Two from Tarpaulin Sky Press
[one love affair]*
By Jenny Boully
By Max Winters
Founded in 2002, Tarpaulin Sky is an online literary journal as well as a small press that publishes, according to its website, “cross-/trans-genre works” and “innovative poetry and prose.” As such Jenny Boully’s [one love affair]* (2006) and Max Winter’s The Pictures (2007) are representative examples of Tarpaulin Sky’s still small catalog. These books suggest that the press is committed not only to innovation and hybrid forms but to a certain level of accessibility—while by today’s somewhat lax standards both authors could be fairly labeled experimental, neither book is marked by the dry intellectualism sometimes associated with the term. On the contrary, Boully’s and Winter’s work, though challenging, are approachable and even whimsical.
Tarpaulin Sky is also clearly invested in the process of bookmaking. It offers both perfectbound paperbacks and handbound editions of its full-length books. The perfectbound editions, available for $12 each, are aesthetically appealing as objects in themselves. At 5” by 7”, they feel imminently pocketable though packing over 60 pages each. Founding editor Christian Peet is responsible for the clean and pretty design.
The back cover of [one love affair]* characterizes the content within as a mixture of “fiction, essay and memoir.” In the genre usually known as prose poetry, lines are not broken as in “traditional” poems but have some characteristics of both prose and poetry. More than a series of discrete prose poems, Boully’s book feels like a novel in verse (in prose). Its project is ambitious. Through three sections rife with asterisks and superscript roman numerals, Boully not only tells the story of the eponymous love affair (a story that includes “unnamable endless flowerings” and “countless empty bottles”), but attempts (the original meaning of the word essay) to outline a theory of how we read and construct new texts from our readings, which parallels the way we learn to love and love again. Remarkably, Boully’s fluid, lyrical writing makes what could be a difficult, intimidating read instead a delightful one.
Boully’s previous book, The Body (Slope Editions), is composed entirely of footnotes, and a forthcoming work is titled Book of Beginnings and Endings. The title [one love affair]*, in fact, is itself footnoted. Boully is obviously obsessed with edges, with starts and finishes, with cusps. A footnote explains the origin of something, but it also lives at the end (of the page, or chapter, or book). “[one love affair]” is also the title of the book’s first section of three, which consists of eight prose poems (with their own footnoted subtitles), each poem a page or two long.
The first note at the end of this section informs us that the title phrase is borrowed from Thomas Bernhard, and that, “when reading, our minds often supply another narrative.” Accordingly, Boully’s text is an exercise in substitutions—reading and love are both systems based on this act. We read a love story and replace the characters with ourselves; we reiterate its phrases but with our own words traded in (for example, “Actually, she is telling about how a dwelling becomes empty when she moves in,” from Marguerite Duras, becomes “Actually, she was telling him about how a bulb flower bursting really marks the beginning of spring” under Boully’s pen); we replace our former lovers with new ones; and we “have to learn to somehow begin again,” because every love story has an end.
The title of the book’s second section, “He Wrote in Code,” is taken from Carole Maso’s 1995 novel Ava, another footnote informs us. The section models Ava’s form and also quotes from it. “When not obvious,” Boully writes, “these passages are followed by an asterisk.” I’m not sure if that “obvious” is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but almost nothing in “He Wrote in Code” was an obvious quotation to me (is that part of the code?) and we don’t reach the first asterisk until 16 pages in. Not having read Ava, I don’t know how much of this is appropriated. But we get more of Boully’s obsession with the boundaries that define things, conveyed in a slightly different form: a series of short bursts of prose, a few sentences each, almost like tiny chapters. Some of these chapterettes end abruptly, mid-sentence:
“We planned, as Jefferson and his wife did, to read Tristam Shandy to one another each night. You had not yet read it, and I’m sure that if you had, the voices would have made a correlation between me and Tristam’s Jenny. I am sure then that you would have asked me to”
…To? The speaker here seems so resistant to endings that she tries to avoid them entirely. She clings desperately to beginnings, terrified of the inevitable closure, as though a period means death: “I am too often pregnant in my dreams…I refuse delivery when it needs to happen, claiming that I can’t have my baby because I won’t be pregnant anymore.”
Yes, this poetry has a bit of a dark side, but it’s also touchingly, adorably frank (“you made frequent and over-demonstrated attention to your boner”) and at times funny. The lovers in “He Wrote in Code” are fond of the renga, a collaborative Japanese form—they compose a series of poems together at the same time that they co-author a “real-life” love story. This section is interspersed with the titles of the rengas, including I Did, I Loved You; How I Would Have to Leave You Soon; and You Fucking Suck. [one love affair]* is full of this playful engagement with narrative levels of reality (poems within poems, stories within stories). I highly recommend it, especially if you’re looking for a way into the “trans-genre” of prose poetry.
