The Improbable Issue No. 4: Range—from the Alphabetic to New York School Antics and Autonauts


This fourth issue of The Improbable has range—with seven unusual books from venerable long-time indie presses like Archipelago, Graywolf,  Granary, and New Directions/Christine Burgin to young(ish) upstarts like Penny-Ante, The Kingsboro Press and Siglio. Hybridity manifests, too, in diverse ways—from Joe Brainard's drawings, paintings and collages in Bean Spasms and The Nancy Book to the artifactual digital residue of Beau Rice's Tex and the physical artifacts of Robert Walser's Microscripts, the "photo-documentation" of Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop's Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, and the alphabetic play in Jeremy Sigler's ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ. That range is even embodied in a single volume: If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey exploits a number of media and methods in her own lovely brand of madness. I hope you'll find something new or see something anew in this issue, our most eclectic so far.

—Lisa Pearson

p.s. Look for a special issue at the end of May, emphasizing exactly the kind of books that are just too uncontainable, too expansive, too exquisitely unwieldy, to fit neatly into any BEA-styled category!


Autonauts of the Cosmoroute by Julio Cortázar & Carol Dunlop


Island Books (Mercer Island, WA)


In 1982 Julio Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlop embarked on an expedition that they first envisioned four years before when their relationship was new. After considerable planning, preparation of provisions, and the painstaking packing of their red VW camper van, they left Paris on L'autoroute du Sud heading for Marseille. What for most would be an eight-hour drive took them just over a month. During that time they never once left the highway: each day they broke for lunch at the first rest stop they encountered, fastidiously documented the flora, fauna, and human activity they discovered there, and then continued to the next, where they dined and repeated their pseudo-scientific procedures before calling it a night. Inch by inch they made their way toward the Mediterranean coast, exploring with mock gravity their responses to the landscape (what little could be seen of it from the verges of the road), to their art (practiced daily on portable typewriters), and to each other. The diary they left of this journey is charming, ridiculous, and more substantive than anyone has a right to expect.  

In it, Dunlop describes the pair as "[c]osmonauts of the autoroute, like interplanetary travellers who observe from afar the rapid aging of those who remain subject to the laws of terrestrial time," and asks, "what are we going to discover when we go at camel speed after so many trips in airplanes, subways, trains?" Cortázar clarifies that this is really a journey to the interior, a self-examination: “Autonauts of the Cosmoroute ... The other path." Theirs is not an indulgent, solipsistic book, however. Even as the world passes by them in a blur, they remain engaged with it, commenting on the issues of the day, including the war in the Falkland Islands. They also engage with the audience that they expect will follow the traces they leave behind, expressing "hope, oh patient companion of these pages, that our experience has opened some doors for you too, and that some parallel freeway project of your own invention is already germinating."

 The pen-and-ink illustrations of their campsites, done by Dunlop's son (then a teenager), accentuate the fanciful aspects of the project, but it's their own photography that actually connects to the text. Philosophical discursions are often undercut by intentionally banal shots of open asphalt and souvenir stands, and seemingly insignificant vacation snaps are frequently elevated by apposite captioning, ensuring a consistently amusing tone. It's as a portrait of a partnership that the imagery is most valuable, though. Two pictures by themselves, the first of the famously tall Cortázar looming over the roof of the van and the second of the petite Dunlop standing on the bumper, bring the couple to life in a way that prose alone never could, and there are dozens more like them in Autonauts. They form a candid, permanent record of a few fleeting weeks when two people tried to slow the calendar down.  

Within months after the journey ended, Dunlop had succumbed to illness and died at the age of 36. Cortázar had time to eulogize her in a final chapter, written before the book was published in 1983. It was the final work he produced before he too died the following year.


Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, published by Archipelago Books and distributed by Penguin Random House.

$20   PB   354 pages with 164 bw illustrations   ISBN: 978-0-9793330-0-2   Pub date: November 2007


Microscripts by Robert Walser


Odyssey Bookshop (South Hadley, MA)


(á la Walser)

