Three From Coach House Books
Touch to Affliction
Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists
A phenomenon people who read are familiar with: book in hand, hours pass unnoticed. A book has so engaged the mind that the hard desk chair, the unheated library, the downstairs neighbor’s murderous lovers’ spat go unnoticed. To emerge from such a state is like waking from an afternoon nap: sleep snatched during normal business hours, dreams lucid.
This phenomena is concentration. Not the space-out, but rather an opposite state: an active mind working in and out of text, drawing from memory and new information.
That this depth of concentration can only occur when storytelling is transparent, i.e., when there is no authorial presence to interfere with the reader’s attention upon the story, is false. An easy read encourages a sloppy read. Strong, plot-driven narratives often keep readers rapt, but something that demands close attention—which plot-driven narratives rarely do—is better equipped to engage the active reader. Just because a reader looks up from the page doesn’t mean the reader isn’t still inside the text. Books that hold the active reader’s attention allow for contemplation, invite the reader to pause and reread a line that was especially dense or especially beautiful, and stimulate new thinking. I’ve heard such interludes described negatively as “being thrown out of the story.” Rather, such interludes are a part of the story.
A book is an exciting object. Exciting because of the promise of what’s inside. By inside, I mean the text of a book—be it a story, a collection of poems, paintings, diagrams, mathematical equations, etc. This is why a poorly made book can be as exciting as a book that is beautiful. Recall the brittle paperback that became prized, made more precious for every page the cheap glue gave up, for every yellow flake of paper that fluttered away. That smell? That’s the acid destroying the cheap paper. Maybe you re-bound that book with a rubber band. Reader invests object with talismanic power.
This is romantic. A book poorly matched to its text can diminish even a great text. Moby Dick is Moby Dick, but Moby Dick with no margins, microscopic type, printed on newsprint, and bound into a brick-sized paperback is demanding in all the wrong ways. A fine edition, a volume that urges the reader to run their open hand across each page and to turn each page with a certain amount of delicacy enhances Moby Dick. An ideal presentation is the difference between Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and a reproduction of “Starry Night”; of a cassette recording of Beethoven’s Pathétique and a live performance. This is not snobbery. The cassette, the reproduction, and the paperback edition make extraordinary things available to more people and that is why they are good—but they cannot be called ideal.
Poet Jessica Smith, author of the excellent Organic Furniture Cellar, introduced me to Coach House Books when she insisted I purchase Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists by a. rawlings. Smith is interested in the way the topology of a page of poetry can be made to interfere with traditional reading modes: for us English readers, that is left to right, top to bottom. She also considers design to be as much a part of a poem’s meaning as the words used. That she would point toward Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists came as no surprise. Look is essential to the book.
Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is one poem, set off in sections. The six sections are indicated by letters or punctuation or sometimes a combination of the two. The first section is “O.” Beneath the “O” is “figure 1” and beneath “figure 1” are the words, in small cap, “EGG—INSOMNIA”; the second section is “C” with a tilde emerging from the “C” (or from a broken “O”). Beneath the “C~” is “figure 2” and beneath “figure 2” the words “EGG, LARVA—DYSSOMNIA” in small cap. The use of the term “figure” emphasizes the importance of the visual to the poem, as does—and this obvious, of course—the images included (drawn by Matt Ceolin). The black and white (or, rather, gray) images are of lepidoptera, in various stages of development, and of glass jars and beakers. These images appear at the end (or beginning) of every section and occasionally within the poem.
On some pages, the poem reads like prose, without line breaks, but just as often words are arranged across the page, in some cases making the term “line break” simply inadequate. Most strikingly, a few lines curl up, like a larva prodded with a stick. So, “faint by stander” curls up on itself into a near-jumble of letters. That the phrase is “faint by stander” is no more important than the visual impact of the curled letters.
Writing about lepidoptera puts the author at constant risk of being obvious and/or clichéd. The metaphor that metamorphosis offers is hard to resist, the shape of a butterfly or moth is hard not to mimic, the flame that draws and kills hard not to mention. Yet, employed with some skill, the author doesn’t have to abstain from any of the aforementioned lepidoptera-isms. It’s good that Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists doesn’t abstain. The world of Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is strange, and so familiar uses of lepidoptera serve to ground the reader.
All books mimic the shape of a winged animal. The cover image, a moth, has its body at the spine, one wing on the front cover and the other the back. The cover card stock is gray but peppered, the pattern on a moth’s wings. The first and last pages of the book are velum, reminiscent of the tissue paper used to protect color plates in old art books, and delicate like lepidoptera wings. The pages inside are cream and thick, one page revealing nothing of the next (notice that most books feature translucent pages; the text on the next page is a ghost behind the text of the page you read. Coach House Books are all printed on opaque paper). The marriage between book and text is perfect.
Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is in large part read without reading, i.e., interpreting the meanings of words. The poem’s prelude works without words, is all phoneme. The first line of Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is “a hoosh a ha.” That is also the next line and the next; “a hoosh a ha” grows denser with each successive page, until a swarm is born. So this poem is not only visual, but also musical. A lower-case “a hoosh a ha” is a whisper, is feather-light wings beating, is the breathing of a sleeper.
The sleeper who is the dreamer behind the poem.
The words in the poem often break down. On a left-hand page, the line, “night gapes its mouth a swamp milkweed opened. it is dark here, only clouds moon and”; that line is mirrored on the next page by this line, “rev segapa wols rev nawols ciu pira swolsowt. aenoa eka tenoone ti, ti ur tor foknur.”
Dream words, words that are clear in dream, but when scribbled into a notebook are found to be meaningless in the morning. Or—not meaningless, but unfamiliar. Allowing words to break down and writing lines that mimic words but aren’t, forces the reader to appreciate the text. “Moth” does not equal the insect that lives in our world. “Moth” is a word which is an arrangement of symbols that represents an insect. If I then write “thmo,” you’re forced to think about what a word actually is, because “thmo” is not a word. Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is very sensitive to how fragile language can be.
After an appendix (a drawing of a lepidopterist’s notebook and a diagram of a moth) is a glossary of terms, which is another way rawlings’ shows the malleability of language. The definitions are correct, but often not primary and are slightly off-context. “Butterfly” is defined as “to cut and spread open and lay flat” (as in a butterfly-cut steak); “Dental” is defined as “articulated with the tip of the tongue near or against the back of the teeth.”
Like rawlings’ Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, Christian Bök’s Crystallography can be read without reading. The look of Crystallography contains much of the book’s meaning. Bök not only wrote but designed the book, a measure of control most authors don’t even consider having and a virtue of small press publication. Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar (with a blurb on the back from Bök), is also author designed—a virtue of self-publication). Unlike rawlings, Bök uses a mix of traditional and experimental formats. This is a page from “Geodes,” which is flushed left, features stanzas and a pattern (two lines, six lines, six lines, two), and grammatical punctuation:
climb across these shelves of rock
in search of this book.
dream of reading through
a passage so narrow
that its walls
to press into fossils
the broken bones of breath.
you trip over shadows,
scrape palms on sharp
rocks as small
from crushed bottles:
their grit clots your wounds.
you follow the distant
murmur of voices in riffling pages.
(Here, the subject is a favorite of experimental texts. The subject is the text itself.)
The way Bök plays with sound is more traditional than rawlings. She recreates sound with phoneme, he rhymes, as in, “salt frosting/ coats baroque rock to create/ ice draperies” and “all ways are alleyways/ that always waylay you.” But such simple, pleasurable rhyme is relatively rare in Crystallography. More often, lines are unlovely, mundane, the language of a textbook. Of course Crystallography is inspired by textbooks, loaded with scientific language and lessons:
C IS FOR DIAMOND
THE ONE GEM
MADE OF ONE
FIRE AT ITS CORE
There is so much to enjoy in Crystallography. Drawings and diagrams, precise and fascinating as an M.C. Escher lithograph (and Escher is quoted at the beginning of this book); images made from letters (a hundred miniscule Ks in the shape of a K-Fractal); at the center of the book a plastic page like what’s used with an overhead projector, allowing the reader to see a “TRIGON MIRROR” and “A photomicrograph of the letter Y magnified 25x to reveal its innate crystalline structure” made dense; and stories, plain simple, about crystallographers and those fascinated by crystals, either scientifically or mystically.
Of three books I enjoy and recommend, Nathalie Stephens’ Touch to Affliction became my favorite. Preceding the poems is a reproduction of Henryk Górecki’s “Already It Is Dusk” from String Quartet No. 1, Opus 62. From the second poem in the book, “Le Poème Affligé”:
I have acquired a viola that in time I will learn to play. Do you still listen to Górecki? I have also acquired the score to “Already It Is Dusk.” In it, Górecki notes: “The viola is always ‘en dehores,’ but not too much.” Do you know what this means? I believe it to mean that the viola for Górecki is much as some poets intend language to be. The viola is always underneath the music. Underneath is the suggestion of itself. It is outside. In another language I would say: Désincarné. But I would not sat: Disembodied.
