Tuesday, May 30, 2006

NEW! Review of Fulcrum

FULCRUM #4. $15.

Reviewed by Chris Tonelli

The fourth installment of Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics showcases a worthwhile dichotomy. Part of this might have to do with the actual size of the journal--it is a bear, a yearly, and well over 500 pages and bound to include a variety of poetic ranges. In this respect it sort of reads like an anthology. But because of the segment “Poetry and Truth,” in which nineteen poets and critics answer a questionnaire that addresses the very nature of poetry and its place in society, a particular set of opposing poles is established. So what ends up happening is that poets and critics give their thoughts on poetry, and then the reader gets to see how the actual poems align or diverge, providing a sort of litmus test for the authors and critics as well as for the reader. While the poles set up in this issue could certainly be labeled in a number of ways, for me they boil down to poets who view their vocation as a sacred one and those who view their vocation as a ridiculous one. And by this I mean in terms of their aesthetics--presumably none of the poets or critics thinks poetry is ridiculous per se. But certainly the question this issue seems to beg is how sacred should poetry consider itself, or rather, how sacred should poetry sound about itself.

W. N. Herbert sets the table for the volume-long conversation between the divine and the silly. When asked “What is the most important poetry?,” he answers, “The most important poetry for me doesn’t need to talk about the big picture because it’s in the act of adding to it. Poetry is there to be with you.” On the philosophy of poetry or the fact that maybe there needn’t be one, Herbert comments: “I suspect, wherever it’s not completely expressed by and embodied in a poem, it’s just morning-after-breath.” Like his preceding poems (written in both Scots and English), Herbert’s answers are at once yeoman-like and playful.

Don Share’s poem “Squandermania, or: Falling asleep over Delmore Schwartz” follows. Share--in true Merrillian fashion (he rhymes “fuckit” with “bucket” to end the poem)--combines the formal and the colloquial. And David Lehman, like Larkin (“They fuck you up your mum and dad”), plays on the resonance of strict rhyme and the explicit in his “Crazy Jane Mouths Off”:
I walked past someone I used to fuck,
who made me give him head.
Is this the cock I used to suck?
Life’s a hotel. We keep changing beds.

Both engage and pay homage to historical figures of varying poetics (Share: The Who, Lorca, etc. Lehman: Yeats), as well as other figures of the past (presidents, astronauts, parents, priests), and their poems balance respect and rebelliousness towards these figures and traditions.

In moments like these, poets blend the dictions and forms of the reverent and the irreverent. For example, in “My Paris” Jeet Thayil writes:
on a bench in the sun
in the Rue Boucherie, kicking it
with Our Lady of the Stone
Face and Troubled Spirit.
Maybe asleep in the bookshop,
maybe waiting for the rain to stop.

While Paris romanticizes itself as soon as it enters any poem, especially when the speaker is taking cover from the rain in a bookstore, “kicking it” mixes the diction, showing an awareness that Paris is also just another place in which the self dwells.

But certainly not all of the poems in this tome incorporate such balance. Some poets seem to choose sides. David Kennedy’s “Calendar” has moments in which the poet is an oracular vessel of sorts: “Our skin is an archive . . . Our bodies are reservoirs / of writing.” And in the final stanza of his “Near Death,” Kennedy writes:
In a room, we remember
the dead with films, poetry.
We open our mouths, hold death
on our tongues in a plain room;
watch the light’s work on the clean walls.
A little way up the road,
traffic control deals planes up,
stacked planes down, drowns the squeals
of starting and the low drones
of ending in each other.
Winds crash around a plain room,
shriek through the cracks, into our mouths.

Though his poems here seem to consistently put the poet in the role of receiver and archiver, after being asked “What is and what isn’t poetry? What is poetry’s essential nature (if any)?,” Kennedy responds (with non-traditional punctuation and no caps), “i might even say that i think there is something wrong with poetry that people can still ask these questions after all we don’t ask them about film or painting.”

And when asked “What is the most important poetry? Who are the greatest poets? What do they accomplish?,” he answers, “the stuff that gets my attention the ones that get my attention getting my attention creeley gets my attention in a really big way these days because his work is about attention and that interests me yeats on the other hand has never got my attention.” While his poems lean more towards Yeats, his response owes more to Creeley.

To the question “Is there (or can there be) a meaningful philosophy of poetry?,” Kennedy says, “might be don’t make the world reducible and don’t be reducible yourself poetry has to keep reminding us about excess that the world is excessive.” While Kennedy takes a stance in his poetry, one gets the feeling, based on his commentary, that these stances are only poem deep, that beneath each of his poems is a poet waiting to disagree with himself in the very next poem, and in only that way can he capture what he sees as an excessive world.

