Full disclosure: I am partial to New Michigan Press chapbooks (they published one of mine). More full disclosure: I am favorably inclined to Ander Monson’s (New Michigan publisher) designs (I worked with him on the design of my chapbook and he is an attentive and respectful designer, as well as publisher). Full disclosure: I still find it odd that “New Michigan” is now in Arizona! (But, that’s where Ander Monson has been for the last few years, teaching in Tucson) And, finally: one of the things I really admire about Monson’s work as a publisher (not to mention his stamina and persistence and his own very successful writing) is his generous editorial vision; he likes a lot of different work and he supports artists with very different tendencies, styles, and preoccupations.
This little chapbook is solemn, serious, intense. Harris lets us know from the get-go that he questions everything, including his sense of self: “In the age of malformed tools / I was mistaken to think I was a man,” he begins. He moves immediately to “Musical Theater,” which is “a shattering approximation of reality.” History has shown men to be “prone to disaster,” and the poet identifies with this trajectory: “It is easy to visit defeat up on me.” The natural world, too, is deeply disturbing: the sea is “a dark window.” Art (the work of poet James Wright) brings death to life (“crow life, how small and murderous”) and enlivens our deathly impulses (“However, this death is not to be / of the body.”) We are destined to be confused about our own identities (“But there is only one man. He / knows about himself. He knows that he does not know / himself.”). And we cannot escape fear, desperation, exhaustion: “Irrational thought is a currency in the age of fear…One’s breathing may become a labor…One could go this way: desperate for the borders of that country,” Harris writes in a prose poem titled “Panic.”
The chapbook includes a series of 12 short prose poems recounting a family story titled “Piss Clams: An Unnatural History” (piss clams are a kind of soft-shell clam found on the North Shore of Long Island). And this little book ends with “Gospels,” a poem in three parts, the third section of which is a single line that is also the chapbook’s title. “Gospels” is lyrical, imaginative, and satisfying. This is a strangely sad and sadly strange little book. It would be terribly sad were it not for the fact that it succeeds in its sadness.