Friday, June 20, 2008

"No Poem Works": A Review of Anthony Hawley's Forget Reading

Shearsman Books, 2008
Reviewed by Mathias Svalina

The sonnet is a poetic form that was invented in 1964 by a young man named Ted Berrigan. Ted Berrigan liked to look at a lot of things. He liked his friends. He liked pronouncements. He liked the stuff he thought about. Especially poetry. All of these things went into the poems he invented; the poems that he named sonnets. The sonnet consists of 14 lines. The sonnet is a poem that is only found in the presence of many others of its kind. Just as the zebra’s stripes make the individual indistinguishable from the mass of black & white movement, the sonnet’s 14 lines make it both an individual poem & part of the wheel & bang of multitude. No lion can kill a sonnet, because the sonnet has ever so many hearts. They beat like quivering mercury.

The sonnet is very similar to another poetic form called the sonnet. The sonnet has a slightly longer tradition, spanning back to the 13th century. The sonnet also consists of 14 lines, which is why it is often mistaken for the sonnet & vice versa. The sonnet is a poem about rhetoric; it is an argument encased in regular rhyme & meter, gut-punched by the volta. Love is a famous form of rhetoric. These sonnets can be found both as individuals & as packs. When a lion attacks one of these sonnets, the other sonnets watch the beast rip the sonnet’s throat out. The smell of the blood is familiar to them, but it is not actually their blood. You can often find this sonnet outside of a poem, such as in a textbook or in the tanline revealed when a man removes his watch. There are many shapes of containers in the world.

Anthony Hawley writes sonnets. His new book, Forget Reading, consists of 74 sonnets divided into 7 sections. Four of those sections are all called “P(r)etty Sonnets,” one of those sections is called “Apple Silence,” one “Record-Breakers” & one “Productive Suffix.” The opening section of P(r)etty Sonnets begins:

      a weathervane
      knows more about poetry
      even though a thermometer
      tells when bones hurt
      frosted window
      who just took a shower

In these six short opening lines the poem jumps from association to digression to sudden image or memory. These jumps are indicative of Hawley’s approach to poetry. His poems become nexus points of attention. The poem that ends this first series of sonnets begins:

      once a turnstile always a turnstile
      the manner by which wind rifles and plexiglass globes
      and ghost-men mounting the memorabilia
      underneath the hothouse lights we look like eels

It closes:

      every off-center photograph
      is a one-act opera in someone’s time zone
      have a seat beside the pennants
      your autographs will arrive shortly
      caller number ten takes home a free pair of season tickets

Sentences are one way that writers control idea. Hawley’s poems resist the sentence. They resist control. But at the same time there is something stable in the poems, something that I call Anthony Hawley.

In these series Hawley creates an autobiography via outward movement rather than the revelation of the internal experience. He is interested in things he sees, things he thinks about, images or phrases from pop culture, high culture and poetry culture. Witness how much ground he stampedes over in one especially jumpy poem:

      and how does the crowd enter the game
      knit together at the radio close knees
      we all grow up to wear hair tonic but only some of us
      seek to temper it with stunt doubles
      unidentifiable vapors found in the earth’s atmosphere
      the political arena’s eyewitnesses
      a one-armed man in malta
      together in the nursery of insatiable disrepair
      which is to say short drink long drink something neat

The sonnet as a form works as a container; it contains the range of attentions, allowing the newspaper headline, the joke & the detail to work on equal levels. Every new thing that Hawley attends to in this sonnet is another stripe on the zebra’s hide.

