Category Archives: Poetry

What Is It In Me?

Elizabeth_Sparhawk-Jones,_Shoe_Shop,_1911

Shoe Shop, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1911)

One of my favorite things about reading library books is the marginalia or annotations of previous readers. I love to consider the differences between what I might mark or underline and what a perfect stranger (albeit a similarly literarily-like-minded one) takes it upon themselves to mark. I found this written on the half title of Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples: 

If the author of the book were to ask, like the man in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Mortmain” [sic?] ‘What is it in me that you like so much, And love so little?”,

It sent me on a quest to discover where that poignant line came from. The written title that was illegible, or just plain wrong, was no help. It took me a little bit of time but I found the the poem. It is called Avenel Gray.

Seneca sat one Sunday afternoon
With Avenel in her garden. There was peace
And langor in the air, but in his mind
There was not either—there was Avenel;
And where she was, and she was everywhere,
There was no peace for Seneca.

The poem is very long. It is the story of a man who comes to the realization that the woman that he loves will never make room in her heart for him.

What is it in me that you like so much,
And love so little? I am not so much a monkey
As many who have had their heart’s desire,
And have it still. My perishable angel,
Since neither you nor I may live forever
Like this, I’ll say the folly that has fooled us
Out of our lives was never mine but yours.

It’s a lonely and devastating poem. I became curious about the author. I had never heard of the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Edwin Arlington Robinson, (he hated his name apparently and went by E.A. Robinson. One can speculate that his disdain for his name stemmed from the fact that his parents didn’t name him until about six months after he was born [disappointed by his sex] and then finally left it up to a sort of contest between strangers in Arlington, Maine while on vacation the summer of his birth.). He was in love with a woman that went on to marry his brother. Her poor choice in marriage did not cool his ardor and after the brother (who seems to have been something of a wastrel) died she rejected his hand both times he offered it.

My wonder is today that I have been
So long in finding what there was to find,
Or rather in recognizing what I found
Long since and hid with incredulities
That years have worn away, leaving white bones
Before me in a desert.

Robinson had another relationship with the troubled artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. She spent some years institutionalized and one of the unfortunate manifestations of her troubles was an inclination to destroy her own work. Looking at her beautifully energetic painting above, the loss is lamentable. It is unclear to me whether or not the love between Robinson and Sparhawk-Jones was one-sided (if so it would have been on her side) but I hope not. I always root for the love story, fighting against the folly that fools us out of our lives.

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A Plenty

Snowdie grieved for him, but the decent way you’d grieve for the dead, more like, and nobody wanted to think, around her, that he treated her that way. But how long can you humor the humored? Well, always.
—Eudora Welty, “Showers of Gold” (1)

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Tuesday I was standing in a packed NYC subway in alarmingly close intimacy with my fellow passengers, amazed at how well bodies fit into one another, reading a story about being in the woods (where I had been on Monday). I wrote of it to a friend of mine and he re-set my words into verse:

Subway
I was pressed up so tight against his backside
I only had to whisper in his ear,
“I am sorry, I am being pushed.”
But still I held my book above the fray
So that I could continue the story.

And what was this story that had me so enthralled with poetic devotion? A book of short stories, Golden Apples by Eudora Welty. The first story “Shower of Gold” is told with disarming charm by Miss Katie. I loved her no-nonsense ingenuousness. She told the story of Snowdie MacLain, an albino woman, whose husband would come and go without so much as a by your leave. Sometimes when he would come he’d let her know:

“Meet me in the woods.” No, he more invited her than told her to come–“Suppose you meet me in the woods.” And it was night time he supposed to her.  And Snowdie met him without asking “What for?” (4)

I guess I admire Miss Katie–she wants to know why. When her husband tells her he thinks that he saw the absconder husband, King MacLain, at a county parade she can’t believe he didn’t confirm much less confront him:

Men! I said if I’d been Governor Vardaman and spied King Maclain from Morgana marching in my parade as big as I was and no call for it, I’d have had the whole thing brought to a halt and called him to accounts. “Well, what good would it have done you?” my husband said. “A plenty,” I said.

