noted, self-promotion edition

  • A piece by Linton Weeks at NPR’s website contains part of an interview with me.
  • I have a piece in the latest issue of Logos, a Dutch book journal. They appear to be charging $35.00 (plus tax!) to read the article. Hint: this article isn’t worth paying anything for!
  • Also I have an essay in The Most Beautiful Swiss Books 2009. I don’t think this is online anywhere, but I might be wrong.
  • Less self-promotion: somebody seems to have scanned Barbara O’Brien’s Operators and Things, one of those books that’s probably worth re-reading.

aram saroyan, “coffee coffee”

Aram Saroyan
Coffee Coffee
(Primary Information, 2009; originally 1967)

Coffee Coffee is a book of poetry consisting of 65 words – that is, if four occurrences of the syllable “ly” can be said to count as words and the two words of the title are discounted. It’s a small book, 40 leaves of paper; the versos are blank, and most rectos consist of a single centered word, though in some cases up to eight words appear, similarly centered.

There’s a rhythm that appears as one flips through this book, sounding out the words: generally three or four pages with a single word will be followed by a single page with four words: “hard / lookout / guarantee / oh / bird bird bird”. The three birds are stacked on top of each other: the reading speeds up after getting to them, especially after the slowness inherent in “oh”: looking at the word on the page, the reader slows down further: why does the word need an “h” to make a long “o” sound? Giving the words space to breathe makes all of them strange: “lookout,” for example, must be functioning as a noun, though given a single space it could become a command. The arrangement also bears scrutiny: hard seems more closely related to guarantee than it does to lookout; lookout, in turn, might be connected to bird bird bird.

The words function as signifiers as well as graphic shapes: early on, the reader encounters a page with four letters in two lines: “o r / o r”. The four letters form the corners of a square: a + of white space appears between them. We could read them as “or or”; we could almost as easily read them as “oo rr,” “oror,” or simply “o r o r”. What we’re looking at is four markings on a page: we give them meaning. Because previous pages have words on them (some multiple stacked words), we assume these should be two words as well. But it’s the act of reading that’s making them “or or”.

Words existing on their own invite the reader to slow down and savor the sound: the “v”s that move through the final four words, “heavy / crying / velvet / favor”, the missing “v” in “crying” making the double “v” in “velvet” seem more luxuriant. Graphically, the words “sleep” and “sheer” aren’t very far apart; but they sound very different and bring out very different responses in the reader. In the middle of the book, a stacked “cigarette / cigarette / cigarette / cigarette” makes me think of Harry Mathew’s novel Cigarettes, where he points out that the sound of a train is almost exactly “cigarette, cigarette, cigarette”.

The original version of this book was published as a stapled 8.5” x 11” book in 1967; it seems to have been created on a typewriter and then mimeographed. An excerpt from this book appeared in issue 2 of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Meyer’s 0 to 9; and a couple of these poems appear in the misleadingly titled Complete Minimal Poems that Ugly Duckling put out a few years ago. An online version of this book can be downloaded at the Eclipse archive; there you can find both a scan of the original edition as well as a reading copy, where the text has been reset, as is the case with the poems that appeared in the Ugly Duckling edition.

Format is something that’s extremely important when dealing with visual poetry: a photograph of a piece of paper is not the same thing as a piece of paper, even though the words might be identical. Correspondingly, a great deal of care has been taken in the production of this book. There’s one major difference from the original edition: the size is much smaller, meaning that there’s less white space around the words. The text appears in text that appears to be typewritten; this isn’t hard to do on a computer, of course, but it appears to have actually been created with a typewriter. Looking closely at the page where “cigarette” appears four times, it becomes clear that these words are not actually identical in the way that a computer-generated page would tend to be: the loop of the “g” in each word is distinct. It appears that the original version was scanned into a computer, to be turned into a polymer plate for letterpress printing: moving one’s finger over the book, one feels the imprint of a printing press. There’s the temptation to think that impression is the impression of the author’s typewriter: but the original edition, mimeographed, would not have such an impression.

