Dovetail by Sharon Auberle and Jeanie Tomasko

Dovetail by Sharon Auberle and Jeanie Tomasko. Bent Paddle Press, 2017

Reviewed by Freesia McKee

The website for Bent Paddle Press explains that the small publisher “endeavors to not only publish great poetry (which is, of course, the heart of the matter), but to design beautiful books.” Dovetail, a collaborative, illustrated poetry collection by Sharon Auberle and Jeanie Tomasko, is a perfect example of this ethos.

What one notices first about Dovetail is the book itself as an objet d’art. Dovetail is fashioned as a sketchbook, spiral-bound at the top with the pages flipping upwards. The paper is heavy and textured, the insides of the book in black and white. This is a beautifully designed book that feels like a calendar one would display in a place visible to guests.

A beautiful calendar gives its owner a new surprise every month, perhaps a new flavor or feeling, and Dovetail takes cues in these ways as well. The table of contents is simply an index of illustrations. Readers must turn to any page of this 25-page collection to read the text, even the titles. As a reader, I liked the invitation this mystery gave me. Dovetail’s novel approach to binding and organization presents incentive to flip to any page and read its poem in a way that more traditionally presented collections do not.

Dovetail is part of a growing movement in poetry that appreciates the inclusion of drawings and other pictures. In the last few years, readers have been introduced to many high-profile poetry collections that incorporate visual elements. Joshua Whitehead’s astonishing Full-Metal Indigiqueer and the 2018 National Book Award finalist Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen are two recent collections that use the poetic-visual plane in innovative ways.

Collaboration is another favorable trend. As Dovetail’s title suggests, the interplay between the collaborators is a signature feature of this book. There is a trade-off between visual and poetic expression. Every page hosts a drawing and a poem by Tomasko and Auberle.

Both creators appreciate art, nature, and travel. There is a decidedly Midwestern sensibility to this book—cranes, snowy winters, sunflowers, August gardens, rhubarb pie, harbor cottages, and linden leaves—but we also move beyond Wisconsin. Readers connect with California birds, a room in Paris, and “a cliff far above / the wild Pacific.” Auberle and Tomasko’s poems include Chagall and Renoir as well as authors like Neruda, Ruefle, and Hugo. There are even a few echoes of Dickinson:

we each our lamp
this attic slant

pen and ink

this wood floor
we each this bed.

To these poets, the stanzas are “my slicker and umbrella / the wet shine of them.”

The poets also nod to the late Mary Oliver. As in Oliver’s work, nature delivers textured, emotional pith:

It’s not like you have to decide
who you would rather be—

tough ribbon of snake, pink-eared
mouse, hungry angel, instead—

how well are you doing your life
how precise how intent how joy.

Readers of Dovetail will encounter a “shiny-scaled blue fish or two” and a “stone wall and crooked gates” because “tonight under a pink sky / two birds are singing.” What a world of observed delights! Birds of all kinds are present throughout Dovetail, which seems only apropos.

Tomasko and Auberle write object-oriented poems that take place in natural and intimate settings. Often organized around concrete objects like “a sailboat the color of lemons” or “an oatmeal bowl,” the tactility of their language satisfies me. I came away from this collection thinking of my own grandmother’s “delftware blue.” Isn’t such linguistic solidity one of the basic joys of poetry?

No poem in this collection is longer than 23 lines. You can flip anywhere in this sketchbook of a collection and begin. Dovetail is a field guide, something you’d take into the woods with you as you notice birds and flowers and remember what they bring to mind.

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