Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Counterpath Press, 2007
Reviewed by John Findura
It used to be that books of contemporary poetry could often be looked at as either a collection of individual poems or the occasional group of poems loosely connected by some narrative or stylistic thread. More recently however, the “project” book has very much come into vogue. The “project” book can be seen as a kind of novella in verse, or, at the very least, a heavily connected collection of individual poems that work better as a whole than individually. Starting with his last book, the excellent and daring Quarantine, Brian Henry seems to have grasped firmly onto this idea that the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts.
The Stripping Point is composed of two poetic series, the first titled “More Dangerous Than Dying” and the second, “The Stripping Point.” Eschewing individual titles, we are forced to contemplate the book as a whole as it cannot readily be broken down into bite-size pieces, much like the way the individual songs of a concept album lose their magic once separated into radio-friendly singles. The only guideposts along the way are quotations that precede each part and are thankfully referenced in a “Source” section.
The idea of a dual series worked well for Henry in Quarantine, but in comparing that work to The Stripping Point, the newer work appears to succeed, albeit to a lesser degree. The first sequence is composed of 31 poems set in a 1990s paper mill chronicling “the vicissitudes of a relationship that is simultaneously new and at its depleted end,” according to the jacket copy. While that may sound like a very simplified breakdown of a million things, from Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano to Casablanca, in actuality it reads more like a disturbingly unfunny episode of The Office:
A thing is delivered
to your In-basket
carbon-copy to me
We hold hands
by the water cooler
It is this everyday language and action that ultimately grabs the reader’s attention. “The office party was a carnal affair” comes later, to the surprise of no one. The reality of the words manage to both shock in their utter frankness and to cause wonder that a poem can be constructed of the everyday, much like the disbelief that accompanies the realization that a particular sculpture was once a cast-off piece of stone.
The significance of the difference
between the tip as calculated
and the tip as left on the table
becomes a wedge between us
Somehow, the mundane has infiltrated the hallowed halls of contemporary verse. But it is not just the words; it is also the distance of Henry himself from the poems. Using a style that he began with Quarantine, Henry has left almost all traces of the poet absent from the poems. Unlike his earlier collections Astronaut and Graft, The Stripping Point feels as though it were created in a vacuum, much like the modern workplace feels.
Blond hair on your overcoat
The situation revolves on itself
Stasis action guilt
It’s the first that hurts
the last that reminds us
At times Henry sounds like he is reciting his own version of Nostradamus:
Across the table
fallacious conclusions and unencumbered assumptions
mark their method of attack
It all ends up at the landfill
The plant reshifts priorities
returns to shredding trees
In hindsight, the only possibly thing was indeed for the plant to return to shredding the trees. The plant will continue its pulping of trees far longer than the relationship between co-workers can ever last.
The second, much more experimental, series of poems, titled “The Stripping Point,” runs to fifty-five sections. As it runs its course, it literally is “stripped away,” from 6 lines to only two. Beginning “Decide on deciduous or remain ever green / My love for envy is not your color”, “The Stripping Point” runs down like the ticking of the doomsday clock. The repetition of certain lines keeps the momentum running forward to the inevitable ending of “Surrender to dim and be done with darkness”.
The key to this entire section of the book is that inevitability, along with lines such as “Some days the tongue needs a prophylactic” and “Delicious and made with desire from desire”. Perhaps the only negative is the overuse of words such as “nival” and “riparian.” Fine words though they may be, the echoing of the words causes them to lose some of their meaning and their uniqueness as the poem clicks to its end.
What impresses the most is the fact that Henry is still experimenting and growing and there is a genuine excitement preceding each new book. As he has proven so far, there is little in language or subject matter that cannot find its way into the poetic idiom. The monotonous existence that many of us find ourselves is a theme for many poets, yet few take it to its place in the real world. A part of all of us, unfortunately, understands
We strive for the effluvium
but lack all requisite lightness
find ourselves squarely placed
in the fluorescence of the feebly salaried
Brian Henry is the author of four previous books of poetry: Astronaut (2000), American Incident (2002), Graft (2003), and Quarantine (2006). His poems have appeared in many magazines around the world, including Jacket, New American Writing, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Volt. He has co-edited Verse since 1995, and he co-edited The Verse Book of Interviews (2005). He currently teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
John Findura holds an MFA from The New School. His poetry and criticism appear in journals such as Mid-American Review, Verse, Fugue, Fourteen Hills, Rain Taxi, GlitterPony and H_NGM_N, among others. Born in Paterson, he lives and teaches in Northern New Jersey.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Reviewed by Heather Sweeney
The book remains dangerously fragile--even more so after all my mark-making, gluing, soaking. The binding has been pushed almost beyond its limits. So I was pushing against the limits of "the book" and the limits of what is held in the body as language…
…dwelling and travel are not distinct
…dwelling and travel are not distinct
Magi boldly tests the limits of the book’s form in Threads which simultaneously binds and frays at every turn. In 1997, Magi ventured into Estonia alone and unarmed with the language. It is here, within this “book-art project,” that she aspires to desilence and uncensor the history of a country. The poet attempts to recover and resuscitate father, an Estonian refugee of WWII in a forest of multi-layered sounds and landscapes. Woven with with maps, letters, biographies, photographs, dress patterns and song, Threads both tears and sews. Unraveling a series of experiential blueprints, the book ultimately investigates self in relation to lineage, and its fluctuating degrees of disintegration and salvagement.
Similar to Eleni Sikelianos’s endeavor in The Book of Jon, Magi navigates through the various tales of her father’s life to inhabit his physical, emotional and intellectual spaces. Upon her arrival in Estonia, Magi pursues an imagined connection:
Needing more time to arrive, I sit on a bench between ferry terminal and city gate, imagining that my father’s history is visible on my face. An uncertain expression. Perhaps sadness or certain Estonian features such as hair color or the eyes, though in any other context, I do not believe in this (9).
Touching an illegible distance, a memory of a face becomes a map. Gaps in translations and history are illuminated.
Without a table of contents, the reader is immediately thrown into the deep end of an evolving Estonia, a place of supposed regentrification: “The attachment of cell phones to the belt and new umbrellas over empty café tables is read as progress” as “museum labels peel away…” (1). The poet appears confused among a rubble of weeds, burning garbage, bullet holes, electrical wires and cement apartment buildings. And it is this confusion, a self-reported “vertigo,” that mirrors the disjointed nature of the book. Preservation is pieced. Reconstruction is messy. Magi craftily exposes these processes through a vividly collaged portrait.
Documenting the fleeting essence of her search, Magi reconstructs an undeniable impermanence. She is “sketching a breath a fingerprint dissolves” (108) but there is also an acute awareness of something “to find out. A view called history. Or to enter” (44). The poet is grasping and gazing through the gaps of her father’s sparsely recorded life: “(Dear Dad, if you can even vaguely translate--)” (112). She seeks to hold onto any remnants of her journey: “I collect stains and bits /of leaves” (119). What is left: ephemeral souvenirs. Although ephemerality and loss hover over the book like a “cloud of blackbirds,” the essence is what remains as the “grain of the original is ascertained” (8).
The reader is moved from a familiar, autonomous place where “map of comfort was--/pillow of no tradition” (48) to an atmosphere “of generative tensions” (50). Revealing doubt and mispronunciations, Magi’s threads mesh to form a unique texture of sounds and language; as “each day falls off into unspeech” (38) we lean in to listen to the “stuttering infrastructure” and “flexible word order” (45). Lines are infused with uncertain translation. Her efforts are textured with a certain struggle. Threads of speech are revealed as “flashcard fossils” (4). Magi reports to her father: “Inside my body your language is growing” (124).
We tend to think of ourselves as autonomous creatures, and this is reified by our culture of duality and compartmentalization. Yet, the acknowledgement of and quest for connections may shift and transform perceptions of self, moving us from “the position of the single body versus a whole family “(52). Our pasts are fragile structures and one must often take a journey far outside, beyond our self-imposed limits, in order to begin to understand them. Magi inspires us to do so with strength and without hesitation so that we also may come to know our own “inherited map.”
