Book Review

Robin Chapman, Dappled Things, Illustrated by Peter Miller, Revue K, 2013

by John Olski

Poet Robin Chapman and artist Peter Miller celebrate the bounty and textures of nature in their collaborative folio Dappled Things, which pairs 23 of the poet’s paeans with 23 of the artist’s photogravure etchings.  The project reads as an equal partnership rather than as a poet’s ekphrastic interpretation of an artist’s work, with a good part of the magic deriving from the complementary nature of Chapman’s settings in Wisconsin and Miller’s images from Nepal, Mongolia, Portugal, Washington, D.C. and Japan, where the artist established his workshop.

Miller’s black-and-white etchings have the over-all quality of much modern art.  Leaves, brambles, mountains, mist and water fill the prints in a semi-abstract way, moving the viewer from subject matter toward a greater appreciation of composition in pattern, texture and tonal value.  The viewer is aptly left with a mental imprint – a perspective on natural light and living textures that would heighten visual awareness on the next outdoor venture.

Appropriately, Chapman’s poems seem to exhibit some of the same over-all, compositional qualities.  First, the poet makes expansive use of lists, as in “Glory Be”

                  for broken things, for brittle-boned
                  and limp and lost and outcast, miscast,
                  for mended things, for crutch and cane
                  and found and loved …

The poems also resonate with some rhyme and ample consonance, such as BRoken/BRittle/Boned or loST/outcaST/miscaST (above).  Many of Chapman’s poems sing in a way that separates the sonic element from subject matter, leaving the ear attuned to human speech the way Miller’s prints leave the eye more sharply aware of visual patterns.

Chapman also loves the natural world, and some of her subjects match Miller’s prints in presenting the scale of life.  “Landscape,” for example, crosses a century or more in asking

                  What’s native?  This stretch of yard once marsh
                  fringed by tall-grass prairie, fire-swept, drained
                  to re-emerge in cherry, hickory, oak all felled
                  for lumber, fallow in winter, tilled to cornfield
                  fringing the edge of town …

Chapman, like Miller, lifts us from our habits of knowing, offering a shift in perspective that diminishes our human self-importance, shifts us from center stage, and makes us feel part of the living world because we are no longer trapped in being all of it.

The only problem with Dappled Things is its format as a loose-paged folio in a box sleeve.  It falls apart when read as a book, and every other poem-print pairing occurs on independently folded pages, making them harder to keep together for display outside of the folio.  Also, while the collection provides a wonderful sense of a print folio, the images aren’t prints – they’re photographic reproductions of prints, and they probably would be more faithful to their originals on a flat paper rather than a textured, ink-softening card stock.

In creative terms, though, Dappled Things is a treat, opening readers to a sense of the world’s largeness, with assurance that our personal experiences of such a vast scale could begin right in our own back yards.  It is a folio of praise for the world around us.

John Olski is a Library Service Associate for Brown County and a former adjunct instructor of college composition.