(GIGNO)SKEIN, being a hand-bound chapbook, hardly concerns itself with aesthetics. The cover is plain cardstock—a nice blue-grey flecked with gold, but plain nonetheless—and the binding is a piece of string sewn through three holes in the spine—strikingly simple compared to, for example, the potentially elaborate stab-binding projects we did in class. This unassuming design seems utilitarian, reflecting the philosophy that the book form ought to convey the text, the content of the book, as transparently as possible (Borsuk 106). At first glance, one hardly notices the book’s qualities as an object; attention is instead focused on the poetry it contains.
There are, however, a few traits that stick out precisely because of the book’s minimalistic design—it seems to follow a “less is more” philosophy.
The first of these properties is the title, and the way in which it’s presented. Visible through a window in the cover, the title of this chapbook reads SKEIN, meaning a loose coil, perhaps a tangle, usually of something like yarn (Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary) (American Heritage Dictionary). But when you open the cover to reveal the dummy title page, the title reads GIGNOSKEIN, a Greek verb meaning “to know” (also “to understand,” “to perceive,” “to learn,” etc.) (“What is Gnosticism?”). When the cover is opened, the transformation of “skein” to “gignoskein” seems to imply a relationship between loose or tangled ideas and understanding, perhaps suggesting that this collection of poems should be approached as an amalgamation of images, sounds, space, and in some cases punctuation, which contain knowledge.
The title of (GIGNO)SKEIN seen from the cover and the dummy title page. Photos by me.
The poetry in (GIGNO)SKEIN is experimental and abstract, making little to no literal sense. One of these poems, “A ‘Beautiful In-Law’ for Brenda,” seems to abandon the meaning of words so entirely that they conjure up no familiar images (at least for me). “Dare an end lead/Dream an ear bird,” for example, refers to nothing recognizable but rather plays with rhyme and assonance (Hartmann). This is the bare minimum of poetry—the manipulation of sound—much like the chapbook is the minimum of the codex—several folios stacked together to form a book (Borsuk 43). This abstract use of language is representative of many of the poems in this book, and because of these avant-garde qualities, these poems seem to fit the bill as tangled, not-immediately-comprehensible “skeins.” But what of the other title? Where do we find the understanding and insight implied by “gignoskein?”
Many of the poems in (GIGNO)SKEIN refer to the poet Brenda Hillman to whom the book is dedicated. “Small Edits on a Poem Itself,” for example, is an erasure poem from comments Hillman made on the poet’s work (Adam), and another is titled “From Brenda” (Friedman). It is in these homages that we find the revelation the title implies. One of the connotations of “gignoskein” is “to get to know a person,” or “to be acquainted with someone” (“What is Gnosticism?”). Perhaps this amalgamation of poems serves as a sort of portrait of Hillman. As a preamble to the poem “Marked Exhalation”, she is quoted as saying “Words aren’t clear; they’re marks on the page—” an attitude reflected in the abstract and sometimes absurd use of words in this collection of poems (Oshiro). The “skein” of poetry helps us “gignoskein” Hillman and her influence on these poets.
Confluent with this interpretation of the book as an homage to Hillman are the evidences of manual construction. The sewn binding, the knot where the string ends were tied off, and the marks of a craft knife around the window in the cover—made noticeable by the minimalistic design—all contribute to a sense of intimacy. It feels almost as if this book was intended as a personal gift to Hillman.
Hand-made features of (GIGNO)SKEIN. From left to right: the three-hole sewn binding, the knot where the ends of the binding thread are tied off, and the little crosses at the corners of the window cut in the cover. Photos by me.
Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. The MIT Press, 2018, pp. 43-45.
“Brenda Hillman.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/brenda-hillman. Accessed 21 Sep. 2021.
Fell, Adam. “Small Edits on a Poem Itself.” (GIGNO)SKEIN. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2006.
Friedman, Olivia. “From Brenda.” (GIGNO)SKEIN. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2006.
Hartmann, Meg. “A ‘Beautiful In-Law’ for Brenda.” (GIGNO)SKEIN. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2006.
Oshiro, Janine H. “Marked Exhalation.” (GIGNO)SKEIN. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2006.
“Skein.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/skein. Accessed 21 Sep. 2021.
“Skein.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/skein. Accessed 21 Sep. 2021.
“What is Gnosticism?” Haverford College, http://ww3.haverford.edu/religion/courses/222a/First%20Class%20Gnost.htm. Accessed 21 Sep. 2021.