Chapbooks most likely originated in the 19th century, when street peddlers sold brief collections of folktales, songs, political or religious tracts, and poetry. The chapbooks we know today are short collections of poems, usually 40 pages or less and most often by a single author. These books range from self-published, handcrafted zines to fully produced, widely distributed books. Emerging poets issue chapbooks rather than full collections to give readers a sampling of their work. Established poets sometimes create chapbooks to focus narrowly on a specific subject or theme. Recently, three new chapbooks on the mother-child bond crossed our desks at Literary Mama.
A Woman Traces the Shoreline
dancing girl press, 2011; $7.00
Tupelo Press, 2012; $9.95
Tupelo Press, 2012; $16.95
A Woman Traces the Shoreline, by Literary Mama contributor Sheila Squillante, captures a pregnant woman's awe and confusion with her newly expanding body and sense of self. In its movement, rhythms, and repetition, the chapbook reads like a long, single poem separated by blank space. Each page carries a paragraph—sometimes only a single line—centered under an asterisk. The overall impression is that of a diary, with stream-of-consciousness entries about daily events.
Unlike a diary, however, this collection reveals its craft and a slowly developing cognizance through artful, literary use of repetition. Images recur, particularly of shorelines: "Half terrified, I trace the edges of a heat rash like a shoreline from shoulder to fingertips." Squillante uses the shoreline as a motif to explore shifting boundaries, the body becoming a strange new land.
This sense of shifting into something other than oneself resurfaces in other segments of the book: "Shirt pulled taut. Skirt pushed softly outward. L'objet. Stranger hands query and quest. Touchez le surface. When. When. When." Globelike, her body invites exploration, yet the subtle sense of invasion is apparent in the "stranger hands," and even in the use of French, a "foreign" language sprinkled into English text. But it is clear that this woman observes her own body as a foreign object too, and wonders when it will revert to hers once again.
To heighten this sense of disconnect, Squillante intersperses her thoughts on motherhood and language with observations on commercialism, want, and need. In one entry, for example, the narrator watches a woman dumpster-diving behind a new Bed, Bath, and Beyond store, and tries to imagine something "beyond Wal-Mart and the feed-your-baby-hunger." She seeks more than what the world and her body presently have to offer; she seeks a life of the mind: "I only want to read poems by women, I say. This one has me thinking about the notion of hero. Where is my quest narrative?" Squillante compares pregnancy to a hero's quest in which the hero(ine) seeks trail markers—guidance and company—from women who have passed her way before.
In A Woman Traces the Shoreline, Squillante creates a complex work full of surprises, resonance, and discovery.
Like Squillante, Kathleen Jesme has organized her chapbook [booklink isbn="9781936797189" title="Meridian"] into diary-like entries. Rather than birth, however, Meridian chronicles an adult daughter's experience of her mother's slow decline and death. This chapbook also reads like a long poem separated into segments and moves forward and backward in time as if circling the mother's death to understand the emptiness it leaves. Some segments are deceptively prose-like, set on the page in paragraphs and matter-of-fact tone: "She was becoming a dead person, but she hadn't yet arrived. And there were few similarities, other than the familiar smell of her body, to what she had once been."
Among such blocks of text are more abstract, short-line poems that convey emotion through minimal words:
There isn't much here but a spoon
and a hand with an arm to lift it.
A mouth. Soup. Salt.
The juxtaposition of prose-poems and poems with line breaks dramatizes the daughter's state of mind: sometimes practical, emotions hidden; sometimes fractured, overwhelmed, almost speechless. Toward the end of the book, winter changes to spring, and a normal chronology resumes as the daughter begins to heal:
Gradually, spring came.
Camelspines, the hills cleaned themselves,
the earth turned brown, then green, and the sky filled
the ground, sprouting up from underneath.
Loss of a mother leaves a hole in the child, no matter how grown-up the child has become. Yet nature's clear cycles of birth and death help ease the daughter's pain and slowly carry her back toward fullness and life.
Rusty Morrison's [booklink isbn="9781932195415" title="After Urgency"] also chronicles an adult daughter's loss of her parents. This collection is long for a chapbook (69 pages), but a tight focus on its subject gives the impression of a shorter work.
[booklink isbn="9781932195415" title="After Urgency"] is organized into five distinct sections, and every poem seems carefully, almost formally, structured. Yet, as we read, and as titles, images, and phrases recur throughout the book, what appeared to be ordered and methodical becomes intertwined, disoriented, almost surreal. This structure artfully reveals the mind of a person coping with grief: an attempt to retain composure amidst a dizzying, obsessive remembering of words and impressions, and of what has been lost.
Morrison's language and imagery describe beautiful discord. As in [booklink isbn="9781936797189" title="Meridian"], nature's constancy and predictable change provide comfort and give the narrator's swirling emotions a grounded framework. A struggle to write becomes part of the struggle to live despite pain: "Leafless stem, an angle for sunrise to follow, ally to my own zealous / attempts to flower."
Dense, complex language, elegant imagery, and powerful lines encourage a slow but rewarding read of this collection, and Morrison's poems become guideposts on a journey through grief and back again:
I said yearning, but the aspen are already milked down to
their whitest drapery.
I say open, but the valley backs away from me behind its wan smile.
These three collections beautifully demonstrate the power of chapbooks, of even the briefest interlude with well-crafted poetry: a glimpse of our shared reverence for life, from imminent birth to inevitable death, and the innumerable moments between.
Correction: [booklink isbn="9781932195415" title="After Urgency"] has won the Dorset Prize for a full-length poetry manuscript and therefore is not considered to be a chapbook at all. Our mistake!