The Improbable Issue No. 3: The Permeable Border


All five books reviewed in this issue live along permeable borders—between reality and invention, between one language and another, between the author and the conjured other, and between the worlds they exist in and the one you, the reader, inhabit. The authors—Zoe Beloff, Ann Carson, Christian Hawkey and Robert Seydel—take what they (possibly) know, investigate it to find its amorphous edge, then shape a universe of possibilities, of doubt and wonder, of dislocation and connection, of human frailty and the relentlessness of the imagination.

In the case of Robert Seydel, his use of fictional personas—Ruth Greisman in A Picture Is Always a Book and S. in Songs of S.—proceeds from an artistic ambition that rejects self-expression in favor of composing a self (or selves). Seydel says (in an interview): "Walt Whitman isn't only that boy 'starting out from Paumonak,' but 'Walt Whitman, a kosmos'—that is, an invention. The artist's job, according to Robert Henri and Jasper Johns, is to invent himself . . . The point is revelation and an opening outwards, an expansion into the air of art itself." In these five books, it's precisely "the air" that makes them so different from traditional, genre-bound books.

I'll note, almost as an aside, that—so far—no issue of The Improbable has had a planned organizing principle. These relationships between the books are entirely spontaneous. Last month's collection, which had so much to do with the fragmentary and the artifactual, came into being just as this one did: booksellers choose a book, are then assigned a deadline, and turn in a piece (almost always on time!). It makes me wonder about the particular nature (or natures) of the hybrid work. Rather than "the hybrid work" representing myriad possibilities, unconstrained and unbound from traditional paradigms, perhaps certain kinds of necessity (no-other-choice) drive the artist-writer beyond purely literature or the visual arts. I'm curious as to what the next issue will bring—I hope you are too!

—Lisa Pearson


p.s. The Improbable welcomes new reviewers Ryan Mihaly from Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA and Matt Carney from Green Apple Books in San Francisco. We've also got three returning reviewers, Sarah Gagnon and John Gibbs, both from Green Apple, and Kasia Bartoszynska from Seminary Co-op in Chicago. Also, check out the feature on The Improbable at Moby Lives.


Songs of S. (with Maybe S.) by Robert Seydel


Odyssey Bookshop (South Hadley, MA)


S., locked in a room, is singing. He is surrounded by dust and books about the South Pole, animals, “Paleolithic Masters,” and poetry. He lives around the corner from Emily Dickinson, another shut-in, who visits S. “in form of a bee.” And he sings and sings; in fact, he writes, “songs / dominating / everything / now –,” ending the line with his famous neighbor’s signature dash.  

This is S., the creature of Robert Seydel’s imagination, an elusive figure who draws, writes, and makes collages. Songs of S. collects S.’s poetry. The poems are joyfully naïve, rhyme when they want to, and delight in rhythm and sudden imagery. They seem infinitely rereadable, fleet as they are in their imaginative associations. “Matter / & natter / of tongue / Bent, ill / or tight / as night / in a pocket / like a locket / where the horse says, run” reads one untitled poem.

Songs of S. is accompanied by a full-color booklet, Maybe S., which collects notes and drawings from Seydel’s notebooks. Here we find S. is indeed a creature, perhaps not human – whimsical stick figures and mountains with S.’s characteristic red eyes, sometimes wide open, other times peacefully shut, fill the pages. Seydel’s handwritten notebook pages contemplate S., reading at times likes a biography, critical theory, or poem about the hermetic poet. 

S.’s wide-eyed fascination of the world, his near-mad imagination – his “Stimmung,” Seydel writes – is like that of Robert Walser, Clarice Lispector, and Wallace Stevens, all possessors of highly saturated creative visions. And his obscurity, leaving behind hundreds of poems, drawings, and collages in his desk, only to be found later and edited into this book, call to mind Fernando Pessoa’s trove of manuscripts by made-up heteronyms, and other “outsider artists” whom Seydel admired.

This is a book of great imagination, curious and deep, and profoundly alive. It carries a creative current that’s bound to make you smile, & perhaps sing along.


