couplets and questions

Review by Eric Morris-Pusey

couplets and questions
Andrew Shaw
The Silent Academy

couplets
2019
5 × 5 in. closed
78 pages
Soft-cover perfect binding
HP Indigo

questions
5 × 5 in. closed
2020
58 pages
Soft-cover perfect binding
HP Indigo

Front covers of two gray, square books: "couplets" and "questions" by Andrew Shaw side by side.

“Imagination,” author John Higgs begins his foreword to Andrew Shaw’s couplets, “isn’t what it used to be.” The statement was true enough when he first put it to paper in February 2019, the world just as full of the mass-produced, the oft-repeated, and the strictly-enforced as it is today. A little over a year later, that sentence is all the more accurate, with many of us confined to or only feeling safe in smaller and smaller spaces — and often finding our imaginative worlds shrinking just as much as our physical ones. Shaw’s couplets and its spiritual sequel questions  are an adrenaline shot for imagination, an inoculation against the lack of it, an invitation to create. They are also, as Higgs notes in his introduction to couplets, a game.

"Couplets" open to a page from John Higgs' introduction, giving whimsical instructions to the reader.

To emphasize these books’ playfulness is not to minimize their impact or imply that their object is (solely) to create fun; like all new experiences, encounters with the poems in Shaw’s books are as likely to be disorienting or upsetting as they are purely delightful. Rather, the books invite us to a sort of Kantian free play of imagination: a boundless, or at least less-bounded, experience of the world in all its surprise and complexity.

Each of the tiny poems in these two volumes had its first incarnation on a small white luggage tag, which Shaw would hang in a public place for an unsuspecting reader to later find — bringing art and poetry from the gallery or bookshop into the “ordinary” world outside and disrupting that ordinariness in the process.

The presentation of Shaw’s books ensures the poems function as well printed and bound as they did on the street. Behind unassuming gray covers, the pages of couplets and questions consist of much more white space than lettering, and forego page numbers or standard capitalization and punctuation — as Shaw says, “Accurate navigation isn’t always as useful as we think.” Each couplet or question is centered, surrounded by the void of the empty page.

questions pp. 18-19.
Verso: "what holds the emptiness behind your moon"
Recto: "how do you hold the shapeless"

To call the great blank space around each of Shaw’s poems a canvas on which the reader can paint their own meaning might be a touch maudlin or oversimplified, but in a way it’s true, too. While any text is necessarily a collaboration between the writer and reader, couplets and questions foster this collaboration more consciously than most.

The juxtaposition between the text and its surroundings, whether the inert whiteness of the page or the gently swaying branches of the tree supporting a tag, serves as a way of simultaneously demanding attention for the text and demonstrating how small that text is when weighed against everything else. This sense of paradox, as in a Zen kōan, invites meaning-making rather than stifling it.

The poems themselves utilize the same hyperfocus and sense of impossibility or contradiction to encourage artist-audience collaboration. In the minimalist tradition of haiku (but without the syllabic and linguistic strictures which Shaw worries lose something in translation) they rely on only a few words to communicate their concepts and images with the reader. Shaw uses specific language but often foregoes broad description, inviting the reader to experience the surreal and sublime in a radically accessible way.

questions pp. 36–37. 
Verso: “how does the center of a stone / become the indefinite echo”
Recto: “how deep in your eye / is the suspending fluid of the sky”

When Shaw writes of “a detailed map / of the loneliest street” in couplets, he knows that the map I picture will differ in almost every way from the one he had in mind when writing the poem. These books succeed in both their profundity and their accessibility precisely because Shaw is not trying to communicate a specific idea or experience of his own, but inviting readers to more imaginatively and playfully encounter theirs. Even the process of reading can be re-framed: the lack of pagination means that there is no correct way to approach Shaw’s works, that opening to a random page and spending ten minutes or an hour with whatever you find or don’t find there is perfectly true to his process and intention.

The game of couplets and questions, in other words, is consciously designed for two or more players. Shaw goes first, writing a small poem that describes or asks us to consider something that we can’t experience in a strictly literal way — but we have a role as well: not to answer the question correctly, solve the paradox, or provide a rational explanation, but to be changed by the encounter. As he says in his introduction to questions, “It’s in the not-knowing that authentic self unfolds; habitual thinking is disrupted, and truly new events can take place.”

couplets pp. 38–39.
Verso: “an orphanage of words / beneath your tongue” 
Recto: “the flowers of your lungs / pressed into history”

The sense of collaboration and openness central to both the creation and consumption of these two books does feel truly new, or at the very least incredibly rare — a thoughtful and necessary challenge to the idea that creativity is in some way exclusive. Shaw’s writing and visual presentation encourage us to step outside the world for a moment and view it from a different angle: wonderfully askew.