It’s hard to get around thinking about aura with something like this. Sometimes looking at an old print of an old photograph – this happened to me most recently at the Muybridge show in Washington – one gets the feeling of continuity: of looking at what the photographer saw. Light reflected off the scene the photographer saw made a chemical impression on the film; that negative was chemically transformed, and when we look at it we see something that “saw” something that “saw” what’s being depicted in the photograph. This is an abstraction, of course; but it’s not quite as high-level an abstraction as the one involved in digital photography and reproduction, which we can never entirely get around. Because we’re enmeshed in the digital, earlier mechanical reproduction appears more real, more connected, even when it was deeply part of the technology of its day. But when we look at this, we think we can see the impress on the page made by Saroyan’s fingers. We do, sort of: maybe it’s possible to see where he would have hit the keys harder, leaving a darker impression, although presumably when making a copy for reproduction he sought to make the most normalized page possible.

Reproduction thus becomes a tricky issue. Saroyan’s poetry straddles the fine line between text and the visual arts, as does all visual poetry; in Dick Higgins’s term, it’s an intermedium. We think of Saroyan as a poet rather than as a visual artist, and thus his poetry is read in books; however, Carl Andre, generally thought of as a sculptor, has similar typewriter poems displayed in vitrines at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Both presentation models might be seen as appropriate, though they have their drawbacks. An edition of Saroyan’s poems that deviates from his original presentation (even one that deviates as minimally as this one) loses something; but resetting the poems gets us away from the problem of venerating them as art objects. I like this edition: even though it’s well done, it’s cheap. A large part of the reason for visual poetry’s general lack of impact is the inaccessibility of the original works; it’s hard, for example, to find a copy of Emmett Williams’ and La Monte Young’s 1967 Anthology of Concrete Poetry for under $100, and I suspect that most of the copies that still exist are not being read. Primary Information is doing valuable work in making this available; I hope they continue to do similar work.

august 23–august 31



  • Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich
  • I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street), dir. Mario Monicelli
  • Killer of Sheep, dir. Charles Burnett
  • Several Friends, dir. Charles Burnett
  • The Horse, dir. Charles Burnett
  • When It Rains, dir. Charles Burnett
  • The Saphead, dir. Herbert Blaché & Winchell Smith
  • He Who Gets Slapped, dir. Victor Sjöström
  • Battling Butler, dir. Buster Keaton
  • Spite Marriage, dir. Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton
  • Trouble in Paradise, dir. Ernst Lubitsch
  • Cockfighter, dir. Monte Hellman
  • Rififi, dir. Jules Dassin
  • The Man Who Laughs, dir. Paul Leni
  • Dude, Where’s My Car?, dir. Danny Leiner

joseph mcelroy, “ship rock: a place”

Joseph McElroy
Ship Rock: A Place
(William B. Ewert, 1980)

This short book has the subtitle “From Women and Men, a Novel in Progress”; it’s a section of that much larger book published on its own in 1987. This was a limited edition, beautifully printed by William B. Ewert, who ran a small press in New Hampshire that seems to have mostly published poetry. It’s a lovely book; used copies are still floating around. It’s nice reading McElroy like this: it’s easier to concentrate on the language, rather than trying to balance the myriad themes webbing through his larger books. McElroy’s prose needs to read (and re-read) slowly: it’s hard to do this with longer books.

This is a book concerned with places, as the title suggests, and names: in particular a place in New Mexico called Shiprock or Ship Rock, as it is spelled in this book. Ship Rock is both a town and a natural feature:

The Rock rises upwards of fifteen hundred feet right up off the plateau. Half again that long at its base on this south side, it still seems less massive than lofty, for it is alone. That’s what the local Navajos cal it – the Rock. Pretty much one rock (mono-lith) with craggy crops lifting toward two westward peaks with a massed steady shift against downward veins of long, vertical sharding and against the backward pull of what starts two-thirds of the way up, a slow climb beginning at the top of what looks like sheer cliff and climbing from there so that, notch by notch, the eye that is taken along these splits and levels takes his whole crazy body into what he’s witnessing, until something is an event. (p. 11)

There’s a hint of why “Ship Rock” is used instead of “Shiprock” in the bisection of “monolith” in to its components, later elaborated: “And he thought he heard a car from far off toward the town of Ship Rock (spelled as one word with a small r, he later noted” (p. 34). The protagonist has heard the words ship rock spoken; he hears them as two words, not concatenated into a single word. Shiprock is a name; Ship Rock is a name and two words, both of which can signal. One of those words is factual: Ship Rock is a rock, albeit a very large one. The other is metaphor: people look at Ship Rock and see a ship. Much of this book is an attempt to make sense of the rock’s dual nature. Plot is incidental to this book: the protagonist, who is unnamed and whose profession is left unclear, has traveled to Ship Rock and stops to consider it for a while.

