Sunday, December 14, 2008

Retrospective: Disclamor by G.C. Waldrep

BOA Editions, Ltd., 2007
Reviewed by Michael Levan

In G.C. Waldrep’s remarkable second collection, we are asked to deal with what comes after war — the troubled peace that can leave us disillusioned. Waldrep forces us to examine how it is that we cope with these reminders, which so often result in us losing connections to each other. Waldrep’s skill, though, is in mitigating the harshness of the world we inhabit, as well as finding ways to remind us that we can and must do better, especially for our descendants. He “craves the aftersilence” (“Cloud of Witnesses”) and feels a duty to give us hope or, at the very least, some assurance that we can still hope, even after being confronted with the tragedies war brings.  

The desire for consolation plays a large role in the book, especially throughout the “The Batteries,” a nine-poem sequence inspired by sea-coast fortifications along the northern California coast. The first, “Battery Rathbone-McIndoe,” reveals how hesitant Waldrep is, how awkward he feels being at one of these decommissioned gun emplacements. There are “so many ways [he] could begin,” but his perspective has not yet taken shape, he has not yet made up his mind to celebrate the fact that these sites have been turned into tourist attractions, or to lament that they were ever needed in the first place. This wavering keeps cropping up in the poem: “Can you believe I once stood for war? / (Can you believe I once stood against it?)” And when he describes a lone sailboat far out in the Pacific, we can’t help but notice the parallels:
It moves slowly, from left to right,
                             as if trying to say something
                                          very precise,
                             and then again, from right to left,
                                          as if erasing.

And yet, all this indecision fades when Waldrep recognizes:

I walked here, there were
                        no guns, no gates, now
                                   everything is permitted.
            No one had sold the sand in my shoes.
            No one has yet tasted his death
                                                              on my tongue,
                        this is before
                                       as there must always be before
             (just as what comes next
                                                              is after—)

Though Waldrep may have free reign in visiting the armaments, he still has a responsibility in capturing this scene in order to not let us forget how things could have gone differently. He serves as witness, then, and must speak, a sentiment played out at the end of “Candlemas, Vermont”: “Lear said / nothing comes of nothing. Speak again.”

Speech is what will spur action and, even more importantly, memories — both good and bad. This act of not allowing us to forget will hopefully save us because, as Waldrep notes when he sees the graffiti covering the walls in “Battery O’Rorke”:
What is written here fades quickly.
                     Faces drawn in chalk,
                                                                        the idea
                     of defense, of a beach
                                                ripe for landing.

         West, east, the longitudes of war.
                        This is no place for monuments.

The poet takes responsibility for making sure “what is written here,” this place’s ugly history, is recorded and examined before these mistakes are repeated. In a moment of doubt, Waldrep considers himself to be a “very minor poet,” which does not do himself or his work justice. He is much more than minor; he is “a poet of broken things” (“Batter Bravo, (first)”), a writer who can treat what is broken with both compassion — “They are trying to believe / something they have forgotten. / Or to make us believe it” (“Many of Us Identify with Animals”) — and deadpan humor:

                               OF MASS DESTRUCTION

— This is not quite right. The weapons came first,
            mass, the destruction; then
                         picnic tables. (“Battery Wallace”)

The poems surrounding, or supporting, “The Batteries” show a different side of the poet. Whereas other poems in the collection rely on a collage of graffiti, personal observations, facts and figures, and research into Miwok tribal lore, these poems require close, slow reading in order to appreciate the quirky and oddly beautiful images:

What I never know is
when my life will change, or when the rain will stop
or at least assume a more congenial vector.
(from “Cosmologies of Zinniae”)

Currydawn dustworry. A blue tuning as from the south pond in colder
weather. Side to side to side to side to side. Like that. We are pleased.
As with the scalp of that other, spider-thin.
(from “Milton Highway”)

But “The Batteries” is where Disclamor truly shines and where the book ends: “I am not afraid of the story you ask me to tell. / (In any case it is no longer / my story.)” In fact, it has become our story, a mutual agreement that in reporting all that he has seen, imagined, and felt, Waldrep accepts us and makes us accountable as well. We must learn from and pass on the story of what comes after because we are witnesses now, too.


G.C. Waldrep received a BA from Harvard University in American History in 1990 and a Ph.D. in American History from Duke University in 1996. His first poetry collection, Goldbeater's Skin (Center for Literary Publishing), won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Tin House, Gettysburg Review, and other journals. Waldrep spent 2003-05 at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In 2005-06 he was visiting professor of the humanities and social sciences at Deep Springs College in California. He currently lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Bucknell University.


Michael Levan received his MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Tennessee, where he serves as assistant poetry editor of Grist: The Journal for Writers. His poems and reviews can be found in upcoming issues of Nimrod, Third Coast, and CutBank. He lives in Knoxville with his wife, Molly.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Unwieldy Seriousness or Spiky Humor? Human Dark with Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy

Reviewed by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

I don’t like what the moon is supposed to do.
Confuse me, ovulate me,

spoon-feed me longing. A kind of ancient
date-rape drug. So I’ll howl at you, moon,

I’m angry. I’ll take back the night. Using me to
swoon at your questionable light,

you had me chasing you,
the world’s worst lover, over and over

hoping for a mirror, a whisper, insight.

             (from “I’m Over the Moon,” 5)

Brenda Shaughnessy’s new book, Human Dark with Sugar, opens with rather sensual language — smart, suggestive and provocative — mixed occasionally with dark humor and philosophical musings.

The title of her work derives from a question raised in the second poem, “Why is the Color of Snow?”: “Aren’t we human dark with sugar hot to melt it?” Intriguing and original, this line offers us an imaginative lens through which to playfully explore human existence and its various emotional states (rage, sadness, hunger, jubilation, etc.) And when set against the title of her first book, Interior with Sudden Joy, whether intentional or accidental, the title signals a continuation of a certain structure and style.

Shaughnessy sprinkles rhetorical twists throughout Human Dark with Sugar, most of which are neatly arranged and deliberately crafted. Self-reflective questions such as “How long do I try to get water from a stone,” “Why do we only get two/years in exchange for three summers,” or “Do sweets soothe pain or simply make it stick?” hint at more metaphysical or abstract concerns, even though the poet seems to take most of her subject matter from her own everyday life. For instance, the poem “Parthenogenesis” is in fact a disguised, surprise ode to weight gain, a concern that seems banal though at the same time real:

It’s easy to make more of myself by eating
and sometimes easy’s the thing.

To be double-me, half the trouble
but not lonely.

                    (from “Parthenogenesis,” 11)

The female body and its eroticism is indeed a theme that Shaughnessy explores in various poems. “Breasted Landscape,” “Vagile,” and “Me in Paradise” all contain subtle yet direct references to female anatomy. The strongest allusion appears in “This Loved Body,” a long prose-poem made up of twenty short sections:

This belly is hardly what I call a belly. Could there be less belly in
it? I am accustomed to women’s bellies, of which there is usually
some. You seem like a machine here, hairless and olive. But when
you bend you are as human as can be, literally within an inch of
your life. Because the machinery is in plain view, you have no secret
stash, nothing for winter, nothing to lose. In an emergency, this
would be an emergency. I am horrified, my thinlet, and won’t ever
let you be hungry.

                                             (from “This Loved Body,” 47)

In general, Shaughnessy writes with an acute self-awareness, a trait that, if left completely unchecked, could be considered an endangerment to the spirit of writing itself. Though this overly self-aware style of writing seems to be a trend in American poetics today, Shaughnessy seeks to balance this impulse with various attentive and figurative voices, articulating images that are at once edgy and unpredictable. I have read her poems with much curiosity, interested to understand how each imaginative leap leads to the next, how each poetic form shapes itself and attempts to weave a dialogue with the poems surrounding it. That said, I would also like to believe that there bristles some optimism, authenticity, and sincerity in Brenda Shaughnessy’s writings, as she makes a bold step closer towards simple love beyond the self, a complex appreciation for common goodness in this, our so confusing world.


