Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Something Has to Happen Next

Full Catastrophe Living    

Reviewed by John Findura 

A teaspoonful of the matter that makes up a black hole would weigh more than the visible universe, and may weigh more than the un-visible universe as well. Black holes have little in common with contemporary American poetry, except for the fact that for most people, both are invisible. Some poets, however, have something in common with the phenomena: they are able to take a little bit from here, a little from there, and compress these bits into poems of few words that still carries the weight of something much larger. Andrew Michael Roberts’s Iowa Poetry Prize winning “book of small poems” (as he has called it) Something Has To Happen Next certainly contains poems short on words but big on the necessities of life — humor, liveliness, emotion, and profundity. Though this first effort at times feels ethereal, it quickly gains weight as the pages advance.

The opening poem of the book’s first section, “dear wild abandon,” brings notice of what’s to come:

            you little




The white space between “time” and “bomb” acts as a buffer, slowing the countdown to the “bomb” going off:

            if I bite

            and swallow, would you


            explode in me?

The sexual allusion may or may not be there, but there is no escaping the fact that yes, there will be an explosion.

Other poems in the collection do not need the fireworks. An example is “the moon,” which in its entirety reads:

            all the other moons

            get their own names.

The obvious information here is reinforced by these two short sentences floating isolated against the white page. Roberts makes good use of the white space to create aesthetically pleasing poems. Not only is each line break perfectly placed, but the pacing is sure. Take for instance the next little poem in the collection “what i know of the moon”:

            i am only half myself.

            the other side’s

            a dark idea

            i like to believe in.

What is most interesting here is Roberts’s notion of the beauty of the dark side of the moon, the “dark idea” he likes “to believe in”. It brings to mind the duality of man, the need of that dark side to keep us whole. Striking too is the fact that the poem preceding it, also about the moon, is only half its size. It’s almost as if this half-moon has doubled its size to four lines and now is not just a reflection of the moon, but has become inward looking and no longer in need of a label in order to exist.

While Roberts is busy distilling the universe, the other 2008 Iowa Poetry Prize winner, Zach Savich, is carving out his poems from solid earth in Full Catastrophe Living. The “toothy stars” of Something Has To Happen Next are replaced by scrapings on exposed strata and the “smell of black walnuts crushed on the road” (“Black Walnut Adoration”). Like that smell, these poems are full and rich with a deep flavor of earthiness.

Savich likes to stretch out in poems like “Don Quixote,” “Fool,” and “Poem for My Wife If We Are Married” but it is in “Serenade " where this lengthening of line is most effective. While it is certainly not surprising to find Degas or Caravaggio turning up in poems, it is refreshing to find:

            My friend the trumpet player emptied his spit valve onto pigeons.

            He watched a woman climb onto her fire escape, nude,

            her husband cursing form the window. I gave up on

            the biography. I left the rave. Ann held her head.

Ann holding her head reflects nicely on the beginning of the poem, where indeed

            In the painting by Degas, the dancer is not

            on a cell phone, but holding her head. I left the museum.

            Ann was sick.

Does this count as art- reflecting-life-imitating-art? Regardless, the final two lines clear everything up by leading us from a darkened room to one where everything is still obscured: “I put on some shoes I found on the bridge, then left the bridge. / Ann bruised. Her mom showed up. It was July.”

Throughout Full Catastrophe Living, Savich intersperses shorter poems and sonnets, nicely breaking up the denser texts. The short poems, however, never reach the level of the longer pieces. Perhaps it is the sustainment of image and metaphor in the longer pieces that works so much in their favor. Certainly, shorter poems like “Federal Case” are never given the chance to develop. Compared to Andrew Michael Roberts’ shorter pieces, and in relation to his own longer works, Savich’s shorter poems don’t hold up as well, don’t carry the same weight, and ultimately add little to the collection.

Both Roberts and Savich have put together volumes that are worthy enough to be read and may even require multiple readings. It is no surprise that both are issued through the University of Iowa Press — the Iowa Poetry Prize has definitely been showcasing exceptional work. If you happen to be the type of person who prefers to keep your feet on the ground while craning your neck to see the stars, it would be a wise decision to pick up both books. If you’re not that type of person, it would still be wise to track these down.


John Findura holds an MFA from the New School. A Pushcart Nominee, his poetry and criticism appear in journals such as Mid-American Review, Verse, Fugue, Fourteen Hills, No Tell Motel, H_NGM_N, Jacket, and Rain Taxi, among others. Born in Paterson, he lives and teaches in northern New Jersey.


Andrew Michael Roberts is the author of Dear Wild Abandon, selected for a 2007 PSA National Chapbook Award, and Give Up. His poems can be found in journals such as Tin House, the Iowa Review, LIT, the Colorado Review, and Gulf Coast.


