Friday, August 01, 2014

Mass Transit Drawings by Joan Farber Poems by Michael O’Brien

Mass Transit
Drawings by Joan Farber
Poems by Michael O’Brien
Pressed Wafer
375 Parkside Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 111226

by Wendell Smith

Mass Transit is a collection of some 25 graphite portraits by Joan Farber interspersed with 21 poems by Michael O’Brien. At 4 x 5 inches it may be the world's most petite coffee-table book, but it more than holds its own with larger examples of the genre. This is not a book to be read; that is, it is not a volume to be finished and stored on a shelf beside other books you've consumed. It needs to be left hanging around on an accessible surface, picked up and tasted, put down and picked up again—savored for its recurrent appeal to the appetite of your attention. Anyway, that is how my wife and I used it while it was on our kitchen table for a couple of weeks and how I came to appreciate its flavors

Although trim and dignified in its design, this little book has a casual structure. The design forgoes page numbers and places each drawing or poem on a right hand page with the facing page blank, so a reader encounters these statements, whether visual or verbal, individually without direct reference of one to another and is free to cross reference the drawings and poems at random so they form a mass of meaning not a linear narrative.  

The drawings need to be seen to appreciate how completely Ms. Farber has mastered her pencil. The drawings vary from quick gestures that capture expressions in a few dozen lines to complete renderings: the difference between one subject’s startled thought and another’s meditative consideration. The faces in these drawings trigger questions, "what was she thinking?" and other associations. When I first saw this drawing,

, my mind reflexively said, "Rembrandt."

As the drawings vary from gestures to more complete portraits so the verses vary from notes:

kneeling bus
sighs, yields

to more complete descriptions:

A small, pot-bellied women in a bright green
dress speaks antiphonal, incomprehensible
sentences by the Seventh Avenue subway,
possessed, testifying, warning, rocking
in place with the voices, then repeating
decimal, ghosts that feed on speech. Nearby
a man, head raised, eyes closed, is drinking
the sunlight. He takes his time. His thirst
is great.

The poems are best read, as one would meditate upon a drawing, until the image blossoms in one's imagination as a character with a story:

opens her Times like
logical argument
shaking the pages as
if to be rid of the
worst of the news

The words honor trouble:

patience of the lost, going
through their ruins: ageless white-
haired high-browed black man in the
59th St. station, wild
eyes, nowhere, opening &
closing of filthy Bible
like a valve. like breath

and transience:

her smile detaches itself
from this girl's face
and from her benevolence
to hang in the
air for a moment
and then fade as
she boards the #11
bus one gray morning

I don’t think O’Brien’s poems should be subjected to the enhanced interrogation of a close reading. As I’ve said, I found them best when I absorbed them as I did Farber’s drawings, slowly letting my thoughts improvise along with them. When I did, the book became a celebration, an acknowledgment that we are, all of us, a mass in transit and the company we are keeping, as it is presented here, is a worthy one.

A note on Pressed Wafer

Pressed Wafer was founded in Boston by Daniel Bouchard, Joseph Torra and William Corbett and was originally 9 Columbus Square. It moved with Corbett to 375 Parkside, Brooklyn, New York in 2012. While you can order individual books from, Pressed Wafer subscriptions are available for $100 a year. In addition to the publications you receive for your subscription, you will also get all the backlist titles available. What a deal. I discovered Mass Transit because I became a subscriber this year. The backlist books I received for subscribing meant my investment came to less that $10 a book. So far those I’ve read have been as engaging as Mass Transit. As I said, what a deal!

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