This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
How alive can a book possibly be? Rarely, if ever, does the concept of a truly living text ever see discussion or portrayal outside of the realms of certain types of texts or genres such as fantasy where they become physical creatures – tomes truly to be reckoned with. Initially it may seem a silly question to ask in any context, much less a review. But, Montesonti’s Hope Tree seems to demand an answer. Walking through a bookstore among the many glossy covers of paperbacks resembles something of a zoo or botanical garden; the ideas behind the books, once unrestrained and wild, have been forced into some level of domestication. They sit patiently on the shelf until a passerby chances to them up and they have a chance to show off what remains of their captive talents amidst finely-edited, elegantly-set type and attractive book art. At best, these books become part of a celebrated community or cultural reading tradition.
Why this discussion of living texts? Frank Montesonti’s Hope Tree positions outside of the traditional relationship between reader, speaker, poem, and poetry book. The source, R. Sanford Martin’s How to Prune Fruit Trees, is likely by no stretch of the imagination a well-loved family heirloom. Unless interested by avocation or forced by circumstance to read it, the book would go unnoticed by most readers and stay planted on the shelves of the garden section of a bookstore or in a nursery shop. Over the course of twenty editions, many editors have supplemented and crafted the text in order to repackage and attract new readers (taking up the botanical metaphor once more) to admire and consume the value of a crafted product that, in this case, will assist in helping with their own horticultural displays and experiments. While what Montesonti has done with the text could be chalked up to merely another adventure in erasure on a text, the more appropriate approach would be to discuss his work as a new “pruning” of the text, returning it to its wild, untamed roots as an unengineered, replanted, and completely new cultivar from its tightly-controlled parent text.
What results is a text that is extremely self-aware; it is a contemplation on both the pruning process of the text and the revision of tradition
or, as the speaker of “Currants” claims, it’s process is to “take advantage // making these cuts, / cut the whole growth out // If there is a new, strong growth / cut just above // the old wood.” Hope Tree is characterized by the consistency of procedural voice that carries over from the source text with which it works – Montesonti is not attempting to create a new variety of text, per se, but to develop the material further, a spirit of evolution rather than erasure that creates a palpable sense of potential and an energy of growth. The tension created between the staid and restrictive nature of tradition plays in the language through lines that caution the reader to
remember that for / many years, the / coarse frameworks // may be very beautiful // as they // choke off the circulation.
In service of the struggle, Hope Tree maintains a conflict between external pressures of expectation and the speaker’s push toward an unrestricted and “free-range” voice creating a record of progress as the speaker tests the boundaries of the page in short, disconnected and pruned language that plays liberally with white space on the page. Montesonti’s approach to the text is to leave it as a reader would find it naturally, even if there are irregular gaps in the construction of single words or between stanzas. These interstitial pages are paired with pruned diagrams and figures, maintaining the completeness of the ecosystem created by the original text from which Hope Tree is culling a new life.
For Hope Tree’s speaker, Montesonti’s erasure serves to create an open space, a terrarium for the text allowing room for new growth. The more text pared away, the less of a traditional net there is for the speaker to fall into, a concern addressed in the sentiment of “Planting Young” that if there are “hands underneath // there will be no / roots”. The less that structure influences Hope Tree, the more free the reader is to construct relationships and experience the ebbs, flows, starts, and stops of the growth process. Early in the text, Montesonti leaves an entire page blank, electing not to remove the page but leave the space. The narrative is supported by the focus on the passage of time; Hope Tree cycles through the seasons as the text progresses, beginning in the dormant season of winter in which the “lower portion // blossom // the dead / or deceased” though it is setting the stage for “making a rapid growth.”
As the text moves through seasons two more times, inevitably coming back to a third winter once again to close the book, Hope Tree’s narrative develops on top of the procedural, instructional diction of R. Sanford Martin’s pruning instructions which, in book profiles are said to “[simplify] what other books complicate.”
Of the many reversals in which Hope Tree engages, it is safe to say that Montesonti’s text recognizes that the simple argument is often, in reality, the most complex.
While erasure is a synergetic relationship whether a refutation, continuation, or elaboration on a text, Montesonti’s engagement with the text continues its development of a new “species” of the original through adapting even the source’s backmatter as part of the text, Martin’s biography pruned on the penultimate page of the book, highlighting Martin’s own tendency to have “ideas that were not of the mainstream” in his own field. Montesonti puts his own mark on the new hybrid that he has created, signing his own name into the last page of the book’s colophon, “being totally chemical free, // f r a // n // k mo / nt e s o // n // t / i.” Hope Tree’s self-awareness that it is a literary object is supplement with a consciousness of its content alongside its context; the concluding section, “Training” remarks “let it be assumed that / the nursery is already planted // earlier in this book” redirecting attention to the notion that Montesonti’s pruning of the text has resulted in a new, distinct entity endowed with a new potential – the “live twig” that the speaker suggests for the reader to “watch it / for a few minutes” to see what grows.