Tuesday, December 14, 2004

20th anniversary issue

Verse 1995-2004: The Second Decade

600+ pages of poetry by writers from more than 20 countries

Pre-order the 20th anniversary issue of Verse and save 25%

Cover price: $20
Verse blog price: $15 (+ $3 postage)

Buy two copies and save 40% on the second copy: $30 for two copies (+$5 postage).

Special rates available for classroom orders (10 or more copies). Please contact Brian Henry at bhenr [at] yahoo [dot] com if you are interested in assigning the 20th anniversary issue of Verse in your classes.

Poets included:

Agha Shahid Ali
K.E. Allen
John Allison
Jorge Carrera Andrade
Rae Armantrout
Simon Armitage
John Ashbery
Jan Baeke
Coleman Barks
Benno Barnard
Jeanne Marie Beaumont
Joshua Beckman
John Beer
Josh Bell
Charles Bernstein
Javant Biarujia
Mark Bibbins
Linda Bierds
Judith Bishop
Bruce Bond
Charles Borkhuis
Marianne Boruch
Janet Bowdan
Peter Boyle
Andrea Brady
Lucie Brock-Broido
Lee Ann Brown
Pam Brown
Oni Buchanan
joanne burns
John Burnside
Siobhán Campbell
C.S. Carrier
Hayden Carruth
Paul Celan
Maxine Chernoff
Kate Clanchy
Pura Lopez Colome
Shanna Compton
Gillian Conoley
Clark Coolidge
Matthew Cooperman
Joshua Corey
Cynie Cory
Robert Crawford
Keki N. Daruwalla
Jordan Davis
Olena Kalytiak Davis
Cort Day
Sarah Day
Ales Debeljak
Gerardo Deniz
Ray DiPalma
Milan Djordjevic
Joseph Donahue
Timothy Donnelly
Michael Dumanis
Marcella Durand
Russell Edson
Gunter Eich
Elke Erb
Luciano Erba
Clayton Eshleman
Jenny Factor
Paul Farley
Michael Farrell
Gary Fincke
Mark Ford
Graham Foust
David Gascoyne
Amy Gerstler
Melanie Giles
Ray Gonzalez
Noah E. Gordon
Arielle Greenberg
Lavinia Greenlaw
Vona Groarke
Allen Grossman
David H.W. Grubb
Barbara Guest
Judith Hall
Barbara Hamby
Joshua Harmon
J.S. Harry
Kevin Hart
Matthea Harvey
Steve Healey
Michael Heller
Kris Hemensley
W.N. Herbert
Tracey Herd
Bob Hicok
Jessica Hornik
Christine Hume
David Ignatow
Alojz Ihan
Phillipe Jaccottet
Ervin Jahic
Kathleen Jamie
Christopher Janke
Lisa Jarnot
Eugen Jebeleanu
Kimberly Johnson
Peter Johnson
Barbara Jordan
Hedi Kaddour
Joy Katz
S.K. Kelen
Karla Kelsey
Richard Kenney
Venus Khoury-Ghata
Marzanna Bogumila Kielar
John Kinsella
August Kleinzahler
Caroline Knox
Kenneth Koch
John Koethe
Yusef Komunyakaa
Nancy Kuhl
Kevin Larimer
John Latta
Radmila Lazic
Katy Lederer
David Dodd Lee
David Lehman
Alissa Leigh
Ben Lerner
Phillis Levin
Emma Lew
Petter Lindgren
Timothy Liu
Lisa Lubasch
Roddy Lumsden
aonghas macneacail
Paul Maliszewski
Claire Malroux
Malinda Markham
Dionisio D Martinez
Pierre Martory
Ted Mathys
Glyn Maxwell
Susan Maxwell
Medbh McGuckian
Jerry McGuire
Heather McHugh
Paula Meehan
Richard Meier
Jennifer Militello
Matthew Miller
Peter Minter
Edwin Morgan
Paul Muldoon
Judy Nacca
Daniel Nester
Eilean Ni Chuilleanain
Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill
Geoffrey Nutter
Conor O’Callaghan
Julie O’Callaghan
Dennis O’Driscoll
Caitriona O’Reilly
Jena Osman
Ruth Padel
Eric Pankey
Ethan Paquin
Seth Parker
Don Paterson
Ricardo Pau-Llosa
Vera Pavlova
Alexandria Peary
Peg Peoples
Simon Perchik
Teresa Pfeifer
Peter Porter
Kevin Prufer
Carol Quinn
Justin Quinn
Amudha Rajendran
Peter Ramos
Heather Ramsdell
Claudia Rankine
Srikanth Reddy
Peter Redgrove
Donald Revell
Rebecca Reynolds
Peter Richards
Aleksander Ristovic
Ana Ristovic
Yannis Ritsos
Robin Robertson
Matthew Rohrer
Rachel Rose
Peter Rose
Catie Rosemurgy
Carol Rumens
Tessa Rumsey
Gig Ryan
Tracy Ryan
Tomaz Salamun
Mary Jo Salter
Mukta Sambrani
Fiona Sampson
Standard Schaefer
Robyn Schiff
Susan M. Schultz
Leonard Schwartz
Jo Shapcott
Laurie Sheck
Reginald Shepherd
Craig Sherborne
Spencer Short
Eleni Sikelianos
Martha Silano
Charles Simic
Bruce Smith
Iain Crichton Smith
Gustaf Sobin
Laura Solomon
Gary Soto
Peter Steele
Ales Steger
Jesper Svenbro
Cole Swenson
James Tate
Emily Taylor
Jeet Thayil
Tony Tost
John Tranter
Lisa Turner
Lee Upton
Nanos Valaoritis
Karen Volkman
Diane Wald
Steven Waling
Mark Wallace
Chris Wallace-Crabbe
William D. Waltz
Joe Wenderoth
Jason Whitmarsh
Dara Wier
Lucy Wilks
Diane Williams
Terence Winch
CD Wright
Charles Wright
John Yau
David Yezzi
Dean Young
Kevin Young
Ivana Zuzul

Monday, December 13, 2004

Four new reviews today

of Pam Brown, Marianne Boruch, Maram al-Massri, & Quarterly West.

Coming up in early January:

reviews of James Doyle, Charles O. Hartman, Ruth Stone, Forklift, Ohio, plus poems.

NEW! Review of Pam Brown

Dear Deliria by Pam Brown. Salt Publishing.

Reviewed by Naomi White

Pam Brown’s Dear Deliria, dating from 1970 to 2002, isn’t chronologically organized or grouped by original publication, thus offering a survey of Brown’s work without boxing in the pieces. Brown purposely leaves out an introduction, allowing her work to exist without commentary. This seems appropriate because of the work’s fascinatingly autobiographical feel. In “Eyes on Potatoes” she pulls the reader into a glimpse of her own life:
downloading Laurie’s poems
pages flutter off the printer tray
and get mixed up with bits of Bolton’s.
I walk out to look up at the vast sky
lit by a huge full moon     the night
is tranquil      everyone’s indoors watching
crap tv      the muffled sounds of soaps

However, unlike many so-called confessional poets, Brown doesn’t waste words. Rather, she appears anxious in her presentation of her life and thoughts. The last stanza of “The ing thing” is refreshing: “taking so long / to write the book-- / only to be / remaindered.” Because Brown writes about a poet struggling to finish her own thoughts, her poems are appealing and accessible. By outwardly looking at herself from a reader’s perspective, Brown avoids pretension and didactism. The normalcy and non-academic scene of “Montreal,” in which Brown writes, “I force myself to write this, / to stay awake        while doing so / in the public library on Saturday afternoon,” offers a fresh alternative to the stateliness of highbrow academia.

Despite Brown’s resistance to being pegged as an academic, her poems make a clear statement about her self-perception--as a poet first, as a woman and Australian second. Her audience seems to be at the forefront of her attention in many of her poems, as in “Eyes on Potatoes”: “but should I continue      my poem will be constructed / as ‘funny’ like my inclusion of some notes on a reading.” This self-conscious appeal to the reader to withhold judgment on her work is engaging because it plays into the confessional feel of Brown’s poetry. Her work also has a feminist slant, but the women she mentions in her work are almost always poets. For example, Alice Notley, like Brown, found a voice for "the new woman" in her own time, but her first aim was to make a poem rather than present a platform of social reform. Unlike Notley, however, Brown’s struggles do not come from gender inequality, but from an internal struggle to find the language she feels is necessary. In “Fifty-Fifty” she writes, “I am dimly / jealous of / Alice Notley ‘who now permanently lives / in Paris’; / something / I wish / my notes / might say.”

The subject matter of Brown’s poems is often entrenched in the routines of everyday life. She varies the setting, switching between the suburban/urban and the pastoral, and she refers to city life in “Sheer veneer:”
the biggest buildings
full of
chinless wonders

who drown
in their own
useless evenings

they move
like cows
in big tuxedos

Here, Brown develops a cynical tone through her unflattering images. The word “wonders” drips with sarcasm and disdain, especially following the unattractive modifier “chinless.” In the midst of the urban subject matter, she incorporates rural descriptors, such as describing the businessmen as cows. According to John Kinsella, in an interview with Brown in Jacket, “The mundane and the illuminated morph together textually in [Brown’s] work and the bricklayer is not superior to the musician, or vice versa.” Because the rural image of cows and the urban image of tuxedos are equally unpleasant, Brown does not setting one above the other.

The mundane holds power for Brown, and she devotes a considerable amount of time to it: mocking it, beautifying it, and showing it in her own daily life. “In Ultimo” takes vivid snapshots of daily urban life, playing with the notion of the value of everyday routine:
up to the third floor
for a lean
& a musing--
what colour’s my posture
what colour’s my posture

here’s the view
from the balcony --
grey and darker grey
brick wall          office
windows          computer
screens & tv screens
nearly always on

Brown finds energy in her use of dualites. She seems to struggle with opposing ideals of urban and rural, academic and domestic, foreign and familiar. Not only does she present opposing images, but her style creates another layer of duality. In “A life transcendent” Brown uses alliteration to enhance the duality: “between sips / of / porphyry pearl,” “facsimiles / float around / the firmament,” “place the poem.” Through the repetition in sounds, she furthers the idea of doubleness in the poem. To stand out against the echo of the alliteration, she also uses contrasting abstractions, such as “ you are / glad and sorry / all at once,” to emphasize the tension between two opposites. Through this, Brown avoids placing judgment and is able to find beauty in the contrasting ideas.

The intimacy and forward nature of Brown’s poetry is immediately inclusive. Even recreational readers of poetry will find pleasure in Dear Deliria, but it is by no means dumbed down or without deeper literary merit. Rather, Brown finds a distinct place that includes all readers, inviting them into her poems and, through her writing, her life.

NEW! Review of Quarterly West

Quarterly West #58 (Summer 2004). $8.50.

Reviewed by Becky Rodia

Prior to receiving the Summer 2004 issue of Quarterly West for the purpose of this review, I hadn’t read an issue in about four years. I used to admire Quarterly West for taking risks while remaining accessible and enjoyable. The Summer 2004 issue, however, wanders far out into risky territory, often leaving meaning and accessibility behind, particularly in the nonfiction selected for this issue (the sloppy proofreading didn’t help matters either; the issue is peppered with typos and errors). Despite the uneven quality of the individual pieces, however, the issue is commendably cohesive in respect to the editors’ specific tastes. A reader more in tune with the editorial sensibility currently in place at Quarterly West might find more that speaks to him or her in the Summer 2004 issue than I did.

The first few pieces are deceptively solid QW fare. Stephanie Harrison’s short-shorts, “Lists” and “Bereft,” skillfully telegraph loss and emptiness. The couple in Peter LaSalle’s story “Marche aux Shadows” moves through the dreamlike, haunting scenes, struggling with the specifics of what can and cannot be known, wondering if they’re truly on the road to the “shadow” market of the title.

Shortly after these respectably risky opening pieces, I encountered Lance Larsen’s essay, “Looking for Spiral Jetty,” winner of the 2003 Writers @ Work award for nonfiction. Though the piece achieves its overarching goal of placing Robert Smithson’s earthwork into a context, getting there is a struggle. The writing is cluttered with inept neologisms (“zenned myself into tranquility”), cliches (perhaps the most egregious of which is Larsen’s use of a dictionary definition of “jetty” to serve as an entire, brief section of the essay), and tortured metaphors (Larsen describes one of Smithson’s essays as “so torqued with technical and hallucinogenic language that I felt I was inside one of those fast food salad containers that has been violently shaken until every sentence drips with too much dressing”). What Larsen’s essay lacks in style, it ultimately makes up for in meaning. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for other nonfiction pieces in the issue, most notably the inscrutable “Conjuring” by Mary Cappello, which reads like a stream-of-consciousness journal entry (Cappello’s biographical note states that she works in “experimental prose forms,” and though I was able to understand the experimental nature of the piece, I grasped little else) and Kyle Thompson’s “Biographies Toward An Unknown Author,” which indulges in cliche after cliche about the writing life (“the novelist’s wife knocks softly . . . on his office door, and then finally breaks in to find him there . . . all bones, and his books perched fat on their shelves”) and the joys of reading (“This morning, for instance, I resurrected Chekhov and Bulgakov . . . They wandered around the room bumping into each other . . . sharing news from home”).

The fiction is stronger. While I felt Harrison and LaSalle were the standouts, Janice Levy’s “Between the Rhymes” does a good job of depicting the detached shock of a woman whose husband has recently died, and Ann Pancake handles image-laden stream-of-consciousness adeptly in “Coop,” a story about rebellion at a camp for disadvantaged girls:
The girls throbbed in the doorway, four or five deep.The girls throbbing, the howl a blood-orange come-here spiral, the girls piled, arms thrown across backs, heads over shoulders, and everyone quivering against the rule. Throbbing. They never broke it.

Come morning, they found out the other coop had tried to burn their bunkhouse down.


The poetry selected for this issue is solid. Stephen Cramer’s “The Whetstone” takes the unearthly sound of a musical saw as the jumping-off point for an acutely felt, beautiful meditation on loss:“one edge can slice you / while the other keeps singing.” The wry poems of Mike Dockins and Kurt S. Olsson are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking, particularly Dockins’s “Notes Toward the Last Poem on Earth,” a list of events--or lack thereof--that would render poetry unnecessary (“No thin layer of ash covers the town,” “Glacial ice recedes at a sensible rate,” “Even the hangovers are tolerable,” etc.) and Olsson’s “Chicken Man,” an homage to characters who frequent cheap restaurants, “retail familiars” who are tolerated, even needed, “so long as there’s no cause to rummage beyond the twitch, the lisp / the change purse a blackjack of tarnished pennies, / the lost child.”

Donald Platt’s “Spring Theophanies” is a wonderfully dizzying rush of reversals. No sooner is something given than it’s taken away, as in the first five lines:
     The pear trees
put on their white see-through chemise of blossoms
          that the season will strip

from them until they stand shy, shivering with rain,
          and green . . .

The poem’s alternating litany of progress and destruction, life and death, bestowing and denying, is tempered with brief pauses: “Consider the all-night laundromats . . .” “Consider also the day lilies . . .” Everything that bursts forth in this poem inevitably subsides or is negated, leaving one with the feeling that April surely is the cruelest month.

NEW! Review of Marianne Boruch

Poems: New and Selected by Marianne Boruch. Oberlin College Press, $19.95.