Visible Climate

Visible Climate: Postcards from America’s Changing Landscapes
Lee Lines and Rachel Simmons
2020

10 × 8 in. closed
22 pages
Binding: Drum leaf with hard covers
HP Indigo
Open edition

Front cover of Visible Climate

Postcards are a peculiar medium, evoking presence and absence simultaneously. The writer of a postcard says, “I am here” to someone who isn’t. Or they say, “I was there” to a future self who may have forgotten. Postcards are, therefore, a medium of imagination and memory. They are also readymade representations. Unlike the snapshot a tourist takes, a postcard has been carefully chosen to represent a place with commercial and political goals, or at least considerations. This was the case for the National Parks Service postcards that inspired the imagery in Visible Climate, made to promote “America’s best idea” to a nascent public of domestic tourists.

The pages of Lines and Simmons’ collaborative book are not literal postcards, or even facsimiles, but rather draw on the formal and conceptual foundations of the medium. Each pair of text and image relates a memory from a national park, the writing intimate and the imagery iconic. The text is present tense, which departs from a typical postcard but lends a more literary sensibility. A representative passage reads, “I hike back to the spot in the photograph but so much has changed. Gone are the old weathered Juniper trees and dense stands of Pinyon Pine. Dry grassland stretches for miles in every direction as I walk through a mostly silent landscape.” The postcards do not form a single narrative but accumulate to paint a worrisome picture of how climate change is impacting the unique lands that comprise the United States. The themes that emerge are well suited to the medium – changes and time, presence and absence (visibility and invisibility), memory and imagination. After all, landscape itself is a work of imagination, a human representation imposed on the reality of land. Visible Climate grapples with the perils and potential of this very human way to perceive the environment.

Inside spread of Visible Climate, showing two arid scenes with warm color schemes.

The book’s structure and materials do embody a bit of what one might expect from a postcard. Printed on demand through Blurb, the “Layflat Imagewrap” book is essentially a drum leaf binding, resulting in thick pages that open flat with no gutter. The book’s dimensions (20 × 8 inches open) and rather large text encourage the reader to take the book in at arm’s length – perhaps flat on a table – a visual rather than tactile experience. The large pages also leave room to solve the challenging layouts, balancing one image and one block of text without trapping awkward negative spaces. In some spreads one page contains the image with the text across the fold, but most pages pair both elements within their ample margins. The text and image never touch, the gutter is never crossed, and nothing bleeds off the edge. The compositions would be static, stale even, were it not for the organic, unpredictable sensibility provided by the handwritten text and liquid borders of each image. Likewise, the choice to compose both single pages and two-page spreads livens the straightforward text-image format and introduces an element of pacing that makes the bound book function as more than a pile of postcards.

This pacing is suggested on the book’s cover, which is patterned with thumbnail reproductions of the images inside. Neither the spine nor cover display the title, leaving the grid of images to operate free of context. The resulting preview, not unlike the images on the back of a wall calendar, emphasize the book’s affective use of color. In hand coloring Lines’ photographic images, Simmons pushes the warm and cool palettes to an extreme. Blue skies and glacial ice contrast sharply with the arid reds of riverbeds and desert bluffs. This limited color scheme makes the few appearances of green seem artificial, imaginary even. In one such image, a phthalo green swamp gives rise to a ghostly mangrove whose black and white rendering seems to suggest that the plant is already dead.

Visible Climate, inside spread with text on verso and hand-colored illustration of a mangrove on the recto.

Just as Simmons’ hand is present in the hand-tinted photographs, Lines’ can be seen in the handwritten text. His rounded hand complements the organic outlines of the imagery and lends an authenticity which contrasts with the artifice of the colorized photographs in an interesting way. The handwriting also references the idea of a postcard, of course, and helps the reader connect more intimately with the narrators than the relatively short texts might otherwise allow. And while the consistent handwriting unifies the collection of vignettes, it also raises complex questions about authorship. The book’s colophon explains that the captions “imagine the voices of park visitors,” meaning each vignette is that of a different fictional narrator. But rather than embody each imagined narrator with a different hand, Lines layers his own identity onto the texts by way of penmanship. Thus the handwriting and hand-coloring point to the process-oriented practice behind the book.

