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Chapbooks are often a prelude, intermezzo or coda to a poet or writer’s full body of work – the intermittent breath of fresh air, or the sketch before the full canvas. I use the analogy to music, because each is apt in the case of two specific works that I have been reading (and been completely mesmerized by) not only for the beauty of their words, but for their absolute qualities of aural sensitivity as well. The chapbooks are Jee Leong Koh’s The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press, 2012), and Michael Klein’s States of Independence (Bloom Editions Press, 2012). The “voices” of each are as distinct as a series of arias, culminating in an expressive whole arc of images, sounds, and ideas which present the identity of each writer.
We often overlook the virtues in the simplicity and brevity of chapbooks. We equate bigger with better, and thicker with deeper, when in fact it is the simplicity of such books that help us reflect for a much longer time on work that has more impact precisely because of brevity and close attention. With fewer pages in which to compel us into the texts, chapbooks — when they are at their best — encapsulate the poet’s or writer’s unique vision in a small space of time, but one that has lasting resonance. Historically, that is what they were meant to do: to be printed and available quickly and inexpensively and to be distributed to the widest range of readers by “chapmen” – often itinerant foot travelers whose main purpose was to put words into a reader’s hands. Whether political broadside, or social tract, love poems, or religious rants, the form followed a function: instill a curiosity for more. These two chapbooks do so, ardently. With attention to elegant design and visual acumen, they also remind us of the graphic beauty that chapbook publishers are promoting in this craft. It is a testament to the vision of such publishers that they can complete with the larger houses effectively and economically. Chapbooks are a democracy in this respect.
The two chapbooks each have a completely different approach to the “habit of being,” to use the words of Flannery O’Connor. And it is this essential quality of being in the world, and observing it minutely, which permits both writers to provide such unique insights into many universal preoccupations we all share: love and sex, hometowns, work, joy, pets, death, and sadness. But none of these subjects are rendered mundane because both Klein and Koh are writers of incredibly precise perspective and observation. The books subjects explore such things as the vagaries of Facebook, the love of a pet, a favorite piece of furniture, a parent’s decision, a lover’s sexual tick, or the constant and beautiful mysteries of being a writer.
Each of the books are in prose form – Klein’s a concise yet completely luxurious set of essays, and Koh’s, a pristine catalogue of experiences that follows the format of the historical Japanese “pillow book” jottings that inspired it — that of the 11th century author and court lady, Sei Shonagon. However, the language with which they point the reader to their observations directly flows from their poetry backgrounds. Though each writer implicitly provides biography in these works, they also craft their words with inherent clairvoyance – somewhere, someone will read these words and connect with them as if the experience were their own. And that is what makes each of these books so wonderful: as a reader, you feel that you have understood, if not experienced, each emotion, event, or memory. We have all had a pet die, we have all been rejected in love or endeavor; we have all known the struggle of surmounting our addictions and counting our losses and gains. We are given a looking glass here, as we observe their actions and in them see our own.
Jee Leong Koh’s evocative take on the world is that of a very astute documentarian; he is almost epigrammatic in his observations. But this is beautifully of a piece with the homage to the chapbook’s tribute work. Yet Koh’s solid truths are like chess pieces moving strategically, completely aware of the end result of each action: that we will make a move, too, towards understanding his loving, and completely open world. His sensitivity to the small yet revelatory acts which define us is startling as well as edged with wit:
”Well-Organized Things”: A columbarium, a place to urn the dead, is organized for the convenience of the living; the Civil Service, a place to earn a living, is organized for the dead.
“When Someone Comes Home With Me”: When someone comes homes with me, there is always the question of how I will ask him to leave. …If he asks to stay the night, I give in. I bring him out for breakfast in the morning, at the Irish diner now manned by Mexicans, so that he can hear the train.
“I Mark My Place In Books”:
I mark my place in books with bits of trash. A bus ticket in The Ambassadors. A grocery receipt in Beyond Good and Evil. …it occurs to me this morning while shelving my books that I mark my place in men with bits of my body…The beautiful boy last night who did not give his name has all of my fingers holding him open.
In the examples here, New York City becomes a subject accorded rich contrasts with both weather and longing, in very different emotional perspectives for each writer:
Michael Klein, “Movie Rain and Movie Snow”:
…I don’t know what it is about raining in New York but it is always nostalgic. Whenever it happens, I see New York through the filter of the wet weather as the place I knew in my youth. Through water I can see the buildings that are still there on 8th Street, on Lexington Avenue, in a way that I never think about when the glare of the sun points them out. Rain is the weather of memory.”
Jee Leong Koh, from “First Things”: The first time I saw New York was like the first time I saw Oxford, although one was more like a movie and the other more like a book. Closing a book is harder.…I was thirty-three the first time I had sex. I was so excited I could not come. I had to get out of the futon and go to the bathroom to lose it.
Michael Klein is obsessed (in the best use of that word) with understanding what life feels like – its actual tastes and emotional textures; its actions and repercussions. And, as if putting cloth in the hands of a blind man, he leads us to a kind of braille or embroidery of meanings that we willingly and slowly try to decipher. His eye is as wry as his self-knowledge is sure. He has been there, done that, been to hell and back and still love is the overriding tenet of being alive. Klein posits that we last only through loving, and that it is always worth the fight.
“Airports and Funerals in Sobriety”:
One of the shining lights of sobriety has been the ability to feel living in all its beauty, sadness and complexity; to stand there with a white chrysanthemum and be able to look up at an avenue of trees made out of ice and to love the world of what is here and what departs the world; to experience sadness without reaching for a solution to sadness; to join the sadness.
“Happiness Ruined Everything”: I felt embarrassed to be so full of what I thought was love and have to stand there naked and alone with it. It was the first time I could sense a kind of danger around my heart – the first, slight, electrical shock that could end up ruining it.
This is writing I could not stop reading. Finally, when I put both books down, I was left with a bounty of images upon which to ponder. And that is the ultimate pleasure of the chapbook form – so much in so little. What these two particular authors and works additionally provide is a reminder of the inordinate joy and gift that can be found in the extraordinary act of observing and writing about what is in front of us. For all its foibles, as Michael Klein understands, we have only one source, in our skin:
“Human”: Maybe we’ve collectively realized that nothing we do – no pill, no knife, no salve, no food, no recovery, no God, no mantra, no practice – will change who we essentially are: human beings in human bodies who die from something called life.
States of Independence
By Michael Klein
Bloom Editions Press
The Pillow Book
By Jee Leong Koh
Math Paper Press