Five Oceans in a Teaspoon

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon
Dennis J. Bernstein and Warren Lehrer
2019

Paper Crown Press
6.875 × 6.5 × 1 in.
300 pages
Smyth-sewn hardcover
Offset inside with foil-stamped cloth spine and paper cover

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon cover

The 1984 book French Fries by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer is a landmark work of visual literature. In the years since, Bernstein’s poetry has continued to win acclaim and Lehrer has set the bar for designers and book artists in visual literature. The duo’s new book, Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, is a masterful contribution to the genre they’ve helped shape. It is a multi-modal project, including animations, exhibitions and performances. This review will focus on the printed book, published by Paper Crown Press.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is an autobiography in poems. There are eight movements, which are organized loosely by theme more than chronology. There are a total of 225 poems, which in no way exhaust the extraordinary life Bernstein has led. He has reported on wars, taught in prisons, hosted a radio show and survived open heart surgery. Yet, Bernstein’s work is about ordinary people. As he reflects on his life, he reminds the reader that the very struggles which leave us feeling confused and alienated are part of our shared human condition.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 274-275

This collaborative work benefits from a degree of fluidity in roles. The text is Bernstein’s and the visualizations are Lehrer’s, but the process is more complex than that. For Bernstein, the material qualities of text and the page as a physical space affect writing as well as reading. He touches on this in an interview with Lehrer: “I had decided that big notebooks were too intimidating. All that blank space. The wonderful thing was, I had started thinking about visuals with some of these short poems. I even did some drawings.” Likewise, Lehrer is able to interpret the text so successfully because he approaches the poems as a writer as well as a designer. His instinct for wordplay destabilizes and extends Bernstein’s concise writing, drawing out double meanings and alternative interpretations. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon exhibits an uncommon chemistry that must surely be the result of decades of friendship and collaboration.

The book’s design provides structure for, and access to, the unconventional reading experience. Each poem takes one page or one spread, setting a steady pace for the reader as they make their way through too many poems for one sitting. The ribbon bookmark gives the reader permission to pause, perhaps using the table of contents to rest strategically between movements. None of this would be remarkable in a standard book, but in this case the straightforward paratext contrasts markedly with the visual treatment of the text itself.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 44-45

The visuals range from the purposeful placement of text on the page to the addition of patterns and marks and letters without words. Some interpretations are abstract, others representational. Some illustrate ideas, and some represent concepts. At times the reader must see text as image to complete a picture. In other cases, visual elements complete the words. Like its other paratextual components, the physical presence of the book helps with the complex negotiation that is reading. The hefty codex is reassuring and familiar. Reading the poems is non-trivial, but not in an adversarial way. The book helps the reader learn how to approach the text. Its sheer length gives the reader ample time to improve.

The challenge then is how to keep the book from being about itself. One effective choice is the cover design, which is bright and busy with illustrative swirls of type. The lime green book cloth, shiny blue paper and iridescent foil title are so much louder than the black and white inside printing that Bernstein and Lehrer’s exceptional visual literature seems only natural. More importantly though, is the decision to begin the book with the section “Lake Childhood,” which chronicles how Bernstein navigated childhood and schooling with dyslexia. What better way to talk about the physical presence of language than visual literature? Not all the poems in this movement are about dyslexia, but one can see how Bernstein’s irreverence, introspection and penchant for observation develop in this context. With playful and imaginative visualizations, Lehrer shows the reader just how difficult reading can be, and how that very difficulty could have motivated Bernstein’s career(s) in writing.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 88-89

As a memoir, the quantity and brevity of the poems lend a remarkable sense of intimacy. We don’t usually imagine our friends and family along some grand linear narrative. We know people through anecdotes and vignettes that reveal their character. The 225 poems in Five Oceans in a Teaspoon function precisely this way, welcoming the reader into the kind of small moments that are usually reserved for our closest acquaintances.

Lehrer’s visualizations are so effortless that they seem inevitable, and yet leave the reader convinced that he could have presented the poem a dozen other ways. Turning the page is like listening to a perfect jazz solo, then staying for the second set and hearing the same song handled differently and just as well – inevitable, but unpredictable. The restrained visual vocabulary keep the renderings cohesive as Lehrer develops novel solutions. These constraints are important, but they are not the point. The book is not about process, it is about the poetry. The interpretation never overpowers Bernstein’s text.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 64-65

The book’s sequence is driven by the poetry. There is certainly variety among the visualizations throughout the book, but the introduction of a new visual device doesn’t signal a new section of the book. The introduction of display typefaces on page 46 or photography on page 64 provide a nice surprise, but don’t change the mode of interpretation or the course of the narrative. The visuals demonstrate experimentation and innovation, but within the unit of the page or spread. This frees the poetry, and the relationship among poems, to advance the story and succeed as a memoir. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is a moving testament to Bernstein’s view of the world, and the experiences that have shaped it. Once again, Bernstein and Lehrer show the potential of visual literature as a mature field. Beyond self-reference and inter-art discourse, the interplay of text and image (and text-as-image) packs a powerful intellectual and emotional punch.