Raised in California, Brenda Shaughnessy now lives in Brooklyn. She earned her MFA from Columbia University, and is currently the poetry editor of Tin House magazine. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University and Eugene Lang College of the New School.


Fiona Sze-Lorrain ( writes under the nom-de-plume, Greta Aart. She is currently Poetry and Non-fiction editor of Emprise Review. She lives in France.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

To and From by G.E. Patterson

As real as thinking/wonders created/by the possibility—forms…
—Robert Creeley

No gap has ever appeared in the transmission of language
—Andrew Schelling

The edge isn’t far we could be there now
—G.E. Patterson

Reviewed by Heather Sweeney

To and From, G.E. Patterson’s second collection, evokes deeply felt displacements and departures. Patterson charts out new terrain as he carefully tends to uncertainties in his fourteen-line constructions. Bringing temporality and its relationship to geography to the surface, the poet suggests that we are forever “stuck on the possibility of being.” Possibilities congregate and disperse, becoming the only constant within these pulsating territories.

In To and From, Patterson consistently subverts the traditional and most common modes of quoting lines, raising, as he does so, issues of attribution and ownership. Bits of quotes hover and billow above, between, and sometimes below many of his poems. Utterances echo as they unfold upon each other. Patterson is a technician of elision. Carefully selected words address and incite questions. In an interview with Lisa Stouder for Ahsahta Press, the poet himself asks and illuminates: “Who owns language? Who has phrased a thought or feeling in a way that might be seen as proprietary?”


“River smell….”
                 —Forrest Gander

             “…below us…above us…out of sight…"
                                                              —Ralph Waldo Emerson

              Salvator Mundi

              “…always….”                                   “…deer….”
                —Michael Ondaatje                       —Federico Garcia Lorca
                                                                          (tr. Edwin Honig)

                                                                                   —Jean Cocteau

“…all sorts of things…”                               “River smell….”
                            —Henry James                              —Forrest Gander

                                         “…which made it beautiful.”
                                                                    —Brenda Hillman


Patterson re-means and reconfigures. The sampled amalgamation of voices includes cameos by Virginia Woolf, Robert Duncan and Yoko Ono. Summoning this eclectic group, he infuses their articulations with unique magnification, as his own images continue to morph: “Invisibility tree swan perhaps/This room seen with a bird’s anatomy (5)."

Quotations become titles and silences are attributed: “ '….' (unwritten words)/—John Milton.” The gathered tensions between what is said and unsaid, heard and unheard, texture his perceptions.

Between the silences, Patterson spotlights temporality in drifting landscapes that transform and evaporate. He has lived in and traveled to many states, and his poems follow a similar route, taking us from New York’s “factory of candles” to a North Carolina resort town to Cape Cod where “Mountainous abstractions might form and cloud/The ink-darkened trees then reshape themselves (64)." And we are forever in a liminal state, often seeking and contemplating stability: “coming from the car as it moves what stays (12)."

Acting as the observer, Patterson is lucid and seemingly detached: “Daytime moving in swirls the painted colors (16)." In his biography for Ahsahta Press, Patterson asserts: “Focus on the present moment. That’s the refrain from years of studying meditation and practicing yoga.” His yogic background comes as no surprise, as he plays with expansion and lets space breathe around the commingling voices. Expressions percolate and congeal. Fragmentation and genuine integration reveal themselves.

Often recording the rural and scenic, Patterson also illuminates very base human hungers: “Desires like horses persist and run (5)." He shuffles varying roads, voices, trees, and distances. Lines such as “The bigness scented the trees as expected (50)" heighten our inquiry about the capabilities of perception, because, as the observer points out, “In some sequence small things were going on (50)."

Patterson investigates what we hope to contain, what can be held and recorded. This is a contemplative book of distances shaping and reshaping the spaces between to and from. These poems “…wail at the ocean’s border (6)." These poems are tender, yet subtly electric, “pulling us closer (50)."


G.E. Patterson is the author of Tug (Graywolf Press, 1999), which won the Minnesota Book Award. His work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including Bum Rush the Page, Poetry 180, American Letters and Commentary, Fence, Five Fingers Review, nocturnes: (re)view of the arts, Seneca Review, Open City, XcP: Cross Cultural Poetics, and the webzine of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, Poems and Poets. He lives in Minnesota.


Heather Sweeney, who teaches writing and yoga, lives in San Diego with her husband and beloved dog.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Inverse Sky by John Isles

University of Iowa Press, 2008
Reviewed by Ed McFadden

Here in Missoula, a city situated in an ancient glacial lake bed ringed by mountains, the winter often brings on a temperature inversion that causes the clouds to hang low over our trees and houses. If we want any perspective at all after several days of this depressing weight, it is up we must go, up Mt. Jumbo or Lolo where we can look down on the clouds — or up at the blue sky, or far across the valleys through the breaks and fissures. But like the man on the cover of John Isles’s new book Inverse Sky, we bring our quaint viewing apparatuses, our funny suits, and our rickety constructions — our culture — with us (we can’t help it) wherever we go.

In Isles’s Bay Area it is the fog that creates a similar need, that immersed in its wet fingers one becomes “intermingled and cannot distinguish / the skin’s sensations from the world (40).” And for much of his tautly constructed book it is in this intermediary zone, sometimes glimpsing the world below, sometimes glimpsing the world above, that Isles keeps us. He wants us to see that we are water, we are air, but we are also smog and pollution and “pungent chemical decay” in this “umpteenth conception of hell (28)” we have created and continue to create every day.

The first poem “Lighthouse” should not, however, be read as an attempt to orient us in his dark, for this lighthouse, in the age of GPS, has become more of a place for tourists to venture by day than ships to avoid by night; instead Isles wants to orient us in daylight by fire, particularly the Vision Fire of 1995, a conflagration at Pt. Reyes which burned hot, “exploding shells” of Bishop Pine cones that became a beacon for consciousness of global warming, an illumination of a tiny sliver of California’s history, a blip in time between two desert wars, now a green scar. But it is our need to see, our need to be tourists, and our other, perhaps contradictory need to keep the shore pristine — all of these needs force us into “far-off deserts / falling into oil fires.”

But Isles is not content merely to comment on our present predicaments. Deftly he moves us backward and forward simultaneously through biological time, complicating conclusions, making us look deeper, making us see the myriad connections: “We imagined being — before we were — / In briny intertidal zones — pliant among rushes / Whelmed in light spent in the estranged light of day (3).”

Isles structures his book in four parts. If Part One represents the uneasy pastoral, a “gull-glide and gaudy glare in maritime air (14),” Part Two gives us the dark pastoral, where secretaries forget “to put truth in the water (23)” and even the dumpster alley has motion detectors installed (29). If Part Three is the zero, the bleeding without blood, the Ojo de Agua, the nothing ever happening, then Part Four is the next loneliness, the broken light, the diorama with 20-watt bulb inside, the archived Eden, the unhinged, where night vision is briefly granted in order for us to see a four year old sea of foiled clouds. Inverses of each other, these pairs keep us wondering which way is up.

Baudelaire, the flâneur, wanted to “hurl the universe in a jewel.” Isles wants to hurtle it under our skin so it hurts. He doesn’t want so-called nature to be something we view of a Sunday afternoon from the safety of our cars; rather he wants us to live “a grassy-haired, green-eyed shock of joy (31).” He wants us to live with him in the “sun’s drunken Vaquero state (10).” He wants us to pound at the door to be “carried by escalators / into daylight (16).” He wants us to walk with him “into this stranger’s coastline — impenetrable deep sky (37).”

Every so often Isles reminds us we are in an imagined space; that however much what he is depicting seems painfully true to life, we can still “wander out of the poem, into the fog (23)” out of the book if we wish. But where does that leave us? Back in the painfully true life.

While Isles is no optimist, he’s certainly willing to negotiate a truce with Arcadia — if Arcadia will have him. Yes, life is transitory, yes, death is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that beauty no longer resides. And yet while he may see and chronicle the degradation and ugliness accreting everywhere around him, and while he may pine for changes in the way we treat our planet, unlike the starlet in “Cinema Verité,” he’s not so hayseed to think he can change the world (7).