Jill Magi is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of the chapbook Cadastral Map, published in 2005 by Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, as well as several self-published and personally distributed small, handmade books. Her poetry, prose, and visual work has been published in HOW2, The Brooklyn Rail, Jacket, The New Review of Literature, Aufgabe, Chain, and Pierogi Press, and exhibited at the Brooklyn Arts Council Gallery and the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition. A 2006-07 writer-in-residence with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, she also teaches at The City College Center for Worker Education and runs Sona Books, a small press dedicated to publishing risky, quiet, project-driven works in chapbook form.
Heather Sweeney lives in San Diego where she works as a design consultant and teaches yoga.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Shearsman Books, 2007
Reviewed by Anne Heide
Susanne Dyckman’s first full-length book, equilibrium’s form, understands where “the space of possibility/is an appetite,” where the unknown is both a generative and consumptive force. The poems in this book insistently document “what is known,” though only in partial image, as if trying to set fragmentary particulars into the realm of the immediate known, leaving all else to question. Shushing the insistent noise of finitude for the sake of a patient querying, Dyckman has created an open-ended elegy, a proposal of patience that takes the form of an active questioning, one that swerves from the passive finite. This is a book where shadows take root as the “space of possibility,” the grey unknown into which Dyckman roots the small insistent.
Although the poems in equilibrium’s form steer away from the definite known, the book is nonetheless preoccupied with the ways in which we know. Dyckman questions the way in which knowing takes shape through the act of documenting minutia, how the act of knowing is parceled into specificity. Minutia is known, and knowledge comes in portion:
sky bone arm
what is known is
dusk silence hand scar
not a sound but
This is not the duality of a shadow world and a finite world, but a proposal for a world of greater precision. “Sky” becomes “dusk,” “arm” becomes “hand,” and we are translated into a locale of increased specificity, where minutia is quite seriously known without pretense or irony, and the beginnings of knowledge are made into deliberate detail. The greater picture is that there is no greater picture; the limbs of a scene are the center of it. The language itself is potentially fragmentary in that the semantic possibilities at work extend beyond the singular. No one sense can be made of the text; it is a work of detail that is fragmentary not because something is missing, but because any attempt at completion would fail the text.
Dyckman’s field of accrual asks for knowledge to come individually, in shadowy spaces, in illegibility. Although there echoes of Plato’s cave, this text calls a different sense of reality into being: “dipping fingers/in shadow play/is all I know.” Shadow isn’t illusion, but the hopeful unknown: “I will the shadow/swallowing whole.” Shadow is willed into existence in order to conceal and complicate untrustworthy clarity.
The book never loses its concern for this deliberately partial and self-specific knowledge. If the fragment stands in for the whole, if it is more representative in its partial presence, then Dyckman has written an epic in facets, calling for specificity to stand in stead for the whole, revealing a more complete picture in the gaps. This awareness of the fragmentary in language extends to the fragmentary body. The remnant of the scar appears as a trace of physical memory, “who or where known by the finger’s trace/across the scar turned pink.” It is the trace left from action, the proof that an event occurred, that something can be known:
flint retracting heals
syllables hidden behind
more syllables there’s the scar
Here, it is the unending strata of healed-over language that points to the difficulty in representation. But these are syllables, not words. Here, parts of speech are not incoherent when parceled, but contribute to a density of meaning, of proof. Something here happened.
But something violent to the body. In the prose poems of the book, the elegiac tone is most narratively present. Illness arrives in the prose sections of the book, where information is more fluid, filled with story. Although these are the most narratively sure moments of the text, they seem deliberately uneasy in their certainty, full of unease about looming illness, inevitable loss, and the difficulty of using story to fill that space: “We are almost the same height and weight, like twins, except her walk is slow and I need to hold back to match her pace. Her skin is brown, not a healthy brown but a shade of sickness.” These prose poems ask for stillness; like the particular images that are known, the tone is one of stasis: keep patience, let this moment linger: “stay be still you are stone.” In these brief moments of elegy, another shadow is cast across the manuscript, a proof of loss.
Dyckman’s book is both tenuously wrought and utterly concrete. It is the tension between these two extremes of knowing that sets the pace for this deliberate and elegantly crafted consideration of the frailty of individual knowledge.
Susanne Dyckman was born in Chicago, and has lived in cities on both coasts of the U.S., finally settling in Albany, California, where she curates the Evelyn Ave. reading series. She is the author of two chapbooks, Transiting Indigo (Etherdome Press) and Counterweight (Woodland Editions). Her writing has appeared in various publications, including Pomona Valley Review, Switchback, 26, Marginalia and First Intensity. After being named a recipient of the Five Fingers Review poetry award, she was invited to join the journal's editorial staff. She is currently a thesis adviser for the University of San Francisco's MFA in Writing program. She is also Chief Financial Officer for a wholesale import company.
Anne Heide poetry has appeared in Shampoo, Coconut, Octopus and No Tell Motel, among others. Her reviews have appeared in Jacket, HOW2, First Intensity, Xantippe and Rain Taxi. She edits the journal CAB/NET out of Denver, where she is working towards a doctorate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Denver.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Ravenna Press, 2006
No Tell Books, 2006
Reviewed by Caroline Ashby
Rebecca Loudon’s Radish King and Navigate, Amelia Earhart’s Letters Home – her second book and first chapbook, respectively – both present themselves as collections of correspondence. In the case of Navigate, sender and recipient are clear: Earhart, our speaker, stranded after her Lockheed Elektra went down on or near Howland Island in 1937, has prepared letters and diary entries to friends and family whom she addresses in the poem titles, i.e. “To my Muriel, my doppelganger, my darling, my negative eye” and “To Miss Visser my one and only piano teacher.” (A glance at Earhart’s Wikipedia entry will unlock the mystery to most of the names.)
The poems of Radish King, however, sit inside the front and back of a postcard, but appear to be to and from the unknown. The characters that populate these poems are anonymous hes, shes, and yous that, in my reading – and the book lends itself to many – inhabit the speaker’s fiery and feverish dreams. They send the speaker poems chronicling the dream-memories to which they have been banished, simultaneously allowing and forcing her to piece together her journey through life. And what a brazen journey it’s been.
At first she remembers everything,
then starts slinging it off. The concierge
knows her name, all her lovers
in the same room, pare, paring, parings,
a pool on her pillow when she wakes,
pink or red or blue,
her sick sheets pulled down.
from Radish King’s “Bandaging Starla”
The poems of RK are sodden with hot-blooded sexual encounters, yet “pairings” is strikingly absent from the sequence in this passage, and this is telling. In RK, our speaker fails to connect on anything but a superficial, or bodily, level. Instead of holding fast to the memory of her beloveds, she has shucked them off, one by one. But they keep coming back to haunt her.
Earhart, on the other hand, summons those to whom she is emotionally tied, but is unable to connect physically since she is invisible to the world. She, therefore, is the ghost of Navigate. Consider one entry “From the missing diary:”
Virginia last night I dreamed you at twelve brushing my hair with the little yellow brush brushing brushing gathered my hair at my neck brushed underneath so carefully fifty strokes the handle warm in your hand my head in your lap I could smell you bristle I was bristle and clean fifty strokes to the side my pink ear exposed Ginny with strong hands you smelled of the forest my head full of electricity smelling you now my arms and legs and between my legs bristle with fur I am votre ours à fourrure my head in your lap your hands in my hair.
Earhart is begging and frenzied for contact. But the speaker of RK eschews the kind of nostalgia Earhart embraces, taking pains to writhe herself awake before those dream-memories are received.
In their solitude and delirium, the speakers of Loudon’s two works seem in conversation with one another. To her mother Earhart writes, “Dreamland and my own breath is gossip,” an isolation echoed in RK: “I’m alone in a body that doesn’t remember” (from “The dead-dog scent of lilacs on the last day in April”).
Loudon also allows the vocabulary of both speakers to overlap. In “flicker like a bluegirl under water,” from RK, the speaker says, “…she twisted each button/ on her sweater until it popped,” and Earhart writes, “All my buttons have twisted off.” While “chewing the leaves/ of a pepper tree my lips bleed,” Earhart writes to her sister, Pidge, and RK’s speaker “sing[s] the peppery tulips” in “Safeword.”
As a result of these conjunctions, the speakers (and books) begin to materialize for the reader as siblings under Loudon’s parentage. The speaker in RK is alone in her body, separate and distant from, yet terrorized by the phantoms of memory and imagination. To those back home, Earhart is the phantom, though her folks remain close in Earhart’s mind’s eye. The speakers are each a wing of the same plane, shooting off in opposite directions, but sharing Loudon’s backbone.
