Nicole Callihan and Zoë Ryder White
Sixth Finch, 2020
Elsewhere, co-authored by poets Nicole Callihan and Zoë Ryder White, is a compelling example of collaborative writing. The chapbook is divided into five numbered sections, each holding three to eight pages of poetry. Each page offers readers 1-3 stanzas; typically the first stanza on each page is left justified, the second is right justified, and so on, creating a visual back and forth for the reader to follow. There are no titles, aside from the title of the chapbook. Elsewhere presents as a complete and cohesive piece: the poems in this chapbook veer between lyrical, interruptive, and reflective.
Themes explored throughout Elsewhere include family (“my children,” “my husband,” “my mother,” “my yellow-haired girl,” “Eva,” and “Ella”), the body (“the skin / of my inner / arm,” “the blood in my ears”), and movement and location (the title itself, “the train / to Astoria,” “mini van / delivering your children to school in the snow!,” views of the “Manhattan sky,” or a “half-drunk orchard”). In practically every instance these themes are presented straightforwardly, with reflection rather than judgement. The stanzas and lines track the mind and its cogitations to offer readers flashes of moments, details, and insights. In section 4, we put “my finger in the sand / to roust the ghost crabs.” We read “Elsewhere, / unlit, unopened… /Everything is elsewhere.”We encounter mundane and specific interruptions, like “Did your red shoes / ever come?” or “Do you remember the game…?” as well as musings like “If you want to know / the hive’s shape or how it sounds / from outside, you will need to ask / some other particle.”
This “you” traverses the book and invites some lines to be read as conversations, though there’s a continual quiet mystery of who is speaking to whom and when. There is also, of course, the question of you’s counterpart, I. Callihan and White’s poems do draw attention to the self and self-assessment; the authors identify and reconsider “my not-enoughness and all my too-muchness.” They question, “How could I,” “How could I. How could / I long for anything other.” The happenings of daily life that permeate Elsewhere are presented though a lens of quiet self-awareness. Throughout Elsewhere “I” and “you” are speaking, to themselves and to each other, and while “I” and “you” are clearly interconnected, they are also always shifting. The final stanza of the chapbook continues and conflates its characters: “You: you yous how do you….”
While my impression is that a stanza break likely implies a new narrator is speaking, readers cannot be sure which author—Callihan or White—begins a section or a stanza, or what the “rules” of the collaboration might be. Part of the enjoyment of reading the chapbook is tracing the potential progressions and relationships from one stanza to the next. While Elsewhere doesn’t spell out its generative or collaborative rules, its pages allow glimpses into what process might look like. In section 2, for example, the last line of the first stanza reads “Put that in your pie and it might glow,” and the first line of next stanza begins “That which I put in my pie glows….” Other poems in this collection progress similarly, with a new stanza beginning by riffing on a line or image that came before, building into a complicated, rather surreal domestic narrative. In section 3, we find ourselves “Rolled up in the room’s dark / fur and the blue / electric spark” in one stanza but in the next we’re with “Ella” sleeping “beside me / electric fur of her blue buzz / of the flies.”
The imagery and moods of Elsewhere are bookended by allusions to an unseen “catalogue,” which in section 1 is noted as having “a good selection / of digressions, insinuations, chiffon, gardenias, / grass, diesel, and insects.” The final page of the chapbook returns readers to this catalogue: “how do you stockpile, / dissemble, / reckon, / wake, / perforate, / condense, / rear? / It’s not just research / for the catalogue.” This catalogue which frames our reading draws attention to the very nature of literary writing, which of course presents “a good selection” and often acts though “dissembling” and “condensing.” Thinking through the idea of assembling or creating a catalogue, too, invites readers to think about the hidden collaborative work that goes into texts like seed or garden catalogues. Elsewhere is a collection of stanzas written by two authors but it still coheres as one long poem. Our narrator is both Callihan and White, presented as a unison, a united entry. The title’s attention to who is else and what is where reminds readers, too, that we are also part of the equation. This collaborative chapbook invites us also to participate and to consider: who am I, where do I fit in?
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of (aviary) (Veliz Books, 2020); In the ice house (Red Hen Press, 2011), winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation‘s poetry publication prize; and four chapbooks, most recently I exit the hallway and turn right (above/ground press, 2020). Her poems can be found in Third Coast, Spillway, Denver Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Posit, and other journals. Genevieve lives in southern California where she edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose. More at https://genevievekaplan.com/