Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Gesso Apprentice

My apologies for the fragmentary, uneven nature of this post.

The Gesso Apprentice.

I’m reading a book called The Gesso Apprentice. This book is anonymously written. It is composed of 25 poems. It is a book some people here in this town may own. But other than that, I don’t know if it’s for sale anywhere. Court poets used to circulate their poems in manuscript within a tightly delimited circle of readers. Yet, because of their proximity to royalty, they could expect some degree of legacy for their poems despite their scant readership. At the same time that Marvell and Sidney were writing their poems for the gentry, in Spain the chapbook was circulating like crazy, so much so the crown tried to censor and shut down presses because these little books had such an influence on the population. (For a good look at chapbooks and Spanish nationalism, check out Wlad Godzich’s essay “Popular Culture and Spanish Literary History” in The Culture of Literacy [Harvard UP, 1994, which, completely out of context, has this wonderful sentence: “part of the answer to the problem of transmission of literary culture lies in the chapbooks”]). On the one hand, reading a book like The Gesso Apprentice makes the reader feel part of a privileged group of specialized readers, part of a community made up of an aristocracy of art. On the other hand, because of the strength of these poems, it seems somewhat ridiculous to publish them anonymously. But to call these poems “aristocratic” isn’t a very reasonable designation. Nor does it at all reflect the community in which this book circulates. It’s very important to see where the chapbook stands today vis-à-vis this august past—both challenge and support to the Spanish Empire in the 16th century, and of questionable value in the current literary marketplace—thinking here of Kyle Schlesinger’s admission that his press can no longer viably publish chapbooks.

I have twice been told who the author of this book is. But I don’t want to break the anonymity of its authorship, even though I feel that, in its deliberate effacing of an “author” attribute it makes an overwrought gesture towards authenticity. I think this anonymity is certainly meant to be taken as a gesture of humility (or so I guess, though these poems are not at all a questioning of poetry’s ability to speak, enact, or designate), but it could be mistaken for an attempt at deliberate obscurity or the manufacture of mystique. The only reason I say this is because these poems are amazing. There is a long sequence of prose poems that make up the bulk of the book, and they are, too, a kind of enactment of fragility the likes of which I haven’t read before. Perhaps the removal of the author’s name helps keep the gender of the author in suspension, so that we aren’t concerned whether these poems were written by a woman or a man.

The poems before this sequence, while important for their own reasons, seem simply a kind of warm up for the extended portraiture provided in the main section of the book, entitled “The Tyst Poems”. The Tyst Poems describe a character with wings who goes through a startling series of transformations and self-mutilations while engaged in a rather tragic struggle between life and art, flight and flightlessness, waking and dreaming, and strength and weakness. While it seems somewhat akin to the late romantic conceits of the Rosetti circle and their imitators (especially in Swinbourne’s penchant for ekphrastic poems, or poems about a work of art), there is a grittier side to these poems that save them from preciousness or the merely illustrative.

I’ll provide one example from the book, and then leave it at that. I think there is more to say, a lot more, about this book, but I’ve run out of time.


Molten glass at breath’s end. Inside its wobbly swelling Tyst masturbates. When the shop closes, she rides the nose of the mute home to his sister’s house. The saliva that bubbles at his lips while he sleeps she shapes into flightless likenesses of endangered moons.

Okay, one last point: the anonymity here makes of my response a kind of well-defined and specific address—a response to a set of poems that becomes so hard to extend beyond anything more than a personal letter writ large onto the intimate/public screen of a blog. It makes the simplest description of the work seem like a failure of the art itself (the art of criticism, and the art of essay). I feel somewhat compelled to respond in a like form—to compose a letter say, or construct an intact dramatic form in which to stage an overheard discussion between two actors discussing the book’s themes by way of a particular, delimited crisis they are both engaged in, and must figure out together or dissolve away from the stage, let the stage dissolve, and stand there looking at each other as the theater goes black.


1 comment:

  1. I really like many of your points in this review/response.

    Somewhat aside: this post encourages me, a dedicated reader of this blog, to make one request. Could you please exerpt more? at least from that material which is especially hard (if not impossible) to obtain. Here's a case where I may never get to read the book at hand, and would greatly benefit from maybe a whole poem (an arrangement I'm sure your mutual teams of lawyers could negotiate.) Wordtks.