There’s more than an echo of Wallace Stevens (or perhaps A. R. Ammons) here; as this text appears here, it’s barely fiction as it’s usually construed, and one could almost make an argument that this might be better understood as an extended prose poem. Certainly there’s a deep concern with language and its rhythms. Here the protagonist considers the word “neck” as geologists use it – Ship Rock is a type of formation often called a “volcanic neck” – though the geologists’ usage doesn’t make intuitive sense because there’s no head attached to the neck:

But wait, a voice says, we mean neck in the sense of throat. It doesn’t have to have a head on its shoulders. But the truth is that the throat is long gone: the neck is what’s left, the neck that was inside the throat, if you see.
     The way the heart is inside the stomach at seven in the morning after a hard night. God, he recalls necks of land with plates of Little Neck clams on them, but not in the noise of last night. (p. 26)

The voice that starts this is inside his head: he’s thinking about language, and trying to understand it: we understand geologic processes – a volcanic event – in terms of the more familiar. Association leads to more association; finally he ends somewhere else entirely. Little Neck, New York, where the clams are from, might get its name from a peninsula that looks something like a neck: a peninsula seems more obviously like a neck than a volcanic mountain does. But the language here catches: the last sentence sprinkles its iambs with anapests and begs to be read aloud. In the interjection, there’s an echo of the sixteenth-century “Western wind, when will thou blow” (“Christ, if my love were in my arms”).

McElroy knows, of course, and his protagonist presumably does as well, that the Navajos, when they called Ship Rock “The Rock” wouldn’t have actually used those particular words: their own words would naturally have sounded different. Later in the book there’s mention made of an organization with the initials “D.N.A.”; those expand to “Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditah,” an actual Native American legal aid organization with an acronym that functions, intentionally or not, two ways. Coincidence is a driving force here; a place is one thing, a name is something else entirely. Proust mapped this territory first.

An interview by Tom LeClair in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists (1983) has McElroy describing the writers that he was interested in while he was writing Women and Men, among them Alain Robbe-Grillet:

. . . God knows Robbe-Grillet can be pompous enough even in Jealousy, a fine book that represents I guess a desire that’s another side of me, to turn microscopic seeing into meditation – to be truthfully precise. But to what and through what? I’m sick of this dogma, a platitude supporting the virtue of concreteness without ever asking why concreteness, what philosophical conclusions does it rest on? (p. 239)

This might perfectly be describing what’s happening in Ship Rock. A rock, something as massive as Ship Rock, is nothing if not concrete: but understood geologically, it had to once be liquid to exist. References to Sandia Man, Cochise Man, the Pueblo Indians, the Navajos, dot the text; all of these groups inhabited (or inhabit) the area around Ship Rock: the rock would have appeared the same to them, but humanity exists on a tiny timeframe geologically.

mcelroy on moral fiction

Great Expectations and Middlemarch can’t be done now. They don’t feel to me like the atmosphere I’m living in now. I’m with William Carlos Williams and Joyce and others; whatever I’m ‘saying’ I have to give the feeling of time now, the multiple disastrous world now, the world that came awfully and finally out of World War II. But Great Expectations and Middlemarch – they show people losing their true centers, going after money or status or displaced ideals, letting errors multiply, self-deception, self-punishment even. Great novels. I reread them. They move me. They add to me. I see how the whole thing works out (more maybe than any book can pretend to today) – but it is that whole process that adds to me, not an abstractable credo or assent. A novel isn’t a sermon or a moral program – excuse the truism. My step-grandfather, who came from Maine, thought the old copybook maxims were the way to teach you how to live. I thought about this, this conviction of his; but the fact that it was a conviction of his told me more than any of the actual maxims ever could.”