Hawley is especially attentive to what poems don’t or can’t do well. What they can & cannot contain. He returns to this again & again, tempering the jumpiness of the poems with a reflective & didactic turn. He writes:

      radio is our love
      and we are trapped
      not in wide open space
      but each rely on stations to play one song
      over and over radio can barely hold so much
      the idea of Albuquerque
      won’t fit into a poem

It is not that the idea of a city will not fit in a poem, or that city. It is that an idea itself does not fit into a poem. A poem is part of poetry for an individual, a blip in a larger argument about how one makes the world happen. The individual poem is meaningless outside the herd. In the fourth series of P(r)etty Sonnets, which close the book, Hawley writes:

      no poem works
      but may try and be some
      may try and dig a ditch
      may try and rig a memorable tall thing
      called city, called obelisk
      or president’s head
      what an error what a dumb rational
      gig when poem is better off
      jobless everywhere
      even with shovel and drill
      poem cannot build so useful
      a drawer
      poem is no tomb
      but loiters and makes new time

Hawley’s four series of P(r)etty Sonnets work as rag & bone shops of experience but they also work like the moment in which the subjects of a documentary forget the camera is in their room. The film becomes about documentation, the eye works by accretion rather than narrative. It’s Herzog’s aesthetic in The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner & other films in which his presence an ordinary part of the film. As I read these poems I follow Hawley’s attention & participate in the epistemology of looking at & thinking about stuff. The jumps in attention make the individual mind present. It's a sense of the "I" that does not need sentimental presence.

The other three sections of Forget Reading reveal another aspect of the form that we talk about as the sonnet: each poet who writes a sonnet must create a new form & call it the sonnet. There are many forms called the sonnet. In recent years the poetry world has been introduced to new forms invented by Karen Volkmann, Laynie Brown & Gerard Manley Hopkins among others. Each poet named her or his new discovery the sonnet. Each one of them discovered a new set of formal & process techniques, creating a new kind of poem. They all bear similarities to each other. You can only distinguish between them by the smell of their blood.

In his P(r)etty Sonnets series Hawley is taking a lot from Berrigan’s sonnet & occasionally referencing Dante’s rhetorical sonnet. But in “Apple Silence,” “Record-Breakers” & “Productive Suffix” he discovers three new kinds of sonnets by moving toward the aesthetic extremes of what plays out in a more balanced manner in the P(r)etty Sonnets.

In Apple Silence, Hawley reduces the poem to associations & juxtapositions, forefronting the jumps that occur in the P(r)etty Sonnets. The poems in this series function as much by sound & silliness as they do by concerted world-creation:

      alphabet overdrive
      numeric sing
      ping pong
      all my praxis
      I give over
      to love’s six cylinder
      mother-of-pearl open up
      inlay inlay
      the room
      given to reverb
      so vacancies
      there you have it
      weird the fog
      i was i was

The Apple Silence series sets an opposite spectrum end to the sonnets Hawley writes in Record-Breakers. These depend on rhetorical thickness, on statement & reflection, for instance he opens one poem “an obvious attempt to masquerade fears / with the mawkish ardor of a maypole.” This is a dramatically different kind of speaking than in Apple Silence, but also different from the quickness of sound & sleekness of statement found in the P(r)etty Sonnets. But Record-Breakers are not argument sonnets, guided by the mismatched hemispheres above & below the volta. The rhetorical thickness of these poems opens up to the world through the pelts of sounds the words conjure. They are a linguistic complexity of memory.

Productive Suffix series takes the open terseness of Apple Silence further by spreading each set of 14 lines across the page. The white space of the page both rearranges the connections between lines & phrases. See how this space (or an approximation of the formatting for this page) reduces the stanzas to their own individual moment, yet the connectivity of the entire form, the knowledge that it is a sonnet, requires us to see both the whole & the discrete:

      ever the furtive

birds eat

      I climb

to memories
in fountains

of water

            what little
         of us

is more than holes

By separating the lines these poems draw attention to the formal obedience, they attempt to be sonnets at the moment of nearly not being sonnets. But they also replicate the individual-to-whole relationship of the sonnet series.

These three series are not merely “experiments” with the sonnet parameters or in any way “merely.” They are attempts to use the poem to represent a range of experiences—from the intellectualized memory to the imagist & linguistic immediacy. But just like the P(r)etty Sonnets, they depend on the series for meaning & survival. Individually, they are poems of interesting sound or idea, but collectively they resist the attacks of the lion.