Isles poetry is more “a hybrid wizardry” of marrying a bird and what comes out. He pleas for someone, anyone to send his roots rain (24). There is “an animal lurking” in him and “the animal wants out (27).” And even if it’s “dead August” and we’ve exchanged “a house of water for a house of debt,” might not redemption be lurking somewhere near at hand?

It’s entirely possible, but when the poet wakes from the present nightmare, then why does he cry to dream again (57)? The land lies dead in its pores. There is a tender terror. A child shepherds ants into a bath. And the poet, trapped behind the glass in the carwash, surfaces from the soap scudded interior, walks up and down upon his own skin — and never returns (59).


John Isles is the author of Ark (Iowa, 2003) and coeditor of the Baltics section of New European Poets. He received an award from the Los Angeles Review in 2004 and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005. His poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, the Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, and Pleiades, among others. He lives with his wife and son in Alameda, California.


Ed McFadden is editor for CutBank Reviews. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ardor by Karen An-hwei Lee

Tupelo Press, 2008
Reviewed by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

A Polyphonic Collage of Dream, Prayer, and Letter

For those seeking a pure or distinct narrative arc, Ardor, at first glance, seems to be a complicated reading enterprise. In an invented but dense structure that interweaves “dreams,” “prayers,” and “letters,” Karen An-hwei Lee has crafted an experimental aesthetic: an utterance. One that focuses on the limits of language. One that stretches the visual boundaries of images — real or surreal — testing the sonic depths of each of her chosen words.

Only one poem prevails throughout this book, though its three modes are in constant dialogue with one another. It opens with a lush, lyrical allusion to the love that Lee is about to unfold by borrowing references from nature and mathematics, the Christian religion, human and avian anatomy:

Calque alphabet
Modulation with avian equivalence of hands
Translation perched around a white rose
Photographic grapheme of cardioid delight
Water potential, a hidden sonnet whose
Permissible boundary of closed form
Is a sequence or open cycle in
A heart-shaped curve traced by a point
On the circumference of a circle rolling
Around an equal fixed circle, general equation
ρ = a(1 + cos θ) in polar coordinates

Here we see the overriding feature that we are to encounter for the rest of the book: each line contains at least one image. Occasionally an imperative, the line may break with a surprising twist. Always it reads with a rhythm that is hard to classify. Irregular? Syncopated? Yet it flows with a strong beat that seems to drive the voice somewhere else. A background pulse is thus ready for some sort of monologue, utterance, or chant, like a voice, both the same and different, in mutated form — a dream, a prayer, or letter. One cannot help but wonder if each is in fact a figment of all.

An interesting paradox in Ardor is that despite being intricately intertwined, each segment can also stand independently. Texts that read as “prayer” or “letter” may be as short as an interrogative statement (e.g. “Word open, a red geode. Where?”— p.39) or a two-word heading (e.g. “Circumstantial events” — p.53). And yet, one can also find traces of Gertrude Stein’s linguistic play in some of the “dream” passages which contain more explicit narrative cues:

The blind woman, turning in her sleep miles north,
leans over my dream to see whether I am awake. I,
too, am sleeping and lean over her dream, sheltering
her. We are one another’s present skin. Present kin,
she says. Your blood is my blood. Your blood is from
Asia as mine eons ago when everything was internally
bridged, one aortic root. One mitochondrial missus,
original woman (22).

This “blind woman” reappears frequently, and Lee threads these reocurrences with direct references to Gray’s Anatomy, bird biology, and the Bible, as well as lines by the Chinese woman poet, Li Qingzhao (Song Dynasty, 1084 — ca. 1151). Who is this “blind woman”? Is she Lee herself? Someone she has known? Or simply an imaginary personage? The mystery stays intact.

In general, Lee’s word choice is deliberate and sophisticated. In keeping it so, however, she perhaps risks rendering the already polyphonic and surreal texts more inaccessible to an honest read. That said, her poetic personae are many — birds in flight; the blind woman’s infant daughter; an old gardener; the kwashiorkor, famished red boy; among others. Each is transformed through the simple metaphor of love — a human heart — all of them seeking the genesis of poetic language. This, as an endeavour to write, is already an unusual beginning.


Ardor is Karen An-hwei Lee’s second book-length poetry publication. Her first book, In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004), was winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award. Her chapbook, God's One Hundred Promises, received the Swan Scythe Press Prize. The recipient of an NEA Feollowship, Karen lives and teaches on the West Coast.


Fiona Sze-Lorrain writes poetry under her nom-de-plume, Greta Aart. Some of her recent work appears in Raven Chronicles, New Politics, Oak Bend Review, La Fovea, etc. She is also the editor of Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (2007), a translation of Gao Xingjian’s poetry from the French. Fiona lives in France. (

Friday, September 19, 2008

Holy Land by Rauan Klassnik

Black Ocean, 2008
Reviewed by Phil Hopkins

In Rauan Klassnik's new book of short prose poems, Holy Land, the first piece brings us a child in a ditch, possibly bleeding, alongside machetes with angels sharpening the blades, and beasts stomping and spitting. "You belong to them," the voice of the narrator assures us, in reference to the beasts. The world Klassnik conjures over the course of the book follows the promise of this poem closely.

The angels do not disappear, nor do the children or the blood or the beasts. All are held together in excruciating juxtaposition. Excruciating in just the way the poet intends. Nightmares pervade his Holy Land, dream images of a lover's smashed face and the green of contemporary Auschwitz.

"Blood, like the tail of a horse, splashed all over my chest," we are told in the poem featuring the lover's smashed face, which appears in the book's first section, called Wounded. Through all these untitled poems, blood layers thickly over a dystopian landscape where even "the sound of leaves turning red" takes on a sanguinary tinge. The word blood appears in every other poem though certain sections of the book. W.S. Merwin comes to mind, his broken-necked mice pushing balls of blood seeming to shadow Klassnik's images.

The poems line up before the reader and open fire, but not all at once. In careful succession, they rip into the flesh. Unlike those prose poems which lose tension and concision in the absence of line breaks, and whose composition seems perhaps too casual, Klassnik's works are dense and tightly packed with blunt themes. Made of five to ten short sentences strung together in a paragraph, their thematic unities are death, blood, wounds, alienation, brutal sex and divine abdication. To the latter theme, one poem begins "Talking to God's like jerking off."

Yet the poems, for all their unity, maintain distinct identities through the force of their individuated settings, sound, action, and images. These are cinematic pieces, little Buñuel films that slice the eyeballs of the viewer and awaken her ears to their pulse. The sound of the poems is carefully managed, rhythmically taut, and unafraid of grabbing the attention with loud notes at key moments; "We splash, shout, and chase it out."

Given the subject of the works, the broken rhythms often come like blows, though a brief reverie on the skill of a sushi chef provides a moment ecstatic reflection: "Everything he does - each wrap, each cut - says we are immortal." The center of the poem yields "eternity tightening around us" as the narrator sits with his wife in the restaurant marveling at his surroundings. But it is framed by a beginning sentence depicting a man who is waiting to be hung, and a final sentence on him going to the gallows, accompanied by the couple.

What are we to make of contrasts like this? The poet means to highlight subtler ironies than simply the simultaneity of death in life. His violence has a deeper purpose. But it is not until the book begins to sink in that this becomes evident. The sushi/hangman poem offers us, in addition to a dead lobster on a plate of ice and presumably some delicious tuna rolls, the hope of the condemned. He looks at his guards "as though they would tell him he had a chance," and proceeds singing to his demise. It is not a wholly cruel hope here, but rather one of the poet's essential virtues, the chant of the living against time. That the couple accompanies the man to the gallows demonstrates a solidarity with his circumstance that elevates the living by association with death, at least one met in song.

