An examination: “Sharpen” by Rich Ives

Originally published at gnathic.


The bad news: theNewerYork Press (tNY) has ceased to exist. The good news: for as long as supplies last, you can still purchase this contemplative and intriguing work by Rich Ives, “Sharpen” (2015 theNewerYork Press, LLC; hand-drawn illustrations by Jack Callil; diagrams, book and cover design by Nils Davey), from Amazon in print and perhaps for all eternity in digital format, here.

This examination is my attempt to study this complicated work chapter by chapter. Perhaps “complicated” is a word that has a negative connotation. But complexity challenges the intellect, and that’s the enjoyable part of reading. Providing a way for the reader to get lost in a fantasy construction is one kind of enjoyable book. What Rich Ives (I could not locate a webpage for him) has written and what Jack Callil and Nils Davey have complemented with their illustrations and diagrams is another kind of enjoyable book: a challenge. So I have endeavored to tackle it here, as I’ve indicated, chapter by chapter, tool by tool, etc.


1.0 Bench Clamp

I’ve been around a wood shop and a metal shop, but not extensively. Anyone can appreciate the beauty and usefulness of tools. And the tools in this chapter and many other chapters have use for both the narrator and his daughter. Davey’s diagram of the bench clamp (1.1) articulates the hard, smooth lines that make us love the qualities of steel and iron. The bench clamp’s essence is in the act of holding items in place and that is necessarily preceded by the act of opening and then the closing of its jaws. The diagram makes this obvious, and it is necessary to understand the functionality of the tool in order digest this one-page chapter. (This is true for all chapters in this work.) What is to be clenched in these jaws will be sharp. The narrator likens a communication made by his daughter to what is being held in the space between the jaws of the bench clamp. He concedes that there is a collaboration necessary to use this tool. But once that sharp word is spoken:

it can’t be removed. It doesn’t matter much what it is because they’re all alike. They’re all sharp and appear unexpectedly though it must have been carried a long time, that thing she said.

The necessary collaboration is between the speaker (the daughter) and the listener (the father) in this instance. And they both hold the sharpness. Callil’s illustration 1.2 follows: a gaping maw with knives and saws stabbed at crooked angles into the gums where teeth should be. Insert your project and tighten the jaws.

2.0 Lactation Dance

Breast as tool. This is an unusual notion diagrammed by Davey (figure 2.1), as is standard, on the page before the text of this one-page chapter. Davey does not render the breast in the manner of a Gray’s Anatomy illustration, but rather more like the diagram of a tool. In this chapter, Ives uses the metaphor of snow geese settling on snow-covered fields, stubbled with what is left of the plant structures after the fall harvest. And, as expected by the chapter’s title, Ives introduces the notion of a baby. The daughter of [his] daughter will arrive like the snow geese on snow-covered fields to feed on what nature has provided. And this is a dance of sorts, the landing of the geese that trust the snowy field like a baby understands and trusts the breast of its nurse for its life––the intricacies of innocence balancing with the forces of nature. The chapter is full of the billowing imagery we associate with a breast.

In figure 2.2, Callil illustrates a confusion of a snow goose, headless and wings spread, which seems more to hang in the air than to fly. And Ives warns, In this world, singular is plural. This baby, his daughter, can be true again and again. It is a difficult chapter that reflects the mire of emotions: a gift I don’t know what to do with and a heart of milk, or a vinegar intention and babies whose heads somehow make allegations too unsupported to deny.

3.0 Witchet

This was an unfamiliar tool for me. We are informed, with Davey’s diagram 3.1, that it is also called a rounding plane. I was relieved to be informed that it is possible that the familiar word widget could be a corruption of the word witchet. (Relieved because I can be a geek about words.) This one-page chapter is more wood than steel. The witchet, if properly used, can make tapered dowels of wood or metal. I get the feeling the narrator would like to be steel, but he can’t be. Yet, wood holds incredible strength in its grain.

In this chapter, the daughter is forlorn and the narrator suggests that if you were listening to her speak at this moment, [y]ou might think she was a puppet if she weren’t talking about love…. This chapter is filled with scents and dusty imagery. What is wooden are fingers. And the narrator does not allow illusion:

That’s not a stack of dried brown rainbows but dowels I’ve fashioned, to hold things between this and that in my daughter’s space, between here and there, between cared for and fallen.

Ives invokes the theme of a ring, be it a wedding ring or another kind of ring used to link things. There could be a tangle of childish marriages in the future. He crafts sensory-rich memories. Callil illustrates (figure 3.2) a mirrored image of a puppeteer’s tangled failure. You sense the narrator trying to understand and forgive. He is self-reflective and tries to link the past with the future, seeking some stability in the confusion of the present.

4.0 Whetstone

I have whetstones always close by in my home. You need to sharpen knives more often than you care to do so, but it is frustrating to use a tool that should be sharp and isn’t. Davey’s diagram 4.1 seems to drift without explanation of its parts. The whetstone itself is clearly indicated, but other unidentified items (a honing steel and a stand for the whetstone) float poised nearby. The elements complement the whetstone, but go unnamed without explanation. We are, however, informed: Sharpening with a whetstone is sometimes called ‘stoning’.

This chapter is about before. You do not sense his daughter’s presence here. The narrator is husband or on a journey leading up to husband. The images hang: stain of the captain’s bleeding tobacco and faded orange dress and the wings of mosquitoes. They collide, too. These memories dangle there, like the unnamed elements in diagram 4.1. Ives describes the soft lengthy clumps of thick hair-like words in Callil’s apt accompanying illustration (4.2) of the captain surrounded by mosquitoes and belching out hair. Again, this is all before. But whetstones leave a paste of detritus from sharpening. The memory is stuck to the narrator. He forgot to sharpen his tools and now he casts stones at himself.

5.0 Grindstone

This tool is more complex than the whetstone. Davey’s diagram 5.1 is only slightly more informative than his 4.1, albeit just as beautifully rendered. One thing is clear, you use your feet to accelerate or slow the sharpening process. In this half-page chapter, Ives describes a creation or a near creation. All of the body goes into this process. But here again the narrator seems to need clarity (I can’t seem to relate to cloud cover. Take it down.) in the midst of an intimacy into which he lands: I believe I’m gamely, but blame assimilates the bleed. He repeats his discomfort: I’m deliciously compromised. Take it down. It is rough and primal, gorgeous, the act––nicks and scratches…stout strokes of sliding––and the gift in Callil’s accompanying illustration 5.2, [t]he egg.

6.0 The Inner Ear

Here another tool of the human body, but this one for taking in, not for giving like the breast. And not only for hearing but also for balance. Davey’s diagram 6.1 exhibits an almost squid-like fluidity unlike any others in the catalog. In this chapter, the narrator relates the calls of owls with what [he] had hoped for [his] daughter. This might be a continuing of the remembrance of creation that he fervently began in 5.0.

Listening and balancing are both delicate acts. Ives thinks back along the meandering path of life, a childhood that he cannot remember clearly (I remembered a childhood, but most of the details escaped me.) After all, he values imagination over reality. This is a weighing, a balancing. How to keep it from tipping over?

From the complexity and violence of his self-discovery (from that other life, the one where I fathered my intelligence), he wants to flee. Illustration 6.2 appears like a universe of stars inside the the confines of an owl whose face is a longitudinal section of an apple, seeding all of its ancient metaphor, and we know that the forest awaits.

7.0 Vise

We are back to steel clamp and open jaw. But this tool, we are told, is for metalworking and its jaws are separate and replaceable.” Davey’s diagram 7.1 is svelte, vertical. The narrator recalls being pressed tight against a private entrance and squeezed until the juice bled. This aftermath of creation will last until the foreign feels familiar. This vise squeezed like life with all of its vices sought and sampled:

We were beasts at the edges of each other. We poked and prodded to see what dangers lay there, waiting to attach themselves.

And as the illustration 7.2 depicts, and as our lives if we look closely and honestly enough teach us, we are truly composed of devices. I love that concept. His daughter is born from an eagle with its dangerously hooked beak that surely will clamp as hard as or harder than any vise. She seems to multiply in the text (…all my daughters and I…).

8.0 C Clamp

More steel or maybe cast iron this time. This eighth chapter is the second longest in length, a page and a quarter perhaps. The C clamp (Diagram 8.1) by comparison to the vise and the bench clamp is a delicate thing, like touch (Between one touch and another touch, there is holding onto ourselves through another.). And as simple as the C clamp appears to be, we are given a nearly complete explanation of its parts. Ives describes transition:

I was held by the fingers of a delicate prod, turned and turned to put me together with myself and cut away the excess. For this I held very still.

Here, the narrator wants to hold on to himself and, it seems, to the daughter that he may have failed in some way––failed to guide (Do I really line up? Do I hold still long enough? Do I stand too close to see clearly, to operate effectively the tools of this exchange?). Where his daughter’s fingers were wooden, his are clearly soft flesh gripping tightly. He wants her strong, …do not diminish yourself. The accompanying illustration 8.2 echoes the dangerous power of what we say, what we write with our fleshly hands wielding iron words, a pencil that morphs into a pistol.

9.0 Ghost Twins

Arriving at this ninth and last chapter, the longest at only one and a half written pages, devoid of tools but full of devices, the intimacy of the prior chapters becomes a kind of kaleidoscope for the realizations allowed the reader here. The daughter is a twin and also not a twin, a savior who seems to need saving whose throat is too slender to swallow anything as distasteful as fate. When she is dulled, the mother is light. But it seems evident that the mother has not survived, has passed through the door that defines the room, which is where the living remain.

We know the father has struggled and stumbled, and it is the daughter who enables him to make the only offering, to assemble the parts that make up the life. But if the father feels alone, inside the room with himself, aching to know how to raise a daughter(s) alone, he is thoughtful enough to wonder, What’s the gender of this lament? It’s a potent and tender moment.

All of the tools and materials Ives has been able to salvage culminate in 9.0. The Ghost Twins are diagrammed (9.1) as identical mirror-image waifs clothed under bed-sheets in Halloween-style. But in illustration 9.2 the twins have become one wide, sturdy girl, nearly curtsying. Their one head is a window opened into a moonless, starless infinity of night. This is the dance of daughters so very polite and measured. The reader is left to wonder how the narrator will know how to raise them, to contain them, to keep them safe when always [t]he window is open.


Most likely, I haven’t even approached the intentions Ives had for this work. For that failing I apologize to him. But one of the wonderful aspects about art is that it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Ives excels in using skill and imagination to to construct the past and future world of Sharpen. He does it without feeding the reader any form of pabulum or ready-mix storytelling.

As I’ve noted along the way, the chapters are super short. In each one, Ives packs a richness of information, metaphor, imagery, and unknown-ness into the text for the reader to explore for hours, as I have. Sharpen is alternative literature at its finest. I remember that theNewerYork always claimed not to publish poetry. But this work is proof that poetry thrives inside the non-confines of alternative literature. A poem is a made thing and Ives, Callil, and Davey have made an excellent thing.

I treasure this un-catalog, this manual that does not instruct. I bought two copies of it. May we never cease to print the written word in hard copy because the relationship between the reader and author feels far more intimate when the pages are in our hands than when we observe words on the screen. This work feels satisfying in my hands. It comes bound in the same sort of card stock as many old-timey owner’s manuals used to be. The collaboration of the three mediums between Ives, Callil, and Davey invite comparison and exploration, a search for alternative meaning and connections. I have attempted to do as much as I could here, but I will continue to read and handle this work. It’s the only way I know to thank those who created it. I hope other publishers will have the courage that Joshua Raab and Daniel Bullard-Bates had in their time running theNewerYork.