Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Blame Everything on Love: on The Beekeeper's Departure by Jennifer Chapis

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.


Scott Whitaker

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow by Noah Eli Gordon

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

                                                                                                (p. 10)

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

      (p. 28)

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?

      (p. 60)

"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 Line by Jennifer Moxley

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.