Zach Savich received a BA in English from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop; he is currently in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is a teaching assistant. His poems and essays have appeared in such venues as the Colorado Review, the Beloit Poetry Journal, jubilat, Court Green, Denver Quarterly, and the anthology Best New Poets 2008. He is an editor at Thermos Magazine.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Heaven-Sent Leaf

BOA Editions, 2008
Reviewed by Karen Rigby

Money is not evil. It is the love of money, or so the proverb goes—the pursuit among the hustlers and rainmakers, the hunger that inspired alchemists to try turning lead to gold—that leads to tragedy in so many stories. In Katy Lederer’s newest collection, the desire to distance oneself from the financial world is a recurrent theme. With its legendary robber barons and tumultuous history, the New York of these poems would set the perfect stage for an energetic series: panoramic in its breadth, sexy, and even damning, presenting glittering vices, a high-rolling playfulness, or a satirical critique.

Lederer, however, has chosen an unexpected and much quieter approach. Money isn’t turned into a grand idea. It is a means for describing the private exchanges in the speaker’s life—that bartering between “The brain pumped up with longing” and the soul.

These forty-five poems employ mostly linear, sonnet-like forms. They rely on a reflective, first-person voice. The images are simple and concrete, spaced throughout the book rather than forming densely woven patterns—they include “cups of breakfast blend,” “dark, expensive chocolates,” a “vial of Botox,” “emerald-green flow,” and a cello, among other objects. Many of the titles derive from the opening or closing line, or from a phrase contained within the poem. These plainer titles are in keeping with the poet’s sensibilities; there’s a strong sense that the message is often more essential than the manner of its expression, and that the poems, however cool in their atmosphere, are meant to reach the average reader.

One of the notable threads in this book is the difference between office workers and poets:

Me, a brainworker toiling in pristine white hallways.
Abnormal, aboriginal, endemic to this site.
Some people sell their wares outside.
In the pristine light of Times Square they are singing.
In their noses and nipples, the glinting of rings.
Let us call them unoriginal.
Let us call them all these awful things.
The busy unoriginals are throwing out their trash.
But on this lovely parchment they are writing priceless poems.
They suppose that by such rendering they’ll be remembered after
They suppose that by such influence their souls will sing eternally.
In the hallways, we are killing time,
Its blood now thick and lurid on the freshly painted walls.

The speaker is aloof, but does not spare herself from criticism. She doesn’t belong in these hallways and may even possess a small envy of those “unoriginals” who are free to write. Poets reappear in “A Nietzschean Revival”:

These poets speak of capital as if they had the least idea.
I ask you: what do poets know of capital?
Across this harp, their fingers play a Nietzschean revival.
I envy them their will to power.

And again in “The Dead-Level”:

The poets standing, one by one.
I lie here, shaking, all alone, the cosmetician in the hall.
Lord, let it cover me, this sheet.
Immaculate particulate.
I hide here in your cleanliness.
The poets standing, one by one.
What shall I make of them, beneath this light?
Their hair is white, their eyes are white, their skin is porcelain white.

A complaint is being registered about the nature of white-collar brainwork. In another poem, "Brainworker," the speaker writes: “To learn to keep distance./To learn to keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal/mind (19)."

The distinction between two modes of thinking could prove puzzling or even artificial for some readers: why doesn’t the speaker appear to entertain the possibility of disparate halves (logic + rationality / spontaneity + creativity) working in conjunction with each other rather than in opposition to each other? Later, the speaker expresses “this wish to be penniless, free.” Being“penniless” is almost a romantic hyperbole for a more poetic lifestyle. As the book progresses, the speaker says, “I am waiting, like an animal,/for poetry.” What was once viewed as the providence of those “unoriginals” has become vital. What seemed incomprehensible has become alluring. The transformation is critical to understanding The Heaven-Sent Leaf. Money may have served as the hook, but self-discovery and the pain involved in any difficult moment of transition emerges as the salient theme. An uneasy, ambivalent peace is finally reached between the spirit, mind, and heart in “A Triumvirate”: “Dilapidation of the spirit as the heart gives in, the mind gives in./These three, a triumvirate, laughing./This bitterness breaks me.”

Writing about office drudgery can sometimes result in a flatness to the language, or run the risk of reinforcing familiar views. While this series doesn’t entirely escape such problems, the ambition is nevertheless admirable and the topic is prescient. The title would appeal most to readers seeking affirmation of what it’s like to be trapped in the “pristine white hallways,” or for readers already familiar with the author’s previous work.

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Katy Lederer’s books include Winter Sex (Verse Press, 2002) and the memoir Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003), included in the Publishers Weekly list of Best Books of the Year 2003. Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Harvard Review, GQ and elsewhere. She has been anthologized in Body Electric (Norton), From Poe to the Present: Great American Prose Poems (Scribner) and Isn’t it Romantic (Verse Press), among others. Educated at UC Berkeley and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, her honors and awards include an Academy of American Poets Prize, fellowships from Yaddo and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a Discover Great New Writers citation from Barnes & Noble.

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Karen Rigby’s recent work appears in Meridian, Quarterly West, Canteen, and other journals. She is one of the editors at Cerise Press.