Spectral Analysis

Joni Wallace makes of the self a constellation.

Redshift, by Joni Wallace. Kore Press, $11.

At breakfast the other day, I was attempting to tell a friend why I was so moved by an exhibit of her work this fall at the PCC gallery. It was not so much that her sketches, scribbled quotes, gathered items and invention through papermaking aptly mark moments of revelation in her life; it was that she had done something with them--something painstakingly beautiful. Almost anyone can make little sketches of Virgin's eyes or copy poignant quotes in a notebook. In fact, most of us do, because we all have moments in which we are struck by a certain slant of light or sound, and have the desire to set it down and remember it. All too often, however, we put the notebook away and no one ever sees our effort. And if what we learned in that moment is never communicated, it is lost to the world.

My friend's pieces, on the other hand, gather and juxtapose these momentary acts--great or humble--in a way that endows them with the living energy and worthiness that make even the smallest gesture meaningful--significances we too often let slip away once we check our watches and realize we have to get on to the next appointment. The result, in her work, is that what seemed like a rather unremarkable life takes on a mythical quality--something we could all probably benefit from having a greater sense of. Her response was simple and shocking. She said, "That's what art is, isn't it?"

It is in this spirit that Kore Press takes on a manuscript. It is refreshing in a day when you can download the entire text of, say, Moby Dick onto a ream of legal-size white paper (and then recycle it when you're done) to hold an object--a book object--that has the kind of integrity of design and text that this publisher's books strive for. As demonstrated with its ongoing series of reprinted articles on everything from the art of listening to Mary Gordon's The Fascination Begins in the Mouth: Anger, Kore has hit stride with its catalog of hybrids, designed to make the most of both ancient and contemporary (a.k.a. practical) technologies.

Let's face it: Publishing books is hardly a lucrative business, especially if you're a small press devoted to fine writing and book design, much less the setting of individual letters of lead type. Most of the books Kore produces these days have letterpress or computer-set covers, offset printed innards and are individually sewn by hand. One of the founding tenets of the press was to create books whose design--appearance, heft, paper texture and layout--reflect and speak to the texts they hold. And Kore has succeeded again and again, from Alison Deming's Girls in the Jungle flip pad (comfortably priced and packaged with a nail for hanging the book on your wall) to this season's Redshift by local author Joni Wallace.

There aren't many publishers left who conceive of the book from the get-go as a collaboration of artists. But that's exactly what Kore does. This slim 8.5''-by-5'' pamphlet is a lovely example of Old Pueblo creativity. Designed by one of Tucson's most notable book artists, Nancy Solomon, and with cover art by Nancy Tokar Miller (whose work you can find at Etherton Gallery), Redshift is a delight to the hand and eye. And this is a good thing, because you want to own poetry books; they are notoriously beautiful in design, regrettably short in issue run, and unquestionably challenging to stock for libraries and bookstores.

Apart from all that there is the text itself. "Redshift" refers to the Doppler effect of celestial bodies. When something moves away from a viewer, the wavelength of light coming from that object is increased, elongated, causing a shift on the spectrum of visible light toward red. Metaphorically, the title foreshadows the poems within: These are things that may be moving away from us. And like the smallest of gestures, each poem in this book frames a moment in a life that one could just as easily allow to slip from memory as pause to gather its significance.

And like those moments, the poems are not going to articulate the meaning for you. As a reader you will be called upon to stand beside the author as she plays spades or waits for the kettle to boil. Wallace holds to the Poetry 101 credo, "show don't tell" (it's a credo because it works, by the way), and fortunately, she is a skilled writer. Line breaks urge the reader through scenes almost devoid of activity, creating a sense of compelling narrative, albeit a narrative of the mind and the imagination:

In the pantry
my father smokes. Or
not my father--I thought
he looked at me--but
a never-born sister
painting her nails

Wallace's sense of detail is keen, and her descriptive language is edgy and lush without becoming florid:

Sunflowers, hollow-stemmed, open
in the yard. Unstoppable
garish petals bedside white stucco.
and the yellow jackets
are stiffening now, collecting in pools
of black: yellow: black.

There is mystery here, but not the kind to which one surrenders all hope of comprehension. We know these moments ourselves, so even when the reader is left only leaning toward, it is a leaning that promises some significance. As a chapbook (a term that is derived from the word "chapter," thus not a full-length collection), Redshift does that best, most aggravating thing: It leaves you wanting more.

On a scientific (and metaphorical) note, a redshift is also experienced when the wavelength is altered by the gravitational force of an opposing body. Wallace leaves the reader with a sense of the past's seductive nature: For there might we not find the answers to everything we are now?

To celebrate the release of Redshift, Joni Wallace will read and sign books with Barbara Cully, author of The New Intimacy and Shoreline Series, at the Hazmat Gallery, 197 E. Toole Ave. at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 3. Books by Kore Press will be on sale at a 10% discount.
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