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The Chester Creek Press

The Chester Creek Press


When I was a boy, I spent a long semester making a pair of crooked bookends.  The shop was called Woodworking.  The following few months, I labored tediously to make a tin box that was an approximate folding of five rectangles that did not leak.  That was called Metal Shop.  Before escaping from all that into the golden book of hours we call a liberal education, I was fortunate to make one last stop at the vocational shops.  I became a printer’s devil, and the world lit up and smelled of ink and tingled with expectation of the next page.  I later became editor of the junior high school student news, but I enjoyed the printing of it as much as the necessarily trivial writing of it.

Once on an island off northern Sardinia, the good ship USS Fulton lay in the harbor at La Maddelena.  When its Captain learned I was an original crew member, a “plank owner” loafing about in the town, he invited me to come aboard.  What startled me most was how the smells of a ship I had not boarded in half a long Mayfly lifetime came back to me.  Having been nothing but a seaman first class, known among the officers as a deck ape, I was surprised at the hospitality and deference I was given for my long ago seaman days aboard the ship.  In my service as a deck ape in those far-off days, my hands would sweat whenever I was near the Captain’s quarters.  We had discipline and fear of authority in that navy.  Yet in those decades later, as a civilian who had no reason to fear the Captain, my hands began to sweat as I neared his lair.  The snows of yesteryear never quite melt.  We are always more of what we were than what we are.  The ghosts of yesterday are most of our being alive.  In the very same way, the smells and feel of my printer’s devil experience came back to me the first time I walked into the shop of Bob Walp from whence the wonders of the Chester Creek Press emerge.

Of books found there on the editor’s shelf and reviewed below, the endnotes will indicate the extremely high quality of the paper and bindings.  In a later essay, four of the useful guidebooks found on the same Chester Creek shelf (technical, critical and splendid historical studies) will also be reviewed to illustrate the peculiar status of the private press in the book-art world.  


Charlotte Muse

Accidents are often good ones.  A friend of mine returned excitedly from a Walp seminar at Lake Placid, talking of an extremely beautiful example of book-art.  Janet McDowell, with her gift at paintings and prints and as master of her own studio, had an excellent eye for such things.  It was her excitement over one book that led me to Chester Town, New York, and up a wooded country drive to the house from which the wonders of a private press were emerging.  The particular physical book that had caught Janet’s attention was a handcrafted objet d’art. Even if its contents had been bad poetry, the object would have been worth possessing for itself.  However, A Story Also Grows deserves its cover.[i]   Charlotte Muse is a stunning poet, little known perhaps, but undeservedly so.  The very cost of book-art production almost condemns the contents to obscurity.

Chapbooks, supposedly meaning cheap books, can also be expensive collectible items.  It may cost up to $500 (in 2010) to get a used copy of her paperback chapbook “The Comfort Teacher” from the Amazon.com system of sellers.  Vertical supply curves can cause a work of art, a baseball card, or a rare postage stamp to defy the often shaky marriage of cost and price in the market.  Collectibles depend on bids.  A quick fix may be possible by finding her poem “The Torturer Describes His Job” on the Winning Writers website.  It is a blood-chilling variation of the dramatic monologue as cleverly put together as Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” or “My Last Dutchess” but even colder.  Still, this is only a glimpse of Charlotte Muse, who has turned the memories of an old woman of the Amah Mutsun people of Central California into a running poetical interpretation.  In late 1929, the American economy itself lay dying.  Ascension Solarsona was also dying those months with the dying Mutsun language itself. Luckily, an ethnologist listened to her meander of stories.  Dead languages never go to Hell, though sometimes go to a purgatory such as the foundation where the Mutsun dialect survives and may come back to earth, probably as a ghost.  Ascension’s stories are still alive and Charlotte Muse has strung them into a string of pearls.  The nineteen poems open by showing us Ascension’s last hours, picking at the sheet, picking imaginary flowers from the blankets.  Anyone who has been around dying elders has seen that.  Muse thinks of her being among bleached stones in a dry river bed ascending a mountain:

Into the mountains she climbs with the riverbed,
up to where the sky is a lake.
The voices of people she has longed for
hail her from a reed boat.  She answers
in their lost language.
Before she goes to meet them
at the place where land falls away
her fingers remember to pick flowers

All of her poems are remarkable in their inventive phrases and images and shadows of under thoughts.  It is a book of jewels with no inferior stones.  It celebrates Ascension’s stories by picking a lyric light out of them.  It is a book full of animals: half breed coyote-dogs, bear-men made in fire rituals.  For example, men have gone hunting and in a cave discover a great rattlesnake “with a face larger than the face of a cat.”  Ascension tells that they killed it.  Muse turns it into a stunning poem, celebrating the snake in four vivid stanzas accompanied by Walp’s striking illustration of the rattler uncoiled across the glowing phrases.

