Typographical elements have long played a role in the presentation of poetry, from George Herbert’s “Altar” and “Easter Wings” to the much imitated work of ee cummings such as “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r.” So long as poetry continues its residence on the printed page—as opposed to its original existence in speech and memory—typographical innovations will continue to tempt the poet with resources akin to, but not identical to, language.
The Porch is a Journey Different from the House
by Ever Saskya
New Issues Poetry & Prose, February 2004
Ever Saskya’s debut collection, The Porch is a Journey Different from the House, employs a variety of typographical elements, sometimes to pleasant effect. The poems include archaic mathematical symbols that are revealed to be “directions for a telescope,” reproductions of the signatures of Napoleon and Christopher Columbus, navigational star maps of the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, arrows, diagrams and reproductions of dictionary entries. Saskya also experiments with how words themselves are placed on the page: the reader is presented with a poem that is printed sideways, anagrams, words that are splayed one letter per line, blank spaces, words that are crossed out or upside down, words missing the letter “e” (as in Georges Perec’s work) and poems that appear to have no formal parameters except spilling across the page in the spirit of Mallarmé.
Saskya does not shy away from acknowledging this tradition, but rather directly alludes to her homage:
to do it .
it reminds me
of so and so’s work,
how s/he did this or that similarly.
Like Cynie Cory’s American Girl, which I reviewed last month, The Porch is a Journey Different from the House is part of New Issues Poetry & Prose’s Brenda Hillman Selection series. As is the case with most collections today, the book is divided thematically, with sections titled “Text,” “Dictionaries,” “Different,” “From the House,” “A Story A Set of Rooms in Such a Space),” “TIL←start here / ERATURE” and “Film.” The first poem “Read T H U N D E R” sets the reader up to expect lexical surprises. Speaking of her father, the narrator beautifully warns,
(And to any reader)
I want to tell
he could make the letter A
with lights from the field. Words in the sky,
our night, a waiting text—
always there is more
beyond what telescopes can see.
Contrary to Saussure, Saskya suggests that lexical symbols and signs are inherent in nature, rather than simply arbitrary. In fact, her poem “As a Reader” is addressed to Saussure: the speaker of the poem, convinced that language is found in the physical world, believes wholeheartedly that Saussure’s name exists there in anagram and tries to seek it out.
Saskya is concerned with the relationship between writer and reader, and her poems are often in direct dialogue with each other, focusing on what the reader receives and what the writer bequeaths. In her lyric, and less typographic, “Introduction to Yellow,” Saskya writes,
she tries to fly in heat
that wants to be a bird
did not make her a bird).
In response, the next poem, “(What I Want to Give the Reader) Introduction to Yellow,” is heavily typographic and employs spaces, symbols and unconventional punctuation. This poem replies,
would you like to seesaw in a tornado (fly
in heat that wants to be a bird)?
I do forget God
did not make me a bird).
Saskya’s poems intimate that not even language can escape from physical laws, as in the poem “authenticate automatic autograph”:
the backyard swing set held wireless
the sky position—holds everything
and everyone here for now.
In response, the poem “Moonfire” asks, “Does language / not give us the right / to rename the pieces of our earth?” The need to escape gravity and physical boundaries is inherent both in the content of these poems and in their form—which is sometimes like “vegetation crooning out / the meter” of Saskya’s lexical world. Just as her lines appear to, but do not actually, fly off the pages, there are birds in these poems that hope to, but do not, take flight. In “Pure Lunch,” Saskya writes,
Her wedding gown is made of live birds
sewn together by their feet,
drying from rain.
To her this is actual; as actual
as the napkins
she has sewn together
that she thinks are birds,
while she stands at the lunch counter
waiting to marry
the fedora in her right hand.
In a book in which the reader has been forewarned that nothing is as it seems, that behind every actuality there resides another lexographic or hidden life, it is only fitting that the characters in the poems experience also this marriage of language and physicality. The synechodal bridegroom is also appropriate in a book that proclaims that signs can stand in for the whole. We enter a poem, only to find that it exists “In the Outline of a City Turned Sideways,” or that we leave with what we were not expecting, as in the poem “This is Not Our Private Earth”:
upside down like a reflection
an eye looking into an eye.
As if we are cutting
open a gazelle,
reaching for entangled sinews,
leaving with fists of partridge and wren.
Don’t let Saskya’s typographical variety fool you: at heart, she is a poet attuned to language, who startles with images surreal and beautiful (“Far into the galaxy of trailer-park geraniums / a few fish eggs hanging out”) and with invigorating verb use (“We have watched fog dust cleat”).
The Porch is a Journey Different from the House is an enjoyable read, full of typographical surprises and images. It is a fresh reminder that print is playful. I found, however, that at times the lyric and the typographic were straining to intersect. Saskya’s poetry is strongest when she allows her language to form the images, when she does not rely on typography to create spatial or lexical relationships. That strategy seems to favour a less rhythmic syntax, more disjointed and non-poetic. For example, when she writes of Icarus, that “[h]is fingerprints” are “patterns of God living and lonely,” her words are more effective, more poetic than any typographical arrangement can ever hope to be.
Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.