Book Review

Perfect Dragonfly: A Commonplace Book of Poems Celebrating a Decade
and a Half of Printing and Publishing
. Selected by Scott King. Northfield & Red Wing, Minnesota: Red Dragonfly Press, 2011. $30

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

Scott King at Red Dragonfly Press is the genius behind this anthology, 
Perfect Dragonfly: A Commonplace Book of Poems Celebrating a Decade
and a Half of Printing and Publishing.
 He is responsible for the
book’s shape, size, color, feel, and printing. Perfect, as in the
title. The book wears a luxurious dust-jacket of dark-ivory textured
card stock. (Tan is too common a word.) King letterpress printed the
embossed words “Perfect Dragonfly” in a deep red. The logo (in black)
appears under the subtitle. Removing the jacket reveals a cover in
dark red (the color matches the embossed jacket lettering). Gold
embossing appears on the book’s spine (title, publisher) and on the
cover with the logo.

I turn pages just to admire them—how perfectly the easy-to-read text 
has been positioned on each page. Facing pages are often symmetrical.
The pleasing type is Quadraat and Quadraat Sans described as “compact
and wide-eyed.” The two-column format of the Table of Contents is
clever and effective—highly readable. King also selected a useful and
effective format for the ivory pages—the manner in which he displays
the poets’ names and lists each poet’s books published by Red
Dragonfly Press.

As for the contents of Perfect Dragonfly? Who cares! One just wants to 
touch and feel and look at this book. However, I did, after a time,
actually read it.

Scott King, of Minnesota, in his six-page Preface, discusses the 
inception of Red Dragonfly Press in the mid 1990s. He devotes a page
to thanking those who have helped him. His print shop and type foundry
are located in a restored granary at the Anderson Center in Red Wing.
“With high ceilings and windows facing in four directions, this
workspace is quite wonderful…” he said. (vii) King lists the printing
presses he has owned and their intriguing history. His website is here.

King writes: “I seem to have put up type the way some people cellar 
wine, indulging in new and vintage fonts when possible…. No matter how
Red Dragonfly Press managed to survive in these rather precarious
times, certainly it was not due to my business prowess.… From the
moment I began this work of setting type and printing poetry, I found
myself embarked on an exploration into the rich legacies of printers,
punch cutters, hot-metal men, typographers, and private presses.… I’ve
attempted to remain true to the deeper traditions, to keep as much of
the aesthetic and rigor of letterpress—the clean pages and good
typography—that computer pre-press software will allow…” (ix)

The poems in Perfect Dragonfly are ones King has printed and published 
in his letterpress editions and paperback books. He arranged the poems
alphabetically by poet. He said, “I set out to include at least one
poem from each book, but in the end I embellished this locus communis
by adding favorite poems and poems with subjects and themes that
recurred and caught my attention, textures and impurities that enhance
the collection the way colored fibers enhance white sheets of paper.”
(vi - vii)  (The words “commonplace book” in the subtitle go back to
1578. A commonplace book was a term used to describe a collection of
works or a book of memorabilia. Very fitting here.)

In Perfect Dragonfly, King publishes 160 poems by 68 poets over 323 
pages. Thirty-three of the 68 poets live in Minnesota. Four
are from Wisconsin. A smattering of poets are from surrounding states,
and others are as far-flung as New York, North Carolina, Washington,
and California. A few poets live outside the United States.
Twenty-five female poets and 43 male poets appear in the
anthology. More than two-thirds of the pages are devoted to the poetry
of the male poets.

Albert Goldbarth and Dorianne Laux are among the poets appearing in 
this anthology. Many other names may be familiar to Wisconsin poets:
Todd Boss, Sarah Busse, Philip Dacey, Lyle Daggett, Louise Erdrich,
Dave Etter, Louis Jenkins, James P. Lenfestey, Freya Manfred, C. Mikal
Oness, John Calvin Rezmerski, Edith Rylander, Thomas R. Smith, David
Steingass, Joyce Sutphen, Barton Sutter, Ken Tennessen, Mark Vinz, and
Timothy Young.

Perfect Dragonfly
 would be a good addition to any library. Anthologies 
have much to offer—especially this one, published across our state

Comments on a few of the 160 poems: 

Todd Boss’ poem, “Icicles” is a long, thin poem, like an icicle. It 
ends in a fine point but through meaning, not appearance. The poem has
five stanzas of four short lines. The first stanza with
title—“Icicles” “are made of melt. / The same course / that makes
them / takes them away.” In this short stanza alone: four words rhyme,
there’s alliteration (made, melt, makes), repetition is used (makes
them, takes them), and some iambics are employed. All that in 13
words. And on it goes. In the fourth stanza, Boss is bold enough to
use the words “creation, destruction, intersection.” In the last
stanza, he repeats three words for effect and again uses alliteration:
“hangs—as hangs / a heart by how, / and for how long, / what’s felt
is felt.” The poem is perfectly formed; each word fits. A deft and
fresh poem about icicles and, surprisingly, love.  (13)

