Monday, April 13, 2015

NEW! Poem by Carolyn Guinzio

Carolyn Guinzio

Thirteen Husbands

My first husband bought this house. He worked his way through the ranks. We moved to some terrible towns, but now I know if I have nothing else, I have these Great rooms.
If you thought there was no skull-cavern vast enough to hold the many woes I pour forth, you have not met my second husband.
When I am making quick work of the Haagen Daas, my third husband will gently take the carton from my hands.
Why is my fourth husband not standing on a ladder to switch the fixtures’ incandescent beams? Because he is tall.
When confronted with a sticky aesthetic wicket, my fifth husband is the go-to guy to guide me through such agonies as Should the you be he?
My sixth husband has been out of town for twelve of the last fourteen days. I powder my nose to Skype.
Why, when I talk about other people, my seventh husband asks, do I always seem to talk about myself?
When I am collecting the dirty plates left on the table by my eighth husband, I feel a rush of gratitude for his slumped shadow on the couch.
Sometimes, one needs to be stonily reminded of how much worse it could be. That’s when I welcome the comforting gloom of my ninth husband.
My tenth husband has twelve other wives.
Between my eleventh husband and me, there are no words.
Between my twelfth husband and me, there are the same nine words, over and over.
If only I had access to the beautiful, heightened language I need to explain my unknowable thirteenth husband. Perhaps number five can help me.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Lluís Roda


          n. niche left in the body of a wall
          in which to place a statue, 
          an altar, etc.

I am a thurifer. I come and go…
To no effect. Elemental, I’ve got this.
We’re ignorant of Petrarch, ignorant of so much.
Where we’ve been, where we’re going…
Who we are at heart, what we want.
In any case, I was your fornícula.
Even so, it might have been the reverse.
And to be statuary, lifeless, is not funny at all.
But how much worse to be the hole with a plan.
Because, the sincerity of the hyaline soul,
No one will live in that space.
But if, by chance, someday you walk past
Where a crowd observes a statue inert,
Try using your coins, use your tears…
Perhaps she is only posed,
And, with a touch, she’ll move.

Translated from the Catalan by Michael Odom

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

NEW! Review of Colin Winnette

Coyote by Colin Winnette. Les Figues, $17.

Reviewed by Brigid Riley

In the opening page of Colin Winnette’s Coyote, predators wander the threshold between the wild and a house that seems to stand on the cusp of civilization. In contrast to the family enjoying an evening at the house, the animals appear as threats to the security of human society. Yet as the safety of home collapses from the inside, Coyote picks away at the constructs of humanity and uncovers the ugly brutality harbored beneath, peeling back the thin veil of civilization in this unnerving exploration of the animalistic nature of humans. 

Over a series of fragmented entries into the mind of the narrator, ranging from no more than a couple of sparse sentences to more fully fleshed-out batches of memories, Winnette pieces together a mosaic of the narrator’s troubled life. The narrator is in a turbulent relationship with a man she perceives as utterly pathetic, but she strives to keep things together for their small child. However, when their daughter vanishes and the months slide by with no sign of her, the volatile family unit dissolves into a shadow of life, slipping into a listlessness broken only by the occasional act of desperate grief. The narrator oscillates between numbing depression and frantic bursts of determination to find her child by any means possible, shifting through memories, thoughts, and days like someone looking through a pile of snapshots as she attempts to work through her current situation. All the while her fragmented narrative prickles with a sense of instability that threatens to upset what little structure remains.

From the first page, Coyote is fraught with images of violence laced together with the narrator’s everyday life. Winnette places the narrator and her family on the edge of humanity, balancing an image of normalcy while the wild presses in around them. A mother with her little girl curled on her lap while the father heats buns on a grill gives way to the grisly killing of a coyote, all told in the same matter-of-fact tone as the narrator recounts one last evening with her daughter. The narrator gives voice to a suspended sense of horror looming around the corner as she searches for dangers to herself and her daughter: coyotes crying in the night, bears hunkering just beyond the walls of the house, or strangers coming to kidnap or attack. Yet as the narrator turns her eyes toward the outside, the mercilessness of nature pervades her world. Comparisons between humans and animals sprinkled throughout the narrative position everyone within a dangerous realm of prey and predator; the girl’s father transforms into a small animal attempting to puff himself up in a show of false might to ward off stronger predators; the audience of a talk show become “a chorus of animals” feeding on tragedy; and even children perpetrate acts of violence, displaying an uncomprehending, inherent cruelty as they bully other children into submission and inflict harm on animals. At the same time, animals take on human-like associations as the narrator describes coyotes howling “like some hysterical woman lost out in the woods.” Bit by bit, the boundary between civilization and nature crumbles into a bleak vision of the world.

Far from moral questions of good and evil, Winnette seems more interested in exploring a harsh Darwinian truth under the surface of civilization in Coyote, and his narrator carries the story with the right mix of subtlety and underlying tension to make it work. She pulls the reader in with an easy, conversational voice while her unflinching and unfiltered gaze documents the brutal reality of the human condition. The narrator that Winnette has crafted is one who believes that pretty ideals of “one man lending one thing to another and everybody profiting in some unique and personal way” are a fantasy, and she tears down rosy notions of masculinity, motherhood, and love with the raw honesty of someone beyond caring. Recalling the time when her husband brought back a boar from a hunting trip, the narrator says, “…I think the truth of the matter is that everyone is a killer, given the right order of things.” Through her eyes, no one comes out untouched by primal desires and instincts, not even herself. 

Caught up in this quiet storm is an underlying critique of an equally predatory media ready to pounce on any whiff of a story. As the narrator encounters the media in her search for her daughter, the world of talk shows and reality TV brims with an artificiality just as twisted as the unpleasant reality that the narrator lives. While the narrator eats up the charming act of a certain talk show host and believes him to be compassionate and purely motivated, her tragedy becomes fodder for a sensational show, as well as entertainment for the gluttonous audience. Obsession with a moment of stardom rears its head even in the midst of grief, and fuels the media’s insatiable desires for the next big story. The criticism is sharp, but delicately weaved into the narrative.  

Winnette’s choice to leave the characters and location of this novel nameless acts as the final breach of barriers to complete this autopsy of the human condition. As the veil of normalcy quickly slips off the image of the family, so too does the reader’s ability to easily compartmentalize the characters as “other.” The picture of a mother, father, and child having a quintessential cookout with which Winnette begins the story could be the people next door, or even one’s own family. Coyote implicates everyone in its spiral of desperation, madness, and violence as the concept of humanity implodes. As the novel speeds toward its shattering conclusion, the reader will be left hungry for a second read in order to put the pieces of the narrator’s haunting tale back together again.  

Friday, April 03, 2015

NEW! Review of Tom McCarthy

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, $24.

Reviewed by Daniel Hatt

Not long into Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, the narrator, U., offers a piece of advice about the sort of book Satin Island is: “events!” he scoffs, “If you want those, you’d best stop reading now.” And even before the first page is turned, the cover acts as something of a warning. Set sharply against brightly colored inkblots, the worryingly dull words “treatise,” “essay,” “report,” “confession” and “manifesto” are all crossed out before finally settling on “a novel.” Yet as it progresses, some sort of generic hybrid emerges that manages to cast doubt even on the most trustworthy of labels.
Satin Island is McCarthy’s fourth book, coming after the Man Booker Prize nominated C. As well as being a writer, he’s also the general secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious organization he started with a friend. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, his work has been criticized in the past for seeming a bit too pleased with itself or, at times, a bit too indulgent. Fully ignoring these criticisms, in preparation for his latest venture he took up residency at the International Artists Studio Program in Stockholm, as noted in his acknowledgements, where he dedicated a few days to sitting around staring at projections of oil spills on big white walls. Then he spent a while in New York, thinking “about the general impossibility of writing a novel about the general impossibility of etc.” By most sensible presumptions Satin Island should probably be left well alone. But, as it happens, this is a book that takes these sensible presumptions and has a clever, slightly crazed dance with them, leaving little choice for the reader but to gape at what McCarthy has done in this “novel.”
The narrator of Satin Island, U., is an English anthropologist who briefly shot to fame with a book about modern clubbing culture. So he is not, as he explains, an anthropologist in the studying exotic tribes in Papua New Guinea sense of the word, but one who collates and synthesizes the patterns, rituals, and—most importantly—the narratives of the contemporary: put differently, an incredibly vague discipline, which is exactly the problem that U. encounters during the course of the book. He works for a mysterious company, which he aptly calls The Company, where he puts his ethnographic talent to use in order to sell the product of a given client. The Company has recently won a contract, the Koob-Sassen Project, of which the reader learns little due to “legal reasons.” Despite McCarthy neatly sidestepping a more revealing description, the Koob-Sassen Project is clearly a pretty big deal, so much so that following this apparent coup, Peyman (the boss of The Company) tasks U. with writing the Great Report, or, more precisely, the Great Report. In Peyman’s mind, the Great Report is the “Document,” the “Book,” the “First and Last Word on our age.” U. is posed with an all-encompassing ethnographic task to collate and synthesize everything. Of course, the question soon arises: how the hell do you write about everything?
McCarthy considers this tricky question through a series of recurring images, events and asides, primarily grounded in the language and various philosophies of anthropology. If not for his solid grasp of the discipline, the novel would quickly fall apart. Instead, the multifaceted symbols that U. identifies in the familiar, yet strangely alien, world of Satin Island, which he then carefully picks apart, are deftly conveyed. For instance, the news story of an experienced parachutist who fell to earth after his parachute detached from him mid-air is considered with forensic detail: 

Yet, as at least one article I had read stated, the man’s death was, in this instance—in this country devoid of tall pine trees, this terrain quite unamenable to upgusts, this snow-less season—a foregone conclusion from the moment the cords had been cut. Thus, although he hadn’t actually been killed until the moment of his impact, to all intents and purposes, he had. 

U. attempts to squeeze every last drop of sense out of such tropes in a comparably obsessive, compelling, manner. This desperate search for meaning sometimes results in McCarthy falling victim to somewhat desperate descriptions (the page and a half dedicated to the “carnivorous and booming” ventilation system comes to mind); but what develops is an impression of a man enveloped by the paranoia of failing to complete his Great Report, and so, in his mind, failing to truly understand the world. 
Attempting to defy these likely failures, U. enlists an entire tradition of anthropological thought that informs much of the narrative. In a recent article for The Guardian, McCarthy explains his draw to the figure of the anthropologist: “What he or she embodies for me is a version of the writer minus all the bullshit, all the camouflage or obfuscation—embodies, that is, the function of the writer stripped down to its bare structural essentials.” Despite the lofty ventilation system descriptions, Satin Island is drawn to this clean style of writing, even the novel’s structure resembling an ethnographic paper with its academically numbered subsections.
Of particular interest, though, is what anthropology has to say about the contemporary writing process. U. contemplates the principle of Bronisław Malinoski that the ethnographer should write everything down, no matter how irrelevant something might initially seem. Quickly, however, he realizes that in this modern world of live streams, social networks and digital clouds, one way or another, “it is all written down.” In a world of multiple narratives that are forever being systematically mapped onto various platforms, what is left for U. to write about? And what about the poor novelist? Another famous anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, writes in The Interpretation of Cultures that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” As for actually trying to read these webs, most are probably not worth the bother; McCarthy’s Satin Island, on the other hand, is a web worth reading.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

VERSE's 2015 reading period closes 3/31 at midnight

A reminder if you were planning to submit a portfolio to Verse this year. To submit, click on the link on the right. Submissions will be accepted until midnight, 3/31/15.

Monday, March 30, 2015

NEW! Poem by Carolyn Guinzio

Carolyn Guinzio


If I wanted to mention the flowers, I would say the marigolds seem to be kneeling at 

the feet of the plants that matter more. They seem to be leaning against one another.

Exiles and immigrants make little worlds to replicate big old worlds. They lean.

In supposing a supporting post could be removed, the rehabber was positing beauty

as supreme. Or just the present. There is supposedly a moment when thinking

outpaces the body, an instant of suspension, an outsider trying to blend in 

with the crowd of possibles. But wait and when everything falls back into place,

everything has not fallen. The surveyors are marking with math the exact 

degrees by which a place becomes another. They make a vertical mark under which

the horizontal continues. That partial instant of dissonant friction is where

our land begins. Be sure to bring these directions when you are coming over

for drinks. The kids made a message for the satellite shot, and you don’t want to know

what it said. It can only be seen from a great distance at a single instant a blue

lens lasers its way from a humbling height to the earth. None of us wants to go there.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

NEW! Poem by Jack Christian

Jack Christian

A Memory

The planned forest is no way out, 
only options,

and still a little nonsense to dimple the order,
and the trail that takes us there

by a copse of cars
as if once they formed a headlight circle 

and are now a rusty installation 
or more simply some patterned junk

that helps predict the seasons,

the ridge above like a crooked back, 
before the campsite on the creek’s little finger

with Meagan, Emma and Phil in warmest March, 
as if we played a psychic role in the heat, 

my own hand-me-down Buick full with wilderness gadgets. 

It really was just that once—
on a rock in the river treading happily

against looming departure,

which could all be comparison to something else

but is just the memory, untimed,
the fire, the coals, and afterward—

a bit of gut pushing up through its muscle wall. 

Is that a way to say it?

Monday, March 09, 2015

NEW! Review of Catherine Meng

The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century by Catherine Meng. SplitLevel Texts, $12.

Reviewed by Sarah Nance

Titled after a major astronomical event, Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century examines the way we mark specific events and the passing of time alike. This collection, which spans the year between July 20, 2009 and July 20, 2010, uses the image of the eclipse as one of many organizing features, along with diary entries, seasons, days of the week, and games like musical chairs. Along with these various structuring devices, Meng also pushes our conception of poetic style, mixing prose poetry with more traditional lyric styles, flirting with forms like the sestina, and mixing long, sectioned poems with shorter, page-length poems.

Before her opening title poem “The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century”—which explores an actual event which took place on June 22, 2009 and lasted six minutes and 39 seconds—comes a short prose poem prelude, which commands a “you” to quit drinking, to go to the dentist, to learn Spanish, to call your mother. Not all the advice is common sense, and some is jarringly contradictory (“You should smoke a cigarette. You should quit smoking”); tellingly, perhaps, the poem ends with the only response in the entire piece: “You should check that out. I’ll send you the link,” setting up the rest of the collection as one which relies on the sharing of sources and the layering of images, references, and other works of art. In the back of the collection, under “Notes,” Meng lists references and links for many of her poems, bringing us to web locations that include a Flickr album, relevant background information, and a map showing someone’s internet check-in. These links resonate with the Wikipedia excerpts which serve as epigraphs to many of the poems, and also showcase a secondary concern of the collection: the epistemology of online referencing.

This layering effect is recalled in the calendar cycle that the collection works through, as moments collapse on themselves and many become markers that will return again the following year. The poem “Musical Chairs” traces this bobbing and stalling motion, circling around both personal and public events, and noting our cultural reliance on myths and structures—including that of time. Meng writes that it is “Impossible to recall / the world before / the structure exposed / its dependence on myth.” Later, in a section of the poem called “On the Anniversary of Our Spinning,” Meng considers traumatic events that root us in time, specifically recalling her memories of September 11 and the way that day has marked itself permanently upon our calendars. Time is portrayed as concurrent, not linear; Meng asserts in “Daylight Savings Time Begins” that this is “all one / continuous / eclipse.” If time is concurrent, always present at once, what does this mean for something like death? Meng touches on this continuity in the understated end to her poem “Google Maps”: “using street view ten years after your death / to find / your car still parked in your driveway.” 

Even in this concurrent sense of time, however, come lapses, moments that cannot or will not be accounted for. Meng continues to disrupt the easy circularity of the calendar structure by including poignant moments such as in “At Impedment,” where diary entries document both daily life and the death of the father of someone close to the speaker. Serving as another organizing structure, the diary entries are prose poetry, skipping days here and there until the final few entries. On March 1, Meng writes, “Carl’s color has gone ashen. Everyone thinks they should sleep but is worried he’ll die if they do.” The following day notes that “Cherry blossoms let loose by the rain spangle all the city sidewalks,” while March 3 only records: “[LAPSE].” The final entry breaks into the poetic line for the first time in the poem: “It took twenty years to see a tree is not a tree / and twenty more to say it is a tree,” suggesting that there are certain things that can’t be said in prose or poetry alone. 

And yet Meng investigates more than just lapses or spaces in time; she’s also interested in lapses within thought, such as in “R.I.P. Baby Hummingbirds,” where the speaker notes that she often mispronounces “depth” as “death,” a substitution which is “Not a slip / but a lapse becoming / its own invalid gift.” It’s no surprise, then, that another organizing image of the collection is that of a bridge, spanning over lapses in time and space; it is the building of a bridge itself, Meng argues, that “defines the middle distance,” spanning what was the “roaring expanse before a bridge exists.” Her examples range from the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge—as photographed by Ansel Adams, a photo she references in her notes—to the passageway located between two black holes, called an Einstein-Rosen bridge.

Meng proves herself again and again to be quite at home switching between different forms and structures, from more formal lyric styles to casual prose poems. Several of her poems are haunted by the ghost of a phantom sestina: “Powerless against its outward reaching / my sestina went rogue. / This is not that sestina,” she writes in “Alternator, Also Known as Lunar Caustic, Occurring in the Interstices, and My Trip to the San Francisco Academy of Science.” She uses the theory of the sestina—that is, ideas of repetition and interweaving, culminating in the intricate final envoy—to create a form-less sestina:

Now back to that sestina I’ve been meaning to write.

The envoy went something like this:
There were synchronicities in my in-box that Valentine’s Day
yesterdaytoo stark to explain

as synchronicities & valentines often are.

After this, she asserts, “This is not that sestina. But also it is.” The following poem, “The Century Plant,” finally gives us a sestina of sorts, at least at first glance. But look closer and see that Meng takes exciting liberties with the repeating words, swapping out the traditional repetitions for rhyming words and sight rhymes that rotate in dizzying sequence until the final lines where “another century / surrounded by its own collapse / forever spiraling from the source craving / each simultaneous formed & ruined history / until the beat synchs up to the self it overlaps.” Here again we return (as sestinas are wont to do) to the image of time overlapping itself, each tragedy and collapse repeating and ongoing, and formal structures not enough to save anything.

Catherine Meng’s The Longest Solar Eclipse of the Century is a meditation on life as we live it now, both in its dullness (“walking / from point A to point B / and back again, / cutting food / into other shapes of food, / moving the car / every second Tuesday for street sweeping”) and in its intricate beauty. Although Meng seems suspicious (as we all are) of our insta-knowledge and web-reliance, there is also something enriching about sharing a link in a book that anyone at home with a computer can access; the flow of information has never been wider or more democratic. The mere breadth of our knowledge—or its accessibility—somehow doesn’t guard against widespread ignorance or ongoing violence like we might expect; as Meng shows in her collection, the harsh reality of modern life is that it “doesn’t hold up against what I’ve been told.” 

Sunday, March 01, 2015

NEW! Poem by Jack Christian

Jack Christian

You’re the Maestro I’m the Minstrel

I wanted to be a smorgasbord of erotic discourse, 
a sentence running skew to all its logics,
my one job to button up and get magnanimous,
every yawn some kind of artisanal service.