yet, I think I understand Snowdie better. Welty enchants words, she’ll have you laughing out loud in a hot crowded subway, and then leave you a little lost on the platform of her phrasing musing over the devastating disappointments we endure. Some, like Snowdie, just take them quietly. I thought, after discussing the title of the story with another friend, that perhaps Ms. Welty, as fun and sharp as she made Miss Katie, saw things Snowdie’s way. That shower of gold was Snowdie’s news that she was expecting twins. Maybe she didn’t think she deserved more than a shower. Her husband just disappeared with no word or explanation and maybe she just took that as proof that she was just going to get what precipitation she did.  What good would it have done her to complain?

Each story in the book stands alone, and yet they are all set in the same fictional town, the same characters, the same disturbing inability to “know how to do about” as is Welty’s refrain in the story “June Recital.”

That’s the frightening thing. We are all trying so hard, but what if we just plum don’t know how to do about? I don’t mean algebra, or gardening, or spelling. I mean to say, when we don’t connect to one another when we, like Miss Eckhart, flail and fail in something so essential as love. When one looks into their own heart and has to admit–I don’t know how to do about you at all.

Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them–human beings, roaming like lost beasts (“June Recital” 85).

The Heart’s Watermarks

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I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Ken Botnick on his recently published artist book, Diderot Project. While waiting for my final exam of the semester to be released I calmed my nerves by spending a leisurely morning in Mortimer Rare Book Room extending the pleasure by reading this sumptuous, intelligent, and marvelously reverential work.

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I decided, while photographing some of the pages, that I would leave my own hand in the image. First of all—it made it a hell of a lot easier to take the image, but also, reading this book is such a richly tactile experience that my own hand began to take on all of the most wonderful aspects of the book. Not least of all–the first section—which is titled: “To Observe Without Confusion Vol. 1 Memory: The Hand.” My hand turning and touching each page created an echo of meaning. As Botnick relates, to touch something is a complex act: “grasping cannot be reduced to its visomoter aspects” (Marc Jeannerod quoted). And then, the spectacle of dried paint under my thumbnail (the stubborn vestiges of my own printmaking adventures) created a connection between myself, the artist Botnick, and les métiers (the trades) which Diderot so famously championed in his encyclopedia. And finally— I work the book. It is my tool. By my hand the deliciously rich and varied papers are discovered, the ideas absorbed, the beauty felt. The object is directly infused into my senses, of which touch, as Diderot believed, is the most essential.

Hand knowledge and symbolic knowledge constitute equally powerful but different and not equally appreciated ways of organizing worldly phenomena” (Jeanne Bamberger quoted).

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Botnick pieces together a variety of text by various authors, including himself, as a way into the project of representing, through a work, through an object, the vibrating pulse of Diderot’s spectacular l’Encyclopedie. Botnick lets the affecting qualities of what it means and how it feels to become deeply engrossed— intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally— radiate out through his own book. In the second part, “I Insist on the Freedom Vol. 2 Reason: the Object”  he includes the poem, “Delights of the door” by Francis Ponge, arrestingly hinged on the gutter of the book. There is something so sweetly lovely about it…I love to turn a page and feel a smile rise upon my mouth.

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Some of the most extraordinary pages are the most difficult to photograph. Botnick designed several watermarks and had Paul Wang of Dieu Donné Paper produce. I have a weakness (thanks, especially, to Henry Miller) for watermarks. In the third image posted here the watermark of a compass can just be made out, these pages call to the reader’s hand with such intensity it is impossible not to lift the page and find the image increased by the backing of one’s own darker skin behind it. The paper is breathtaking throughout the book, but these pages are so lovely…Botnick has a gift for finding the sublime in the subtle.

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The person who perceives is not spread out before herself as a consciousness must be, she has historical density, she takes up a perceptual tradition and is faced with a present…(Maurice Merleau-Ponty quoted).

