By James Belflower and Matthew Klane
Flim Forum Press, 2016
106 pages, $25
Reviewed by Andrew Sargus Klein
We’re in a something of a golden age of letterpress and hand-bound chapbooks, screen-printed covers and heavy duty cardstock. The “book” is living a great life right now as an object of care and attention, where the physical and visual attributes are almost as important as the content it holds.
Canyons, a collaboration of digital collage, poetry, and found text by James Belflower and Matthew Klane, is a good example. It’s not reinventing any wheels, but it is a gorgeous work that can be experienced in a linear fashion as well as in a flip-to-any-damn-page fashion. The collages—made up of letters, vintage photographs, line drawings, and text, coherent—are beautiful enough to stand on their own.
The book is nostalgic Americana, a sort of “wagons west!” excitement that starts on the copyright page:
the good people… turn out to see us start. We arise our little flag,
push the boats from shore, engulfed in a moment,
and the swift current carries us down
and carries through to the first poem:
Come-all-ye yeomanry summonses y’all
go! — hauling the company cart
Come-all-ye hair-rained calamity howlers
stand on yr cairns — you country of stumps
Come-all-ye imaginary aborigine
This has the diction of a soapbox barker trying to persuade a crowd to sign up for an expedition, conjuring no small amount American-bred myth-making and Manifest Destiny—declarative, masculine, entitled. Visually, there’s no more than a single line of this poem on each page, which makes the act of reading it a slow scroll buoyed by oceans of negative space, like the opening credits to a movie. It’s a simple but arresting angle of entry.
This brings readers straight into the first of nine letters—found text, it seems (it’s not clear one way or the other)—written to “John” by an unknown person. The letters are the central structure of the work; they are as beautifully written as they are bizarre, to the point where they command the most attention. This isn’t to take away from the rest of the book insomuch as its meant to convey how strikingly original the letters are.
We’re somewhere in the 1800s (electricity is described as magic), John is on some sort of geologic/topographic expedition, and it seems the writer is cataloging John’s findings; there is clearly a deep level of love and respect held by the letter writer, and discerning the relationship between the two amounts to a mystery-driven narrative.
The writing veers unexpectedly from observations of the surrounding landscapes to dream journaling to philosophical digressions on memory and space:
Perhaps across the great blank spaces that divide us, we both hold perpetual intercourse? I know we have talked at length about memory as both preservation and conversation, but these are the same words you use to describe your ‘great survey’ of the canyons.
I do not agree with the Society that my letters should be deemed obscene; it is not possible to be more discrete, only to be more metamorphic.
The affection from the letter writer is shot through with a romantic eroticism, and the word “obscene” calls to mind the era’s descriptors for homosexuality. Because there is only one side of this correspondence, the reader can fill in the blanks as they see fit—a simple technique for storytelling, and deftly deployed here.
Although we never read a response from John, the gaps between the letters are filled with poems and collages. The poetry strikes an elegiac tone (“Long Ago begins with “I wrote in raptures”) and is often self-referential. “Picture a Postcard” riffs on the ultimate failings of language to capture purely what the eyes receive; it repeats the word “picture” as verb, demanding the reader picture a chasm, a picnic, a beaver. The left-hand page holds text, the right-hand remains blank—a literal blank page on which to project the image demanded by the text.
“The Vanishing Savage’s” is where the collection is at its darkest and frankest. It excavates the ground underneath a visitor’s center and calls attention to how American progress has trampled and buried any number of people, stories, histories—and reduced those histories to quaint displays behind glass, a bit of rock or a piece of fur standing in for entire populations. The last letter includes this sentence:
The sun shines in splendor on vermillion walls, shaded into green and gray, where the rocks are lichened over; the river fills the channel from wall to wall, and the canyon opens, like a beautiful portal, into a region of glory.
It’s hard not to feel a double-edge to this sort of grandiose praise for the natural world. These vistas were taken—by ships, by wagons, by guns, by disease—and to wax poetic on the American landscape is, on one level, to ultimately sing praise for expansion and erasure. Perhaps the work isn’t explicitly making this commentary, but by referencing indigenous erasure, even on the peripheral of the overall work, the darker interpretations are valid.
Because of the time period, the Whitmanesque lyricism of the letters and the poems, the all-but-confirmed queerness of the letter writer, and the use of collage and found text, Canyons is able to occupy multiple timelines and dictions. It is a celebration of science and discovery; a story of forbidden, potentially unrequited love; an uncomfortable foray into America’s dangerous myth-making; a love letter to nature; and a discourse on language’s limits to recreate the real world as well as modern history’s failure to tell the whole story from which we came.