From Navigate’s “Where are you Fred?”
I want to tell you how bad it felt
falling and knowing
what a bad idea it was
to have decided against the parachutes
I was a seed pod tumbling
thought I could flap my arms
shout your name and Snook’s
like synchronized swimmers
From Radish King’s “Drinking Perchlorate on the Avenue of the Gods”
I’m sorry your plane went down.
I’m sorry you flailed and spilled your gin.
There is clotted cream on the table,
you are round and soft. You fell
you fell out of the sky.
Radish King and Navigate do indeed “join hands,” each book informing and intensifying a reading of the other. The books are best read in the evening before bed, when one’s own ghosts begin to be roused.
Rebecca Loudon is the author of three collections of poetry, including Tarantella (Ravenna Press). She is a violinist with Philharmonia Northwest Chamber Orchestra. She teaches violin to children. She has written the libretti for two choral pieces and a five part song cycle for orchestra and soprano.
Caroline Ashby is a graduate student in Library Science and former
private investigator, with a BA in Creative Writing from CUNY Hunter College. She's also an Assistant Editor for Tarpaulin Sky.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Backwards City Publications, 2007
Reviewed by Scott Whitaker
Jennifer Chapis’ work in The Beekeeper’s Departure is more than honey light and tickle, though sensuous texture is layered in the lines and syllables of these poems like a beehive. She has a great ear, and often her ear is at odds with her subject, a tension that is muscle and bone to what I hope will be a continuing body of work. These poems are sensuous yet dangerous places; they are tough lyrics about love, the little deaths that come with love: addiction of a loved one, how two people’s history can hurt a relationship, desires, and the absence of children.
It would be too easy to entertain comparisons to Sylvia Plath and the world of “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” and like Plath Chapis’s work is elliptical and pretty. But do not take this description of her work: pretty and reduce it to a negative connotation. She wields light and combs beauty out of difficult subjects, in many ways like Plath. But let’s be fair to Chapis and leave Plath here. In this paragraph.
The main subject of Chapis’ poems are love, “I blame everything on love/Old scar stretching neat again” (from Counting Venice Beach). Here the scar is not only love’s history, but also the surgical scar from After Ovarian Surgery where the speaker is “a mother underwater” in a steam bath that threatens to erase the speaker “Her body all steam…Her insides nothing, an itch….” But of course it isn’t that the steam bath is dangerous, it is the weight of the surgery. The steam bath and blueberries of the poem “penetrates and undoes” the speaker and are mute witnesses to an emptiness that threatens to consume. In the later poem Chapis includes directions to care for the incisions, much like Frank Bidart’s patient in “The Arc” directions which grounds the reader in reality “Keep the incisions dry. Bathe them in Bacitracin, vitamin E, let the air nurse them.”
The who in the poems are not as important as the poems themselves. Chapis might be writing about her own experience or the experience of a sister, but it doesn’t really matter; much like the identity of the alcoholic that peaks out from many of these poems. The identities of the subjects are effaced by the emotional landscape, which is the true subject. The alcoholic of these poems could be the lover that astounds her in “Counting Venice Beach” when she says “You are wicked and stunning and remind me/of calculus. Whisky. Those too-smart and dazzling/birds whose genus name/often escapes me” or of that collapsed form of in “Cirrhosis in Verse” that through the poet’s imagination becomes an island, a den where she hangs “heavy drapes,” or again a lover in “The Revisionist Remembers” that “didn’t believe in love until it touched you./Even after six years/your drinking surprised me/every time.”
The poems in The Beekeeper's Departure are populated with bees, berries, steam, the ocean, horses, sex, drinking, and missing children. There is a ruralness to these poems. Not to say the poet is a poet of the country, but the wilderness is as part of the landscape as civility, even when “raining bones over the mountain.”
The speaker seeks to escape history, “the final century,” the boxed wedding gown that’s seen “three closets” and does so finally in the title poem when “history is not behind us” where bees are silent, then “brew,” perhaps a promise of newness to “two aged trees on a beach,” which are the lovers, of course. And the lovers in these poems are “bent on practicing the impossible” and though the tone of the poems are often elegiac, the overall warmth of the images leaves one with a sense of hope, if not for the lovers who populate the poems, then for the language that breathes them.
Jennifer Chapis is the author of the chapbook, The Beekeeper's Departur (Backwards City Press 2007) and a limited-edition broadside, "Poem as Tossed Salad" (Center for Book Arts 2002). She has published poems with The Iowa Review, DIAGRAM, Hotel America, McSweeney's, Barrow Street, Quarterly West, the Best New Poets anthology series, and others. Her work was recently recognized with the Florida Review Editor's Prize, GSU Review Poetry Prize, and a Pushcart nomination, and finalist for prizes including the Benjamin Saltman Award, the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes, the Iowa Award, and the Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize. Jennifer is a co-founding editor of Nightbook Books.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
New Issues Press, 2007
Reviewed by Michael Flatt
With his sixth book, A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, Noah Eli Gordon shows himself to be a prolific writer not only in his fast and steady production, but in his deftness within a number of poetic styles. In this book, he works with the sonnet, narrative poetry, the short poem and the long poem, all brought together in eight sections. His mellifluous form runs from Creeley-like sparseness to a poem that text-wraps the page. He has a great appreciation for the home-run line and image, but remains serious. At all times, he has one eye on the book's overarching subject, which is language.
At first glance, maybe one's first read through the book, it appears that what Gordon studies most closely is man's relationship with the world. Landscapes and objects affect his subjects in unexpected ways, as in the poem "The book of journeys," in which the speaker looks at the sky and feels it is out of place, "each star seemed off kilter." He reexamines and questions the ways that people can and do relate to their environments, thereby creating new spaces for interpretation and experience. His poems form pockets in the universe we know where unknown dimensions exist, where smoke has an indentifiable sound and the night sky isn't necessarily fixed.
Gordon manages to alter perception in the intangible world as well. He deconstructs the frame that man has built for consciousness, that series of imagined understandings that makes being alive comfortable and bearable. Take, for instance, the second half of "A tuning fork turns all this noise to glass."
miming the music
of one digging a ditch,
the rough sketch
of an abbreviated calm,
a further conjugation of focus
or just something to fill the afternoon--
all this work on balance,
an anodyne for falling in
When Gordon mentions a "conjugation of focus," he means at once the conjugation of the verb and the conjugation of the act itself. The reader is left to examine how the verb applies differently to different people or groups. Similarly, Gordon points out that the lingual function of abbreviation can have a broader application as well, to moments or feelings.
"A tuning fork turns all this noise to glass" comes from the first section of A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, "A Dictionary of Music," which focuses on music as a metaphor for language. Gordon's point seems to be to make the reader fall--and in the poem's conclusion--into his world, or at least fall into his pattern of questioning. In reading his poetry what we are balancing on is the tenuous ground of perceived reality, grasping onto what we know in order to follow him into unfamiliar places.
The other notable subject of "A Dictionary of Music" is death. Gordon seems almost nihilistic when provoking images of emptiness after life in the poem "Phrasing and form." "the terrible skull under such a pretty face / that diner used to be a train car ... everything pretty transitive, aleatoric." Ultimately, the speaker sputteringly concludes, "finality uncomfortably funny." Death is frightening, humorous and, it seems, incidental. Gordon works backwards from the inevitable to find things we can control.
The poet makes an unexpected gesture toward narrative in the following section entitled, "How Human Noun." One might actually see it coming in the epigraph by Gertrude Stein, which reads, "All this has so much to do with grammar and with poetry and with prose." Gordon manages to infuse a feeling of prose into his poetry without taking any radical measures. The poetry in "How Human Noun" works as a compliment to that of the rest of the book.