The above page, found in the final part, “Through Sensation We are Led to Abstraction Vol. 3 Imagination: The Senses” just about made me fall to my knees…I was trying to drown out the office chit-chat that was being conducted behind me so I put my earbuds in and played my playlist I call “Eclectic” —because it is. As I turned the page, the music went from Sue Jorge’s “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” to Mendelssohn’s Elijah op. 70 “he that shall endure.”  Something in those opening chords combined with the image in front of me just about slayed me.  Our personal-historical density informs and layers every experience we have. This is what I love about a book such as Botnick’s: what he brings, what Diderot left, the watermarks of my own heart—all these things are lived in the object.

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*Project Diderot, the work of Ken Botnick, editor, author, designer, printer, and publisher (Emdash 2015). Bound by Daniel Kelm (Wide Awake Garage).

The Unseen

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Gypsy & Other Poems

In Johanna Drucker’s 2005 article published in The Bonefolder, “Exemplary Work,” she laments that the “field of artist books suffers from being under-theorized, under-historicized, under-studied, and under-discussed” (3). The article is a sharp critique, and yet it would be difficult to argue that she is wrong about some of what the artist book suffers from. Drucker has been writing about and making artists books for decades now, and is very much an insider: part of the history, theorizing, and discussing-class of the field. As an outsider, new to the world of artist books, I feel as though I come to this issue from a different perspective.  Drucker and I share a love of the genre, and a concern as well, but as I have not been steeped in the culture but recently (and am perhaps late to the party), I wonder if her emphasis on “specific descriptive vocabulary,” a perceived lack of a canon of artists, or “critical terminology for book arts with historical perspective” (3) is quite the fundamental problem.

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If one looks at a book published by Gehenna Press, such as Gypsy & Other Poems, a clear historical perspective is indeed evident. Leonard Baskin, the late artist, sculptor and proprietor of Gehenna Press, worked with one foot, at least, well within the Fine Press tradition of book publishing. In Gypsy & Other Poems, using the poetry of revered writer James Baldwin, Baskin created a sumptuous finished product which tactilely, aesthetically and emotionally adds to Baldwin’s work. Rather than illustrate Baldwin’s poetry, Baskin found inspiration in the man himself by reserving his artistic prowess for various portraits of Baldwin which follow the poems in the back of the book.

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The poems are put forth with a fierce and pointed commitment to traditional Fine Press practices: the margins are of generous proportions, the letter face is beautifully composed in black and red ink alone, the quality of materials are in evidence. Baskin offers Baldwin, a man who suffered from an exclusionary racist society, to the reader with the dignity which he deserves as expressed in the reverence, quality, and gravitas of a 20th century Livre d’Artiste. Baskin’s influence in the history and canon of artist books can hardly be ignored. While taking from the conservative art form of letterpress, he advanced the craft by adding his intense, and often disquieting, etchings. William Morris may very well serve as the looming figurehead of the Fine Press tradition, but it is the Livre d’Artiste that brought the genre of book arts into a new century, and artists such as Baskin that moved it yet further forward.

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Sommes-nous deux ou suis-je solitaire

 

Paul Eluard’s books such as Sommes-nous deux ou suis-je solitaire, (which to answer Janet Zweig’s litmus test: could certainly sustain me on a desert island) or the even more seminal, A Toute Epreuve, perfectly testify to a certain history and canon, of which Baskin was obviously influenced. The conversation within A Toute Epreuve between poet (Eluard) and artist (Joan Miro) is of the sort that initiated an entire genre of collaborative work: writer, artist and publisher, not necessarily three different people, but three distinct roles whose attention to the artist’s contribution altered and shaped modern artist books.

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A Toute Epreuve

 

Whereas text was once the dominating distinguishing feature of books, the era of the Livre d’Artiste expanded the ground that a book could cover. The enthusiasm with which the Livre d’Artiste was received, testifies to the public’s appetite for the complexity of text and art converging in the intimacy of the book form. That complexity has exponentially increased as the artist book’s structure, materials, and dimensions are experimented with in earnest.

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I don’t believe Drucker would argue with any of the above, she, more than I, understands the nuanced history of the artist book. Perhaps her complaint is really more along the lines of that particular history taking its proper place in the academic world. Where is the chapter on artist books in Jansen’s History of Art? Or E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art? There isn’t one.  Clearly, the artist book is seen as something outside of the regular history of art. I don’t disagree with Drucker there, where I do quibble is over the question of the proper nomenclature or descriptive words.  I approach artists books in the same way that I would approach any art. All of the questions Drucker wants to ask concerning one’s experience as a viewer applies as well to a painting as it does to a piece of literature, or an artists’ book.