For this reason, Kennedy is quite representative of what this issue of Fulcrum seems to be up to. When asked “What is/isn’t poetry? What is poetry’s essential nature?,” Alexei Tsvetkov responds, “One is tempted to give the famous answer about pornography: I know what it is when I see it. But this won’t do for an obvious reason: pornography tries to appeal directly to our physiology, poetry does not and cannot; thus, what I know is not necessarily what someone else knows; our opinions are not vouched for by our common bodily functions.” To which I thought, really? What makes a poem sad but the tricking of our body via words by replicating a situation that would normally elicit the sad chemicals. Whether I, as a reader, agreed with Tsvetkov or not, I found myself prompted to explore possible rebuttals.

When Tsvetkov was asked about the relationship between truth and poetry, he answered, “Poetry, among all arts, probably comes closest to the search for truth since it expresses itself in language, which is the truth medium,” and I found myself wondering if language would be just as viable if someone were to call it the fiction or lie medium. Simon Armitage, for example, soon follows by defining poetry as “inventing significance in a life which is otherwise meaningless.”

Other poets, not as reverent perhaps to poetry as a medium, do their part to out a particular kind of poetry that simply seems to be doing a bad impression of itself. Landis Everson, in his one page essay “Limitation of Birds” (one of the real gems of this issue), depantses poetry and some of the more typical things it does to assure readers that what they are in fact reading is a poem: “A poem can often be made much more successful if the poet puts into the poem, freely and unselfconsciously, all the birds he wants. Once the poem is finished (if a poem is ever really finished!), he then simply discards all of them.”

It is this kind of back and forth that Fulcrum #4 spurs. For every James Woods, who says that poems “line the pockets of our minds w/ arrangements of words that are easier to remember than to forget, and which warm us in our days,” there is a Charles Bernstein who says, “[p]oetry does not relate to the human condition, it articulates ways of encountering & acknowledging it; sometimes it changes it. Poetry, by necessity, rejects the human condition.” Fulcrum does a nice job of being inclusive while exposing the reader to polar opposite aesthetics, inadvertently encouraging us to take a side. And then I thought . . . Fulcrum. Nice choice of a name for a journal that see-saws in a good way.

This same debate shows up just as consistently in the second half of issue four. “Give the Sea Change and it Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets (1951-2005)” is the Jeet Thayil-edited anthology of Indian poets writing in English featured in the final 300 pages of the issue. Perhaps the isolation and cultural confusion that Thayil eludes to in his intro lends itself to Mamta Kalia’s bitterness in “Against Robert Frost”:
I can’t bear to read Robert Frost.
Why should he talk of apple-picking
When most of us can’t afford to eat one?
I haven’t even seen an apple for many months--
Whatever we save we keep for beer
And contraceptives.

But much like the rest of the journal, for every poem that is wary of poetry’s time-honored figures, there are poems that pay homage to such traditions. R. Parthasarathy in an aubade entitled “East Window” writes:
Few are the body’s needs:
it is the mind’s that are insatiable.
May our hands and eyes open this spring afternoon
as the blue phlox open on a calm Salem Drive
to the truth of each ordinary day:
the miracle is all in the unevent.

What home have I, an exile,
other than the threshold of you hand?
Love is the only word there is:
a fool wears out his tongue learning to say it,
as I have, every day of his life.

Perhaps it is because, by this point in the journal, the reader has become attuned to such polarities that poems like these two seem to continue the conversation begun in the first section of the issue (after all, the anthology pre-existed the issue and there are no questionnaires in this section). In any case, “Give the Sea Change and it Shall Change” is at once an intriguing glimpse into a pocket of poetry a reader might not otherwise come across and a consistent partner piece to the rest of the volume.

Though the fourth issue of Fulcrum is a mountain of a journal, it provides enough variety of voice to avoid redundancy and enough consistency regarding form and style to avoid lacking an identity. It’s features on “Poetry and Truth,” on Landis Everson (and his correspondence with Duncan and Spicer), and on Indian poetry in English provide solid frameworks with which to read the core contents and offer the reader some pretty unique material.