Death by the end of the book becomes one of Klassnik's vices, but his repeated indulgence in it reveals more to us than the vices of many of his contemporaries. The legion of poets raised imitating Ashbery's "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" don't seem part of the same world as Klassnik. His influences seem to come to him through the realm of Ted Hughes and Robert Bly more than the New York School.

Perhaps sex is also a vice here, where kissing takes place in an abattoir, and "to really break someone in requires abuse, confinement, systematic rape." But relationships, for all the nightmares they inspire in these pages, are also the locus of greatest redemption in the book. A poem about driving through the trees indicates a narrator who has become light, who encourages us to "hold each other and kiss.” This admonition resonates all the more deeply by its placement in the middle of a book which also says "Her body is perfect. Bruised and broken." A short poem about girls carrying kittens in a cage over a rocky landscape also, in a touchingly simple way, sustains whatever innocence is left by the time we arrive at the heart of Klassnik's Holy Land. New life is possible, but only when carefully conveyed over a treacherous frontier. Klassnik has written a book full of dark preoccupations that is worth our time to contemplate and understand.


Rauan Klassnik was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Now he spends most of his time in Mexico looking after birds and dogs with his wife Edith. His poems have appeared in such journals The North American Review, MiPoesias, No Tell Motel, Caesura, Sentence, Tex!, Pilot Poetry, and Hunger Mountain.


Phil Hopkins is a poet and playwright in New York City whose plays have been read and produced at Access Theater, 78th Street Theatre Workshop, Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre and elsewhere. His poetry has been published at

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Perfect Palinodes: on Justin Marks' [Summer     insular] and Ana Bozicevic-Bowling's Document

horse less press, 2007
Octopus Books, 2007
Reviewed by Alexander Dickow

Since my review of Ana Bozicevic-Bowling’s Morning News (Kitchen Press, 2006) and Justin Marks’ You Being You by Proxy (Kitchen Press, 2005),(1. Footnotes below) both poets have released a second chapbook. The present review therefore represents “part two” of an ongoing dialogue with these poets, whose work has developed in unexpected and complementary directions.


Justin Marks’ second chapbook, [Summer insular] quietly signals its departure from the poetics of Marks’ previous work within its first few lines:

yet I’ve never
given myself over

to I’m giving over
to now in a way

but I can’t be sure
(I haven’t done this before) [...]

The parenthetical notation, “I haven’t done this before” announces his intention to abandon paths familiar to him, such as those explored in his first chapbook, You Being You by Proxy. Since poets grow excessively fond of their verbal tics and their endlessly rewritten poem, Marks’ gesture of reinvention in fact entails a certain daring, despite the humility and simplicity with which Marks masks the risk and sacrifice involved. Although we have grown to associate “experimental poetics” with explosive verbal ostentation, Marks’ chapbook salvages the notion of experiment as a search for uncomfortable territory, as an abandonment of the writer’s established style and procedures.

Marks suggests that his own experiment will involve “giving himself over to now”, sacrificing craft for immediacy (immediacy of the writing process and of the writer’s relation to himself and his surroundings). But he assumes a posture of skepticism towards this immediacy (“I can’t be sure”); a healthy posture, since the minimalist promise of a de-stylized, objective, or de-sublimated language invariably conceals a re-stylization. Marks develops the implications of this problem by suggesting that his “bare” language takes its cue not from the real or from “immediate” experience, but from literary models:

I’m aware
from whom I borrow

(steal outright)
and don’t

No need
to name names

Marks hints (almost paronomastically: borrow / barrow?) at a variety of possible models, such as William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” or “This Is Just to Say,” or Pound’s famous imagist miniature, “In a Station of the Metro” (a dash of the “wet, black bough” and a pinch of Shakespeare’s missing choirs):

One painting: a bare
black tree pressed

black canvas

Marks’ nods to literary forebears demystify minimalism(2) as merely one more style, rather than a fresh, unmediated view onto the world or the self (which should not suggest he does not desire such immediacy). In an inverted version of the Emperor’s new clothes, the nudity of language betrays itself as a costume – indeed, an especially prestigious costume, rather than the rags of (linguistic) poverty.

The minimalist tradition may tend by its very nature to recycle the same small, essential set of issues – the immediate vs. the mediate, spontaneity vs. artifice, surface vs. depth, etc. Paradoxically, the mark of [Summer insular]’s success as a collection lies not in the “newness” of its language (since it apparently admits its own status as a particularly ambiguous, self-conscious and sophisticated form of pastiche), but in its critique of its own procedures, as it exposes the limits and contradictions of a minimalist poetics.

I would like to indicate one object of Marks’ critique whose relevance extends to contemporary poetry in general, and that I view as Marks’ most important contribution to my own reflection on contemporary writing. [Summer insular] consistently resists images, both as metaphor and as allusion to objects or to the speaker’s environment. In the example quoted above (one of the few “poetic” images in the collection) the “black tree” constitutes a kind of non-image, since the tree’s “visibility” is no more than a linguistic fiction. As a reply to this first “painting”, Marks writes:

Another painting:
six large shoreline rocks

no shore
no sea

Once again, the “shoreline” has only linguistic existence (one may easily relate these elegant allegories of linguistic virtuality to Mallarmé’s poetry and poetics). Aside from occasional exceptions such as these (exceptions which question the notion or the possibility of the poetic “image”), Marks’ collection employs a strikingly abstract vocabulary. In the absence of imagery, Marks notably exploits the resources of syntactic ambiguity. These ambiguities spring from (and motivate) the near-absence of punctuation in [Summer insular]:

I return to certain habits of mind
which are a part of what I want

but not all Happiness
for example is lacking [...]

Is “Happiness” entirely lacking, or is there some happiness, since “not all Happiness” is lacking? Or:

No help we can’t
provide for ourselves [...]

Is there “no help” for us, are we unable to “provide for ourselves”? Or does no help exist that we cannot provide for ourselves? Such ambiguities,(3) frequent in [Summer insular], displace the poetics of image and the senses in favor of a poetry that seeks to follow the often contradictory movements of consciousness (in this sense, [Summer insular]’s poetics prolong the work of You Being You by Proxy)(4) and of “ordinary” speech. As Marks writes,

The mind having little else
to see to exert its energies on

except itself –
regardless of what its gaze falls on –

sees mainly itself [...]

Marks’ exploration of alternatives to the image offers a healthy dose of perspective on our implicit definitions of the poetic. Williams’ excessively famous maxim, “No ideas but in things,” definitively removed from its context and thoroughly trivialized, seems to have become little more than an authoritative version of the familiar pedagogical injunction “show, don’t tell.” The material, the senses – things, with or without ideas – have dominated the poetry of the 20th Century, so much so that André Breton could scornfully dismiss every rhetorical figure as insignificant and irrelevant to poetry, save metaphor. Some contemporary poetry resembles a concatenation of stuff, a meticulous and tedious mosaic of fleeting sense-impressions: Marks’ chapbook offers a refreshing and salutary reminder that language offers poetic resources other than the sometimes suffocating abundance of the senses.


Like Justin Marks, Ana Bozicevic-Bowling’s second chapbook, Document, also explores territory deeply different from her first effort, Morning News. Her trajectory has taken her in a direction directly opposed to that of Marks’ work, away from “understated lyrics of the quotidian,” and toward the marvelous (and the image...) – without, however, forsaking the hushed, allusive style that helped make Morning News a successful collection.

The vocabulary of travel, of the poet’s trajectory, directions and departures, fits Document particularly well, since the book, itself fashioned in its now (alas)(5) out-of-print first edition as a fabulous, baroque passport, offers the reader a voyage, one which provides remarkable cohesion to the book (“book,” rather than “collection”; Document is a single poem more than a series of distinct pieces). Although individual poems sometimes resist organic unity in favor of (apparent) discontinuity, certain memorable emblems, such as the traveler’s “hat” housing his “small family,” recur periodically, building beautifully slender rope bridges between the poems (“Rhode Island,” “Then I write a letter in your handwriting”). Perhaps the most central of these emblems is the “pocketheart”: as the neologism suggests, this heart doubles as the pocket-sized book the reader holds: at once keepsake (the term “pocketheart” appears in “Locket-portrait at the Tavern”) and the token that grants us passage. The true voyage, Document suggests, accomplishes something akin to Petrarch's exchange of hearts – or, inversely, an exchange of hearts is already a kind of travel:

Oh show! me the traveler, in tapdance down the waves.

