“Teaspoon-sized delicacies”: On Three Recent Chapbooks from Platypus Press

Platypus Press is a U.K.-based literary press. At one end of the length spectrum, they publish a select catalog of full-size books; at the other end, they publish individual poems and prose works in their online literary magazine Wildness. In between these two extremes, they also traffic in an art form with which I was wholly unfamiliar before visiting their website: the “digital mini-chapbook.” Digital mini-chapbooks, so far as I can gather from Platypus’s website, are book-like entities that are only eight pages long (this page count includes their cover, front matter, and back matter). Platypus makes its digital mini-chapbooks available for free download from their website, in two forms: a standard .pdf that can be read off a computer screen and a differently formatted .pdf that is intended to be printed double-sided and then folded into a little booklet you can hold in your hands.

The first of Platypus’s teaspoon-sized delicacies that I sampled was Ode to the Far Shore, a collection of five poems by Khaty Xiong, a Hmong American poet (Xiong’s full-length poetry collection Poor Anima, released by Apogee Press in 2016, was the first-ever full-length poetry book to be published by a Hmong American woman poet). Xiong’s poems are elliptical, penumbric: each component line is sensible and easily digested, but the way they fit together to create a meaningful greater whole sometimes hovers tantalizingly just beyond full comprehension. The first poem is titled “Aubade,” but, unlike many works bearing that title, it is backward-looking, focusing not on the coming daylight but on the darkness of “Just one drop ago,” its tone not celebratory but plaintive: “I mean plainly / which part / does the sun love / anymore?” Overall, Xiong’s voice most resembles that of a melancholy prophetess: while the basic ingredients of her poems are small things harvested from a life deep-rooted in nature (silverfish, aphids, cardinals, killdeer), the poems are also relentlessly haunted by unnamed losses and tragedies on a larger scale, speckled like the surface of a bird’s egg by ominous allusions to receding “eras” and lost “civilizations.” There is a hint of survivor’s guilt in the poem “Circadian”: “Gone then a civilization and in a hurry / our kind unmet with mines to blast a lifetime // As in the last of corridors where we live untreated / for the crime of giving in to too much medicine.” The collection’s most self-cohesive and memorable work, “Currency,” is a luminous prayer poem that, in a manner typical of Xiong’s measured ambivalence to the world, begins “My god my dear ghoul will you not front me?” Transcendent in a way reminiscent of Sappho’s lyric address to Aphrodite, the poem then proceeds to woo its chosen deity in a dazzling variety of diverse modes: “Spring is the freshest muscle.... Come down from clouds.... I have killed for you....”

          O sparer of this body I have seen it before—
                    your crown swelling in song pinned and tender
          Behold yourself

                    & let us kneel together

Dear Suki: letters is a nosegay of five epistolary poems by Lana Bella, a poet of Vietnamese origin. Like Xiong’s “Currency,” these are on the whole rapturous poems of beseeching and seduction, palpably aware of their natural surroundings yet casting their words into the unanswering beyond. They are set in Carmel; Hong Kong; Kien Giang; Cornwall; and the Los Angeles Forest. Whereas Xiong’s poems sometimes seem to stonewall the reader with their judicious ambivalence, Bella’s poems could, in contrast, be argued to give in to rapture a bit too readily, at their most indulgent becoming tangled in arabesques of polysyllables, getting drunk on words like “halcyon” and “illumined” and “byzantine” and “footfalls” and “ever.” They are their best when lucidly communicating concrete images, painting watercolor miniatures with words (one of Bella’s favorite and sometimes most successful devices, as seen here, is repurposing nouns and adjectives as verbs):

          ...my nylon fishing net. As wild birds
          share our footprints in the sand, I
          rope on, gentling in my careful wing
          of muscle.... (“Number Twenty-Six”)

Which Way to Go, or Here is a collaborative prose poem collection by Anhvu Buchanan and Brent Piller. Buchanan, like Bella a figure of somewhat long standing in the diasporic Vietnamese literary community, previously distinguished himself in the prose poem medium in his debut full-length collection, The Disordered (sunnyoutside press, 2013), while this is Piller’s first book-length (or digital-mini-chapbook-length) publication. Their combined voice is savvy, hip, and ironically self-aware: the first poem, saddled with the Murakami-esque title “Sky Bird Love Cloud Return Policy,” begins, “I hate that this is a poem about birds.” Though the language in these poems is often deliberately flat and childlike in an Andy Warhol way (“It is okay to be in love and it is good to be okay” (“Okay Love”)), it is this very quality of stylized simplicity that enables it to puncture the walls of our familiar reality and arrive at lyric pronouncements of surrealistic, emotionally charged beauty: e.g., “Lightning bolts are nothing more than extension cords to heaven” and “I open my mouth and let the bird out, so blue it drowned under water before it had a chance to sing” (“Sky Bird Love Cloud Return Policy”). Buchanan’s and Piller’s poems are a jadedly choreographed dance between naiveté and disillusionment, between language that soars like Icarus and language that hugs the ground like a punctured balloon. As these three mini-chapbooks all show, it is not easy to find a middle ground between rapture and reality, but all three do ultimately find something like it, a vocabulary to affirm life that convinces, or at least entices.

          A list of ways to start the day: grow more ginger in
          your garden. Turn the notes upside down, belly up.
          Make eye contact with your first thoughts. Look up
          more and wonder or wander, no one ever knows. (“This Is Day”)
Jenna Le, a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume, 2016). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI Online, The Best of the Raintown Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and Massachusetts Review, while her essays and criticism have been published by Burrow Press, Fanzine, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, and SPECS. Her website is jennalewriting.com