Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bill by Bill Berkson and Colter Jacobsen

Review by
Jason Morris


BILL, a seemingly effortless collaboration between Bill Berkson and Colter Jacobsen, is profoundly strange each time you open it. Immediately it struck me as something that had resurfaced: its cover—a beaten-up manilla folder with the word "BILL" written casually and matter-of-factly in Sharpie, also bears a gorgeous and subtle drawing of an astronaut, or maybe a sailor. Some figure with a space helmet or a diving bell on, prepared to rediscover a lost place.

As both Berkson and Jacobsen explain in their afterwords, BILL was, in fact, lost for a long while. Sometime around 1980, Tom Veitch gave Berkson a young-adult detective novel called Bill, from which he then worked much of the dry, crackling language in the book Gallery 16 just released in a beautiful hardcover edition. For twenty some-odd years, the manuscript had just mellowed in a drawer. Colter writes, in his afterword, that Bill Berkson sent him the manuscript "out of the blue," after their mutual friend Mac McGinnes (to whom BILL is dedicated) suggested that Colter provide artwork to accompany the words.

Similarities between Jacobsen's artwork and Berkson's lines shift and resurface, too, as though the images had long ago accompanied the text; the pairings seem like they'd been lost, only now to be magically realigned. However the book coolly resists allowing the two elements—the verbal and the visual—to ever entirely cohere. The images float above the lines, inviting a correspondence that's consistently fresh with interference. Which is what makes the book so pleasantly weird each time you go through it. It's a mystery novel for kids that's been chopped up and lost, a book that's resurfaced bearing its erasures whole.

Jacobsen's artwork is taken, as he writes in his afterword, from a couple of collections of old postcards he then rendered, gorgeously, in graphite. The translation, from faded black and white photos to subtly realized pencil drawings, not only retains the old ghostliness of the originals, but also suggests that the earasures and blank spaces of the drawings are proper to the postcards themselves. Gorgeously detailed but mutely refusing to yield context, they're like elegant analog recordings of 78s, with all the tape hiss and ambient noise intact.

Initially, Jacobsen's work will amaze you with its sheer technical capacity. The drawings are assured and solid, somehow both meticulous and off-hand. When you look at them closely, a number of Colter's fascinations come through, too: symmetry and the pairing of twinned things, plus a casually sophisticated variation on composition (check out all the W's).

Bill Berkson's writing often takes its cues from artwork, so it's interesting to see the reverse, where drawings illuminate his words. In crisp, droll language unscrolling at the bottom of each page, we watch a hidden story take place. Doubly hidden, in a way, insofar as we're reading fragments of a detective story. It's sort of like a Hardy Boys installment guest-authored by Beckett. The good humor abides, clipped and terse, and the darker elements suggest a little nastiness to the Secret of the Old Mill or the Short-Wave Mystery. Pieces of language float up to the bottom of the page as if through a dream, buoyed by an outmoded familiarity: "Bill was feeling his biceps. 'Tomorrow we're going to have a life-and-death struggle!"' Below a drawing of trapeeze swingers extended out into the empty space of the page in a kind of V, the line, "Of course there were some risks involved, but a detective must take risks. If he didn't want to do that, he might just as well run a hot-dog stand." There's a musicality to a lot of the lines that's probably impossible for a poet as masterful as Bill Berkson to hide: "the door fell with a dull thud." Berkson's poetry fires its synapses just beneath the stock language of a kid's detective book, creating a disjointed narrative of surprise.

This is a gorgeous book—a beautiful, slim hardback replete with sophisticated graphite drawings and mysterious blips of otherworldly language. It emerges with its lost and found aura to take its place beside Ashbery and Brainard's Vermont Notebook and Brainard's collaboration with Kenward Elmslie, The Champ, among others. BILL is a nonchalant triumph, a fresh classic.

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