So much! “Do you still listen to Górecki?” she asks. Yes, I answer. I know what she means. If you ever listened to Górecki—if you can say yes or no to the question—it’s likely you were introduced to Górecki when his Symphony No. 3, with Dawn Upshaw singing soprano, became popular in 1992. A gorgeous, sad piece of music, its Polish libretto comprised of a 15th century lamentation, a prayer inscribed on a wall of a cell in the Gestapo’s headquarters in Zakopane, and a Polish folk song. If memory serves, Symphony No. 3 made it onto the British pop charts, it has been sampled, and I remember reading an interview with Drum ‘n Bass artist Goldie that Björk had introduced him to Symphony No. 3, and it had directly inspired his string-heavy composition, “Mother.” The popular success of Symphony No. 3—specifically the Nonesuch recording—meant that suddenly every recorded piece of Górecki’s music became available. Stephens asks, “Do you still listen to Górecki?” because, to many, Górecki was a one-hit wonder. A ridiculous term to link to a serious composer of classical music, but as far as hit-making is concerned, perhaps the term applies. So when she asks, “Do you still listen to Górecki?” she asks if you’re serious about Górecki. And she requires that you know who Górecki is—she doesn’t translate.
Translation is central to Touch to Affliction; it’s the subject that makes this book great. She asks, “Do you know what this means?” You’ve heard people say, “You know what I mean?” But that’s not exactly what she’s asking, because she does and she could articulate what she means.
Coach House Books publishes only Canadian authors. Stephens lives in a country where French and English exist together. A person who sees the word désincarné and knows what it means without needing to translate the word—with all that is lost in translation—doesn’t think “disembodied.” Like Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, this points to the strangeness of words—series of symbols arranged to represent something in the world—physical, like “moth” or abstract, like “désincarné.”
Have you translated the title of the poem yet?
For me, an English speaker with a French vocabulary I could share with you in a few minutes, it was enormously satisfying to come upon a French word that I knew—and knew in the sense that I did not have to translate it—“désincarné” means “désincarné,” not “disembody.” My satisfaction came not from pride, but from an awareness of language that all three books promotes.
Even the other subjects of Touch to Affliction relate to translation. Cities, especially decaying cities, is one such subject: “Our cities are well worn and there is beauty showing / through. Their languages are sooty and they are delirious / with crumbling.” Nationalism is another:
A country is four corners of earth draped over bone and as
much silence as water can hold. Initiations to war.
Homeland is patrie and the sands are incensed by the crush
of feet and the city groans from centuries of stone and our
voices erode what sense to l’oubli. Forget it, I say. Oublie.
What everything we know. I am reading Said and the bones
break in my feet. Like this walking into the century and dry
Everything is language, a text to be read. We all read, all day long. An easy read encourages a misread; a difficult read requires that we pay attention. The reward for our attention is that state, that concentration that clears the mind. These three from Coach House Books hold the active reader’s attention, allow for contemplation, invite the reader to pause and reread the line that was especially dense or especially beautiful. These collaborations between publisher and author require the form that is book. Here, the reading experience is visual, sonic, and tactile.
The notion that books are on the verge of disappearing as physical objects is the worry of readers who are ignorant of the books made by small presses. If the only books I ever saw were the generic wares of the big chain booksellers, booksellers who won’t carry small press books because Baker & Taylor and Ingram won’t distribute them, I too might think that books will cease to be, replaced by another format.
Good small presses, like Coach House Books, produce small runs, publish hard-to-market, lesser-known authors (most living authors fall under the category “lesser-known”), and treat bookmaking as an intimate and venerable tradition. To see these books and to meet the people who make them is to know that books will continue to be made.
Adam Golaski is a regular contributor of critical essays to All Hallows. His essay “Remembering Charles L. Grant and Shadows” will appear in the upcoming issue of Supernatural Tales, and his reviews have appeared online at cutbankpoetry.blogspot.com and wordforword.info. His fiction and poetry have been published in a number of journals, including: Lit, American Letters & Commentary, Web Conjunctions, and McSweeney’s. He edits New Genre, a journal of science and horror fiction, and edits for Flim Forum, a press devoted to publishing experimental contemporary poetry. He teaches American literature at St. Joseph College in Hartford, CT.