My late husband Ned used to refer to “the great unknowns,” by which he meant artists whose work is worthy, but who remain unknown to the general public. Some of them were friends of ours. (To be sure, we live in times, as the novelist and essayist Kurt Vonnegut so correctly ascertained, when there are a few superstars, who receive no end of adulation and money—the Brad Pitt’s and George Clooney’s of the world, if you please—while, the rest of us are nobodies.)
One of the great unknowns is our friend, the poet, book designer, and publisher, Brett Rutherford.
I met Brett at a poetry reading in New York City during the 1980’s. Not only is Brett a fine poet, he created and has maintained The Poet’s Press for the past 40 years. And, that being the early days of personal computers, he was then also a computer entrepreneur. Shortly after we met, we began working together.
In the early days of computer technology, people were needed to teach and write about programs, so, we wrote pamphlets on word processing, which were published and distributed by Economics Press of Fairfield, New Jersey.
Then Brett made a living working in the printing industry in various capacities—as an editor, journalist, printer, and consultant, but his first love was poetry. But, he also knows a great deal about typography and book design, which he has put to use to design and typeset his many publications.
In 1971 he founded The Poet’s Press and since then has published 213 books! He has published 15 books of his own work and many on the work of the excellent but also other great unknown poets—Emilie Glenn, Barbara Holland, Annette Hayn, and others.
In 1985 he moved himself and his press to Providence, Rhode Island—his first book upon relocating was Poems of Providence.
Recently, through Facebook we reconnected, and Brett sent me a couple of his books. My favorite is Tribolite Long Song.
Every book Brett publishes is a work of art. (I acquired my love of typography from him.) The end pages comment on the book’s design: “The body text for Trilobite Long Song is Plantin Schoolbook. Several attractive modern fonts, including Galliard and Plantin, are based on typefaces originally designed by Robert Granjon (1513-1589), a prolific type designer and founder active in Paris, in the shop of Christopher Plantin and later in Rome at the Vatican…. Poem titles are set in Schneidler Black. The book is also decorated with several 18th century Dutch borders and ornaments. The Trilobite illustrations are from the work of Joachim Barrande.”
If Brett were to be classified as a poet, I think he would be called a Romantic but one who takes great delight in the macabre, decrepitude, and horror, and he has a wonderfully outrageous sense of humor.
In case you don’t know, a tribolite is any numerous extinct Paleozoic marine arthropods (having their shells on the outside) having segments of the body divided into furrows on the dorsal (top) surface into three lobes. Brett comments that, “Tribolites were the dominate life form on earth for hundreds of millions of years.”
The title poem begins:
My thousand eyes are upon you.
Even when I molt, when others would dream
in an agony of pain denial, I stay alert.
I watch for your every passing.
Everything I sense about you
from infrared to ultraviolet
is in perfect focus at every distance.
Not even a feeding cave or a narrow crevice
can hide you from me: I know
the subtle song of your feet and feelers.
The mottled markings on your thorax
Make me go rugose:
A few verses later our Tribolitan lover says:
When I was younger, I traced
lewd messages on the sand floor,
wiping them out as fast as I wrote them—
oh, things that would embarrass you,
one typical juvenile verse went something like:
I want to hold my click-click
against your click-click-ack-click
until we grrrr-te-te
He ends the poem with:
Thou, greater than me, and whom I love:
I lay my eggs at your feet.
The image brought to mind by Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel, Eugene Onegin, is that of a sleigh being pulled across the snowy, Russian tundra. Brett’s poem, Alexander Pushkin: the Demons, elaborates:
The clouds whirl, the clouds scurry.
The moon, unseen, lights up
from above the flying snow.
Gloom-ridden sky, gloom-ridden night:
on my life, I can’t find the way.
We have no strength to go onward:
there, look, our tracks again:
we have gone in a full circle!
The little bell is suddenly silent,
in a fog so thick it cannot tremble.
The horses stop. What’s that in the field?
To this poem he has added the driver’s exclamations of “Bozhe moi” (My God!) as well as the sound of the ringing sleigh bell.
In “Old Poet Glimpsed on the Subway” Brett writes:
At 5 p.m. on a Monday night
on a subway car at Wall Street,
amid the pack and crush of crowds
I glimpse once more the old poet.
One arm bent round upon itself—
a stroke had crippled him.
his suit and tie, though loose and rumpled
sags everything: serf now
to a fiefdom of profit-taking
The great light of his eyes
had gone out.
There was no more panther in him,
and the shrill gulls
had taken his words.
Brett’s interests include classical music and opera, Latin American music, Chinese art, history, literature, bicycling, graveyards, woods, horror films, intellectual history and crimes against nature. In all these areas he has some degree of expertise. In this volume he has included “Four Poems of Li Yü.”
“Li Yü was the last emperor of Southern Tang (7th – 10th Centuries AD.) He lost his kingdom and went into exile. The first Sung emperor, a poet himself, was so jealous of Li Yü’s poems that he sent a messenger with poisoned wine, which he was ordered to drink on the spot. The intensity of loss and longing in the exile’s writing rise to an intensity not commonly found in Chinese poetry. These are my loose adaptations. In the last poem, ‘Assignation,’ the poet assumes the voice of young girl or concubine.”
The flowers were bright
(and the night have lit my way like lanterns)
but the moon was diffused in light mist.
Cool, but not too cold,
that was the best night to go to my lover,
Trembling I trod the perfumed stones,
step upon step amid the night-blooms.
I held in one hand the golden-threaded shoes,
In the other his scroll of urgent summoning.
Not included in this volume but one of my favorite of Brett’s works is a poem play that he wrote based on the life of Carlota, the mad wife of Maximillian, the Emperor of Mexico, who, after his assassination in 1867, spent the rest of her life in seclusion in various European castles.
I wish I had the answer about how to bring the work of the “great unknowns” to the general public but I do not. Therefore, much worthy work is enjoyed by a few but neglected by most, and therefore the artist does not receive the recognition he or she so richly deserves. Alas, it’s a shame that such a fine poet and mind as that of Brett Rutherford falls into this category.
More information on the books published by The Poet’s Press can be found at www.poetspress.org.
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