Rattlesnake, I speak to your dust
In homage. Ancient one of the flatiron face,
the ominous repose,
who but you could know so well
the skin of the mountain?
Who but you was its lover?

This is a book that reminds us that poetry should be read slowly and more than once.  Whether this shining imagery will ever be recognized and remembered we cannot know.  It reflects a great story of a people whose language was stolen from their mouths by the priests who made them Christians. Many a great book has died as a yellowing manuscript in an attic, and Keats has praised unheard melodies.  Many an angel has burned in Hell.  Even so, here are nineteen poems that emerge from a lost dialect into a beauty that deserves its splendid clothing.  If it is never recognized, it will be an unknown falling star we did not see because we did not look up.

David Budbill 

The 2006 Chester Creek book Drink a Cup of Loneliness[ii] keeps up the standard of well crafted handmade book-art.  I call its content staggered prose, the kind of thing too often in The New Yorker.  Let me show you an example in the Budbill poem “What It Takes”.  Suppose someone had asked a man devoted to the simple life what it took to make him happy.  He might think of it a moment and say with a faint smile, “Enough of a house to keep the bugs and rain out in the summer, stay warm in the winter, books, a few musical instruments, a garden, silence, some mountains, maybe a cat.”  That is not a bad thought while at a drinking fountain or while standing in a doorway about to leave.  You can break it into varied lines.  Then fool with the punctuation and call it a poem.  In fact, you would have a poem better thought of these days than the best metrical verses and forbidden rhymes. Compare the following:  “I was riding my small horse and stopped to watch a crow shake snow out of a tree in a quiet spot in the woods whose owner I probably know but his house was somewhere else.  The horse wonders what I am up to.  I liked it there but I had to take care of things and couldn’t hang around.”  Now that is prose, even if we stagger it and mess with the punctuation.  On the other hand, we might have said:  Whose woods these are, I think I know….  We all remember the words that come next.  They are not staggered prose.  They are metric and they rhyme.  Of course, staggering sentences oddly divided may still be poetry, even great poetry.  The problem with Budbill’s book is that it seldom rises much above prose in its attempts to take off.  We find a bit of nihilism here and there and studies of our physical deteriorations scatter among the twenty-one pieces, along with some flashes of humor.  The most memorable lines among these songs of the bitter brevity of life is the advice,

Come on,

let’s go dancing
while we’ve still
got feet.

Judged as poetry wrapped in a book-art cover Drink a Cup of Loneliness is like going for breakfast at McDonald’s in a tuxedo.  Budbill is a variation on Monsieur Jourdain.  He has been writing prose all his life without knowing it.

Tom Sexton 

We think first of Mary Oliver, for Mr. Sexton is much in the vein of image poetry of moments in nature presented as lyrical postcards.  The fifty handmade copies of Crows on Bare Branches (2008) are enclosed in a wrap from which the book may be removed for reading.[iii]  The title brings to mind Ezra Pound’s brief poem about faces seen in a crowd:  Petals on a wet black bough.

A typical example of these nineteen postcard poems celebrates the Cardinals:

We tried to entice them all winter
with millet, corn, and sunflower seed,
but they remained comets in the woods
behind the chalk-white Baptist church.
Now a bright male comes to the feeder.
The air about him glows like one
of those small birds that monks, far
from home, copied in the margins
of manuscripts to ease their loneliness.
He feeds for a moment then disappears.
When we begin our morning walk,
we notice, for the first time since
we came to this small island,
that the winter-sea is turning in its nest.

Who should complain of such quiet imagery?  While they lack perhaps the inventiveness of such a poet as Mary Oliver, these postcards from nature are more than staggered prose.  When cardinals appear as comet in the woods and the winter-sea turns in its nest we have left prose behind.  Whether it is globed fruit or dumb as old medallions to the thumb, whether it lives up to MacLeish’s stricture that a poem should not mean but be, still it postmarked from Eden. 

Dylan Willoughby

The Dusk at Saint Mark’s (2008) is a set of well chiseled stones and a book to be reckoned with.  As book-art, it is enclosed in a quality wrap with the volume removable for reading, a style of binding that Bob Walp may teach in a one-day seminar.[iv]  Willoughby’s poems deserve the honor.  However, a second book of Willoughby’s (with the title Thrive) was published in the same year by Chester Creek Press in a vanilla version of book-art, nevertheless luxurious.[v]  Most of the twenty-one poems in Thrive appear as well in the more luxurious binding.

