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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Most of the manuscripts that come my way in the capacity of editor / jack of all trades at Vocamus Press do not make enjoyable reading.  Many of them have merit in their own way but aren’t of much interest to me personally.  Others are just not very good by any standard.

Today, however, was a good day.  I read two manuscripts of poetry, one each from a couple I’ve just recently met, and both books were wonderful.  I was pages into the first before I found a line that didn’t ring true.  The second did things with a poetic conversation that I have never seen before.

Days like this make all the other ones worthwhile.

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George A. Walker’s The Life and Times of Conrad Black: A Wordless Biography is a curious specimen of a book. It is comprised entirely of woodcut images, without text of any kind, and it provokes a very different response than biography normally does. Most biographies provide information to satisfy our curiosity in a particular life, but Walker presents us with images that offer little concrete information about the life of Conrad Black. Instead we have to rely on our own memories of the events he depicts, or we have to investigate the images that we do not recognize at all. In this way the book’s biographical information is primarily what we bring to it, what we are able to remember or are willing to discover. The images direct us outward, encouraging us to reconsider the subject of Black’s life on our own.

By eschewing words, Walker’s woodcuts are allowed to stand as simple and powerful gestures to a life story that any amount of words would be unable to tell in any case. His interpretation of Black’s infamous middle finger is wonderful, as is the effect produced by a seemingly stray halo in a depiction of Black defending himself to the world. These images are, as Tom Smart’s closing essay suggests, a kind of text in themselves, and they tell a story that is truly compelling, even and especially if it is a story that requires us to contribute more than usual to its telling.

The tenor of Jeffery Donaldson’s new book of poems, Slack Action, is well illustrated by its shortest poem, “With a Line from a Dream”. It reads,

A page of poetry on the table.
It is like a child bending down
and placing a hand on the earth
to find out what it weighs.

The whole collection feels like this, like a hand placed to discover the weight of things — the weight of a father lying in a hospital bed, of a mother’s long ago assurance on the way to kindergarden, of a still undetermined poetic legacy — the weight of the world.

Donaldson’s poems are less naive than the child’s hand, however. They know they cannot hope to discover the full weight of things. They have learned, what the child will learn, that we can only feel the world’s gravity, the influence that its great mass exerts on us, and the strength of these poems is in articulating the force and the space, the slack action, between us and the world.

The verse itself is beautifully measured, not constrained by metre or rhyme, but always conscious of them, working through its chosen forms rather than remaining bound by them. It has a real patience as well, a willingness to let a poem develop, to pause, even to be interrupted, if the weight and gravity of the subject should demand it, and this is how the poems of the collection need to be read, with patience, with an openness to pause and interrupt and reread. They need us to lay our hands on them and find their weight.