Tiffany Lee Brown (writer) and Clare Carpenter (design and book)
Tiffany Lee Brown and Clare Carpenter produced a book this last spring, A Compendium of Miniatures. It is a hand-bound, hand-set letterpress 48-page book that was produced in an edition of fifty copies. It has already sold out. (Well, nearly sold out. There are still a few left.) The book itself is beautiful. It uses type cutter Frederick Goudy’s Deepdene (named for Goudy’s long-time home) a face informed by the end of the Arts and Craft movement and the demands of machine composition at the turn of the century. However, unlike the type he designed for the University of California Press, (Berkeley) Deepende is free of short descenders. The face is a great choice for a book that recalls the handmade, small press productions of the turn of the last century.
The prose snippets used throughout the book also recall early Modernist experiments. The book explores a very simple structure in 23 variations. Almost all of the entries in the book link a general abstraction, such as hope, love, or truth to a very specific and brief passage.
one complete entries reads:
is like a fuzzy bee that crawls down your pants. Sometimes it hums, sometimes it quiets, and sometimes it sends you howling down the street, naked.
I was reminded in reading this that metaphors and similes often become the most contentious topic of a fiction writing workshop. One of my mother’s friends, a woman who had been at the University of Iowa and had been married to one of the mid-century poets who taught there, said about my first book which is “riddled with similes” that similes are “the hallmark of an immature writer.” At the time, I took the comment as a general dig. I didn’t take it too seriously, but at the same time I kind of filed it in the back of my mind. I kept thinking about it. At the time, I was interested in finding a writing dogma I could live by, and a rule as straight-forward as “no metaphors” seemed agreeably austere.
This austerity comes from the fact that metaphor is not natural. Metaphor is embedded in language. While language itself isn’t necessarily metaphorical, the basic figure, X=Y, that is one thing corresponds (in some way) to something that it is not, seems like an essential function. Why should this grunt mean “river,” rather than “bird?” The utterance river signifies the flowing body of water we call river. I learned much later that, in fact, the basic function of symbols has an entire discipline organized around its operation, semiotics. New Criticism and Semiotics both depend on close readings of the text and understanding the text as an coherent system rather then contextualizing the text.
On the surface, then, a metaphor is unstable and incoherent. There is a proposition that something is something that it is not. An x is a y (or an x is like a y). How can this be? In fact what is happening is two unlike things provide points of connection and difference and between the points of connection, a linkage can be implied and between these points of difference previously unknown connections can be discovered. I.A. Richards (the gangland leader of New Criticism) defined a simile as having two components, the tone and the vehicle. It isn’t entirely clear which is which, but in terms of talking about simile then we know we have two parts: the tone and vehicle and they are compared, the vehicle is like the tone.
When a new subject or a new object enters the world, we begin to understand it by what it is like. This definition does begin to obscure the object under consideration as we began to think of this new object in the terms of what it is like rather than what it is – but at the same time comprehension is only possible because this new object is like something we already know and once we know this new object we can begin to make new sense of it.
This is one of the reasons that new technologies tend to have oxymoronic names. The automobile was once known as the “horseless” carriage. The radio as the “wireless”. The cell as the “mobile phone” or “car phone.”
A Compendium of Miniatures is like a short dictionary for people who want to look up what love or death means. The dictionary contains 22 short prose pieces. Almost all of them are similes linking a general abstraction such as hope, love, or truth to a very specific evocation.
As a general strategy this works remarkably well, because the general abstractions contain so many associations that they would most likely only fall flat if the point of connection between the two occurred at the same level of abstraction. For instance “Love is like affection.” Instead in this book, “Love is an egg.” In this case then the vehicle being a categorically more abstract noun compared to a tone of a categorically more concrete noun (and therefore less abstract noun) works really well. The essential proposition then raises a question that Tiffany Lee Brown then answers using two main strategies.
With one strategy, she creates a tiny story from the initial puzzle of the unresolved metaphor. Acceptance is a taxi ride to a far airport. And then there is a tiny narrative about an Egyptian cab driver talking about birth control. Between the loose ends of the metaphor and the tiny story, essential connections can be inferred.
In the other strategy, Brown writes a kind of aphorism that reminds me of a koan. A koan is designed to accept aspects that are not accessible to rational understanding and may only be understood through intuition. Rather than the kind of Zen stuff appropriated by The Beats, Browns statements reminded me of the condensed, off-the-cuff statements generated by The Surrealists with the Exquisite Corpse. “Sleep,” she wrote, “is like a train. When you’re on it … when it passes your stop … trundling…”
In this structure, then, she depends on her stories or comparison to draw close enough for the reader between sleep and a train, for example. And, at the same time, they cannot be too close or she risks writing a comparison between two like things (which is not a metaphor) rather than two unlike things (which is a metaphor.) Mostly this works. But in a few places it fails. Two generalizations, insomnia and enlightenment are bees, for instance, which implies that there is some connection between insomnia and enlightenment. It would have been interesting to hear about this connection. I began to look for deeper designs in the book. Conversely, then, the few times the definitions stray into cliche, it threatens to topple the whole structure. “Life,” we are told, “is a bowl of cherries.”
A series of definitions begins to suggest value. Even definitions of color suggest value, black, white, brown, yellow, and blue. A definition of words such as home, fear, hate, life, and lust suggest value and a worldview. Unlike the narrator of Shakespeare’s sonnets, for instance, this narrator presents mostly received ideas about the world, even if they are beautifully and neatly packaged as compact stories and aphorisms. Doubt, is like an old friend. “If you and your boyfriend ever need a third,” she says, “I hope you give me call.” This is indeed doubt, as we are supposed to know doubt. But is doubt really like the doubt we know? “Delight is the soft approach of feral kittens,” and “Hope is like the wind.”
In a few places there is a separation from received values, and an individual begins to form. I began to sense the presence of a fussy, anxious narrator who is bothered by bees, for whom home is a “sweater you knit with your hands,” for whom “love is an egg” and a lust “is a leaking ship in the ocean of your guts.” This narrator seems so high strung, that “death is like a cup of coffee.”
But all in all, as a tiny, carefully-produced production, I enjoyed the intricacies of A Compendium of Miniatures even if I wish it had taken on the challenges of metaphor and value that the book began to build.
1. I wish these ideas were entirely my own, but they aren’t. Frederick Nim’s has a good discussion of metaphor/simile in his poetry primer, Western Wind. He bases his own discussion on an article by I.A. Richards. This is the article that created the tone/vehicle for analyzing a metaphor/simile. Eva Feder Kittay’s, Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure, extends Richards’ basic idea in an attempt to address some of the confusion Richard’s method raises. Her book also tracks down the various schools of thought and discussions around metaphor. A less complicated, but still useful book I thought, was George Lakoff’s, Metaphors We Live By. In all of these books the idea that a simile is the hallmark of a immature writer becomes pretty silly. (I am still carrying this grudge, I guess.) In fact, metaphor (or frame) is probably part of our basic neurological toolbox. Just as we know the world through our senses, we know what we sense though metaphor.
2. This is right from Marshal McLuhan’s book Understanding Media.