back toJacket2
   Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Noah Eli Gordon: Considering Chapbooks: Belladonna* books

This piece is about 6 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Noah Eli Gordon and Jacket magazine 2007.
This article originally appeared in Rain Taxi, Vol.12 No.1, Spring 2007,
as part of the ongoing column Chapbook Corner.

paragraph 1

On the second Tuesday of each month, the Dixon Place, a New York City performance space, hosts the Belladonna reading series, where audience members have the pleasure of not only hearing some of the most intriguing national and even international writers, but also of walking home with new chapbooks by each of the evening’s readers. With over one hundred chapbooks, the back catalogue of Belladonna* books reads as a virtual who’s who of innovative writing: Fanny Howe; Mei-mei Berssenbrugge; Rachel Blau DuPlessis; Norma Cole; Anne Waldman; Eileen Myles; Lydia Davis; Lyn Hejinian — they’re all here! So who’s missing? Well, men.


As the note appended to each chapbook explains: “Belladonna* is a reading series that promotes the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multi-cultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable, dangerous with language.” According to Rachel Levitsky, the series founder, “In 1999, New York City’s events were dominated by a kind of rude hetero masculinist culture.” Although this was an original catalyst for the creation of the series, Levitsky explains that even more important is its “effort to articulate and accumulate around a certain aesthetic lineage of feminist hybrid poetics.”


And what better way to commemorate such a lineage than with the inclusion of the chapbook itself. As series co-host Erica Kaufman states, “I think that the chapbook can create a tangible notion of community.” Although for the Belladonna series that community includes the above-mentioned, well-known writers, they also work adamantly to present and celebrate the lesser known and under-published. 2004 saw the release of a multi-volume anthology of French poetry, much of it appearing for the first time in English.


And this past year, along with Litmus Press, they published a beautiful, perfect-bound book titled Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women, which features the work of Kiriu Minahita, Kyong-Mi Park, Ryoko Sekiguchi, and Takako Arai, along with an introduction and translations by Sawako Nakayasu. Again, a majority of this work is appearing in English for the first time. As Kaufman explains, “there is so much to learn from these other women and other cultures.”


It’s worth noting that the writing presented in these chapbooks has often gone on to appear, sometimes in altered form, in larger collections by the various authors, further emphasizing the series’ dedication to documenting the plasticity and unpredictability of its writers. The effort to stave off restrictive and delimiting notions of what one can do with the page is just as prevalent for how the series’ coordinators frame what, exactly, constitutes a feminist writing practice. “When speaking of feminism,” Levitsky notes, “the more simply we define, the more we get into trouble and exclude.” And yet, according to Kaufman, “the mission behind the press very much focuses on feminism and a new sort of experimental feminist verse.” Rather than lengthy polemics and manifestoes, which can foster the very same aggressive atmosphere that necessitated the creation of the series, Kaufman and Levitsky allow the existence of the series itself, and for the chapbooks which help to widen its reach, to define and articulate the nuances of innovative feminist writing.


“[I]n some ways,” Levitsky states, “the less I speak to the womanness of the series the more powerful it can be.” And Kaufman explains, “it is tricky to talk about what is and is not feminist experimental work, but because of this it is imperative that the work be recognized and put out into the world.”


The sheer volume of work published in the series attests to the vibrancy and pluralism of current innovative writing communities, of the numerous approaches to questions of genre and gender. For Levitsky, the act of publishing and hosting such work is tantamount to recognizing the active engagement of women writers in, what she calls, “a relevant conversation around gender,” and, as she further clarifies, “that this conversation is and will continue to be meaningful so long as patriarchy and sexual difference are central social forces in our lives.” Below are reviews of some recent Belladonna* chapbooks.

Chapbook Corner:


Although advertising is in many ways the antithesis of poetry, there are a few notable moments of poets having dabbled in the manipulative, product-pushing dark arts: Marianne Moore once failed to come up with a name flashy yet tempered enough to please the higher-ups at Ford, and Lew Welch has the distinction, albeit often disputed, of being the originator of the catch phrase for the most well known bug spray: “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” However, Kim Rosenfield goes one step further, combining the tasks of nomenclature specialist and product developer to launch the theoretical scents of her 10 Perfumes (Belladonna* #84), which gives off the aroma of satirical wit so pervasive within Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Each of these ten short poems take as their titles a new scent, which is then given a classification, aromatic quality breakdown, and brief catalogue entry in much the same manner as that of an actual perfume connoisseur. Of course, Rosenfield turns everything on its head, using the tension between title and catalogue entry to create a poetic critique of all that is signified by her proposed products. Thus, “Bombardment” is “a heady fragrance that stuns the senses/ and works for freedom in servitude./ Experience it’s transforming powers today.” Where else might one discover the intricacies of scents like “Turkish Headquarters” and “Useless Wisdom”?


Early on in his “Lecture on Nothing,” John Cage includes the famously provocative statement: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” As the lecture proceeds, with equal parts anecdotal example and imagistic digression, to comment on structure, material and composition itself, it turns out that there is in fact much to say, and that much of what is said is punctuated by a self-reflexive awareness. It is out of this model of communicative investigation that Ann Lauterbach shapes her sequence Nothing to Say (Belladonna* #85), the first three sections of which are excerpted here. Among her many masterful techniques, Lauterbach has always had a gift for metaphors that in their particularity and extension leap from the stuff of example and elucidation to remake the ground upon which the poem unfolds. In this sequence, through prose and verse, the world’s largess is left in, unleashed, and given free reign to expand, blurring event, commentary, meditation and image. Lauterbach, like Cage before her, demonstrates that having nothing to say is really saying that the parameters of what constitutes an act of communication are ripe for reexamination.


