Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Stupefying Flashbulbs by Daniel Brenner

Fence Books, 2006

Reviewed by Jared Stanley

This is a difficult book, partially because it demonstrates neither political posturing, an obvious theoretical stance, or prose poems, and partially because the work has quite a bit of energy around it, that kind of energy that Fanny Howe called “The line’s ecstatic lash.” There’s a sense that the creation of these poems was intoxicating, and that this intoxication (or whatever) is the point, but there’s also a refreshing lack (most of the time) of self-consciousness in the making. Saying that, however, doesn’t make the poems any less mysterious. For all of their excitement, there are pleasurable obstacles all over the place in this work. The poems in The Stupefying Flashbulbs don’t mean so much; they whirl and flash instead, neglecting punctuation in favor of a dependence on the line. On top of all that, they occasionally manage to be narrative. What’s at stake in the narrative, I’m not so sure. What the Phoenicians mean, or who McLight is in the grand scheme of Part 1 here, I just don’t know. Sometimes this book is so exact, and sometimes really stupid, but it does delight.

In writing about this book, I have a distinct sense that I might be either a) seriously misleading you b) totally misunderstanding the book, and/or c) imposing a sense of tradition on a book that strives to exist on its own terms. So, let us proceed. The first poem, “Liquified,” has traces of Slinger’s kookiness, and Prince’s shorthand:

          I went to the whirlpool and asked it
          N it looked at me & said child of the sea
          Listen as I tell U of the child of the earth

What I enjoy so much about this passage is that it speaks in these sort of reverent poetic tropes (addressing a whirlpool, “child of the sea”) in a way that’s lighter than air, unburdened of punctuation and poetic diction. Indeed, the whole first section of this book, with the aforementioned characters McLight and Whirlpool, is similarly unburdened. It’s a cycle of poems that are utterly mysterious, but they’re frothy, not, uh, fraught. The characters are allegorical effigies, I think. They stand for qualities that are brought forth in their names, to some degree. The whirlpool is constantly being questioned by the speaker, and in this sense is some kind of oracle or guide (maybe a kind of Virgil). But the whirlpool is also a stand-in for the forms of the poems themselves, which take disparate elements into its vortex and jumble them up, for example:

          Fraud the whirlpool is a fraud
          We are in the weeds about it
          Lurking around in thickets
          Through which we have cut
          Great swaths and made them
          Roads with chemicals and buried
          The chemicals in alcohol
          That we poured out on the road.


The sections that follow in the book (there are three) are formally similar, but drop the repeated characters. These poems have a whiff of Berrigan, or maybe a less-blighted Spicer. For example, “Calls For More Soda” begins “It’s boring more orange soda.” Immediacy and insouciance are the order of the day here. Look at the beginning of “Anthem Bag:”

          Outside the mall the wind howled
          The air was that purple feel
          The wind did what
          It was almost evening

The poem ends, “Because it means nothing / Isn’t that what we think” in which the speaker speaks simultaneously of the whirling tableau which S/he has detailed in the poem, while at the same time ventriloquizing the reader’s bewilderment, slyly showing us that a mall in a poem can be a very disorienting place for everyone involved. I’m reminded of Stevens critique of surrealism: “the essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering.” This poem could be mistaken for inventing, but I think it’s really involved in discovery. That is, the mall in its mall-ness demands from this speaker a statement like “the air was that purple feel.”

There are other weird-ass lines like “gesture magnetize what we do.” This one’s frighteningly exact, and that gives it a surface texture of oddity. That line is also a good example of the earlier assertion that the book really is most successful on the level of the line. This makes the book seem occasionally messy, but I like it, because the reader can feel that Brenner isn’t the decider in this writing, which makes this a pretty different first book than so many we’ve seen as of late. The style is strong, and yet there’s little sense of the individual voice here. One feels that this writer has fewer designs on the reader than many other writers, and I like that. I feel as though I’m running around in a field. What I mean is, this book finds the writer working toward something, not having found a ready style, perfected it, and finished it, all in the same book, but looking around, discovering. It’s the kind of messiness that one loves seeing in photographs of painter’s studios, the messiness of work finding itself being found; in that case, by a photographer, but in the case of this book, by the words that appear in the whirlpool of the situation at hand.

I was first attracted to his work via some fantastic poems published in web journals, and that work was quite different than that work here in The Stupefying Flashbulbs. This suggests that Brenner’s work is finding itself as he writes it, and one can’t help but be swept up in the energy of the work. There’s no theoretical reason for the attentions of the poems to flit about the way they do, and that’s nice:

          Then the people who mess with you write a song about it
          We all make mistakes
          I’m afraid of looking back from the perspective of being chased
          & doing whatever it is that the perspective of being chased urges
          (“Savage Comfort”)

It’s not a perfect book, but it’s an exciting book.


