Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (poems); Kiki Smith (illustrations), Concordance

2006, 42 pages, $29

concordance is the second collaborative book from poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and visual artist Kiki Smith. The project was originally developed in a limited edition by book artist Ann McKowen, and, like the earlier compilation, Endocrinology, has now been reissued in a trade paperback by Kelsey Street Press. However, unlike the emphatic cutting between the inside and outside of glandular and social spaces that supported collage-like interplay in Endocrinology, Concordance creates an almost seamless, meditative territory in which word and image feel constantly in generation of each other.

The book presents two poems by Berssenbrugge; the first of which, titled “Concordance,” is illuminated by Smith on sand-colored card stock. These brushy ink-line etchings, in deep blue and copper, appear less sketched on paper than glazed on, and flicked across creamy clay vases. The effect of the speckled visual layouts mixing with Berssenbrugge’s quiet enveloping lines is reminiscent of what happens in wood-fired kilns, where the heated ash encircles clay to physically create the final surface-in this case rendering neither a stabilized art object, nor a simple portrayal of picture and poetry. In fact, the collaboration certainly feels less complete or enclosed than it does a manifestation meant to draw the reader into potential interactions-like a firing process in constant deferral where:

Warmth, that was parallel, moves
across the shard, smoothes and makes
it porous, matter breath, light
materializing dear ants and dear words.

Both Berssenbrugge and Smith have made names for themselves by extending past and blurring the boundaries between internal and external, particularly in terms of female physicality, where the interior life has often historically fallen secondary to physical scrutiny. In exposing connections between the concealed, conceptual, and the literal, their individual work has frequently aimed to widen an artistic radius to include supposedly aberrant or disenfranchised presences. Concordance itself is dedicated “to the frogs and toads,” partially in line with this inclusion past the normative, and partially in acknowledgement of the porous skin of amphibians. The reference to permeable bodies may be seen as metaphorically significant in terms of collaboration, but it also serves as a reminder of delicate environmental connections. Correspondences between human and animal bodies, floral cycles and intersecting processes (including the processes of reading and making) are the abundant focus of the title piece.

This attention to “thin skin” also characterizes the second section of the book, “Red Quiet,” presented without drawings by Smith, on saturated red, nearly translucent paper-eerily reminiscent of corporeal tissue. In orientation and hue “Red Quiet” is evocative of the heat-lit landscapes of New Mexico as well as domestic interiors that Berssenbrugge has elsewhere woven through her work. Yet, in this production the material, skin-like paper also highlights the physical peeling away of internal/external, subjective, and objective distinctions so that the words of the following page show through the one in hand, as if registering amidst a bodily exploration. The section’s long lines, which focus on ghost particles, sex, grief, and sound waves, nearly pulse in the construction of intersecting lives and energies.

While the ominous impressions of “Red Quiet” shift from the celebratory interplay of the title piece, a correspondence between both halves is created by Berssenbrugge’s sensory yet abstract approach. In each poem, the text moves with neither a witnessing “I” nor “eye,” but through a physical non-dichotomous field, where simple singularity cannot be extracted. Each line works through language, while attempting to “…undo / misunderstanding from inside / by tracing the flight or thread of / empty space running through / things.” In the first section, Smith’s disjointed images-ants whose exoskeletal sections remain unattached, cracked pods whose seeds float across the page as flicked ink-accentuate this “emptied” or non-representational space where the rendered image might find concordance with complex organisms. Similarly, the color-saturated second poem presents less of a turning inward toward an internal spectrum than it acts to locate the speaker within a composite field of biological and spatial connections. In this synthesized territory, where no insular position or medium is privileged above another, both collaborations present a nonhierarchical model of ecological understanding. Here, in multiplicities of each poem, interpersonal relationships are seen within a biological continuum, rather than in addition to “nature.” While Concordance emphasizes these potentially eco-social and expansive links, its movements are more attuned to an ongoing, philosophical poetics than the recognizable discourse of New Age mysticism. Instead of becoming encumbered by the cosmic or narrowly defined “natural,” the book establishes space where valences of perception can reshape representation and perhaps “undo/ misunderstanding” created by those discourses. In this way, Concordance marks a generative intersection in work of each artist, but it also illuminates the larger sphere of our physical and social relations with a remarkably fluid perspective, reminding us of the ways in which the material book itself is a document in interaction.

-Ashley Smith