"How Human Noun" is the story of a marriage, as told in poems that sequentially detail the ceremony scene by scene. The best part is that Gordon completely avoids being sweet. While there are moments of terrific beauty, and the poems are addressed to a counterpart "you," these aren't love poems. They're simply poems about a marriage ceremony. (In fact, his most romantic gesture is formal. Each of the poems is seven lines long and double-spaced, one half of a sonnet.) This is the first poem in the section, entitled, "They said the smallest wooden horse was dead in your costume."
gone unnoticed the inevitable protagonists accrue
fragile centipede working rot into unreliable endnotes
a storm, cicadas, ribbons of smoke above the river
somewhere else a war
light falls as usual
& the hour fails to episodic
in the most expensive suit I've ever worn
Gordon provides a context for his protagonist's thoughts in the line "somewhere else a war," making the ceremony a recognition of beauty ("ribbons of smoke above the river") in the real and troubled world. The day is at once usual and an exception, as the sun still sets, but the anticipation has made for high expectations, some of which are not met. The poet's take on marriage is encompassing and honest.
Turning the page from "How Human Noun" to "Untragic Hero of Epic Theater" is like shifting from fifth gear to second on the freeway. "How Human Noun" lulls the reader into the ease of interpreting complete phrasings and ideas with clear tethers attaching them. "Untragic Hero of Epic Theater" is a much denser read, both formally and conceptually. His imagery becomes more surreal and less steady. Gordon offers far less guidance in this section, giving none of the individual poems its own title. The last line of the first untitled poem connotes the danger that these formal changes imply. "The imperative's wax center & a magnifying glass held to the sun." It is definitely Gordon's hand on the glass's handle, and he's directing the beam at the pliable sense of certainty the preceding section provided the reader.
"Four Allusive Fields" is a short section of four sonnets working from a quote by Roland Barthes concerning his character Cy Twombly. "Who is Cy Twombly? What is it he does? / And what are we to call what he does?" Each of the sonnets begins with the line, "Cy listens absently to absent Homer." That recurring line, as well as recurring images and the nonstandard treatment of the form recalls Ted Berrigan's sonnets. Despite these similarities, it's the differences between Gordon's sonnets and Berrigan's that offer the most information. For one thing, Gordon's sonnets are humorless, while Berrigan's could make an Amish man laugh on the Sabbath. Gordon inherits Berrigan's love for sound, but has a much deeper love for the complex concept. Berrigan was a close follower of Frank O'Hara, while Gordon seems more like an Ashbery kind of guy.
"Book of Names" also calls to mind the second generation New York School. The speaker of these poems addresses characters on a first-name basis the way that Ted and Kenneth (Koch) and Bernadette (Mayer) liked to do in their work. But one gets the feeling that Gordon is naming names less literally, and more for the purpose of studying the process and implications of naming as a practice.
Why Bernadette? & why David?
Why Rebecca? Why Mark?
Why the book of names? Why say yes and no?
Why a syllable & its buoyancy?
"Why the book of names?" is a good question. As music is made a metaphor for language in "A Dictionary of Music," "Book of Names" attempts an understanding of language's origins. The section emphasizes the delicate nature of language in passages that simultaneously connote birth and death in the naming process. "Yesterday / I named // a dead bird / Rebecca." He recognizes in beautiful metaphors that what makes language stable is the collective human decision to make it so.
Given this intricate and enduring consideration of language, it should come as little surprise that Gordon ends the book with a poem featuring an epigraph by Myung Mi Kim, which reads, "Cohere who can say." Kim is a contemporary poet whose multicultural relationship with language allows her a unique authority on the subject. The title of Gordon's poem, "Urge to Call" seems to intentionally mirror the first poem in Kim's first collection, "And Sing We" from Under Flag. Gordon's poem stresses language's inability to predate any of its subjects. "begin with the phrase: it's light outside / with a window, the reshaping of water / to map the shoreline between finger and figure." Gordon's project is to acknowledge the subject and then acknowledge language as his acknowledging tool. The goal provides its own self-perpetuating paradox in that poetry is reliant upon language to acknowledge language.
The structure of A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow reflects Gordon's Z-A process. He begins with the end in mind in the morbid imagery of "A Dictionary of Music" and ends with a beginning in the final line, which reads, "a child who says: the window shows it's time to get up." This allows Gordon to end the book without ending the discussion of language, our habits with it and uses for it.
A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow is an enriching book in the sense that each read provides more information as to its creation and construction. A single reading shows a collection of sections that it is difficult to recognize as a book. But reading further, one notices strands of sinew binding the work as a single body: a line borrowed from a poem in one section to provide the title for another section, the staid attention to language itself. One would hasty to decide that the widely variegated sections struggle to inform each other. Like any great artist, Gordon asks the reader to struggle to inform himself.
Noah Eli Gordon’s books include Novel Pictorial Noise (selected by John Ashbery for the 2006 National Poetry Series), Inbox (BlazeVOX, 2006), The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta Press, 2004; selected by Claudia Rankine for the Sawtooth Prize), and The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003). Ugly Duckling Presse recently published That We Come To A Consensus, a chapbook written in collaboration with Sara Veglahn. His reviews and essays have appeared in dozens of journals, including Boston Review, The Poker, 26, Jacket, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He writes a chapbook review column for Rain Taxi, and teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Michael Flatt was born in Syracuse, raised in Tully and also calls Buffalo his home. He currently studies and teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
The Post-Apollo Press, 2007
Reviewed by Matthew M. Gagnon
“In the liminal all times converge,” writes Jennifer Moxley in her fourth book of poems The Line. By skillfully evoking the past, present, and future, Moxley limns the in-between state of experience, the hours kept at bay by an associative mind. In this dream-state, the speaker of the poems, or the “you” that weaves through them, is occupied by trial and is henceforth affected by conditions that hinder or challenge the mark of history and a subject’s relationship with the orders of time and memory. In this sense, we are housed within the constructions of physical and mental spaces, as well as by the larger idea of the polis on the hill that are central to Moxley’s interconnected prose poems.
In the poem, “Awake,” the speakers says: “The flesh envies the word’s longevity but not its delayed effects.” The speaker’s bind conjures how words enter the blood stream of history and enjoy a circulation that’s more stable than memory, or what we desire to retain as knowledge. However “delayed” the word might be, it promotes its own action outside of belief, in terms of it being lodged in-between speaker and its intended target.
The speaker in the title poem, “The Line,” instructs that “You will walk out of the visible and learn to accept the darkness. You will find the line.” What is the line that Moxley has in mind? It is partially a register of the ideal of utterance, which moves freely through time, as opposed to a diachronic understanding of the movement of time through history. “The Line” ends with a provocation to write: “Find time in words. Replace yourself cell by letter, let being be the alphabetic equation, immortality stay the name.” The complexity of the statement is suggestive of a larger vision that runs through The Line. I read the “cell” as the necessary structural unit of our physical body. It also implicitly mirrors the enclosure of a cell whose nature is to impede mobility: a devised place where deviation from social standards is ostensibly dealt with. By this transfer of “cell by letter,” Moxley seems to suggest that while words certainly bear the fruit of history, there is a naming that transcends physical borders, whether private or public.
Moxley’s prose poems, or machines constructed of precise words, invite the reader to share the burden of engagement with self and other, to partake in a state of being where personal myth is manufactured even as “material evidence contradicts memory.” This is more than a mapping of our social location. From “The Cover-Up”:
That was an under-motivate lie that has no eye on the future. You’ve met others, artful people who repress their feelings in order to distort time. Because they cringe at the force of the past they cultivate cultural amnesia. How do they do this? If they have money or power anyone who dares contradict them is seen as envious and petty. If they are as yet unknown, they threaten their friends with the divulgence of their unattractive secrets. If they are notorious they remain quiet.
They encourage others to reveal themselves and then store these confessions as ammunition. They leak poisoned hints about brewing conspiracies in order to distract from their own schemes. They play on fear and guilt. They invent instances of injustice to rally the people to arms. As the crowd seethes with righteous anger, they sneak out the back.
What Moxley employs through this passage is not only an urgency local to our own socio-political status, but an urgency of self concerned with reputation and power. In effect, we are marked by an interior life that operates despite of, or in spite of, the clamor of the past on the consciousness. Moxley’s use of the pronoun “they” invites a reading that’s engaged with an insidious oligarchic mainframe holding the public, its individual and collective consciousness, with as much distain as the earth we stand on. However, the “you” of the poem is not designed as innocent individuation when juxtaposed with the State and its public servants. As much as we would like to entertain the notion of our innocence, we are afflicted by our own relation to these power structures; our subjectivity is implicated and countered by the line of time, and Moxley as a guide shows us through perfect syntax, that “I am exactly like them. I neither forgive nor forget.”