DANIEL BRENNER was born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1976. He currently lives in New Jersey and works as an independent contractor.


JARED STANLEY lives and works in Northern California. He is a co-author of a chapbook, In Fortune (dusie e/chaps), with Lauren Levin and Catherine Theis. Recently, poems have appeared in Conduit, Gutcult, and Shampoo.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Twenty-One After Days by Lisa Lubasch

Avec Books, 2006

Reviewed by Lauren Levin

Lisa Lubasch’s Twenty-One After Days offers a new way to interrogate experience; Lubasch orchestrates the changeable relationships of subject, object, and language into a drama of perceptual shifts. The examining consciousness and what it examines interweave kaleidoscopically. As part of the interchange between inside and out, landscapes also find themselves in motion: states, geographies, emotions realizing themselves as independent forms of life.

the rivers snatch up all our true developments – making them square, as methodically day would – gather up its lineaments – one promontory competes (couples) with the inventory – for confidence – will we meet? to the right of it? – that depends – as migratory gulls would spark – retrieve their careful rims – making them truthful –

The registers here run from physical (square, to the right); to emotional (confidence); to ethical (truthful). Just one selected word, ‘promontory’, hooks many potential meanings: a particular lineament of the day; a shape that holds the day in; an event that draws attention to itself within time; the actual literal coast. A promontory links a thought and a place to meet.

the morning is condensed – but it grows stale – its rigor becomes a subject – tearing – meaning flows out – birds fly up and grow to skip within – a mountain – one part of it – the breezy section, augmented –

“The morning’s rigor becomes a subject” – another moment that knots divergent paths. Rigor can be a subject – so, a field for study. When that field rips, concealed meaning flows out. Or, rigor is seen as a subject – so, a character – who tears up, begins to cry, so that the emotion-meaning masked by a decorous rigor ‘flows out’. Rigor is experienced as subject and object, character and state. (Lubasch shows particular interest in the passages between subject and object, or a character and its expression. Through tears, a body becomes fluid: a ‘river’ between inside and out that integrates physical substance, emotion, and literary convention.)

On my first reading of Twenty-One After Days, I looked for externalized inward states, moods coaxed into impersonating rivers and mountains. Reading further into the book, I discovered it to be much more complex than that first take. Part of the pleasure I found in re-reading was the lack of easy equivalences. You don’t have to look far in poetry to find examples of an inner self that seeks its match in the outer world. The difference in Lubasch’s work is that the terms used to organize such comparisons are unstable. The central consciousness doesn’t remain intact in these poems, and the way it’s disassembled is again complex and strange. Rather than simply excising the speaker, the book presents thought as a “maggoty walk-up”, the breezy part of a mountain, or a state that “melt(s) into guessing”: uncertainty cuts holes in being. When each state or emotion has the potential to become metaphor and engender its own lists, comparisons, and trajectories, it means a vertiginous freedom for the multitudes inside the individual. Each speck of perception on its own road – the result is a self that is dispersed through its language, and as susceptible to change in state as a word or a wave.

Lubasch refers to the ‘immense flexibility of objects’. Her search is to create a subject just as flexible – a subject atomized into language can pursue perception to its darkest corners. If we’ve grown accustomed in poetry to looking for the “rhyme” between a speaker examining the world and a world looking back, Lubasch investigates moments without rhyme or overt resonance. The individual personality – with its powerful habits and expectations – insists on finding its own pattern everywhere it travels. When character is diffused into its surroundings, its imprint is reduced, and the field of vision grows.

strife will produce accomplishments – inadvertently – like sleep or mildness – will reduce the course of feeling –

The exploration of thought also becomes an ethical inquiry. (Paradoxically, deliberation over how to live becomes more and more crucial, even as the particular character is broken down.) On the one hand, an intense seeking desire probes and rolls through objects, wanting to explore everywhere, to become every change of state. On the other, the poems project an equally strong desire for absolute stillness and peace. “Like ideas and elements would vie”, this conflict is figured as an aphoristic play of opposites: sills/locks, sun/cloud, entrances/barriers, attention/inattention, waking/sleeping – or a day fighting with the events it contains. An ethics lab, the poems experiment with endless permutation, testing proportions of shadow to sun, drift to wariness, hide to seek.

