Content Warnings: none
Kate Partridge’s latest work, the chapbook Guide to Urban Reindeer, is a 32-page work published by Essay Press Groudloop Series in 2017. The Groundloop series is “we seek to bring together authors exploring diverse subjects through loud, innovative architectures.” Essay Press fills a niche in publishing:
We are interested in publishing pieces that are too long to be easily published in journals or magazines, but too short to be considered book-length by most publishers.
That’s one of the great things about small-press publishing: they do what mainstream publishers won’t do. Some, like Press 53, focus only on short stories because it is a neglected genre in the Big Publishing Houses. I love novellas myself. Right now, I can only think of Nouvella, which is dedicated solely to novellas, but they haven’t published since 2015.
Partridge’s addition to the Groundloop is #89 in the series. In her introduction, the author explains:
Guide to Urban Reindeer is a lyric prose sequence, an excerpt from a longer project that responds to photographs from the construction of the Alaska Railroad during the 1910s. . . . this project layers the federal experiments of settler life and agriculture in the North against contemporary Anchorage.
There are six photographs in the 32-pages. Paragraphs are spaced out in brick shapes with blank white pages between each. The paragraphs are numbered, ending on 69 (a coincidence, I’m sure). The title connects to the writing in that a celebrity reindeer named Star lives in Anchorage. At times, Star is walked on a leash. Surprisingly, Star is one of many in a series of Stars, making her common, not unique, gaining a specialness only because people grant it to her. Early on, Partridge acknowledges that she’s from Ohio, not Alaska, thus she looks in as an outsider. What she notices are small things, giving readers a slant glance at the city and being our “guide.”
Partridge analyzes sounds that would be commonplace to Alaskans. She notices:
The keynote sounds of a landscape are those created by its animals, birds, climate, weather, geographic features: starting points. The sounds that intervene — say, a train whistle — these are signals.
Partridge addresses a study by Murray Schafer, who asks, “which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?” For instance, dogs barking at the start of a dogsled race contribute to a “soundmark: a sound exclusive to a particular location that merits preservation.” People are currently trying to save sounds that will be lost — dialing up for the internet, turning the wheel on a disposable camera, that beautiful phrase “You’ve Got Mail” — but it goes beyond old technology. Urban sound artists capture dump trucks and car horns and people prattling on cell phones or ordering at bakeries. Partridge explores this art form in Guide to Urban Reindeer in an unlikely place. When people hear “Alaska,” they think “Peace and quiet and nature.” Yet, Anchorage has a noisescape all its own to consider.
The majority of Partridge’s work is the juxtaposition of the 1910s and present. A description of boys performing a flag drill on the 4th of July in 1916 is found on the same page as Partridge checking out her neighbors’ attempts to contain nature: “. . . huts to keep snow of garbage cans, fenced compost bins, greenhouses, a coop.” Funny enough, nature can’t be contained, we learn, when Partridge sees two chicks jaywalking.
While Guide to Urban Reindeer is an interesting experiment, I wanted Partridge to push harder and dig deeper to compare and contrast her experiences with life 110 years ago. Furthermore, the photos she included were fairly nondescript: a map with illegible words, a hill, another map, a distant photo of a house with a small garden (and we’re told there are three people, “two of the three clutch[ing] kittens to the their chests,” though I could only easily make out one person). Instead of information about the photos underneath them, the info appears at the end, requiring a lot of flipping around.
I’m ambivalent about what readers are meant to take away from Guide to Urban Reindeer, but I think you should check it out yourself, especially if you’re a history buff. The 32-page project is available for free as a PDF.
I want to thank Kate Partridge for sending me a copy of Guide to Urban Reindeer to be reviewed honestly at Grab the Lapels.