Permit me to say that any connoisseur of rich and shall we say interesting literature, a literature that definitely contains at least an ounce of charm and perhaps a quantity of foolhardy yet clever over-the-toppishness, will want to swiftly place this marvelous book authored by the curious individual known by the name Robert Walser among the many other fine books that surely stand in their lively and no doubt excellent bookshelf. Contained within are stories of a tiny yet dense nature, full to the brim, so to speak, with often the most ordinary of circumstances described most circumspectly, though in hardly any off-putting manner, quite the contrary, in fact I find the stories, originally scribed on the backs of ephemeral papers in an antiquated German shorthand which we the readers are so fortunately granted the opportunity to gaze upon as we turn the pleasant pages of this book, to be rather welcoming, warm, and of a sincere variety, and no doubt so roundabout and overly polite and in some ways bureaucratic which, thrown together, construct a style that, taken as a whole, inspires not only bouts of laughter but also a sort of brilliant feeling in the mind, a sensation only the finest art can produce. I have no doubt that even the most casual and careless reader would still find much to delight in this magnificent tome, and to these final remarks I must hastily add that I wholeheartedly encourage any and all who have the ways and means to procure this book to do so soon, for the splendid effect it will have on their soul will certainly be a boon.


Microscripts is translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky and included illustrations by Maira Kalman. Published by Christine Burgin/New Directions and distributed to the trade by W.W. Norton & Company.

$24.95   PB   160 pages with color illustrations   ISBN: 978-081121880  Pub date: July 2014 

Tex by Beau Rice


Green Apple Books (San Francisco) 


Hovering between performance, document and novel, Tex is compiled from about a year’s worth of electronic correspondence between LA artist Beau R and former-fling Matt G, a social worker in Austin. An emotionally and intellectually daring work, it forces itself against the limits of our understanding: of production and labor, seduction and language, desire and abjection. “We are just at the beginning of understanding emotion politically,” Beau quotes Lauren Berlant in the epigraph. This a book of beginnings, a work in fragments — an attempt to find “forms of incoherence that are listenable to.” Which is to say that Tex is as much an index or bibliography as it is a paper trail.

There are YouTube links, iPhone photos, butt plug poems, Google docs, email subject lines, descriptions of emoji; potential Craigslist sex partners, someone trying to collect insurance money, a drug dealer who sells Beau Acetaminophen instead of Adderall, a few conversations about normcore, a news update — “Philip Seymour Hoffman died, are you over me yet?” — text messages about Knausgaard, text messages about Ryan Trecartin (or his house), text messages about Anne Carson. “I’m around today if you want to connect and share,” Beau R writes. “I’m trying to reach you.”

My own texting happens much like Beau’s: “i'm being a horrible employee by texting you right now. i'm like crouched behind the register counter, hiding. i did just oversee the gift wrapping of a lorrie moore book though.” Mostly while standing around, just waiting. Still: I want to see something in these moments, in their repetition, and in the relationships that emerge from them — in the new or different forms of intimacy we are just beginning to talk about. Pushing up against the difficulty of actually communicating under a system that demands constant communication, Beau registers both the vulnerability and playfulness of being able to say anything.

Reading Tex, I kept forgetting that I don’t have a separate group chat going with Beau, in which we provide a running commentary on the events of the book. And if I felt like I couldn’t stop reading, it’s partly because Tex is like peaking at Gmail when someone was borrowing your computer and forgot to log out.


Tex is published by Penny-Ante and distributed by SCB Distributors

$13.95   PB   252 pages, illustrated bw throughout   ISBN:978-0-9785564-19   Pub date: November 2014


The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard


Green Apple Books (San Francisco)


The Nancy Book revolves around Joe Brainard’s fascination with and appropriation of Nancy, the iconic newspaper cartoon character first introduced in the 1930’s. The book contains single-page works, a collection of his longer collaborations with other poets, and essays by Ann Lauterbach and Ron Padgett (some of these collaborationswith poets like Ted Berrigan, Bill Berkson, Robert Creeley, and Frank O’Hara were notoriously difficult to track down). Together, these works are testament to create a great memory to Brainard’s shining personality and prestigious output.

In I Remember, likely Brainard’s best-known work, he starts every sentence with the titular phrase to create a sort of biography traced by memories and history, both large and small. Here Nancy remains the constant, or at least some combination of her most recognizable elements (hair, eyes, mouth), while her the circumstances of her existence vary wildly. Sometimes Brainard plays by putting her in other known works of art, or sometimes in famous American landscapes. Other times he taps into an innate existential dread lurking behind her large eyes. The common denominator—and this is especially true in the more “blue” (read: overtly sexual) comicsis Nancy’s incongruity within the space or circumstance of the frame.