Our bones may reverse. ("The Messenger")

The displacement of the exclamation point leads to a brief hesitation: is the speaker the traveler ("me the traveler"), or does the speaker ask us to "show [her] the traveler"? The final line of "The Messenger" justifies this hesitation by suggesting that "you" and "I", speaker and addressee, do not merely reverse roles, but exchange their very bodies.

Recurrent characters such as the Traveler, the Messenger, and fleeting figures such as a certain "little yellow clerk" all contribute to Document's enigmatic narrative, which also includes powerfully evocative settings such as "Rhode Island"'s jetty-shrine and the Glass Tavern. Bozicevic-Bowling offers us a story's exquisite silhouette, just enough to produce what the French might call the "effet-monde"(6) (literally "world-effect") of fiction: the impression of a fictional universe which extends far beyond the written page, one of the principal sources of the wonder storytelling (of the best kind) can provoke. Although contemporary poets have abundantly explored the possibilities of fragmentary or partial narrative in recent years (especially in the form of the crimes and investigations of the mystery genre), Bozicevic-Bowling is an unparalleled master of elliptical suggestion. Since the Document experience relies on the poems' interrelations, I can hardly do justice to it, but I will attempt nonetheless to display some part of the poignant subtlety at work in the book's eponymic poem, "Document" (which, forsaking my usual reviewer's restraint, I believe has the makings of a lyrical masterpiece).


The roses are so still. Their nightly heads navigate
a tub of unease, star-tall.

Who stamped the passports of these hordes of spring?
The traveler's oarless, crests on a promise.

The blue chart rolls off the cabin table.
(Shhh.) Ship sheds boats. The roses were too much.

He can always find work as a statue, or moonlight
as museum night-guard. Through greenery, days,

he still walks the park, in a scarf,
unaware he was made to endure...

And look: roses wait, the widowers.
Their brief terms are Nordic, a violin concerto.

Each is a number: an ardor in order.
Like them he is measured against pearly histories.

Releases that rudder. A little bit lower –
(You've almost forgotten -- ): There, we've both signed it.

He plays at being a thorn.

To tie the poem together, Bozicevic-Bowling employs the most hoary of poetic emblems: roses. Perhaps these are the same red and white roses used to play chess with a vagrant in the previous poem ("Air-raid on Washington Square"), arranged mathematically on their chessboard ("Each is a number: an ardor in order": the oxymoron plays their natural geometry against the disorder of the passions with which the tradition associates them). The "tub of unease" in which they grow or float hesitates to become the celestial tub ("star-tall") or the Earthly ship in which we also travel.(7) But "the roses were too much": the ship sheds (life)boats as though the weight of the roses – and the poetic tradition they imply -- threatened to capsize the tub/ship. The traveler reappears once again, this time addressed in the third person. Bozicevic-Bowling often takes advantage of the potential of shifting address: here, the third-person strongly suggests an oblique second person, a feint, an address to the reader by way of a surrogate or proxy (the traveler-as-character). The traveler is "unaware" that he, in fact, is the poem and the poem's object, "made to endure"; similarly, the third person masks our own implication in the poem's address.

The traveler parallels, as I noted before, the Washington Square park vagrant in the previous poem, "Air-raid on Washington Square," and these two figures overlap almost perfectly. A vagrant in the strictest sense, the traveler also "walks the park", "oarless" and without destination. Like the vagrant, the traveler is destitute, in between various odd-jobs: "He can always find work as a statue, or moonlight / as museum night-guard." The brilliant sylleptic enjambment ("He can always find work as...moonlight") introduces a second well-worn poetic motif (moonlight), but renews the cliché by converting it into a verb.

The vocabulary of destitution and solitude in fact subtends the entire poem, which proposes a highly organized allegory of estrangement (and reconciliation). At the poem's opening, the roses "navigate" as "hordes",(8) collectively. The ship's disintegration into many individual boats sends each rose-passenger catastrophically adrift (like the Traveler-vagrant, also a kind of "widower"), as though the bonds of sodality were definitively severed.(9) As the Traveler wanders, the roses wait for him, for his return ("And look: roses wait, the widowers."), like the "promise" of recovery which sustains the Traveler ("The traveler's oarless, crests on a promise").

In the final lines, Bozicevic-Bowling deftly hints at the realization of this promise. "Releases that rudder. A little bit lower -- / (You've almost forgotten --): There, we've both signed it." The metaphor of the rudder as pen, implicitly likening the boat’s wake to an (ephemeral) signature, sketches a compelling scene of re-learning, as the speaker instructs the traveler, directionless a moment ago, how to guide his vessel. The absence of subject – “Releases that rudder” – conflates or confuses Traveler and poet, and suggests companionship and collaboration as an antidote to dereliction.

“He plays at being a thorn”: Perhaps the Traveler’s prickly temperament suspends or challenges the poem’s narrative of rescue; perhaps the Traveler only plays at enmity. In any event, the enigmatic final line tempers the poem’s utopian resonance; reconciliation appears as part of the imaginative game of metaphor.


I hope to have demonstrated how Bozicevic-Bowling weaves her images into an evocative story: in short, how the fleeting sense impressions of Document amount to much more than a “concatenation of stuff”; poetry has not, and will not exhaust the resources of the marvelous. And this example hardly exhausts the riches of this brief collection. In a recent blog entry, Ana Bozicevic-Bowling expressed the hope that Document’s reviewers would criticize the collection: “I for one long for a critic who'd poke a kind hole in the balloon of my poetic and essayist strategies (those with review copies of Document, take note)... F it, I want to evolve!”(10) I regret that my immoderate admiration for the book prevents me from voicing more than a certain disappointment at Document’s brevity; my voyage ended too soon!(11) But Document’s differences from Morning News, as well as from her post-Document work, suggest Bozicevic-Bowling, like Marks, has no need of such a critic to evolve in unexpected directions: let us hope they will continue to do so.

1 See my review on the DIY Publishing Cooperative Weblog, “Four Kitchen Press Chaps.”

2 I am aware that Pound (if not Williams as well) hardly qualifies as “minimalist” beyond a few poems, and that I have (partly out of ignorance, because of my principally French references) neglected many other examples such as Robert Creeley, Aram Saroyan, haiku and a few visual poets. I have chosen these examples as particularly relevant to Marks’ book, and for the purposes of my discussion, I have inevitably reduced “minimalism” to an excessively general and monolithic category. Insofar as minimalism suggests a reduction to the barest, most essential features of a medium, my reductive gesture is perhaps more defensible than usual. By way of nuance, I may add that Marks’ own variety of minimalism avoids pitfalls I’ve observed in poets with whose work I am familiar: a tendency toward the gnomic and the sententious, and an obsession with material objects (see below. For examples of the excesses I just mentioned, see the work of French “minimalist” poets André du Bouchet and Eugène Guillevic, for instance).

3. These examples seem particularly effective to me, since these ambiguities produce two antithetical statements.

4. See my review of Justin Marks’ first chapbook..

5. A selection of poems from Document can be found online in Octopus Magazine, issue 8. “Document” has also appeared in The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel: Second Floor anthology, which also features work by Justin Marks. Let us hope Document will soon become available once again in its entirety.

6. I encountered this expression in the work of Classical philologist and philosopher Barbara Cassin, but the term evokes recent theories of fiction such as those of Thomas Pavel. See Barbara Cassin, L'Effet sophistique (Paris: Gallimard, 1995) 13.

