating language use. I was thus thrilled to discover her Light-Fall pamphlet from 2019 and to find more of her mindful poetry.

The opening poem, ‘Swimmer’, where the title is the last two words, with ‘fall’ occupying the last line alone, is worth the price of the pamphlet alone. 

The poem, like the best of Ingrams work, recalls the poetry of Lee Harwood and Elizabeth Bishop and yet is distinctly her own. This emerges through her confident use of space, lineation and punctuation. Note her use of brackets, hyphens, space and counter voice, within a sonically rich low pitched delivery.  The poem, written in the living present, in the manner of Harwood’s sea poems, such as ‘Salt Water’, slows the reader’s attention down to each modulated movement within a wide-eyed focus. The narrator’s eye hovers on a series of physical objects, with slight movements in declining light, so that their actions combine to draw in the movements of sea, breeze and light. The layout, sound and sense combine to produce a balanced and clear-sighted focus. The key is that the poem remains in the variable and active present and eschews any extraneous commentary. 

   the is and will-be of its

the single source   of everything

air, its bubble   coast, its run-off – petrified

world’s counterweight.   its balance-tip

(cloud, the shadows of its rougher swells)

sorted   with that

                 and you   back-stroking

                 next    a flotsam speck    floating

                 only at its pleasure

Ingrams is at her best when she takes risks and moves beyond the rigidity of mainstream poetry to explore and engage the reader with a wide-eyed focus and attention to subtle movements and responses. She has a quiet and strong narrative voice. 

I enjoyed revisiting the poem, ‘Signs’, previously published in the Nine Arches Press, Primers Volume One (2015), with its attention to time, hesitancy and doubt through its spatial use, and controlled form.

And whether you loved me   loved me not

would come with a letter    come with you

would come    would come with some sign

of which there was no sign    yet

Here each movement and change of attention matters in the present. Such poems live, are alive, and are cut through fresh language with moments of 

vividness.

red in the willow crowns    plum in the birch

patterns of gnats     looked for a language

larger than us     tremor of catkins

folds of a bud    for meaning like runes

harder than answers   length in the light

the over and over of wood pigeon music

Ingrams also registers time and its gradual movement from moment to moment in fading late, as one would expect from a poet concerned with being alive to the world and its surprises. ‘Blue Hour’, written in crisp couplets, ends ‘and I turn and my step in the wind-drop quiet / is a thread to tack night / to night.’ I love the precision of ‘wind-drop quiet’ and the dropping ‘to night’ on to the next line to register and emphasise time.

There are many other subtle, quite and well measured poems with slight changes of attention within a perceptual roundedness that suggests Ingrams is an emerging and accomplished poet to follow.

David Caddy 23rd November 2020

The Grey Area: A Mystery by Ken Edwards (Grand Iota)

The Grey Area: A Mystery by Ken Edwards (Grand Iota)

For many literary writers, the mystery about mystery novels is why their purportedly formulaic structures, simplified motivations, credibility-stretching twists and over-tidy resolutions find greater readership than their own more full-bodied works. And thence they have a go at the genre, with predictably distinctive results. In Gilbert Adair’s the author did it. In Georges Perec’s the language did it. In Patrick Modiano’s the ‘who’ would’ve done it, if there’d been any ‘who’ in the first place. So, on finding that this author is the ex-editor of Reality Street, we’re basically not expecting Miss Marple. 

Phidias Peralta has left London in nebulous circumstances and repaired to the coast – between quaint Deadhurst and down-at-heel Deadman’s Beach – to relaunch his private investigator business. His first case looks straightforward enough: a ninety-year-old woman who vanished suddenly a year before. Her family are looking for ‘closure’. Uh-oh; not in a novel like this. Is the CCTV footage all it seems? Have the police given up too readily? Did she wander into the ‘grey area’ of the Dead Level marshes? The trail is cold by now. And meanwhile, two sinister-looking men from London have been seen around, asking for him… 

Phidias himself is a terrific character, a born-to-it detective whose eye for detail enriches the descriptions of the locality and whose over-the-top diction and intellectuality bring to mind a Doctor Who or a Holmes. He can’t bear to use the first-person singular in his narrations (though, disappointingly, he speaks and writes email with it), giving them the feel of a parodic scientific report. His assistant Lucy fulfils the more human, Watson-ish role, with a conventional voice anchored in ordinary family concerns. A third format consists of dialogue presented without speech-tags or other primary narrative, as if taped; this kind of stylistic spotlighting felt odd at first, but I did quickly get used to it. It helps that the prose is as adept and fluent as you’d expect. (The only poor writing in the book, I’d say, is on the blurb, which drastically undersells its contents.)