Reviewed by Jenn Blair

Marianne Boruch’s Poems: New and Selected opens with “The History of The,” a twelve-part poem that spans nine pages. One part opens “something flashes      in this hollow between buildings.” The poem presents many such small smudges of permanence--kernels the heart swims back upstream to meet and memories the mind continually coalesces around despite the forward pull of chronology and the endless driftings of clouds: “The room is cool / as the past is cool in its / immaculate way. Dark hallways. Even in summer, / the rooms there . . . Meanwhile, my grandfather / read by the window. And I gathered myself / though there was no self yet / to gather. How to say this? I watched / light fall on him and all his years: / beautiful, courtly.” How and when are we born? Boruch’s poetry suggests a few answers: Here and there. Long ago. Eventually.

After “The History of The,” Section One officially begins, presenting readers 25 new poems that poems brim with autumn leaves, tulip trees, stick-on glow in the dark stars, cats, and ROTC boys--familiar landscapes, but ones presented with an uncommon depth of observation. One new poem, “Double Double,” seems an unassuming ars poetica. The poet describes the space where she goes to write (her son’s old room), then shares, “I wait all this. And wait, / to clicks of sparrow, the tuneless / finch--my window’s up. Write write! because-- / I don’t know. Birds close down / for a fine few seconds.” A lovely last line, but slight recompense--and as for the self-induced command? Flown off into exasperation. This rupture, however, arguably creates the same effect as George Herbert’s vocational agonies do in “The Collar,” or Milton’s Sonnet Twenty-Six (on blindness). Poems such as these do not falter so much as break into candor, and once they mend themselves, the recovered calm carries an even greater authority. The speaker has considered the price, but still presses ahead. In “Double Double,” the poet grows placid again, and more, concluding, “Take a room. Then quiet the world in there. First, it’s small.”

Other new poems in the collection contain subtle, but powerful, voices. In “The Way the Dying Hear Things,” the speaker witnesses a “nurse busy / with another patient, now lift / your other leg, voice too high, / vapid sweet.” Here, a moment most turn away from must now be looked at, and considered. “Elegy” makes effective use of repetition, creating an almost incantory cadence: “Before the basil blackened. Before plates / slept in their cupboard. Before the streets / were snow. Before the song started in the throat / or crept sideways into the hands that hold the cello / or the moon spilled to nonsense all / over the floor.” The poem is so simple, so seamless and perfect, readers easily glide right past the line “Before our son grew so eye to eye” before stopping, turning around, and asking, “Before our son grew so eye to eye? Could there be a more bittersweet way marking time?” One line carries all the world’s dynamite, then explodes it, but subterraneously, leaving everything intact and ringing.

If Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience were mixed in a blender, Boruch’s “Song in Spring” would come pouring out. The poem glides and gilds, but refuses to present youth as a golden age free of care. There is already a shadow over the sun--a sadness in the swagger: “The fuck you is the easy part, yolk of an egg / that loves the sizzling grease, mouse / the trap dreams of, the way cars / veer off at dark, / all headlights until / the curve in the road swallows them. Such / relish. But the what now, and the should I / that’s the loneliness straight. And how many / days and nights, years of that before the body / tells none of its secrets gracefully / but gets used to things broken . . .” After acknowledging the stress of childhood and considering the physical body’s slow demise, the poem ends with a wry, fond paean to one’s early years: “Oh, that / Fuck you in the bright afternoon. Child / with the foul mouth, darkly radiant on the steps. / New leaves maneuver each bud, the blinding / bicycles speed by.”

Poems are like lives, in that ending them well often poses the greatest of agonies. Boruch’s poems, however, seem exempt from this common difficulty. Consider her new poem, “I Imagine the Mortician,” in which the speaker meditates on a fictional undertaker who is unhappy with his vocation, but possibly takes some joy in carefully examining the hands of the dead: “It might be / a hobby of his that perks up the whole / awful business . . .” Although the main focus of the poem is an imagined undertaker, the end of the poem subtly refocuses attention back to the speaker; at this juncture, the geo-physical location of the poem seems to shift, but only in theory. At first, one might have difficulty believing that no particle or atom presented ever stood outside the brilliant lie of the imagination. Still, at the poem’s close, a door slowly opens--a door belonging to a house the poem never left: “. . . My mind-- / only birdsong entered, sound / like pebbles tied together with string / and trailing off. So I let / the mortician in / with his bent curiosity, the reverse / of the new mother who counts / all the toes and fingers / and is so relieved.”

“Pleasure” is much different than “I Imagine the Mortician,” but this poem also comes to a skillful close that mixes observer and subject, until all seems bound up and indistinguishable as Yeats’s Dancer and Dance. After speaking of two young people kissing at the Art Institute, the speaker places herself on a museum bench (then on a haystack in a Monet painting). At the end, her gaze returns to these two lovers, and the voice expands to include any fixture of the building (the speaker, the bench, or a piece of artwork--she might as well be any of them--but the interesting part is that perhaps she really is): “Of course, these two / are young, which is to say, I’m / not anyone, a piece of wood, / a wall. And they’re / invisible.”

After the first section of new poems, the book divides into four more sections, one section for each of Boruch’s previous four collections of poetry. Sections Two, Three, and Four present poems from The Gazebo (1985), Descendant (1989), and Moss Burning (1993), respectively. The more recent a work is, the greater share of representation it receives: Section Five is the largest, presenting 36 poems from Boruch’s most recent work, A Stick that Breaks and Breaks (1997).

The selected poems gives new readers another chance to encounter the birds who “dive/ into invisible walls, / their small heads dashed against pure thought” in “Diamond Breakfast,” and the horse “the color of thick velvet drapes, / years and years of them behind the opera, / backdrop to ruin and treachery, all / innocence and its slow / doomed unwinding of rapture” in the sadly elegant “My Son and I Go See Horses.”
Those already familiar with Boruch are bound to find selections from past works more than apt. They will nod again at the Biology teacher in “The Berlin Wall, 1996” who “cheered and harped / over any bright bit--a fingernail or a piece of scab / down to its cellular tweed.” The inclusion of “Reasons” will reintroduce them to the lover who eloquently confesses, “Third place: a continual slow surprise / at your beauty / which is a kind of country. / I take my citizenship seriously . . .” “Moss Burning,” the elegiac title-work of Boruch’s 1993 collection, is another older poem that can more than withstand resurrection; the poem is so well-wrought, so understated, yet fierce, that even past readers might be startled again.

Selections from A Stick that Breaks and Breaks are especially well-chosen. “Camouflage” touches on “mimicry” and “deception,” speaking of “Secrets in the bones which aren’t / whispers, in the fine / and serious brain / whose best parts / cannot think.” “The Vietnam Birthday Lottery, 1970” is another fine poem. In the poem, the speaker remembers a cluster of girls anxiously listening to the radio: “And each had a birthday / hidden in that quiet like a flame / you’d cup a hand around, / in wind.” Although the speaker was single at the time, she had a friend “whose boy was suddenly born all wrong.”

One of the greatest strengths of Boruch’s poems is their locale: they often situate themselves at the edge (or precipice) of the unexplainable. In a new poem, “Bones Not of This Puny World,” the speaker meditates on saints: “I think / about them, not constantly, just / occasionally, how seen from below, / they were wiry / bent shapes, which meant they were / praying, repeating some / fabulous, modest sentence--forgive me, / mother of all things that walk / or swim or fly, that think / or refuse to think--or they were / simply glazed over, going / lockjawed into that / holy blank.” The sense seems to be that one can begin to peer into such mysteries, but then he or she must quickly back away. In “Piano Tuning,” the speaker cannot watch the man tuning her piano (the act is too private and wonderful and terrible), but she listens (and is altered) all the same: “Because the whole time / it was the slow weight of the tuning hammer, / the metal strings that don’t know / what music is, sweet / dumb narrowest expanse / of the deepest ore, singing out / its genius anyway.”

In the end, there might not be much difference between the saints and the piano presented in the aforementioned poems. Both inhabit the space where sense breaks down and the only thing that matters is uttering the utterance, regardless of what ground the notes fall on. Boruch’s imaginative witness of these “throw away” notes or gestures is not primarily salvaging, or even art. First of all, it’s an act of courage. Before that, a great gift.

NEW! Review of Maram al-Massri

A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor: Selected Poems by Maram al-Massri, translated by Khaled Mattawa. (Bilingual Arabic-English edition.) Bloodaxe Books / Dufour Editions, $23.95 / 8.95 pounds.

Reviewed by Lars Palm

Let’s begin by quoting a poem:

I run         jog          I tarry        rise
                    and descend
I come          close          move away
                    I scream
I moan          pant          fall quiet
                    disappear
                and become
I storm          I rain
I weep          I laugh

A woman in the feast of her ecstasy
thronged by a man’s host of angels.

This is poem # 9 from the book I Look to You by Maram al-Massri, the second of the books from which poems were selected for this volume. The second stanza is a perfect example of the art of murdering a poem; it of no use whatsoever. In fact, when I read it, it took the pleasure out of the first stanza as well.

I recall John Ashbery being interviewed for Swedish radio in the mid-1990s. He was asked how he knew a poem was finished and he replied that he knows a poem is finished when he’s reached the point where whatever else he writes turns out bad and needs to be removed. He also could have said that keeping the bad parts of a poem could easily ruin the good parts of it as well. This is exactly what, to me, is the matter with the poem above. And, let me be blunt about it and get it over with now, I don’t think this volume should have been published. Or let me put it this way: had I been an editor and received this manuscript I would have rejected it rather promptly. Or maybe I’m just not the reader this book needs, whoever that might be.

Maram al-Massri is a poet in her fifties, born in Syria, now living in France. A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is her first book in English, translated by Khaled Mattawa. It is also the title of the first (of two) books from which the selections were made.

What we have here are 142 small poems concerning, love, desire, abandon, the masculine and the feminine written in short, spare lines, originally sequenced as a kind of narrative, although the narrative lines get ruptured when poems are selected for translation. Al-Massri relies heavily on a few key words, which she tries to charge with as much meaning as possible; she also relies on paradox, a longtime poetry classic from Turkey and eastward, and on the technique of taking two fairly straightforward images and adding to them a conclusion that shall give the preceding images some extra depth, as in # 42 of A Red Cherry:
This evening
a man will go out
to look for
prey
to satisfy the secrets of his desires.

This evening
a woman will go out
to look for
a man who will make her
mistress of his bed.

This evening
predator and prey will meet
and mix
and perhaps
perhaps
they will exchange roles.

This poem may in the original have virtues that the translation doesn’t have. I’m thinking here of things like alliteration, that would turn it into something more than the plain or, rather, flat statements that we’ve see in English. Which brings us to the problems of translating from the Arabic. First, it is usually done, at least into western languages, for readers who can’t even read the alphabet the original text is written in. This puts extra emphasis on the demand that the translation be a self-reliant poem, because most of the readers can’t really go back to check with the original. Second, translators from the Arabic are often heard telling that many of the word-roots in Arabic have multiple and quite often contradictory meanings in western languages. This would mean that there is more room for turning one original poem into a variety of (probably quite different) translated poems, than when translating, say, an English poem into Swedish.

Enough complaining. Let us ignore 140 of the poems and focus on the two that I consider functional poems in English. The first one is # 60 from the first sequence:
With my delicious fruit
I light
the way leading to me.

Your stupid birds
prefer
old bread.

This is simple poetry at its best: brief, to the point and, in this case, a bit sarcastic, but also one of the very few poems in this book that feel genuinely felt. The second poem, with which I will end, is a three-liner which is plain beautiful:
What does a horse do
with a beautiful broken
neck?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

NEW! Jennifer Burch poem

Jennifer Burch

HEFT

Work in this room is the heat or subtraction of it
where I am like a giant, the volume never changes
the room is a miniature day or spaceship
floating I descend, an alien-doll
I imagine the determination of others
in order of preference, puppeting me
the work cannot drop out of it, just the origin
something will fall to fracture sleep
it's not easy to be dishonest about the system
persistent heat or its subtraction, unrecognized instincts
peering around the work beneath its order

Friday, December 10, 2004

NEW! Review of Peter Gizzi

Some Values of Landscape and Weather by Peter Gizzi. Wesleyan University Press, $13.95.

Reviewed by Graham Foust

On my first trip to southern California, I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and saw two retrospective exhibits, one featuring the work of Robert Smithson, the other drawings by Ed Ruscha. What struck me most about these shows was how well they fit together; the qualities of one artist bled into the other and felt at home there. Smithson’s work, which for me has always had an air of high seriousness about it, somehow became cartoonish and hilarious--the Hotel Planeque slideshow, for instance, would hardly be out of place in Richard Linklater’s Slacker. On the other side of the museum, Ruscha’s gunpowders, chocolates, and pastels felt like mirror-coated rocks pouring out of a dumptruck and into the adjacent bins of my left and right brain. Humor hadn’t seemed so profoundly playful to me--so seriously funny--in years.

If the sensibilities of these two contemporaries were somehow fused together and instructed to write poems, that compound mind might look and feel something like the mind of Peter Gizzi, a writer who strikes me as an at-once tense and casual excavator of the causal and sensual. Watch how Gizzi’s small poem “In Defense of Nothing” fuses Smithson’s high-flying earthwork and Ruscha’s ground-bound skywriting:
I guess these trailers lined up in the lot off the highway will do.
I guess that crooked eucalyptus tree also.
I guess this highway will have to do and the cars
      and the people in them on their way.
The present is always coming up to us, surrounding us.
It’s hard to imagine atoms, hard to imagine
      hydrogen & oxygen binding, it’ll have to do.
This sky with its macular clouds also
      and that electric tower to the left, one line broken free.

This poem’s first line wouldn’t be out of place in one of Ruscha’s mid-seventies works on paper (one that might hang between “I Was Gasping for Contact” and “Honey, I Twisted through More Damn Traffic Today”), while the last almost seems like it’s been culled from the text of Smithson’s 1967 essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic.”

We might expect poetry in and of the age of Windows to be a little buggy, and it’s perhaps fitting that it takes three tries or titles--three turns of Gizzi’s key--to get this volume started. The book’s first section, “Forensics,” consists of one long poem entitled “A History of the Lyric,” which is itself composed of six individually titled sections, the first of which, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”--and we’re off! (is this on?)--initiates the book’s automobile-as-planetarium theme by cruising the reader through days and nights, past mountains and owls, and under electricities and skies of various stars and stripes. In the poem’s title section, Gizzi writes: “Don’t trade on this high tone // for silence, rather lumen chatter / recalling the better part of majesty.” The better part of “majesty” is “jest,” and while it’s fair to say (and no doubt obvious) that the poem’s tone might originate from Jack Spicer’s down-to-Mars “lowghost,” majesty’s remainder-letters remind us that there’s a bit of Allen Ginsberg’s King of May here, too. To wit, the poem’s coda’s last lines:
When the end was near
I picked up for a moment, joy
came into my voice

Hurry up it sang
in skiffs and shafts
Selah in silver tones

When the day broke open
I became myself
standing next to a door

In my dream, you were alive
and crying


Like much of Ginsberg’s work, “A History of the Lyric” is at ease with the personal--that which Spicer deemed “the big lie”--and yet its final lines turn away from the reality to which any history aspires. The speaker fucks with us by way of a new spin on the old Doors’ title “Alive, She Cried” in the uncontrollable and overdetermined space of a dream, a space where our minds are simultaneously at their best and worst, their truest and most fictional.

To prepare for L.A., I’d been listening to great records about cars, among them DJ Shadow’s 2002 album The Private Press, which opens and closes with a sample of one Novella Johnson, who is cutting/writing a record/letter to a man Shadow’s listeners can know only as Lester. In the first sample, her voice rises from scratchy vinyl and noodling music to say the following (reproduced here to the best of my abilities) about her recent vacation by car:
451 Commercial Avenue
Apartment K
Richmond, California

September 9th, 1951

Dear Lester

I’m sorry I didn’t write before and because this record wasn’t sent which I intended doing before this. Everything went wrong. Tonight, we got together and kept the kids up and decided to have a little fun making this record. But of course, coming up, we didn’t have any trouble, we had a lot of fun. Momma slept all the way, and I didn’t get tired driving, was overanxious. We got in about 12:45, got to Richmond, woke the family up. There are so many things I could say but I just can’t get them together . . . I’ll let you hear from somebody else.

