Monday, July 24, 2006

NEW! Review of Matt Hart

Who’s Who Vivid by Matt Hart. Slope Editions, $14.95.

Reviewed by Keith Newton

The shape that many of the poems take in Matt Hart’s first book, Who’s Who Vivid, is one of dizzying self-definition. Some variation on the fundamental ways we have for defining our experience (“I am . . . ,” “I was . . .”) recurs throughout the book, determining the formal construction of the poems and revealing to us what’s at stake for the poet. From the opening lines of “Completely by Accident”--“I was in a fix. / I was sloshing with joy. / I was looking at my feet and my feet looked good”--to the formula by which the closing poem proceeds--“I am of the mind . . . I am of the gut . . . I am the shadows . . . “--Hart undertakes the urgent, frightening, ridiculous task of self-recognition, and through that process shows us what it means to inhabit our identities in a culture of mesmerizing falseness.

The subject of Who’s Who Vivid is not hard to define: the modern search for authenticity, the search for the authentic self. But, of course, it’s what we find along the way that interests us, and in those terms Hart’s journey is immediately compelling. Attributing to itself aspects of both coherence and incoherence, the book takes us through the pleasures and absurdities of our cultural moment (“Tristan Tzara . . . Welcome / to America, may I take your order”) without relinquishing the strong, consistent lyric voice that guides the poems, a voice at once cheerful, irreverent, disarming, and sad, lost but hopeful, cynical but optimistic. It is the voice of the faux-naif, but also of the faux-skeptic, with a kind of innocence that has somehow already passed through a stage of total disenchantment. Yet there is, at first, no way to know how this condition has been achieved. Does this sense of the self come, perhaps, a little too easily? A little too cheaply? It is the risk of this cheapness, in fact, that makes the book work so well, since it is Hart’s knowledge of the inherent absurdity of our search for ourselves that drives both the thematic and psychological tension of the poems. In “Poem Where the Message Trails Off,” Hart manages to evoke, in an absurdist mini-epic of losing and finding oneself in a dark wood, not only the self-perpetuating conventions of poetic urgency and poetic vision that we use to generalize our experience of identity, but also the paradoxical nature of the actual language of the self:
Once upon a time I was missing completely
and that time, once upon, was now.

In my shoes an intruder.
In my face a world of trees.

Whosoever may know these seas, row your boat out
to the meadow to meet me.

Do it soon, and do it quickly.
Don’t stop to read this, please!

The title of the book, Who’s Who Vivid, goes a long way toward characterizing these tensions--and those of the volume as a whole. Certainly there’s a kind of playfulness and light-hearted absurdity, but also a deep-seated misgiving about the relation of language to identity, an inherent refusal to give to language the capacity to identify us. Implicit in the title is the problem of how we recognize the individual self: does it operate as a question, an opening of possibilities, or as a clarification, a defining and closing off?

In poems such as “Nervous Aluminum Rabbit” and “Giant Traumatism,” Hart displays an energetic lyric mania that is one of his strongest modes. Through the force of the poems’ imaginative momentums, built on the disjointed logic and propulsive absurdity of a mind adrift in a culture already lost to itself, Hart evokes the ways in which we never cease to be called by the world to take part and--although “there are no incorrect answers,” as he writes in “Self-Helper”--to be sustained in an endless hunger to know the meaning of our experience. What complicates Hart’s writing throughout the book is that, despite his attachment to the idea of a poetic mode of candid self-expression that not only exists but is, by its nature, a condition of authenticity, he reveals a profound instinct for a satiric and parodic style that takes the materials of self-expression as one of its primary targets. The book’s final poem, “To the People Who Know Better, Let Me Say in My Defense,” negotiates this division perfectly, since the apology comes to serve as the natural mode of self-definition, simultaneously self-revelatory and self-justifying.

The poems “What’s Inside a Giraffe?” and “Letter to a Friend Who I’ll Never See Again,” each self-defining catalogues of the poet’s life, also make this conflict explicit. In “Letter to a Friend,” the act of self-definition takes the form of rendering what the poet “believe[s]”--and what he reads and thinks and feels and remembers--in a style as down-to-earth and conversational as he’s supposedly capable of, while the form of “What’s Inside a Giraffe?” is that of an actual list, answering the question he poses in the title with, in a sense, his whole life. This means, in fact, not only his memories and experiences but also all of the detritus of culture that forms his associations: “Narcissus. / Mommy, I’m thirsty. / Somebody give me a beer. / Evening caught in a parasol weeping. / Nerval out walking his lobster on a leash. / Rooftops. / Postmarks . . . / The proper method for modeling a turtleneck. / The distance from here to your mother in spots. / From there to your father in shredded coconut. / Why pregnancy isn’t an option . . . / Survey says . . .” That all the books and movies and music and TV shows and culturally conditioned beliefs and fleeting images of childhood could ever possibly do the hard work of making a self is clearly being parodied in both these poems, yet what Hart slyly suggests under the surface is the idea that without this detritus, without the accumulation of the bits and pieces of our life and thought, without the ridiculous and arbitrary nature of the culture we happened to be born into (“Completely by Accident” is the opening poem of the book), we would never come to recognize ourselves, never come to be attached to the world and attached to an idea of ourselves in the world, and therefore never come to recognize the self.

