Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spandrels and Prose-Couplets: Judith Roitman publishes SLACKLINE.

Full disclosure: Judith Roitman is a dear friend who has seen me through divorce and many character flaws and forgiven me. That does not change the fact that she is a poet with a new chapbook Slackline (Arroyo Grande, Cal.: Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press, 2012) with original woodblock print illustrations by Sally F. Piller.
First, the book is almost too pretty. The illustrations are maybe the most apt that I’ve ever seen. The birch trees on the cover have bark designs that look natural but shift into glyphs and back. The fox sniffing snow is engrossed in its own activity, although its tracks leave another text. Colors dance in perfect balance. Six black-and-white woodblock prints intersperse with the rest of the book and make a perfect subtext. I go on about the illustrations because they are remarkable and exactly appropriate to the scale of the half-letter page.

The poems in Slackline, like the images, also hover in suspension. Each is an epistle addressed: “Dear [Initial] — .” (The interior woodblock prints also create this initial in their designs.) This rhetorical situation of addressing a recipient creates an intimacy with the text. I feel like a voyeur as I read someone else’s letters. As a child, this was a great taboo, so that heightens my tension and sense of mystery. The second of the total eighteen poems is one of three that begin “Dear S—

Dear S —

             How come everyone I know seems to have a name that starts with S? Except for the ones that don’t. Anyway, I’d like to return the tape you covered my mouth with, the one with worms and flowers. Every time I said “worms” you said “no, flowers” and you’d point to show me. Everyone was convinced so I capitulated and it seemed like a good thing at the time but you know it wasn’t. You know how spandrels bark, demarcated as they are by leaves and flowers? You knew the fine line in between and how you walked it, a slackline strung between trees, but it was really razor blades. I tried to tell you but there you have it. What is anyone left with after that? I keep putting pictures up but the wind knocks them down.

So the “slackline strung between trees” creates tinges of fear:
(1)   that I will be discovered reading someone else’s mail, a federal crime
(2)   that I will fall on “razor blades,”
(3)   that I will discover, like the narrator, a great void: “What is anyone left with after that?”
Because I live in Kansas, I am not afraid of the final threat, “wind,” but that is a very true experience, everything being knocked down by wind, perhaps tornadoes or just straight-line winds.

Also, I am interested in the ways the lines in this composition re-curve upon themselves. This prose poem is composed of near-couplets, as the poet embeds double-lines in prose. The first two sentences set up this pattern, as an assertion—“How come everyone I know seems to have a name that starts with S?” is countered by its antithesis: “Except for the ones that don’t.”

Sometimes the two-part thought is more-or-less balanced in one compound sentence. One of my favorites of these “couplets” is this one: “You know how spandrels bark, demarcated as they are by leaves and flowers?” “Spandrels” are the negative-space triangular shape between arches and architectural supports. These are common in medieval cathedrals, although they appear in Roman architecture. “Spandrels” are also part of Noam Chomsky’s idea of origins of language as well as Stephen Gould’s theory of biological evolution--“exaptation,” which occurs because of physical exigencies. So “spandrel” is an underlying principle in this text: What ornament can fill in a space left between a salutation and an implied signature? Roitman chooses the historical “leaves and flowers.” “Bark” and “demarcated” comment on each other as well.
Roitman omits any signature at the ends of  all these letters, but the ample blank spaces on the pages leave room for readers to fill in the blanks. Her biography and photograph at the very end of the book create a final author’s presence and signature line.

In Lawrence, Slackline is available at the independent Raven Bookstore, 7th and Mass. Online, copies may be obtained at: