Beautiful Books: Bottom Rail on Top

In his collection Bottom Rail on Top (Brick Books), poet D.M. Bradford splinters Black North American histories and recomposes them, trailed by their historical contexts. D.M. talks about how the poetics of the collection informed the design process, and why he was drawn to what would become the cover’s artwork, Hugo McCloud’s consumption stacks – pink.

The cover of Bottom Rail on Top by D.M. Bradford.


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Beautiful Books

It’s hard to tell Bottom Rail on Top’s design gestures apart from the poetics the work demanded along the way. Long before the generous design process with Emma Allain, I needed basic means for a reader and myself to engage and pattern differentiated layers of thinking and information that travel a few centuries of Black time and dispersal. I needed to both capture and set those expanses in motion, sharp and kinetic at once, and to leave space between them for a reader to play.

So, a kind of top rail: short but dense verse fragments, one per page, organized as sequences, a back and forth between making sense of histories of antebellum Black life and making sense of the now that mediates it. And beyond a blank middle of the page in the historical sequences, a bottom rail of sorts: presenting the reader with a few tempting, searchable, can-of-worms glimpses of the source material that went into each given page.

A two-page spread from D.M. Bradford's collection Bottom Rail on Top.

All leading to a one-page lyric prose piece that ends each historical sequence—a deeper look at a twist or turn related to the context of the section.

An interior spread from D.M. Bradford's Bottom Rail on Top.

While those hybrid gestures took shape as I needed them, the cover was something else. I wanted it to illustrate Bottom Rail on Top’s tidy but charged layers—the archives bleeding through, the superposition of present and past, the tension between Black selfhood and Black legacy. There’s the self looking back, finding echoes but also contrasts; there’s the self at times subjected to systems of dehumanization, and yet also a well-supported artist on the demand end of the global supply chain. I wanted cover art that connected with the book’s explicit exploration of that overlap.

The cover of D.M. Bradford's collection Bottom Rail on Top, featuring Hugo McCloud's artwork consumption stacks - pink.

After a lot of fretting and not-quites and dead ends, I happened upon American artist Hugo McCloud’s work. He drew me in with his unusual touch for discarded materials, particularly a textured, colourful, loaded painting medium: single-use plastics. I feel McCloud’s plastic bags are involved in a journey across not unlike the one I’m trying to take across with Bottom Rail on Top. There’s a careful line of thought in these works about the role of Black artmaking, about its place in a forever fucked-up North America. And amidst that there’s their medium, which never ceases to convey a world we may have fucked up forever—a world wrought by the extractive globalism that makes our Black artmaking plausible, that we profit from as North Americans.

With consumption stacks – pink (2018), the McCloud work used for the book’s cover, there’s so much of that beautiful inquiry, and there’s that everyday ruin, too. I look at it and I glimpse across the Black Atlantic and beyond. I see our stuff being made, people making it. I see stuff to contain it, people making it. I see the waste. I see none of it ending. I see art is part of all that, matter-of-factly. I see how we make that a story. I want readers to see it as well.

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A photo of poet D.M. Bradford, a Black man with freckles and wire-rimmed glasses.

D.M. Bradford is a poet and translator based in Tio’tia:ke (Montreal). Bradford’s debut collection, Dream of No One but Myself (Brick Books, 2021), won the A.M. Klein Prize, was longlisted for the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal, and was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize, Governor General’s Literary Awards and Gerard Lampert Memorial Award. His work has also appeared in Brick, The Fiddlehead, fillingStation, The Capilano Review, and elsewhere. House Within a House is his first translation, and Bottom Rail on Top, his second book of poetry, released in Fall 2023.

Photo credit: Annie France Noel