Monday, October 25, 2010

Deciduousness:The Mechanism, Ander Monson

Ninth Letter, 2010

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

review by Thalia Field

Here is a short review of a fiction and also of a press which blurs the line between book/journal and object and foregrounds the question of publication’s aims, its mediums, and the variety of audience which exist beyond the well-manicured and gated lawns of the commercial establishment(s). Both this fiction and this press defy the solidity of this establishment and its conventions, which are about numerical dominance, bookshelf oligarchy, and the un-bliss of the dull-mindedly repeatable. Ander Monson’s story, “Desiduousness: The Mechanism”, and its publisher, Ninth Letter, seek to escape, if not subvert, this state of affairs, and the result is a collaboration offering tremendous pleasure.

I selected this ‘book’ to review because I’ve admired Ander Monson from afar and wanted to more intimately enter a conversation with his work. Starting from that point, I was immediately taken with the sensation that “Deciduousness:A Mechanism” is decidedly fiction, happily and deeply and differently so. The book, bound by a velum, immediately falls into six four-panel folios, folded into comfortable sizes which allow the reader to hold them, gather them, and constantly experience them as the notes which are being collected in the hand, and the mind, of the story’s subject.

The design impact of this publication is everywhere on the story, and yet no more intrusive that the body is on our minds, giving us the sensations, the mise-en-scene, of living. Monson’s story sketches an indeterminate technological ‘Mechanism’, discernable only through the tattered notes written for the infirm, disabled mad-genius who may some day wake to its ominous presence. The narrative is tightly wound, or tightly unwinds, and proceeds with emotional precision. The notes which structure the confession of their author begin in handwriting, and are backed with screen-prints and digital imagery, numbered by hand and sliced with the arches of connections, meanings whose meanings have been lost and aren’t avoidable.

That the story and the book-form co-elaborate the story feels right and powerful as the reading advances – and reminded me in their constant interplay of the general poverty of the publishing convention which binds all stories into the same habitual gestures. Here it is possible to open and refold, to stack and sort, to gather and shuffle. The lacunae in the story reflect in the gaps between the folios, as they speak both to the loss of the present as it could be brought back by the past/memory – and also to how we must await the unknowable future. This future is only made of past actions in this story, as elsewhere, and this was the aspect of the story I found most compelling: the subversion of nostalgia into a form of hostility that pushes things we are not comfortable with out of our way in the present and into the future, which is also the past.

The quasi science fiction (and psychologically insightful) scenario of Monson’s story never resolves, though we sense in the protagonist the isolation of a Moreau, a similar foreign locale, and an almost unholy or at least profane, project. Monson’s language is lyrical, elliptical, emotional, and just descriptive enough of the elements of the environment (and of the Mechanism) so that we keep hold of it – the butterflies and optical cables, ducts and screens, which sustain the body of the story itself. Confusion over whose story “Deciduousness:A Mechanism” will ultimately be remains of interest, as the reader is put in the place of the hibernated consciousness, unsure what we will wake up for or to, and by the time the end comes, I had the eerie sense that what I know of my world has more been laid from the past (and possibly with an agenda) then seeming to drop in from the future, so that the present, ever impossible, contains nothing but the kind of light the Mechanism itself devours. I do not intend to offer narrative interpretations, for this is an open text in the best sense: both specific in its dramatic details, and inconclusive where the wrong answers would lead us off the right questions.

This is a love story, and it is a story of anger, bruised where passion was. The Mechanism of both turns out the same, and yet it is the technology which allows the character bound to it to live and see, to experience life and death. There’s something enormous wrapped in this short story, it stays like an afterimage in the imagination.

from the last folio: “What is on the other side I do not know. It could be the outside world, cold and blood all over it. It could lead to a thousand animals consuming each other. It might be the past. Or nothing. It could be hell. A dream of hell or just a dream. In my dream it is a thousand butterflies organizing themselves into comprehensible patterns, like city light, moving off the edge of the screen as we begin forgetting. It could be a beating heart. A psychedelic corridor.”

I wish more publications of fiction, poetry, and essay would embrace the values of this Ninth Letter collaboration with Ander Monson – that we would be able to satisfy ourselves with more hand-made objects and book forms which sacrifice the false promises of mass-consumption with the beauty of organic innovation in design. Even when the fiction might be imperfect or the design critiqued, this is so much the better conversation to be having – how writing and reading are multiform and of infinite variety.


Ander Monson draws from his life in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, the Deep South, and Saudi Arabia. He has an MFA from the University of Alabama. He edits the magazine DIAGRAM and the New Michigan Press, and publishes widely. His novel in stories, Other Electricities, has been newly released by Sarabande Books.