Each poem is alive and flickering like a candle on a window sill reflected in the glass of some once upon a place-time.  The dusk at Saint Mark’s is seen from Dunkin’ Donuts, reminding me of such a counter at which the poet Thomas Braga held seminars of coffee in the woodwinds and had an endowed stool from which to watch the town au bord du lak, bienvenue.  The flickering light shifts in my mind to Ashville and a Matryoshka doll from which an old man’s final days emerge as the soft stone smile of an angel.  Thomas Wolfe haunts the end game of a trilogy this reviewer wrote with a quill from a raven’s wing.

In the second and fourth poems, engendered at St. Woolos Hospital, Newport, a woman lies miles from Juilliard with a dead violin in her throat, old now with only three stones left of the woman who had run up a hill in spiked heels at the age of seventy, now Auschwitzed by the mother of us all.  She reminded me of the beautiful and lost mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberman, angelic in a white hospital gown attached to life-support tubes and singing Bach’s Ich habe genug.  Of Hiraeth, the grief and the longing for the lost one, finally:

You died today.  Driving home, the radio played
Mahler’s Blumine, his discarded blossoms
So beautiful they brought rain,
This late bouquet…

These are stained glass poems through which the world is seen.  These are smoked glass poems, sifting reality’s sun through startling phrases.  These are poems for people who love to play with language.  These are abstract paintings with voices whispering in them.  A word master can be touchingly simple, as in Jenny Joseph’s warning:  When I am old, I shall wear purple.  Dylan Willoughby stirs a thicker brew, but he is a gifted cook.

William Hathaway

Promeneur Solitaire has the same simpler book-art as that worn by Willoughby’s Thrive.[vi]   What can one say about these self indulgent reveries except that they are intelligent and often circle their subject the way a ferret circles a mongoose?  Hathaway’s object is to bring it alive instead of killing it.  Even so, some of the poems go into a verbal weasel dance.  Take for example the poem titled “Deer Mating on the Grassy Median Under the Mobile Sign, which begins:

“Now that’s a sight not often seen,”
someone said, and it explains
why we’d crawled for what seemed hours,
creeping through heat & haze
hating humanity.

 Two pages later the secret watchers of deer-mating get a look at a member of the hated humanity  who concludes it all.

So why tell you about the college boy
lumbering out of a jeep’s cockpit,
hooting & hollering about them,
grabbing his crotch?  About meaty rolls
where his neck should’ve been,
his scraggily fu manchu spasming
like a pudendum, how the tiny diamond
in his earring was winking
such piercing fury in the sun

From that excerpt you get the idea of what Hathaway is up to.  If you enjoy self indulgent reveries of your own, you will like this poet.   From my pentagon of impressionistic reviews celebrating books coming out of The Chester Creek Press, some understanding may be had of the main choices made in the cottage industry of private book-art.  Do we wrap a fish in velvet or do we light a candelabra of fireflies in the crystal helmet of a dead knight’s armor?   

[i] “Printed from hand set Kennerley Oldstyle type on the first cotton/linen handmade rag paper from the Chester Creek paper mill. Illustrated with several woodcuts and drawings by the printer. Quarter leather with paste paper binding.   One of the poems, Caldeando Song, was set to music by Joyce Savre. The music is included on a separate sheet in a pocket at the back of the book.”

[ii] Colophon remarks regarding Drink a Cup of Loneliness:  “…designed in collaboration with artist and poet, hand set in 14 and 18 point Goudy Old Style type, printed on Hahnemuhle Biblio paper, and bound by Robert Walp….”  The woodcuts were by Susan Jane Walp.

[iii]  Colophon:  “Crows On Bare Branches is printed on Canson Johannot paper from 12 and 14 pont Kennerley Oldsyle types.  The illustrations were cut in wood and printed from wood blocks and polymer plates.  Typecasting by Ed Rayher in Northfield, Massachusetts.  Layout, illustration, presswork and binding by Robert Walp.”

[iv] While the copyright is 2008, the colophon is dated a year later, the winter of Chester Creek’s version in an output of 35 copies.  Dusk at Saint Mark’s and Other Poems was printed at Penland School of Crafts at Penland, North Carolina.   The Monotype Kennerley Oldstyle was cast by Swamp Press in Northfield Massachusetts.  The cover paper is Twinrock “Willow Creek Dark”.  Text sheets were made by the printer from cotton and linen rags, and the Japanese paper is Kitikata. “  Anthony Mastromatteo’s drawings  were printed from polymer plates.

[v] “Printed letterpress from Kennerley Old Style type on Johannot paper.”  Anthony Mastromatteo did the cover artwork.

[vi] While the book-art format is similar to Thrive, it differs as follows:  “printed letterpress and handbound by Robert Walp at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  The types are Eric Gill’s perpetua.  The paper is Hahnemuhle Biblio.    Some of the edition is case-bound in quarter cloth, and some is bound in a paper jacket.”  The illustrations are unattributed.