Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Alice James Books, 2006
Reviewed by Melissa Koosmann
In her new book, Forth a Raven, Christina Davis keeps the stakes consistently high. In nearly every poem, Davis directly invokes emotionally charged concepts that most contemporary poets would refer to more obliquely. For example, the first poem, which shares the book’s title, contains the words “god,” “love,” and “die” inside twelve short lines. Impressively, the poem stands up to the words. The fundamental concepts they represent exist within a dreamlike world where emotional power is wielded and perceived in unexpected ways, so that the conventional meanings of the words feel freshly altered. Throughout the book, the conflict this creates puts stress on the poems, building a constant feeling of reverence and pressure.
This pattern begins in the first line, in which the boundaries between god and the world are redefined: “In the dream, we take god out of the attic and put back the birds.” God, here, can be physically contained and physically discarded. Birds can occupy the role of deities. People possess an immense power, an ability to move gods around, but the whole line is confused and otherworldly. Also, the emotional charge of the word “god” leaks into the more mundane words. “Attic,” for instance, becomes associated with heaven; the image of birds in an attic is not just a pretty picture, but an unsettling one, because the birds are replacing god, or rather, taking their rightful place where god has been. Reading the line raises questions. Where does god go? Who took the birds out of the attic in the first place? What are they going to do there now?
The poem does not answer these questions. Instead, it asks its own. Davis writes, “Every question/ I have ever asked could be ground down to/ Do you love me? Will I die?” These two large questions hover over the rest of the book, so that the act of questioning itself takes on consequence in every poem. This is true of the hard questions (“Are you beginning/ to go away?” a lover asks a lover), and also of the more simple ones (“West what?” asks a confused speaker who is called on to give directions). The questions create a sense of expectancy, a desperate desire for answers.
Answers, however, are not the point. The cryptic answers that the poems offer are always aiming at an unfathomable something they can never fully state in words. The first set of questions (“Do you love me? Will I die?) receives the following response:
We came in full view
of an island
or a continent, for we knew
Though she focuses on new perspectives of god, love, and so on throughout the book, Davis does not try to define or explain these concepts. Instead, she impresses on us the immensity of uncertainty. The speakers of her poems not only do not know the answers to their questions; they know they do not know, they think about what it means not to know, and they conclude, at last, that not knowing is an essential part of the human experience. But this unknown is not just something to wrestle with. It inhabits its own space and takes on its own beauty.
Unlike human beings, who can only glimpse this mysterious space, the birds in the poems inhabit it. Birds hold a position of power, and although they do not provide understandable answers, they do lend perspective. One version of every life “is told from the point/ of view of the sky.” This bird’s-eye view is without self-interest, and its perspective encompasses not only the living person, but also everything around that person. Partly because of this larger perspective, birds provide a link to reverence and mystery:
The field quiet and birded, across it a deer has fled
and then turned back
as if it left some part of itself behind,
the part that feared me.
“Birded,” here, is more appropriate than the more standard “full of birds.” The word emphasizes the birds’ presence and significance; for the reader, the “birded” field is larger and sharper than a field “full of birds.” This image creates a powerful emotional space to accommodate the deer’s passage. Perhaps more importantly, it gives the sense that some part of the mysterious unknowable world can occasionally leak into the known one.
The human speakers of the poems aspire to the birds’ breadth of perspective but never achieve it. The speaker in “The Sadness of the Lingua Franca,” for instance, cannot master the language she needs to express what she thinks the birds know: “In Bird, I speak brokenly. Hiss and flail and never learn.” The English language, on the other hand, is overused and arrogant:
The language is famous and followed,
it has no loneliness left.
It has made it to the moon. It has got god
to speak it. It will get
to everything first, if it can.
