Split Series Volume I, Lettered Streets Press, 2014 Split Decision

This Will Be His Legacy, Aubrey Hirsch; Bone Matter, Alexis Pope
Split Series Volume I, Lettered Streets Press, 2014
Available from the Lettered Streets Press online shop.

The new Split Series of chapbooks by The Lettered Streets Press publishes two chapbooks back-to-back in each edition. It’s a fun concept that could lead to some fascinating pairings. As the publishers state on the copyright page, “We publish poetry, fiction, essays, & hybrid work. These terms are relative. We like blurring. We like projects.” This particular volume pairs poetry by Alexis Pope with flash fiction – or, as she subtitles it, “a collection of counterfactual biographies” – by Aubrey Hirsch. The press doesn’t fully deliver on its mission statement – I would like to have seen more blurring, more of a sense of these two halves in conversation as a project. Instead, the interesting premise of this pairing turned out somewhat lopsided in this instance, with Hirsch’s half clearly the stronger of the two.

Pope’s poetry chapbook Bone Matter is an oblique rendering of trauma at the hands of an unnamed “he”: “he broke me” and “There hurts in his hands.” There’s a lost baby lament in “Love Song for the After,” and an account of being driven to (a) suicide attempt(s) by his gaslighting. And yet the speaker returns, too weak to get away in “Directions: Start a Fire.” But eventually she finds the necessary strength, telling us “Stay I am/ not as dead as I seem,” and “I am no longer a captive/ to his dark.”

The speaker of Bone Matter writes from a painful and barren place, yearning for another woman who is described as lush and beautiful. But is this woman a beloved after “him”? The opening poem “Be Soft on the Tin That Holds” names a “Jane” (Doe?) who sucks from the speaker’s wound – to drain her? or drain poison? – about whom the speaker says “I dim myself against/ her woven core,” and pleads “Enter me/ like a forest of girl.” And yet elsewhere, the feminine other seems to represent a version of her self she wants to regain or become, as in “Directions: Exit This Burning Building”: “No time to mention/ my chest & how it filled with a slow/ cough for her. Broken, a figurine of my shadow self”; or in “Monologue for an Empty Bay”: “I want my/ own body on top. Touch myself/ as this other self. Not fucking/ myself but fucking myself. With/ brain gone.” This is raw writing, but doesn’t seem fully coalesced for the author yet. There’s lovely writing throughout Bone Matter, but it was so oblique that I was forced to work hard to make sense of the poem for the poem – perhaps because Pope hadn’t yet made sense of it for herself. And I’m not sure that the lyrical language was a big enough payoff.

Sharing the split chap is Aubrey Hirsch’s This Will Be His Legacy: a collection of counterfactual biographies, a series of eleven character sketches – four female and seven male – that includes Amelia Earhart, Eve, Theodore Roosevelt, Al Gore (Sr., Jr., and III), President Zachary Taylor, and Apollo 11 command pilot Michael Collins. The trick with inhabiting personas of the famous and well-documented is to offer new insight into the character that imaginatively enlarges our understanding of the person. A few “biographies” seemed retread of familiar material. But there are some outstanding pieces here: “Chairman of the Boards” presents Wilt Chamberlain as a man ruled by statistics who nonetheless is tired of quantifying everything. The triptych “Albert Arnold Gore” is a poignant study in identity slippage, fathers and sons, and duty: “When Al’s father [Sr.] tells Al [Jr.] he has to go to war to save his Senate seat, it’s difficult for Al not to feel just a little bit like Jesus Christ.” There’s also a painful moment when Al Jr. suddenly decides his weak son needs to learn to defend himself:

It is perfectly clear to Al in this moment that his father has no intention of teaching him how to fight. He is here on the damp lawn under blue sky and the guise of male bonding because his father, whose name is also Al, needs to hit him. And Al decides that he will let him, just this once.

My favorite sketch, titled “Theodore Roosevelt,” is actually a portrait of the relationship between Roosevelt and his lesbian daughter Alice, and about the desire each has for a masculine appearance: “for his part, Teddy knows what it’s like to want, so desperately, to be a man. Isn’t that, after all, why he shrugged off the asthmatic memories of his childhood? Isn’t that why he boxed other boys’ eyes as blue as hyacinths?”

Ultimately, this volume is a pairing of two chapbooks that counterbalance each other: Confessional and persona, poetry and fiction, autobiography and “counterfactual” biographies of imagined details. But the two halves never engage with each other, in terms of content, aesthetic project, or formal structure. The Lettered Press’ concept is a fascinating one, and I’d love to see the editors assemble splits that are more clearly complementary or in dialogue with each other. I’m excited to see this innovative spin on chapbook presentation, and hope that future editions in the series take the opportunity to maximize the potential interplay between the halves of the split, which would make for even more compelling collections than Bone Matter/This Will Be His Legacy.

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist who teaches at the University of North Dakota, and the author of the forthcoming Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle.