Geof Huth's new book, Longfellow Memoranda, consists of 366 poems written into the small spaces provided in a 1917 day book. Each day was accompanied with excerpts from one or two Longfellow poems, which Geof riffs off. You can read more about the book, follow links to samples, or order it. Here are three nice poety things about it:
1. Voice. Many of Geof's signature forms -- the pwoermds, the fidgetglyphs -- operate within words, or even within letters, and don't engage with concepts of "voice", of the characteristics of an imagined narrator or an imagined listener. They are, instead, nestled within the crenelations of the building blocks of language. But Longfellow's poetry is invested in the concept of "voice". And by meeting him halfway, Geof takes on its challenge. But by meeting him halfway, Geof complicates the challenge. Is the voice in these poems Geof's? Geof's through Longfellow's? Longfellow's through Geof? Some newborn persona, born through a dialectical struggle between the two? Longfellow (especially in the quotes selected for the day book) is sentimental. When these poems are also sentimental, is this Geof's own sentimentality finding a formal excuse to creep through? Or is he play-acting, or trying on foreign modes of sentimentality? And these questions neither have nor need answers, of course. Nor am I by any means suggesting that this book is alone in raising such questions, heavens no, but it did raise them in a clear and sustained way.
2. Form. Because the day book gave four lines per day, the majority of the poems are four lines long, though a few are shorter if the original owner had used up the space. A reproduction of a page of the day book included towards the end shows that on April 12th, the original owner used up all four lines, forcing Geof to write his poem in one cramped line underneath. This suggests that Geof could have occasionally gotten away with a five-line poem, but he never choose to do so.
Now, four is an irksome number to deal with. The classic problem with a foursome is that you just end up pairing off, which defeats the purpose of getting everybody together in the first place. Geof does a good job of working through the combinations here, in part through the judicious use of indentation (unless I missed something, he restricted himself to one level of indentation) and the occasional poem with less than four lines. You've got your ABBAs, your ABABs, your AAABs, your AAAAs, and your ABCDs, all of which are aggressively symmetric, but again, with the occasional indentation you can make a ABAB', which helps unsettle things. But what would the book have been like if it had only three lines, or a generous five lines! Five is the magic number, after all, where the combinations and asymmetries explode in your face. But perhaps the symmetries and formal rhythms of fourness are part of meeting Longfellow halfway.
3. Ligatures. Another book I'm reading right now, Steve McCaffery's Seven Pages Missing Vol. 1, has "ct" and "st" ligatures: ﬆ, should that character show up. I'm not really a big fan of such ligatures, in general -- they look nice on their own but they're distracting when you're reading. Longfellow Memoranda goes full-tilt with its ligatures: "gi", "sp", "it", and the creepily subtle "ee" ligature speckle its pages. Geof included the abundant ligatures as among the reasons why he chose the font. And I wouldn't bring it up, because in generally it didn't "work" for me. It looks "old" but the day book itself doesn't include such ligatures, though perhaps Longfellow's books during his lifetime would have -- but it looks older than that, even. But it was all worth it for this one poem, which as far as I know might even be a (terrific) typo:
Which reads, should the ligature show up on your browser:
122/244This poem, playing off the "readst" in the original Longfellow, is on more familiar Huthian ground (note there's not much "voice" here!): "read" as verb, "reader" as noun, but "readest" as quasi superlative adjective, recasting "reader" and "read" as adjectives, reminding us that "read" is unstable and could be read "read", the past tense of "read", and with an old-timey ligature on newfangled superlative "readest" but not on the source's actual old-time morphological form "readst". The Longfellow poem begins: "Maiden, that readst this simple rhyme / Enjoy thy youth, it will not stay", and not even the word "readst" stayed. The grammar has shifted out from under us, had in fact already well shifted by Longfellow's time. The slippage can serve as a memento mori -- and the other Longfellow poem for that day is entitled "Morituri Salutamus" -- "We who are about to die salute you" -- and, well, who knew a list of morphological forms could be such a downer?
Well, Geof knew.
(There's also a really nice bit of typesetting involving two of the numberings for the poems, but I'm not going to spoil that surprise for you.)