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.
“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.
Fire, birds, windows opening and closing, the long shadows of men who left. Loneliness and self-reliance and the red thread that remains of a scarf. Fathers and how they disappoint, how they resurrect and leave us but never leave us, our palms empty and waiting for them to notice. Though a study of grief, at no turn does Nathan McClain's debut collection, Scale, sacrifice image or music for narrative. Rather Scale invites us to look at the delicate branch about to snap under the weight of the mockingbird, knowing its blues song is about us, too. With the devotion of a storm chaser, Scale relentlessly pursues the burn cycle of destruction and repair but not without consolation: "[W]ho can stop/ the wind from ripping shingles off the roof, stop/ the rain from coming in, from pinging/ the deep bottoms of pots which keep you awake?/ You do what you can. You build a bird house/ (one thing in the shape of holding another)/ from leftover wood; you leave seed/ and listen for days, as nothing/ but a small hope fills it." This is one of my favorite books of all time--it reads the way a good meal satisfies, leaving one nourished but wanting the experience over and over again.
Fourway Books published Scale in 2017. The cover art is titled "House on Fire" by Famous When Dead. You'll want to read Scale as soon as possible so that you can be ready for his second book, Previously Owned.
My second featured book of 2022 is Foxlogic, Fireweed by Jennifer K. Sweeney, which won The Backwaters Prize in Poetry from the University of Nebraska Press. The cover art was created by Ian Middelton and the original piece is titled "A Marc of Foxes" paying homage to Franz Marc. If I were to make a list titled “Five Poetry Books All Visual Artists Should Read,” Foxlogic would be one of them. Re-reading this collection, I kept a growing list of images I wanted to wear on my skin, or at least carry with me in my pockets: “ants hauling emeralds” of spilled sugar, a clutch of black widows living inside a child’s drum, “a sea of marionettes…hollow limbs rooted to strings,” “crows on a pomegranate tree,” beer cans stashed inside branches, a mother snow leopard—“her stillness and wild falling…a compass.” In order to really appreciate the choices I made for the Fox Spirit Doll (the patches, the deer leaping behind branches, the blue jay swooping in, the hourglass and pitcher constellations) you’ll have to gift yourself a copy of Foxlogic, Fireweed. Want to see more photos of this doll? Follow me on Instagram @lihenleyart.