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.