“Maps, Cargo” by Bella Li and “The Tulip Beds” by A. J. Carruthers reviewed by Tamryn Bennett

LiCover_mediumMaps, Cargo

by Bella Li

Vagabond Press, 2013
carruthers-cover_mediumThe Tulip Beds

by A. J. Carruthers

Vagabond Press, 2013



As Rare Object #94 and #92 respectively, Bella Li’s Maps, Cargo and A. J Carruthers’ The Tulip Beds are set to become even more recherché as Vagabond rounds-out their long-running series at #100. Vagabond’s Rare Objects are revered, not only as one of the finest chapbook series of recent years, but for the Press’ cultivation of so many debut collections. This tradition of careful curation and experimentation continues to shape the transitory spaces of both Maps, Cargo and The Tulip Beds.

Li is a cartographer of a different kind. Her map-making is as aesthetic as it is topographic, plotting fragmented histories, horizons and the spectral lands of memory and dream. Coordinates ‘E 44 10 N 33 15’ mark the first poem and the prophet Mohammed’s journey ‘In the year of the Hegira 622, driven from he city and exiled’ (p.1). Rather than patch together gapped historio-graphic accounts Li allows the poem to remain open to multiple imaginings, an approach that resonates with Lyn Hejinian’s overthrowing of fixed meaning in her paper ‘The Rejection of Closure’ (1985). The openness, participation and uncertainty invited by Li’s deliberate spaces is emphasised in the line ‘Concerning the origins of the name “ ” (in the palace, there was a small )’ (p.1).

These gapped expeditions continue to traverse continents, drifting through centuries of knotted cargo and ‘drowned’ coastlines (p.8). Above each of the travellers a constant damp of clouds hovers, and after the precise ‘Accounting of knives, guns and hats’ (p.3) Li steers towards more subliminal waters with the poems ‘Two children are threatened by a , 1924 (Ernst)’, ‘Drowning dream’ and ‘Window’.

‘Drowning dream’, my favourite mirage and perhaps the most melancholy offering of the collection, adapts its first line from Anne Sexton’s ‘Imitations of drowning’ (1981):

That August I began to dream of drowning. It was the season
of water—strange storms troubled the air. All day I crept
along the edges of rooms, avoiding the precious windows—
half ajar, propped open with old newspapers where the
green sky pooled (p.11).

Here, the clouds that loom like lodestars above the travellers give way to storms and rising seas that swallow gardens and swell timbers of a seemingly abandoned house. The slow wreckage of exteriors is mirrored in the basement of the house ‘where a man—quiet and still as a mouse—floated face down in the dark’ (p.11). There are no numbers to navigate, no landmarks, only the hum of the house above and hope of a different nightmare. The final poem, ‘Window’, draws back curtains like ghost nets inside a blue room of sleep.

Something coming
through the window and you
can feel the hairs on your
neck do their little dance
and when you exit as
you must now that
you have entered
it is though
the win
w. (p.12)

Like the chipped histories stacked around it, the house and window offers nothing whole. Instead the poem calls us into the unmapped, where flotsam and forgotten songs wait to be rediscovered.

Cosmic hollows and harmonies also shape Carruthers’ The Tulip Beds – a toneme suite, a collection as intricate and interconnected as the sources that sparked its creation. In the opening TONE/ NOTE Carruthers explains the alchemy involved in assembling this work:

‘Multiple procedures converged in the making of this piece. Initially, I was struck by a photo image of the extinct filter-feeder Siphusauctum gregarum, which appeared to show a three-line “stave”, in a 2012 article by Lorna J. O’Brien and Jean-Bernard Caron. I then used this article, as well as English translation of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi (1619), and Aristoxenus’ Elementra Harmonica, as source-texts. Many of the images were generated thanks to the extraordinary website’ (p.1).

This omnium of sources problematises classification of The Tulip Beds in a similar vein as the fossilised tulip-shaped creatures that remained incertae sedis for such a long time . The incongruent categorisation of these soft-bodied creatures echoes in the first ‘bars’ of the suite as Carruthers recounts the mystery of flower-like filter feeder:

In which a fossilized
species deserving of
the name Problematica
is poeticized by a
scientist, who found in
the three lines of a
stave an image worthy
of the poetry of nature (p. 1)

With the puzzle of Siphusauctum gregarum finally solved by science, the suite curves into the mysteries of planetary motion. Carruthers splices lines from Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and images generated by sound augmentations. The curve towards such chords also mirrored in the pixelated image squares that sit beneath each stanza. The tulip-like calyx that populate the first 14 stanzas morph into grainy planets and human hands as the suite scales tunings of Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the Earth.


(The earth sings MI,
FA, MI so that you may
infer even from the
syllables that in this
our domicile MIsery
and FAmine obtain.)

While this citational poetics of source matter, semitones and symbols riffs in original and unexpected ways, the collection succeeds most, for me, when Carruthers gives space to his own tones within this celestial cacophony. Perhaps the next instalment of Tonemes, a chapbook forthcoming from SUS Press, will score more of Carruthers’ original compositions.


Hejinian, Lyn. ‘The Rejection of Closure’ (1985), in The Language of Inquiry, Berkley: University of California Press, 2000, pp. 40-58.

O’Brien, Lorna J.; Caron, Jean-Bernard. ‘A New Stalked Filter-Feeder from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale, British Columbia, Canada’. PLoS ONE, 1, 2012.

is a poet and artist. Since 2004 she has created artist’s books and comics in collaboration, exhibiting works in Sydney, Melbourne, Switzerland and Mexico. Her poetry and essays have been published in The Drunken BoatCordite, Nth DegreeEnglish in Australia and ImageText. She has a PhD in Literature from UNSW and is currently Education Manager for The Red Room Company.