The Improbable Issue No. 2: Fragments and Artifacts

This second issue of The Improbable begins with two backlist titles, Emily Dickinson's Gorgeous Nothings (Christine Burgin/New Directions) and Bough Down by Karen Green (Siglio), both published in 2013. Both assemble their own spectacularly singular and private universe through scraps and fragments, in voices that—while often quiet and elliptical—have great force. Front list titles like Caroline Bergvall's Drift (Nightboat Books) also shares some of these characteristics, and Moyra Davey's Burn the Diaries (ICA/Dancing Foxes)—through its own compilation of fragments—addresses what is the evidence of a life. Finally, On Onions by Elad Lassry (Primary Information) and Bad Luck, Hot Rocks (Ice Plant) use particular objects as a lens through which to refract larger questions and emotions. That all of these books belong here, in the space of the improbable, is perhaps not so surprising.

—Lisa Pearson, editor of The Improbable


p.s. And up next in the March issue: The Sad Passions by Veronica Gonzalez Peña reviewed by Tom Flynn (Seminary Co-op, Chicago), Nox by Anne Carson reviewed by Sarah Gagnon (Green Apple Books, San Francisco), The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and its Circle by Zoe Beloff reviewed by Matt Carney (Green Apple Books), Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey reviewed by Kasia Bartozynska (Seminary Co-op) and two Sophie Calle books, including the forthcoming Suite Vénitienne, reviewed by Christina Martinelli from Printed Matter.


The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems, edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner


The New Museum Store (New York) 


Here every gesture counts: The Gorgeous Nothings of Emily Dickinson

“To arrive as if by telepathic electricity and connect without connectives.”

Susan Howe, Preface

A high point among my Best Books of 2013 and a store favorite and fixture ever since, this on-all-levels marvelous, indispensable book reproduces Emily Dickinson’s fifty-two late compositions on envelopes—in actual-size, full-color facsimile reproductions. Originally published in a deluxe edition box by Granary Books, this Christine Burgin/New Directions trade edition is so care-(and master)-fully assembled, one can’t help but submit in a wonder-wounded way to the force and form of these fragments. Contemplating the visual arrangement of the envelope writings, one feels grateful for the transcriptions of their text on each facing page—necessary because her ‘hieroglyphic script’1 is so hard to read. Like Dickinson’s organized and edited work, these ‘slips on paper slips'2 are elliptically wonderful fragments of song. Her abstracted garden of ‘small fabric,’3 odds and ends—her sympathy with ruin—is a universe contained.

A book of and about poems as visual objects, strewn with dashes, arranged in riddles with ‘oblivion bending over'4 it, The Gorgeous Nothings was attentively edited by Dickinson scholar Marta Werner and book artist Jen Bervin, including enlightening texts by both and a ‘terse and brilliant preface’5 by Susan Howe, whose own great study of the poet (My Emily Dickinson, from 1985, a radical brightening as visionary as Charles Olson’s work on Melville, Call me Ishmael) certainly broke ground for this ‘particular installment of late work’6. Nothing else need be added, save that every bookstore worth a damn should carry it forever. ‘A miracle for all’7, indeed.

1 Holland Cotter, NYT review

2 Susan Howe, Preface

3 Emily Dickinson

4 E.D.

5 Marjorie Perloff, TLS review

6 Susan Howe, Preface

7 E.D


The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems is published by  Christine Burgin / New Directions and distributed by W. W. Norton & Company. 

$39.95   HB   260 pages with 168 color/color illustrations   ISBN: 978-0-8112-2175-7   Pub date: October 2013


Bough Down by Karen Green


WORD  (Brooklyn & Jersey City)


Karen Green has created an amazing multivalent thing—a document, a journal, a poetry book, an art piece. Whatever you decide to call it, it's probably different from what I've called it, and that is part of its beauty.

Within her images, words lurk; and in her words, images pervade. They perform both literally and figuratively. Receipts, fingerprints, documents, words and colors, always colors—this detritus of life both appears on the surface and cuts beneath it. As she copes with her husband's mental illness and suicide, it’s the daily things—the dogs and the garden, the pills and the shirts—that connect her to their life together.

But Green feels and does things that she's not supposed to. Or rather, she feels things that others are afraid to articulate. She is angry at her husband at a time when everyone is mourning and honoring him. She is angry at the platitudes that people offer for solace: "I don't want him at peace," she writes. “I want him pissed off at politicians, ill at ease… getting spinach caught between the canine and gum.” She takes his pills after he’s gone to feel what he felt. Green is very attuned to bodies, hers and his, the weight, the breath, and she doesn’t shy away from the brute reality of them. She experiences so much viscerally, and the reader will be hit viscerally.

That her husband was a public figure (though if you don't know who, don't look it up until you’ve read the book) means that there was a very public reaction to his death. But Bough Down brings to the reader her more private sadness, the complexity of emotion that surrounds mental illness and suicide and grief, the identification and sympathy and anger that she went through trying to figure out what her life might look like after such loss. Green starts simply by observing the materials of her life, of his life, of their lives together. What she ends up giving us is so much more.


Bough Down is published by Siglio Press and distributed by DAP/ .

$36   HB   188 pages with 53 color illustrations   ISBN:978-1-938221-01-9   Pub date: April 2013

Drift by Caroline Bergvall


Green Apple Books (San Francisco)


Trying to navigate Caroline Bergvall’s Drift is an exercise in getting lost. It is also a welcome experimental voyage and one which provides an immersive, challenging and ultimately fulfilling reading experience that few authors are able to achieve so effortlessly.