Storywise, some scenes ‒ an early-morning trip with the local trawlermen, an extraordinary model railway ‒ earn their place thematically (or from their intrinsic interest) rather than in terms of direct function. Nonetheless the tension builds up nicely and the late-night industrial park (where homeless Phidias is sleeping) becomes suitably spooky. In fact, at one point, I worried that the book was going to use that genre-twist cop-out where the ‘explanation’ for the crime is a supernatural one. Or that the epistemological riffs were preparing to camouflage some dodgy plot-moves. But the weirdnesses stay more or less under control and the denouement is, instead, revealingly bitter in the manner of, say, Leonardo Sciascia’s novels. I hope Phidias isn’t dead, though: I found myself, like any good crime reader, wanting another in the series, where more of his enigmatic background might get revealed, and the enjoyable partnership between him, Lucy and her bright and comic son can confront a new impossible brain-twister.

Guy Russell 18th November 2020

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments brings together John Marx’s watercolours first published in The Architectural Review and a range of his visual and concrete poems, with essays providing introductory contexts to the work. Marx, an award-winning designer and architect, based in San Francisco, works as Chief Artistic Officer for Form4 Architecture, and this sumptuous book takes the reader on a journey through his creative landscape. 

The book is divided into eight sections moments in time, apertures, absent nature, objects in nature, without intention, approaching abstraction, deconstructing perception and improvisations, indicating the book’s focus. 

The reader is instantly drawn by the quality of the watercolours, which are simple, precise and thought-provoking. They strike me as having both an intellectual and emotional meaning through their pared down simplicity and exactitude. Laura Iloniemi’s essay places them in an American Tradition showing their relationship to Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Franz Kline. She notes how they connect an emotional urban atmosphere with natural ‘built landscapes’, such as a sand dune or rock formation through memory and association.

Each watercolour is juxtaposed next to a visual and concrete poem. The poems are similarly pared down to simple statements spread across the page with lines positioned horizontally, vertically, diagonally and so on. The impact is powerful in that a range of potential correspondences are suggested. Thus, the poem, ‘Étude 11, 1980’ precedes the watercolour, ‘The Edge of Possibility, 1990’ and the juxtaposition enhances both as the reader’s eye moves from left to right, right to left, assimilating the forms and dream-like connection of clouds with possibilities beyond the self. The impact is utterly beguiling and accumulates as one follows the journey. 

Whilst the poems may be closed statements presented as shapes and visuals, they are in essence linked to the hypnotic watercolours through juxtaposition and the movement of the eye and mind’s eye. The poem ‘Étude 48, 2005’ has a whirlwind of broken circular lines around the words ‘In the cycle of change / we endure those extremes / each adding / a layer of humanity / to our journey’, and ends with the thought that life asks

‘that we / live intensely / and in the moment’ (in blue). It is placed opposite the watercolour, ‘Ethereal Construct, 1998’ with its two narrow windows and a door within large and rigid building blocks. The eerie atmosphere of the buildings, reminiscent of Hopper, are in contradistinction to any intense living in the moment. The eye returns to the smallness of the windows and door, suggestive of a narrowness of vision and line of thought around scale, balance, opportunity and extremes leading back to the poem’s content. This reflective approach is enhanced by each successive combination in the book and is thus thoroughly provocative.

The work is ultimately philosophical despite its dream like qualities and concerned with vision and a visible language linking our inner and outer worlds. The watercolours often evoke, or imply, an absence. We are, I think, ultimately being asked to consider how we find balance in a world of constant change. This is an utterly beguiling book creating a wonderful synergy between the poems and watercolours. 

David Caddy 13th November 2020

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: