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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kate Glasheen's Graphic Novel Bandage Deserves to Be Called "Poetic"

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 11:30 AM

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There was a time when I read and thought about poetry on a regular basis -- but I broke up with that girlfriend and have barely read a word of it since.

That joke points to why it's so difficult to ascribe "poetic" qualities to a work of art without sounding trite. So many of us don't take poetry seriously. We read it as part of a phase, or when a grade depends on it. Beyond such circumstances, ideas about what might be "poetic" just get confused with terms like "artistic" or "creative."

When it comes to Kate Glasheen's deeply felt Bandage: A Diary of Sorts, the descriptor "poetic" might at first seem insufficient and vague. But that is, in fact, the best word to use, because Glasheen understands poetry's nature as an art form.

Bandage uses words sparingly. The art is figurative without being merely representational. Riven with impressionistic ambiguity, Bandage reveals a poetic core by being far more interested in suggestion than exposition.

Bandage imagines its story in words and pictures that are as separate and removed from one another as they are intertwined. The story concerns a male narrator's coming of age during a period in which the world is changing around him and he struggles to keep up or change with it. Among other incidents, a friend moves away, a romantic relationship ends, and he is laid up for months with injuries sustained in a confrontation with local thugs.

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I read Bandage three times in quick succession -- not because I felt it necessary, but because I wanted to. It is the kind of book that continues to reveal its layers and subtleties the more you read it. It has an evocative languor that invites a reader to linger over each spread, each line, each word.

The first time through, Glasheen's impressionistic language dominated the experience to such an extent that I hardly noticed her drawings -- not because they were lacking, but because the text was so compelling on its own. The layout can't really be categorized as comics; it sounds oddly wrong to refer to Bandage as a graphic novel. Each spread contains sparse white-on-black text on the left, with a full-page single image on the right. The art does not carry any dialogue or text.

On the second read, I paid closer attention to Glasheen's art. The black-and-white images combine narrative and abstract qualities. Tree and skeleton motifs recur, pointing up the story's focus on change and maturation -- life cycling through changing seasons of growth, death, and rebirth.

bandage191.jpg

On the third go-round, I looked more closely at the art's interaction with the text. The two elements echo and inform one another throughout, even if on most spreads the text and art seem to be dealing with separate ideas. It's only when we step back and look at each chapter or the book as a whole that we can appreciate the way they work together.

Early in the book, there is an image of the narrator and his friends in which their heads have been blanked out and surrounded by a dotted line. Later, the text refers to "cutting and pasting until things smell just right [again]" -- and we see the narrator's head with a dotted line around it. These kinds of visual echoes crop up again and again. As in written poetry, these repeated motifs increase in power and significance, and Glasheen balances them well. This cut-and-paste imagery, for example, suggests something about our desire to rearrange our lives in as predictable a way as possible when external change begins to set in.

Kate Glasheen's book (her first) is a nice reminder of what poetry is and what it can do. Her innovation is to pair poetic text with drawings that serve a similar function as the writing. The illustrations are often not literal, but they contain the possibility and reach of poetic sensibility.

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Casey Burchby

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