The Job

The Job
Woody Leslie
2019
Large Home Tiny Idea
woodyleslie.com

4 × 5 in.
32 pages
Binding: 5-hole pamphlet stitch
Ink jet cover and laser inside

The Job, front cover

The Job is the second book in Woody Leslie’s “Tiny Ideas” chapbook series. Through his imprint, Large Home Tiny Idea, Leslie harnesses the authority of the book form in order to examine everyday phenomena, often through the lens of language. The Job achieves this by reflecting on Leslie’s experience working in restaurants, and the familiar struggle to balance work with one’s outside interests. Tellingly, that tension never resolves. The workplace that inspires the book is, in Leslie’s words, “no place for creative writing.”

The Job, inside spread 1

Though it touches on political issues, The Job remains resolutely personal. The writing expresses a common sense solidarity with fellow food service workers (and a visceral resentment of those who profit off their work) that is more sympathetic than an ideological label. Even when Leslie uses insider slang, the specificity is relatable rather than exclusive. Many readers will have shared the experience of starting a new job and finding something funny or confusing, only to accept it and forget how weird it is until they quit or another new employee joins. In fact, the similarities among jobs – whether the author’s or the reader’s – is another powerful political point made implicitly through the observations in The Job.

Fans of Leslie’s work will find plenty of continuity with previous pieces. Considered alongside his 2011 comic, The Adventures of Super Cafe Douche Bag Man, The Job shows the evolution of Leslie’s work-inspired art. Words and Vegetables (2017) shares its highly detailed introspective style. The organization of ideas, not quite stream of consciousness, is similar to Some Definitions of Vegetables (2019) and Parsely (2016), with which it also shares an emphasis on the visual arrangement of text on the page.

The visual treatment of text in The Job is subtle, but it is enough to put this work of nonfiction into dialogue with visual poetry. In some passages, the text is treated as prose. Elsewhere, enjambment gives a more poetic feel to the few lines on a page. The conversation with visual poetry begins in earnest on the fourth spread, where a map of Leslie’s workplace is rendered on the recto. Interestingly, it’s not clear if the representation is spacial or temporal, or some psychogeographic mixture. This uncertainty is later complexified when the same layout is used to visualize Leslie’s body, mapping the aches and pains of restaurant work.

As a text in the book form, The Job does more than visual poetry alone. On a basic level, layout on a page or a spread within a codex is different than, say, a broadside. For example, a recto that says only, “Waste.” has a different meaning than the same word with the same amount of white space around it on a broadside. The page is a unit, and the word uses (or perhaps wastes) the entire unit. A similarly sparse page bearing the phrase “I quit.” highlights other features of the codex. Has the author quit writing; are the subsequent pages blank? The way the turn of a page conceals and reveals adds to the impact of The Job – it would be a different piece outside the book form.

Leslie also engages the codex as a mnemonic device. In the first half of the book, he writes:

So much of The Job is about short term memory.
Remember for five seconds to ten minutes,
and then forget.
Too many things are the same,
or slightly different, repeated over and over.
You must forget each to remember the next.

The same text, with identical formatting, repeats in the second half of the book. The self-reflexive relationship between form and content tempts the reader to flip back to the first instance. Is the phrase the same or slightly different? The codex is ideal for this sort of non-linear access.

Even with this short text, Leslie takes full advantage of these affordances to play with linear and cyclical progression throughout the book. The page as a temporal unit is disrupted to convey a quintessential experience of an unsatisfying job: the days are long, but the years are short. The opening page features the repeated phrase, “We set up the blocks, they knock them over.” Time crawls by, and the page ends with “Day after day.” Later in the book, Leslie ruminates on mopping:

Leaves.
Slush and salt.
Mud.
Grass.

A whole year flies by, just like that. The stakes are raised as the pamphlet’s bulk shifts from the reader’s right hand to the left hand. Will the author escape The Job and focus on his creative work? Or will an earlier phrase repeat and place the reader back into the cyclical existence of wage labor? The suspense of each progressive revelation is heightened in the user-determined, time-based medium of the book.

In fact, The Job’s successful marriage of form and content points to the historical role of the chapbook as a democratic form. Leslie is subverting the authority of the book to assert the importance of the personal and quotidian, but he is doing so within a long tradition. The Job is noteworthy for the ease with which book art, visual poetry and non-fiction meet and make meaning in a humble pamphlet. Perhaps it is a large idea in a tiny home.