(Joseph McElroy, interview with Tom LeClair in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists (1983), p. 246.)

alan burns, “the angry brigade”

Alan Burns
The Angry Brigade: A Documentary Novel
(Quartet, 1974)

It’s hard to tell exactly what this is bereft of critical apparatus. The front cover gives this book the subtitle “A Documentary Novel”; the back cover explains that the author has used “a deft combination of serious in-depth research and imaginative reconstruction”. The seriousness of Burns’s credentials are played up: inhe is a “novelist, playwright and lawyer . . . . a barrister, [who] did research in politics at the London School of Economics, and since 1965 has been a full-time writer.” An unsourced epigraph facing page 1 declares that “The true story of the Angry Brigade will never be told until they publish their memoirs . . . if they ever do.” A short section entitled “Focus on the Angry Brigade” starts the book; signed “A.B.,” the ostensible author explains that he interviewed six people involved in the actual Angry Brigades, but on the condition of concealing their identities:

I therefore adopted the method of the ‘collective autobiography’, telling the story in the words of the participants, but without ‘naming names’. The collective nature of the book is appropriate to a movement whose members remain anonymous for ideological as well as legal reasons. . . . This book brings together the experiences of members of two activist communes. It tells how as individuals they became radicalized, how as groups they were organized, how they related to the world outside . . . . This book relates past events in the past tense, but similar groups and activities continue in various forms. The story is told naturally in different tones of voice and different accents. The reader will distinguish the various motives and attitudes of the speakers, and judge the quality of the men and women who took part in these events. (pp. 2–3)

The book that follows seems to be an oral history of the Angry Brigades in Britain in the early 1970s, told in first-person sections by “Barry,” “Dave,” “Jean,” “Ivor,” “Susanne,” and “Mehta.” Certainly in this country, the history of the Angry Brigades is almost entirely forgotten, if it was ever known in the first place; a tiny article in Wikipedia might provide background; more can be learned from the article on Anna Mendelssohn and a 2004 piece by David Edgar in the LRB. The Angry Brigade seem to have been overshadowed even in their own time by the more violent IRA. I wouldn’t claim to have any particular interest in or knowledge of the history of the Angry Brigades; I came across a mention of this book in Jonathan Coe’s biography of B. S. Johnson, which also notes that the Angry Brigades inspired Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry, one of Johnson’s more successful books. This particular book isn’t particularly easy to find, at least in this country; it doesn’t seem to have been reprinted after this paperback edition.

What remains is an odd document. I certainly can’t pin any historical figures to the names of the characters; this is a long way from being a roman à clef. The personal characteristics seem to have been studiously scrambled. I don’t think the voices are quite as indistinguishable as Burns’s contemporary Zulfikar Ghose found them – Dave’s voice, for example, can always be distinguished because he swears more than anyone else – but there is something very strange about this. Perhaps this is intentional on Burns’s part, an attempt to suggest that individual identities have been subsumed to the greater movement; or perhaps this is how the speakers wished to present themselves to Burns, if the interviews took place as suggested by the introduction. But there’s something interesting about this anonymity: it seems appropriate for a narrative of anarchism, and it’s very different from what we’re used to in histories of terrorism.

The book takes a turn for the strange towards the end: one of the characters bombs the Post Office Tower (which actually happened in 1971; Wikipedia attributes this to the Provisional IRA) and a woman is killed. People have been injured by the Angry Brigade’s violence over the course of the book; but this death didn’t actually happen. The narrative is now firmly in the realm of fiction; this is enforced by the penultimate section of the book. Dave has been sent to jail; in this section, he counts off the 52 months and 25 days that he spends in jail:

I ticked off the days:
1st month
12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 (p. 169)

There’s a similar entry for every month (all but the first and the last listing every day; the 17th of July is circled every year, his birthday); at the end, he’s released and takes the bus back to rejoin the Angry Brigade. It’s an odd list, taking up 7 pages: there’s not much that can be learned from it save that the 35th month has 29 days, and is thus a leap year, presumably either 1972 or 1976. If it’s 1972, he enters jail in 1969 and leaves in later 1973; if it’s 1976, he enters jail in 1973 and leaves in 1978. The book was originally published in 1973; historically, it would make most sense for him to enter jail in 1973, but something is clearly off. Jail passes in a blur; he is released into a militarized Britain, where the Angry Brigade’s struggle continues. Ivor has taken charge of things; the Angry Brigade seems to be leading a full-on rebellion against the British government. There’s a paragraph-long final section, narrated by Suzanne: she curtly tells how three bombs exploded in the basement of their headquarters while she and Ivor were sweeping it: in the final sentence of the book, she feels the shock wave of the bomb.

