REVIEWED BY TYLER FLYNN DORHOLT

Ursus Americanus Press—a.k.a. “publishers of beautiful weirdos”— was founded in 2016 by Eric Benick and Nick Rossi, two editors who, from the looks of their UAP masthead, appear patiently prepared to discuss tangential but amusingly philosophical aspects of poetry on a porch over a cube-sweating beverage. This look, in a way, transfers to the aesthetics of the press, which form an arc of rugged acuity and pointed wonder, much like that of a foraging black bear (the real ursus americanus). 

Ursus Americanus has published five crisp, perfect-bound, bear-colophoned texts that are slightly longer than the average chapbook and shorter than full-lengths (between 40 and 62 pages, though it’s important to note that there isn’t always text on both sides of a page, so the aim seems to be to print them large enough to keep them perfect-bound and have the blank pages read as visual breaks). The books are easy to hold (6-something by 4-something), even to pocket (they feel passporty), and each flashes vibrant color on its cover. Two of the three chapbooks I was sent have pleasantly handwritten notes from one of the editors on the inside flap, explaining that the books were damaged and are now in the world for free, and that after reading I should leave them somewhere for others to enjoy and occupy, which I will. This too is coterminous with the press’s aesthetic, in that there is encouragement from the editors, and from the work of the writers, to take in what you can before passing along the goods, before leaving a little bit of humanity on the corner.

  ROYGBIV   by Nathan Wade Carter

ROYGBIV

by Nathan Wade Carter

All three chapbooks I’ll discuss beam street-wise. The speakers in the two poetry chapbooks, Nathan Wade Carter’s ROYGBIV and C.T. McGaha’s gutterboy rides again,as well as the speaker in David Bersell’s nonfiction chapbook, Nashville Notebook, are puzzled peregrinators: first of the self’s internal monologue and then of the situations the self must account for having created, happened upon, or absconded. The work is fueled by self-exposed wounds that inform opening lines such as—“please forgive me” (Carter), “i scream at the parents” (McGaha) and “I spend my summer not falling in love” (Bersell)—and yet the closeness of the speaker to the writer is less essential than the closeness of the speaker to their own footing in the world. Here we immediately have a me, an i, and an I, concerned with forgiveness, public actions, and love; troubled by relationships, space, and temporality; each of these books thus toils with how much our own dailyness upends us, and our resolve wagering with our anxieties. Here’s Carter, from the poem, “Never”: 

 

I nervously fill space

when I am alone I am quiet

save singing

save telling the cat she’s a good girl …

 

and then here’s McGaha, from the poem “area 2, floor 3”:

 

I’ve developed a phobia 

circumstantial only

to walking in 

parking decks.

 

The environment of the poems is often the externalization of the speakers’ anxiety. Incidentally, admittance of the anxieties permeate both Carter and McGaha’s poetry chapbooks but what grounds them is a sly reversal of the head vs. the physical space, a reversal that asks which of the two commands the world. The speaker in Carter’s “Never” fills space with responses to his nerves, and the speaker of McGaha’s poems responds internally to the ways in which exterior spaces have affected them. This is not the only instance of this bounce between what we might call perceptual space and conceptual space, and both poets reverse these spaces throughout their books in order to examine the nerves of their underground. And yet it isn’t until their speakers add to these spaces, with images and situational specificity, that the work begins to speak more clearly, more effectively. In Carter’s “Arrive Light” we see this effectiveness on fuller display:

 

I push at my bark

trees communicate                   through roots               touching

let me be untended                  sacred                          

let me feel less                        defeated by little things

I locate the shame and cradle it …

 

Carter’s speaker extends the head and physical space by defining what, as part of each space, pressurizes an escape. What instigates the poetic outro. Here the line “let me feel” is an allowance outside the world of the stress, and Carter claims this by locating the shame, then cradling it. Though McGaha does similar things in the gutterboy rides againpoems, the relief and / or release of the pressurized spaces often gets its play through self-reflexive droll, as we see in “neither by lamplight nor by moon shall I make my voyage”:

 

and my shoe, which has a hole in it, which I’ve tried to hide

well, has

decided that it wants to flap around while I’m pawing around

this macy’s

looking for one single goddamn light blue oxford in my size

so that I can go

to work tomorrow, and see my coworker and he’ll ask if I had 

a rough night and

i am tired. 

 

The form of the beginning of this poem, of what precedes the above, emulates how a tree flows from top to bottom—each line longer and wider than the last—and it ends as it does above, with the choppy crouch, a sort of stubbed-toe, kicked-rock effect. In a sense, this allows for the cadences of indifference to cash out on the drained energy behind the speaker. This is where McGaha drives the colloquial into the absurdities of minutiae, where the poem risks being, just, well, colloquial. Whereas Carter’s poems often speak opaquely about the location of shame, allotting it some mystery as we envision what it means to cradle it, McGaha’s poems tend to leave the shame the speaker experiences on the surface, in a low-fi confessional and conversational lean that reveals its stakes without the need to mask them. Both poets, however, utilize speakers whose sense of wandering through emotional challenges makes the ends of their poems more consistently abrupt exits than sustained forms of wonder. The same speaker who is tired in McGaha’s poem cuts out of other poems as if to forgive themselves for making a go at exploring the self (“thanks for nothing, mom & dad;” “i sleep a lot;” and “i peaked too soon” are a few examples.). The speaker across Carter’s poems cuts out of the poems fast too, but often less reflexively, and more as if there’s no other way to get out than by gesturing toward something much larger than the self (“all creatures are compelled to be alone but together;” “or maybe the space we fit is out there;” “never not nothing.”). Almost like the self, as realized, can only begin to realize that which, outside the self, eludes, and this “begin-to” is where the poem sometimes drops off. 

