Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Ecstasy of Capitulation by Daniel Borzutzky

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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Paquin's Lineage of Thieves: On Ethan Paquin's My Thieves

Salt Publishing, 2007

Reviewed by Anne Heide

In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, plagiarizing a phrase of Lautréamont, writes that “ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends upon it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, and replaces it with the right one.” In My Thieves, Ethan Paquin explores this sense of artistic progression by constructing a dialogic encounter with a lineage of thieves, questioning not just his own artistic authenticity, but the concept of authenticity itself, asking whether “plagiarism” is vital to artistry itself.

Thievery in this book is conjoined to influence, and Paquin argues that you cannot be an artist without being a thief, and consequently, that all from whom you are stealing are thieves as well. The texts proclaims, “ ‘thief’ is not a strong word. He does homage,/not theft. And at any rate, he would say/the shells would want him to do it, to bring/them to his mantel”(112). Written in a wide variety of forms and voices, My Thieves undoes the concept of originality by forthrightly allowing in and welcoming this difference. In often self-reflexive language, Paquin writes of the book he is writing into, often in dialogic form:

I decided against the epigraph. Too much language,

thieving me

Whoest am I                     (4)

Here, the thief is not the plagiarizer, but the plagiarized who steals the artist’s thought from under him by predating the thought’s existence. The artist must reckon with the fact that he is perhaps not collaborator, but usurper, claiming authenticity to words that are not his own. This voice who speaks “Whoest am I” takes on its own persona, marked in the text with italics. This voice speaks in an often archaic diction, and calls on “Ethan Paquin” to recognize the difference between, or perhaps the similitude of, the two personae. The author responds, “Do you mean to speak to me?/As you wield words Do you not sully me?/Do you proffer an escape for me my dear/my…”(8). This poem is ended in the unutterable: the presence is known, but unable to be named.

In this italicized “other” voice that permeates the text, artistic self is both assured and questioned, often simultaneously: “Ethan Paquin is an aggregate/of sinew and worn things/that wrinkle easily.”(13). The “other” voice, the split of self, both affirms the existence of Ethan Paquin, and also boils the self down to a sort of used up flesh. This is the artist who states “I am nothing but a series of long processes”(42) as a simultaneous admittance of superfluousness and an acknowledgement of artistic succession as vital to the creative work:

                                                         Hard to be

authentic when the source of is is no longer. Yes
friends hard to convince anyone of any vision for

any length of time for the visions are all here!,
everything of Ulro all gone Vegas and Manhattan.

The writer’s apologia is to look at the waste of
the progressive present and kill it through renewal

of the art of the past when death was as major
as a fallen log high on an Adirondack dome                    (108)

Even the monologue is a dialogue, not only between speaker and audience, but speaker and the aggregate that is language. A single voice does not preclude response. In “Nothing But Setting Out,” Paquin quotes himself, pulling lines from previous poems in the collection, and so creating a thievery of self, a genealogy that swerves back to the center.

The textual interest in visual art throughout the book often extends to composition on the page. Paquin’s textual structures act to generate a line of sight and site, a prospective vanishing point with lines that fail to cease moving outwards. In fact, expansiveness arises as the untouched space, the uncluttered point in sight, where originality is perhaps given a space to thrive: “God, the canvases are so damned full,/the spaces are filled up and it makes/one stop and take pause of what he is about to write—will it/suffice, does it add to the world, or just/clutter things up beyond repair”(52). Later, the limited genre of the page is bemoaned: “I am now wanting the page to be wider than eighty-three absolutely putrid/gourmands”(36). If a space is unfilled, there is the potential to fill it. In “Adolph Gottlieb to the Little Animals,” Paquin repeats the same poem twice, although one includes titles of Gottlieb paintings at the end of the first five lines. The titles add acknowledgement, but how does a direct reference differ from allusion? In “Ekphratic Particulars,” we are given lines of text that do not mention their visual influence, but which state “every/thing/was/once/some/thing/else”(104). That is, all poems are essentially ekphrastic. In the version of “Adolph Gottleib” that contains the titles, the ekphrastic process is merely revealed more readily. But all the titles lay under the surface of the poem that fails to state the direct influence.

In formatting that looks pulled from a replied email, Paquin writes, “>>We artists—all borrowers, none of us ‘us’ so none of us/>>special?”(24). But this querying question mark at the end of this line suggests that the aggregate-poet can indeed be “special.” Or that this “special-ness” results from, and is in no way antipathetic to, the lineage of thieves from whom the artist is made.

Like its singular split voice, this text itself is inevitably divided, seemingly between Romanticism’s exaltation of the self and Postmodernism’s referential irony. The “author,” “Ethan Paquin,” seems to want to simultaneously believe that artists are both the undeniable unique and the inevitable aggregate. But these seemingly contradictory beliefs appear to be less so, and in fact, through the course of the book, become almost necessary partners, a split artistic voice whose divide holds it together.