Friday, May 26, 2006

NEW! Review of Tenney Nathanson

Home on the Range (The Night Sky with Stars in My Mouth) by Tenney Nathanson. O Books, $12.00

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

The author of a major tome on Walt Whitman, Tenney Nathanson in Home on the Range (The Night Sky with Stars in My Mouth) has produced a long collage-poem of Whitmanian energy and scope. The poem consists of 108 dizains (ten-line stanzas), and Nathanson has created diverse effects within this form in an unusual way: he has packed in so many overgrown “versets” in some sections that they take up much more space than others. Occasionally, two-and-a-half dizains fit on one page, whereas one section sometimes occupies more than a page. While there is variety in the alternation among medium length, long, very long, and outrageously long lines within a single section, the overall impression given is that of a breathless onrush of poetic data.

Much of this data, a little more than half in each section, comes from “intertexts,” as Nathanson’s list--one book per section (except in dizain 70)--at the end of the book calls them. Many major British, American, and continental modernist (and nineteenth century) fiction writers serve as sources. Poetry by Whitman (of course) and Frost, literary criticism, critical theory, cultural studies, Zen texts, a scientific treatise, and a diet book are also included. The variety of intertexts allows for ample diversity in verbal texture.

Dizain 5, whose source texts are three different essays from Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, begins with the line: “messengers is law a gloomy way a firm place in a long existence impossible here.” Nathanson’s source is the essay, “Franz Kafka,” in which Benjamin writes: “What may be discerned . . . in the activities of those messengers is law in an oppressive and gloomy way for this whole group of beings. None has a firm place in the world. . . . There is not one that is not either rising or falling, . . . none that is not deeply exhausted and yet is only at the beginning of a long existence. To speak of any order or hierarchy is impossible here.” Notice that Nathanson severs the copular link of discernment and “law” (and the secondary importance of “messengers”) in the original passage and gives us the grammatically strange equation making the servants of “law”--which might include language as well as human functionaries--identical to this authority. Indeed, in the “gloomy way” of Kafka’s work--and the feel of this comes through in dizain 81, whose intertext is The Castle--bureaucrats embody the full force of coercive regulations for hapless citizens. While Benjamin emphasizes individuals’ lack of security (“firm place”) and the “long existence” of their suffering, the poet ties “firm place” and “long existence” to the “law” before undercutting the notion of firmness with “impossible here,” which in the original passage was linked with a declaration about “order’s” absence. However different Nathanson’s deployment of the intertext’s words, effects of his collaging convey some of the darkness of Kafka’s work and Benjamin’s interpretation of it.

Obviously, the kind of intertextual labor I performed in the previous paragraph is not a practical overall reading strategy. But a general awareness of possible traces of the source text in harmony or conflict with Nathanson’s own words enhances the reading experience, as in dizain 44, where scientific discourse from Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions , and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory is juxtaposed with “natural” imagery of Nathanson’s own approximation of a Thoreau-like transcendentalism: “Focused on the electron, this discussion charged particles the same way that rocks on everyday sanctum increase in strength / sitting and dwindling down into wind, rain, the flecked rocks hunkered and washed by the lake, your insight breathing / short theories of 10 space-time dimensions.”

The poet’s mode of collagistic presentation does not deliver hard information like scientific findings to the reader; his “discussion” can “charge” heterogeneous “particles” of discourse to “increase” the “strength” of multi-contextual suggestiveness. “Rocks” could be stable enough to support an “everyday sanctum,” but the phrase’s potent strangeness exceeds its aptness in importance. Note how enjambments between the first and second and between the second and third lines are not arbitrary; for example, phenomenological “insight” about nature can inspire (“breathe”) much more abstract, theoretical formulations; the two are parallel ways of experiencing/measuring “reality.”

Depriving canonical fiction of its narrative motion through fragmentation, Nathanson retains some of the thematic charge and feeling tone of not-so “empty words.” Lines taken from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter foreground the pun in a central after-effect’s name and convey the pleasure/agony of Hester’s union: “on the wooded hills of no scandal, shine, pearl/ passionately his burning walked among kindred, so pure in horror. He bids you” (Dizain 33). The “range” (scope) that Nathanson is at “home” on is a wide array of scriptive cultural artifacts. Collage deployment of that scope engenders the “homelessness” of the between, of intertextuality: such poetry ranges in ways that a time-traveling Whitman would probably judge to “contain [new and old] multitudes”: “say I also return, translucent, beetles rolling balls of dung, winds surging, shaded, are the others down / and sundered, no, they’re down where the tall grass twines under the oak tree having a Swabian picnic. swell” (Dizain 92).

Thursday, May 25, 2006

NEW! Review of David Baker

Midwest Eclogue by David Baker. W.W. Norton, $23.95.