We held a sitcom intervention whenever you showed up.
You small fort of unnamable generosity, never a full-stop.
You, the small god of a compartmentalized trouble factory. 

I mean, who writes an ode to an onion?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

NEW! Poem by Alessandra Lynch

Alessandra Lynch


In the bleeding berries    on the nettle-hill
where pond was a ruse for calm
I gave voice
to what deadened the field    what ended its green
said the word assault, prettier than r____.

Violets whitened.
The thing shrank from its essence.

The words took breath to say    this pushing air away
(as though to dislodge it from the skin to dislodge his breath from your face his voice
from your ear as though to remove space as though to accord you your own space)

Breath lost in one swift pull of winter.

After I said what I said    said the word
assault was prettier.  Assault was less
invasive.  R____ would mean admission and surrender.

The words took breath 

(Hush, hush.  Come, forgiveness.)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

NEW! Poem by James Merifield

James Merifield

-portrait as flooded field

the mud   it eats
and in the middle of summer’s 
wrap   winter’s grave still
cradles the seed in a coffin

so distant   the return of image 
from the mirror   all paced out 
and certain in its placement   setting
so much like   midnight
crows   awatch   from the tree that edges
the woods   light   a star-
pointed reflection in their eyes

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tomaž Šalamun's "Photograph with a Quote from Yazoo"

Tomaž Šalamun

Photograph with a Quote from Yazoo: Deep in Each Other’s Dream

Christ is my sex object, therefore I am 
not an ethical problem. I lead him to the meadows.
Like a little shepherd, I force him to graze.

I root him out and clean his hands. Shall we
rinse ourselves under the tree? And when
we stretch out on the earth and watch the sky,

what moves? Will we have enough heat
for winter? Will we peel potatoes? Will
we make soldiers out of molten lead? Are we

going to the cows with our arms in their muzzles?
Will we bite the horsetail? Watch Mount Nanos.
We’ll hide in the moss, under sheets of glass.

When you took the picture of the tree, did you
take care of the explosion? What do you mean exactly?
The white milk traveling through the veins

into eternity, glazing the dark? I am a little stone
falling into your flesh. I made you twitch
and tied you up. We crucified you.

Translated from the Slovenian by Christopher Merrill and the author

[from Verse, Volume 13, Numbers 2&3]

Tomaž Šalamun's other "Jonah"

Tomaž Šalamun


Pleasure writes history. Bombs resemble
human eggs. You tear them off and throw them
around. They rut. Shepherds wake in the hills.
You see, a grenade falls on your head, it’s landing there.
The ones who were served grew bored. Still I never
saw a whale. Supposedly it swims in the sea. Supposedly
you can stick a mast through its eyes. Yesterday
they killed my darling Jeffrey Dahmer
while he was cleaning a toilet. He had eaten
seventeen young men and ended in blood. Power
is always inherited, never divided. And if a body is raveled
we mend it. Power cannot evaporate. It renews itself
on solemn scaffolds. We, the people who wade in blood,
we’re erotic and fascinating. We write sublime poetry.

Translated by Christopher Merrill and the author

[from Verse, Volume 15.3/16.1]

Tomaž Šalamun poem

Tomaž Šalamun


With juice in my muscles.
I’m not bad, I’m used to it and calm.
I’m dissolving my eyes.
I hear the sail fluttering.
The sun kisses the white linen
thirty times and settles
like a glowing club.
Who cares about refoli!
From the left and the right—the sea!
A quadruped first uses all
four of his legs, he runs over the earth.
The bush scratches, how it tamps down, now this, now
that, but what steps into silk,
a rift in the glue, still on the earth?
Is it still in triumph and juice when it takes off?

No one scratches you softly in heaven. You
can’t roll up your cloven foot,
no granite cube for your
head. Mouldering limbs have meaning.
The air is grayish bronze,
someone is burning linen tablecloths,
the calves are drunk and dazed.

You catch your lungs,
they roll over and uncover
a fresh cherry pie, someone
unwinds it before it was poured
into the piepan. Plants grow
into it and out,
the skin fits like the moon.

Do you remember my blue bathing suit
and the record for the hundred-meter freestyle?
How you stretched above the splits.
And your rested pulse,
a little like a twitching fish,
a little like a fish fanning itself.

Translated by Christopher Merrill and the author

[from Verse, Volume 15, Number 3/Volume 16, Number 1]

RIP, Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014)

In honor of Tomaž and his artistic legacy, Verse will be posting some of his poems that have appeared in the magazine over the past 20 years.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

NEW! Review of Allison Titus

The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To Do With Fire by Allison Titus. Etruscan Press, $15.

Reviewed by Brynne Rebele-Henry 

Alison Titus’s devastating debut novel The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To Do With Fire is a harshly illuminated lament: the prose forms a death chant for life itself. The novel emerges as a gorgeous planet of melancholy, its language spiraling in deep space, as its three protagonists, haunted by loss, become satellites of isolation in their orbits of town and home and body. Their collective orbit begins in a small stretch of town illuminated by the flash of Titus’s lyrical prose. Titus gathers her words like stones that she spreads out on a riverbank. Sometimes the words roll like a new, extra-terrestrial language:
A skirt of flame, smoke plumes petticoating wide, roaming, layer after layer of fire trembling the dark forest, a floating furnace that illuminated the dead pinetops then felled them in swift collapse. The smoke coarsened room, coarsened lung, and mapped over the dwindling hours with embers and ash. … Morning was an ugly country no one dared to name.

The novel’s central character, Vivian Foster, is a neurotic house sitter who has a ritual in which she tries to find the names closest to hers in newspaper obituaries every morning. In an attempt to divine the day and method of her death, she tallies the letters in the names to score points, “the fewer points the better.” She lives in a premature funeral with no guests, “submitting to the idea of death in all its terrible versions,” and she writes obituaries for herself as well: 

Much later Vivian stared at the guest room ceiling, thinking about it. If she died in this city, it would be from drowning. ... She closed her eyes, held her breath and tried to imagine it. The pitch black, the thick water that pulled through her clothes, pummeled her arms her legs her face and burned sharp as it flooded her nose, mouth, throat, lungs—she’d choke hard before blacking out, which she knew would be painful but she wasn’t sure how, exactly…

After moving to a small town to watch the house for a woman whose husband has disappeared, Vivian meets Ronny, an arsonist, and they become romantically involved. Ronny takes a job as a janitor at a hospital, where he meets a renowned plastic surgeon trying to build the first human wings. The surgeon asks Ronny to serve as his test subject, but before Ronny can decide, Vivian’s mother dies, so they drive to Nebraska together. The trip is a disaster from the outset, but Titus’s prose is a stunning incantation:

The sky, splayed so keenly white and threshed to an invisible zenith, deleted every minor thing: the field assembled with its vast epiphany of barren land; a couple trees; a crow; the car with Ronny and Vivian in it. Hard to tell, way out, what was sky and what wasn’t, how it settled over the world out there as an uninterrupted sheet of clabbered white. 

When they arrive at the trailer where her mother lived, they find Vivian’s estranged twin brother Seth: 

She could almost forget she had a brother, since they hadn’t been in touch for years. He was obscured, he was part time, he was in hiding. He was a mime. He was no forwarding address/no longer at this address/undeliverable. He was a postcard back in March that said I am an exhibit at the state fair. They were twins, but that didn’t mean much that Vivian could vouch for. They weren’t psychically connected. Vivian and Seth weren’t aligned in some intrinsic, magical twin way and never had been.

Ronny drives home to see the surgeon, and Vivian, confronting the various remnants of her mother’s descent into insanity, has her own escalating, character-redefining breakdown. She follows Ronny a few days later. The novel’s final pages, rife with revelation and tragedy, boil over into a bruising, yet inevitable, conclusion.

The Arsonist’s Song is a song for every bone that has ever been broken, cast, healed or not healed, that has ever been torn from the body. For every vertebra or piece of marrow that has been taken from the spine. For every attempt at flying that has ended badly, or too successfully. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

NEW! Three poems by Jeffrey Skinner

Jeffrey Skinner



Who would the sky help thinking 
Crisp wrought iron shadows 
Asked what I wanted
Got what I asked, more & less

Game of life-sized air hockey
Little faces to knock you down dead 
Maybe if I had a look at the poet
I could upload the poetry

I’m talking consciousness, Bub 
How it anchors & tugs
Then lets out a flying laugh
O you windup machine of meat!

—Iron bars at its feet—
Man alone is an end in himself


Did you get what you wanted?
Mass of unconnected wires
Plank extending from flatbed, red flag 
Little gods of approximation

Smack of flesh on flesh
I move my chair for a different view 
If only I had sleek Europe!
Not just plugging like into like

Belief also chooses
A soul made of many tiny robots 
Sky atilt, trees piled bottom left 
Short-shorts with cuffed hems

Moral to the smallest button
I have what I want & will, always

The Flood

I dig for something cool
I snarl as well as kiss
I bring mother’s death closer 
I open doors in the river

I dial a smaller wish
I don’t agree with my position 
I see mother claw the screen
I hawk, I dog, I ant, I fish

I prank up as if an angel
I give man & chair equal weight 
I whine like a tooth
I break myself on text

I pull mother’s soft ribbon 
I let the Ohio find her

Monday, October 27, 2014

NEW! Review of James Pate

The Fassbinder Diaries by James Pate. Civil Coping Mechanisms, $12.95.