Unlike the sonnet, Hawley’s sonnet is not a poem. The sonnet is a series that works by containment. The more consistently the sonnet defines the space between what is & what is not a poem, the more it allows into the poem.

The herd contains the zebras. Each zebra contains its stripes. But also blood & bone & food & fear. I contain many things. Most of them I’d prefer not to talk about. Politics is a kind of container because it is speaking & speaking is teaching because it connects two things & teaching is a form that requires at least two writers for every poem & if you continue to extend you can see that when you begin to write a poem you could keep on writing until the meat of your hands slide off the bone like a soft, loose cotton sock.

Poetry is unlike politics in many ways, but it is also speaking. The work of being a poet is partially choosing what to not write about. The sonnet works to keep the world out of the poem, but the sonnet series seeks to allow the world into the poems.


Anthony Hawley is the author of two full-length collections of poetry Forget Reading (2008) and The Concerto Form (2006) and four chapbooks Autobiography/Oughtabiography (Counterpath Press 2007), Record-breakers (Ori is the New Apple Press 2007), Afield (Ugly Duckling Presse 2004) and Vocative (Phylum Press 2004). Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Hat, The Tiny, 26, 1913, and Verse. He currently teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


All of the Mathias Svalina found today in North America--and they number in the range of 1--are descendants of approximately 100 such prior Svalina's introduced in New York City's Central Park in the early 1890s. A society dedicated to introducing into America all of the Mathias Svalina mentioned in the works of Shakespeare set this Svalina free.

Monday, June 09, 2008

How To Be Perfect by Ron Padgett

Coffee House Press, 2007
Reviewed by John Findura

For those who are already fans of Ron Padgett, reading a review of his newest book, How To Be Perfect, is not going to tell them anything they don’t already know (although they are more than welcome to stick around for this one). Padgett is one of a select few poets who manage to be authentically funny while digging deep into an internal wisdom, and still be able to maintain the all important “street cred.” He speaks in a next-door-neighbor frankness that somehow manages to bounce back and forth between the mundane and the absurd, but with a gentleness that urges the reader on like the calling of a warm bed on a cold night.

Padgett writes about things like washing dishes (“Rinso”), playing with a top (“Tops”), and anxiety over The Swiss Family Robinson, and all are enjoyable. As Padgett writes in “The Swiss Family Robinson”, “it’s interesting not to know / something that everyone else knows.” That is one of the most interesting things I’ve heard a poet say in a long time, and it makes me feel better that I’ve never seen an episode of Lost. In an age where technology brings you the facts as fast as you can type in the search words, managing to somehow keep away from that constant stream of information is a work of art in itself. Yet later in the poem, he comes to the discovery that “I would know something that / most people don’t know.” Anyone reading How To Be Perfect can leave with that phrase ringing in their ears.

Humor is one of Padgett’s greatest assets, from the obvious groans of

      And they entered the ark
      two by two

      except for the studs
      which were two by four

to the more cerebral

      I think that Geoffrey Chaucer did not move
      the way a modern person moves.
      He moved only an inch at a time
      […] time moved in short lurches
      and was slightly jagged and had fewer colors
      for them to be in. But that was good. Humanity
      has to take it one step at a time.

Padgett takes all the steps in one single leap, because he is that sure of his poetic footing.

The centerpiece of the collection is poem “How To Be Perfect.” It is a simple list of ways that you, too, can achieve perfection. The first directive is “Get some sleep” followed immediately by “Don’t give advice.” The poem starts to snowball from there to things like “Make eye contact with a tree” and “Design activities so that they show a pleasing balance / and variety.” It begins to hit its stride at the time of

      Be kind to old people, even if they are obnoxious. When you
      become old, be kind to young people. Do not throw your cane at
      them when they call you grandpa. They are your grandchildren!