The conceit of Drift draws its inspiration from the anonymously written 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem “Seafarer” which Bergvall dissects and studies by weaving together multiple languages and doing away with traditional punctuation. Readers with a penchant for investigating the form and function of language will marvel at Bergvall’s masterful hand. In a recent interview, she states that, “by juxtaposing languages, you sort of question the stability of a language. So you question its authenticity, its originality.” Bergvall highlights the inherent plasticity of language by stretching it and pulling it in different directions, opening it up to question and multi-layered meanings. Each section of this innovative text is paired beautifully with pages of restrained visual content, which serve as conceptual parentheses and offer the reader a deeper and more visceral experience.

I was initially concerned about finding a point of entry into Drift but was pleasantly surprised by its accessibility. The eighth section, aptly titled “Log,” functions like a captain’s log or a series of diary entries, offering a rare glimpse into the artistic process and the personal challenges Bergvall faced while creating Drift. She writes, “I come home and find that I have lost my sense of home. I come home to find that I have left my home. No rest, no refuge.” This sense of directionlessness—the Vikings called it hafvilla: not knowing where one is on the sea—is the singular thread that ties the book together. Engaging with Drift allowed me to throw away my compass, revel in the sensation of being lost and experience true hafvilla. It is an experience I highly recommend.


Drift is published by Nightboat Books and distributed by UPNE & SPD. 

$19.95   PB   190 pages with approx. 45 bw illustrations   ISBN: 978-1-937658-20-5   Pub date: May 2014


Burn the Diaries by Moyra Davey


Green Apple Books (San Francisco)


Not so long ago I was discussing with a friend the anxieties that arise from keeping a diary. She admitted that out of the blue one day the idea of her own mortality came upon her like a bolt of lightning and she phoned her mother with these instructions: “Burn my diaries.” Her mother acquiesced but didn’t act quickly enough. My friend’s fear that her diaries be read—and these details of her life revealed, from the mundane to the sordid—filled her with so much horror that she flew home to complete the task herself. Instead of burning them, however, she used a paper shredder to render years of writings on her life unreadable.

Davey, on the other hand, says, “I think of burning, but I prefer the image of burial and water, as either of these seems slightly less absolute.” Meanwhile, her estranged best friend Susan, who takes up a lot of space in the book and whose funeral Davey did not attend, “made a bonfire of all her diaries.” If we are so afraid to be unmasked, why then do we bother to record at all? But record Davey does, beginning, and perhaps ending, with her somewhat inexplicable fascination with, and at times disdain for, the works of Jean Genet, and her more tangible admiration for Violette Leduc, who she finds “vastly more compelling” than Genet. Then why is Genet the star here? That is a question that Alison Strayer’s contribution, which comprises the latter half of the book, tries to answer.

I wandered through Davey’s book in a bit of a trance, and indeed it is written in a dream-like, fragmentary style, and interspersed with images of Davey’s own photographs. Burn the Diaries is about how we are changed by the books that we read, and how the books that we read change the way that we write, and even the way that we process our lives. Davey has presented to us her own diary, and in order to do so she could not burn it.


Burn the Diaries is published by Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania / Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna Dancing Foxes Press and distributed by DAP/

$27   PB   104 pages with 38 color illustrations  ISBN: 978-0-985337-72-8   Pub date: August 2014


Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest, edited by Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr


Skylight Books (Los Angeles)


The Petrified Forest was established in Northeast Arizona in 1906 to preserve and protect a significant deposit of petrified wood dating back approximately 200 million years. In a concerted effort to protect the rocks, the National Parks Service has employed a powerful campaign of superstition, resulting in a growing archive of “conscience letters” (sent with returned rocks) often explaining in detail the bad luck that befell the thieves. 

In Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, these letters are paired side-by-side with photographs of rocks from the “conscience pile” (returned rocks cannot be scattered back into the forest and are instead collected in a pile along a service road). The reader of these letters sits on the priest’s side of a confessional booth—a non-denominational one, sanctioned by the Parks Service. This offers a distinct and fascinating perspective: throw your problems next to something 200 million years old, step back, and take a look. As you read these painstakingly handwritten confessions, it is possible to see the thieves’ cancers and kidney stones in beautiful lumps of rock, trace broken marriages along cracks that were once tree rings, and feel something hard for fleeting moments…a funny thing. This book is timeless, as deep or as shallow as you want it to be.

Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest is published by The Ice Plant and distributed by DAP/

$32.50   PB   144 pages with 140 color photographs   ISBN: 978-0-9897859-1-4   Pub date: November 2014

On Onions by Elad Lassry


Green Apple Books (San Francisco)


At first glance, the title of Elad Lassry’s first artist book appears to be disarmingly literal: flip through the first few pages of On Onions and your eyes will find crisp, clinical photographs of the most commonly found types of onions. Alone, these images, while beautifully rendered, do not seem spectacular enough to hold attention for long. But the pairing of them with Angie Keefer’s essay on the act of crying quickly illustrates the value and power in combining image and text to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

Keefer’s text might be best described as tangential, moving from the science of crying to The Velveteen Rabbit to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, all in just a few short paragraphs. Still, her ability to carefully draw these ideas together to form a cohesive narrative should not be underestimated. Keefer’s writing, while cold, is surprisingly moving, and when read in conjunction with Lassry’s images, which begin to repeat themselves, offers an experience that borders on hypnotic.

Although it is easy—and certainly satisfying—to consume On Onions in a single sitting, its layers are only truly revealed upon revision. Through their respective mediums, Lassry and Keefer have managed to create a dialogue that is surprisingly dense, asking the reader to contemplate not just the act of crying, or onions, but how they relate to the concept of “realness.”


On Onions is published by Primary Information and distributed by DAP/

$30   PB   240 pages with 30 color illustrations   ISBN: 978-0-9851-3641-3   Pub date: October 2012