That process included nearly two hundred hours of field work in the national parks featured in the book. Lines and Simmons’ collaborations are grounded in intensive research, and the handwritten text seems to recall a scientist’s field journal, positioning the fictional accounts as the results of research. The importance of process is even clearer in Simmons’ treatment of Lines’ photographs, which begin as conventional digital images. Simmons converts the images to black and white, transfers them to paper and hand-colors them before digitizing them again. The retreat from digital to analog (and from color to black and white) lays the conceptual groundwork beneath the nostalgic, vintage look that hand-coloring ultimately gives the imagery. The point is, after all, not just to reference the historical but to enact a sense of loss over time. As Simmons works, the images lose more and more data until the subjective workings of the artist’s hand supplant the objectivity of the digital photograph.

Visible Climate, inside spread with text and glacier scenes on verso and recto.

For all this emphasis on process, the final product remains impeccably crafted; not only the text and imagery but sequence and pacing of the book as well. With the familiar intimacy of the writing, it is easy to read oneself into the imagined correspondence. An inherent sense of temporal and geographic distance makes the suspension of disbelief central to the postcard as a medium. Whether reading a postcard immediately at the mailbox or years after from a shoebox, one is always already later and elsewhere. It is a medium of imagination grounded by the fact of really having been somewhere, not unlike the strange authenticity of Lines’ handwritten fiction. The premise of multiple writers also accommodates more repetition than a straightforward narrative. Visible Climate has no introduction or conclusion; all of the storytelling is accomplished through the fictional missives. Their major themes and motifs are far from subtle, but the book’s quick pace and the sheer variety of landscapes depicted keep the repetition from growing tiresome. On the contrary, Lines’ ruminations on time and change unify the human experience of those disparate geographies and demonstrate how pervasive the effects of climate change really are.

This larger message about the environment emerges not just from each vignette but from the careful sequencing of their accumulation. For while the book may lack an introduction, it does have a beginning, middle and end. Much of Visible Climate’s power comes from subverting the linearity of the codex form. The first postcard ends, “…we’re struck by the near total absence of young trees.” In other words, the beginning of the book is the beginning of the end. The next postcard reflects on ancient cliff dwellings, introducing the human timescale that will remain in tension with the geological throughout the book. It is then all the more shocking when the two timescales reverse: “Decades have passed since I last visited Nisqually Glacier. Most of my fellow climbers are gone, and the glacier is now hundreds of yards upstream.” Changes to the Earth have accelerated to the human scale, and the narrator is left to “recall the sound of the ice, bending and snapping in the distance.”

Final spread of Visible Climate, with text on verso and nighttime scene of Joshua Tree on the recto.

In the second half of the book, a turning point is signaled by three smokestacks sticking out above the horizon, releasing steam that disappears into the clouds above. On the following page, the narrator writes, “Our hike back to the road feels like we are leaving the scene of a crime.” The final image is the book’s only nocturne, but the linear progress from day to night is complicated by a reprise of the first passage. “The young Joshua trees are mostly gone, while the few remaining mature trees are like oases, providing shelter for dozens of animals in an otherwise harsh landscape.” It is hard not to project one’s own condition onto these trees, survivors of the beginning of the end, caring for others in the face of an improbable future.

Such anthropomorphism is, of course, part of the problem. Our ability to relate to a tree (but less so a blob of algae) speaks to the power of imagination in constructing our views of the natural world, in making landscape out of land. As one postcard notes, “The carbon flowing through those towers can’t be seen and makes no sound.” The climate crisis is, in part, an aesthetic problem, a matter of what can and cannot be seen. Visible Climate is an intervention in the aesthetic realm, a reminder that something is lost in our mediated perspective of the environment. Lines and Simmons acknowledge that some problems of perception are natural, like the inconceivable gap between human time and geologic time, while others are human-made. Visible Climate shows that our inability to see the world as it really is can be catastrophic, and yet any remaining hope lies in the very ability to imagine a world different from our own.

Notes from Byzantium

Notes from Byzantium
Shelly Taylor and Eben Goff, ed. AB Gorham
2019
Black Rock Press
www.unr.edu/art/black-rock-press

7 × 9 × .25 in.
60 pages
Binding: Softcover codex with sewn signatures
Foil cover and HP Indigo inside

Notes from Byzantium, cover

The combination of poetry by Shelly Taylor and art by Eben Goff is not an obvious choice, but then, the best books are often surprising. Both text and image benefit from this unlikely marriage in Notes from Byzantium, edited by AB Gorham of Black Rock Press. The two remain on their respective pages, integrated through juxtaposition and rhythm. Depending on the spread, text or image occupy either recto or verso or both. The unpredictable pattern influences the reader’s pace, though the effect only gradually becomes apparent. This dynamic reading experience, combined with the book’s size and materiality, make artists’ books a good framework for approaching the hybrid publication. Though the text is divided into discrete, titled poems, Notes from Byzantium is neither a typical poetry chapbook nor a fine press edition.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 1