Songs of S. is co-published by Siglio Press and Ugly Duckling Presse and distributed to the trade by D.A.P./

$24    PB   144 pages, including a 32-page saddle-stitched four color booklet   ISBN: 978-1-938221-05-7   Pub date: November 2014


A Picture Is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel


Green Apple Books, San Francisco


One of the beauties of A Picture is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth is that it's primarily a book about process. I picked it up not knowing what in the world to expect, yet found myself completely entrenched—in the best sense—within Robert Seydel's complex thought processes. It could be a result of the mercurial text itself, as it strays from prose to poetry in an instant. Or the superimposed doodles and drawings Seydel himself made upon the pages themselves—made just so they interact with the text physically. Or some strange combination of both. And the effect is two-fold. You read the book, then you see the book, each reading lending new information to what the other reading lacked, or perhaps could not suggest on its own. Once or twice through the text and you will not be able to separate image from word as a symbiotic relationship develops.

The reproductions of the writings are gorgeous. A lesser production may have settled for black-and-white images or perhaps less images printed in a smaller book. However, bursting color enhances each of the seventy-two "journal pages" included within this book (written and drawn as if by Seydel’s alter ego Ruth Greisman). The world encapsulated within these pages, Ruth's world, is fragmentary. Her commentary and observations comes just on the heels of her actual experiences—and we, as readers, experience both almost simultaneously. Take, for instance, this opening from one page (p. 61): "I.  I will go outside, remembering dogs & picnics. Dust is so long it makes mtns on the streets.” The hesitancy at the outset quickly turns action, which morphs into nostalgia, which then turns into surreal metaphor. The rapidity here is breathtaking, and it slows a reader's comprehension speed down, so that we reread passages multiple times to sink completely into Ruth's world, one where the everyday collides with the absurd. 

In the interview included as a kind of post-script to the work, Seydel states that his "goal was to found a way to make visual art into a form of literature." We see realist images, such as the "one HORSE, a great massive creature," upon the typewritten page. But we also see suggestive images—more so even—shapes, lines, and symbols that frame or color the text: an ominous red hand with a black hole in it beneath text that reads, "my art is a damaged thing, / of damaged things made." In moments such as these, we readers must go the extra mile to make ends meet between the two. Yet that extra mile is the reason I read, and continue to re-read A Picture is Always a Book.


A Picture Is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth is co-published by Siglio Press and Smith College Libraries, and distributed to the trade by D.A.P./ The book accompanies the exhibition "Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter" that debuted at the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College in 2014 and travels to the Queens Museum of Art in July - October 2015.

$36   HB   112 pages, illustrated in color throughout    ISBN: 978-1-938221-06-4    Pub date: November 2014


Nox by Anne Carson


Green Apple Books (San Francisco)


Anne Carson’s Nox, which is Latin for “night,”  is  not like many books. A physical as well as written elegy for the author’s brother Michael, it is gray, rectangular, and heavy like a headstone, forcing the reader to open the clamshell-style cover like some kind of sarcophagus in order to access the text inside. Once exhumed, you realize that this accordion-style book is meant to be read in private; unfolded, it might stretch across an entire room.

By the time Carson learns of Michael’s unexpected death in Copenhagen, his widow—who could not locate Carson’s phone number among his papers for two weeks—has already scattered his ashes into the Danish sea. The estrangement between siblings was long; facing jail time in 1978, Michael fled his native Canada for Europe and India, traveling on a false passport, intermittently homeless, never returning home. (Carson likens her brother to Lazarus “as a person who had to die twice.”) Over the course of twenty-two years he writes only "laconic" postcards with no return address and a just one single letter, addressed to his mother, to convey that a woman he had fallen in love with had tragically died.

