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.