Sarah Busse’s “Flicker,” radiantly skillful, sings itself along in 
this form poem with three stanzas of five lines. Both love and the day
flicker in this September poem. Busse utilizes alliteration, rhyme,
iambics, and effective details, naming birds and plants. Her first
three lines: “This morning a flock of flickers—flash of red, / flash
of yellow at my feet—rose and flew / past the blue turkey-foot, the
prairie dropseed.” Her second stanza verbs add vibrancy: turns, stirs,
flares, shivers, gilds, diving
. The intriguing last four lines: “and
where are you to be found—in the slow pour / of strong coffee, the
smoky stars that reel invisible / over the city? My children toss
leaves up to see them / leap and fall and leap again, laugh and beg
for more.”  (15)

Larry Gavin has four poems in this anthology. He writes narrative 
poems in a conversational style with an authentic voice. The images
may resonate if you live in this region. I especially liked the last
lines of his poem, “After Drinking with Friends I Write a Poem While
Walking Home”: “Could one wish for more from a night / spent drinking
with friends? More, I mean, / than stars repeated in broken glass /
and the great locomotive passing / at just the instant I step into the
dark.”  (70)

Freya Manfred is represented with 19 pages of poetry from her three 
books published by Red Dragonfly Press. Excerpts from “The Lake that
Whispers to Itself” are meditations arranged by season. The writing is
lyrical, conversational, image rich, commenting on her lake, nature,
and writing. The poem flows, is pleasurable, is similar to reading a
memoir. From “Spring”: “Our black cat follows me / down to the boat
house. / He can’t understand why he isn’t welcome. // I want to write
alone, / beside the the lake that hears my voice / whether or not I
speak…” (198)  From “Fall”: “How I have neglected you, lake. / …What
was I doing? Cooking? / Cleaning house? Worrying about money? / I
can’t find words / to describe your sound today. / Smooth? Round?
Arriving? Departing? / No, none of these, and all of them, …”  (203)

Edith Rylander’s poetry appears on six pages. “Scatter These Bones” is 
an enchanting lyrical poem which uses repetition, lists, and a
refrain. I like the sound of the words “swamp bottom downhill”
(below)—words that slow you down, where the voice drops in
anticipation of death. The poem begins with a request, three words
that draw you immediately into the poem. The first two stanzas:

       Scatter these bones
       Where they can do the most good.
       Give back the useful chemicals, that portion of the Earth
       I ate and breathed and dreamed
       To that swamp bottom downhill
       From the house called Earthward.

       In that place where the deer walk
       And the wood thrush sings,
       Scatter these bones.   (271)

Joyce Sutphen has four poems (six pages) in Perfect Dragonfly. “The 
Oat Binder” appears to be an autobiographical poem describing her
childhood farm: the oat field, oat binder, threshing machine, wagons,
threshing crew, the work she did. She uses a refrain, details, exact
nouns, alliteration, rhymes, similes, vivid verbs. An example from
stanza two: “I had to tell about the threshing machine, / how it was
as big as houses and how / it lumbered down the hill behind the
county’s / oldest tractor like a tamed behemoth,/ and how its
handlers—Harold and Elmer—/ were missing parts of their arms and
legs.” (295) She uses the refrains, “I had to explain,” “I explained,”
“I didn’t tell about,” “I didn’t say anything about” “I suppose I
mentioned (again).” The poem is relatively long, two and a quarter
pages with five stanzas, yet Sutphen writes so flowingly (memories
flowing like dreams), the poem is achieved in nine sentences. And one
sentence is only nine words: “I couldn’t decide if I felt lucky or
not.” (296) Important perhaps, because she ends the poem with the
second shortest sentence: “What I really wanted to say / is that I
know (yes) how lucky I’ve been.” (297) She moves from memory of work
(stanzas one through four) to memory of play, of fun, of realization
of fun, analyzing her past. Perhaps that is why four of the nine
sentences are found in this last elegant stanza:

       I couldn’t decide if I felt lucky or not.
       What I really wanted to tell you, I said,
       was how we used to play on the oat binder
       at the back of the machine shed and that
       the light fell into place, like ripened oats.
       What I really wanted to tell you was that
       the oat binder was as beautiful as
       a ship under sail, that it took its sweet
       time with the field and left all of the gold
       for us. What I really wanted to say
       is that I know (yes) how lucky I’ve been.   (297)

Linda Aschbrenner is the editor/publisher of Marsh River Editions. She edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse from 1998 to 2009 which now continues as Verse Wisconsin. She lives in Marshfield and is presently lost in the 1950s as she works on a book of family memories with her two sisters, Elda Lepak and Mavis Flegle.