The relative scarcity of both personal letters and vinyl records in our new century (not to mention the sheer odd-ness of a letter sent by record) combines with Novella’s teary, trailing, and yet somehow matter-of-fact voice to evoke a daft--one might even say spastic--melancholy. Indeed, Shadow’s entire record, with its constant mention of automobiles (“Mashin’ on the Motorway,” “Blood on the Motorway”), dissed connections (“Walkie Talkie,” “Giving Up the Ghost”), and discontent (“Fixed Income,” “You Can’t Go Home Again”), seems to insist that we don’t know whether we’re coming or going. While its effects are certainly beautiful and pleasurable, the record never allows its listeners to escape the dark and masterful strangeness; as is the case with some of the Beach Boys records, the shadows that Shadow’s ghostly America casts prove to be more powerful than the sun that makes them possible.

Lyric poetry is a private press of sorts--a single human voice speaking to no one in particular, and yet somehow making public his or her persona. One year after the release of Shadow’s record, we find one of lyric poetry’s most deft practitioners down in the dumps and sampling (from Wallace Stevens’ dump no less!), as he stitches together one of the funkiest and most fortifying collections of our new and often dumbstruck century:
                     Isn’t it great here
just now dying along with azaleas, trilliums,
myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox?
It’s good to be a ghost in America,
light flooding in at this moment
of never coming back to the same person
who knew certain things, certain people,
shafts of light entering a kitchen
at the end of an age of never coming back now.

Here, in what I take to be the centerpiece of his third full-length collection of poems, Peter Gizzi offers up a recitation of resuscitation (a “Revival”) even as that poem’s first line discourages such an activity by way of its speaker’s declaration that “It’s good to be dead in America.” I, for one, have come to expect such contradictions and conundrums from Gizzi, and I always find them delightful, baffling, more than a little scary, and completely relevant to our continuously changing and challenging present. In a time when our various values are being debated, reinvented, upheld, fought for, and/or totally misunderstood, Some Values of Landscape and Weather breathes the rather old craft of poetry into our new formations of life with uncanny candor and skill. Despite--or perhaps because of--his status as one of the most prominent “indie” poets of the last decade, Gizzi is an entirely “major” figure; that today’s academies (or at least Wesleyan University Press) have opened their doors to him bodes well for poetry’s future.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

NEW! L.S. Klatt poem

L.S. Klatt

PSALM OF THE AMPUTEES

Pittsburgh, city of
multi-corporations
we homeless sleep in your parks
   praise us
our golden years--hands
cut down from the trees
released for a season
amber waves of gloria
    in excelsis deo
swept into drifts
the sweet gum leaves

Unreachable as the ocher starfish
anchorites we once held fast
to west           and east coast
but one by one   we picked our way
face down   eating up the miles
traveled on tube feet
(suckers thrown ahead)
attachment
the rest to follow
and whenever a useless arm
had to be severed
Heart would make up for the lost
   limb

Now you are curious--what’s
in the garbage bags? human parts?
                See for yourself
the arm sometimes grows back
slowly   (starry)

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

NEW! Review of Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Curious Conduct by Jeanne Marie Beaumont. BOA Editions, $14.95.

Reviewed by Dorine Preston

The poems in Curious Conduct are varied in both content and form, but still read like the individual components of one unified larger project, so that the pieces proceed as concurrent explorations of adjoining territories. Several categories of poem are interspersed throughout the book, as though three or four decks of poems have been shuffled together; in this way, the arrangement of the collection provides the reader with a pleasant combination of constant change and constant familiarity, since the more pages one turns, the more one can say, “Oh, one of these again,” followed by, hopefully, “I like these.” Naturally, each reader will be better pleased by some categories of poems than others. I am disappointed by the poems in which Beaumont seems to have employed cleverness as an end in itself, and prefer pieces in which she has employed her verbal dexterity as a means to travel somewhere more interesting.

Too many of these poems rely on gimmicky sound effects and start-overs in an unsuccessful attempt to create a sense of writerly inquiry into the role of language in human psychology, how the words we use not only describe our world, but create it, or are a world in themselves. Beaumont explores this idea in real depth in poems like “Skill (A.M.),” where she reminds us, “I could fathom more if I knew more words.” In general, however, texts which interrogate themselves ought to ask themselves harder questions than these poems do; too many of these pieces merely perform the surface gestures of investigation, without any real drive to discovery. The opening poem of the collection, “Chapter One,” is unfortunately one such poem, as is “Ionesco Street,” with its “Good day. Good dog. / Good god! Good night.” and “An entrance required an exit. / Fix it! I said. O-- / pen wide, wide and say blah. / Blah, blah--ah.” These lines seem to be going through the motions, and most of these moves feel too familiar to offer the reader any real surprises.

Saddest of all are the poems which sail along successfully until the very end, a place where Beaumont has an unfortunate tendency to insert the word “soul” where it’s not wanted or to end the poem with a cheap stunt unworthy of the rest of the text. The first instance of this is “Her Parasol,” a wonderfully coy exploration of the repressed erotic which makes shrewd use of both visual arrangement and self-interruption--until the end, where “her soul / spinning and / spinning and” fails to close the reading experience with the satisfaction the reader has been led to expect.

“Circa 1812” makes a similarly unfortunate blunder. The poem takes us on a high-speed tour through both the mundanities and the historical highlights of the period, such as “Not far away, a nursemaid repeats her tale till the older Grimm brother gets it right” and “The young poet, meanwhile, in his attic room above the surgery / dreams of extracting a beautiful tooth . . .” and “Three fleas dance on the bed of a prince.” At its close, though, the poem falls down by giving in to the urge to explain itself to us: we are told, “I’m in my early life as a fly . . .” This lean on the easy laugh of the old saw seems unnecessary; the preceding text has unfolded with a sense of authority that we will be happy to follow wherever it leads, so this fly-on-a-wall explanation feels like an alarming misstep.

Fortunately, Curious Conduct is leavened by lovely oddities such as “Regime” and “The Plenty,” which employ fresh images and music like “The crumbs from his breakfast / bauble the front of his red velvet vest” (“Regime”) and “We two were streams conspiring the river” (“The Plenty”) to draw the reader into small alternate universes where she is happy to linger. In addition, many of Beaumont’s intriguing opening premises for these poems really do pay off, as in “Keep This Letter on Hand at all Times,” which posits a country where the traveler may bring back “a sheet / of the newest imperial postage stamps, the set / with four designs: deck of cards, top hat, two doves, / and a levitating woman,” and where the traveler is instructed, “. . . whenever you leave a room, / promise to name the cheese when you return. / You’ll never fail!” Such quirky gems are only the flashiest of the rewards this text has to offer. Some of Beaumont’s sparest, simplest pieces are also her most successful, as in “Afraid So” and “Rock Said,” both of which proceed with a quiet gravity and keep their jokes on the wry side.

Curious Conduct asks the reader to make some difficult decisions when it comes to the priorities of a poem. Is a little word-play enough? Are we satisfied with a few faint verbal fireworks, or do we demand a show with a purpose? Beaumont’s is a deft hand at both humor and pathos, and the best of these poems combine wit with substance. Good show.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

NEW! Review of Ted Greenwald

The Up and Up by Ted Greenwald. Atelos, $12.95.

Reviewed by Lawrence Giffin

Ted Greenwald, a poet associated with Language writing, has produced nearly thirty books in the past forty years. His newest work, The Up and Up, is number nineteen of a proposed fifty volumes of cross-genre poetry commissioned by the Atelos project and edited by poet Lyn Hejinian and poet/designer Travis Ortiz.

