Collaboration, at its most basic level, should open doors for all parties involved. A profitable bloodying of minds results in a heightened awareness—through shared creation and revision—of one's own generative process and the unique foibles of that of the Other, the once-opposing sparks that collide to ignite as-yet-untapped blazes that are only possible in a shared hearth, the simple joy of connective expulsion between artists so used to a silent screen or canvas being the sole recipient of every lonely impulse. Even more fortuitous, if the collaboration results in an admirably profound work that transcends its individual parts, independent of its creators yet possessed of them and all the better for it. Ryan W. Bradley and David Tomaloff's You Are Jaguar, the first title from Artistically Declined Press's Twin Antlers imprint, is such a work, a disarming, intensely self-aware tangle of dueling verse that is not only a testament to the convergence of two distinct, exceptionally talented poetic voices, but also to the process itself, a primal hymn where the need for inclusion is extolled as the greatest of virtues. Truly sanguineous indeed.
The book's brief introduction describes Tomaloff and Bradley's method as beginning "with a phrase…Lines are swapped in twos, and on, until poems are born. More poems. Then, when the poems have been birthed there is retreat. Two writers divide, recede." They return with their own distinctive versions of the original poems, which are printed opposite each other, an invitation not just to compare, but to savor. Dominant themes, underlying emotions, and an unmistakable power in brevity are concurrent in all of the pieces – fervent religiosity in the need to return to a nature-based state that actually feels more progressive than cyclical, the folly of an introverted post-postmodern gloom where "no two bodies wither alike," and a call for the swift dismemberment of the nuclear family, "a reminder that the good old days were / likely more old than they were any good." Yet make no mistake, there are two distinct devotees of the Jaguar Sun at work here, each with a separate but equal penance evident not as much in the swallowing as in the digestion.
Through the editing process both poets' unique styles emerge in fascinating ways. Tomaloff takes a jagged, slightly more verbose approach (if any collection where the poems average about 10 lines can be called verbose), accentuating phrases with extended white space and the absence of punctuation, a series of image-heavy snapshots built with the panache of an eccentric architect, that jubilantly illuminate the artifice. Bradley's verses are slender and fluid, prosaic in essence and possessed of a solitary sadness, often subdued at the moment his counterpart verges on, if not the ecstatic, then at least a comfort in the ecclesiastical – "we will call ourselves in the future / & offer one another forgiveness for our sins." Even in the poems where the writers' words are nearly identical—the only differences occurring in the idiosyncratic line breaks—the distinctive titles each poet chooses ("YOU ARE CALENDAR ELECTRIC DAYS" versus "DIVING FOR DEAD ENDS", "WE IN THE KEY OF G MINOR ALIVE" versus "IT WILL ALL HAPPEN") allows each piece to stand alone, a worthy birth in itself.
Any collection (and especially a collaborative one) that is so candid about, and dependent on, the method with which it's been created inevitably runs the risk of being overshadowed by that method. At times, it is difficult, given the book's layout, to not become fixated on the minute and somewhat trivial differences between poems that started as one (the variations in line breaks, omitted words, additions, etc.) to vainly strive to understand what once might have existed instead of the very tangible energy of the finished product. And that's a shame. Because You Are Jaguar's greatest merit does not lie just in its attention grabbing as an at-times interesting study of process, but as a parallel current of jungle-quick visuals and a constant underlying gut-punch, a pair of simultaneous pledges of allegiance to gods with slightly different faces but the same benevolent gusto. In collaboration we trust; in Jaguar we trust; in Tomaloff and Bradley we trust. And yes, that's a lot of trust, but perhaps this small, inimitable book is telling us that trust, in art and life, is too vital a commodity to be overlooked, even though it so often is: "still, the hand that holds me tight / knows the importance of breath, / how the body itself can splinter / while the heart remains intact."