- Rowing Through Fog, and: A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems, and: Auto Repair, and: The Making of Collateral Beauty, and: Inventing An Alphabet
Chapbooks have recently taken on a luster once reserved for the full-length collection and become the form to watch for the experimental, the single-themed long poem, the emerging poet's first published work, and the off-beat or in-between collections of established writers. These five collections stand out among numerous recent releases not only for the quality of the writing, on the rise for chapbooks, but also for the range of voices they represent.
Kerri Webster offers a sophisticated new voice in Rowing Through Fog, selected and introduced by Carl Phillips for the Poetry Society of America's new chapbook series. Webster self-consciously invents an inner landscape by reworking the surface of things, employing both the timeless effort to name, and the artist's effort to create through naming. The poem, "Lexicon," signals this preoccupation. Here, the repetition of variations of the phrase – "there is" – creates an irregular, patterned music that forecasts a discursive narrative thread: "There's a word for sadness that dwells in the small of the back . . ." "there is no word for release," "There is no gazelle," "there's a phrase for absence gullied just short of reckoning . . ." Rarely has losing one's bearings in a sequence of poems (as with "fog") summoned such pleasure. Eight prose poems, every other piece in the collection, anchor the book. Each takes as a title a hotel name: "Hotel Consumptive," "Hotel Eidetic," "Hotel Voluptuary." They sing of the body animated, degraded, celebrated. In "Hotel Quetzalcoatl," the speaker asks "What desire doesn't seem as of the distance across a sea? The way skin conjoins to [End Page 195] demigod (half bestiary) (half reliquary)." A mystery rests at the dark heart of this carefully-shaped work, one that starts with a ferry boat wreck, invoking Arthur Dove's 1931 painting, and remains a mystery to the end. With so much to savor, it's easy to relinquish the will to make literal sense of these poems and consider, instead, the sensations Webster drafts into action with words like effluvia, alluvial. Webster's language, lyricism, distinctive metaphors, and symbolism provoke both pleasures and disturbances in this seamless chapbook collection.
In the introduction to A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems, a work he completed as a Columbia University undergraduate in 1968, Paul Auster writes, "Translation, then, was more than just a literary exercise. It was a first step toward breaking free of the shackles of myself, of overcoming my own ignorance. You must change your life. Perhaps. Back then, it was more a question of searching for a life, of trying to invent a life I could believe in . . . " Auster selected nine formidable artists to translate from the French including André Breton and Paul Éluard. Some of the charm of reading these twenty-five poems, re-published by Rain Taxi, may be in tasting the selections made by the young Auster: part period piece and part refresher course in the surrealists' trademark sleight of hand. Examples include Robert Desnos's use of nouns as verbs as in: "I gull," "her glance that rivered toward me," "You pitch-pine with a pretty vase," "the stairway that libraries." We think of grammar as place holders for meaning, our scaffolding to understanding. Desnos dismantles the grammatical givens to recreate a language for a made-up world. "Black Veins," by Hans Arp, closes the collection with "my poor dreams have lost their wings/my poor dreams have lost their flames/they tie their elbows/to the casket of my heart/and dream of gray crumbs." Arp's...