At first glance, The Up and Up seems to walk the line dividing the long poem from the novel. The book is divided into 32 prose poems or chapters of roughly three pages, each poem/chapter divided into short paragraph-like stanzas. Each stanza/paragraph is composed of phrasal fragments of various lengths, consisting of bastardized clichws, decontextualized mottos, puns, paragrams and permutations. The spontaneous, interrupting/interrupted clauses of The Up and Up closely resemble the form of ad copy, randomly bombarding the average person from walls, buildings and billboards, in restrooms and in magazines.

Formally, The Up and Up is a struggle to personalize the public and to publicize the personal. The fragmented non sequitur that makes up the content of the poems reveals itself as an intensely human strategy to consciously create a personal history from impersonal fragments that, on their own, have little meaning. Consider a few stanzas from “Self Phone”:
The perfect place    Keep changing into    Cunt and
prick       Dollar after dollar      Love      Nor money      And meld
Tuesdays    The boat sinks
Well you might ask    That’s what I’ve been      Asking,
asking myself      There’s never enough      Who has       The time
of your life
      It’s that time, again      Moving right along       More left
Where that      Where’d that      Come from?
      I’m coming to      Bear with me      The wolf’s at the door
Crying shh perdition       Hold your horses      Twinge hasp for
sari      Have you heard this one?

The phrases shift between curious bewilderment and formulaic experience. By refusing to distinguish between the value of a sentence fragment and the value of certain common constructions imbedded in everyday English, Greenwald levels the playing field, allowing lines and phrases to shatter and recombine randomly, while allowing the reader to glean a vague narrative through her own interaction with and experience of the text.

What is most remarkable about the book is the range it achieves through seemingly random fragments. One might imagine that prose poetry consisting entirely of disparate fragments would lend itself to a certain unreadabilty, and, to the book’s credit, it does. Greenwald’s work creates a very pleasing ambiguity by delaying semantic finality. Thus, the reader is empowered to join in the struggle to make meaning, becoming personally involved in the poem. One of the more striking examples of a poem that obliges the reader to make her own connections is “Knows What Stop”:
Personal computer      Emerges from a coma      A differ-
ent person      Those are
        A cross between ebb and flow      If anything, something
A sense of bring there      Try describing a good place      Due
to happines      Happen to pass
        A past someone      Feel good time    Line by line      Long
past admission      Prettily wrap pain      But failing for
Pronoun removal
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        Membrane salutations salutation pen      Tonight’s
request      Only you      And you alone      Without backup
Twelve-step      Or otherwise
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        Crosshatch hair      Recedes tidally       Laughing hysterical-
ly      Which someone    Too shall pass      Way to go      See and
say

The beauty and pathos of The Up and Up is a lot like the classical beauty and pathos, only it has been modernized, industrialized and capitalized. The old tropes of time and loss from “Dover Beach” recur in “Knows What Stop” as “A cross between ebb and flow      If anything, something” and “Recedes tidally.” The decontextualized phrases evoke a sense of loss and dejection. The way in which the phrases are presented, separated by large spaces, one is able either to read them as aggregating toward a comprehensive meaning, or to read each phrase alone and attempt to infer its usual context. “Tonight’s request” may be a quote from a deejay or an emcee at a wedding reception. “Only you” could be the song played, perhaps as a long distance request. “And you alone” might be the tail end of a conversation that began, “I love you.” Being “Without backup” is the officer’s greatest fear. Alone, the phrase “Or otherwise” seems opaque, yet in the context of “Knows What Stop” this little non sequitur is the equivalent of a lyric moment for which the reader and writer share responsibility. Finally, what could more succinctly express the book’s project to reclaim language from the uses of ad agencies than the phrase “Pronoun removal” where one is so emotionally bound to someone as to be equally as bound to their semantic presence. “Knows What Stops” is the poem that best illustrates the project of The Up and Up, that of revaluating the purity of our relationship to language and to each other through language.

The Up and Up is a testament to the productive element of reading in conjunction with a text that does not dictate an experience from a sovereign perspective so much as present the reader an object with which she can work and play. The Up and Up is essentially what its title suggests: it is straight with the reader, offering what by right it can--language, and a language that is at face value as unassuming as the speech between friends. The more two people know each other, the less obligated they feel to qualify everything they say; their speech becomes free and fragmented, each trusting in the other’s ability to complete the sentence, sometimes to complete it more perfectly.

Monday, December 06, 2004

NEW! Anthony Robinson poem

Anthony Robinson

SALT FLAT AUGUST

The neighbor in her youth is smiling at my Cuisinart and behind the door from which Brazilian music comes comes also queer noise.

The rain fell seminal down the August-flat day. Cardboard here. By “flat” I mean lacking curves but still shapely.

The neighbor’s youthful pluck does nothing to cure her earnest half-smile. She is like a cold-burning day in a year we can’t remember.

Fahrenheit says sixty-six. I try to instill in my students a sense of warped responsibility: make the world your own bad son. Salt accumulates on a flat surface.

Upstairs, lurks, pantheon, Freon. I don’t know where to get Freon. The Freon black market is closed. I wish they wouldn’t move to Chicago, a flat city.

Windswept is a way to describe a leafy street. Asphalt, fresh paint. Skittering. America is far off and curved if you stand enough away from the globe.

The salt left on the rim of the glass is like the sugar on the lips of the broomstick-shaped neighbor. Both invite and repel.

The mouth of a child in slight weather moves but only produces syllables not language. Across the alley apartment dwellers drink. White dog moves like honey.

It’s an escape fantasy invented by the primary players but two of the three think they only dreamt it.

I am speaking inside a box the things I dare not write for fear of banishment or a stranger’s finger on my cheek.

We’ve moved this far into August my favorite month. America is impossibly away.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Seeking reviewers for

10,000 Dawns: Love Poems of Yvan & Claire Goll (White Pine)

Joe Ahearn, Five Fictions (SRLR)

Gillian Allnutt, Sojourner (Bloodaxe/Dufours)

Francisco Aragon, Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press)

Jane Augustine, Night Lights (Marsh Hawk)

Dennis Barone, The Walls of Circumstance (Avec)

Basho, Backroads to Far Towns: Basho's Travel Journal(White Pine)

Michael Brennan, The Imageless World (Salt)

Peter Dent, Adversaria (Stride)

Clayton Eshleman, My Devotion (Black Sparrow)

Cecil Helman, The Other Half of the Dream (Quale)

Rupert M Loydell, A Conference of Voices (Shearsman)

Barbara Maloutas, In a Combination of Practices (New Issues)

Mark McMorris, The Cafe at Light (Roof)

Joyelle McSweeney, The Commandrine (Fence)

Nils Michals, Lure (Pleiades)

Amir Or, Poem (Dedalus/Dufour's)

Jay Parini, The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems (Braziller)

Evelyn Reilly, Hiatus (Barrow Street)

Tomaz Salamun / Metka Krasovec, Blackboards (Saturnalia)

Andrew Sant, Tremors: New & Selected Poems (Black Pepper)

Charles Simic, Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt (Tin House/Bloomsbury)

John Thompson, The Book of the Floating World (Parlor)

Yang Wan-li, Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China (White Pine)

John Witte, The Hurtling (Orchises)

&

Crazyhorse #66
Sleeping Fish 0.5
West Branch #55


If interested in reviewing any of the above, please contact Brian Henry at bhenr [at] yahoo [dot] com.

NEW! Review of Linh Dinh

Blood and Soap by Linh Dinh. Seven Stories Press, $16.

Reviewed by Julie Misso

After reading Linh Dinh’s latest collection of stories, Blood and Soap, one will note that Dinh wavers between instances of abstraction (at times painterly in descriptiveness) and instances of “easiness” (perhaps unsuccessful experimental writing). Throughout the book, Dinh seems to emphasize characters who are in continuous struggles to find concrete representative-ness, only to be faced with the blurred abstractions of new worlds into which they are thrown. There are also instances where Dinh offers characters so uncomplicated that one is often left wondering if the pages from somebody’s diary or journal were simply inserted. Thus, in Blood and Soap one must evaluate Dinh’s capability to find a clear identity and voice through which he may give depth and substance to these characters, and (a second overarching task, alluded to throughout by Dinh himself) find the presence or absence of a “literature,” which one may find hard to classify, especially when dealing with experimental prose such as Dinh’s.

