The Pulpit vs. The Hole
A Tale of Two Chapbooks
Back when Dickens created Madame Defarge knitting up a revolution in a quiet cafe corner, publishers sewed together ephemera and called it a chapbook, after the chapmen or street dealers who peddled them for cheap. Before magazine ads or tweets, it was a quick way to get the latest in print out on the street. At Oxford a few years back, I sat in the rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera researching a chapbook from 17something, stitched by hand, that included both the poet I’d found and some derogatory essays about the Duchess of Devonshire. Since then, chapbooks have become a way for emerging authors to show their work before having a full-length collection or novel to print, or for authors to preview upcoming work; it is a stepping stone on the publishing path. There are many chapbook contests, helping both authors and small presses grow. This is a tale of two winners, in fiction (2011) and poetry (2010), of the Gold Line Press Chapbook Contest. The press is associated with USC’s Ph.D in Literature and Creative Writing Department. I was interested in what, in my view, made these two selections winners.
Memory Future, selected by Carol Muske-Dukes, begins with an epigraph from Jeanette Winterson’sGut Symmetries (an extremely quotable and quoted author, as shown by a quick Google, and a book I must read immediately) and uses phrases from it as section titles. As the chapbook title suggests, O’Neill’s poems are memory banks in time shifts, written in short two, three and four line forms mainly, until the middle section, “the spin of the earth that allows us to observe time” (Winterson’s line). This section is one poem, “Winter in Spain,” consisting of seven numbered sonnets, and it was here I entered the chapbook more fully. Particularly in II. with its opening line of “The flecks of red fade, not the hope. There’s more .” After reading this sonnet and appreciating its heightened nuances, feeling it to be the best in the book, I noticed a small pink dot had been affixed to that very page. Apparently someone else felt the same way. I was frankly relieved to see the last poem, the narrative “Second Grade Teachers Don’t Have Names Without Mr., Mrs., or Ms. Attached” deviate from the controlled, even-tempered collection, and spin out a little.
What binds these two together is a consistency of tone in each author, an assured spareness in thoughtful, personal, circular narratives where, like a ball of yarn, or an orbit, the end takes you back to the beginning. O’Neill studied with Marie Ponsot, among others she acknowledges, and it shows. Less is more doesn’t quite nail it. Another opening sonnet line of O’Neill’s–she writes killer first lines–better sums it up. “Nostaliga is uneasy. For so long” . . . it’s an enjambment, so no period. The story goes on, like a circle.
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