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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Critiques and Reviews
Four Books from Bloody Twin Press (Blue Creek, OH)
by Andrea Adolph ||
Author's Links

Tom Bridwell, Notes from the Cistern.
Theodore Enslin, Music in the Key of C, Part 5.
Tom Bridwell, Karen Driscoll, Stephen Ellis, Skip Fox, Brian Richards, Long Song Water Pond.
Skip Fox, Wallet.

The books released by Bloody Twin Press not only contain powerful, provocative images and language, b ut are themselves works of art. The collections are all hand-bound and, with the exception of Bridwell's long work (its colophon notes that, at circa 120 pages, it is "too lengthy to be hand made but too worthwhile [to] be left unpublished"), are all hand-typeset and printed crank-by-crank on a VanderCook proofing press. Begun in 1984 by Brian Richards, the press has developed into a venue for writers, Richards confides, "whose work I admired, but who had trouble placing work with established presses. Though I have become fascinated by the book arts as a result of my immersion," he continues, "I still see the press as a poets' vehicle." In a time when poetry, like a houseguest on the last and tiresome leg of a long stay, can rarely help out with the groceries or with the rent, and when even major presses are scaling back their lists due to a lack of "market," Richards's desire to maintain an arena for strong poetic endeavor is one to be supported as well as applauded. The press should not, however, simply be admired for any benevolence to underchampioned scribblers--the writing Richards selects for print is work that demands and deserves an audience. The integrity of poetry, in these four volumes, is not sacrificed to the concept of vehicle; rather, the need for more publishers like Bloody Twin, and for more books such as these, is made evident through the craft of both the poets and the press. This is good stuff.
     Tom Bridwell's recent Notes from the Cistern is a dense series of long, numerically sequential prose poems/philosophical musings, the intellect and sensuality of which belie the collection's utilitarian title. His pieces appear as daily confessions of a narrator who is "just a carpenter and not a very good one" ("Ninety Three") and who finds himself alone somewhere in Virginia, renovating the old cistern of an antiquated farmhouse. Most sections vacillate between heady abstractions (many, for instance, are peppered with lines from Wittgenstein) and the sometimes too-tangible relics of the narrator's otherwise secluded existence, but in its eclecticism, the work as a whole is strengthened, never falters. In the final section ("One Hundred Two"), the speaker ponders "how a hybrid text might breed its own formalism." As themes as diverse as suicide, fatherhood, and four-by-six oak headers eventually morph into a narrative that attempts to make sense of not only the universe, but of we little creatures who inhabit it, each separate notion shows itself to be equally paramount within the grander structure. While I at first was tempted to skip over the details of building and welding in order to get to the good parts, eventually the fact became clear that without the cistern, the narrator--and thus the reader--would definitely be elsewhere. Catalyst and end result are both crucial requirements of this experiment. The way Bridwell pits his more quotidian content against his headier in order for a formula of meaning to emerge becomes, in turn, a formula for seduction.
     "Everything is seduction, everyone seduced, " Bridwell entices. "Every secretion traces an incunabula of desire" ("Nineteen"). And, in this long poetic sequence subtitled "A Love Letter," perhaps that's the point. The second-person narration invites the reader to identify with an extended offer of physical, as well as psychical, pleasure made obvious in queries such as "Do you know how much I would pay to lick this from your belly?" ("Nineteen") But Notes is imbued, too, with a more discreet form of seduction through its presentation of a sensual and epicurean palette: the dailiness of building a cistern gives way to forms of cuisine, to structures of physical (if solitary) gratification. What the narrator wishes to lick from "your" belly in "Nineteen":

     Clean the beard from a batch of mussels (you know the routine), then steam them in wine and garlic and shallots; and when they open, just, take them out and reduce the liquid and melt a walnut of butter in that strained juice and dip the critters in that ambrosia and you are on your way. Sour dough bread, an Australian Syrah.

     But the process of drawing in the reader is not a relentless game of chase; it ultimately grows circular, dialectic, as the speaker admits, "I had believed that I was the seducer but I am seduced" ("Fifty Six"). Because the overt heterosexual nature of this particular seduction might preclude across-the-board success among the collection's entire readership, this inversion of the seduction invites identification with either the speaker, his "you," or with both as the narrative's various pleasures present themselves. And when the deliberate sensuality of appetite is produced it hardly matters which side of that binary one attaches to: "The woodchuck, the artichoke and polenta. The drippings are a sinful perfume. A slice of meat, trailed through the juice [. . .]" ("Ninety One"). Whether as direct or as figurative experience, the seduction is complete. And with all the lush red wine and Miles Davis or Robert Johnson swirling through the background, Bridwell works out his penchance for synaesthesia beautifully. Never mind that the woodchuck was originally roadkill, or, for that matter, that the meals are consumed alone and serve as a way to access physicality from within remote isolation. Maybe it's just that I have an equal fondness for Ridge Zinfandel and the Allman Brothers's "Melissa," but I also have to agree with the narrator's musing that "[t]here are times when texture is everything," ("Seventy Seven"), perhaps especially in poetry.
     In contrast to Bridwell's long work and its material offerings, Theodore Enslin's chapbook, Music in the Key of C, provides readers with a more elliptical, more evocative poetic style. The book is saddle-stitched and subtly enhanced by its hand-made paper wrappers. "Moose" provides an example of how little these poems provide by way of physical realm or any need for its store:

     Delight if I were
     one of them     to pull fresh shoots
     from the bottom
     of a shallow pond
     and think about

     Enslin works well with the powers of the suggestive gap, of information left unsaid, and invites the reader instead to think past the words on the pages of the collection and into a parallel vision: "a hook unused / perhaps for the cup / to hang by" ("Once Upon a Time"). Here, it's not the hook that is the focal point, but its unknown, multiple purposes. The light impressions of material form, and the consequential engagement of his readers, is the strength of this work. If there is a shortcoming to be found within these poems, it is Enslin's several uses--in such a sparse book--of flower imagery. The rose is such a loaded and overused signifier, and though Enslin places his blooms in contexts that for the most part defy traditional readings of the image, I wonder whether more than the closest of readers won't capitulate to the tried-and-true relationship between the long-stemmed and Love's romantic, "poetic" baggage. The use of the flowers here, though, does remind me of Jo Shapcott's recent revisions into English of Rilke's cycle of brief rose poems, and Enslin's equals that body of work in its poetic integrity.
     Enslin's collection, as well as the multi-authored Long Song Water Pond, exhibits Bloody Twin's solid focus on writing that might be called "experimental." The poems of Music surpass lyricism in their ability to allude without directly laying it all out on the page, to allow linguistic relationships to make up for what the poet chooses to omit. The poetry collected in Long Song Water Pond continues this tradition, and furthers this poetical stance in works that rely even more so upon the capacity of language to invent itself through the act of reading. The opening poem is a collaborative effort of Richards with Skip Fox (whose solo collection is reviewed below) and Stephen Ellis. The polyvocal renga reads like a chant, like a spell, and its power leaps directly from a steady thrum:

     [. . .] slate of crow's wing, or fingerbone beneath a
     new moon, where the sign
     curls, cues in its fold the gold unfurling through glens of gowers, the
     binding locale of color in its hours unjustifiably complete but that we
     sit lit up in its infinite shades [. . .]

     Ellis's own poem, "Lest We Forget," makes use of language in similar ways and is also self-conscious about the act of writing, of concocting meaning:

     like a flue, the sound of the yet-to-be-articulated air in the throat of one's
     being, as Bird used to exhort, play loud, the most initial necessity being
     an available column of air on which one then played their variations
     [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
     [. . .] I mean, how much more
     do we need to possess beyond the spoken recognitions of each our doing,
     bulwarked as this is within the false extensions of the written text?

     Karen Driscoll, like Ellis, acknowledges the mode of communication, but also its product. Interesting (and perhaps a bit disappointing) to find an apologetic note in work from the single female poet represented in this selection of Bloody Twin authors. "December 4-December 21" is more assertive then Ellis's poem in its turn inward: "my poetry's / okay but there's no thing to say other than noting the / decidedly taciturn lack of commentary upon the / content." Redeemed, however (for this reader), by the ceaseless (until it does) turning of one digression into another, the poem forces the mind through a series of mental and physical gymnastics as it moves from family to self to lover and onward, challenging the readerly "brain like abused innards" that "can take only so much / knowing animals but never seeing them openly there."
     Sip Fox's Wallet, according to Richards, is an example of the sort of book for which "the excellence of the work demanded a solution" to issues of design and format. Richards is a poets' publisher, and though he expends a good deal of effort in the production of even a small run of a collection (with Wallet, for instance, the issue was 125 copies), the poetry is what comes first, and he seeks presentations for the titles on the Bloody Twin list that complement their contents. As might be surmised by its title, Wallet is a self-enclosed book, and is presented horizontally. The poetry is paired with simple drawings that build upon the suggestion of Mayan and other ancient cultures found within the text. The paper used for the printing of the works, too, adds to the quality of artifact that the poetry plays with; (intentional) splotches of what looks like mold or mildew give the book a slightly aged look.
     The opening poem provides the frame for those that follow. Each line of this first poem serves as the first line, in sequence, of each poem in the collection that follows. Together, they attempt to get at the poems beneath the poem, to map out what might be left behind in a single work, to unearth "[w]hat's beneath the word." If "the mind creates the finite," then in these poems it also attempts to explode the finite, to provide as many ways into Fox's initial poem as his chosen form allows.
     "What's beneath the world?" asks Fox. "Rhyme and the absence of rhyme. Pulse keyed / to mind or heart. Prior to extent." The whole series of poems approaches then slinks away from ideas that comprise the human sense of the bound and the boundless. Mathematics and music provide instances of constructed definitives. Aside from the known world, Fox insinuates, there is great potential to transgress limits. What can be or has been measured by language or by physics provides the realm of human knowledge, but, the poet seems to be saying, we are wimping out if that's as far as we're willing to go in order to find the extent of our capacity to communicate and to be. The physical body is "a span," is "word in its recurrence, emptying. Obedient to its end." But it also is the formless mass from which regeneration occurs:

     to die, be dead. What is that? Blooming in the desert. Cave
     of all entrance. Creates this room?--walls, flesh. Sounding
. Everything
     is accomplished through the senses.

     Rather than imagine only a singular trajectory of the flesh, Fox circles back, from the death-end of life through metamorphosis and back to the knowledge of the body, its senses, but this time redefined, reinvented.
     Limits lie in perception, are not found inherently within the thing itself. The poetry's structure, in its access of the multiplicity of language and its meanings, provides an echo for the matter within the Ür-poem. Where Bridwell's physical and mental worlds maintain themselves more discreetly, Fox's poetry aggressively seeks synthesis. While it points to its own linguistic matter as a nearby referent, this poetic series extends itself beyond itself, searches for a way to present the reader with an idea that one can, as Eva Hesse affirms, "go beyond what I know and what I can know." That there is infinite potential in even the most remote and circumscribed events. Nothing bound, and "the whole galaxy blowing up just to say something."

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