Ethan Paquin is the author of three additional books of poetry: The Violence (Ahsahta Press, 2005); Accumulus (Salt, 2003); and The Makeshift (UK: Stride, 2002). A native of New Hampshire, he lives and teaches in Buffalo, New York.


Anne Heide's 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.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Swithering by Robin Robertson

House of Anansi Press, 2006

Reviewed by John Findura

“Swither” is a Scots word meaning to be in two minds, to hesitate or be doubtful. It also means to fluctuate. A more appropriate title may not exist for Robin Robertson’s third collection of poetry, though it is not Robertson who is hesitating or fluctuating. The 82 pages of poetry are so finely crafted that you will undoubtedly wonder why you are not more familiar with his work. His lines are so warm they give the impression of a good single-malt Scotch, and like a good single-malt Scotch, sipping slowly is heartily rewarded.

Besides the meaning of the word “swithering,” the second most important Scots word to know is “selkie.” In Scottish mythology (as well as in some parts of Ireland and Iceland) a selkie is a creature that can transform itself from a seal to a human. The poem titled “Selkie” is dedicated to the memory of poet Michael Donaghy, who was an integral part of the British poetry community from the late 1980s until his untimely death in 2004. In Scottish myths, stories of selkies are usually romantic tragedies, where they can only make contact with one human before they must return to the sea. Perhaps there is not a more stirring testament to a friend than the final few lines of “Selkie”:

(…) he stood
and drained the last
from his glass, slipped back in
to the seal-skin,
into a new day, saluting us
with that famous grin:
‘That’s me away.’

Robertson’s skill is precise. There is nothing wasted – at the end of each poem we are left with a sun-bleached bone, picked by Robertson’s careful voice.

The idea of transformation occurs almost as much as the image of the selkie itself throughout Swithering. In “Lizard” there is the “Volatile hybrid of dinosaur and toy,” in “Myth” we find “on the wet lawn, / after the snow, / the snowman’s spine.” Transformation is seen as a natural and needed thing, something that our own emotions oftentimes try to deny. Hesitation is a roadblock to transformation, yet it is that very sense of doubt that often precludes conversion:

I reach the elm-wood,
under the rookery,
slip a bullet into the breech and wait here
in this dark,
between the harvest and the hunter’s moon.
(“Between the Harvest and the Hunter’s Moon”)

When John Banville described Robertson’s writing as “at once muscular and delicate” he hit the mark perfectly. There is a sensuousness that pervades even the bleakest of landscapes, and through it all Robertson does not blink in the slightest.
“Swimming In The Woods” ends with “when she came and sat next to me / after her swim and walked away / back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.” Over the course of Swithering, Robertson often ends with an image as indelible as that butterfly. “Cusp” closes with “Is there anything / more heartbreaking than hope?” Robertson’s voice and tone are things of beauty as he delivers lines throughout the book such as “The softened mouth / of this swollen ground” and “He opens his eyes to a hard frost, / the morning’s soft amnesia of snow.” Each image is careful and rewarding.

Continuing with a theme he began with in his first book, A Painted Field, several poems based on Ovid add a classical feel. “The Death of Actaeon” and “Actaeon: the Early Years” show off not only Robertson’s poetical skill, but also his depth of knowledge and ability to translate familiar images into poems that feel fresh. While both poems are good reads, ultimately “Actaeon: the Early Years” comes off as more successful, if only because Robertson’s voice is much more present and distinctive. It is the shorter poems interspersed throughout that give us the clearest views of Robertson’s ability.

Robertson is also very well aware of the connection between sensuality and food, and in the fact that sensuality is as natural as anything growing in a garden or patch of wild forest. As a companion to his poem “Artichoke” in his first collection, “Asparagus” makes no secret of its multiple reads. Its first stanza:

Pushing up, hard and fibrous
from the ground, it is said to be
grown for the mouth:
steamed till supple
so the stem is still firm
but with a slight give to gravity.

The phallic image is obvious, but in other hands it would come off as easy and unimaginative. Instead, the sureness of Robertson’s voice instills belief, right up to the last lines where “butter / floods at the bulb-head.” It is not poetical sleight-of-hand or forced tongue-in-cheek double entendre; it is a meditation on the relationship between man and nature.

If John Clare’s gift was in describing the natural beauty of England, then Robertson’s gift is describing the unnatural beauty of Scotland. From personal experience, Scotland is a place where fog and mist roll in and cover the sun on more days than you can count, creating an environment where you are never really sure what is ahead of you or around the next bend. It was no accident that that Brigadoon was set in the Scottish highlands. In essence, it is a setting where one would not be surprised at the existence of selkies or other creatures living in the deep Lochs. Along with Don Paterson, Robertson is one of the major Scottish poets of the last decade, and it would do anyone well to pay attention to his poetry.


Robin Robertson is from the northeast coast of Scotland and now lives in London. A Painted Field (Harcourt) won the 1997 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award. A second collection, Slow Air, appeared in 2002. His poetry appears regularly in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. In 2004 he received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Most recently, the poems in Swithering were shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.


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