Pinned between the flaws of her own language and her flawed understanding of a foreign one, this speaker nevertheless refuses to accept imperfection. Instead, she cobbles together a language of her own: “But not the swan, pale as a page/ I will never have written.” This syntactically odd fragment creates an illogical but somewhat satisfying conclusion to her dilemma, even though it does not quite solve it. The beautiful thing she sees before her is similar to something she will never create, and so it does not quite fit into the real world. However, addressing a beautiful unreality is a way for her to appeal to the unknowable realm that so fascinates her. She does not always have to wait for it to come to her (as it does with the deer in the passage above); she can probe it from the outside, to a limited extent, by using language that has a connection both to her own world and to the other one.
There are a few places in the book where the overall pressure lets up a bit. By far the weakest poems are those that deal with personal romances. In “The Primer,” for instance, a man chooses to remain quiet rather than tell a woman he loves her, and the woman reflects, “In the history of language/ the first obscenity was silence.” Here, Davis gives up some of her control. She does not create the dreamlike, associative background that controls the way it is possible to read the words in her other poems. Instead, she invokes the common experience of feeling unloved, leaving the reader’s personal associations to fill in the gaps in her writing.
In spite of its small weaknesses, Forth a Raven is worth reading more than once. It never feels frivolous, it never shies away from complexities, and it rewards the work of reflection.
Christina Davis received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.Phil. in Modernist Literature from the University of Oxford. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Jubilat, LIT, The May Anthologies (selected by Ted Hughes), New England Review, New Republic, Paris Review, and Provincetown Arts (selected by Susan Mitchell). The recipient of several residencies to Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, she currently works at Poets House and lives in the heart of Greenwich Village.
Melissa Koosmann's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, Mid-American Review, and other journals. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona MFA Program in Poetry, and she currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Sunday, January 21, 2007
University of California Press / New California Poetry, 2006
Reviewed by Christopher Burawa
Joshua Clover’s new collection, The Totality for Kids, reminds me of a favorite quotation of mine, that appears in an ars poetica by A.R. Ammons, which goes: “freedom engages, / or chooses not to, what in the world is / to be engaged.” And this quote seems an apropos way to begin a discussion about Clover’s second book because he clearly stakes out what he is engaged with—the city; the urban scene and its byways. That he’s capable of incorporating a host of influences/sources into a poem deftly, and quite often brilliantly, should be no surprise to anyone who read his first book, Madonna anno domini, where in the poem, “Map of the City,” he had already begun his preliminary explorations of the urban scene. And we can use some of that work to begin guiding us through this new book. Clover ends the poem by stating:
has already happened, I may be
writing to you from the City
of the Dead, the white-bodied buildings,
then the birds launching over
& over again as if disturbed,
it’s not so bad here, I’ve been
befriended by several beggars
who seem to treat me as an equal,
we talk & talk about it, I agree
with all the words except “New”
I trust that I am addressing fearless readers, who are afraid neither of intellect nor a broken ceramic curiosity, because this book places demands upon the reader. That said, the casual reader might simply read it to enjoy Clover’s amazing facility with language. The passage above, from his first book, shows much more conventional lyrical traits: enjambment and leaps in image that present a “personal” perspective. But what the poet proposes in this new book is that we lose that sense of self that judges what a poem is and what it is supposed to do. Take, for example, the poem, “At the Atelier Teleology,” where the poet compounds (and confounds) the lyric possibilities with truly radical leaps of logic.
The sun tutoyers me! Adrift beyond heroic realism
In the postmodern sublime where every window can lie
Like a priest, adrift in the utopia for bourgeois kittens
Having of late learned the trick of how to listen to two
Songs at once—double your measure double your fun!—
It seems to defy death and still the commodity
Is not cast down.
What he has arrived at is a line that might seem lyrical but does not develop the personal story or perspective. It is a world we have to understand for ourselves. We have to find our way into this world alone; he doesn’t provide any cues.
I am a firm believer in the interplay of opposites, and do not buy into the construct of fixed dualities that are the hallmark of our society (blue-red; patriotic-unpatriotic, etc.). Opposites by their nature coexist and intermingle—coming together and then separating, over and over. What we can understand as truth lies in the merging of the two, but also, paradoxically, in their act of separating. The upshot is that by looking at this activity and how it works, we can get a better sense of how our world really works. Clover’s ability to write about this concept through poetry speaks to his strength as an original thinker about contemporary poetics.