What’s going on here? The oddity of the end of the book doesn’t seem to be noticed either by Ghose’s piece on it nor by the other short review that I can find online, which treats it as a historical document. While the book may have started from interviews, as “A.B.” insists at the start of the book, there’s also an author of fiction at work here. Returning to the note at the beginning of the book:

Who then was responsible for the Post Office Tower bombing and those at Carr’s home, Bryant’s home in Birmingham, the army barracks in Albany Street, Chelsea Bridge early in September, and the Royal Tank Regiment HQ in Westminister? At least three have been claimed by the Angry Brigade. But it seems as if the bombings are the work of more than one group. In the words of the Special Branch’s ‘experts on the left’: ‘In calling it the Angry Brigade we’re chasing a myth because there is no one organization called the Angry Brigade. There is a theory that the Angry Brigade is a many-headed hydra.’ In other words the example set by the bombings of last year has been followed by independent political groups. In London alone there are thought to be three such groups. (p. 1)

A space has carefully been opened: “A.B.” (initials that Ghose notes also stand for “Angry Brigade”) is careful to not explicitly blame the Post Office Tower bombing on the Angry Brigade, an organization that he then denies exists as such. The Angry Brigade is as much an idea as it is a historical actor: as an idea, it can serve as part of fiction, a piece of fiction that ultimately becomes purely speculative.

harry mathews, “the journalist”

Harry Mathews
The Journalist
(David R. Godine, 1994)

One initial reason that Harry Mathews’s The Journalist is interesting is the simple problem that he takes as his subject: that of narration in the novel. The narrator who records what’s happening is a convention of the novel, going back to the letters that compose Samuel Richardson’s books, letters that are so thorough, it has been noted, would take more time to write than actually passes in the narrative itself. The reader might recognize this; but there’s a suspension of disbelief. We understand how a novel is told. The novel as ostensible diary has a similarly long history: as with reading letters, there’s the frisson that comes from reading someone else’s diary. Most first-person narratives, of course, aren’t actually in the form of the diary itself, but there’s something of an implied diary: we assume that the narrator is writing down what happened, and we’re content to call this entirely artificial form “realism”. There’s the problem, of course, that writing is not commensurate with life: it takes more time to have something happen and write it down than it does for something to happen, to say nothing of turning its description into something that anyone else would want to read. And plot, of course, only appears after the fact.

The narrator of The Journalist seeks to keep a journal of everything that happens to him; the book is that record. It’s not coincidental that it’s also a record of insanity: as the narrator seeks to keep track of more and more things, more and more of his life slips away. It’s impossible to live and to actively record your life at the same time, life recorders to the contrary: the sticking point might be the active consideration of the recording of one’s life:

How can I expect to include all I want from a day or part of a day I’ve just lived through if I meekly follow the line that leads from a beginning to an end? That line can only oversimplify. It sticks to the obvious and reasonable, avoiding all that lies outside its “inevitable” progress, avoiding what I most hope to record, the then and then that might not have led here at all and that, even if they did, had anyway their own momentary savor and deserve better than to be flattened into stepping stones on the path to another night’s sleep. To follow chronology means fitting things into place, making sure that nothing has happened. How to see things out of place? Analysis will subvert the illusory naturalness of memory left to its slippered self. (pp. 19–20.)

Such consideration requires recording of its own; one thinks of fractal coastlines. Of a piece with his recording is his division of his journal-writing into ever more complex categories: starting with dividing the what is fact (“A”) from the subjective (“B”), then dividing the two categories more and more: towards the end, something might be “B I/b.2a” if it’s something that the narrator is told by his mistress Colette, for example. A quarter of the way into the book, the text column narrows: marginal notes beside the text note the category that part of the narration might fall into. Not every sentence is classified; I suspect most readers can’t help but ignore the marginal categorizations as deciphering them would retard reading.