All of this is not to suppress the intensive scope of interior distinctions, such as the various states of living domestically and within a kind of twilight zone, which occupies a space between sleep and initial waking. The narratives of how we inhabit these spaces are a complex web of disclosures and loss: consciousness and Ego are alive and well, but are tampered with by self, other, and the ideal of writing. Consider “Elsewhere Here”:
For 40 pages your eyelids have stood guard against the bright early morning sunlight. On the surface of your sleep-life renegade sentences have puzzled each other into impotent shapes. En route to delirium the depleted conductor of your weaving consciousness oversees the work. Knowing that this display of mental agility—no passive amniotic reception—is never present in waking life, the agitated pleasure you feel in the exercise has become heartbreakingly seductive. Should you get up? Could the threshold be traversed by other means? Is there a brilliant mode of comprehension your consciousness denies you? Yes. The knowledge that accrues without your knowledge refines the pleasure of alienation, processes undesired stimuli, and the whispered exchange of mysterious data. By closing your eyes you have become a permeable environment: the taunting paradox of all that you know, just out of reach inside your own head.
What Moxley considers and displays are the rich underpinnings of our brain’s multiple actions. Here, these actions are linguistically charged to carry over into a substratum of doubt, delirium, and contradiction. This poem as others do in The Line, call upon difference and the tenuous negotiation between a so-called field of polar opposites, as in reading the unread—a passivity that self inhabits in sleep or the “permeable environment”—and finding those value systems whose power and logic entwine our lives, or in other words, make us punctilious citizens of the world. These kinds of inhabitancy are erected with sound and sense in Moxley’s 43 prose poems that encompass The Line. The sensations therein are real and perhaps, dear reader, “What you know seems useless next to what you don’t.”
Jennifer Moxley is the author of Imagination Verses (Salt, 2003), The Sense Record (Salt, 2003), and Often Capital (Flood Editions, 2005). She has translated two works by Jacqueline Risset, The Translations Begins and Sleep's Powers. She currently teaches at the University of Maine in Orono.
Matthew M. Gagnon grew up in northeastern Massachusetts and has since lived in Vermont, Colorado, and western Massachusetts. He is currently a student at the University of Massachusetts MFA Program for Poets & Writers in Amherst. His review of Graham Foust's Necessary Stranger is appearing in the most recent issue of Octopus Magazine.
Monday, September 17, 2007
Flood Editions, 2006
Reviewed by Kaethe Schwehn
just say there—signify something”
Thus commands the speaker in Graham Foust’s book, Necessary Stranger. In many ways, this intellectual imperative is the guiding tension of the work itself. Foust’s book is a reminder of the three-dimensional quality of our world, not simply in terms of dimensions of space, but in terms of qualities of knowing. Foust’s objects go beyond “saying” and “signifying” in a one-dimensional way: they metamorphosize and suggest and remind and synthesize as well. The book, however, is not simply a “Note on Ontology,” as the title of one poem suggests; rather, it is the experience of a world in which the static forms of things have been broken and dismembered in which, as Emily Dickinson notes in the epigraph, “Things are not what they are—”
Poetry should only meddle/canoodle/schmooze with philosophy insofar as it provides an experience or enactment of the philosophical concepts themselves—otherwise “philosophical” poems simply begin to sound like Kantian greeting cards. (This book, I might add, is definitely not one that shouts “read me with Hegel”). Necessary Stranger succeeds because of the craft that accompanies the ideas; after all, many of the ideas are not really new (we’ve been trying to describe our broken and fractured world a la “The Wasteland” for quite some time).
The poems are short. Only a handful of them run over a page in length and many are composed of lines consisting of five words or less. Foust relies mainly on syntax, line breaks, rhyme and repetition to keep us reading carefully. The repetition is perhaps what fascinated me the most. Some of the repetition is simple: repeated phrases such as
you care for me
You care for me
Simple enough. These two lines exist in a stanza by themselves. But look at the lines that frame them:
You be careful if
you care for me.
You care for me
you carry me to you.
The simple declaration repeated in the central stanza becomes both warning and moment of intimacy, a pushing away and a pulling toward. Sometimes the repeated phrase varies slightly so that we are forced to ponder the shift in meaning caused by the addition of a single word or syllable or letter:
Pretended you don’t bleed. Pretended
to not bleed. Pretended
not to bleed. Ran cold water on it.
The poem is
the poem’s is
The repetition serves a variety of purposes in both of these examples (taken from the poems “Formal” and “Day Job,” respectively). We could debate for quite awhile the difference between “Pretended/ to not bleed” and “Pretended/ not to bleed” or discuss the conflation of busied/buried/bruised. For me the specifics are not as interesting as the experience itself. Dickinson claims “things are not what they are—.” This may be true, but I think for Foust the greater problem is that things ARE what they are…and myriad other things as well. A tree IS a tree and “a gust/ of blood;” the sky IS sky, but also the “sky is tar is grass is trees.” But this is not simply a case of metaphoric overdose, it is the poetic dilemma of trying to describe an object, an event, or a person in a way that gives it humanity and multi-dimensionality.
This struggle is perhaps most aptly presented in the poem “Two Versions of the Same Watery, Domestic Poem” in which Foust offers us two versions of a loved one leaving. The first version happens in past tense: “A lake unfroze and/ broke—its water looked for us.// Dim spring storms clicked/ our windows until June.” The speaker remembers a specific forgotten object: “You left and you left/ an earring in/ the bed.// I took it/ for a little rearview mirror.” The second version is told in present tense and the earring is again described, this time as “Glint, be it tin/ or diamond/ or idea.” What is perceived by the speaker is not the thing itself but the qualities of the thing, its possibilities of being. Ultimately within the poem, the earring is many things: physical object, nostalgic reminder, metaphor, suggestion, and idea.
Well, great. A multidimensional earring. Who cares? Why does this matter?
It matters because, as Foust reminds us, we live in a world where “Our words keep ramming/ into nothing into masks.” To settle for a single dimension, a single representation results in only bad things: bad first dates, limited reading lists, and pesky wars in places such as...umm...Iraq. Foust’s book is a reminder that even daily objects should be strange to us, that in order for us to be honest observers of who and what surrounds us, it is necessary—at times—for us to act as strangers among them.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Graham Foust currently lives in Oakland, California with his wife and son. He is the author of As in Every Deafness, Leave the Room to Itself, and Necessary Stranger, and he teaches in the graduate and undergraduate programs at Saint Mary's College of California.
Kaethe Schwehn's poems have been published in or are forthcoming from jubilat, Flim Forum, Crazyhorse, Forklift, Ohio, Faultline, and The Literary Review. Kaethe studied creative writing at the University of Montana and is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She currently teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her dog, Luxy, is named after the city in Egypt, not the casino is Las Vegas.
Friday, August 31, 2007
Tin House Books, 2006
Reviewed by D. Antwan Stewart
Often I’ve found myself trudging through the regurgitated stylistics of a poet’s first book and thought to myself how terribly unmotivated, the lack of passion, both the poet (and the book) seems to feel about the subject matter. I cannot say the same for Alex Lemon’s powerfully explosive (if not implosive) verse in Mosquito. This poet renders the experience of the human body at its most physically and psychologically ravaging. These are poems that invoke the carnal with the sacred, the droll with the elegiac. And like the mosquito that portends the book’s title, these poems remain welts, stings, and constant scratchings at the surface to get to what lies beneath the skin. The opening poem, “Trembling,” begins: “Hello friend, beautiful face / in car fire. I, the flesh wish, / am sickly wrapped in light.” At the onset, we readers are invited into a personal space that leaves us unsettled: are we the beautiful face in car fire? And, at the poem’s end, when the speaker tells us “Tomorrow, I will be / afraid. I might never wake up,” we, too are afraid. Right? Or, at least our empathy for the speaker becomes more and more unsettling. Who is this poet—thrusting our faces into the muck of such sadness and quiet horror (remember: “beautiful face / in car fire). What poet dares to leaves us trembling (if for our worrying, then for our anticipation)?
