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

REVIEW BY JOHN GIBBS

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./Artbook.com. 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

REVIEW BY SARAH GAGNON

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

REVIEW BY MATT CARNEY

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