Reviewed by Kevin Cantwell

“My mind’s not right,” Coleridge says through Lowell and says again here through David Baker, in whose meditative pastorals and epistolary natural histories we hear not so much the uneasiness of living in the poem but a sense of the poem as timbre for the uneasiness of the poet’s mind. Baker’s poems trust that ordinary language can still leverage the liminal moment through a kinetic syntax and conversational force that easily carries his sometimes cumbersome conceits. If the language is ordinary, it is heightened by an exactness of diction charged when the meter balances itself on the blank-verse edge of free verse. When his meter is more intricate, we are never distracted by rhyme’s more constructed assumptions. This is an American, perhaps middle-American, poetry, rural in a painterly way but drawn by a complex personality, one that overhears a line of satire always faintly evident in the pastoral.

This connection to Europe renews and adds gravitas to Baker’s vision (the oldest subversion of and sometimes solution to American thought). Although his poems generally keep their distance from the more fruitless rehearsals of poetic eurocentrism, even his initial poem has trouble resisting a trope of poetic royalty. “Monarchs Landing and Falling” observes a young couple distracted by their affection for each other, and who cannot quite be aware of the monarch butterflies “balanced on bridges of plume grass stalks/ and bottlebrush, wings fanning, closing, calmed . . . ”; neither is the couple aware of how they too have been positioned in the poet’s blank verse. We are not so much surprised by the poem’s conclusion--“by the time we look again they’ve flown”--as we are pleased by a release of syntax that propels this line. Here, the conversational drama of the iambic can be made even more tensile. Shorter sentences, sometimes two to a line, heighten caesura into a measure of tempo that checks and then compels the motion of run-over lines:
Then a stillness descended the blue hills.
I say stillness. They were three deer, four.
They crept down the old bean field, these four deer,
for fifteen minutes--more--as we watched them

in the field, in the soughing snow . . .

In this poem about his daughter, her quiet look at deer belies her twitchy, frantic inattentiveness--before he and (the poet Ann Towsend) his wife “learned what was wrong.” The father frets for the child and tries to control his temper in the face of this frustration, yet the lyric bracket of the meter lets the mind take a breath.

Unlike the young Coleridge who marveled at the peacefulness of his sleeping infant, Baker consoles his anxiety by watching his daughter “hunkered over her drawing pad, / humming, for an hour.” Art can console, as Derek Walcott has said about the classics, “but not enough”; for the speaker, the ominous “hour” of the line above portends the parents’ knowledge that respite, even in art, is not for long.

With his daughter’s personality on his mind, he turns to a familiar habit of American poems, a kind of high-end bio-poem (see biopic). In Baker’s “Bedlam,” fashioned from sources about the rural genius John Clare, the never-cured innocent of nineteenth-century English verse, is here recovered through poetic new historicism. Baker’s affiliation with rural descriptions of the American Midwest makes his the perfect ocular prism by which to weaves lines of Clare into a more personal discourse on his grip on his own mind:
More and more I recognize the torment
in another’s mind better than my own.
I’ve got a mean streak a mile wide. But why?
. . .
But it’s nothing a little balm won’t soothe,
nothing another pill won’t ease.

Burton’s melancholy is now Baker’s pharmacology of “Adderal, Prozac, Paxil / Dezyrel, Wellbutrin . . .” One of these meds could have changed Clare: “[I]t kills me to think what a decent pill / might have meant to the man.” One of those pills might make his daughter’s life more bearable, both to her and the poet himself. Baker complains about his life by complaining about someone else’s life, especially as a drain on his own creativity, yet acknowledges the sustaining nature of complaint. The elegy itself comes back to us in another way when reading Baker--satiric in its take on how the folly of the body, displaced by the foibles of dementia, wrings the heart also. First, though, it tries his patience. In Baker, it is the tug of satire that keeps the full grip of mourning from closing down the mind.

If the tone and manner of apprehending the present is a method (to make either a more scholarly Brief Lives or a more poetic one it’s hard to tell), this dramatic ploy does not mask its perceptions in the way that Browning, Merrill, and Howard ghost through their projected voices. There is more the editorial omniscient here and more the discursiveness of colloquy--an apt field guide to another poet’s mental illness in the nineteenth century. Some aspects of this genre are more quirky.