In the four sections that comprise Mosquito, we readers will journey with Lemon through critical illness and the inevitable reconciliation one must find to cope. What we encounter are not poems rife with falsehoods, but poems that mine the many caves of emotional catastrophes, the worlds that exist after one has faced his own mortality. And what enlivens this remarkable book is the sum of these poems, as they become a whole that embodies a poet’s determination to find the perfect pitch and tenor to render language that shapes the work with passion and never with the sense the poet is self-elegizing. Lemon, in fact, achieves this with brilliant success. His poems range from the lyrically forthright, to the fractured experimental. One is never without having to investigate and reconsider, again and again, a poem’s intentions. Where one poem lingers with an acute sense of our own self-reflexivity, others compel us to tear off the scabs, allow the blood from those scars to render this experience anew, to find our place within the speaker (poet’s) world—and frequently, we may not always understand, as we feel neither has the speaker.
Furthermore, Lemon’s ordering of these poems exacts what I have aforementioned. Consider the poems “The Best Part” and “After.” The former poem begins:
The best part of brain surgery isn’t the shining
staples that keep it all in, the ways
fingers and tongues will find the scar.
It’s not wheelchair rides through maple leaves,
sunlight warming a bruise as I fumble
peeling an orange. Nor is it the gentle tug
of a nurse reminding muscles—bend, stretch
and flex. The sweetest ingredient—
the best part is the cutting.
Now, reading across the page, to the latter poem, Lemon writes:
Open my mouth & watch the mouse-trapped shake,
splayed before dogs—I am
peeled from the butcher’s midnight eyes.
Persistent scalpel—I will thorn soft
these ill-illuminated pleasures.
The mouth whips. The mouth
whips itself clean with wind.
What wonderful juxtapositions these poems make. Essentially, Lemon writes that the best part of brain surgery is in the cutting—the medicinal act, the thing that endeavors to make things better. Consider, also, the language. It is lyrical and images are detailed as they are needed. No superfluous rhapsodizing or romanticizing, but the poet’s deft hand at work. It is simple. It’s honest. Yet, once we move across the page, to “After,” the language implodes. “Open my mouth,” the speaker implores, and what we see within this dark, gaping maw, is a horrific scene reminiscent of death. The language turns suddenly symbolic. In fact, it is a barrage of symbols, the poet implicating that this experience is not easily rendered into a comprehensible or literal language. And much like the way the speaker might feel coming out of surgery, so must we make our way around the anesthesia of language. It is numbing, yes, but also a numbness we desperately try to return feeling to. In other words, the mosquito has bitten, and we scratch and scratch even when the act only exacerbates the itchiness. This is the feeling one feels struggling to ground himself in a world post-surgery, where haze and confusion becomes mimicked by our inarticulate-ness.
Readers will discover that the structure of Mosquito operates in much the same way as what I’ve described above. Of course, Lemon is too good a poet to allow the metronome to tick back and forth at the same regular pace. The book, also, is too intelligent for that. One will read poems of erotic love, of memories one has preserved post-op, of simply being alive when one certainly could have died from the experience, of the possibility that one very well might. And though these poems are either suggested or forthright, they are never pedestrian. Lemon’s passion and vulnerability will strip bare your conscience. There will be only scars remaining where doubt used to be—in places you never thought there would exist an experience so wrought yet so tenderly evoked that you’d be sure as hell it was yours.
Alex Lemon's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous magazines including Tin House, Denver Quarterly, AGNI, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Pleiades, Post Road, Swink, and Washington Square. His translations (with Wang Ping) of a number of contemporary Chinese poets are forthcoming in Tin House, New American Writing and other journals. Among his awards is a 2005 Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Alex is a frequent contributor to the Bloomsbury Review. Currently, he teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
D. Antwan Stewart is a graduate of the M.F.A. in Writing Program at the Michener Center for Writers, where he was a James A. Michener Fellow in poetry. He is the author of a chapbook, The Terribly Beautiful (Main Street Rag Press, 2006), and has other poems and reviews appearing or forthcoming in Meridian, the Seattle Review, Bloom, Lodestar Quarterly, storySouth, Poet Lore, can we have our ball back?, New Millennium Writings, DIAGRAM, 42opus, CutBank Poetry, The Lambda Book Report, and others.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
for Patricia Goedicke (1931-2006)
fiction by Danielle Dutton, Leslie Jamison, Edan Lepucki, Charles McLeod, Daniel Mueller and Matthew Ira Swaye
poetry by Seth Abramson, Kismet Al-Hussaini, Hannah Andrews, Brent Armendinger, William S. Barnes, Erin M. Bertram, Jennifer K. Dick, Julie Doxsee, Patricia Goedicke, Nathan Hoks, Karyna McGlynn, Carey McHugh, Sandra Miller, Jennifer Pilch, Robb St. Lawrence, Morgan Lucas Schuldt and Matt Shears
art by Louisa Conrad
interview with Aimee Bender
featuring critical reviews: Nabil Kashyap on Inger Christensen, Greg Hill Jr. on Michael Earl Craig, Lucas Farrell on Matt Hart, Trina Burke on Laura Mullen, Heather Sweeney on Elizabeth Treadwell, and Rachel Moritz on three books by Phylum Press.
with a letter to Patricia Goedicke, by Sarah Gridley
Copies are available for USD $10.00, both online or by mail order. Checks can be made payable to “CutBank” and sent to: CutBank, Attn: Poetry 67 Order, Department of English, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Coffee House Press, 2007
Reviewed by Michael Sikkema
With his books Human Rights, and the latest Broken World, Joseph Lease has created a body of work which is wholly innovative and musically alive. Perhaps more than any other poet writing now, Lease explores the Lyric “I” as a place of conflict, confusion, exploration, and contradiction. Lease uses the Lyric “I” not as a comfortable stance but as a tool with which to explore and interrogate Lyric boundaries.
Lines like “I remember that night, or / that night,” form interesting tensions next to “the I feels grateful for its bagel, grateful for its espresso- now try it this way: the I lives in an empire––community of headlines.” In Broken World, it is by writing into and against subjectivity, it is by fracturing the Lyric that Lease reinvents it and addresses all the other fractures in the book’s title.
“We breathe our eyes, promise the / wind, boxes of shit, pieces of glass–– / Color the wind, we breathe our yes, / open the doors, one vote one corpse––/ One seed of light–“ Lease writes. The scraps of silence are a part of, not apart from, the music while gaps are a necessary part of the meaning. Lease writes “What is our country. Did it start as blank, as blank blank, as blank blank blank.” The search for, the making of, and the questioning of meaning which Lease undergoes in this book replaces the presentation of meaning often associated with Lyric poetry.
Formally crafted as well as spontaneous and surprising, image-driven and rhetorically sophisticated, Broken World speaks clearly to our contemporary aesthetic and historical conditions. That is to say, it’s the book that we need right now, and won’t stop needing anytime soon. “Why don’t people / tell the truth––you scare people––genocide and / how the rich got rich––even a bus shines differently in light” Lease writes.
Removing the fourth wall which separates the Lyric from history, Lease takes on huge subjects like the AIDS crisis, the Holocaust, and the environmental and mental degradation of capitalism in the only way a poet successfully can; like Blake, Lease finds evidence of these sprawling topics in small and specific instances, as in "Free Again": “my handwriting, stories, Paul / Celan, phrases - / on the back of / a receipt”. In a single image Lease packs an intense constellation of facts and questions.
Is it more important that the poetry is on the flip side of the receipt, or that it’s literally of a piece with it? Exactly. These two facts co-exist and this is what seems to be the point. Poetry as active resistance exists only in the context of what it’s resisting, just as the most disjunctive syntax of a poet like Celan is always in the relief of the “standard” syntax and underlying power structure against which it acts. Lease doesn’t give us this argument; he gives us an image that embodies it.
In “Free Again” and throughout Broken World, Lease’s images make us see with projector speed and detail. In the amazing poem, “The History of our Death,” Lease juxtaposes a page from a Holocaust journal with natural images of a shoreline. The journal page begins the poem as bald historical fact and sets up a context of dehumanization, captivity, and witness. The speaker of the poem, and so the reader, literally see the natural images and the History being dealt with through each other.
Algae forms on clams and mussels to turn the shoreline into a Chagall canvass. “Mussels” and “wetness” carry muscles and witness. The “rounded hinge” inside a clam shell “looks like a bone inside a human ear” and the eye is led to the “holes where the face once was.” These images spill through each other in terrible union as social and historical facts underlie each natural thing seen. Too young to have died in or lived through the Holocaust, Lease is old enough to be personally involved in its aftermath.
