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From the Archives: Two From Saturnalia Books

By (March 1, 2014) One Comment

Stigmata Errata Etcetera

Bill Knott, Star Black

Ing Grish

John Yau, Thomas Nozkowski

The first thing that jumps out about these full-color books from Saturnalia Press is that they’re beautifully designed. Whatever the virtues of DIY, there remains a real case to be made for quality production. In both of these books the collaborations between visual artists and poets prove to be good matches—the way the respective works play against each other creates a real conversation. It may rarely be a balanced conversation, but the books are handsome. This is especially poignant in the case of Bill Knott’s new collection, Stigmata Errata Etcetera.

Even though Knott is one of the best poets writing in English, his publication history has been famously spotty. He often complains that the literary community has rejected him and the small acclaim he’s won only salts his wounds. In the past decade, he’s been counterpunching with printout chapbooks of unpublished collections: Plaza de Loco, Portrait of a Selfsamizdat, Labmarks. He staples the chapbooks himself and gives them away in stacks. Harvard’s Lamont Library has bound a set of these cheap paper chaps and they’re often for sale on abebooks, but they are not durable and have not been widely reviewed.

Knott’s other big PR move has been to make all of his previously published poetry available for download on his cantankerous and poorly designed blog. If you can locate his chapbooks in the disorder there, or if you write him for PDFs, you can print them out and staple them yourself. Knott’s best poems are as good as those of any poet alive, but most of his poems are, by definition, not his best. Knott also has an unnerving habit not only of re-planting old poems in new collections, but of harvesting lines and even whole stanzas from old poems and re-contextualizing them into newer poems.

The effect of all this upon his readers is akin to living inside his desk drawer or his hard drive. There are shiny things everywhere, and waste, and poorly conceived ideas, and stuff from thirty years ago, and half-erased sketches. All of this is interesting and maybe even necessary, but it makes it difficult to read Knott freshly. Holding and opening this elegant, lovingly printed new book, on the other hand, makes it easy.

It isn’t clear who arranged the included poems and collages of Stigmata Errata Etcetera, but it almost certainly wasn’t Bill Knott. He makes a point, in his stapled chaps, of arranging things randomly, another cute way to poke his reader in the eye. The poems here, though, form thoughtful patterns.

Knott was raised in an orphanage. He was already there when his father died (“too complex to explain”) and on that day he was sent to a room alone, “to keep the other children safe / from my infectious grief.” He found a stack of comic books and, knowing he didn’t have much time, read them with panicky relish. He knew he wouldn’t get another chance. His poem about that afternoon, “The Day After My Father’s Death,” is paired opposite “The Instructor’s Dream” (Knott has been a teacher for thirty years). Students who’ve snuck back into a university at night catch their old teacher at his desk, “or blackboard cradling a chalk / someone has erased their youth.”

All of the poems here are somewhat mournful. One begins, “Cast in the shapes of his passing / he goes down ended avenues.” And it ends:

And often he lets his face rain
above his mouth, above his eyes,
his nose: lets it hover in the mist
of its ignorant verities.

This, called “The Mourner,” is typical of Knott’s recent style. But although the mode is stark, the beauty of the work (like this, from “Replica Days”) unsettles:

Just as the smoke
of burnt portraits
clings to mirrors.
Similarly ashes of dolls fill up
a child’s footprints.

There are no real characters in these poems, few places, no names. Abstracts provide the drama. Fear, in this book, is the fear of isolation, of not leaving traces on loved ones, of only reflecting one’s self: “Some are afraid of the deep; me, of the shallows.” The poet yearns to connect, to escape himself, to plunge. In the poem “Plunge,” beauty lies in the shape an idea makes as it emerges and resolves itself. The pleasure of reading such poems is like the pleasure of watching athletes move through the air. In the first lines of the poem, stars send down drops of rain on strings, in storms:

distance is washed away
all the worlds merge
for a liquid moment
our island eyes

and suddenly we understand
why umbrellas love
to dive
into clouds.

Readers who until now had been staring up at rainfall suddenly find themselves watching from above as umbrellas lift their canopies. In poems like “Intent,” ideas move hand-in-glove with the poet’s emotions through space:

… I have to cling to these arms
that descend into hands. Nights I prove

the walls for guidance to the cave
they’re hiding in there. Ordinary house
on any street with huge divestitures

of hope above it, the soul I was saving
for capture. And so I have to adhere
to this doorless expanse scattering birds

The desire to dive into someone else, to mix one’s life with another life, appears again and again in poems like “Pass Around the Copies.” Knott wonders whether any lovers have left marks on him, specks from nipples, stains from hips. In “Proof” he argues that, because everyone experiences the present moment differently, we can never connect with another person perfectly. Death, of course, will be the final disillusion, but can we manage our own disillusion first, make it meaningful?

That this book is also a collaboration with collage artist Star Black renders such questions aesthetically immediate. Do Black’s collages manage to form a whole with the poems, we’re led to ask, or do they sit apart?

A little of both. At first glance, Black’s collages—Ernst-inspired and autumnal—seem insufficiently painterly and too self-satisfied to match Knott’s hair-tearing poems. At second glance, though, they begin to feel more like a good idea. Knott’s obsessions can become claustrophobic after around twenty pages, and that’s exactly where Black’s collages begin to intersperse them. By periodically breaking away from Knott’s abstract darkness and into something tangential but calm, curious, nonverbal, the reader emerges better prepped for another round.

Black’s collages, like Knott’s poems, involve lots of divorced body parts: the reader is often alarmed to discover he’s been watched all along by a disembodied eye in the corner of the frame. Shards of features assume their own lives, “an orgy takes off its socks.”