Birders wander the thickets of English and American poetry; they also vex the landscape with their peculiar and slightly neurotic ornithology. Although a comforting eccentricity guides us through this strange life-listing (Waggoner, Plumly, or Bottoms), Baker is less certain when he takes this approach to Whitman, whom he places “in Canada, / 1880, tracing the flights of birds” and “up to his knees in mud, / bugs.” Although the poem eventually widens its scope to regard the late career of the Poet when “he is simply Walt,” the sense of Whitman’s politics later in the poem feels wearisome with its direct quotes and its cross-outs, indicating Whitman’s notebooks as sources; but Baker’s skill and his affinity for Whitman overcome how this textual fussiness slows down the poem. Yet in shorter lyrics like “Winged,” we read lines that could hardly be written more beautifully:
If this were the sea and not snow, morning-
cold, Ohio, the slick black trees standing
for themselves along our ice creek, then
these birds might seem ready for flight.

The mid-length lyric, on the short side of that range, is still Baker’s trump. When he ventures into some longer poems, the prosody seems heavier. In a poem like “Cardiognosis,” the sense of what a poem can accomplish is enviable, but the form of this elaborate anatomy of the heart, parts from early medical literature, is at times more disheartening as an exercise than it is a dramatization of prosody’s dexterity. Most poems, however, are exquisite, among them “Spring of Ephemerals,” “Melancholy Man,” “The Waves,” “Hedonism,” “The Blue,” “Silo Oaks,” and the title poem. Baker has mastered the metrical resources of one line of American poetry, which places him among its most eloquent and accomplished writers, with each new book “becoming / the next thing.” There is always the sense that the David Baker poem is going to tighten yet another turn, meter upon thought, thought upon theme, in elegant and powerful devices of perception.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

NEW! Review of Cue

Cue #2.2. $6.

Reviewed by Micaela Morrissette

The latest issue of the prose poetry journal Cue is slight in form, slim and modest, and it must be confessed that many of the poems therein are rather slight as well. There are no grandiose failures, no doomed but brave and wild bids for glory. Nearly nothing is truly awful, which on the one hand is a perfectly respectable quality, and on the other hand is a clear recommendation for a good, healthy shot of hubris.

Several of the poems succeed inasmuch as they can be said to have fulfilled the rather paltry goals set for them by their authors--for example, Michael Malinowitz's "Handicapping the Help." This little riff on bigotry is as amusing and light as such things can be, and it identifies itself, in a witty, polite undertone, as racial humor about racial humor, a new dilution of the presumably once-pure bloodline of the metanarrative.

An excerpt from Ron Silliman's "Zyxt" suffers from a similar sort of friendly timidity. There's nothing wrong with this poem; each individual line stands up and is counted, but the overall effect is of having been invited to dinner and provided with a meal made up of leftovers. The sensation the passage gives is of having been cobbled together from stabs at other, unfinished poems. (It's true that this is taken from a longer work, but presumably it was judged by the author and Cue editors as worthy to stand alone.) These hypothetical other, nascent poems would have been good, too, had they been written, but the bits and pieces Silliman combines don't add up to one complete poem, or even one meaningful or evocative passage, but to an additional bit-and-piece.

Michael Schiavo's "Prothalamion" has a similar kind of final effect in which the stitching of patchwork is sewn too loosely. In this case, though, the strong repeating structure of the litany of lines is enough to create a vessel that holds the piece together, and individual passages do contain overt connections or a sense of building to something utterly satisfying: "The man whom fog knows as fog. . . . The man in certain places summoning autumn. The man guarding the secret wall from whence the woman emerged. The woman emerging. The woman smaller than a stockpile, larger than wool. The titanic woman. The woman of shoals."

"Prothalamion" is the last of a group of three poems by Schiavo that opens this issue of Cue and that is among its most wonderful offerings. The first poem, "Ode," is a kind of bourgeois ecstasy that celebrates not immortality, but death deferred, not wild celebration, but swooning absence from pain. "O pornography on Sunday morning--O pineapple--the royal peasant incarnate-- / . . . / O practical resistance to impractical love--O Donald--O Constance-- / O catfish on my plate with mustard-- / . . . / O nature I abhor--O I am done with wonder-- / . . . / O location of the hidden treasure--O Eye that Sees Through the Ages-- / O my big hands and feet and O my, madam, I agree-- / . . . / O the mountains do not crumble O-- / The mountains crumble slow." Here as in "Prothalamion" Schiavo makes effective use of insistent repetition of syntax, but here the lines call out to each other and reply to each other; the echo does not bounce only from one line to the next but ricochets in perfect angles from line to line and from poem to reader and back.

