Interior Landscapes: Smaller Songs and Theorem

These two new poetry collections—one a chapbook, and one full-length—leap from their pages, exploring a range of space for the music of language to exist alongside the visual. They are both striking material works of art—Smaller Songs hand-set and letterpress printed, with woodcut illustrations by Molly Stouten, and Theorem a collaboration between the poet Elizabeth Bradfield and the visual artist Antonia Contro. I recently sat beside my kindergartner as he identified geometric shapes as either “flat” or “solid” (having depth), and I’m reminded of this spatial exercise when I consider both of these collaborative texts: they have depth, and corners, and lids you can lift from their forms. Both Smaller Songs and Theorem also invite their reader to entertain the little, the small, the slight (and the sleight). Both texts make great work of silence, whispers and secrets, even as each champions song.

  1. Smaller Songs by Anna Lena Phillips Bell. St. Brigid Press, 2020. 30 pages. $24.

Composed of three sections, “Songs of the Garden,” “Songs of the Knife,” and “Songs of the Inner Room,” Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s Smaller Songs includes the composition note: “These poems are made from word and phrase banks transcribed from the footnotes of English & Scottish Ballads, a collection edited by Robert Graves and published by Heinemann (London) in 1957.” There is something intrinsically clever in how the poet has collaged the texts of her songs from word and phrase banks from footnotes belonging to a ballad collection. It reminds me of Plato’s conception of art as mimesis, and how—against the narrative of formal lessening or a shadowing of “the real”—the repetition and generation of new forms from other forms is a virtue and a delight of all art (poetry, painting, sculpture, film, music, textile arts, and more). Look at how we make the world new, such remaking says.

After a blue-and-white woodcut of flowers in a garden, showing white roots in the soil and blooms waving in the air, “Songs of the Garden” displays a dove and a dragon on its sectionitle page, beak to mouth, bird foot to claw. The songs open:

What’s wrong,
handsome small farmer?
Heron stopping,
pony stopping—
magic—

Opening with a question, the first song immediately draws the listener into character and dialogue. Rather than a ballad, with quatrain stanzas that run on for pages, each page of Smaller Songs contains its own little song, its own “stanza” (from the Italian for room). With the lines “Heron stopping, / pony stopping— / magic—,” the repetition of “stopping” reminds the reader to slow down, to pause and stop for the “magic” of the songs. Do the heron and pony stop of their own accord, or are they stopped by the magic? Hung on the edge of two m-dashes, it is a question to sit with as you turn the page.

Bell’s songs are full of surprises, the “healthy, educated maiden” who “would serve you a rough half-bushel,” or a gentle, humorous laundry curse (“mischance fall upon them who avoid the conflict: / the fork of their breeches / tied in a bundle”). There are songs to make you laugh (“first, housewifely tasks; then, / much ale”), and songs to sober: “Remember, pilgrim: not the clothes, the road.”

There are songs for every weather, and for the reader who wants to sit with something small and beautiful. At the same time, there is a weight to the lyrics, not only in “Songs of the Knife,” where harder, sharper language appears, but in the tender way the collection cares for its nouns, as the knife, described in the song:

Three-quarters of a span,
the span being the distance between
the tip of the little finger and the top of the thumb
when both are stretched out. The knife
was seven inches long, in fact.

Why care for this small knife, in this little poem, spanning the length of the proffered hand? As a reader, the longer I am part of the adult world and its brutal politics, the more I care about caring itself, and about where we turn the magnifying glass of our attention. Smaller Songs lets the reader wander through small rooms where an ordinary object glitters on a table, or a voice speaks from gramophone. In the third section, “Songs of the Inner Room”—preceded by a wood cut of two persons, one leading another by the hand, seeming to fly through the air—one feels even more deeply drawn into the sonics of the ballad language, for example:

Molehill of loss—
Dark birch—
Ditch, or furrow,
petulant—

Dawn struck—
Surely, fixed—

The small isles of lyric are stepping stones in a rough and windy world. Come out of the wind and careless language into the shelter of these songs—they offer “[w]onders within: / every grove and hillside / silver, smooth, skillful / also, lovable.” A tender collection from an exquisite small press.

