Sunday, March 30, 2008



My Name Is Esther Clara by Laurel Johnson
(Dandelion Books, LLC, Tempe, AZ, 2006)


A FOURSQUARE Special Edition of Five Poems by Maureen Thorson
(FOURSQUARE, Charlottesville, VA, 2007)


here, love by Jess Rowan
(FOURSQUARE, Charlottesville, VA, 2007)


For the past year, I have been reading -- devouring -- all sorts of books (novels, memoirs, reportage, even “Christian romances”) as long as they contained details about developing the Midwest or the Western U.S. in the early years of U.S.-American history. My favorite subtopic has revolved around homesteading -- I was/am interested in how people settle in previously near barren landscapes, how they craft a home from such situations; my interest continues through to the early parts of the 20th century.

So I was primed to be interested in My Name Is Esther Clara by Laurel Johnson. Here, the poet has crafted a biography of her grandmother, Esther Clara, who was born in 1898 and died in 1989.

With the help of audiotapes and videotapes of her grandmother telling stories of her life that moves across rural Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, Johnson inhabits her grandmother’s mind to create a memoir structured from a first-person basis.

Well, it is a satisfying, page-turning read. It offers interesting details about homesteading, with topics ranging over raising animals for food instead of pets to one-room country schools to building houses (including tent-houses) from scratch to the making of lye soap. It also offers quotidian details that enchant today, such as the dabbing of flour on sun-burnt faces before local dances (except that Esther Clara’s father always made his daughter wash it off before leaving the house) to the rendering of lard.

I particularly enjoyed this treatise on lard which evoked my father during his recovery from triple bypass surgery; while recovering he had asked my mother, “Do you think the fact that I used to eat pure pig fat as a child hurt my heart?” Dad was joking, of course, as he knew the answer. Here’s an excerpt from Johnson’s book:
Rendering lard was another of my favorite jobs. It took a bit of skill to do it properly so the lard would turn out hard and pure. On lard rendering day, Ma gathered up cast iron pans and kettles and every female on the place had to help. She built a slow fire in the cook stove and set the pans and kettles around the top, as many as the stove would hold. We piled mounds of fresh ground hog fat into each container, and everybody had to stir as the raw fat slowly cooked and turned into liquid lard. The trick was keeping a low steady fire going and not allowing the fat to burn. Like I said, it took skill and attention to produce lard a woman could be proud of. It was an all day job. In the end we poured the liquid lard into crocks that the men then carried to our well house after cooling. In the bottom of each pan and kettle were light brown cracklings -- bits of meat left over from the rendering. Cracklings tasted a bit like sausage. Ma stirred them into gravy or scrambled eggs for added flavor and energy. Our whole family loved cracklings. Pa and the boys often ate them straight out of the pan when Ma wasn’t looking. People didn’t worry or even know about high cholesterol or calories then. We all worked hard enough at heavy labor to burn off whatever calories we took in, and then some, so everyone looked forward to fresh cracklings once the lard was rendered. And you’ve never tasted anything quite so delicious as pie crust made with lard. High cholesterol aside, modern shortenings can’t compare.

Well, that certainly explains (at least to me, a chicharron lover) why Dad was cheerful enough about the surgery to clear his arteries -- for him, the price was worth it.

Because My Name Is Esther Clara is chronologically written, it begins with some childish hijinks that helpfully set the stage for drawing out Esther Clara's charm (in turn, helping Johnson succeed in showing her grandmother to be more than just the “wasted shell” in the long-term facility at the end of her days, where she battled hallucinations as dementia stole “all but a few shreds of her personal history and identity.”)

You can’t help but laugh as Esther Clara describes how she and her brothers dyed geese green or ended up murdering a goat. Ah, but the innocents were motivated by trying to be helpful to their parents: they’d perceived green geese as making the family’s goose eggs to be more competitive to the marketplace, and the murder occurred because the goat’s meanness plagued their father.

Beyond childhood, Johnson succeeds in drawing out the various aspects of her grandmother: spunk, humor, flirtatiousness, industriousness, stubbornness, grit, and a huge love for family. Johnson’s biography is a loving treatment that benefits from fully-developed characterizations of lives and lifestyles. She makes this reader also fall in love with Esther Clara. In a different context, I, too, could say to her grandmother what his grandfather said during their courting days:
“Esther Clara, you beat anything I ever stuck a bucket under”!


As the passage about making lard shows, I’m interested in the hand-made, in people doing-it-themselves. This is one reason why I am such a fan of Jessica Smith’s publishing entity, FOURSQUARE. So much of homesteading, farming and ranching have to do with the labor of one’s hands. The DIY and frequently hand-made chaps and other little publications put out by indie presses charm me for their bodily gestures that manifest idealism and desire.

Such led me to engage with two FOURSQUARE publications, a Special Edition of Five Poems by Maureen Thorson and the single-poem chap here, love by Jess Rowan.