We have the words and critical discourse in place. It is simply that artist books aren’t in the discussion. Why? The fact that artist books draw on multiple genres (literature, art, sculpture, the ubiquity of the utilitarian book!) should in no way discourage viewers or critics—one would think rather that it makes for a more interesting set of questions and challenges for artist and viewer alike. I believe the problem lies in the issue of access. A few years ago I did not even know what an artist book was.  My complaint, or worry, is that no one ever sees these things. They are locked away in rare book rooms, a place many eschew or are ignorant of, and it seems to me, many books are now being produced with the sole aim of selling them to the institutions that lock them away. I rarely, outside of special shows or Medieval Manuscript museums, have seen books displayed in museums. And books, by their nature, resist the ease of display that paintings or sculptures enjoy. They must be handled, and yet, they cannot be handled. They demand time: to read, peruse, and turn the pages, and that poses problems in this ‘drive-by’ society. What to do? I’m sure I don’t know, but I can’t see a solution that does not involve a greater visible presence in the world: in museums, galleries, library displays, art history books…if people do not know they exist, they aren’t going to look for them, much less discuss their artistic merit, which, like all art, varies wildly, and is at the mercy of subjectivity.

*previously published in fall of 2014 in Smith College’s “The Artist Book in the 20th Century” blog.

darling buds what may

darling buds what may

darling buds what may

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)]
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
—E.E. Cummings
*”darling buds what may” —monoprint with torn paper, J. Ryan 2015

I Repeat You

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I made this small letterpress book of a single poem by Ingrid Jonker a few months ago but didn’t post it to this blog because I used blind runs on the press (on the cover and title page) which is a subtle effect leaving the impression without ink and I didn’t think my camera would pick up the detail.

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But I was asked by fellow blogger pviljoen what the objects where on my shelf in the photo that accompanied my last post. As I have only recently discovered more precisely what they are I thought I would go ahead post the short story:

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They belonged to my father who died when I was two. I grew up with his art and artifacts but without any knowledge of who he was as a person. My mother was always quite silent on the subject. I always loved these wood blocks and as I was making this book I got the idea to use them. I found out that they are almost certainly Indian in origin and were most likely used as a fabric print, the ends join up so that the pattern can be continuous. I have three different wood blocks in all and hope to use the others some day as well.

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Communication Communicates

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Ed Ruscha’s 26 Gasoline Stations (1963)

In 1963 Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations was published, pioneering a new era in artist books. In the spirit of the counter-culture, this seemingly simple book altered the way that books were understood. The term “artist book” is a confusing and malleable term used differently by different people, but Ruscha’s work is understood as being at the incunabula of that discussion. Of course, Ruscha may not even accept the term for his own book, which he felt was mere documentation. What is Twentysix Gasoline Stations about? Ruscha might answer— it’s not about anything. It is exactly what it says it is: twenty-six gas stations. He is quoted in Mary Richard’s essay, “Artist Who Do Books,”  firmly stating: “Not that I had an important message about photographs, or gasoline, or anything like that—I merely wanted a cohesive thing” (Ruscha quoted in Richards, 30). One could argue that this is a slightly disingenuous stance given that he is the photographer, choosing the subject matter, angle, and method of delivery. In fact, by virtue of his choosing to present his photographs at all he is making a statement.

What that statement may be, is, of course, a more complicated matter. But there is at least one consistent element that comes through when reviewing Ruscha’s work as well as other works of that period, like Sol LeWitt’s Arc, circles & grids, or the whimsical Choosing Green Beans by John Baldessari. That is: the seemingly objective and removed nature of the content. Perhaps through a sort of wry humor Baldessari inserts himself a bit into his work, but these are all ostensibly impersonal works. They are“collections of facts” as Ruscha would say in Richard’s essay (31). They are all, also, works produced by men.