Dinh’s presentation of diverse worlds for his characters is consistent in each of his stories. These worlds, which range from a prison cell in “Prisoner with a Dictionary” to a ghost town on the Red River Delta in “The Town of the Hidden Coffin,” often seem to challenge pieces of the main characters’ core representations and identities. Instances of abstractions allude to a want of something more in each of the characters. These abstractions, though often engulfed in themes of beautiful colorful/painterly representations, at times leave us with only surface descriptions of the characters and their journeys. In the story “!,” protagonist Ho Muoi, a man accused of being a fake English teacher, contemplates the seemingly underlying abstract journey that is consistent with the book as a whole:
A man may fancy he’s making an abstract painting, but there is no such thing as an abstract painting, only abstracted ones. Every horizontal surface is a landscape because it features a horizon (thus implying a journey, escape from the self, and the unreachable). Every vertical surface is either a door or a portrait (thus implying a house, another being, yourself as another being, and the unreachable).

Dinh’s writing itself is abstracted in the sense that each story offers a character which is lost in thought, deeply engrossed, or preoccupied with an objectively simple, yet subjectively complex, aspect of their world. In search of their lost identities, Dinh’s characters attempt to find tangible representation of themselves in the new countries, cultures, or situations in which they are immersed. For example, in “Prisoner with a Dictionary,” the foreign prisoner seems to lose a piece of his core self in his search for a new identity while attempting to understand an English dictionary left in his cell. Dinh shows this loss of self in the prisoner’s contemplations:
But if the prisoner was convinced he was gaining a new language he was also surely losing one because he had, by this time, forgotten nearly all the words of his native language. By this time he could no longer name any part of the anatomy, even the most basic, hand, nose, face, mouth, etc., and so his own body was becoming vague, impersonal, unreal.

As the prisoner is reading this English dictionary and “... purging himself of his native language,” he is attempting to “get rid of his horrible past ...” He assimilates forgetting his native tongue with forgetting bad experiences or humiliation from his past. The culmination of this story is that, “Perhaps he [can] sense that his native tongue [is] the very author of his horrible life. But these are only conjectures, we do not know for sure.” These “conjectures” seem to be an easy way out for Dinh. With such an inventive idea for the character in general, one hopes for deeper travels into the character’s experience. But perhaps Dinh’s prose style of short bursts cannot allow us this depth. Some may enjoy these short blurbs or quick glances into sometimes simple and absurd characters, but one could assert they border on “easy” rather than experimental.

For instance, in “Losers,” Dinh offers quick character sketches ranging from Jack, who is viewed as “promiscuous” when his leather shoe obsession leads him to curling up on his bed with a dozen pairs of shoes, to Jim, who is turned on by envisioning his plastic dinosaur collection strutting around in high heels. The tendency Dinh has toward being “easy” is in his merely glancing against such outlandish habits, rather than exploring them beneath their surfaces.

There also seems something less-than-rigorous about Dinh’s conceit of the “one-sentence story.” In totality, one such piece reads “Resigned, the single woman begins each conversation with a male stranger: ‘We’re only talking because you want to fuck me’.” And that is it--the “whole story.” These read more like creative writing workshop prompts or exercises in that they are presented as a mere idea, leaving any level of development to the reader’s imagination.

Dinh’s lax approach endures even in his last story, “My Grandfather the Exceptional,” in which the protagonist grandfather comes to a final realization after traveling through many villages:
Finally, at his last village, he looked around and was relieved to find out he was no longer exceptional. Because all old men look alike, disgusted and disgusting, he was finally welcomed into the fraternity of those waiting to die.

The aged man at the end of his journey resembles too much a cookie-cut ending for any book. Left with a somewhat cliched epiphany to ponder, perhaps this conclusion also gives too much “closure” for a book that seems to otherwise defy conventions both formal and thematic.

Dinh offers characters, offers stories, but does he offer a literature? Dinh alludes to this idea of creating a literature in the aforementioned “!,” in which Ho Muoi attempts to learn English through a notebook of phonetic notations he has made from the ramblings of an ill American soldier. Ho Muoi reflects, “If one can break apart a clock and reassemble it, one can scramble up phonetic notations and rearrange them in newer combinations, thus ending up with not just a language, but a literature.” This does seem to be an appropriate means to making a literature, but does Dinh meet the very challenge he proposes? One can only abstractly allude to the want of making a literature so much before a reader expects a concrete product of what has been alluded to.

Overall, the “stories” in Blood and Soap are somewhat satisfying in that the majority of the characters seem to be in search of something more in themselves, in others, or in their worlds. The main dilemma for those who read this book is that they may end up feeling a bit like the characters in Dinh’s stories--in search of something more in their reading of them.

Friday, December 03, 2004

NEW! Review of Colorado Review

Colorado Review 31.2 (Summer 2004). Special Issue: Writing of the New West. $9.50.

Reviewed by Dorine Preston

Back east, out west, up north, down south: direction, like everything, else, is relative to where you’re standing. The Editor’s Page of the Colorado Review’s “Writing of the New West” issue informs us that the editors put out a call for “stories, poems and essays that explore themes of the contemporary West: what it means (or doesn’t mean), where it is, how and why we live there--in short, writing in which the West somehow figures prominently.” A tall order. Producing a themed issue is a bit like adapting a book to film: someone will be upset with you, no matter what you do. However varied the selections are, they won’t cover all available terrain. One hopes, though, that such an issue will make a genuine attempt at completeness; in the best of all worlds, a themed issue would feature not only excellent writing, but writing which addresses as many aspects of the chosen theme as possible. Unfortunately, we do not live in the best of all worlds, and in this case, some genres seem to be working harder than others: the fiction here is disappointingly uniform in its approach to both form and content, but the issue makes a great run with its poetry offerings and its essays. It showcases a variety of formal approaches and aesthetic allegiances in its poetry, and its essays provide some sophisticated speculations about not only the west, but the nature of the essay itself, and by extension the nature of all endeavors in writing.

The fiction selections mostly maintain a fairly traditional narrative structure and consistently provide a sense of completion rather than fragmentation. Tim Weed’s “Six Feet Under the Prairie,” for example, is a pretty standard Bildungsroman of the middle-class-kid-does-physical-labor-with-the-working-class-man-and-benefits-therefrom-before-returning-to-his-white-collar-world variety. The story is a consistently engaging read, despite falling into some unfortunate cliches (one of the tough-guy cowboy characters, whose description involves the word “leather,” refers to the protagonist as “college boy”)--or are those cliches one of the joys of the story? There’s a certain category of surprise in this story that may be recognizable to the nomadic reader: the surprise of finding out that a particular region is exactly how you thought it would be. After so many Western movies, is it really possible that the west is filled with leathery men wearing boots and giant buckles who have gathered around campfires in the sage to drink coffee thick enough to stand your spoon in? In a word, yes. Whether its engagement with these stock characters is the story’s triumph or its downfall is for each reader to decide, but the questions this story introduces to the reader represent the crux of the matter when it comes to this issue’s fiction.

The west may contain a whole lot of big hats and belt buckles--as Lyle Lovett reminds us, “You can have my girl, but don’t touch my hat”--but it also has, at least as I define it (and the editors did leave the west’s exact boundaries an open question) a lot of lattes and grunge bands and Hollywood and Shakespeare festivals and techno geeks and rainforest and mountains and surfers and coastline, none of which are represented here. And even if “the west” in this issue stops before the coastal states, where is the high country? We have an awful lot of ranches within sight of the Rockies, but no mountaineers. Saguaros aplenty, but very little snow. And the voices are as limited as the landscape: we hear from those whose families homesteaded land that is now being bought up by suburban developers, for example, but we don’t hear much from the developers, or from those who live in the homes they build.