When one extreme is reached, dissatisfaction with the new status quo begins an oscillation back. Often, identity wants to extract itself from the play of differences. Consciousness hides in darkness, seeking density and heavy, weighted being: “with our attempts at understanding, whose monotony is scarring, graying itself up, with an inward, an outward, heaviness, of identity, of stillness”. But locking into one pattern eventually brings about suspicion and restlessness, limiting the flow from inside to out – fear of trapped inwardness seems to be one of the governing anxieties in Twenty-One After Days.

There may be no resting place or final victory, but, as the book progresses, a tonal shift does change the movement between states. Alternatives are seen differently: a vision developed that transforms a dreaded lassitude to calm, and an equally feared aggression to forward movement.

            “revealing in the trees, where light has splintered –
            enclosure, sun, or vein –“

Light can hide, radiate, or flow – all its changes of state become present to vision. The whole passage is a key moment for this perspective:

                                        “as identity fastens – loosely –

            onto those we love and whom we echo – in absence –

                                loneliness settles –

                    revealing in the trees, where light has splintered –

                            enclosure, sun, or vein –

                    severance of each thing –

                                    or “A LIFE, and nothing else” –

Identity is displaced, but into a secure zone. It takes identity brought outside, fastened onto “those we love and whom we echo,” to quiet the demands of personality and settle loneliness. Such a viewpoint equalizes calm and flux. They become twinned aspects of a single theory: flux in motion, sweeping traits along; calm as a balanced equation, a creature’s exchange with its environment.

The contradictions in this work sum up, through the language of paradox, a desired state of equilibrium – “unloosened”, fixed yet mobile. But this equilibrium cannot be found within the self. Breathing space must be opened up “within another’s chamber”:

            “The space could be protective,
            perceived in steps,

            and never-ending.
            Or with an end
            that nonetheless will spill

            in the direction
            of a cloud
            and a river.”

There’s no triumphant, sewn-up ending for Twenty-One After Days:

“Where is the excitement? All enveloping. Albeit in a field, with the dreariness of rain. A call flutters by, like waking.”

The pleasures of this book can encompass dreariness, as part of a consciousness willing to forego customary thrills in order to push beyond its own boundaries. It’s exciting to follow this voice into its contingent, mutable life – an emissary ranging far out of the first person.


LISA LUBASCH'S collections of poetry are Twenty-One After Days (Avec Books, 2006), To Tell the Lamp (Avec, 2004), Vicinities (Avec, 2001), and How Many More of Them Are You? (Avec, 1999), which received the Norma Farber First Book Award. She is the translator of Paul Éluard's A Moral Lesson (Green Integer Books) and with Olivier Brossard, works by Fabienne Courtade and Jean-Michel Espitallier, among others. Selections from How Many More of Them Are You? were translated into French in 2002 and appear as a chapbook in Un bureau sur l'Atlantique's Format Américain series. She lives in New York City.


LAUREN LEVIN grew up in New Orleans and now lives in Oakland, CA. Her poems appear in GutCult, Shampoo, dusie, Word/For Word, and MiPOesias, and are forthcoming in the tiny and Mrs. Maybe. Your Beeswax Press published her chapbook Adventures in spring of 2004.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

NEW ARRIVALS: CutBank 66: Prose & CutBank 63/64

We are pleased to announce the simultaneous arrival of two issues of CutBank Literary Magazine: CutBank 66: Prose and CutBank 63/64, from the University of Montana, here in Missoula.

CutBank 66: Prose, edited by Sarah Aswell and Elisabeth Benjamin, features

the fiction of Steve Almond, Jenny Dunning, Josh Emmons, W. Tsung-Yan Kwong, Shena McAuliffe, VIncent Precht, Joe B. Sills, and Kellie Wells; the nonfiction of William J. Cobb; an interview with Jim Shephard; and portraits by Joel Sager

CutBank 63/64, long-belated, and originally scheduled for a Summer 2005 release, features

the poetry of Carl Adamshick, Britta Ameel, Adam Clay, Lisa Fishman, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Erika Howsare & Jen Tynes, Quinn Latimer, Mark Levine, Cate Marvin, Orlando Richardo Menes, Jonathan Minton, Sawako Nakayasu, Kathleen Peirce, and Zachary Schomburg; the prose of Donald Anderson, Jacob Appel, Michael FitzGerald, and Matthew Scott Healey; interviews with Diana Abu-Jaber and Emily Wilson; and artwork by Eben Goff

Copies are available for USD $10.00, or both for USD $18.00. Checks can be made payable to “CutBank” and sent to: CutBank, Attn: Orders, Department of English, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812.

Copies of CutBank Poetry 65 are still available. Please follow the link to the right for additional info.

For more information, please email

Thanks very much. We hope you will all have a look.


The Editors
CutBank Literary Magazine
Missoula, Montana