Black’s human figures (or parts thereof) are sepia-toned or black and white. Shells, teeth, leaves, and awkward fish cameo alongside buildings, swaths of faded color, statuary. The effect is of several layers of reality overlapping one another. The pictures aren’t vibrant, but that’s part of their game. Because so little leaps straight out at us, we’re pushed to look more closely. Suddenly, the landscape seems more complicated, less static than it appeared.

In Ing Grish, the previous title from Saturnalia’s collaboration series, Thomas Nozkowski’s illustrations for John Yau’s poetry provide a livelier and more integrated experience. While Stigmata Errata Etcetera is a book to buy mostly for its poems, Ing Grish is a book to buy mostly for its art.

The fifty or so paintings and drawings here make spectacular hay out of crooked sticks and floating globules. The colors are more often warm than cool. In the larger paintings, imposing shapes (spindly branches, narrow domes) loom up from the ground and hover. Innumerable patterns play against one another: a digital mosaic, a checkerboard, a target, a biological cell. Uneven, hasty-looking patterns are superimposed onto mismatched backgrounds: a red checker-shape like a rag doll wanders over a background the color of hammered copper. Some of these pictures take up whole pages. When they don’t, small drawings nest in the nooks of poems.

The forms of Nozkowski’s abstracts are worth considering in the light of Yau’s purported themes. English/history/language: a tine-down melted fork rising ominously from the base of the canvas, long hooked appendage dangling on its side, suggests a lurching menace like the wounded Grendel. Contemporary language/influence/the primitive: scribbled-looking swirls resemble Henry Moore’s reclining nudes, a slumped shape resembling an unraveled ball of yarn evokes Picasso’s weeping women. Again and again Nozkowski proves impossibly skilled at evoking new associations from a deliberately limited vocabulary of shapes.

At their best, John Yau’s accompanying poems playfully tease the reader’s mind into fishing where it wouldn’t otherwise fish. The wittiest bits of the book are hard to quote out of context because most of the fun is in reading the long stretch, following Yau’s twists of associations as they turn, Ashbery-like, minus the melancholy. In the first long poem, “Even Now,” an address is being presented to a society in peril. It’s a long, decentered monologue on the subjects of progress, history, and divination told in an immediately contemporary voice, evoking suggestions of ecological catastrophe like the one that denuded Easter Island. Land has been reapportioned:

each lot neat as a tie rack
in a mortician’s closet,
as mandated by the sacred vegetables
we consult during emergencies
such as the one that befell the outer compost heaps
during our infatuation with pointed structures.

The poems do not take clear positions, although they leave the reader with the suspicion that if we replaced most of the key words with longshot synonyms, logic might emerge:

Either you become moist or you leave in a hurry,
forgetting to steal a book of pornographic letters
from your neighbors, many of whom claim to be sterile.
Either you lie down and lie or you begin to talk
about how this photograph was replaced by air.

Bill Knott wrote poems like this in the eighties (in books like Becos and Outremer). But while Knott’s poems were animated by a sense of passionate if frustrated urgency, Yau, at his best, seeks only to amuse, and to lightly stimulate the mind into reaching around a bit, considering the unlikely.

The early half of the book reads better than the latter, perhaps because the act hasn’t yet grown old. In an early poem called “Notes from the Night Editor,” tailors, murderers, ghosts, and lion tamers cavort in mock newspaper headlines:

She collects pillories, guillotines and iron maidens
The horses are agitated by remote control
Rain fills the locked draws of the prison staff
He still likes to listen to crickets in the bathrooms of empty stadiums

Ing Grish: Yau announces his big theme in his title: language, the English language, coming to English as the other, owning English. He asks questions like, “Do you speak the American idiom?” This salvo opens a portion of the book’s longest poem, “English for You,” in which Yau’s narrator brags on a baseball cap with a unique logo, his logo: “it stands for me and is therefore all mine.” Sorta punning on “idiom,” Yau’s narrator says he whistles, writes, and speaks, “in the American idiot you glow on about.” This, like most of the book, is playful but weightless. “Being the recipient of Phlegm / Does not mean one understands Flemish,” Yau assures us in the next poem, “Language Lessons.”

However operatic his imagery, Yau’s own voice remains cool. Even in the more narrative, personal poems where he discusses his mother’s death and his own confusion about his native tongue, the language may be more direct but it is no more urgent. There is something suspiciously passive-aggressive in this reserve. A barely detectable contempt for the reader begins to assert itself, less intense than Knott’s spittle-flying rants, more high-handed, deadpan.

Yau’s bio note lists lots of artistic collaborations, and it’s clear why his work matches up so well with the visual. These are perfect poems for the gallerygoer who walks past most paintings at the constant speed of an airport’s automatic walkway. Plenty of Yau’s poems have definite ends and beginnings but there are few that can’t be started halfway through, read to the end, then wrapped back around, or picked from piecemeal. This is suitable for the grazing reader who takes in poems the way we take in paintings: starting anywhere, looking around, letting the mind drift only to have a little detail snap it back.

And that’s probably the best way to approach Ing Grish: a series of brilliant and playful visual essays by Thomas Nozkowski on the subjects of language, artistic influence, and mutability filled-out by John Yau’s poetry. Despite weaknesses in the writing, it’s a book worth owning and returning to, as is Stigmata Errata Etcetera.

John Cotter has published fiction, poetry, and criticism in journals such as Hanging Loose, Pebble Lake, Good Foot, Volt, Coconut Poetry, The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Cutbank Poetry, and 3rd Bed. In 2007 his work was anthologized in Oh One Arrow, the premier anthology from Flim Forum Press, and will be anthologized next year in Outside Voices’ 2008 Anthology of Younger Poets. He lives in Boston where he has just completed the manuscript of a novel, Under the Small Lights, excerpts of which can be read online at johncotter.net.