7. The "blue chart" rolling "off the cabin table" likewise conceals a cosmological metaphor, if we read it in light of "Legal Counsel": "They carry also a Map: a / blueprint or astronomer's plan of night sky. These charts are stitched on blue canvas: Architecture, Stars." This blue chart, rolling away, might prefigure the traveler's disorientation: he has lost his Map. Representation appears occasionally as a theme of reflection in Document, as in the relation of the map to the mapped, or the jetty to its “shrine” (“Rhode Island”); unfortunately, this issue falls beyond the scope of my discussion: read Document.

8. I can't resist noting that this admirable line, "Who stamped the passports of these hordes of spring?" is in iambic pentameter.

9. At a recent conference, in San Diego, the French contemporary poet Nathalie Quintane discussed our generation's inability to construct a "we". In this light, Bozicevic-Bowling's emblem of many solitary individuals without community illustrates a significant problem indeed.


11. I will add one critical remark: I fail to understand what justifies the archaic spelling “replayd” in the first line of “The Messenger”. Since such play with archaism has appeared occasionally in more recent poems, a request that these archaisms be justified may serve some purpose.


Justin Marks’s poems have recently appeared in Cannibal, Soft Targets, Tarpaulin Sky and the Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel – Second Floor, and are forthcoming in Handsome, the New York Quarterly and Wildlife Poetry Magazine. He is the founder and Editor of Kitchen Press Chapbooks and lives in New York City.


Ana Bozicevic-Bowling is a Croatian poet writing in English & the author of two chapbooks: Morning News (Kitchen Press, 2006) and Document (Octopus Books, 2007). Her recent poems are or will be in Octopus Magazine, The New York Quarterly, Denver Quarterly, In Posse, The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel - Second Floor and Outside Voices 2008 Anthology of Younger Poets. She coedits RealPoetik and lives and works in New York City.


Alexander Dickow grew up in Moscow, Idaho, and writes poetry in French and English. His reviews have appeared in Jacket, Galatea Resurrects, Sitaudis and the DIY Publishing Cooperative weblog. A bilingual collection, Caramboles, will be released in October 2008 by Argol Editions. He also irregularly maintains a mostly bilingual poetry blog, Voix Off.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dog Girl by Heidi Lynn Staples

Ahsahta Press, 2007
Reviewed by Heather Sweeney

Dog Girl growls, grumbles, yippees and pouts all in the same breath. Heidi Lynn Staples’ newest collection swells and weaves, pounces and pinwheels. It is a plentiful package busting at the rhymes and merry at the seams. Staples brings it sassily: “…I think that this woman is a struggling hopeful” (65).

Her work is informed by the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, a celebration of all things impermanent and imperfect. She embraces uncertainty and relays deep disappointments. Her subject matter is often familiar but her delivery is dizzying: “What stump./Hurts wound and hurts wind/blither him into./Inside world knocks, we die, and dying remember/a star springing into freedom” (64).

Within a daze of cartoon stars, a ping pong game of puns is played. “He untaught my eye” (8) and “o let’s go for our sun say drive,” (9) serve as opening lines respectively. And just as the reader is about to cozy up to fantastical rhymes and word games (“uber tuber super doper doplar radar”) there is a realization of something fierce and eerily animalistic circling many of these poems.

The collection’s title is named for a feral child. The real-life “dog girl,” Oxana Malaya, was raised, in large part, by a pack of dogs in her Ukrainian village. When she was found by authorities at the age of eight, she could hardly speak. This type of neglect is rarely documented. That Staples alludes to Malaya as an aspect of her darkest self is revealed in “”Fonder a Care Kept”:

I was barn. I was razed.

I was mot this flame with no’s sum else blue’s blame noir yearning down the

No, it was I and I blank I bandit blather that louse that fiddle-dee-dee little lame
chimera that came as the name yes different.

I wracked my refrain, that blousy souse.

I was bard. I was crazed.

I was dog girl’s shame.

So, I culled my main. My maze read, you heave to rip rove your aim (she knock-
knocks my nows and raves my here a quickened tousle), spell your dreams with
a big and, play for the game.

I was har. I was phrase

I was aroused by many’s uttered same.


Many of Staples’ poems touch upon the capabilities and the limitations of language and the body: “His hands touched me with a whole science. I accepted it. His eyes shined with hacker. I opened my codes.” (8). Here, certainty assembles. Lines are precise and rhythmically attuned. However, Staples makes the reader aware that her phonetic hijinks and careful cadence do not replace her core emotions or the inability to express them.

Grief and impermanence are explored through wit and homonym in poems like “Not, You No.” The late-term, miscarried baby is named dei—“organism weaving cellular faction…” (52). It is as if her circus art word play is a coping device. Is this, perhaps, the only way to broach the subject? Staples herself has affirmed that “even employing iambic could not get the joy’s nor the grief’s measure.” The process of grief is beautifully interrogated in “Get Caught, 2005:”

This little catch, leafless brush, is the last of our great kinship; whenever will I see you: and you, this time was limited, live on among the breeze own the horizon as evergreen.

Through the gamut from glee to tragedy, formal forms collide with months and do handstands. We are handed an obscure calendar complete with “Janimerick,” “Februallad,” “Maiku” and “Novekphrasis.” “Octanka” is dotted with slashes, inverted V’s, and asterisks to assemble birds, snowflakes, rain and wind. The poem is a space where a “flaming mind at the crown wings” (39) meets the “wet sweets slicker streets” (41). Staples transforms again and becomes a grim Grimm sister in “Junquain:” “the house/its tv blares/far from friends and family/mother who cut her child into/quarters” (18).

The mundane and the everyday are illuminated with repetition: “The husband and/the coughing. The sun is shining./The soup on the tray. The soup/on the spoon ” (4). Poems like these, which read like trance-induced poetic exercise, lean up against lines you wish you wrote: “in my dream you were church regulated” (33) and starkly philosophical assertions: “our bodies/radiate war” (47). Lines are laced with domestic observations, pop culture and passion. All of it pops and is propelled by song.

Dog Girl is a slurred doggerel. It is burlesque. Styled, but comical Staples crafts keenly. She is super-phonic. The book ends appropriately, “O please, she said, don’t stop…” .


Heidi Lynn Staples was born in Florida and raised in the rural southeast. She received degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Georgia. She has served as an assistant editor and/or editor at Salt Hill, Verse, Parakeet and The Georgia Review. She is the author of Guess Can Gallop, Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake and Dog Girl, and has published poems widely, in such magazines as Argotist (U.K.), Best American Poetry 2004, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Free Verse, Green Mountains Review, La Petite Zine, No Tell Motel, Poetry Daily, Ploughshares, Slope, and Verse Daily. She lives in a coastal Irish village, Rosslare Strand, with her husband and young daughter.


Heather Sweeney lives in San Diego with her husband and beloved dog where she teaches writing and yoga.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Acquaintance with an Asymptote: on Analfabeto/An Alphabet by Ellen Baxt

Shearsman Books, 2008
Reviewed by Charlotte Grider

Analfabeto /An Alphabet, the title of Ellen Baxt’s latest book, is a false cognate—also known as a “false friend”; it is a title that invites the reader into a rumination on sound, meaning, and relationships. Although “analfabeto” sounds suspiciously like “an alphabet,” this Portuguese adjective actually means “illiterate.” This contradiction is an apt introduction to Ellen, the narrator, writer, and English teacher, who, as a visitor to Brazil, is a linguistic other as she learns Portuguese and reflects on the oddities of idioms in her native English. “False friend” also describes the myriad people that Ellen meets during her stay—such as the man on the street who asks to kiss her (14) or the woman who asks, “I ring your finger?” (57). Ellen seeks solace in language play and “keeps herself company in her own language” (46) by writing in her notebook, often pondering false cognates and words and phrases that confound English language learners.

Analfabeto/An Alphabet is a unified series of poems or tableaux of the narrator’s visit to Brazil, including her encounters with the paradoxical landscape, the culture, the history, and her lovers. But this book is as much about the narrator’s relationship to English as it is a portrait of Brazil.