“I read documents” Lease writes and the effect of this powerful poem is that the reader reads documents alongside him. Scraps of these documents (“Jew slave / “subhuman” / “person without dignity”) float through “the winter light” and water like a surreal transparency. The history with which Lease deals is very much present in the landscape around him and shapes his perception even as he shapes ours with densely packed images.
In his essay “Semblance,” Charles Bernstein argues that in field poetics “rather than having a single form or shape or idea pop out as you read, the structure itself is pulled into a moebius-like twisting momentum” and I argue that this is especially true of Lease’s Broken World. Lease isn’t a one trick pony; yes, Lease’s images are stunning in their intelligence but Lease’s version of the Lyric also opens to include prose blocks, juxtapositions of metered and free verse, riffs on lines by Stevens, Williams, Burroughs, Rimbaud, and many others, quotations from historical documents, critical texts, and memoirs, a Romantic sense of the pastoral as well as an ironic sense of that mode’s shortcomings. The borders of individual poems are destroyed as a two beat cadence appears and reappears alongside phrases and lines which also echo and chime throughout different poems.
The result of all this is a beautiful book, not a group of poems related by their binding alone. A master of rich, arresting images, beautiful cadences, and an architect of formal beauty and experimentation, Lease gives us Broken World, an entirely necessary book.
Joseph Lease is the author of two critically acclaimed collections of poetry: Human Rights and The Room. His poems have also been featured on NPR and published in The AGNI 30th Anniversary Poetry Anthology, VQR, Bay Poetics, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Chicago, Lease lives in Oakland, California and chairs the MFA Program in Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Michael Sikkema was born in rural Michigan and has lived in The Netherlands, San Francisco Bay area, and now resides in Bufallo, NY. His poems have
appeared in the tiny, Zafusy, Xantippe, Word for Word, Parthenon West Review, Mirage #4 Period(ical), Shampoo, Fourteen Hills, Bombay Gin, New American Writing, Temenos, and work is forthcoming from BlazeVOX and Seconds. His chapbook Code Over Code appeared recently from Lame House Press.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Octopus Books, 2006
Reviewed by Jessica Bozek
The six poems in Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s chapbook Perfect Villagers, one of the recently published Octopus eight, are very much concerned with “catalog[ing] the discrepancies”—between internal difference and external likeness, between human reality and political delusion, between the writer and the celebrity.
Margaret Cho is the addressee in two fan-letter style poems entitled “Dear Margaret Cho.” The speaker in both poems is concerned to draw attention to her own superficial similarities to Cho: “I too think woo lae ok is really petrified of its own fish” and “we aren’t differentiable with bangs and hooded lids.” But, she knows, “the likeness doesn’t stop there.” Their “shared” cultural heritage works as a joke in the first poem:
korea might be gay but I do not think you are.
korea is a peninsula. you and I are people, meaning that we have hair we comb and things to look at. our lips pout and take on the fullness of an adopted meaning.
What could these two women possibly have in common apart from their positioning in a stereotyped prospect by other people? Lee suggests that their real point of connection is “on the inside … without curves and artificial spaces, many of them not gay or korea.” In fact, in the second Cho poem, the speaker dreams she climbs into Cho’s belly:
… punched inside you laughed and laughed,
converting persimmons into a freedom jelly.
slathered all over, I found us both exuberant,
happy to swing or go both ways.
What enables such a release for the speaker is a role reversal (the speaker, who in the first poem laughs “inside,” here provokes the funnier, flashier Cho’s laughter) borne of intimacy. Both Cho and her letter-writing fan use words: “these are our secrets. our punch lines and couplets.” By the second letter, though, the speaker is fully comfortable with her preference for quiet words and inside spaces, and so succeeds in paying homage to Cho in the most fitting manner she can dream.
Aptly, the shortest poem in the book, “Daniel Dae Kim,” a nine-line tribute to the Korean-American actor of Lost fame and who was People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2005, offers some of Lee’s most gorgeous writing:
aren’t we of beautiful tangents
beautiful ox blood, black sand
morning from small wire filigree, a gesture
The poem articulates a subtle but unmistakably privileged sense of the bicultured being, as one who exists in a liminal space receptive to bleedings into and over. Kim embraces his position at the cultural crossroads, such that his “perfect symmetry” is “electric, transmitted from the foreground into appropriate weather.” Inside and outside come together as a multicultural success story that just might serve as subversive model. At the very least, Daniel Dae Kim is innocuous and as such an antidote to the other real-life Kim Lee devotes a poem to.
In “Kim Jong II: A Reader” Lee collages details from the North Korean leader’s “official” biography, dicta by the Kim regime, life lessons, false aphorisms, and a much qualified record of the people’s experiences in an “‘isolated but not uninformed’” country. The myths surrounding Kim, that his rise to power was allegedly “heralded by a bright star and double rainbows” at birth and that he has “good fortune in love” and is “a lady’s man,” are cold comfort for his citizens, denied “necessary articles; necessaries. necessities. / daily necessaries; the necessities of life.” Hunger is the undeniable internal marker of involuntary human sacrifice for external political delusion; citizens are left to “suck on our fingers to kill the hunger pains” as a result of “a crippling famine.” Such recourse floats detached at the bottom of a page that begins ominously, “You may have received letters from your relatives living here about the food shortage. / The situation is not as bad as it may appear.” More effective than the busy surface of “Kim Jong II: A Reader,” with its italics, quotations, double parentheticals, brackets, and lists, is the impossibility of attribution—readers cannot be sure of the origin or voice, and sometimes even subject, of a given fragment. Lee effectively mirrors the political evasions of responsibility that have been a hallmark of the Bush administration and which have certainly led to the birth of a triumvirate, “Iran, Iraq and North Korea / a new bond of brotherhood / in the mouth of the American president.” When we reach the poem’s final quotation, “‘his brinksmanship does work,’” we wonder which leader Lee is referring to. So, what is a citizen to do?
Lee finds inspiration in the figures of Bruce Lee, circa Enter the Dragon, and Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese actor who starred in such Kurosawa films as Yojimbo and Rashomon. Early in “Toshiro Mifune,” the book’s final poem, Lee’s speaker expresses a lapse in confidence: “Many of my minutes are worth so few of yours or / the incompleteness of this dance calls you forth from the dead.” Yet, by virtue of her access to Mifune through film only, she is able to exact a certain degree of power over him: “you are where I have left you / every moment that I leave you.” In contrast to such control, Lee offers mythological variations on female powerlessness:
know this: the youngest daughter never deigns to take up her father’s sword; she drowns for fifty bags of rice, reincarnates inside a lotus in the king’s royal garden. or takes up a lover and refuses to say his name. or survives a mad prince to become a dowager, or loses her heavenly garments by the mountain pool. she does not take up torch, bow, horn, hook, spear, drum, or horse. never maverick but martyr.
my sister wears a face and sighs
my brother wears a face and sings
Thus, Lee acknowledges the necessity of confrontation, of bucking tradition in old movies and contemporary life, particularly when the possibilities for external performance have such divergent internal ends.
Change, particularly in “Enter the Dragon,” seems most possible as an internal dream. The poem champions distinction despite its insistence on perfunctory physical likeness. The figures in “Enter the Dragon” have been “chased into the ghetto, the factory, the warehouse” and comprise a crowd, “categorical only in its lack of a tonal key.” But, we learn, “explosions can be implicit, silent, constructed out of a hundred thousand water-based powders. there are nuances, grievings…” The poem concludes with the potential for a triumph of the oppressed; once “the will is fireproof, / engulfed in a liquid shroud,” “we rise without repenting, stand tersely for the cue.”
Throughout Perfect Villagers Lee debunks the myth of “ten thousand perfect villagers / ten thousand perfect kites” by stopping short of convenient equation and by looking past similarity to difference. The result is a deeply political book whose argument for hybridity is supported, stunningly, by historical example.
Sueyeun Juliette Lee grew up 3 miles from the CIA. She edits Corollary Press and lives in Philadelphia. Her chapbook Trespass Slightly In is out on Coconut.
