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Trains & Boxes: Artist-Writer Collaborations, Part 1

Night Train, Sean O’Brien & Birtley Aris (Flambard Press) £9.99

Night Train’s horizontal format seems chosen merely to accommodate the train-scape panoramas drawn in black and white by Birtley Aris, an important part of the “poet-artist’s sketch-cum-notebook,” but ultimately the less satisfying half of the collaboration. His drawings are good and they do reflect the England-noir tone of the book, but like the poems they seem too rough-hewn, too little polished. In O’Brien’s case individual poems of excellence can peek their heads above the rest, but Aris’ drawings are less able to distinguish themselves. Aris’ lettering is great: it is artful without being overdone, and, importantly, entirely and easily legible. Overall the poetry lacks the narrative cohesion of its noir counterparts, like Kevin Young’s Black Maria or Tedi López Mills’ Muerte en la rua Augusta. Puns be damned, Night Train picks up steam in particular sections, like its three-page poem “The Island”:

Who killed the white horse?
The long man? Who severed his member,
Who did for the greenhouse? Who thrashed
The recalcitrant carpet to death
With a length of Malacca?
Who commanded the hideous
Stockbroker villas be flung up like sets
For the Bad British Movie, redeemed
To a certain extent by the actors?

Perhaps we shall never be told—

A sign that its quality is greater than its novelty is my own desire to return to its pages; in any case it is a worthwhile book in an under-published genre, and Flambard Press, as well as O’Brien and Aris, have done the poetry community a favor with its publication.







Double Moon: Constructions & Conversations, Margo Klass & Frank Soos (Boreal Books) $19.95

Margo Klass is a mixed-media sculptor, a maker of boxes, a hewer of junk. Frank Soos is a novelist, but in this collaboration he has written brief reflections—he calls them “responses to her shoebox-sized constructions”—which resemble the lovechildren of a orgy attended by aphorism, flash fiction, and prose poetry. The photos of Klass’ boxes are divided into chapters based on the period and inspiration of their construction, included chapters “Japan,” “Alaska,” and “Altarpieces.” The boxes remind me of James Tate’s later poems: full of narrative potential but often thrown off track with spectacular distractions.

Though they do offer incredible opportunities for response, they are incredibly challenging because of their strength of suggestion, and Soos has done well to interact with them rather than merely reflect them. Many are playful, like “I Have Two,” which responds to a small humanoid figure with a domino attached to its head with a spring, balanced on a large bullet-shaped silo, here in its entirety:

Surprising how little it matters, one a little high, another a little low, one soft and squishy and sometimes scarcely here at all—when I’m lying in bed, it seems to recede into the rest of me—the other hard as a fist, punching me, reminded me it’s here. I’ll tell you the truth, I like sleeping naked. I like myself bare as birth and alive.

His playfulness refuses, for the most part, devolution into triteness, and he’s also able to render a fair amount of Zen. His response to “Commerce 123,” an altarpiece with a steel hand and forearm in its center chamber—its photograph a magnificent fold-out, reflects a variation in his tone:

Steel is not a transcendent material. It will also wing up bowing before gravity; it will always give in to rust. Leave it alone on the ground; it will burrow in and hide itself back where it came from. We build our wishes from steel just the same. We build them into towers and climb.

Look out, birds fly over us.

Before describing their differences, Kesler Woodward, in the book’s afterward, articulated what it is that makes for as effective a collaboration as Double Moon: “As constrained in scale as Margo’s visual constructions, Frank’s verbal ones are similarly dense, as carefully composed, as finely calibrated for suggestion rather than elucidation.” That powerful suggestion has been captured here in a beautiful but too-small, too-thin book.


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