Reviewed by Erica Bernheim

Growing up in Italy before the internet, my sister and I maintained meticulous lists of the most ridiculous translations we encountered, translations that were neither literally correct literally nor entirely phonetic. Often, we noticed, there was a food element, something decadent, decaying, or simply just off: the local movie theater showing “Ratty and Ham” (instead of U2’s “Rattle and Hum”), “Porky Coolness” (a strange rendering of salsiccia dolce, or sweet sausage). Coincidentally, the pig—both as animal and symbol and consumable object—features heavily throughout The Fassbinder Diaries, James Pate’s 2013 collection of “filmic poetry.” Upon its publication, The Fassbinder Diaries received well-deserved attention from a number of readers and critics who praised the wide scope of Pate’s lens as well as the generosity of his allusiveness, the pop culture references made both familiar and ominous throughout the text. In a Montevidayo post, Johannes Goransson alludes to Pate’s formative years in Memphis, a city which evokes crime and decay and a specific type of Southern grittiness replacing the more straightforward gothic tropes. In this instance, as in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, realism can become much more horrifying than the imagined. 

By structuring this collection around the notion of the late director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the author of this collection establishes himself either as someone who really likes Fassbinder, or—more interestingly— as someone considering what it means to be perceived as someone who likes Fassbinder. Pate is not writing exclusively about the films; he is writing about the experience of watching them, whether in the first or the third person, his words often mimicking the techniques in the films themselves. The Fassbinder Diaries is a text about art, cinematic and problematic, exclusionary, and contradictory. We are inside the movies and then we are clearly outside of them outside, floating in the meta, “the Catonic Room” (“U-Bahn”), and we are navigating the territory as newly released synesthesiac agoraphobics or clostraphiles: “I hear, among other things, your fingers with their crowns of blood.” Each poem is a striation; the book is the muscle, pulsing with energy perverse and erotic, as we are never loved exactly the right way, the aforementioned compromise cum exploitation, the magnetic boomerang-esque projection of the idea: “The figure without hair probes part of its thinner shoots into the soft patches of the figure without brains and the figure with only a few branches of meat curls around the figure that consists of pink mist” (“Exhibit x:”).

“Return of the Holy Beasts” is where, for me, The Fassbinder Diaries navigates the most surprising territory. We have a clear sense of the speaker, even as s/he shifts between ages, times, locations, (perhaps more reminiscent of Orlando than Fassbinder in places), but anchored to the banal as a way of navigating and, ultimately, moving towards nowhere. Some of the questions this collection anticipates are also banal: the difference between poem and prose poem, the (auto) biography and its value as artifact, and Pate seems well-aware of how such territories have been previously broached. For instance, in “Imperial Tangos,” as the entire poem reads: “The endless boulevards extend among endless extractions.” Precisely half as long as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,”  in this poem Pate is less concerned with Imagism than with the machinations of readers and critics, eternally bound to finding meaning and following all possible paths in a text in search of that elusive signifying, something to be proven, something victorious. 

While rereading this text, I thought of that distance between translation and original, the humor that comes not necessarily from a joke or utterance, but from the mere presence of a word where it is not supposed to be. There must be a long German word that encapsulates this, and if so, I have little doubt that Pate, as Ken Baumann says, “gets it,” but keeps it from his readers. Throughout the entire collection, the diary motif returns, as does the idea of reading on more than one level. In “The Double Life of Mick Jagger,” we enter the culmination of the doubling, although it explicates little for the reader. The doubling is a complication, rather than an explication, a wrinkle rather than a clean crease. The images throughout the collection are stacked, fitting tightly together, but allowing for the unexpected. In an earlier essay about Fassbinder’s fourteen hour film, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Pate himself describes the work as, “cavernous and roomy and full of echoes and a dizzying amount of characters wander through it.” This effect is certainly present in The Fassbinder Diaries, and as the collection resists the human impulse towards classification, it also reflects characteristics from Fassbinder’s films, creating a connection where we would expect one to be.

Part Two of Pate’s collection veers from reimaginings of Fassbinder’s daily schedules and into a consideration of his “first theatrical production at a farm in southern Germany.” The seven poems in this section position the aforementioned pig against humans (“The pig has a human wail and the pig has a human tongue”) and also place the human speaker in their domain: “I am fond of pig parties. / I have been to many pig parties” (from “Pig Knot”). These pigs are not Mina Loy’s “Pig Cupid,” yet they are immersed in a sort of erotic garbage, rooting in search of something unspeakable and unnamable. Animals show up later in “Dream of the varying Pork Cloud,” an ominous poem which personifies dreams and ends with possible dream interpretations of mice, rats, tigers, and panthers, ultimately foregrounding the ridiculousness of the idea of trying to define or decipher one’s own dream.

The Fassbinder Diaries ends not only with the final entries in the imagined diary, but with the reprise of an eight-question quiz which appeared earlier in the text. In the earlier version, Fassbinder is the subject of the questions, which begin with his birthplace and end with his death and an examination of it. In the second version of the quiz, it’s Querelle (the protagonist in Fassbinder’s final film, released posthumously in 1982). I read this as the inevitable conflation of one’s own life with one’s creative work, the desire on the part of the audience to substitute the artist for the protagonist, particularly when death is involved. This is also another type of translation. Fassbinder is dead; long live his diaries.