It is, however, a convincing narrative of craziness. What seems to start as a harmless pursuit (albeit a pursuit recommended to the protagonist with the idea that it will help him) is ratcheted up more and more and his depictions and classifications become more and more detailed. It’s a harrowing book as well because of the metafictional aspect of it, which might be said to implicate the reader. The narrator loses control of his own life by writing about it; the reader can’t help but consider that a necessary condition of reading is to ignore the world in favor of the book. The Journalist isn’t necessarily a pleasant book to read, and it probably shouldn’t be, given its subject.

It’s hard to pinpoint when and where this narrative takes place: Mathews seems to be purposefully evasive. The setting seems to be a smaller city in a European country: where exactly that might be is left vague, and the list of places that it’s not seems to be larger than the list of those that it might be. Everyone eats well; they have pleasant love affairs which cause no pain. The time seems to be the late 1980s, although again there are no specific indicators; the computer exists, but is non-invasive in this world, which does bear a decided resemblance to that of the pastoral. The vagueness is intentional, as is noted when the narrator’s journal is scrutinized by another:

He also suggests that I add references to contemporary events to my account to expand its admirable specificity and make clear to my readers where and when each entry take place. I object: I know where and when they all take place, and following his advice would mean wasting scarce time. (p. 206)

This drama is interior: something like it could be happening anywhere, to anyone; it happens every time a novel is written with a journal-writing narrator. There’s a shock in the last book of Proust when the reader realizes that World War I is happening: the narrator has been writing away, to the exclusion of society, and time has been passing.

Another book of metafiction, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder approaches the same subject as The Journalist from a different direction, less concerned with character and more concerned with form; there’s a similar progression in that book, and it’s a bit surprising that I’ve never seen the two books compared. To my mind, Mathews’s book is superior because it’s more human, pointing out the unreconcilable contradiction between art and life. Mathews’s book is more concerned with text and its ineluctable linearity which forces narratives upon lives. McCarthy’s characters purposefully feel more like puppets, at service to a greater artistic program: this is purposeful, but the human cost of art is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out.

august 16-august 22



  • Dekalog (The Decalogue), directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
  • Sherlock, Jr., dir. Buster Keaton
  • The Paleface, dir. Buster Keaton
  • Our Hospitality, dir. Buster Keaton & John G. Blystone
  • The Navigator, dir. Buster Keaton & Donald Crisp
  • Steamboat Bill, Jr., dir. Charles Reisner & Buster Keaton
  • One Week, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The Balloonatic, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The Boat, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The Scarecrow, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The Haunted House, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The Frozen North, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The Playhouse, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The Love Nest, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • Neighbors, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • Cops, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • Convict 13, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • Daydreams, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • Hard Luck, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • My Wife’s Relations, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The High Sign, dir. Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline
  • The Goat, dir. Buster Keaton & Malcolm St. Clair
  • The Blacksmith, dir. Buster Keaton & Malcolm St. Clair
  • Out West, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • The Cook, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • His Wedding Night, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • The Butcher Boy, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • The Rough House, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle & Buster Keaton
  • Good Night Nurse, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • Backstage, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • Coney Island, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • Fatty’s Magic Pants, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • Mabel, Fatty and the Law, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • Fatty Joins the Force, dir. George Nichols
  • Mabel’s Dramatic Career, dir. Mack Sennett

jane bowles/denton welch, “a stick of green candy”

Jane Bowles & Denton Welch
A Stick of Green Candy
(illustrated by Colter Jacobsen)
(Four Corners Books, 2010)

This book is not, of course, a long-lost collaboration between Jane Bowles and Denton Welch; rather, it consists of two stories by Bowles (“A Stick Of Green Candy” and “Camp Cataract”) and two by Welch (“The Trout Stream” and “Narcissus Bay”) will illustrations by Colter Jacobsen as part of Four Corners’s Familiars series, where artists are invited to illustrate texts. Four Corners make beautiful books: this is hard-cover, beautifully bound, with attention paid to details: the white case has a shiny green spine, candy-like enough. The title page is hand-lettered; the illustration is generous, not only black and white but also full color. Matthew Carter gets thanked on the colophon for his work on the type; the book was printed in Italy. Four Corners makes books for people who appreciate beautiful books, and this is a large part of the attraction of this edition. There’s something to be said for this assemblage of stories, though. The Jane Bowles stories are in print, as part of My Sister’s Hand in Mine. The Denton Welch stories are a bit harder to get ahold of, at least in this country: Tartarus Press put out a complete edition in the U.K., but it’s pricey and I don’t have a copy of it. I probably should.