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Carolee Schneemann’s Vulva’s Morphia (1997)

Those works, therefore, juxtaposed with the feminist works, like those of Carolee Schneemann, Susan King or Jen Bervin, make for a very stark comparison. The female artists that were struggling to get their voices heard took to the artist book as a means to bypass the patriarchal authorities that kept them (and still keep them) out of the high-end art world. Books, they discovered, provided an accessible means for women to communicate their art. Lucy Lippard wrote in her essay “Escape Attempts” that the burgeoning genre of Conceptual art touch on the idea that “communication between people was subordinate to communication about communication” (Lipard, xvii). And that idea is clearly delivered in the works of Ruscha and DeWitt and many female artist as well, but when one considers the suppression of female artists throughout history, “communication about communication” takes on a deeper meaning. Feminist artists laid their minds, hearts and vaginas on the line in their art.

Vulva's Morphia

Vulva’s Morphia

Carolee Schneemann challenges notions of “polite society” and forces her viewers to consider just who it is that gets to say what women (and therefore people) can and can not talk about or display. In her book Vulva’s Morphia, Schneemann gives Vulva a voice, her radical stance is that Vulva has been denied the ability to communicate and the results, in Schneemann’s beautiful velvet-bound book, is at once sardonic and poignant. Vulva has a voice and through her voice,  Schneemann raises the sexual vitality of womanhood to fine art. The fact that, even in this day-and-age it feels incendiary, speaks volumes about how far women have yet to go to achieve equality in the art world—”‘vulva” is not even welcome as a word. It would seem we are not that far from the familiar, imposed “morality” that is pointed to at the end of the book: “Vulva goes to church and discovers she is obscene.…(quote St. Augustine)” (Schneemann). When Vulva says it— it is funny, but also, quite sad.

Jan Bervin's The Dickinson Composites (2010)

Jan Bervin’s The Dickinson Composites (2010)

Another popular and well-worn method of suppression is the relegating of “women’s work,” to some special, lesser genre. Some artist like Jen Bervin turn traditional female crafts (like needlework) onto the page in strikingly conceptual ways. Teasing out the secret world of Emily Dickinson’s unconventional notational systems in her poetry, Bevin creates in The Dickinson Composites a lovely minimalistic work in which one woman explores the secret inner life of another while expressing the deep continuity between them.

The Dickinson Composites

The Dickinson Composites

The intensity of the intimacy of Dickinson’s poems considered in Bervin’s gorgeous book is moving without being mawkish or sentimental. Here is a book that is just as much a statement of “communication about communication” as a Ruscha or DeWitt, and yet in Bervin’s work one can see that the impersonal tack is not the only approach to the concept. Just as Dickinson’s poetry is deeply personal, to the point of some inscrutability, Bervin highlights the mysteriously subjective communication that was, significantly, largely whitewashed out of Dickinson’s poems when they came to be published.

In the history of the art world there has always been a privileging of a male-centered perspective, reflected most obviously in the fact that males dominate the work that is shown and/or published. It is implicitly understood that the (preferable) rational, objective mind belongs to the domain of men while the emotional and subjective is relegated to women and children. Obviously that point of view is not only erroneous, but also damages and limits both sexes, yet it is clear that the stereotype still prevails. By comparing the above books, which are only loosely related, but share some conceptual, artistic and historical influences, one can see that the female and male perspective alike offer compelling and artistic insight and exploration into the experience—our experience, of being human. The artist that seeks publication is necessarily connected to communication and all the historical dynamics that influence the ability to be heard. Ruscha insist that he is not up to anything “deep” in his work. He is not, he states, being “arty.” But an anti “arty” stance in fact depends upon notions of “arty” to work against. Ruscha states that, “I think photography is dead as a fine art; its only place is in the commercial world, for technological or informational purposes” ( Ruscha quoted in Richards 30). But as the feminist artists of the 20th century show us, who disseminates the information, and for what purpose, matters.

 

*Vulva’s Morphia and The Dickinson Composites were published by Granary Books

**This essay was previously published in The Artist’s Book in the 20th Century Blog for Smith College in 2014.