Small Press Spotlight by Ben Mirov

Birds, LLC is unique in the landscape of small poetry presses. Run by a group of friends who reside in multiple cities, the underlying aim of the press seems to be to publish within a small circumference of poets with close ties to its editors. Ben Mirov puts this small press under the spotlight.

Birds, LLC is unique in the landscape of small poetry presses. Run by a group of friends (Justin Marks, Sampson Starkweather, Dan Boehl, Matt Rasmussen, and Chris Tonelli) who reside in multiple cities, the underlying aim of the press seems to be to publish within a circumference of poets with close ties to its editors. With the inaugural publications of Chris Tonelli’s The Trees Around, and Elisa Gabbert’s French Exit (the latter having previously published a chapbook on Birds editor Justin Mark’s Kitchen Press), Birds, LLC appears to be content to build a strong network of familiars who can publish their work with the press throughout their careers.

The design of each book is striking and unique. Forgoing photographs or the more toned down, font-centric aesthetic used by similar presses like Wave Books and MuMu House, Birds, LLC’s book design is strikingly idiosyncratic. The cover of Tonelli’s The Trees Around is primarily a vertiginous neon pink, while Gabbert’s is a muted yet somehow no less striking gold and black. What’s most important about the press’s design aesthetic is also what is most important about the press itself: the determination to stand apart and stake out a new territory in the small press world, albeit in an inchoate manner.

Gabbert and Tonelli are poets at similar stages in their career. Both can be seen as representative as a much larger group of young, ambitious poets who, for one reason or another, have been unable to find publishers for their manuscripts, despite their apparent quality and originality. Like many of their contemporaries, Gabbert and Tonelli also run small publishing projects and have their hands in various web-based poetry publishing ventures. Gabbert is editor of Absent Magazine and Tonelli, alongside Christopher Salerno, curates So and So Magazine and Reading Series.

When looked at as statement of the presses aesthetic preferences, The Trees Around and The French Exit give the sense that Birds, LLC is on its way to establishing a stable of young ambitious poets, with prodigious yet widely unrecognized talents. While neither Tonelli’s nor Gabbert’s collection offers a strikingly new outlook, both are impressive first books filled with idiosyncratic poems that mark strong starting points in the careers of both poets, as well as for Birds, LLC.

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Chris Tonelli: The Trees Around

Chris Tonelli’s poems are deceptively simple. One of the subtler aspects of the poems in The Trees Around is their connection to the ancient Chinese poets like Tu Fu, in that, Tonelli’s work is engaged with and sensitive to the phenomena of the reality that surrounds it. Like the title says, these poems meditate on nature and the surrounding landscape, but just as frequently they examine the lack of such phenomena, resulting in poems that take existence, thinking and or nothingness as their subject matter.

Despite the strengths of the collection as a whole, the third section “For People Who like Gravity and Other People,” seems incongruous. Gravitron, the speaker in these poems, is a personified carnival ride that meditates on its own existence and function within the limited world it inhabits. While the concept is consistent with Tonelli’s other poems, the Gravitron poems contain elements of ironic detachment that contrast the directness and openness of the rest of the collection without catalytic result. Despite the section’s shortcomings, it serves as a moment of levity or a break before the gravitas of “No Theatre,” the collection’s final and perhaps most successful section.

“No Theatre” differs from the other sections in the book in that, for the most part, its poems take metaphysical aspects of reality as its subject matter. Many of these poems, by removing themselves from the universality of objects to the universality of the metaphysical, become strikingly beautiful. In terms of their form, the poems in this section incorporate irregular white spaces in and between lines. The white spaces can be seen as analogous to cogitative pauses, where the mind behind the poem might be recalibrating its course or recoiling itself in order to vector in another new direction. The spacing gives each poem an ethereal appearance which emphasizes the immateriality of their subject matter while simultaneously affirming their coherence as concrete thought formations. The result is occasionally miraculous and consistently engaging.

At first blush, many of the poems in the collection seem placid and in their worst moments, completely inert. But as one ventures further, allowing the practiced simplicity and earnestness to saturate the mind, the incremental movement and calm surfaces of the poems betray a depth of wisdom and insight. More often than not, epiphanic poems of this sort are insufferable, but much of the collection’s value is that it renders otherwise banal meditation into lapidary poems in a consistently charismatic and engaging manner. The epiphanies are earned.

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Elisa Gabbert: The French Exit

The poems in Elisa Gabbert’s new collection are wrought with a rare competence. Many of the poems provide a feeling of stylistic verve, quality of insight, and a totality of form. What is, at times, lacking from the collection, is a sense of daring and or a willingness to explore areas where not-knowing is as fruitful as the sense of control, intellect and confidence that pervades Gabbert’s first book.

Separated into three sections with no ostensible ordering principle, one of the remarkable aspects of The French Exitis the sense of control each poem exerts as it moves from line to line. The poem “Must-See Movie,” is emblematic of this tendency in the way it traces the narrator’s movement backward through a series of events, both real and imagined, ending in her falling “uncontrollably back to sleep.” Not only is the incremental process of the poem’s backward movement through time and space extremely entertaining, but the poem also makes use of its trope without lapsing into a predictable pattern. Gabbert’s ability to balance elements of surprise with a well-wrought topology of ideas is representative of a type of precision and expertise that runs throughout The French Exit.

The overarching aesthetic of the collection, its fastidious organization, the practiced control and well-wrought interiority of each poem, leave one wishing for a greater number of moments where the unknown, or a lack of control are allowed prevalence.

At several points the poems touch on more potent emotions of loss, only to edge away from them, which reminds one that peering into the abyss may not be as rewarding as jumping into it. The collection’s final poem “The Word Fuseki,” is one of several poems in The French Exit that daringly builds its architecture on an absence, in this case the memory of a lost sibling. Fuseki refers to the opening phase in a game of Go, in which each player begins to place their pieces on the game board. The central trope of the poem is that of the speaker and her brother engrossed in various games, but as the poem progresses, it telescopes outward into more mysterious and personal moments: a fight in a San Francisco bar, the burning of a map to “antique” it’s edges. Within the initial context of the various games, these opaque moments resonate with emotion, even for the reader who remains outside them. They suggest that although the narrator and her brother are no longer “playing” with each other, the idea of the game and all of its combative elements live on indefinitely, even after one of the players has left for good.

Poems like “The Word Fuseki,” are rarities that provide readers with not just a competently written poem, but a set of intangibles that are as indescribable and mercurial as they are rewarding.

After reading poems of such consistency, one gets weary of only their strengths. At worst the reader leaves the collection feeling like they’ve just read a book written by the smartest person in class. At best, The French Exit is a remarkable first book that knows exactly what it wants from poems and how to achieve it, over and over.

Visit Birds, LLC ’s website for more information.

Ben Mirov is the author of I IS TO VORTICISM (New Michigan Press, 2010) and GHOST MACHINE (Caketrain, 2010) and has a blog (

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