The illustrator, Colter Jacobsen, seems to be the person who selected these stories to appear together. What ties them together, besides his judgment? Though the writers were roughly contemporaneous, they’re very different; while Welch’s works tend to be strongly centered around a single consciousness, it’s pointedly difficult for the reader to find anyone to identify with in the work of Jane Bowles. Three of the four stories here involve strange children; the fourth, “Camp Cataract” is about two sisters whose relationship never quite becomes adult. In “The Trout Stream,” Welch’s protagonist young protagonist observes his elders, who try and fail to make themselves happy; in “A Stick of Green Candy,” a young girl, ignored by her parents, grows up by herself. “Narcissus Bay” relates the story of a young boy in China who sees a procession of a beaten woman, two chained men, and a police officer, the aftermath of some crime; more importantly, he learns how his knowledge of this can affect those around him. Like “The Trout Stream,” “Camp Cataract” seems to end with a drowning. If Bowles and Welch’s voices aren’t particularly similar, there’s a consistency to these stories in their focus on outsiders. Welch’s narrators seem to be outsiders by choice; those of Bowles seem dragged along by the world around them.

I like this presentation: with only four stories, these narratives have room to breath, and the reader is encouraged to slow down. The Bowles stories can be found in the FSG collection of her works; to my mind, though, they suffer in that context from being presented after Two Serious Ladies, a more powerful work. Welch’s stories appear with 74 of their fellows in his collected stories; I know that I find it hard to focus on details in the midst of so much. Here details stand out: at the country house of “The Trout Stream,” they eat Bombay duck; later, a woman has a “voice like an electric guitar”. I don’t know when the story was written, but Denton Welch died in 1948; one wonders what that sound would have meant to him. There’s something to be said for having the leisure to appreciate this; certainly its possible in a collected work, but it’s more difficult.

Colter Jacobsen’s illustrations appear to be pencil versions of found photographs: snapshots of children playing at dusk, people in front of old buildings, some men behind an enormous shark. Most of them are repeated: one image on the left page, one on the right, though there’s not a precise repetition: small differences can usually be discerned between the two images. The images in the endpapers (a waterfall with a slight rainbow, done with colored pencil as are a handful of other images in the book) appear to be mirrored across the gutter, but looking more closely reveals that the left and right images, though similar in outline, are entirely different in detail: the rock face and trees are entirely different. Some of the drawings of photographs give the impression of having been manipulated or treated: in the pictures of the men with the shark, the shark seems to have been whited out or erased.

One spread shows two snapshots, dated “4-1941”; they are again imperfectly mirrored, and in one of the photos, depicting two women, the faces are blurred on the right: there’s something almost creepy to this. There isn’t generally anything that directly ties the illustrations to the text; there’s a similarity in feeling, however, and the reader comes away with the idea that like the depicted photographs, the stories have also been rescued from the past. With this spread, the last set of paired photographs in the text, it’s possible to draw a correspondence between what’s pictured and the story that’s being illustrated (“Camp Cataract”): there are two women who might be the sisters of the story, a date which might match the story, a label (“COLD SPRING – N.Y.”) which might fit the story, and two images of waterfalls, one of which appears prominently in the story. This set of images most directly matches the text; flipping back through the text of this particular story, one can find other illustrations which also fit, as well as some that don’t (a reproduction of a color photograph of a small girl holding up a piece of clothing; a teenager in a B.U.M. t-shirt inhaling from a bong): these weren’t drawn from Bowles’s text, but they feel of a piece with the text.

There’s no artist’s statement with this book: I would have liked to see one, as the choices made here are interesting and not obvious. John Morgan is the designer of the series; I feel like I should go back and get the older books in this series.