But why Nancy? Ann Lauterbach in her essays posits, “Nancy is Joe’s transitional object, in the sense that through her, what is exceptional about him, specifically but not only his gayness, is rendered common, ordinary.”  There is a playfulness and joy that is impossible to deny in these pieces, and a deep satisfaction in watching Brainard create his personal iconography from elements at hand


The Nancy Book is published by Siglio Press and distributed by DAP/

$39.95   HB   144 with 46 color & 32 bw illustrations   ISBN: 978-0-9799562-0-1   Pub date: April 2008



Bean Spasms by Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, with art by Joe Brainard


Mrs. Dalloway's Books (Berkeley, CA) / Green Apple Books (San Francisco, CA)


Bean Spasms is a collection of poetry, weird detritus and tomfoolery by collaborators and 60s counter-culture poets Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. On the page opposite the table of contents in Bean Spasms, there’s an illustration of two monkeys at a typewriter by fellow pot-stirrer/artist Joe Brainard. In it, the line-drawn chimps lean on a stack of books while one cranks the roller, a few pages of finished words on the table to his right. This is an exercise in monkey business. Don’t worry: you will not be tested.

Bean Spasms, a Granary Books reissue originally published by radical 60s outfit Kulchur Press, eludes conventional categorization: it’s almost petulant in its refusal to be pigeon-holed. Short, absurd vignettes jumbling subjects and verbs give way to nonsensical poems that give way to goofy mish-mashes of sophisticated prose and colloquial speech. Despite its occasional sense of rambling – absurdity is, after all, absurd – Bean Spasms is winsome. An enjoyable read in 2015, the book might also be viewed as an historical document, albeit one that won’t commit to factuality or seriousness. Berrigan and Padgett’s collaboration is emblematic of the New York School culture’s rebuttal of stodgy, self-serious American literature, but more importantly (thank God), it’s fun—whatever the duo was attempting, lofty or not, they were having a damn good time getting there, two artists riffing on their shared interests behind a typewriter, not unlike those Brainard monkeys on the second page.


Bean Spasms is published by Granary Books and distributed by DAP/

$39.95   PB   212 pages with 23 bw illustrations   ISBN: 978-1-887123-80-8   Pub date: 2012




Spoonbill & Sugartown (Brooklyn, NY)


ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ, Jeremy Sigler’s new book of poems, offers the first 25 of 68 poems in 2 variants: total alphabetic format and a more familiar written transcription. In the first variant, aligned alphabets stack on alphabets in blocks. Each alphabet has one letter missing and the combined absences per block form words. Because the poems are short you can view the entire poem on one page or on a spread of two. With this variant you first see the poem without immediately reading it. The cognitive lag between instantaneous visual grasp and stringing the missing spaces to form the words of the poem allows you to bypass preconceived ideas and focus on what is really there. An analogy is drawing, not the cup in front of you, but the negative space around the cup, an approach that leads to a truer form of seeing.

Sigler’s book suggests we read too quickly and along entrenched grooves that preclude fresh perceptions. But with patience it is possible to let down your guard, open up and become receptive. I have recited all 68 poems many times to myself, sometimes silently, sometimes aloud, modulating my intonation to get, not different meanings, but different feelings and a growing astonishment at the elusive artistry with which they are composed. They come forward as utterances bearing a whiff of transgression, perfume traces of the Delphic cave. But these poems are not old, they came ex utero yesterday! Here it can be said of Poetry that what began as a descendant of the ideal male Olympian form reveals itself to be a femme fatale in disguise.


ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ is published by The Kingsboro Press / For The Common Good and distributed by Antenne Books.

$22   PB   80 pages   Pub date: Fall 2014


If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey, edited by Jeff Shotts


Green Apple Books (San Francisco) 


In If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, Matthea Harvey combines poetry, photography, drawing, sculptures frozen within ice cubes, and erasure—whereby she whites out whole sections of a Ray Bradbury story, carving in her own strange, yet fluid narrative—to create an impressively original work. The book is divided into ten distinctive sections exploring everything from Mermaids, which Harvey has described as "sex objects who can't have sex," miniature Elvi (plural of Elvis), and the life and achievements of Italian inventor, Antonio Meucci. Each section of the book is unique, in scope, depth and media, showcasing the remarkable spectrum of Harvey’s artistic abilities. She has been described by NPR as, “a genius of the unusual, and of the dark underbelly of the adorable,” and this has never been truer than in her new work.

It is easy to walk away from reading Matthea Harvey’s new collection feeling a little bewildered, perhaps unsure of what you have just read and wondering how exactly it should be digested. Harvey’s poems are like a barrel of snakes, writhing and alive with metaphor and illusion, almost impossible to firmly grip, but step away for a few days, and the brilliance of this book will be revealed.


If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is published by Graywolf Press and distributed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan.

$25   PB   160 pages with 76 color & 20 bw illustrations   ISBN:978-1-55597-684-2   Pub date: August 2014