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Paper Dolls & Books

Greetings! Why Paper Dolls & Books? The doll is a response to writing that moves me. It is a triangulation of the book's cover, content, and my own imagination. Someone smarter than me once said that "the best response to a poem is a poem." For me, the best response to a book that I can't stop thinking about is a paper doll. Click on each image below to enlarge. 

Jars of light, a matchbox stuffed with downy feathers, a dead bird wrapped in newspaper, a bust carved from soap, the remains of a goldfish—bright as a “boiled carrot”—dangling from a cat’s mouth. Jericho Parm's Lost Wax is one part meditation on sense and memory, one part exploration of art and aesthetics, and always, woven through like a bright red sash or a trail of pomegranate seeds, is the human story of love and loss, of innocence and knowledge. 


It is tempting to say that the essays here are rooms and the collection a museum, as the speaker herself wanders sculpture courts and galleries of the Metropolitan. But the better metaphor, perhaps, is a house built daily by memory and reshaped by language. With the poet-speaker as our guide, every quotidian object is renewed, every texture and forgotten smell enriched. “What I want more than anything,” Parms writes, “is to soak everything in—the way the wood binges on the amber oil, swells with moisture, and wakes up dry by noon.” 


Here is the lyrical essay at its best, permeated with genuine curiosity and regard for the raw materials that make up the natural world. 


Always I choose books for this series that compel me to make art, to create in physical form a response to the text. Though there are only a few essays in Lost Wax that begin in childhood, I decided to make the doll appear youthful in order to capture the inquisitiveness of the voice. The tree is hand cut from one piece of watercolor paper, which I overlayed in parts with pieces of vellum and words and images from a vintage book on animal tracks. Not pictured here are many hand-drawn objects inspired by Parms’ collection: a snowshoe hare, a dollhouse, a hand mirror, a fossil, a cicada, feathers lifting from an open matchbox, some badly drawn horses (horses are hard!), a violin, and a jar of fireflies. 


Lost Wax was published by The University of Georgia Press and designed by Erin Kirk New. You can visit Jericho Parms’ website here and read her essay “A Chapter on Red” at Hotel Amerika

How to Make a Paper Doll for Sue William Silverman’s extraordinary memoir in essays, 

How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences (University of Nebraska Press, 2020): An Homage to “Miss Route 17’s Blue Period.” 


Memory: its own lifeform

 —Sue William Silverman


Papyrophilia: an obsessive love of paper


First, make the hair (the hair holds memory: “long tangled hair heavy with mist”). Carve out three places for the fates to rest, for the three hearts of an octopus to pump blue blood. Close the eyes of the doll so that her other senses will be heightened. Dress her in the white t-shirt that smells of salt water (“[m]emory is emotional history”). Cut everything from thick watercolor paper with the lilac hue—your favorite—and layer, layer, layer. 


Next, for the octopus. Let the arms swirl near the doll’s hair, but not inside of it. Draw each puckered suction cup like memory’s kiss. Carve paper coral and paper plants, bring to the surface what lives in the deep sea of memory. Make it heart-like, tubes and valves, vessels and chambers, all the things that could go wrong and do. 


Think of your own fears of death and endings, how the surviving means making a seat for death in the corner, how its presence makes the room glow brighter, the edges of your scissors and paper more defined (see “Ultima Thule,” steps one, two, three). 


You will get tired, your fingers may hurt, but you can’t forget the delicate blue boy whose heart could not pump enough oxygen. Draw him small, beautiful, difficult to hold. Worry you will ruin him just by touch. Your hands will be blue, your thoughts blue, thinking of the speaker’s childhood friend, her blue essay staying with you. 


You will not want to be done with the doll, done with the book, which is smudged with your blue fingerprints, bent, and falling apart. Atropos is cutting the thread (being finished with something you love is perhaps a small death: the end of a book, the completion of a doll, putting the paper and pencils back into the closet). But luckily, “memory is round, always circling,” and there is no end to surviving. 

