Review of [Ways] with poems by Barry Schwabsky and images by Hong Seung-Hye (Meritage Press, San Francisco, $12)
Like the painting bitten by a manThough trying to separate the writer's persona from the writing, I cannot help thinking this allusion in [Ways] is to the author, prominent art critic Barry Schwabsky, himself. In his work, there is a gnawing at his own lines, precisely shaped as-to steal another of his phrases-a "sonata for a sewing machine." More positively and accurately, as a sonata that's being expertly fed into one.
of which (of whom?) we once read . . .
In his lover's discourse, he writes, "One word saves strength in the slow strength of another." His own fifteen fourteen-line poems, each poem divided into seven two-line stanzas, allow a repeating line to rise backward, one line per page, undiminished through the poem[s], except for its notable absence in the last piece. One cannot help but wonder if, in each instance of this line imposing itself, another line underneath is substituted or obscured.
The echoed sentiment-"page left unintentionally blank"-is slightly muted and reused in various contexts as the end words of a sestina. To illustrate the recontextualization and rising pattern, here are the first several lines of each of the last several poems, with the repeating phrase highlighted. Note: A page with no text, just illustration, appears between XIV and XV.
XIIAmbivalence and vulnerability are attractive in [Ways]. Perhaps an alternate title could be drawn from one of the opening lines, "the hair music of your recurrent brushing." Since there is a looping inner dialogue, as thoughts brush other thoughts aside, then recur. What makes one interaction so different from another is questioned and familiar heartache defended: "You want to replace existing ways? You're the one I . . . . Well, you'll find out. " is a challenge to oneself, as much as to the beloved. In the midst of denying, there is a giving in-never admitting, yet suggesting, how deep the effect.
These morning worlds take longer to read
than write. Study for the skin:
this page left intentionally blank
or caught in an echo where rain heard
I own just so many words, mostly written
on this page left intentionally blank-
all God's faults on display. Red wine
would be your weapon of choice
A page left unintentionally blank
like sky remanded thoughtfully
clouded behind its peering
A severe colorist makes her presence known
wanting a sequestered blue
to trap facts
of dark honeyed vagueness,
Spacious light cuts across the surfacethat read the story of snow but you know
of a page left unintentionally blank
where someone's life ends beautifully
or not at all. A conspiracy of good feelings
might appease the prettiest pain
ever seen. I closed
the big brown eyes of shame
Meanwhile, Hong Seung-Hye's page-top drawings build on the text-side pages and simultaneously hollow themselves out on those opposite-the dissolving of the structure itself a kind of construction, as the actual pages left intentionally blank in the book are never truly blank, but filled [with pause, space, and/or image]. Seung-Hye's clean, pixilated forms might someday loosen and inhabit a body as cellular automata, tracking the character's intimate gestures enacted in each room of a house, on each block of a city, traced, bruised, and retraced.
For now, by flipping the compact book in either direction, readers may view the assembly or disassembly-architecturally inspired and filmic, not unlike Eadweard Muybridge's seminal "Elephant Walking" (1887). This is not just a compendium of poetry or an artist book, but an object that crosses disciplines. The text, art, and design are sharply choreographed. Seung-Hye's cubed frames may even start to resemble the celestial bodies that disappear into Schwabsky's passion:
But now: bend down
to see those stars go quietly idle.