Catastrophe Theory by Susan Yount and By Fire by Jessica Cuello

Self-defined as a two-woman operation, Hyacinth Girl Press (HPG) is micro-press that publishes up to six handmade poetry chapbooks per year. After being introduced to its editor, Margaret Bashaar at AWP 2014, Bashaar asked what kind of poetry I write, and in the haze of the AWP Bookfair, I completely failed at selling myself. Fortunately, Bashaar was much better at selling her press and convinced me to buy two of its chapbooks: Catastrophe Theory by Susan Yount (2012) and By Fire by Jessica Cuello (2013).

By Fire copy Catastrophe Theory

The craft of these books is simple, but thoughtful. Both Catastrophe Theory and By Fire are sturdy booklets of about thirty pages. The cover art is printed on cardstock, backed by one sheaf of colored paper, and bound to the text with a ribbon binding.

While the books are clearly branded and even stamped by HGP, their voices are not similar. Catastrophe Theory by Susan Yount preempts the #settheworldonfire, and she leads us through fire and other catastrophes. The other motifs in this collections are houses and geometry; if the houses are constantly folding in on themselves as in the title poem and others, the structure of geometrical properties direct the structure of poems as in “Cusp Catastrophe: ” below:

There is now a curve of points in [a, b] space where stability is lost,

            where the stable solution will suddenly jump to an alternate outcome.

           

x=oatmeal coffee schedule request Christmas on Friday this year

a=private mother emotional just took the phone off forward at 8:27 a.m.

b=a woman who worries things to do at work

 

V=a few months before her death 11:29 press release.

 

There was a house (x) on fire in the period (a)

when condition (b) was fluid, frank and simple—

At that same moment (V), two divorces were arranged

and a student wrote that she couldn’t understand

the woman’s punctuation. It is buckling to hear.

 

 

 

x          was like a regular day off on a holiday

a          was like the 2:30 fix

b          was born from an abandoned car

 

V         was like restless vagina syndrome

People carry-on baggage (x).

At 1:29 p.m. there is an automated message (a):

Congress (b) has passed the new 2099 stimulus package

for small businesses. 11:30 a.m.—beep—beep—

At 11:29 p.m. there is another message (V): mommy where

are you at the computer rubbing dirt sandwiches into her mouth.

This poem seems to syntactically (or with a lack of syntax) link multiple found moments from a woman’s day together as if to form a parabola or maybe a cusp. Time moves forward and then backward, and the reader isn’t sure how to apply the lines to their equation. While in this poem and other geometrically formed ones (about one-third of the poems are similarly structured) relate the natural beauty of geometry to the unpredictability of catastrophes, Yount risks alienation of some readers whose geometrically-disinclined minds will just skim over the words. For me, these poems don’t fulfill what they attempt to do; rather, they confuse it. I prefer Yount’s poems when they are narratively structured. But what is most notable about this collection is Yount’s change in tone throughout. She dissents quietly in “All That It Takes,” but screams in “Why Ophelia,” my favorite poem in the collection:

because she is every female suicide

a fucking rock

in a sack of puppies if you ask

and yes bitches, we all want to die

you idiots too              my own current fascination

is off the third floor balcony with scissors

 

Ophelia,                       you cunt, my father was an ass too

 

though I never had an ineffective brother I had a sister

who could only cry and cry                              like women do

 

because I couldn’t stick my head in an oven

jump off the third floor balcony

or forget                      I have decided that your death

amounts to nothing more than cutting rue

stumbling

and then hitting

your darned head

 

you only drowned

because you couldn’t shut

your babbling mouth.

Like I said, I love the tone in this poem, and I also appreciate the combination of so many traditions: Shakespeare’s, Plath’s, and Yount’s personal traditions. Its sparse punctuation mimics our speech as if we, the reader, are yelling with Yount.

If Yount’s Catastrophe Theory is potentially difficult for readers to access because of the geometric theories and equations applied to poetic forms and human relationships, Jessica Cuello’s By Fire is only slightly more accessible. By Fire is a collection of poems based on the life of Esclarmonde de Foix, a noblewoman who converted to Catharism in thirteenth century France. This would be no big deal if there were a premise or some indication in the title, maybe even in the inscription. However, the only mention of the necessary historical background is at the end of the collection in the “Notes” section. During my first read, I searched for character, context, and historical clues in the poems, making up my own hippy-like Cathar. It is evident that the speaker in the first poems is a Cathar, and while I had never heard of them before, I was able to Google the term and learn that they were anti-Catholics, pacifists, and vegetarians. Approximately halfway through my first-read of collection, I figured out I was reading about a specific historical incident. I actually couldn’t continue on until I found the notes section and was able to place the poems in context. Cuello is not able to achieve the varied tones that Yount is–her poems are quiet, thoughtful, and almost pious. In this, she gives a voice to one of a historical woman who was denied a voice in her own time. For example, in “Colloquy of Montreal: 1207,” Cuello writes

Monks in rows, muted light,

conversations where you are negated,

where you are not seen,

where you let out a snarl

of words at the end in order not

to be annihilated. For the sake

of the words—for the others.

Because you have already left the room,

you’re at the coast licking dried salt

from your lips, giving a profile

or just a jaw to the inquisitor

or to the man who is on your side

but nevertheless believes that you

have nothing to say. Not even if you spoke

to God. Too close to the hearth,

even if two threads in the pattern

of your cloth were put in by God.

When reading this poem, I imagine De Foix with Cuello and begin to understand her. Likewise, this happens in the most compelling poem in the collection, “The Blinding of the Men of Bram: 1210”:

The Easter voices sing. Their Jesus

is come back—for the sun in the cold,

the lighter clothes, the war that is not

a war. Call it a skirmish or

a massacre. Call it home.

 

I am rabid with departure

The bend wood of the cithara,

when it’s crushed and burnt

will drift, aura amora.

 

The men of Bram walked single file

without their eyes. In the red

chambers of nearby caves,

aragonite crystal shimmers.

Our region glitters,

our region shrinks.

After reading these poems in context, I really like this collection because as a reader, I’m included in Cuello’s attempt to understand the dedication of the Cathers, especially De Foix.

While Hyacinth Girl Press takes risks with voice, content, and potentially alienating some readers when they chose to publish chapbooks like these, I’m impressed by risks they are taking, and I look forward to reading some of the chapbooks forthcoming this year.

 

 

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