I was with some poetry friends in a pub near Holborn, shooting the breeze before a reading two of us were participating in. The breeze was fairly dark on that day, for various reasons. It was the weekend following Donald Trump’s inauguration for one thing; it was January in London for another. Let us hope that it was genuine curiosity, at least as much as the need to keep the conversation going, that caused one friend to ask which poet I thought of as the main background presence for my own writing. He did not quite phrase the question in terms of influence. I did not have to think to know that the answer was John Ashbery. But for some reason, the name felt a little flat on my tongue, as if this was an important fact about myself that I had not been nourishing or had grown inattentive to. Further comment seemed called for, and what I found myself saying next was that, for me, Ashbery was the sky. It was true, and of course it remains so. The sky is not something that just goes and dies one day.
I once owned a hardback edition of Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence that had served time at the top of a bedside pile; its cover and spine had acquired several islands of melted wax from the candle it helped support. Running my fingers from the smooth dollops to the grainy fabric—an illegible but sensual braille—always afforded a small pleasure, even if the reading itself offered much less. That long-ago volume came to mind recently while holding a copy of an artist’s book by Deborah Dancy titled Winter Morning in the rare-book room of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Dancy’s slim book is made from wax-impregnated paper into which snippets of found text have been pressed. Light as wafer, the book almost hovered in my hands, and turning its stiff, deeply yellowed pages felt like exploring a precious archaeological artifact.
I was fortunate to handle this rare and fragile objet at the invitation of Rena Hoisington, a curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she mounted the current show “Off the Shelf: Modern and Contemporary Artists’ Books.” The extensive range of artists and writers includes, among many others, Grace Hartigan, Picasso, Frank O’Hara, Ed Ruscha, Kandinsky, Susan Howe, Mayakovsky, Barbara Kruger, Robert Creeley, Kiki Smith, and, of course, the master of the artists’ book, the Swiss Conceptualist Dieter Roth. Equally wide is the breadth of approach: from Ruscha, there is an edition of Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, the photos printed on an accordion-folded sheet in the order they appeared on Route 66, going west to east; from Barbara Kruger and Stephen King, a large-format volume with a stainless-steel cover and an embedded digital clock; from three authors—Pasolini, Luisa Famos, Andri Peer—and the artist Not Vital, a series of poems written in Rhaeto-Romansh (the national language of Switzerland) and printed on pages custom made from cedar bark that sport attached objects, such as a saw blade. The rich variety of constructions and materials, as well as the methods of representing text—thickly rendered in paint, printed in chaotic typefaces, scrawled across images—beckons the viewer to reach out and touch. Read More
I’m not really a fan of family-drama novels—I make exceptions for Lionel Shriver and Jane Smiley—but when one is set in your home state and the author teaches at your alma mater, it seems like required reading. Now I can make Andrew Porter’s In Between Days an exception, too. This story of a family’s collapse begins after the falling apart—infidelity, divorce, coming out, leaving for college—has already taken place. There’s more dysfunction to come, but the real treat is Porter’s plainspoken treatment of his characters, quiet and intense, and the revelation of fine but substantive fractures that are impossible to repair. —Nicole Rudick
Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delauney published The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne of France in 1913, calling it “The First Book of Simultaneity.” Cendrars’s poem, recounting a journey he may or may not have taken from Moscow to Manchuria, was accompanied by Delauney’s scroll of abstract forms in bright colors. The idea was that the reader should take in the text and painting simultaneously, and the poem strives gamely toward the same goal: “So many associations images I can’t get into my poem / Because I’m still such a really bad poet / Because the universe rushes over me / And I didn’t bother to insure myself against train wreck.” A facsimile edition of the original book—a gorgeous, unfolding paper accordion—has been published by Yale, and I’ve been staring at it all afternoon. —Robyn Creswell