Of the opposites explored by Clover, one pair in particular fascinates me: the world of the past and of the future. These opposites can come together because they involve the city of the past—City of the Dead—and the city of the future—“New” Babylon. The past includes, of course, the ruins upon which we continue to build; but it is also evident in the architecture that survives:
The famous and the dead have learned to fall between our eyes
And their forms in heaven: a philosophical eclipse
Which edges them in light, like bodies in the nineteenth-century
Photo plates enwrapped in their emanations and pale shrouds.
They have their own cities called Necropolis and New York
Built of what they are said, the famous and the dead.
(“Feral Floats The Form in Heaven and of Light”)
You might think that the reaction to the past is to envision (and sometimes to try to create) a utopia. However, for Clover the city of Utopia is a nostalgic construct, as he illustrates in the first section of “Poem (I come across the paving stones)”. He ingeniously develops this idea by sandwiching one line of personal story between layers of concrete (orange soda, watermelon) images and abstracted (theory of red, scrawled changes) impressionistic description.
The brief capital of disturbances.
And within that city lies the city
Utopia with its little sojourns
And orange soda, Utopia with
Its watermelons and televisions.
Inside, city that holds the happiest
Disturbances of my youth behind gold
Facades. Staggering up from the river
Full of forget in the flare of evening
One sees a city where the negative
Held its court. And inside that, city which
Is little more than a theory of red
In everyday life: red suburbs, rouge
Of nostalgia, series of scrawled changes.
Clover recycles the idea of utopia and thereby redefines it. Utopia then becomes the mind’s construct of the mind looking back on the pleasant and sometimes complicated past (as in “disturbances of my youth”) which, however, upon investigation is more like a silhouette; memory, or forgetfulness, often soften and simplify past events. And seeing beyond this, red and shades of red, which to me represent the strong but primitive desires through which we develop our sense of need. Yet it’s this same nostalgic impetus that feeds the visionary, the one envisioning the future city or New Babylon.
Essentially, this utopian form that is birthed in our gut also meets the future in our gut. I might say that here is where desires meet intellect; and interestingly, they arise from the same source. The only reference we have to New Babylon (aside from the cover art by the same name) is found in the prose poem “OMA”:
…Beware ye th’electroglide downward to our constant New Babylon,
The City of the Captive Globe. Night comes to the name. Orpheus
Soi distant by les locals: smell of 20th cen. vomit, taste of dried
What is fascinating about this quote is how both past and future cities are places of the dead. And, if you think about it, the poet is right. Clover has clearly examined for himself the dynamic interchanges of these worlds, as well as each of them individually. What makes me convinced that he understands this interaction of worlds is in how he writes about the present world.
The present that Clover shows us is something like a “floating world,” much like the modern Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) of the city. And I don’t think my association is coincidental (he uses the word “floating” quite a few times throughout the book). The story of this art form, the woodblock print, concerns the commodifying of art for a growing middle-type class in Edo Japan. However, by the twentieth century, artists were using the prints to depict a nostalgic past, colorfully elegant. And that was the beginning of the end in a sense because it also happened to reflect the growing nationalistic military-industrial philosophies—reclaiming or reestablishing the might the country once had. The warping of art to achieve social-political ends, as in our government’s touting of American abstract art in the 50s and 60s as a reflection of our freedoms, stands as a subtle undercurrent within this book as in “Year Zero,” where “Nothing is true everything is the case.” Who are we in this age of spin, where fact is a debatable entity? You may not like the answer, as this final section of the poem suggests.
Now must begin again it must be new time.
In the morning of the sign lying in bed in cold Utopia and alone under
the black square.
Your ears swelled with flowers a corpse in your mouth.
You are free though a freedom with its ribs showing.
