vagrant (one) in thin air

Karen Garthe
with art by Tod Thilleman
Spuyten Duyvil ($35)

by Lawrence R. Smith

vagrant (one) in thin air, Karen Garthe’s fourth poetry collection, is also a collaboration, an integration of her fascinating poems with the color collages of Tod Thilleman. Every page of this avant-garde work is a surprise, taking readers to visual, intellectual, and emotional extremes in innovative ways.

Because Garthe’s poetry itself has many of the qualities of collage, the mix of text and visual art makes perfect sense. Garthe’s poems are a collision of different speech elements, including slang, colloquialisms, archaic speech, and cultural references. Like a musical score, typographical variations convey a spectrum of sounds and moods, from quiet laments to shouting anger. Sometimes there are even distinctly different internal voices that play against one other in the manner of an opera duet. In “Great Vocal Recess,” Garthe creates a performance that is both frightening and intriguing:

LunetteHalfmoon   Horror      sunrise

causing birds to silence

Big BOOT DOWN THE STAIRS TO where are my elders



Hope full sight

far    as    I    ca   n    tell

The body landed Here

in its tortures    its lone throng in

The Great Vocal Recesses’s wire shut orbits Here

where violence has really come


front and center

at the top of the stairs      a dragon scaled with martyr

smear and tars of avenue

As we move through these allusions to violence, we grasp for the precise narrative that lies behind them. We feel the passion and betrayal, but any attempt to nail it down fails to clarify the ambiguities. As in Luciano Berio’s near-language musical compositions, we are sure of what we hear, but it is in a language just beyond our grasp. The works of both Garthe and Berio engender that wonderful sense of excitement, of being right on the edge of discovery.

Despite this play with uncertainty, there is an assured voice in Garthe’s work. Its cadence of logic and argumentation is similar to that which animates Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Garthe’s practice, however, is more radical. It is akin to Basquiat’s canvases, where the interplay of image and text in spatial tension creates a critical mass of meaning, passion, and critique. “Palette rose” has a particularly Basquiat feel to it, as a painterly theme joins the musicality:

I rest in



twiddling fingers 10 kissings in air

rendered mulberry pink      so bound in

laughter amongst the images

Alone in my corner befell

solace befell    reaching   my   hands   in      the   sorest

rose of opening illness

tantamount’s pinkest


salmon-colored coruscations effervesce

Vast Absence twilight harbors      The gray blue East River



450 East 52nd Street

The poems in this collection offer a journey into the unknown, one in which generally recognized objects and feelings go in unexpected directions—and yet despite the constant surprise, it all seems absolutely right. For the intrepid reader, vagrant (one) in thin air will surely be a rewarding venture.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021