This letter appears and reappears throughout Nox, as do other pieces of correspondence, black-and-white photographs, collages, and Carson’s own words typewritten on fortune-sized bits of paper. She invokes Greek historian Herodotos as she goes about compiling the history of her brother with the little she has left of him. Running parallel to this memorabilia-laden meditation on absence is a prayer-like litany of dictionary entries: every other page contains a definition of each Latin word in a poem which Catullus wrote for his dead brother. It is a poem which Carson has long attempted to translate but never to her satisfaction. At the end of Nox, she does arrive at a beautiful translation and perhaps can finally let her brother go: “He refuses, he is in the stairwell, he disappears.”


Nox is published by New Directions Books and distributed by W. W. Norton & Company.

$39.99   HB   192 (accordion fold) pages with 50 color & bw illustrations   ISBN: 978-0-8112-1870-2   Pub date: April 2010


The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and Its Circle by Zoe Beloff


Green Apple Books (San Francisco)


Visionary amusement park designer Albert Grass founded The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society in 1926 after failing to drum up the necessary interest or funding to rebuild Dreamland park along strict Freudian principles; the previous Dreamland park having been lost to fire in 1911. It is easy to imagine his excitement when Kodak unveiled the 16mm camera with safety film in 1923. If he couldn’t create a space for the public to literally access The Conscious or The Libido (the doorway to the latter having been placed exactly where you would imagine) then he could at least help an interested group of amateurs explore the landscape of their dreams in Freudian terms through the shooting and editing tricks he picked up overseas during The Great War. The resulting ephemeral footage, culled from throughout the decades-long run of the society, illuminates the quotidian worries that came to bear on the members’ dreams. Walter Benjamin’s belief that dreams tell us “who we are in a social context rather than regulating the imagination to a timeless historical sphere” is on wonderful display in each.

Nine of these “dream films” are collected on a DVD firmly encased in clear plastic and pinned inside the back cover of The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and Its Circle, the beautifully printed catalogue from the 2009 exhibition of the same name at The Coney Island Museum, curated from its archives by experimental media artist Zoe Beloff. The book also includes story of Freud’s visit to the park by Norman Klein, Amy Herzog’s essay on the displays of trauma in the Lillie Beatrice Santangelo’s World in Wax Museum, and pages and pages of beautifully scanned illustrations, advertisements, and photographs: a celebration of ephemera and the role it plays, much like our own dreams, in illuminating and making present all possible pasts and all possible futures. That the speculative and fabricated reside alongside the bits of “true” ephemera is even more in keeping in the spirit of the park. It is possible to figure out which is which with research, but I recommend reading it through at least once as the glorious historical record that it possibly is. 


The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and Its Circle: Dream Films 1926-1972 is published and distributed by Christine Burgin.

$30   PB   128 pages with 73 color illustrations   ISBN: 978-0-9778696-0-2   Pub date: June 2009

Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey


Seminary Co-op Bookstore (Chicago)


Is it possible to co-author a book with a long since deceased poet? Can you immerse yourself in someone else’s verse to such a point that his voice begins to blend with your own? What if you also study the person’s life history, or photographs of him and his family? Can you feel your way into another human being?

These are some of the questions that motivate Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, an extended engagement with the poet Georg Trakl. In the introduction, Hawkey describes the work alternately as a collaboration, a translation (though Hawkey did not know Trakl’s native German when he was working on the project), and a form of friendship. Translation, in this book, is not so much a transportation of words from one language into another as it is an effort to enter a space outside of language and bring something back.

This engagement takes different forms, some of which are more accessible than others. There are brief dialogues, meditations on photographs, anecdotes from the poet’s biography, various lists, assemblages of lines from Trakl’s poetry, and short poems whose contemporary diction makes Hawkey’s presence more tangible (“A dork mutters Milton”). While those moments are occasionally off-putting (duck farts?), others are quite lyrical or strangely absorbing, as when Hawkey considers the way the light plays on Trakl’s earlobe in one photograph.

This is not a book that you read passively: it invites the reader’s active participation in the process of thinking through and into another’s life.


Ventrakl is published by Ugly Duckling Presse and distributed by Small Press Distribution.

$17   PB   152 pages with 19 bw illustrations   ISBN: 978-1-933254-64-7   Pub date: October 2010