Thalia Field's book BIRD LOVERS, BACKYARD is just out from New Directions (2010) as well as is a collaboration, A PRANK OF GEORGES (with Abigail Lang) (Essay Press, 2010). She is also the author of two other New Directions titles (INCARNATE:STORY MATERIAL, and POINT AND LINE) as well as ULULU (CLOWN SHRAPNEL) a novel from Coffee House Press. Thalia is on the faculty at Brown University's program in Literary Arts where she teaches courses for writers which often ask questions about storytelling on and off the page and across many too-hardened disciplines of method.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Texture Notes, Sawako Nakayasu

Letter Machine Editions, 2010

Chicago, Illinois

ISBN: 0981522726

by Karen An-hwei Lee

The latest collection by translator and poet Sawako Nakayasu, Texture Notes, features 48 original journal entries dated from 2003 to 2004, arranged in a variety of textures and rhythms. With echoes of Zukofsky poetics and Steinian word-play, Nakayasu explores the poetic challenge of describing physical textures in the external world: bicycles, fresh laundry, love in the air. To this end, the kaleidoscopic prose fragments resist simplistic interpretations, playing with formal categories of definition in a choreography of word-objects reminiscent of the early Modern objectivist poets:


Ant-sized objects, in the order received:

Ant, microchip, staple, pine needle, dimple, pebble, the ant’s twin, a one-to-one scale model of the ant, another ant of the same size, dust, crumb, fingernail, crumb, staple, mustard seed, the letter ‘I’ typed in 12-pt. font…. (19)

Focusing on “thingness” in the abstract and concrete senses, Texture Notes
investigates the texture of bicycles in its first succinct prose poem, contemplates the textures of absence in an elegant one-line poem, 10.4.2003: “layers of loss” (7), and directs the reader’s attention to self-referential components in 11.8.2003: “Line trying to crumple its way into texture…” (17).

Nakayasu’s book-length collage is a recombinatory syncopation of astute observations: “Combined sum of the texture of one word at each moment everywhere, thicker than it is true” (11). With varying poetic densities at once macrocosmic and minutely liminal, the contradictions of urban life are depicted in miniature:


Thirty thousand unanswered minutes, eight arms filled to capacity three times over, a four-year-old tree attaining twice its current height thanks to the tears of a widow, one small Chinese girl and a couple of kegs, five million rotations of this old fan, whichever comes last.

Or the rock that develops a dent, small stone in my hand.

Waiting for.

The rock to grow, spread, answer, spin, cold and smooth, after all the rain in my hand, or before it stops, or before it returns, quickly now -- (67)

At times, the poems take on the surreal allegorical qualities of a Russell Edson fable, as in 4.6.2004, whose first line begins: “Texture of a field of fried umbrellas” (9).

…Enough fresh oil was used in the frying of these umbrellas that theoretically the should repel any sort of fluid which takes a shot at the field, and in fact this is true, but the unfortunate inherent shape of umbrellas encourages the rain to slip inside the crevices between one fried umbrella and another, getting the toes of the children wet, whether they are there or not. (9)

Tinkering mischievously with a reader’s expectations, Nakayasu swiftly mingles the textures of word-objects as nouns by using language usually applied to other categories of definition. An emotion, for instance, is portrayed using meteorological language: “Love as described by the heaviness of air, measured by a repeated rise in humidity” (13).

According to the Etymology Dictionary,
“texture” derives from the Latin textura for “web, texture, structure,” and from the stem of texere “to weave.” The word “text,” similarly, originates from the “wording of anything written” with its root in the Latin textus: “Scriptures, text, treatise,” also sharing a genesis from the stem of texere.

In perfect resonance with its etymological origins, Texture Notes weaves epistemological questions about categories of knowledge, or how we know what we know about the world, culminating in the phenomenon we call beauty.

8.22.2003 ….People, pilgrims, innocent bystanders, drivers-by, tourists, and locals alike come and gather, independently and in their own time, in their very own time, to admire it. And enjoy it. To provide a physical, chemical, psychoanalytical, or textural analysis of it. To assign it values of beauty.


Sawako Nakayasu was born in Japan and has lived mostly in the US since the age of six. Her most recent books are Texture Notes (Letter Machine, 2010), Hurry Home Honey (Burning Deck, 2009), and a translation of Kawata Ayane’s poetry, Time of Sky//Castles in the Air (Litmus Press, 2010). Her translation of Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (New Directions, 2008) received the 2009 Best Translated Book Award from Three Percnt.

- - -

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008), In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004), and a chapbook, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe Press, 2002). Her books have been honored by the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America (chosen by Cole Swensen) and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize for Poetry (selected by Heather McHugh). The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she chairs the English department at a faith-based college in southern California, where she is also a novice harpist.