Most of the poems are very short, perhaps what we might call “flash poetry,” but they are evocative. There are no superfluous words; every word, every character has been deliberately placed. Even the blank space on a page takes on significance as Baxt employs a variety of structures and works with the geography of the page. One page, for example, bears only three lines of text, which appear at the bottom of an otherwise blank page: “Stay, you must to stay the night. The bus doesn’t pass. Goes only/ to Port of Hens, not the city. Do not worry. Tomorrow will/return you. Tomorrow” (35). The space at the top of the page may signify the time that has elapsed since the previous scene, or perhaps it is the unspoken moment of a sexual encounter with the speaker. The blank space enhances interpretive possibilities.

The snippets of text in Portuguese do the same. The text is inviting for Portuguese or Spanish speakers and for inquisitive readers who will not be discomfited by foreign words and phrases. Some of the Portuguese words are translated into English, but these meanings must be culled from the poetry. Readers who favor close-reading will want to find a good Portuguese-English dictionary.

The narrator combines phrases from English lessons and everyday conversations, often meditating on the sound, form, and elasticity of language. Some of the best interpretive spaces exist in broken English or between idioms and their literal translations (English and Portuguese) and between the literal translations of grammatical constructions that involve a change in syntax; this is because, as Ellen says, “Translation is not an equation. The equation is an asymptote” (65). The asymptote metaphor implies that even an accurate translation cannot replicate the shades of meaning found in the original. Like the curved lines of the asymptote, they can be infinitely close, but they will never be one and the same. It is in this infinitesimal space that Ellen finds poetry. In the following excerpt, she calls attention to the common metaphorical usage of “to bleed” in English, which cannot be accurately translated into Portuguese (“sangrar” means to bleed, and “secar” is to dry):

            Sangrar         To bleed or drain
                                 soap, skirt
                                 To know by heart
                                 I’m homesick (for my
                                 salt and wit
            Secar            To bleed, dry (70)

These lines suggest that words carry with them history, geography, and culture that cannot be translated.

As the poet experiments with the elasticity of language, the reader must stretch to the mind’s outer-limits to decode these texts. Interpretation, like translation, is an asymptote: even the best critical analysis will not yield a reading that replicates the author’s “intent.” Readers construct significance. There are, however, some cryptic passages in Analfabeto/An Alphabet that may puzzle the best of critics. Try this one: “When he heard the fox, he recognized this handwriting. Teeth/were reduced to ashes under the tugboat. I will tugboat this reduce” (66).

Well, it’s something to work on.


Ellen Baxt has published several chapbooks including Since I Last Wrote (Sona Books), Tender Chemistry (Sona Books), The day is a ladle (Press Toe) and Enumeration of colonies is not EPA approved (Press Toe). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in How2, the tiny, Saint Elizabeth Street and the Outside Voices Younger Poets Anthology. She lives in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.


Charlotte S. Grider writes essays and fiction, and, on occasion, when her right brain breaks the left-brain spell, she writes poetry. Her work has been published in a few literary journals and in one anthology, Washing the Color of Water Golden. She also serves as a staff writer for a weekly newspaper, The St. Joseph Telegraph.

Friday, June 20, 2008

"No Poem Works": A Review of Anthony Hawley's Forget Reading

Shearsman Books, 2008
Reviewed by Mathias Svalina

The sonnet is a poetic form that was invented in 1964 by a young man named Ted Berrigan. Ted Berrigan liked to look at a lot of things. He liked his friends. He liked pronouncements. He liked the stuff he thought about. Especially poetry. All of these things went into the poems he invented; the poems that he named sonnets. The sonnet consists of 14 lines. The sonnet is a poem that is only found in the presence of many others of its kind. Just as the zebra’s stripes make the individual indistinguishable from the mass of black & white movement, the sonnet’s 14 lines make it both an individual poem & part of the wheel & bang of multitude. No lion can kill a sonnet, because the sonnet has ever so many hearts. They beat like quivering mercury.

The sonnet is very similar to another poetic form called the sonnet. The sonnet has a slightly longer tradition, spanning back to the 13th century. The sonnet also consists of 14 lines, which is why it is often mistaken for the sonnet & vice versa. The sonnet is a poem about rhetoric; it is an argument encased in regular rhyme & meter, gut-punched by the volta. Love is a famous form of rhetoric. These sonnets can be found both as individuals & as packs. When a lion attacks one of these sonnets, the other sonnets watch the beast rip the sonnet’s throat out. The smell of the blood is familiar to them, but it is not actually their blood. You can often find this sonnet outside of a poem, such as in a textbook or in the tanline revealed when a man removes his watch. There are many shapes of containers in the world.

Anthony Hawley writes sonnets. His new book, Forget Reading, consists of 74 sonnets divided into 7 sections. Four of those sections are all called “P(r)etty Sonnets,” one of those sections is called “Apple Silence,” one “Record-Breakers” & one “Productive Suffix.” The opening section of P(r)etty Sonnets begins:

      a weathervane
      knows more about poetry
      even though a thermometer
      tells when bones hurt
      frosted window
      who just took a shower

In these six short opening lines the poem jumps from association to digression to sudden image or memory. These jumps are indicative of Hawley’s approach to poetry. His poems become nexus points of attention. The poem that ends this first series of sonnets begins:

      once a turnstile always a turnstile
      the manner by which wind rifles and plexiglass globes
      and ghost-men mounting the memorabilia
      underneath the hothouse lights we look like eels

It closes:

      every off-center photograph
      is a one-act opera in someone’s time zone
      have a seat beside the pennants
      your autographs will arrive shortly
      caller number ten takes home a free pair of season tickets

Sentences are one way that writers control idea. Hawley’s poems resist the sentence. They resist control. But at the same time there is something stable in the poems, something that I call Anthony Hawley.

In these series Hawley creates an autobiography via outward movement rather than the revelation of the internal experience. He is interested in things he sees, things he thinks about, images or phrases from pop culture, high culture and poetry culture. Witness how much ground he stampedes over in one especially jumpy poem:

      and how does the crowd enter the game
      knit together at the radio close knees
      we all grow up to wear hair tonic but only some of us
      seek to temper it with stunt doubles
      unidentifiable vapors found in the earth’s atmosphere
      the political arena’s eyewitnesses
      a one-armed man in malta
      together in the nursery of insatiable disrepair
      which is to say short drink long drink something neat

The sonnet as a form works as a container; it contains the range of attentions, allowing the newspaper headline, the joke & the detail to work on equal levels. Every new thing that Hawley attends to in this sonnet is another stripe on the zebra’s hide.

Hawley is especially attentive to what poems don’t or can’t do well. What they can & cannot contain. He returns to this again & again, tempering the jumpiness of the poems with a reflective & didactic turn. He writes:

      radio is our love
      and we are trapped
      not in wide open space
      but each rely on stations to play one song
      over and over radio can barely hold so much
      the idea of Albuquerque
      won’t fit into a poem

It is not that the idea of a city will not fit in a poem, or that city. It is that an idea itself does not fit into a poem. A poem is part of poetry for an individual, a blip in a larger argument about how one makes the world happen. The individual poem is meaningless outside the herd. In the fourth series of P(r)etty Sonnets, which close the book, Hawley writes:

      no poem works
      but may try and be some
      may try and dig a ditch
      may try and rig a memorable tall thing
      called city, called obelisk
      or president’s head
      what an error what a dumb rational
      gig when poem is better off
      jobless everywhere
      even with shovel and drill
      poem cannot build so useful
      a drawer
      poem is no tomb
      but loiters and makes new time

Hawley’s four series of P(r)etty Sonnets work as rag & bone shops of experience but they also work like the moment in which the subjects of a documentary forget the camera is in their room. The film becomes about documentation, the eye works by accretion rather than narrative. It’s Herzog’s aesthetic in The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner & other films in which his presence an ordinary part of the film. As I read these poems I follow Hawley’s attention & participate in the epistemology of looking at & thinking about stuff. The jumps in attention make the individual mind present. It's a sense of the "I" that does not need sentimental presence.

