Elisabeth Frost and Dianne Kornberg: Bindle

Review by Aisling Daly


What happens when a poet and a visual artist come together to share space? Few would deny the potential inherent in this pairing. For many, art and poetry are two facets of the same, elusive crystal. The Greek lyric poet Simonides is credited with describing painting as “silent poetry” and poetry as “painting with the gift of speech,” emphasizing the close relationship between the two. Bindle, the result of collaboration between the poet Elisabeth Frost and visual artist Dianne Kornberg, brings this long-standing relationship between art and poetry a step closer. Not only are poet and artist sharing space, in Bindle they are sharing the page. As the poet and scholar Alicia Ostriker writes, “Bindle is a collaboration not only between artists, but between worlds…physical object meets metaphysical speculation, kind and unkind language inhabit silent space…life is haunted by mortality – with exquisitely scrupulous and pure attention.” What emerges from such alchemical melding is an artifact with “a rhythm and integrity of its own,” as stated by Frost and Kornberg in the artists’ statement included at the end of the book. Six years in the making, this is a project that blurs the boundaries between artist and poet, text and image, abstract and concrete, life and death, death and grief.

Divided into three main sections, Bindle is a book to pore over. Just as each section was conceived independently as a project of its own, so too each page is its own entity, both in the sense of being a separate, complete poem, and a piece of art that could be displayed independently. There is a handcrafted quality to every page, through the artists’ treatment of both text and image. Most of the text is written in tiny, cramped cursive, demanding close attention to decipher. The writing is etched lightly in pencil, but almost lost in the background. Reading it requires pressing one’s face right up to the page, close enough to smell the paper. In this way, reading Bindle becomes a renegotiation of body and mind. The pages are full of the unexpected, and these surprises demand to be read and examined in unexpected, often uncomfortable positions.

Still, on every page, there are things to notice and miss, and things to return to. The first is the title itself: Bindle. Most often associated with the small bag or sack carried in stereotypical depictions of the American hobo, the word bindle refers to a container of some kind, in which another thing might be held or enclosed. The word draws attention to materiality and movement, two central concerns in this work. The book’s cover is a photograph of a paper bindle holding a specimen, in this case a dead bird. The text “in hand / as air / pulse / still” adorns the bindle in a way that highlights the dimensionality inherent in physical objects. Something is torn (paper), and on display (the corpse of the bird). A couple of strands of hair drift in from the right of the page above the title, reflected back at the reader in reverse.

Dimensionality, or the way a physical object takes up space, continues to be a focus of the first section, entitled “The Lore Which Nature Brings.” This section is immediately concerned with the natural world, featuring photographs of nests in various states of deconstruction. The effect of these mortal remains is an atmosphere of absence or loss. The quiet industry of unseen birds is emphasized by their absence from the panels. This is a section that contrasts scientific and poetic ways of knowing. It was inspired, in part, by the nineteenth-century practice of caliology, or nest-collecting, a hobby deemed fit for well-off women of the time. Caliology seems a pastime replete with sadness. There is a sense of futility in collecting disused nests, a sense of being apart from life, in some way a step behind it. This sadness and futility fills the pages of this section, even washing over the text taken from Romantic poems about birdsong and birth. In many ways, it is this conflation of birth and death, song and sorrow, which makes the pieces so beautiful. This is a fragile beauty, one full of silence and absence, but also resilience and wonder.

The second section of Bindle is “Arachne,” a series of diptychs, and a reproduced version of the first work the collaborators undertook together, shortly after meeting. They were chosen to create a visual installation for the 2009 Poetic Dialogue Project. On this collaboration, Kornberg writes that it was the pair’s first attempt to “explore text and image as integral to one another.” The pages of “Arachne” feature charts of traps and the formation of spider webs, drawing attention to the architecture and engineering of natural phenomena, even as it is juxtaposed with the devices we create to entrap and observe natural life. Here, again, we return to exposure and mortal remains.

This section, and particularly the final panel in the series, is also a reference to the myth of Arachne, the mortal weaver who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest (“it’s woman / against woman”), resulting in the former being transformed into a spider. In one version of this myth, told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne is punished, not for her skill at weaving (which is superior even to Athena’s), but for her mortality. She is condemned, with her descendants, to weave for all eternity. This myth is a reference to creation and transformation within the natural world, recurring concerns in Bindle.

The third section, “What Is Left,” takes language from Frost’s poem “Gone,” written after her mother’s death. The images are inspired by mounds of oyster shells observed during a month-long artist’s residency taken by Frost and Kornberg in Oysterville, Washington. Each panel features a photograph of the oyster middens, taken by Kornberg and abstracted into a line drawing. Doing so leeches the life out of these photographs, imbuing them with a sense of loss that is mirrored in the language of “Gone,” a meditation on dying and grief. “She remembers a lap of waves / a cloud layer / gray weight.”

“What Is Left” is the final of Bindle’s three sections, or movements. What follows is an artists’ statement, outlining Frost and Kornberg’s influences and hopes for this project. This is a gift to the reader, full of insight into the artists’ lives and work, individually and as a pair. The statement concludes with the disclosure that, “Together, we completed the work, a meditation on body and spirit, image and word.” This emphasis on unity seems an important and fitting conclusion for Bindle. It is not a creation of seamless collaboration, but one of careful handling and observation of shared specimens. In the book’s afterword, Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes that “Image-text work is richly complicated, incorporating many traditions of marking on the page…all in one eco-poetic field,” binding nature and art as one entity, together. This containment, inferred by the word bindle, suggests, as DuPlessis writes, “a meeting point between scientific and artistic practice,” a terrain ripe for examination and collaboration, careful and focused attention.