The middle poem of Schiavo's contribution is quite different: quieter, darker, more delicate, perhaps even more lovely. "Romantiqest" takes place in a house haunted by angels (possibly those cast out of Heaven), and it is a brooding poem in two senses: first, it is gently ominous, softly sinister; second, it broods like a hen on her clutch, nesting, protecting a secret too fragile or too monstrous to reveal. The haunted house where the poem lives is really an apartment ("These apartments, they keep them so small") where "something dwells imfumable, lavish and pomped." There is a "billionaire at love's open door, rebuffed by the angels dining at the table / On orange-cake and sweet tea, their sulfuric arsenal unguarded." The poem ends by escaping the haunted house in the very last line, but the reader may be grateful to be still trapped behind the tremulous shutters: "Tired throughout the household, nonetheless the shutters shook. The rest of the night was silence, / A silence somewhere else."

Schiavo's poems are not the only successful ones in this issue; he is well-matched by Janet Kaplan. Where he is moving and sublime, she is exclamatory and intellectual, but each has a knack for measuring out doses of pure, addictive loveliness in small teaspoonfuls. Kaplan's poems, "Change" and "Meals," both deal with dichotomies in a manner playful, beguiling, and in the end, profound. "Change" takes movement as its trope. The invocations of Ulysses suggest that this movement is a return, homeward-bound; the repeated use of words like "lost," "fleeing," and "evaporated" suggest obversely that the movement is an exodus: "The aftermath of Gabriel fleeing, like a palette of charcoals--ashes aglow--cold as galvanized steel. . . . The surface of the moon seen from television shortly before lift-off. Ulysses is visible in Circe's mirror, fleeing the spacecraft." The dichotomy in this poem is not only between exodus and return, but, as we can see in the passage above, between art and reality. Kaplan has a deft way of understanding the real world as a canvas or sculpture, if by "real world" we mean not simply the natural world, unaffected by man, but also cities, which are manmade but difficult to understand as distinct artworks and myths, which are works of imagination but also depict historical events. As she describes the "palette of charcoals" that color the flight of the Angel Gabriel, so she describes the "accordion folds" of "rain solidified in thin metallic beams. A-line dresses and steeples, giraffe necks and raised rifles. My lost aunt, her perfect bouffant." Of "ice-slough, snow-melt, runoff," she writes: "Such control in an abstract piece. It gets darker as it moves from left to right." Or again: "organic bomber planes, zucchini flowers, captions. All of it blurry, a Seurat that never comes clear, no matter how far you stand."

This mode of description, this sort of simulated coldness and distance of approach, is put to use in Kaplan's "Meals" as well, but in that poem the dichotomy of figurative/abstract, concrete/imagined, real/art is the subject under discussion as well as the mode informing the voice. "Meals" is accomplished, wry, hilarious, intelligent, intermittently gorgeous. It plays in varying keys on the theme of that which exists as it is versus that which exists as we understand and describe it. Or, to put it infinitely better, in the words of Kaplan's epigraph from Damiel's "Wings of Desire": "To be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal. . . ." And to put it better still, in Kaplan's words: "Wide brushstrokes are meals, black and green and orange. They descend and encroach upon the blue limited place. . . . A poached egg that illuminates inward. And here on earth a light that doesn't reach the foreground and is therefore not the cause of the colors one sees in these peaches. What is the cause? The painter's mind, her own dual nature? Then there's the skull. . . . Two bowls of spaghetti. One is sharp but uneaten. The other is vanishing quickly and so the mind paints over it, actively and malignantly abstracts it. . . . How much is intentional and how much is chaos? Eggs equal gravity. Flour equals dominant subject matter. Mustard equals the disturbance, getting closer to or further from the disturbance. Wine vinegar means that the rectangle, though disappearing, is still very strong. . . Wind pushes the fork, rain sweeps away the knife. . . . The placement of the condiment is often a paradox."

There is one other unqualified success in this issue of Cue: Tony Tost's "A Game of Tennis." Tost's tennis match is played like Risk, with gods on one side of the court, apes on the other, an Emperorship as trophy, and stands packed with outlaws, fishermen, and others of the teeming dispossessed. An epic poem that punctuates the battle narrative with occasional rhapsodies and glosses it with political overtones, "A Game of Tennis" is consummate work: "A peculiar, visual game of tennis, which this is, must change. Overhaul. Is what I can call experimental myth not so different from myself. Destruction may pave the courts in time. There can only be one champ & one simple rule: apes are not allowed to know a thing about gods. . . Event of the game: not up to the ape! . . . The perfect game is the game of reconciliation; exquisite, closer. . . . Beds, meds, & affordable housing. Some details of a winning strategy. . . . Complete massacre of a defenseless people: is this not merely the game of one game refusing another game? On one side of the net, even before his real trial starts, a guy runs around. His mind is endless picture. Words confuse this territory not as outcome but as duration. Countries are ignored or deflected by an ear that has been waiting so long to hear them. Utterance-game that never replies. Game: put these philosophies together as one man, as an Emperor of ours. The game will be played by a dramatically invisible & theoretically simple Emperor (he has already lost the game)."