Not itself a cross-genre work, but equally a book-length project as opposed to a collocation of un- or loosely related poems, Max Winter’s The Pictures is divided into two sections, “Still” and “Moving.” These consist of poems that are essentially descriptions of photographs and film clips, respectively. (The pictures being described, if they exist and are not just dreamed up scaffolding, are not reprinted in the text.) The titles, too, are principally descriptive—denoting the dimensions of each picture or the runtime of each film.
The success of a book that draws so heavily from source media hinges on two things: the intrinsic power of the pictures themselves, and the extrinsic power of the words used to describe them. Winter has written a readable book with a number of subtle, thought-provoking moments. But where The Pictures fails, it fails on both counts: the weaker poems in the collection tend toward the prosaic and do not betray why the object of art at hand was chosen as an object worth explication.
At first read, the opening poem, “4 by 4,” seems as though it will serve as a kind of ars poetica for the rest of the collection. The poem-picture depicts a stone lying on sand described with “squiggly” lines that may or may not “have meaning,” and, creeping in at one edge, the “snout” of a scorpion. “Hard to believe, but / it must be true,” Winter writes—setting up belief as a central theme.
There is a shimmering that happens when he makes such tonally ambiguous statements—it is difficult to say if this is meant to be ironic, faux-naïve; or if a genuine conjecture is being made: that for the purposes of a picture, seeing really is believing. What truth can there be in art beyond what it presents to us? Why look past the physical and temporal frames of the film? The visual landscape emerges as its own level of truth. In “5 by 7”: “His lips: thick, / and stretched by what must be a smile.” That “must be” is another card trick—it’s hedging, tentative language, it suggests that we’re in uncertain territory and are forced to assume. But flip the phrase over and it screams sureness—of course it must be a smile; if it looks like one, it is.
In “4 by 4,” Winter goes on: “We almost don’t want to look. / Although nothing will happen next.” The latter line seems an apologia for the lyric moment—for poetry that freezes, that denies time—in opposition to a narrative world of cause and effect. However, Winter later falls victim to the paradigm of expectation he appears to be arguing against. In “8 ½ by 11,” we get a caption to a young man: “He looks down, as if not thinking. / Who could blame him. / In five minutes it will rain.” Excuse me? I contest that assertion. No, in this flat, notebook-sized land, it will never rain, no matter how heavy and dark the sky. Just as the scorpion will never fully arrive.
In many of these poems, there’s a trademark royal “we”—Winter creates a collective audience to view his pictures and reinforces it with a backgrounded but insistent museum-tour-guide voice, a quiet pushiness that implicitly asks the reader to agree with its conclusions. “We cannot see,” the voice intones repeatedly. “We cannot tell.” So it comes as a pleasant surprise when in “7 by 12” an “I” emerges:
What I see here
if I may make a leap
is the newly written
This shy speaker is inclined to ask permission for sharing his opinion, but it’s a compelling one—proposing that the picture, or the poem about it, or some vague nexus where they meet, is a pentimento/palimpsest. This brief conflation of images and text is a window into the mind of a poet who would make a book from pictures. I wished for more of these first-person-singular insights among so much viewerly remove.
Due to Winter’s sometimes flat, even inaccurate descriptions (a leg, bending at one point versus many, strikes me as impossible to visualize as “arched”), I found the “Moving” section a little less engaging, since a series of moving images is inherently more complex and difficult to delineate than a single image. (I wonder where these little films came from—the “least watched” list on YouTube? They remind me of early music videos in the first days of MTV, when, given no basis for comparison, anything went.) The last and longest poem, however, is lovely and peculiar in its wording: faces are, what?: “granular the best way to say it, / is it dust or just the way of skin, / not sure with the fusky lens.” (Fusky isn’t in my dictionary, but I love it.) Winter disappears the movie’s characters in the final lines with another deft sleight-of-hand move: “An explosion occurs. / We cannot see them. / When the smoke is gone, / they are gone too.” Removed from the domain of our gaze, they simply cease to exist.
Elisa Gabbert holds degrees from Rice University and Emerson College. A poet living in Boston, she is a reader for Ploughshares and an editor of Absent. Recent work appears or will appear in journals including Pleiades, LIT, No Tell Motel, Kulture Vulture, RealPoetik, H_NGM_N, and Redivider. Her collaborations with Kathleen Rooney can be found in MiPOesias, Foursquare, Past Simple, Elimae, Dusie, and other journals. A chapbook, Thanks for Sending the Engine, is available from Kitchen Press.