  Gutterboy Rides Again   by C.T. McGaha

Gutterboy Rides Again

by C.T. McGaha

And so what do these aesthetics of self say of Ursus Americanus Press? These titles are concerned with mundanity and its ability to microscopically eclipse our psychological algorithms.  I would also argue that there is consistency in the framework of these poems, in that they elevate the worries of the self by often submitting to the selfishness of worry, and then often dropping off/letting go as a form of tone. This, ultimately, is why the poems of Carter and McGaha succeed when given more opportunity to prose themselves—when McGaha’s lines lean into a lengthier breath, and when Carter uses the prose poem (“Seraph” and “Butter” are the best of the bunch) they have more aim in their nervous energy and the speaker is more in control of courting a poised investigation. This isn’t to say all poems should be prose poems, only that this space often opens up room for all of the speakers’ worries to bobble in the same dome, as opposed to sleet away. This, perhaps, is why David Bersell’s “Nashville Notebook” reads quite differently than the chapbooks from Carter and McGaha and why I’m not as quick to assume an obvious aesthetic at work in Ursus Americanus.

Bersell’s Nashville Notebookis made up of thirteen micro-essays, each of which read as self-examinations. Similar to Carter and McGaha, Bersell doesn’t attempt to sidestep his psychological predicaments; he writes into them. He interrogates himself by recalling the sharp prattling of family turmoil, addiction, not loving a partner, and extends these immersions through the form of the essay in order to channel a slower blimp, from which the world can come down a little and settle from its lofty nightscapes. In the essay “Soup,” for example, Bersell uses a car accident—a fire—to mimic the way flames work by recalling a moment of watching Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon play his very last live show at Woodstock, ’94:

 

His face is beautiful—“This is a song called ‘Soup’ ”—Shannon Hoon is a poem, swaying and slick, pushing the lyrics over the waves of bodies. His whine softens and he asks what’s wrong. He’s singing about bitter beans, a quarter moon, a rocking chair, bitter beans, the corner store, the holidays, and making it all go away. The cheering crowd and the years between him and us, and me at my desk sipping wine. I have watched a car burn, too.”

Though Bersell is often quick to ground us in a place in his prose, he also unleashes himself in the statelessness of memory. The Hoon memory happens as he recalls sitting in a driveway watching Hoon on his phone, but we’re just as easily with Hoon in 1994 and then too with Bersell at a desk, sipping wine, shrouded by images of the flames. The “I have watched a car burn, too” is both frank and summoning, and if you Google Hoon singing “Soup” in 1994 you can understand a bit more about what Bersell is attempting in these essays. He is upping his own drone to catch enough of the cultural malaise to speak above the crowd, enough for them to hear him, and be moved at the same time.

  Nashville Notebook   by David Bersell

Nashville Notebook

by David Bersell

Bersell consistently flexes his diction within temporal space: he does not tamper with, or pretend to own, time and tense. Sometimes this can only be accomplished when Bersell shifts to second-person, as in the essay, “Thank you Lorrie Moore and Junot Diaz,” and the reasons for this seem to be that there is a forced distancing, of the speaker from the weight of the moment and the past, and just as I start to let go of having to define an aesthetic across these chapbooks I notice that this is one of the similarities cast across the UAP lot, that these three writers are jesting with their desire to either get close to the personal and open it, or play themselves out from the thundering heartache that often paves the roads of introspection. 

Beresell’s essays are micro, yes, but they stem from macroscopic imprecations—like the voice of a quiet Shannon Hoon trembling atop a massive dirt-adorned crowd at Woodstock. Bersell is indebted—and he calls out these names in the text—to Jo Ann Beard and Matthew Dickman and Joan Didion but not in the sense that he’s trying to write like them. Instead, he invokes them by name as a kind of kindling aside, their cumulative effect on him making him choose to write through the shattered relationships and tangential turmoil of being young and alive while getting fucked-up on the realities of what it means to grow an assuring mode of self-care and, most importantly, self-reflection. My guess is that any of the chapbooks we see from Ursus Americanus in the future will not only grab the mic from self-reflection but also reflect the gritty apertures the self must splutter through on its/our way toward reflecting.  

 

Tyler Flynn Dorholt is the author of American Flowers (Dock Street Press), and co-editor and publisher of the journal and press, Tammy. He writes, makes art, and lives with his wife and son in Syracuse, NY.