But we have a choice. If we do not engage with events in everyday life, we are simply floating through our world. This is Clover’s warning to us.
Joshua Clover is the author of The Matrix (British Film Institute, 2004), Their Ambiguity (Quemadura, 2003) and Madonna anno domini (Louisiana State University, 1997). He is Associate Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Davis, and is a contributing writer for the Village Voice and The New York Times. He maintains himself here.
Christopher Burawa is a 2007 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature in Translation Fellowship. His first collection, The Small Mystery of Lapses (2006), won the Cleveland State University Poetry Prize. His chapbook of translations Of the Same Mind (2005) won the Toad Press International Chapbook Competition. Burawa has also received MacDowell Colony and Witter Bynner fellowships.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
New Directions, 2006
Reviewed by John Cotter
English permits Wang Wei only one or two levels of allusion, even in the hands of a translator as good as David Hinton. Were we able to read these poems in Classical Chinese (were we able to read them a thousand years ago) each word would spiral with connotations. But because the culture is alien, the translation is new, and the poems over a millennium old, we are bound to approach them cautiously.
Beside this spring lake deep and wide, I find
myself waiting for your light boat to return:
duckweed slowly drifted together behind you,
and now hanging willows sweep it open again.
Hinton’s versions feel like Classical Chinese poetry alright: the brief depth, the spare illustrations of nature, the ambiguous finish sending us back into the center of the poem. That Hinton is our most accomplished translator of Classical Chinese is no longer in question: in addition to his ten thousand other projects, Hinton has now completed versions of all three great T’ang era poets for New Directions. But where Tu Fu and Li Po feel and think in voices like our own, Wei is a deeply impersonal writer.
up in those gorges, who would guess the great human drama even
And when people in town gaze out, they see distant empty-cloud mountains.
Our surviving knowledge of Wang Wei’s life isn’t encyclopedic, but we know a little. He was born of the governing class around 699 AD and worked as a high-level official in one of the most prosperous and advanced cities in the world, Ch’ang-an. The arts of poetry and painting (both of which he practiced and—like Blake—married) were highly developed, and the city in which he spent his life numbered two million souls. The Analects of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu would have felt far more ancient to Wei than the King James Bible does to us. These are not the poems of a simple man in a simple time, but of a highly skilled mind and a great era. To escape the city, meditate and to write, Wei would periodically visit his mountain retreat by Wheel-Rim River. This is the landscape of his poetry.
Done struggling for a place in that human realm, I’m just this
Old-timer of the wilds. So why are these seagulls still suspicious?
Hinton, in his too-brief introduction, is on point when he writes that “the distinction between human and nature is entirely foreign” to Wei’s art. To approach these poems nearer to the way the were intended we must remove ourselves from the Christian context in which, like it or not, we read most English language poetry. For all their differences, Wei’s philosophy would have more in common with that of Horace than it would Wordsworth, or Robert Creeley. The “Dragon,” often referenced by Wei is very like the horned god of the European pagans; Wei’s C’han Buddhism much like (and a precursor to) what we know today as Zen. In the poem, “A Meal with Kettle-Fold Mountain Monks,” Wei tidies up his cabin and prepares a meal of pine nuts for some visiting monks. Later:
Lamps are lit,
And then at nightfall, chime-stones sing out
And I understand how stillness is itself pure
Joy. Life here has idleness enough and more:
How deep could thoughts of return be, when
A lifetime is empty appearance emptied out?
Although cold to the touch, Wei’s is a real wisdom that has passed straight through the worldly. It is the disciplined art of the educated city-dweller re-encountering nature:
Out beyond the river it goes all the way:
Grief and sorrow, a lone plume of smoke,
And you think of going back, of offering
Your lofty talent to those who need you.
But nothing’s left of ancestral villages now.
Out beyond cloud, it’s all empty as origin.
