Asemic writing is made up of lines, shapes, and symbols that resemble letters and words, but are not letters or words in any language. It looks like writing, but it is not writing; its meaning is deposited onto it or pulled out of it by the individual “reader.” Vermont-based artist and writer Karla Van Vliet’s elegant, meditative new collection, “She Speaks Tongues” (Anhinga), combines her asemic writing and poetry. The images leave themselves open to being read vertically, left to right, right to left, with sensual curves and energetic zags, sometimes fading as though written in sand or on water. A compelling voidspace is created, no word where a word should be, but meaning in the wings regardless. “Isn’t it true that each of our hearts is broken / in its own way?” she asks. “Mine needed the water’s flow, the bird’s / fine feather and hollow bone.” A purity of expression is achieved and experienced. “Cutting down to dark waters, we mark / our passage with a rift into the depths, / into dark breathing, whale body, walrus, / tides. And memory; aloneness turned cold.” The work feels like letters written to the cosmos, and to us.
Los Angeles artist Kadir Nelson has done a number of covers for the New Yorker, including “Say Their Names,” the striking portrait of George Floyd for the June, 2020 issue. “The Undefeated” (Versify), the picture book he illustrated, written by Kwame Alexander, has been hugely acclaimed, winning the 2020 Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and Alexander received a Newbury Honor for his poem which honors Black heroes — artists, athletes, activists — whose courage and perseverance have defined American culture. A new exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Art, “The Undefeated: An Exhibition of Original Paintings by Kadir Nelson,” on view through April 3, highlights the oil paintings Nelson made of for the book. Four-time gold medal winner Jesse Owens leaps over a hurdle; a chorus raises their voices in “The Righteous Ones”; and a group of children beam smiles into the future. These are the people “who hurdled history,” as Alexander wrote, “the ones who survived America by any means necessary . . . the dreamers and doers.” All sixteen original paintings are on display, as well as some of Nelson’s sketches for the project, some early work including drawings he made as a child and teenager, and covers he’s done for Ebony, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and the Smithsonian.
How we live now
Poet Alexandria Peary plugs herself in to the socket of this moment in her latest collection “Battle of Silicon Valley at Daybreak” (Spuyten Duyvil). Peary, the Poet Laureate of New Hampshire, captures the chaotic energy of online life, the relentless stream of appeals for your money, attention, desire, raising questions of what it means to “open this.” Her approaches to plague times borrow from “The Decameron,” in an imaginative the-more-things-change mode. She pulls a number of artists, writers, and poets into the fray — Neruda, Gertrude Stein, Chirico, Lispector — seeming to say that in the “ant tracks of time” there’s no such thing as still life. The pure sound of her lines is a pleasure, too: “Fruit flies / add their two syllables, the voiceless sound of labiodental fricative, / meaning the vocal cords do not vibrate, unlike honey bees with pompom / socks.”
“Silence and Silences” by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi (FSG)
“A History of Wild Places” by Shea Ernshaw (Atria)
“The Sea Trilogy” by Rachel Carson (Library of America)
Pick of the Week
Stef Kiper Schmidt at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire, recommends “Beheld” by TaraShea Nesbit (Bloomsbury): “[This] historical novel re-frames one incident in early American history through the eyes of the women who experienced it, rather than the men who usually get to tell the story. It’s a powerful take on an often misunderstood time, Plymouth Colony in the 1600s, told with suspense and fascinating detail. It’s lovely, heartbreaking, and true.”