Reviewed by Adam Golaski
Loathe to claim to know another author’s influence(s) only by reading a small crowd of their poems—influence is peculiar and greasy—I opened Alli Warren’s HOUNDS and saw Oppen. George Oppen’s second book of poems, written after a self-imposed exile from poetry (and other things) is The Materials, and “The Materials” is the in-bold title of the first (definite) poem in HOUNDS. Then there’s the subtitle—“A Face Suggests” (italic)—and I thought of the Oppen lines “The face of art// Carpenter, plunge and drip in the sea Art’s face/ We know that face” from “Some San Francisco Poems” (#7). Warren’s “The Matarials” begins:
At the doors parted
toward the shore
“both oceans vied
for my heart and the Pacific
The lines she encloses in quotes “both oceans…”—she does not attribute her quotes, a familiar device that I quite like, and so we are asked to wonder: a quote from another text?; an overheard and so found line?; or a spoken/pronounced statement made by Warren? All possibilities. The line could be from Oppen—certainly it describes Oppen’s route from one ocean (Atlantic) to another. Alli Warren lives in San Francisco—born there, raised there, I don’t know. But she lives there now, and even if she doesn’t like San Francisco, the city informs her work and HOUNDS specifically (and I think she likes SF).
Uh, let me page back, before we get to the second poem in Hounds, the first of the RIPCORD series.
Before “The Materials,” which I automatically treated as the first poem of HOUNDS, and instead of or as a dedication, Warren wrote: “To be/ tongue sung/ at the forks.” What is this bit of text, this preface?: instructions on how to read the book (these poems are to be sung. At a fork in the road. With a forked tongue. These poems lie. You must lie as you sing these poems. Etc.)? Or, these lines are a warning: Warren traffics in the inscrutable, she enjoys making phrases for the fun of how they sound and look, and she wants you to pleasure in speaking them aloud (make your mouth move). Also: Warren has a sense of book.
HOUNDS is a book not in that accidental way some books are made, i.e. a poet makes a gang out of whatever poems they’ve written lately. The HOUNDS poems are better connected. The first and most obvious connection is that established by the title “RIPCORD.” The second poem in the book is “RIPCORD/ Half-Life” (the slash is not part of the title; the title is RIPCORD, new line, Half-Life, in italics). Then, six poems later, is “RIPCORD/ Nightstick,” “RIPCORD,” and finally “RIPCORD/ Advice for Foreigners.” The last three RIPCORD pieces run one after another/into one another. The first three “RIPCORD” poems end with the suggestion of something more to come: “Half-Life” ends, “Sincerely yours,” without a signature; “Nightstick” and “RIPCORD” end with a dash—. And then the last RIPCORD poem, “Advice for Foreigners,” finishes hard:
the arena around a face
Impale them on a fence
No period, but who needs one after “they” have been impaled on a fence? Tho this may be only a happy accident, a result of pagination, those two lines appear on their own page, adding to their impact. I hope that when Warren’s chapbooks are collected into her first book (ala Laura Sims’ Practice, Restraint), her editors will give those two lines similar space.
Warren connects her poems in less immediately apparent ways. She threads two of her poems together by using a similar phrase in both. In the poem, “To Those That Would Deny Poetry” is the line, “Or, Go You Graphs of Trade” and in “Area Handbook for Peripheral Support” is the line, “O Go You Graphs of Trade.” Another, similar device for drawing a line from one poem to another is Warren’s use of the trademark™—she writes, in “Requiem for United States of Undead,” “Roots are the new steel™” and then in “RIPCORD/ Nightstick” she writes, “This Poem’s For You™.” Yes, the joke that is “This Poem’s For You™” isn’t brilliant, at least not when I tug it out of context, but “Roots are the new steel™” is interesting, and that’s tugged out of context, AND, “This Poem’s For You™” appears in a poem I particularly like:
“RIPCORD/Nightstick” is broken into several parts, but not with heavy numbers or dancing stars, rather with dots, dots no larger than bolded periods, dots so small that if you’re reading under early morning natural light you’ll try to brush them from the page, dots so small that if you’re reading under a dirty yellow lamp you’ll try to squish them quickly before they move to your pillow. I like this anti-ostentatious way of breaking sections—these are not just stanzas, but they’re like stanzas. The poem begins:
“Into her quick weak heat”
up the escape (fire) in rain
soaked thus I arrive you
arrive It’s spring, we fuck
stanzas from “propagate” to
“vein,” stanzas afoot
noted Walking around talking
I check into the Ranch to see
what poets in Iraq are up to these days
—“liminal space”—no doubt
unsure I was scared you were
scared, those that sear skin
good morning skin being done to
This Poem’s For You™
and then beneath the word This appears that little dot. In this opening Warren is crude and funny. I couldn’t help but remember some very earnest poets saying to me that they were interested in “liminal space” which is to say “that which is barely perceptible” or “a sensory threshold” or borders. Coupled with the previous line, liminal space becomes an even more hilarious phrase than it was when those earnest poets used it to describe their work. Hilarious why? Because it’s saying I like to write about twilight, the seashore, the moment before I’m fully awake and in the context Warren gives us, i.e. Iraq, it sounds a bit like saying: “let them eat cake.” And then, “This Poem’s For You™,” dismisses the opening part of “RIPCORD/Nightstick” simply, swiftly, and lets us move into the next part of the poem fresh and maybe a little (a little) but more seriously:
To be included or taken
of sad sound—“getting a grasp on”
just blew me off
“a frustrating” collective
biding sense of time
and then beneath the word biding appears another little dot.