  1. Theorem by Elizabeth Bradfield and Antonia Contro. Poetry Northwest Editions, 2020. 94 pages. $31.95.

Newly released by Poetry Northwest Editions, Theorem began as a fine art book from Candor Arts. Originally bound by a striking red and black fabric wrap, the intimacy of the collaboration between poet Elizabeth Bradfield and visual artist Antonia Contro continues to enfold the book in its new trade edition. Theorem opens with an image of two figures, a red-sided square and a white cylinder, their shadows falling together across the right side of the page. The opening text reads: “At 13, I fell in love with the tidy solutions of geometry.” Across the next page, the speaker recounts how such figures “made architecture of chaos, denoted / all I could not allow myself to say— / / / / contained it in measurable forms.”

From its first image and word, Theorem is invested in the idea of enclosures, and how a person experiences the world through shapes and language that fit inside other shapes, and other language. A parallel formal interest of Theorem is how an artistic narrative fits between two artists, and two distinct voices of making. “This is a story of a secret. Of secrets. / / Of becoming from and alongside them,” a page explains before its facing page softly explodes in a circle of colored smudges. The reader turns the page, and the composition of a single black glove greets them, the text facing the glove questions: “What could allow me to approach myself (my secrets) safely? / / / / Even now (even now) they have power.” Elision and space spent effectively evoke the unsaid, invoke desire and the uncertainty of longing. “Something had begun to flow through my body’s passages,” a page confesses, and later: “Dark matter. / Strange attractions. / / / An unknown universe,” another explains, between them both the visual of two human arms turned palms toward each other, a geometric figure suspended between their extended fingers. Everything about Theorem feels just at the edge of achievement, and keeps its reader turning page after suggestive page.

Theorem’s sense of time and setting in childhood feels central to the collaborative space—“Was it safe?” a single page asks, unaccompanied by other text or image, a blank page opposite. The reader, in turn, may think of their own bewildering experiences of childhood, and of the questions children ask (or do not know to ask). There is no certainty, even from within the  geometric shape of a family: “I was one of three sisters. / / / / For so long, I didn’t know what shape I was.” Whereas an image of a cluster of geometric figures precedes this revelation, a single cone figure follows it, a small spheric figure hovering above it. The interplay of images allows Theorem’s reader to think about how suggestible the smallest of biographical details is about a person: “I have two sisters” tells us so much about a person, how they understand what it is to relate to at least two other persons on the planet, to be nested within an intimate community at some point in their life.

“The oldest,” the speaker tells us, “first to emerge, I was looking at a different distance / than my sisters. Or the same view, differently.” Birth order and age are swept into the metaphor of distance and a geometrical perspective. Three lightly painted elliptical figures, stacked on each other, follow, and the text: “I did not know what, aside from me, was precarious. / But physics tells us that, once in motion, even the smallest things—given length of run and type of terrain—can carve huge swaths.”

In a conversation at Newcity with Ashley Lukasik, both artists discuss the making and the relationship of Theorem. Contro notes the filmic quality of turning a book’s pages, and how integral a reader is to the discovery of a new scene or image: “The viewer or reader has to activate that process—it will be a closed object unless it is opened and the pages are turned.” This is a hallmark of collaborative art, that it invites participation in how its reader, viewer or listener engages the work. It’s something that cannot be said of all art—for example, many paintings do not need collaboration from their viewer. But for Theorem, an intrigued mind and a hand turning the pages is essential to how its many parts come together as a whole. Bradfield replies to Contro, in the interview, that the reading of a book itself engages both private and public practice, “The dance between the seen and unseen, the public and the private, the known and unknowable,” and observes that Contro’s images both evoke and defamiliarize familiar shapes.

Not-knowing, mystery, and bewilderment sit at the narrative heart of Theorem, and it is difficult for this writer to think of the word “bewilderment” without the association of the poet Fanny Howe, lovely hermit of elision and uncertainty. In Howe’s essay “Bewilderment,” she advises her reader to remember that, “A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden.” And in fact, there is a very long history hiddenness in women’s writing—for example, in seventeenth-century poetry, women writers would describe themselves as containing cabinets or closets, images of hiddenness and interiority, private spaces. And I love the notion that Theorem is a cabinet of geometry and wonder, surprising images and color, traces of a memoir and poetic lines, fragments, not unlike the way the Victorians would arrange their glass cabinets of hummingbirds and other natural wonders. Yet, were Theorem a hummingbird cabinet, there would be empty spaces, and instead of whole hummingbirds, a single shining feather in one window, a leaf in one corner, an eggshell fragment in another. Theorem is a radiant example of how we do not go to art for information or even knowledge, but to rock back on our heels before something fully itself, something real and full of wonder, despite its careful elisions of detail.