The other three sections of Forget Reading reveal another aspect of the form that we talk about as the sonnet: each poet who writes a sonnet must create a new form & call it the sonnet. There are many forms called the sonnet. In recent years the poetry world has been introduced to new forms invented by Karen Volkmann, Laynie Brown & Gerard Manley Hopkins among others. Each poet named her or his new discovery the sonnet. Each one of them discovered a new set of formal & process techniques, creating a new kind of poem. They all bear similarities to each other. You can only distinguish between them by the smell of their blood.

In his P(r)etty Sonnets series Hawley is taking a lot from Berrigan’s sonnet & occasionally referencing Dante’s rhetorical sonnet. But in “Apple Silence,” “Record-Breakers” & “Productive Suffix” he discovers three new kinds of sonnets by moving toward the aesthetic extremes of what plays out in a more balanced manner in the P(r)etty Sonnets.

In Apple Silence, Hawley reduces the poem to associations & juxtapositions, forefronting the jumps that occur in the P(r)etty Sonnets. The poems in this series function as much by sound & silliness as they do by concerted world-creation:

      alphabet overdrive
      numeric sing
      ping pong
      all my praxis
      I give over
      to love’s six cylinder
      mother-of-pearl open up
      inlay inlay
      the room
      given to reverb
      so vacancies
      there you have it
      weird the fog
      i was i was

The Apple Silence series sets an opposite spectrum end to the sonnets Hawley writes in Record-Breakers. These depend on rhetorical thickness, on statement & reflection, for instance he opens one poem “an obvious attempt to masquerade fears / with the mawkish ardor of a maypole.” This is a dramatically different kind of speaking than in Apple Silence, but also different from the quickness of sound & sleekness of statement found in the P(r)etty Sonnets. But Record-Breakers are not argument sonnets, guided by the mismatched hemispheres above & below the volta. The rhetorical thickness of these poems opens up to the world through the pelts of sounds the words conjure. They are a linguistic complexity of memory.

Productive Suffix series takes the open terseness of Apple Silence further by spreading each set of 14 lines across the page. The white space of the page both rearranges the connections between lines & phrases. See how this space (or an approximation of the formatting for this page) reduces the stanzas to their own individual moment, yet the connectivity of the entire form, the knowledge that it is a sonnet, requires us to see both the whole & the discrete:

      ever the furtive

birds eat

      I climb

to memories
in fountains

of water

            what little
         of us

is more than holes

By separating the lines these poems draw attention to the formal obedience, they attempt to be sonnets at the moment of nearly not being sonnets. But they also replicate the individual-to-whole relationship of the sonnet series.

These three series are not merely “experiments” with the sonnet parameters or in any way “merely.” They are attempts to use the poem to represent a range of experiences—from the intellectualized memory to the imagist & linguistic immediacy. But just like the P(r)etty Sonnets, they depend on the series for meaning & survival. Individually, they are poems of interesting sound or idea, but collectively they resist the attacks of the lion.

Unlike the sonnet, Hawley’s sonnet is not a poem. The sonnet is a series that works by containment. The more consistently the sonnet defines the space between what is & what is not a poem, the more it allows into the poem.

The herd contains the zebras. Each zebra contains its stripes. But also blood & bone & food & fear. I contain many things. Most of them I’d prefer not to talk about. Politics is a kind of container because it is speaking & speaking is teaching because it connects two things & teaching is a form that requires at least two writers for every poem & if you continue to extend you can see that when you begin to write a poem you could keep on writing until the meat of your hands slide off the bone like a soft, loose cotton sock.

Poetry is unlike politics in many ways, but it is also speaking. The work of being a poet is partially choosing what to not write about. The sonnet works to keep the world out of the poem, but the sonnet series seeks to allow the world into the poems.


Anthony Hawley is the author of two full-length collections of poetry Forget Reading (2008) and The Concerto Form (2006) and four chapbooks Autobiography/Oughtabiography (Counterpath Press 2007), Record-breakers (Ori is the New Apple Press 2007), Afield (Ugly Duckling Presse 2004) and Vocative (Phylum Press 2004). Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Hat, The Tiny, 26, 1913, and Verse. He currently teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


All of the Mathias Svalina found today in North America--and they number in the range of 1--are descendants of approximately 100 such prior Svalina's introduced in New York City's Central Park in the early 1890s. A society dedicated to introducing into America all of the Mathias Svalina mentioned in the works of Shakespeare set this Svalina free.

Monday, June 09, 2008

How To Be Perfect by Ron Padgett

Coffee House Press, 2007
Reviewed by John Findura

For those who are already fans of Ron Padgett, reading a review of his newest book, How To Be Perfect, is not going to tell them anything they don’t already know (although they are more than welcome to stick around for this one). Padgett is one of a select few poets who manage to be authentically funny while digging deep into an internal wisdom, and still be able to maintain the all important “street cred.” He speaks in a next-door-neighbor frankness that somehow manages to bounce back and forth between the mundane and the absurd, but with a gentleness that urges the reader on like the calling of a warm bed on a cold night.

Padgett writes about things like washing dishes (“Rinso”), playing with a top (“Tops”), and anxiety over The Swiss Family Robinson, and all are enjoyable. As Padgett writes in “The Swiss Family Robinson”, “it’s interesting not to know / something that everyone else knows.” That is one of the most interesting things I’ve heard a poet say in a long time, and it makes me feel better that I’ve never seen an episode of Lost. In an age where technology brings you the facts as fast as you can type in the search words, managing to somehow keep away from that constant stream of information is a work of art in itself. Yet later in the poem, he comes to the discovery that “I would know something that / most people don’t know.” Anyone reading How To Be Perfect can leave with that phrase ringing in their ears.

Humor is one of Padgett’s greatest assets, from the obvious groans of

      And they entered the ark
      two by two

      except for the studs
      which were two by four

to the more cerebral

      I think that Geoffrey Chaucer did not move
      the way a modern person moves.
      He moved only an inch at a time
      […] time moved in short lurches
      and was slightly jagged and had fewer colors
      for them to be in. But that was good. Humanity
      has to take it one step at a time.

Padgett takes all the steps in one single leap, because he is that sure of his poetic footing.

The centerpiece of the collection is poem “How To Be Perfect.” It is a simple list of ways that you, too, can achieve perfection. The first directive is “Get some sleep” followed immediately by “Don’t give advice.” The poem starts to snowball from there to things like “Make eye contact with a tree” and “Design activities so that they show a pleasing balance / and variety.” It begins to hit its stride at the time of

      Be kind to old people, even if they are obnoxious. When you
      become old, be kind to young people. Do not throw your cane at
      them when they call you grandpa. They are your grandchildren!

My favorite trio appear within the space of four lines: “Calm down”, “Visit foreign countries, except those whose inhabitants have / expressed a desire to kill you” and my own personal choice, “Look at that bird over there.” Perhaps a close second would be “Do not wander through train stations muttering “We’re all / going to die!”” or “Do not step off the curb until you can walk all the way across / the street. From the curb you can study the pedestrians who are / trapped in the middle of the crazed and roaring traffic.” If his membership of the New York School was not apparent before, at least his connection to New York City is crystal clear in those lines.

It’s no secret that most writers, poets and novelists included, almost always attempt to address the big picture. They ask the big questions, focus on the big scenarios, and expect to connect with a big audience who also wants answers about these big things. But what really connects people are the small things, the overlooked things, and ultimately this is what How To Be Perfect focuses on. From Shecky Greene to the Virgin Mary’s toenails in paintings of the Italian renaissance, it is these small moments that really bond the reader to the poet. Even sex in Edwardian England seems to be an everyday natural occurrence in Padgett’s world.

Go, pick up How To Be Perfect, and just enjoy it. But first, look at that bird over there.


Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1942, Ron Padgett is the author of numerous works including the poetry collections Great Balls of Fire, Triangles in the Afternoon, and The Big Something; a volume of selected prose entitled Blood Work; and translations of books by Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Marcel Duchamp. He lives in New York City, where he is the Publications Director for Teachers and Writers Collaborative.


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.