There is nothing obvious (like a poet’s interest in liminal space) about HOUNDS.
Pleasing, in HOUNDS, are the passages that are simply lovely violent maps of sad sound.
The poem, “Unitarian,” dedicated “for Robert Creeley,” does not look like a Creeley poem (which was a relief. When I saw, “for Robert Creeley,” I fearfully wondered if a writing exercise had been plunked into the middle of HOUNDS, but… No). However, “Unitarian” does conclude with a stanza that might have been Creeley’s, and it is Warren being direct: “There was/ an ant/ on the table/ I put out/ the light with/ a small finger.” HOUNDS is so often obfuscating, when Warren does write directly it is more significant than if she were always (desperately) clinging to sincerity.
There’s only one poem in HOUNDS I don’t like, “Body of Work,” which looks like—is meant to, I’m sure—a table of contents or a list of book titles. And even this poem that I don’t like ends pretty well:
And The Brambles
Are All About
And The Neck
And The Knees
And, of course, “Body of Work” doesn’t hurt HOUNDS; I’ve even read it as a transition into the end of the book, a false section head, of sorts.
Alli Warren maintains a blog, The Ingredient, which is a blend of text that reads like fragments of Alli Warren poems, fragments of a diary belonging not necessarily to Alli Warren, and miscellany, junk Alli Warren finds amusing, such as a link to a “Free Poetry Contest… (Your poem must fit entirely in the box below to be eligible for the contest).” Also on her blog are links, some which reveal a little bit about Alli Warren, such as the link to http://english.aljazeera.net/HomePage; some to pubs that’ve published Alli Warren, such as How2 and Shampoo (Issue 23); some to presses; many to other blogs; a link some of her photos; and finally a link to a PDF of a 2004 chapbook, Yoke. Go ahead and read Yoke, there’s much to like, but Yoke is much more conventional than HOUNDS. Yoke isn’t as good.
Published the same year as Yoke, by the way, was SCHEMA, by a HousePress (not the HousePress located in Buffalo, but a mysterious other HousePress, possibly located in Oakland). So, by the way, because I haven’t read it.
You know, I’ll also mention: Alli Warren signed my copy of HOUNDS, I dunno, she likely signs every copy, or signed, in an orgy of signing, every copy, but what she wrote is mysterious (and therefore interesting) to me: “yrs ADub.” (the period is hers). (Let me note the yrs, so Creeley, another influence, probably, but, you know.) This, “yrs ADub.” appears below her printed name: “Alli Warren” and above a publication date: “Spring 2005.” It’s almost as if she signed a letter, but signed it with my name, “yrs ADub” = Yours, Adam.
Let me tie my review up neatly: any trigger for rereading George Oppen is fine by me. I reread Oppen’s The Materials and Seascape: Needle’s Eye because of HOUNDS.
But that is not the only reason why HOUNDS is good.
ALLI WARREN grew up in the San Fernando Valley. She is the author of the chapbooks Schema, Yoke, and, most recently, Hounds.
ADAM GOLASKI is co-editor of Flim Forum, a new poetry press, and co-editor of New Genre, a literary journal devoted to horror and science fiction. Most recently, he's had work in McSweeney's and Conjunctions (Web). Two essays, one about the Canadian radio series Nightfall, the other about the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, will appear in upcoming issues of All Hallows.