Jessica Bozek just received her MFA from the University of Georgia and has poems in the newest issues of Apocryphal Text, Columbia Poetry Review, Dusie, GlitterPony, and Gulf Coast. This summer she is in Massachusetts watching the sailboats pass.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
BlazeVOX Books, 2007
Reviewed by Amy Groshek
One can say about Daniel Borzutzky's The Ecstasy of Capitulation what has rarely been said about poetry since the beginning of modernism: it's a hell of a lot of fun. That's under the assumption, of course, that one enjoys the occasional verbal crudity—which is also a precursor for enjoying Borzutzky's poems. Inheritor of postmodernity's ambivalence towards language, meaning, and sincerity, Borzutzky's genius is to build instead on tone, relativist interpretations of historical events, and fetishized eros.
Raised in Pittsburg, bilingual child of Chilean parents, Borzutzky's migratory family history, passing through a continent which has produced generations of politically radical poets, is perhaps one of the things which prevents him from straying into complete absurdism. For contemporary poets, this is not merely a matter of taste, but a struggle with the aftermath of Theory. “Especially among young poets,” Tony Hoagland writes, “there is a widespread mistrust of narrative forms, and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative.”1 The lyric "I" still exists, but only in a stew of dissociated nouns and verbs. Even when content is couched in full context, poems resist discursiveness by turning away into image or absurdity. In a language already ravished by the vernacular of corporatization, bureaucratization, medicalization, and high technology, poets no longer ask themselves how something should be said, but whether anything can be said at all—resorting to fractured narratives and fractured syntax in the face of postmodernity's nihilism and relativism.
Structuring a poem becomes difficult when we can count on neither content nor the meanings of words themselves. There are many options, one of which is to simply embrace postmodernism's inherent aesthetic—and the itinerant political implications of cultural relativism. Borzutzky prefers instead to work subtly against postmodernism. His syntactic strategies mirror closely those of absurdist poets, but he cleverly injects thin strings of narrative, using historical events and speakers, and the tone of these speakers, to give his poems coherence. His specialty is a manic, obsessive jargon peppered with legalisms, bureaucratic and corporate newspeak, and a positively twenty-first century fanaticism. “Almost unnoticed,” the speaker declares in “Sharp Teeth of Death: An Essay on Poets and their Poetics,” “poets have continuously battled the human race for domination of the earth.” It's the kind of hyperbole you'd expect from Jerry Falwell, Joseph McCarthy, or the mentally flaccid man who was my high school principal:
[P]oets not only inflict social but economic losses on their human enemy by robbing them of food they may need for survival.
There is no question that civilization's worst enemy is the poet, who outdoes all wild beasts in destruction of lives and property. Poets cause more damage than all other tyrants combined.
The savage officialism of the speaker, given over to this ridiculous topic (who, after all, could imagine poets agreeing long enough to inflict “economic losses”), is positively reinvigorating. The speaker's tone, which we all recognize from Fox News, from Hollywood's stock fanatics, and from our daily lives, should we happen to live in a rural area, is the real connective tissue of these poems.
And, it's hilarious.
The poems are strongest when structured by an historical or social context. It is in these poems where Borzutzky's talent for humor shines, and it is these poems at which a casual, non-writerly audience roars with laughter. In “Ronald Reagan in Berlin,” President Reagan begins his public address with: “Dear Mr. Gorbachev, if we are together/ Again do not spank me upon my bare buttocks.”
Reagan goes on to describe the effects of such spanking, and to describe an elaborate dream in which he was “a stallion who produced both male and female/ Sex hormones,” the First Lady Nancy was “a castrated male dog/ Who attempted to nurse young puppies,” and Mr. Gorbachev was:
a caponed hen who ceased
To crow, grew a cocks-comb and attempted
Husbandry with other hens.
Reagan describes how, in the dream, he, Nancy, and Mr. Gorbachev are able to converse with a variety of creatures: “ducks,/ Geese, puppies, rabbits, kittens, and chipmunks,” as well as “sails, worms, beetles, and toads.” Delightfully, the poem does not forsake its origins, but doubles back to the original 1987 speech and its memorable lines:
Mr. Gorbachev, is how we were able to understand
The language of these little animals. Tear down this
Wall, Mr. Gorbachev. Thank you, and God bless you all.
The humor of such a poem, beyond the sexual uber-fantasies, is the staging, the fact that Reagan delivers his emasculating speech to the citizens and government officials of West Berlin and all who listen from the other side of the wall and by radio or television. Notice that in this poem, Borzutzky is at once postmodern and not. He has fractured narrative, by offering a reinterpretation of Reagan's original speech, which is a typical relativist technique. Yet he uses the tone of the speaker and the absurd narrative formed by the speaker's sexual fantasy to formulate a second, complete narrative—which is opposed to the contemporary postmodern aesthetic manifest in pure absurdism. Borzutzky knows that his poem lives because the original speech exists as an historical event.
One fad of postconfessional poets still closely affiliated with narrative has been to write beautifully-crafted, ahistorical poems featuring historical figures, especially artists, scientists, and musicians. The assumption is that, while recent history is now a matter of relativist interpretation, Renaissance history, Romance history, ancient Greek history, and even the first few centuries of capitalist industrialization exist forever in a series of picturesque freeze-frames safely preceding deconstruction's wall of flame. Borzutzky is not one of these. He ranges too far afield of sincerity. And his poems depend heavily on the history they deconstruct. In the end, he is too loyal to historical narrative to entirely disclaim it.
Yet Ecstasy is not a book of protest or even analysis. The bombast in “Richard Milhous Nixon's First Inagural Address” is not a politicized characterization of Nixon. It is play, funmaking, the strategy of which is to exaggerate—with the tone of public speech and a clever modification of content—the simpleminded hypocrisy we now accept in all public figures:
I ask you to share with me today the majesty of squirrel-headed otters.
The spiraling evolution of humanity allows us the possibility of combining animals, of unions between gorillas and hippos, advances that once would have taken centuries.
Additional poems make blasphemous use of the vernacular of economics: “Oh Fidelity Low-Priced Mutual Fund, stick things in me/ as I stick things in you.” “Inflationary Module” from “Desire: 7 Modules,” is a brilliant combination of economic jargon and fetishized eros:
I want to make it with you, baby,
but misguided central planning
has led to a pervasive misallocation of capital.
The central bank is closed, baby,
and I cannot make a deposit.
And one must address the sexual content of Ecstasy. It's about time someone rescued sex from sentimental, heterosexual, Confessional poets. It's about time someone treated sex like the game it's become. Like Borzutzky's approach to capitalized, corporatized diction, his use of sexual fantasy is refreshingly hyperbolic, so over the top that taking it seriously might cause mental strain. Sex, like meaning and Marxism, has become a kind of non-content under postmodernism—a Flash ad in the header of a Web site, a billboard passed every day on the morning commute. Gen-X-ers are accustomed to sex talk, accustomed to Dan Savage and leather stores and cock rings and the need to articulate one's preferred sub-genre of porn. Borzutzky's eros isn't shocking so much as timely.
Sometimes absurdity gets the better of a poem, and the slew of tangential nouns and verbs renders it unwieldy. Like a magnet dragged across a junkyard accumulating nuts, bolts, nails, washers, and cast-off droplets of welded metal, eventually the magnet itself is no longer visible. Some poems of Ecstasy still struggle with postmodern dissociation. “The news/ says the news has disappeared,” reports the speaker of “Away.” “Simple Present” attempts the following lines:
I only think of you when I do not
think of you. Conversely, when I
think of you, I do not think of you.
There is nothing, of course, wrong with such poems, except for the fact that they have been written, by various authors, several thousand times since the Surrealists had their start in the 1920s. Terry Eagleton describes the “postmodern consensus against norms, unities and consensus” in After Theory. “In this social order, then, you can no longer have bohemian rebels or revolutionary avant-gardes because they no longer have anything to blow up.”2 Language poetry and absurdism, one might conjecture from such a statement, rally against the long-dead bourgeois of Baudelaire. Far more interesting are the poems where Borzutzky opposes postmodern aesthetics—and succeeds.
Also, it's a hell of a lot of fun.
1. Real Sofistikashun (St. Paul: Greywolf, 2006), 174.
2. (New York: Basic, 2003), 15-16.
Daniel Borzutzky is the author of Arbitrary Tales (Triple Press, 2005)
Amy Groshek lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Amy works as an instructional designer and technology consultant. Her composition process is free of proprietary software.