My favorite trio appear within the space of four lines: “Calm down”, “Visit foreign countries, except those whose inhabitants have / expressed a desire to kill you” and my own personal choice, “Look at that bird over there.” Perhaps a close second would be “Do not wander through train stations muttering “We’re all / going to die!”” or “Do not step off the curb until you can walk all the way across / the street. From the curb you can study the pedestrians who are / trapped in the middle of the crazed and roaring traffic.” If his membership of the New York School was not apparent before, at least his connection to New York City is crystal clear in those lines.

It’s no secret that most writers, poets and novelists included, almost always attempt to address the big picture. They ask the big questions, focus on the big scenarios, and expect to connect with a big audience who also wants answers about these big things. But what really connects people are the small things, the overlooked things, and ultimately this is what How To Be Perfect focuses on. From Shecky Greene to the Virgin Mary’s toenails in paintings of the Italian renaissance, it is these small moments that really bond the reader to the poet. Even sex in Edwardian England seems to be an everyday natural occurrence in Padgett’s world.

Go, pick up How To Be Perfect, and just enjoy it. But first, look at that bird over there.


Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1942, Ron Padgett is the author of numerous works including the poetry collections Great Balls of Fire, Triangles in the Afternoon, and The Big Something; a volume of selected prose entitled Blood Work; and translations of books by Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Marcel Duchamp. He lives in New York City, where he is the Publications Director for Teachers and Writers Collaborative.


John Findura holds an MFA in Poetry from The New School. His poetry and criticism can be found or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Verse, Fugue, GlitterPony, and The Fortean Times, among others. He teaches in Northern New Jersey and lives with his wife, their puppy, and a charm of finches.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Histories of Bodies by Mariko Nagai

Red Hen Press, 2007
Reviewed by Karen Rigby

Mariko Nagai’s award-winning book illuminates desire, grief, faith, the fallibility of words, family and other timeless themes, often using the contemplative voice established in the title poem: “In this early morning, words / are bodies / heaped up high, each body imprinted with past, they are remembrance. But we have / already turned our eyes inward, we do not hear.”

Reading Histories of Bodies is like delving into the nautilus. We spiral into the space Nagai creates, returning to repeated images and ideas like cicadas, physicality, and memory. She draws you in with lines that surprise you: “The snow falls like the knife of the butcher cutting the meat into glorious names, like the / plums left unplucked, warped with bruises hidden underneath their raw skin” (“Practical Truth”, p. 51). Here, the contrast between falling snow and the violence of the knife, the sheer weight of the plums, is hard to visualize, especially when subsequent lines describe the snow as being “light”. This could seem like a surreal simile pushed too far. How would snow fall like the knife of a butcher? What are the glorious names? Nevertheless, the poet succeeds by way of Pope’s “sound before sense”.

Sometimes the force in poetry comes from a source beyond us, sometimes the best poetry is possessed by strangeness, like the prophet Ezekiel eating the scroll in the Bible, or Christopher Smart exclaiming in “Jubilate Agno”. Nagai’s strongest poems enter the psychological territory where the “real” that grounds us to the world begins to blur with mystery.

On occasion, the language is less polished. One poem is titled “Untitled”. A paper crane is likened to a butterfly—“See how their wings are evermore fragile, / a buttefly” (p. 25) —which is too similar to produce the spark of wonder the best metaphors can. In another poem “walls are thin like a torso of a woman / with anorexia nervosa” (p. 37). Now and then, too, the closing lines of the poems explain a shade too much. Apart from these minor instances, most of the poems unfold gracefully without faltering.

One of the more memorable poems is “Many Are Called”, with its echoes of Matthew 3:17. In Nagai’s poem we’re given an omniscient view of a crowded train in Tokyo:


Underneath this city, there is another city, one more modern, more recent in its origin. Here, in these dark tunnels where pomegranates fall, all these thoughts fly around like moths, lured by light, by sweet smell of decay, trapping themselves by their own free choice in the confined space of their making: It can’t already be June, it can’t already be Monday, that’s what they say, that’s what people keep muttering to themselves this morning as they cradle the last of the sleep in their coffee cups, for the precious moments in which they huddle in themselves before they must sign off their lives to something they don’t believe in, to something they think they cannot escape from. As they rock in the rhythm of the train, someone thinks, A moth in spider’s nest, though she does not see the intricate weaving of the thin threads, ready to untangle between our fingers, snapping the threads. But it’s like this: It’s already June, I’m already 28 and I haven’t done anything, many are talking, comforting us in these minutes of our lives when we descend down to darkness, to darkness so dark that we are helpless, our bodies swaying left to right, left to right as if we’re rocking in prayer, but we are not praying. We’re boxed in the freight, we’re boxed in a subway car, this is the death train, but unlike them, forced away from their homes because of blood, we chose this train, we chose to be on it, we are boxed in, we’re as helpless, we tell ourselves, positioning ourselves to the gravity, the pull of the train. Our highest dreams thrown out like our last night’s dinner, a woman’s dream flies past, landing silently on the subway floor like the last note of an aria, I wish someone loved me, I wish He loved me, a thought so light it floats quietly down, hovers an inch or two above the floor, then lands, landing as someone steps on it. I wish somebody loved me, but I’m not pretty enough, I’m not smart enough, she closes her thoughts from us, she looks down to the book on her lap, the thick one, heavy like her sadness, but she doesn’t stop her reading, the thick book stays where it is, the woman, though, reads so little, doesn’t really read, just daydreams, her hopes going where we are going, she stays where she is, on the seat across. We are all going somewhere we have to each day, pulled by the invisible strings, and we say, I can go no other place, this is where I belong. No, we go to places only if we must, but must is a habit, after all, we can go anywhere as long as we let ourselves, anywhere we want to, only if we want to, she can stretch her arms as if in flight, and leave, leave this train, this city…only if she wants to. We think there’s no way out, our lives guided by some invisible lines only fate has right to hold, right to control. But we are closer to grace, we are closer to where we were before we were born, before we forgot the songs, before we forgot the promises, we are closer to grace in the darkness of our own making, we are not of time—only if we let it, only if we let the watch unshackle us, but we forget, as we have forgotten, as soon as we open our eyes. Many are called and many do not hear.

—Tokyo, Japan, December 2002

Here, Nagai uses pathos and gentle humor to explore what popular culture coins the “quarter-life crisis”—a phenomenon wherein the post-college crowd worries about the future, accomplishments, partnerships, or lack thereof. Immediate problems always seem urgent to the person involved, but Nagai reminds us that our daily concerns are not insurmountable. There is more to the world than the tangible, there is another world, not one of platitudes, but one of beauty and terror and surrender, the place we could reach if we would let time “unshackle” us.

At its core, this is a book about making one’s way through the multiple layers that define us. We can only see the future when we reconcile the past. The poet says it best in “The Acceptable Death” (p. 62): “Here are two cities, we live in two worlds. / One of our familiar, one of our imagination.” In “A City of Absent Lovers” (p. 54) we glimpse this world of imagination again: “…you imagine that there is some connection between love and beauty, something so intangible that this is where all the songs come from, and, when the last note lingers like a lost memory, where they go.” This where, this place where all songs originate, this place “before we were born” can be thought of as the more sophisticated version of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “stately mansions”.

Like the nautilus, Nagai’s poetry is both intimate and otherworldly. What appears to be coolly elegant at first draws you towards it and carries a roar, what appears to be built from simple images is, on a second reading, iridescent.


Born in Tokyo, Japan, Mariko Nagai has lived in Europe and America most of her life, earning a Masters of Arts degree in Creative Writing with a concentration in poetry from New York University, where she was the Erich Maria Remarque Poetry Fellow. She has been the recipient of the prestigious Pushcart Award twice, in both poetry and short story, and has received numerous fellowships and scholarships from art foundations and writers’ conferences. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She also translates modern and contemporary Japanese poems and fiction into English. Currently, she teaches creative writing and literature at Temple University Japan Campus, where she also directs the Writing Programs.


Karen Rigby received a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007 and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota in 2004. Her second chapbook, Savage Machinery, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.