I found it impossible to divorce the how-of-publication to what-is-published in these FOURSQUARE projects. For both publications, the poems are printed on a square cardstock that then are lovingly (or so it seems to me) embraced in a casing made of stitched fabric. For Rowan’s, the fabric is a floral print -- red and lavender blooms against a light blue background; for Thorson, the fabric presents red flowers, martial-looking stars, a whale and a hula dancer against a beige backdrop. The word “FOURSQUARE” is stitched atop the right corner of the fabric casings.

Such a presentation shows what can be so nifty about indie, DIY (Do It Yourself) publishing, while also revealing how the individual editor’s vision -- for FOURSQUARE, the publisher/editor is Jessica Smith -- ends up enhancing the experience offered by the poems. Smith shows that she cares about the poems enough to spend time considering their presentation, and then offering them through her own manual labor.

All of this might be irrelevant, of course, if the featured poems were deemed not to be worthy of such attention. Well, Thorson’s five poems are not only a pleasure to read but they are powerful enough to generate the effect of a novel. From the start of the first poem “The Parameters of this Relationship”, which musically begins
Kisses for the stevedores, kisses for the gangplank
And for the drunken sailor,
Night’s awkward, hundred-armed embraces.

Trawlers shift their moorings, pickpockets shoot the dark.
And for the drunken sailor,
The world revolves its backlight into something like an art

to the last poem presented here in its entirety
Revelations of the Bad Hotel Room

The drunken sailor faces down
his six o’clock brush with mortality
by making himself visibly instructive.
He’s gone and drawn crescent moons
and swivelly arrows all across his arms,
a schematic for informing the vast
and pliant moonmen who discover
his body how best to repair him,
even though the only person
who’d want to is me, and even I
would put the pieces ina different order.
There are things we could de-emphasize
in Sailor 2.0,and he always did want
robot eyes. Hey, wake up, sailor, and see:
laser peepers, just for you, honey. And
the glass liver? That’s something for me.

unfolds a punchy narrative. It could be about one drunken sailor’s experience or the always pleasingly-surprising twists of an observer’s mind. It’s the former that enervate these poems, as such manifests itself in such mysterious moments (“plant moonmen”) and interesting juxtapositions (Sailor 2.0”).

What’s also effective is the harmony between the text and cover fabric. Sure, there are the fabric’s naval references (e.g. seas and oceans associated with whales and hula dancers) but, as with the poem’s text, there’s sufficient space between the printed figures to allow the reader/viewers to come in and imagine for themselves a tale (rather than be spoonfed a story).

A similarly entrancing effect results with Jess Rowan’s; here, his FOURSQUARES publication offers a single poem, “here, love.” In this engagement, only the text is presented as the poem is presented visually in a pattern that Blogger can’t reproduce. But just from these lines, one can see the sharp linguistic play:
is silvery                   a collection of slivers
                  this thing wants a collection for generations
to hang itself around you                   for hanging’s sake                   for
every little cell                   a history a                   trinket
like the tips of you                   fevered

This excerpt is presented in one square of the folded cardstock. On the same square is this text featured upside-down
dear lord there are
twenty-six things i am
thankful for dear lord
i keep this thing in a
pocket in a drawer not
for lack of respect or
awareness but for the
control of memory
dear lord help me to
remember a woman
who was a beautiful
a woman who was
vital not struggling
who was thirty not
hundreds who made
for the stories my
mother told

I appreciated how the above passage was published upside-down. Visually and metaphorically, the decision seems to present it as an undercurrent to the poem. And, indeed, a yearning blooms between Rowan’s words, an old-fashioned naked yearning made fresh.

The cover, too, befits the design. The front of the cover stock is a figure of a soldier shooting a rifle, but from the rifle are emitted a cloud of burgundy-colored hearts. While the image is reproduced from “Heart Attack,” a collage by Karen Colquhoun, it absolutely fits the poem. And while the poem and cover art make a great partnership, both also come together in a lovely ménage a trios with the floral pattern chosen by Smith to be the fabric casing.

FOURSQUARE’s fabrics, I should note, are designed by Pamela and Edward Smith; MAC Uniforms.

Interesting, resonant poems. Interesting and lovely design. Both can occur and yet not necessarily work together as organically as occurs in these FOURSQUARE EDITIONS. The results -- gems, really -- honor the idealism I suspect the publisher brought to the FOURSQUARE project, and showcases indie publishing at its best.


As remuneration for editing Galatea Resurrects, Eileen Tabios doesn't have her books reviewed here ... but she's pleased to point you elsewhere to Thomas Fink's review of her SILENCES: The Autobiography of Loss.


jess rowan said...

So very thank you for the lovelies, Eileen.

Reen said...

Aiee! Yes. The sailor and I are blushing.

Jessica Smith said...

thanks for the review, Eileen.

To clarify: my parents (ed and pam smith) helped design the way 4SQ are engineered, and currently do the sewing and embroidery. it is their trade. but they do not actually design the *fabrics*. the fabrics ordinarily come from which stocks small batch prints fron a few different designers. sometimes the fabrics are hand-screened as was the case with 4SQ 1.3, 1.4 and michelle detorie's SE.

na said...

my regards to your parents, Jessica...I enjoyed their contribution.

You're welcome to all...

...hmmmm...,my thoughts are stimulated over the notion of reen and the sailor...:-)