Opening this new book, I turned first to the famous poem, Deer Park. This is due entirely to Elliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s scalpel-edged Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (Moyer Bell, 1987). Paz and Weinberger are strict constructionists of Wei’s poetry and they are merciless with 20th Century translators who’s sense of the single poem Deer Park drifts by so much as a microtone from Wei’s original. As Classical Chinese is a dense, allusive language stripped of articles and tenses, words can be defined only in context, and scholars continue to debate the content and color of Wei’s mountainscapes. Perhaps with Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei in mind, Hinton finishes his introduction with his own transliteration of the famous poem. In the sequence of the text, he presents a more polished version:
No one seen. Among empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, faint, no more.
Entering these deep woods, late sunlight
flares on green moss again, and rises.
It becomes clear that Hinton, without violating Wei’s originals, intends to write clear and (at least linguistically) unambiguous English poems. Hinton is far more faithful to his original material than Ezra Pound in the revolutionary Cathay, say, but it’s fair to say that his interest lies in simplifying the poems as much as possible so as to ease the digestion of the Western reader. Even if we plan to investigate the venerable Pauline Yu’s more scholarly translations (Indiana, 1980), complete with thorough notes and capacious apparatus, Hinton’s book is a fine place to start. It’s as far as many of us will want to go, it’s far enough to get a sense of the place.
Now autumn tightens cricket song. It echoes into my thatch hut.
And up in these mountains, cicadas grieve clear through dusk.
No one visits my bramble gate. Isolate silence deepens, deepens.
Alone in all this empty forest, I meet white clouds for company.
There are places where Hinton could have enlarged his notes, which appear sparse when compared with his detailed explanations of Tu Fu from 1989 (fifty pages of notes accompany Tu Fu’s poems where a dozen seem to serve for Wei’s). A note explaining Ch’an Buddhist meditation, for example, feels a little thin. And when Wei complains of his lack of talent, we have no way of knowing how ironic he might have intended to be. But we have other editions of Wei to consult, and where Pauline Yu’s notes are more compendious, Hinton’s translations are more mellifluous. If Wei’s cold mountains are going to attract modern English readers, they will do so here.
Grasses cushion legs sitting ch’an stillness
up here. Towering pines echo pure chants.
Inhabiting emptiness beyond dharma cloud,
we see through human realms to unborn life.
Hinton’s English line is strong and deceptively artful. He repeats words for emphasis, rather than sticking them with needless adjectives. He doesn’t mind at all if his language sounds euphonious, matching Wei’s complex simplicity with English’s riches. It goes down smooth.
I found myself more absorbed by the poems toward the end of the book, those in which Wei seems to let his desolate emotions fill the landscape in a way he hadn’t before. But it’s his humanity, not his philosophy, I think I’m responding to. For poems of overflowing humanity, we must turn away from Wang Wei’s mountain retreat and instead to Hinton’s masterful versions of Tu Fu and Li Po.
Wang Wei (701-761 C.E.) was from Taiyuan, the capital of Shansi province, and moved to Ch'ang-an as a young man. After passing the civil service exam he rose through the ranks and, despite the occasional banishment, eventually reached the post of vice prime minister. However, his interest in Buddhism blunted any political ambitions, and whenever he had time he preferred to wander in the Chungnan Mountains south of the capital. Wang was not only one of the greatest poets of the T'ang, but also a skilled musician and one of the dynasty's greatest landscape artists. (adapted from Red Pine, Poems of the Masters).
David Hinton, whose much-acclaimed translations of Li Po and Tu Fu have become classics, now completes the triumvirate of China's greatest poets with The Selected Poems of Wang Wei.
John Cotter has published work in 3rd Bed, Goodfoot, Hanging Loose, failbetter, Pebble Lake, Coconut Poetry, The Columbia Journal of American Studies, and others. He lives in Cambridge where he's about to start shopping around his first novel, small excerpts of which can be read on his website, here. In 2007 his work will appear in Volt, Unpleasant Event Schedule, word for/word, MIPOesias and Oh One Arrow, the new anthology from Flim Forum Press.