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Monday, June 23, 2008

Jill Magi's Threads, reviewed by Kristin Palm

Jill Magi
Futurepoem Books, 2007
ISBN 9780971680074

Reviewed by Kristin Palm

I doubt the accuracy of this map.

This evocative, handwritten note appears midway through Jill Magi’s Threads (as well as earlier, in typeface) and feels integral to this beautiful book’s premise. Composed of both text and images, Threads is a deeply personal, yet commonly meaningful, navigation of history, languages, cultures and generations. But this exploration is marked by hesitation—maps, after all, do not always point the way. In both content and form, Magi incorporates the haltingness, indecision, slippages and shifts that mark her journey, making them a central part of the story.

Like memory, like language, Magi’s artifacts are fragmented—bindings are loose, pages are torn, translations are imprecise, family members sleep in separate root cellars to avoid simultaneous bombing. And so, her stories and artworks are pieced together, forming an intensely moving collage of observations, remembrances and experiences. The writer arrives in Estonia, the country of her father’s birth. The language is heavy on her tongue, and there is the weight of a nation slowly emerging from the shadow of Soviet Communist rule and into the uncertain promises of capitalism. Magi’s ancestral home, its people, her family and her place in and in relation to them reveal themselves in the book just as one imagines they revealed themselves to her—slowly, cumulatively, over great distance and time.

Magi finds much of her meaning in interstices (both physical and linguistic)—cracks and fissures and crumbled remains.

Plaster falling away as skin from wood latticework

This city peels, its pages glued together by something personal

left inside the book

Or neatly sutured.

Which roads lead out and which lead in?

She incorporates the language of bookbinding (a prominent theme in her artwork, as well), underscoring that books are a form of way-finding, but also reminding us that time can alter—or erode—the information within.

A torn leaf is repaired by marrying the overlapping edges and print
together with a needle. Position it under the missing part. Some loss is

The Estonian language, too, plays a pivotal role in this book. Magi forms her mouth around unfamiliar sounds not just to communicate, but to bring herself closer to her forebears’ ways of being and understanding.

There is no past tense in the grammar of telling
in Estonian there is no then or there,
it is only here.

Also integral is Magi’s correspondence with her father—her connection to Estonia even from afar. The phrase “Dear Dad, if you can even vaguely translate—” appears more than once in Threads. Tarmu Magi is credited as the translator of several poems in the book and it is his recollections—and protestation—that annotate the aforementioned map. The hand-drawn maps that appear in the book are his as well. These personal exchanges, as well as the inclusion of other family documents, contribute to the book’s overall sense of history as infinitely layered, textured, almost tactile.

A successful bomb devastates the city’s idea of itself. Now a footbridge,

My obsession with the sounds of war—

Use the words you know for expressing direction to refresh

to unclose

Near the end of Threads we learn that “a neat book probably means that the binder has concerned himself more with the appearance than with strength.” Magi, though, resists any temptation to bind her material too tightly. Perhaps her greatest strength is her willingness to let all she has heard, witnessed and dutifully recorded to gently, yet powerfully, unclose.

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Kristin Palm is the author of The Straits (Palm Press, 2007). Her writing has appeared in LVNG, Bird Dog, Spinning Jenny, Chain and the Faux Press anthology Bay Poetics.