Monday, September 22, 2014

NEW! Review of Karla Kelsey

A Conjoined Book: Aftermath & Become Tree, Become Bird by Karla Kelsey. Omnidawn Publishing, $17.95. 

Reviewed by Catherine Kyle

In Karla Kelsey’s A Conjoined Book: Aftermath & Become Tree, Become Bird, disparate things coexist in tenuous but elegant union. The tranquility of nature interlocks with decay, contamination, and violence. Fairy tale joins with historical anecdote. Descriptions of painterly techniques are juxtaposed with meditations on astronomy, Descartes, and Galileo. The book itself, as the title suggests, invites a kind of “conjoined” or double vision, challenging readers to form connections between linked but separate things. Aftermath and Become Tree, Become Bird exist in recursive harmony, each teasing out new meanings in the other. 

Aftermath opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that conflates the speaker’s subjectivity with the sea. This excerpt sets the tone for the first portion of Kelsey’s conjoined book, which thoughtfully explores the parallels between human consciousness and nature. In “Landscape of Vantage & Soft Motion,” she writes:

… the
river is not just the river but holds legends in relief. The
woman in reeds breathing murky water. The man &
the stone that was starred. Pages begin to disintegrate 
& so she puts them into a glass cylinder & buries it
under the holly tree.

While this bond between humans and nature is frequently generative, it also necessitates joint suffering. Kelsey’s subjects and speakers experience decline in concert with their settings:

mercury into
the watertable

(the scald
filled me 

In an interview with Omnidawn co-editor Rusty Morrison, Kelsey explains that part of her inspiration for the book came from her time spent in Pennsylvania, a land that both awed her with its beauty and pained her with its long history of environmental degradation. This disquieting blend of admiration and horror is brought to bear in her work as she orchestrates imagery that encompasses both: “I /   was your / Rose, your Lily, your Loralie dying over & over with the slow pause of an early / silver screen, grass gone nickel, skin gone glycerin.”
True to her understated approach to such turbulent themes, the catalyst of the subjects’ waning vitality is never explicitly named. Speaking from the negative space of undisclosed events—the perimeter, the echo of catastrophe rather than the catastrophe itself—Kelsey dwells in effect rather than cause. This is perhaps most deftly achieved in her series of “Afterimages” that read as both part of and additions to the poems that immediately precede them:

the sun

the pen

increasingly estranged. 


… In pictures his
face has gone blanched from scald from freeze. The car a
sun a chair that wouldn’t that couldn’t go.

As is apparent in this passage, Kelsey’s work bears certain hallmarks of modernist writing, foregoing standard punctuation in favor of free-flowing thought. Hyphenated phrases such as “the seen-through-a-glass” and “the wait-in-the-doorway-until-you-recognize” invite consideration of the relationship between perception, understanding, and language. The author also toys with form, rearranging and repeating poem titles, interspersing asterisks and footnotes, and substantially altering her use of line breaks from one piece to the next. These techniques, which also appear in the second half of the conjoined book, reveal a keen interest in expression and a willingness to take linguistic risks. 

Like Aftermath, Become Tree, Become Bird opens with an epigraph, this one from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “The Juniper Tree.” This story, in which a wicked stepmother murders her stepson and frames her daughter for the act, forms the backbone of the text. Kelsey unfolds the story gradually, interlacing it with echoes of Afterimage (some line-for-line) in addition to plenty of new images and themes. Though it has a somewhat narrative quality, Become Tree, Become Bird is more than a poetic retelling of “The Juniper Tree.” With its abrupt shifts from the intimate and personal to the historic and public, Kelsey troubles the boundaries between confessional and expository writing:

Shadow: Your hair smelled of smoke & ash & I have not forgotten departure 
sketched on thin paper. …
Source: The sources used by the Brothers
Grimm were demonstratably literary & many of their tales are not
exclusively German. From the 1812 edition on, one way the Grimms made
their fairy tales seem authentically German was to render them in some form
of dialect. 

This questioning of the supposedly monolithic subdivisions of literature evolves as Kelsey reflects on the invisible dialogue that undergirds all reading: “True readers always read creatively,” she writes in “Interstitial Weather Remnant.” In another poem by the same title, she adds, “Performers do not repeat their texts word for word but introduce changes into them.” This is a book that asks us to imagine, to fill in gaps, and even to invent. Many of its strongest moments are those that make readers conscious of their own presence, which, as Kelsey suggests, is synonymous with their own participation. Become Tree, Become Bird encourages us to regard text as something living, protean, and wily, much like the soul of the stepson who reemerges in new guise. 

The body of A Conjoined Book is followed by a “Sources” page—a list of books, images, and internet searches that Kelsey “is indebted to.” The breadth of sources illustrates the author’s curiosity, and the bibliography lends one final flourish to her work’s thematic apophenia. An intellectually nuanced and formally refreshing read, A Conjoined Book is a layered set of mirrors reflecting nature, tragedy, resilience, and the spaces where these things meet in contradiction and symbiosis.