The book, as a physical object, is unusual. It feels simultaneously modest and luxurious in the reader’s hands. It is covered in a coral pink book cloth, which is folded over paper rather than board to create a pillowy, flexible codex. The text block is sewn in five slim signatures of three sheets each, so it lays flat with little resistance. Even the full-page images lose nothing in the gutter. The mechanics of the book afford it a sensuality that would be lacking had it been perfect bound or pamphlet-stitched. The relatively thick paper still drapes nicely as the page turns, thanks to the book’s nearly square proportion. Even the texture and opacity of the paper contribute to a deluxe feeling that is especially well suited to Goff’s photography.

The series of photos depict the artist’s own oil engravings in wax panels. However, they are not mere documentation or facsimile. As the book advances, the photographs progress from decontextualized close-ups of stratigraphic imagery to compositions that hint at the objects’ scale and materiality. The pieces appear as though thread was somehow embedded in marble. The restrained color palette and limited mark-making vocabulary heighten the impact of subtle changes. When the horizontal rows of filament give way to vertical columns, the relationship between text and image is radically reconfigured. Likewise, the switch back and forth between full-page photos-as-image and cropped photos-of-image repositions the reader in relation to the book’s themes of memory, time and place.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 2

There is no literal, illustrative connection between the text and image. With their geological appearance, Goff’s images seem to speak to memory and environment. The oil engravings exude temporality and process – the slow deposit of sedimentary layers, or perhaps their erosion. This makes them ideal for reflecting on Taylor’s words, which are very much about place. Though her lexicon evokes the American South, and she references the desert southwest, each poem seems to transcend one region. They convey what it feels like to have a sense of place, where ever it may be rooted. Taylor establishes setting with only a few details, the way one might recall their childhood home. The reading experience is not unlike memory; what begin as grounded narratives accelerate into fragments of language. One gets the impression of Taylor’s hometown, but it’s glimpsed through the passenger window of a too-fast truck.

This momentum makes the pairing of text and image especially welcome. Once the poem begins, there is no place to pause. One must simply keep up with Taylor as she jumps between ideas until the theme emerges. “Every hinge gap apple please you,” for example, is a seventeen-line poem with a single period. The beautiful, intricate images provide an ideal place to reflect on the preceding poem. They are endlessly interpretable, receptive to the reader’s projections and associations. Both Goff and Taylor forge a pleasing gestalt from elements that are, upon closer examination, surprisingly rough. The tension between these fragments and the pieces they constitute remains compelling throughout the book.

Women are another important through line in the book – women and girls and the distance traveled between (in both directions, growing up and reminiscing). Taylor’s poems touch on the unspoken things women pass down, for better or worse, through the generations. It’s not that men, or more often boys, are absent. Rather, what is striking is how they are mediated through an intimate, intersubjective narration, a secret or a memory shared between sisters. Contributing to the momentum of Taylor’s writing, the women of Notes from Byzantium seem restless, in transition even as they shape the sense of place.

You moved all your stuff across town for love
hands in lap passenger seat shy shoulders
soot for later when the fires came through
we found new homes.

The speed, instability and fragmentation of the text all benefit from the book’s type treatment. With incredible economy, small changes in justification and word-spacing effectively alter the expression of each poem. A number of poems successfully use an unusual technique: the text is fully justified, with the word spacing selectively (not evenly) distributed throughout each line. Neither fully random, as with prose, nor predetermined as with verse, the line breaks and word spacing in poems like “Straight to the jawline bloody Igor” are the combined result of chance and choice. There is a resourcefulness, an ambivalence, in this approach that seems appropriate for the text. The impact of this design decision is demonstrated in contrast to poems that similarly use selective word spacing, but with a ragged right edge that leaves the line break to the poet’s discretion. Further variations, all with the same typeface, point size, and leading, show the power of typography. Even the titles benefit from the subtle handling.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 3
Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 4

Notes from Byzantium offers a nuanced presentation of challenging, rewarding text and imagery. In a digital world, it is fair to question whether a book warrants a printed existence. Notes from Byzantium will invite readers back again and again. The book’s engaging materiality and excellent print quality create the right reading experience for such potent content. That it achieves this elegance while celebrating the grounded, unfussy quality of Taylor and Goff’s work is an impressive achievement.