If Lauterbach’s chapbook is an example of leaving in, than Myung Mi Kim’s excerpt from Penury (Belladonna* #86) is that of leaving out. The state of extreme poverty or scarcity that the title evokes is as applicable to the form of the work as it is to its contents. Separating her short, mostly-unpunctuated single lines with several white spaces, Kim allows the tightly wrought utterances to sink in and gesture toward multiple narratives, before ricocheting off of one another. After a page that references the crossing of borders, Kim writes, “Press this button, no dust”, which suggests the narrative of one having to trade subservience to one form of oppression for that of another. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of this work is its creation of a sequence that enacts the conditions of diaspora without clearly delineating the ethnicity of the displaced, which essentially becomes a testament to the universality of such conditions. This is furthered by the inclusion of the performance note “for six multilingual voice” on the chapbook’s first page. Every line here reads with a charged precision, one that seems to call as much for a lingering on its possibilities as it does for pushing one immediately into the experience of the unknown that follows.


In Permeable Structures: A Performance Essay in Stereo (Belladonna* #87), Laura Elrick orchestrates a multi-voiced conceptual text into an exploration of interior and exterior space. The concern here is with how one inhabits landscape in all of its various forms: the social; the personal; the geographic, etc. Bookended by expository notes that include mention of the video installations of Jane and Louise Wilson, the writings of Žižek, Henri Lefebve, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Freud, the body of the text is comprised of dual columns of verse, scored for two simultaneous voices. Like a clipped version of Beckett’s back-and-forth betweenVladimir and Estragon, these voices weave in and out of one another, locating and dislocating the work, while expanding, recasting, and questioning the terms of the conversation. As with many of the Belladonna chapbooks, this is an excerpt from a much larger work, which itself, as Elrick clarifies, draws from the poetry in her recent book Fantasies in Permeable Structures (Factory School, 2005), thus further complicating the interior/ exterior dialectic.


Melissa Buzzeo’s writing is also attentive to questions of space, although for her it is the impermeability of constant approach that becomes the ligature connecting these concerns in Near: a luminescence (Belladonna* #88). Beginning with a meditation on the presence of the physical self and that of the self constructed in the act of writing, and then conflating the two by keeping them in constant proximity, the short, often fragmented sentences of Buzzeo’s prose belies a deep interest in the instruments of communication, and the unavoidable gaps in which they function; whether one is using one’s tongue, or inking set type, both of which appear here as metonyms, one is only ever “near” what is being articulated. The restrained, almost distant tone of this contemplatively voiced chapbook creates and illuminates a space for one to think along side of it, to consider how each of its propositions clarify and tangle notions of proximity, of self, and both the agents and agency of communication.


Circling around occurrence and event, and leaving details unnamed but palpable in their emotional effect, Dawn Lundy Martin’s The Undress (Belladonna* #89) reads like an extended lament. In a revision of Cartesian dualism, she gives the mind a body and the body a mind, so that the darker manifestations of desire, although broken from a recognizable self, have their own speaking voice. In this way, the prose and verse of The Undress mirror the compartmentalizing of memory brought on by trauma, and the way in which the past and present become contiguous triggers for one another. Unflinchingly ominous in its capacity for simultaneous brutality and tenderness, and for the evocation of such states within a concealed narrative, Martin’s grief song is ultimately a celebration of the power of speaking from within the depths of repression.


Lighter in tone and laden with a humorous sociability, the thirteen poems of Sharon Mesmer’s Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna* #90) progress as serious investigations of the whacked-out subjects implied by their titles: “Why Was the Guano Peruvian?”; “Juan Valdez Has a Little Juan Valdez (i.e., Energy Cannon) In His Pants”; “Squid Versus Assclown”; etc. Mesmer is a card-carrying member of the Flarflist Collective, the group responsible for shifting one of the major concerns of the emergent generation of avant-garde poets from its grappling with a return to the lyric in the 90s to its current interest in a return to Dada-infused fun. As such, some of her work (like the above-mentioned titles) reads with that Flarfist so-bad-its-good aesthetic, yet she’s just as apt to employ associative logic, fixed speaker positions, and a more traditional use of argumentation. Which is not to say that such tenets are divorced from Flarf itself, but rather that Mesmer is a writer for whom multiple modalities are available and executed.

Note: You can read three poems by Sharon Mesmer in Jacket 30: Juan Valdez Has a Little Juan Valdez (i.e., Energy Cannon) in His Pants, Squid Versus Assclown, and At Princess Olga’s [ — Ed.]

Noah Eli Gordon

Noah Eli Gordon

Noah Eli Gordon is the author of six books, three of which were published this year: Novel Pictorial Noise (Harper Perennial, 2007; selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series), Figures for a Darkroom Voice (Tarpaulin Sky 2007; in collaboration with poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson and artist Noah Saterstrom) and A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow (New Issues 2007). His reviews and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including: Boston Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Poetry Project Newsletter, and the book Burning Interiors: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics. He continues to write a column on chapbooks for Rain Taxi: Review of Books and teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.

The Internet address of this page is