There seems to be a proliferation these days of chapbook contests and publications. Historically, the chapbook has been viewed as kind of a stepping stone leading to the full-length book. Perhaps because of the increase in the number of poets submitting to book contests and the limited number of books that publishers can afford to produce each year, the chapbook has taken on increased popularity, and we see many more of them being produced. Some of these are very fine works of art. One such collection is Suzanne Frischkorn's American Flamingo.
Before I move into this chapbook, I want to first say that I have noticed a number of chapbook poets referring to their chapbooks as books. I wish they'd stop doing that. First of all, it's just inaccurate. A chapbook is not a book, so to call it a book sets up a wrong perception. A chapbook is much shorter than a book. The chapbook typically has 12-24 poems and is usually saddle-stitched. The book typically has 40-60 poems and is perfect bound. If I bought something advertised as a book and it turned out to be a chapbook, I would feel that I'd been misled. I'd very likely buy the chapbook anyhow if it sounded like the content would appeal to me, but I like things to be called what they are. Maybe that makes me cranky.
More importantly, a chapbook is different from a book in that it has a much sharper focus, a tighter thematic arrangement. This, to my mind, is what gives the chapbook its appeal. Frischkorn's American Flamingo is an excellent example of this characteristic and virtue of a chapbook.
The collection is the first chapbook in the Cuban-American Poetry Series published by Menendez Publications. The publisher is using Lulu.com to produce the collection. Orders go directly to Lulu rather than to the publisher. I ordered with some reservation as I'd never used Lulu before. But the chapbook arrived within a matter of days, was lovingly packaged in a sturdy box (as opposed to a flimsy envelope) and the chapbook was slipped inside a protective spongy envelope.
Then when I pulled out the chapbook, what a beautiful surprise! This is the prettiest chapbook I've ever seen. My cover image above only hints at the beauty. Inside, each poem is tastefully surrounded by floral designs. While this risks being a distraction, here it isn't as flowers run throughout the poems. The book's design complements the poems.
The collection consists of 15 poems, all pertaining to the experience of being a Cuban exile. With rich imagery Frischkorn evokes the sensuousness of Cuba. We see the flowers—white mariposa, jasmine, jasper, pink oleander—and smell the scent of sugarcane, cargo ship, poverty, and fear. Beauty and violence are tethered together. An important motif is the stain of Cuba, the mark it leaves on its people, even its exiles, or perhaps especially its exiles. History is woven throughout, both the large kind and the personal. A few poems travel back to Spain, several mention specific locations, many are laced with bits of Spanish. The opening poem, "Exilio," informs us that the speaker, the granddaughter of a woman named Mercedes, will "twine a history with silver thread." And that's just what she does in the following poems.
While this chapbook is beautifully unified, there's also a lot of variety in the poems. Some poems use direct address to create a sense of intimacy. There are some prose poems, a persona poem ("La Dama Azul"), and, most cleverly, a crown of five sonnets which instead of appearing one after the other are scattered among the other poems. I loved the echo effect that created. "Granada" closes both the crown and the collection. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Things are looking at you and you cannot look at them,
lavender daisy, alone in a green sea, if you must drown
it is best to be lavender and alone. Here, in the General
Life gardens, morning glories bloom en masse. A visitor
wonders how exile fell on Moors, harbingers of water's
secrets, they who carved verses on their walls. You lose
yourself, or perhaps, wish to. Late summer garden
you have duende too. Leaving is difficult. Sometimes
to stay invites death. I am speaking of the firing squad,
of having cafe with a friend on Monday, and learning
of his death on Tuesday. Come and see the blood
in the streets. I came to the source, seeking the shape
of my eyes, my nose—I passed as a native, and at last
found a way home. I discovered Cuba in Retiro Parque.
This is a fine chapbook, just what a chapbook should be. Assuming that this publisher intends to continue the series, I suggest that she include a table of contents, number the pages, and add her imprint on the title page rather than on the back cover. Most of all, I hope she will continue to publish such aesthetically satisfying collections.