Take a letter
Poet Matthew Olzmann’s imaginative and inviting new collection, “Constellation Route” (Alice James), is, in its varied way, a celebration of the postal service and the art of letter writing. His addressees are wide-ranging: a pine tree, a cockroach, William Shatner, a bridge made of rope, a gone friend. The warmth and generosity of his tone remind a reader what a thing it is to be reached out to, to “talk to people who will understand you./ I understand what language feels like when you’re not understood,” he writes in “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con.” There’s generosity here, and tenderness, and humor, too, when he writes that no high school guidance counselor recommends “air guitar soloist, chainsaw/ juggler or miniature gold windmill maker” as possible career tracks. For his own part, he suggests “a middle management opportunity/ winding like fog through the sugar maples of New England.” The feel is that you are hearing from an old friend, a companion from another time, saying hello, here’s what’s going on, what’s going on with you?, I wish you were here. “The letter is in the mail. When it reaches you,/ everything begins.”
Ed Emberley, artist and illustrator who grew up in Cambridge, best known for his fun and super accessible drawing books for kids, turned 90 recently, and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is honoring him with an exhibition. “I Could Do That! The Picture Book Art of Ed Emberley,” which runs through June 12,” features illustrations, sketches, printing supplies, handmade book dummies, and other artifacts that reveal Emberley’s process and methods for his varied styles and projects. Emberley, who now lives on the North Shore with his wife and longtime collaborator, Barbara Emberley, attended Mass College of Art, has illustrated or contributed to over 50 books in his multi-decade career, and his how-to books led a kid with a pencil or pen, regardless of natural artistic ability, through a series of line-by-line steps. What starts as a rectangle ends as a dragon, and the resulting sense of mastery and competence, a sense of I can do that!, is why his books have proved timeless, treasured, and widely praised. Through Jan. 20, the exhibit includes “Shaping Creatures,” studio time in which visitors can try out thumbprints and drawing tools to create their own creatures inspired by the exhibit. For more information, visit carlemuseum.org.
In the preface to her new collection of poetry, “Dolls” (2Leaf), Maine-based poet Claire Millikin writes of Sage Smith, to whom the book is dedicated, a 19-year-old Black transwoman from Charlottesville, Va., who disappeared in 2012 and is presumed dead. “She emblematizes the themes of this book: the conscription of femininity to suffering in the traditional South.” And she names the driving question behind the book: “How do we speak for the silenced?” Millikin’s poems are intimate, personal, addressing, obliquely and not, childhood sexual abuse, an eating disorder (she stopped starving herself at 15, “but it took decades/ after that to lose the habit/ of silence, hunger’s match”), what it feels like to be treated like a doll. And the poems look broadly at the American scene in this fraught moment, its sexism, racism, and transphobia. “A doll’s voice/ is a false front, a pretense,/ like the idea of American happiness.” The dolls throughout serve as facsimiles for girlhood and personhood, inanimate, unsouled, without voice. She brings other artists into the conversation — Walker Evans, Joseph Cornell, Dorothea Lange — and notes, with narrow-eyed clarity, “the fourth dimension/ isn’t time or light or gravity, but memory.”
“A Site of Struggle: A History of American Art Against Anti-Black Violence” by Janet Dees (Princeton)
“Most Dope: The Extraordinary Life of Mac Miller” by Paul Cantor (Abrams)
“Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire” by Caroline Elkins (Knopf)
Pick of the week
Josh Cook of Porter Square Books in Cambridge recommends “Jack Ruby and the Origins of the Avant-Garde in Dallas” by Robert Trammell (Deep Vellum): “A story collection that questions how stories work. A story collection that questions if stories work. But for all the loud and quiet weirdness of the book, for all the winding paths and experiments with narrative, this is a profoundly human book. Trammell cares about the low lifes and beatdowns that fill this book, and makes sure you care about them too.”
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Wake, Siren.” She can be reached at email@example.com.