(Buffalo, NY: Sunnyoutside, 2017)
All right, folks. I’m going to admit it. I’m finding more and more that I enjoy a stellar chapbook over the sacred, full-length poetry collection. I’ve spent some time pondering why this might be, and I don’t think the issue is my attention span, although I’ll admit it can be short. Neither is this a simple case of too-many-pages being too-much-of-a-good thing. Instead, I’ve recently encountered chapbooks that fascinate me due to their delicately stitched narrative arcs. I’m not referring to narrative poetry proper. Rather, I’m smitten with the astute attention many of today’s best chapbooks are paying to the order of their individual poems, the topography of the little books’ landscapes, and the connotative connections that are built when a fitting poem follows another. Surviving in Drought by Brad Aaron Modlin, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In by Karen Craigo, and Two-Headed Boy by Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee are prime examples. The little book, however, that first started me toward my path of acceptance for my chapbook preference, was Deborah Wood’s An Aorta with Branches: A Travelogue.
Wood’s chapbook is handbound on custom-made paper by Petrichorpaper in an edition of 108. Its imperfect edges lend a tattered-map-like feeling, which is heightened by the strings that run through it, suggestive of roads, boundaries, and other cartographic lines fitting of a travelogue. These threads also remind me of heartstrings, arteries and veins, running in both warm and cool colors, an impression left in part by the title, An Aorta with Branches, and in part by Marc Snyder’s cover art, a sinewy and stylized anatomical heart.
Wood’s chapbook suggests a narrative by its nature as a travelogue. My initial thoughts were that perhaps readers would be taken on a day trip. How much can we possibly fit into one slim, hand-sized chapbook? This, however, is not the case. Instead, we move though time, geographic space, and other spectrums that range from the improbable to the impossible.
First, we begin with an awakening in the opening poem, “How I Prepare Myself to Be Loved by the Tulip Breeder.” Wood writes, “There are other people. I am an internal ocean, seismic activity, a Jesus corpse, a way of holding space. Daily, I discover gradualness.” From this surreal awakening that brims with both the everyday, such as dinner at 8 o’clock, as well as the abnormal, we dive into the title poem.
In “An Aorta with Branches,” we are asked to “embrace intimacy with things that are on fire” and to embrace “not knowing,” as well. Here we encounter sections of the poem that are titled after cities, moving west to east. We take a road trip, of sorts, through Reno, Nevada; Green River, Wyoming; Joliet, Illinois; and Falls Creek, Pennsylvania, to name just a few. In Truckee, California, for example, we contemplate the all-too-real: “He says, I am impossibly lonely. My eyes are the color of beets & chocolate. At nineteen weeks I was a large heirloom tomato.” In Youngstown, Ohio, for example, we celebrate the mundane: “We are discussing the difference between religion and culture, and your barefoot driving, and your feet stink (but I like it like I like the smell of the sofa that the dog sleeps on), and my ABC store pen, and Ben Kweller sounding like Weezer” and so forth. The travelogue reminds us intimately that “things are happening.”
After making our way across the country, we are transported to the Arabian Sea. In “We Forget to Write Home About It, or Anything, for Months,” we are perhaps no closer to finding ourselves than we were when we began, but no farther either. “We are submarines.” “You draw on your forehead and your body becomes a temple of gods.” It seems that we have a taste of what’s good, but are never allowed to revel in its comforts or glory for all too long – which reflects reality, I suppose. For example, “Sometimes watermelon juice, no ice, no sugar. Sometimes we play Ms. PacMan. Sometimes you love me, sometimes not.” This, to me, sounds a lot like life.
In the end, we arrive at a short section of unsigned letters addressed to “Dear X.” They feel almost as if they might be written to the self. These letters acknowledge that, still, there are “No scissors, no tape, no glue.” Also, still, there is “guilt and anxiety because we cannot close the gap between ourselves and things.” Although the collection doesn’t find itself ending neatly or tidily, and I can’t say that we find hope, we are not left hopeless. “We are the present tense.” We “witness the sea and air merging at dusk.” And, truly, at the end of the day, for what more could any of us ask in terms of dénouement?
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Heather Lang is World Literature Editor at The Literary Review.