Beautiful Books: On Moira J. Saucer’s “Wiregrass” (Ethel Zine)

The cover for Moira J. Saucer's poetry collection, "Wiregrass", which features a hand-made cover with a physically decorated yellow flower.

Big box bookstores rarely carry small press books, and although some independent bookstores might shelve small press publications, they do not usually offer handmade books. There are also artist-made books, most often a single volume that can be a stunning example of what a book can be: a sublime experience of combined fibers. Books as an art form have been a genre most often seen in either craft shows or esteemed special collections, and can vary from exquisite blank journals to fragile historical treasures. It is not often enough that the ordinary bibliophile will curate handmade books into their collection, even if that personal library includes small press volumes.

Yet in Ethel, we have a small press that has consistently produced an impressive catalogue of handmade books. In addition to side sewn bindings that speak to a serious home sewing machine, each cover features collage and sewn elements—obvious work by hand yet done in the sequence of an edition. A recent release from Ethel is Wiregrass by Moira J. Saucer, which is an apparition in yellow, a textual and tactile experience that begins with holding the yet unopened book. The cover image itself has hand painted elements—a leaf, a flower (done is a yellow that is akin enough to the cover’s yellow to give the impression of depth of perception)—and then outlined with some lines sewn onto the cover. Our consideration of the artist-editor painting, then sewing a sequence of covers must pause at this achievement alone; of the hundreds of small presses whose editors consider a manuscript by the effort and reward model of production, Ethel’s commitment to the manuscript includes this level of commitment: handcraft is hours upon hours upon hours.

The opening of this volume reveals the usual sequence of cover page, copyright, and contents. If a read of the titles listed are clues to the chapbook’s contents, then we see that this summary arc begins with three word phrases, becomes centered in single words for eight of the nineteen poems presented, and includes such currently-tempestuous linguistic challenges as the words “homeless”, “dying”, “thief” and “queer”. Thus, before even greeting the first poem, the reader has this Porte Chere experience of meditation: this book, as an artifact, would be currently banned from too many regional schools.

When the first poem opens, the reader is greeted with a lower-case line followed by one that begins with a first letter sentence capitalization, despite the first line’s ending with a period. A scan of the rest of the poem reveals a standardized sentence construction with line breaks for appositive phrases. This detail creates a tone of unease before the language of the poem sounds its instruments. There’s a sardonic aspect to the phrasing “inconveniently/sick and poor” or “trouble wrapped/ in thrift store clothes” that opens the way to even more intimate perceptions: “from place to place,/ hot, menopausal,/ stiff and exhausted/ from pain.” While the reader might speed past this Whitmanesque colloquial sense of the poem, any American reader is braked a bit at such casual mention of menopause, if not that of pain.

The second poem in Saucer’s work, “Homeless and broke”, delves further into the topic of pain: “I lay awake at night/the pain from fibro/like sharp invisible knives/thrusting and turning/into muscle and tendon” (7). The casual reference to a disabling condition is too rare of an event in our culture overall, and Saucer’s use of the coded word “knives” is a linguistic double-edge—for the disability-ignorant reader, there’s the physicality and prosaic nature of the phrase; for those educated in disability language, there’s the damage of sleeplessness, the endless exhaustion, the lost days and retreating hope of healing that Saucer reinforces with “a tent of opaque anguish”. Ironically, such lyrical perceptions of disability have been historically suppressed in the arts and in the wider culture; as the gruesome after-effects of life-altering Covid infections become less whispered, it is the work of disabled artists, of Those Who Were Here First in living with pain, with the memory of ability, with the fear of further damage, who illuminate this realm of agony with stories of their survival.

Saucer’s book is adept at an elegant presentation of taboo topics. One of the longer poems, at eight stanzas, is roughly centered in the book, titled “Kindnesses”, employs italics to indicate speech and follows a narrative arc; however, this is a poem of violence, a poem that does not “avoid/ruffling waters, telling the truth” (14) even though the outcome is “a little family broken by lies”.  In the poem “Charolais”, the reader is confronted with yet more emotional pain, this time inflicted on cattle: “the piteous sounds/ when they take a calf/ from its mother/ she bellows all night/ Grief/ ululating without cease” (17) As the book moves through the poems, the reader gets a sense of these taboo topics becoming a chorus of anguish. While continuing the Alabama setting throughout, Saucer allows the reader the experience of internal and external relationships, with a climactic visit to “long bland hospital halls” (24) and with the final poem making direct reference to the pandemic.

Wiregrass contains a density of taboo topics rarely published—even more rarely collected in one volume—that are handled with deft elegance, and are even more impressive given the opera of pain that these poems contain. Presented, as they are, in the high art binding by Ethel, this simple book offers a subsistence and richness that ought to be eagerly acquired by any serious reader or collector of rare and important books.

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