That said, there are some fine stories here, the best of which is Gary Schanbacher’s “Regaining Flight.” This story distinguishes itself in part by the fact that its main characters break up the uniformity of the other stories: they are a vet from Boston and a man who, though he grew up on a ranch, at the time of the story works in Denver in construction management. More importantly, this is a tight, compelling story of two characters deciding whether to risk themselves in a new romance. Both the characters and the landscape have their inviting quirks, and the story moves the reader while avoiding the many pitfalls of sentimentality. In other words, it “rings true.”

The poetry is more formally varied than the fiction, featuring a little bit of everything: the portrait/narrative of Marea Gordett’s “Meeting Michio Takayama the Day of the Total Eclipse of the Moon,” image-driven lyrics like Charles Jensen’s “Dream River” series, Joshua Kryah’s meditative “Perforate,” and also many more fragmented pieces which depend upon juxtaposition and the reader to make connections, like Lara Candland’s “Longtemps” and Alice Notley’s “Burrowing Soul,” two of the best examples of this tactic by way of their taut language and momentum. Two exceptionally fresh approaches to narrative are exhibited in Camille Norton’s “Scattered Remnant” and Nick Twemlow’s “I Remember the Train.”

Some of these selections do seem redundant--the inclusion of Brian Young’s very similar “Stilt 10” and “Stilt 11” on facing pages, for example--but overall, the poetry selections are individually tight and collectively varied. Part of that variety includes, in some pieces, a comfort with direct statements of emotion (vs. emotion enacted through image) that may make some readers squirm, such as “I shook with rage and heartbreak and indignation” in Mark Rudman’s “Autokinetic Heartbreak.”

The essays are in some ways the most exciting pieces here, because they openly and explicitly grapple with the challenges of their form and what it means to participate in “the west.” In this genre as well, there are pieces which make me squirm; a westerner myself, I’m suspicious of those who seem too invested in their own swagger, as in Holly Leigh’s claim that “Like a brand, a hat, a belt buckle, a worn saddle, a scuffed boot, a bandana flags those who embrace an outlaw code, those who wear life’s experiences, mop up the blood and brush off the sweat.” And here I thought it was just to keep my hair out of my face. However, this squirm-worthy moment is the exception rather than the rule. The essays here range from the more personal--Kate Krautkramer’s “Picture That Hillside on Fire” shows us life as the spouse of a backcountry firefighter--to Jonis Agee’s “Fence,” a delightfully cranky personal/philosophical piece that ponders the nature of boundaries in the self and in the landscape.

The essay section and the issue culminate in Douglas Unger’s “Gone West: Farmers, Pirates, and Suitcase Ranchers,” which begins by telling us, “Eleven years ago, I quit writing about the West.” From there, Unger proceeds to blend personal history, political history, public relations, ranching know-how, and writerly chat into a sustained, satisfyingly complex inquiry into what it means to declare one’s credibility about any topic, and in particular what it means to claim the west as not just a physical, but a political and intellectual terrain. This is the essay as genuine assay, and it’s a piece which encompasses at one go the territory that the other pieces have addressed by accumulation. A fitting fence for a wide field.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

NEW! Review of Susan Sibbet

No Easy Light by Susan Sibbet. Sixteen Rivers Press, $14.

Reviewed by Ryan James Wilson

Susan Sibbet’s new collection, No Easy Light, illuminates the often overlooked or undervalued struggles of the quotidian, making the most humble of events radiant and dazzling. With settings in perpetual shift, from Pearl Harbor on the day before the monumental conflict to Monet’s garden at Giverny, Sibbet’s collection displays an uncanny ability to internalize and domesticate the complexities and difficulties of the world. However, what is more significant to the collection, and indeed more powerful, is the poet’s compelling portrayal of life enduring the burden of daily existence.

Divided into four sections of approximately equal length, No Easy Light begins, appropriately, with a section entitled “This Voice.” Indicative of the tension prevalent throughout the collection, the first poem of this section, “Voice,” emphasizes the difficulty of finding peace within autonomy a la Virginia Woolf’s seminal work, A Room of One’s Own. After the title, the poem begins, “my voice / darker / struggling with light.” Certainly, the minimal language reflects the voice’s struggle to come to light, to endure that darkness which inhibits individuality, and ultimately to manifest itself. It is the acceptance of such individuality which is the light that Sibbet’s collection moves toward in Dantean fashion. The speakers in these poems, however, find no Virgil to guide them.

Rather, as in “Voice,” the speakers “make [their] own light” by passing through difficulties with suburban sprawl, feminine identity, and divided family into recognition of the paradoxical and intrinsic link between pleasure and pain, made unique to each individual by his or her experiences. This recognition is evident when Sibbet writes in “At the End, When You Speak,” the final poem of the collection: “Do not wonder at my good fortune or / my suffering; only now do I / begin to see how each contains the other...”

Understanding that the heroic, in its traditional sense, is no longer realistic, these poems offer a beautiful rendering of a life that is ordinary, that is perhaps less than expected. Indeed, despite its rich lyricism, the collection does not conclude with grandiose metaphysical revelation. Instead, its epiphany is one which embraces the tragic mediocrity of contemporary existence, stating:
I learned to live with hidden
chocolate, bread baking
in the oven, children
singing in the back seat
all the way home.

Of course, this type of recognition is uplifting, as it suggests an apex in
personal discovery, but it is also devastating in its utter simplicity. By
abolishing illusions of individual greatness, the speaker views herself clearly, but in a hard and unforgiving light.

This hard light appears throughout the collection, and manifests itself in
multifarious ways. Perhaps most interestingly, Sibbet offers several poems predicated upon “mistranslations” of authors ranging from Peruvian poet and political activist Cesar Vallejo to Italian Nobel Laureate Eugenio Montale. Appropriately, by acknowledging the imperfection in translation, poems such as “What It Will Be Like” and “The Very Thing” simultaneously suggest that mistakes can lead to beauty and that difficulty and flaw need not be eliminated or disguised in order to reach a triumphant ending, but rather that they should be accepted as necessary and inescapable parts of the progression.

Similarly, poems such as “We Dance the Blue Right Out” offer that experiences leading to intellectual insight are beautiful despite their frequent difficulty. Sibbet writes:
We dance forever under the ground
We dance our coffins down
We dance the dirt clod’s bounce, the rain
We dance the blue
right out of the
sky

Though this passage is on one level bleak, in that the first line apparently
alludes to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and in that the final
three lines seem apocalyptic, what is paramount is the act of dancing. As the repetition of the words “We dance” builds a ritualistic quality, the poem suggests that one can find joy in meaningful experiences, such as dancing with a loved one, even in the presence of destruction. Equally bleak is the allusion in "Here": "In this still, warm air, / the heavy days like spoons of jam, / my tongue will never get used to the tickling." Obviously, these lines recall Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the titular character’s “measuring [his] life out in coffee spoons.” Still, the speaker in the poem is not completely crippled as Prufrock is. On the contrary, she finds solace in a Jamesian fashion by willing meaning into the immediate:
what we know, perhaps what matters,
is mock orange and bright acacia in spring,
small folded bloom, the secret flowers
of sweet gum in summer,
the slow winter rains.

Finally, No Easy Light is a collection focused on the internal struggle to
find identity, to find a place in the world. Covering topics such as small talk, laundry, and the process of moving, these poems dive into pools of meaninglessness and return to the surface clutching a small pearl of significance, fought for and won alone beneath oppressive waters. Of course, within these poems there is the political voice of a contemporary American woman; however, the stronger poems in the collection transcend the political realm and speak to the reader on a more personal basis. Through inventive syntax, often experimental form, and undaunted diction, No Easy Light reassigns significance to signifiers worn dull by the hurried contemporary life and reassigns value to ordinary experiences, accepting the difficult and the painful as inexorably linked to both the beautiful and the magical.