Book Review: Dog Ear

Dog Ear

This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.


Dog Ear

Dog Ear
Erica Baum
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011
69 pp.

Not often does a text suggest a change to a reader’s practice. In fact, it is seldom that one thinks about reading outside of the context of what kinds of texts are being selected. The so-called “rules” of reading poetry are well understood: one reads linearly, left to right, line by line, jumping from stanza to stanza down the page. Even in those cases that books of poetry require a non-traditional approach, often the reader creates a plan of attack evidenced by some consistent approach to the text that is applied throughout. Erica Baum’s Dog Ear changes that with the simple fold of a page, creating a universe of “choose your own” poems in each separate entry. When text runs in a standard format and breaks ninety degrees at the crease in the page of each of Baum’s poems, reading gets complicated. Each approach yields a different text entirely. No two readings yield same literal experience. Words are cut off at the fold, lines are wrenched from their original context and are forced into new ones. For example, the eighth poem “How Long” broken traditionally might read

“How Long?”
“A very lones
“Yes—ye
want—Is
was so
you Hun-his ear caught
es.”
who he
that? A

But with another approach, following lines until their linear end creates the following text:

“How long?” his ear caught
“a very lones”
“Yes—ye
want—Is
was so that? A
you
Hun-”

Both are a study in piecemeal speech, but are not only formally different (ten lines, two stanzas versus seven lines in one stanza), but dictate extremely different poetic landscapes. One could easily turn the page on its side and start the poem “his ear caught” and enter a completely new poem. How does the poem change when the “his ear caught” the phrase “how long” in the second variation whereas in the first, the caught ear is a subject of conversation? As these are poems found from larger works that explored different contexts than those implied by Baum’s craft, one cannot help but begin to wonder what the original text endeavored to confer. And, these are only two of the combinations put together under somewhat regular rules of reading. Totaling twenty four plates, with a nearly unlimited number of ways to read the poems the collection is much more massive than the sum of its parts. Simply in two readings, twenty four becomes forty eight. Three: seventy two. Taking even half of the conceivable possibilities into account, the number of texts contained within these twenty four images is staggering. As participants in the Found Poetry Review‘s own dog ear poetry contest discovered, not every text produces clean and rich poetry. Finding poems in this form is composed of equal parts of presence and poetics, and any writer endeavoring to produce a dog ear poem must be aware at the exact moment when fortune and folding combine to create a text with new and significant contexts.

Dog Ear, above all, is a collection of poetry of the moment.

Rarely does the thought that we are fundamentally changing a text occur when simply folding a page to keep track of our progress in reading. But, in these unassuming fragments of time a reader is departing a text and all the conditions of that particular instance only to reenter the text at a later hour with new conditions, perhaps even in a new environment. How does this shape context and how a reader receives a text? Even more immediately, what happens when a page is turned and a part of a text left behind? Baum’s folded pages blur the line between anticipation and literary anthropology. Both occupy the same space in the form of a photographic record, one that renders that particular moment with all of its inheritances and uncertainties, placing the reader on the vertex of time, such as the speaker in “How Long” or, as one reading of the poem “Wild Tumult” reveals: in the “tumult/of all things.”

The reading experience of Dog Ear harkened back to that of Lost and in that the book is as much an artistic endeavor as the text itself. An additional layer exists in Baum’s text in that the poems are not laid out in independent typescript, but are presented as facsimiles of the pages that Baum folded to compose them. Whereas a poetry book is more than likely to feature the same paper texture and density throughout, an additional appropriation of the textures, page colors, conditions of wear, and varying typefaces native to each of the appropriated texts. It is a metasensical appeal – Baum invokes the sense impressions of touch, smell, and sight in nontextual form, endowing the poems with more situational characteristics than the words can imply without using words. The fading browns of some texts juxtaposed with fading ink, worn edges and (in some cases) the semi-transparency of the paper of the book creates a poetic field that has background noise and sensation that is as subtle as the brevity of poems such as one reading of “Difficulty”:

“Yes? // Yes. // How // I? I would not do that. // differently.”

Such text exhorts the reader to exercise the variety of approaches possible in reading the poems, while maintaining a tongue-in-cheek humor about the decisions that the author has made. What would happen if the pages had been folded a different way? Or, if Baum had not chosen this particular page (perhaps never finding it), what would have been left unspoken? Even in a ten word poem, the possibilities of the text are endless, and the reader is gifted with the presence of this particular moment which they are free to interpret or answer in their own, different way.

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