You can see Sue read "Miss Route 17's Blue Period" here and order her collection here

“Let’s pretend you are going hunting. / You pack a buck knife, a bow / arrows cleft from straight weeds, wild/ in my front yard.” So begins Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut, our feet set on the tree-lined path, eyes alert for both tracker and prey, feeling the incumbrance of the blade in our hand and how we might be asked to use it. From the beginning, we are placed in the center of what it means to be the human animals we are, stuffed with desire, cruelty, prejudice, hunger, tenderness. Utilizing repurposed text from taxidermy and tracking guides (my favorite title being Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit), the poems do not so much transport readers but rather direct our gaze downward to our own hands. And, if we are willing, to open ourselves at the midline, to take on the work of disassembling our own tangled anatomy. Unlike so much of what lives on the page, The Taxidermist’s Cut is not just a book of the mind, but a book created by and made real inside the body. 

Many different types of birds appear throughout, but there seems to be a throughline of bird as changeling, the evolving self, cycles of creation and destruction. Bird as escape and bird as trapped, bird as subject of cruelty, bird as transcendence. As a paper artist, creating a crow with a nearly two-foot wingspan and a chest that opens on hinges felt like the right visual response, both in physicality (100 individually carved feathers!) and problem-solving. I did not want the bird to appear lifeless or without a sense of agency, which is why I kept the eye open, the face visible. As a viewer, you get to witness the bird’s insides, but the bird is watching you as well. 

As with all my Paper Dolls & Books picks, The Taxidermist’s Cut is a text I’ve read and inhabited many times and will be called back to again. Winner of the 2014 Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry and chosen by Brenda Shaughnessy, the book’s striking cover art (“Starling”) was created by Corina Dross and Joceyln Mosser. You can purchase the collection here and read Mohabir’s poems at PANK. 

“I pretend I am dangerous/ some days, pull my hat down low/ and swagger like I know that/ murderous potential of my thumb, that faint difference between an oil spot/ and the human heart.” 


Like any successful fighting maneuver, I was not expecting the impact The Dead Wrestler Elegies would lay on me. I was not expecting that every poem would leave me winded from awe, holding my heart and gasping, “Damn”—only to be lovingly, gently lowered to the mat. Shame on me; I’d never considered professional wrestling as the perfect arena for exploring human drama at its most fundamental. Thankfully, Todd Kaneko has, and we are all the better for it. And isn’t that one of the most vital jobs of the poet? To show us how we fit within the very spheres we may have previously dismissed as crude, spectacle, other


Through finely crafted poems and elegantly rendered vector line illustrations, Kaneko weaves together the drama of two unexpectedly overlapping theaters: the wrestling ring and the family home. As all enduring stories do, the collection asks us again and again--Who are we? Who are we when we aren’t performing as fighter, as mother, father, rival, son? 


“When I watch men fight on television,/ it is my father in the grip of the masked man, it is me held aloft by the face and slammed/ heavy to the floor. We are all twisted/ into terrible shapes before the final bell.” 


The ah-ha moment of DWE’s brilliance arrives like a slap at the sounding of that bell: Wrestling, like loving, is a hazardous occupation. 


Originally released in 2014 by Curbside Splendor, the collection is newly republished by New Michigan Press as a Championship Edition that includes new poems and extra illustrations. To celebrate The Dead Wrestler Elegies, I made a paper doll duo: one based on Luna Vachon (see “Luna Vachon Is Your Shadow in the Darkness”) and the other on Bam Bam Bigelow. The real Luna and Bam Bam were a couple, and both died in their forties. Fully jointed and half dead, they’ve been resting in each other’s arms on my worktable for a few months, awaiting their comeback.


Help me celebrate the release of The Dead Wrestler Elegies: Championship Edition by ordering your copy through New Michigan Press. You can read a sample poem here and see more photos of the dolls by following me on Instagram @lihenleyart.