Tost's poem is followed by work by Karen Brennan, who's a bit of puzzle. Her first piece, "Tributes and Tribulations," suggests a sort of fragmented mini-narrative--a dinner party, a stroll in a garden, the departure of the guests--that rides on the back of a massive, submerged narrative the way a whale plunging through the deeps will cause a current to run on the surface of the sea far above it; or the way the creaking and settling of a house can be caused by unheard footsteps--innocent, predatory, sleepwalking?--several rooms away (in her words, "a whisper along the track of floor boards, creak of galoshes, as in the story where snow falls as a metaphor, covers our heads & scarves"). But her second selection, "Two Prose Poems," isn't nearly as good. The first section reads like a series of hints at experiences that ought to be shared but really are private. That sounds promising, but the way she conducts it is a dead-end: "She wore what you'd expect with a name like that. . . [T]he walrus still has that walk. You know the walk." And the second section is a series of perfunctory slashes toward tragedy, like the desultory hacking of a self-cutter who's more interested in the aftermath of scars than the immediacy of pain. The kind of despair Brennan is interested in evoking here can't be taken down in the shorthand she employs: "In the museum the boys had other plans. . . Dick said, I can't seem to get a good grip on the edges. A rectangle of sky. A triangle of roof. What means these views? . . . We have to keep doing what we're doing, she whispered. Or else we'll all die sooner than we thought." Obviously Brennan is a good writer, but she needs a more expansive form than brief vignettes to do justice to her themes.

Even Brennan's failures aren't total flops, though there are a few of those in the issue, most notably the poems of Donna Stonecipher and Deborah Bernhardt. Stonecipher has an unfortunate knack for giving a false impression of innovation by punctuating passages of banality with abstracted questions or quotations, as in "Inlay (Emerson)," which interrupts a truly mediocre meditation on snowflakes, grasshoppers, and autumn leaves with the question "Who doesn't want a little piece of the vestigial?"; or as in "Inlay (Oppen)," which sets repeated fragments from George Oppen's "Of Being Numerous" against such undistinguished examples of Stonecipher's own thought as "But which is it [the grass] doing--ruining the sidewalk, or starting a meadow?" or "And why is it then, when all one loves is flawed, one tries to make perfect things?"

Bernhardt's poems are tame little paeans to lust ("Mistletoe's no hedge--cover me, pagan. Permission's running rampant in our veins."). Her "The Kiss," however, is not the only poem in this issue guilty of the abrupt confessional about-face. By this I mean that inexcusable tendency to write a poem about themes more or less outside the poet before, in the last line, ferociously bringing it all to bear on personal woe, usually romantic, usually self-pitying, usually with the expectation of a deep profundity being thereby cast upon the poem as a whole, rather than, as is usually the case, any hint of profundity gained previous to that point being shattered and ground to bits by these sorts of surprise endings. In Bernhardt's case it goes like this: "Over ninety percent of all creatures kiss. Kissing is a landmark. Are we all programmed to put a kiss before a fondle? Glancing from eyes to lips: a Jungian kind of thing? Kiss-etiquette? The famous Klimt clasp-bodies are spun in gold paint euphoria. Doisneau's clinch is silver emulsion. Rodin's version, Francesca and Paolo, is a first kiss. . . . He did not kiss although his hands had flown down my sides like the seams of a long dress, already grazed the length of me."

Mary Ruefle is perhaps even more guilty of being an undercover confessional operative in "Peek-a-moose": "And I knew somewhere deeply recessed, 'away from it all,' the real with-it-all took place; there, in the undulating mists, a moose eating the dark green mosses was barely seen through the pines . . . all around him millions upon millions of other moose lie dead and buried, and no one ever had a peek of them (though there were glimpses) and in the glare light of the pizza parlor I chose anchovies which I did not like but seemed ancient and suffering, such small animals, and I took the pie home with me and ate it with my mouth gaping, painfully aware I was not a moose and had never been a moose and would never be a moose, but I had loved you in such an eerie and unnatural way." Moose and anchovies have some potential for interest, but in "Peek-a-moose" hints do exist, from the beginning of the poem, that they are only stand-ins for the real meat of the speaker's personal, trivial preoccupations. But even when Ruefle does not betray her themes with private sorrows, she undermines them with mannered, glancing treatments, as in "Lichen," where perfectly servicable ideas about the inscrutability of lichen, the inability to draw distinctions between living and dead or young and old, the morality of kidnapping, and the hold of bears on the imagination, are dealt with summarily and neurotically.

Mark Horosky is the ersatz confessional poet in this issue, the voyeur or interloper who pretends to be a native. Horosky writes poems about the gritty, sensual, nasty, uncomfortable lives led in suburbia, in trailer parks, in low-income urban housing developments, rife with visceral, authenticating details ("duct tape on the guitar case," "heavy metal karaoke"); and the intensity of his documentary need is awkwardly evident ("Out to make change for my laundry at the Circle K, I saw a man wrestled to the parking lot's grit. I've spat on that parking lot before. . . . I was one of those people."). But Horosky's attempt to bridge the gap between him and his adopted homes is strained, unconvincing, and nearly hysterical in its pitch ("Bleeding, a cigarette came to rest between my lips in a kitchen of bad curtains" ["On Seeing an Engagement Photo of a Girl I Used to Date"]; "She asks in a voice that cigarettes rude, could you shave my pussy? . . . Feeling the razor catch, feeling it catch" ["Mender"]).

The final three poets with whom this issue concludes are Donna Steiner, Luke Trent, and Hugh Steinberg. Steiner's poem "Light Tenders" nearly succeeds in creating a mysterious and compelling alternate or fringe existence lived on dark ships, in prismatic light houses, amidst buckling ice. But Steiner's work is undermined by her tendency toward epigrams and explanations ("A circuitry of desire; sometimes we shun what we've summoned. . . . Resistance is erotic"), which pin down and kill the strange fluttering realities, like moths, that she ought to set free. Luke Trent's "Snow White" is also almost amazing; it catalogues a few minutes, or an entire night, in the career of a mortuary worker, who is perhaps herself a corpse. It's extremely well-executed, but Trent's vociferous use of adjectives at every possible juncture muddies it up ("new dawn," "pink cursive," "soft love," "dangling tag," "well-meaning book," "scattered notes," "pasty graveyard tongue," "fiery chew," "unbendable blue," "fine, healthy cuticle," "yellow liquid"). And Hugh Steinberg's piece, "K-Series," simply fails to beguile. It plays with the idea of a strange language called "K," which can be spoken without the speakers knowing what they say (and which incorporates many other mysteries). There is something shallow about "K-Series," something obvious, as in the way Steinberg makes references to Special K and Kafka's K. ("K is not a car, not a cereal, not a drug. Nor is it a measurement. Or men in hoods, or a man from Prague"). Something like banality in disguise ("What began with sympathy meant I had to see someone who wasn't you"). Something that follows up strength with weakness ("The choice is K or swallowing your own teeth, from keeping too many secrets").

Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of individual contributions, Cue does an impressive job of gathering together a wide range of those specimens that travel with the passport of "prose poetry." These poems have broken lines, paragraph blocks, numbered sections. And the voices vary widely in their articulation and their themes, which does credit to the editors. Certainly it's worth picking up a copy of this issue for the innovations of Michael Schiavo, Janet Kaplan, Tony Tost, and Karen Brennan, and for the interesting questions posed by the less compelling contributions.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

new issue of VERSE

new issue of Verse

The Sequence Issue (part 1)

includes poem sequences by

Mary Jo Bang
Dawn-Michelle Baude
Michael Burkard
Maxine Chernoff
Inger Christensen
Craig Coyle
Theodore Enslin
Kevin Hart
Paul Hoover
Christine Hume
Kathleen Ossip
Standard Schaefer
Leonard Schwartz
Susan Wheeler

& essays by

Marjorie Perloff (on Louis Zukofsky)
Ashley David (on Ben Lerner)

Available now. Blog price: $7 postage paid. ($10 in stores.) Send cash or check to Verse, English Department, University of Richmond, Richmond VA 23173.

The Sequence Issue part 2 will appear later this year and will include sequences by Marianne Boruch, Jenny Boully, Gillian Conoley, Anthony Hawley, John Matthias, Thorpe Moeckel, &c, as well as reviews of books by Julie Carr, Joshua Corey, Theodore Enslin, Jennifer Moxley, &c.