Is this an argument that the source of our authenticity is the hours we spent watching Family Feud? Not exactly. But what Hart shows us is how easily we confuse the “surface” and the “depths” and don’t think to look for ourselves in the most familiar places, for fear of discovering our inherent poverty. For all of Hart’s successes, though, the book has weak poems, which tend toward the unfocused, with touches of the sentimental, and treat the absurd more as a posture than a state of being. Because he maintains a consistent voice through the book, Hart also runs the risk, at times, of the constriction of a limited register. Yet overall this is an exciting first book, in which it’s easy to share the poet’s sense of the “ridiculous/delicious” aspects of the world. “What luck!” he writes in “Half-Empty,” “to be alive and engaged.” Or, as he puts it another way in the same poem: “Yippee!”

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

NEW! Review of Yunte Huang

Cribs by Yunte Huang. Tinfish Press.

Reviewed by Victoria Chang

Although biography does not always seem relevant to a poet’s writing, it seems essential to Yunte Huang’s project. Huang came to the United States in 1991, after graduating from Peking University with a B.A. in English. He then earned a Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo in 1999 and teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He has published several books of criticism, but it wasn’t until 2005 that Hawaii-based Tinfish Press published his first book of poems, Cribs. Tinfish describes Huang’s book as follows:
Cribs is a discrete sequence of critical and poetic probing into the manifolds of the book’s title word: ‘crib’ as a small child’s bed, as literal translation, as plagiarism, as a summary or key to understanding a literary work, as a manger for feeding animals, as confinement, as home, as a memory aid for illegal immigrants, and so on. Speaking in a forked/chopsticked tongue, the author explores translingual and cross-cultural terrains where the inchoate, tangential, and back-translational emerge and diverge to unsettle an adopted diction.

Despite the publisher’s attempt to explain what Huang’s book is “about,” it is precisely the difficulty of articulating the book’s subject matter that is at the core of the book’s intelligence. In Huang’s own words in the long-titled poem “A Crib-ute to Gertrude Stein, who, according to one critic is ‘engagingly childish’”:
what is life
“that” is

caught up
in a narrative

that goes nowhere
but now here

For Huang, poetry is not about a conclusion, an end-point that can be neatly tied into a bow, but rather it is about the playful process of language and all the discoveries and paradoxes along the way. To Huang, “what / is a death sentence.”

Huang’s book is innovative and interesting in many ways. The most obvious way is through his playful punning with language. During a reading at the University of Southern California in February 2006, Huang said: “Language is autoeroticism. It reveals itself.” Language, for Huang, an immigrant from China, is not fixed; the land of signs and signifiers is never straightforward or set in stone. In one poem, “Nearly Half of Crib Deaths Tied to Sleep Position,” Huang begins a poem with a syntactically straightforward phrase: “do you love / a cup of tea / in the afternoon,” but the meaning of such words keeps morphing as Huang prunes the phrases and rearranges words to show the boundless potential variances in meaning:
do you love
a cup of tea

in the afternoon
or do you love

in the afternoon
or just love

the afternoon

as for me
i love

the tea

In another poem, “For MIA, Made in America,” words are only tenuously attached to their meanings. In Huang’s world, words are parts of other words that have vastly different meanings. Here, “bell” becomes “belly,” “nip” “nipple,” and “yes” “eyes.” In Huang’s poems, there is a sense that everything is connected and nothing is connected:
I am
the bell of your belly
nip of your nipple
yes in your eyes
no in your nose
should on your shoulder
so in your torso…

It’s important to note one of the effects of Huang’s punning and playful language, which is humor. Granted, Huang uses language in many poems to depict more serious issues, but Cribs can be outright laugh-out-loud funny. And in a world of deeply pensive, self-reflective, personal Romantic lyrics, funny is refreshing. In the poem: “The Pullet Surprise” (an obvious pun on “Pulitzer Prize”), both emotions intermingle and the poem begins humorous, shifts into pathos, and returns to humor:
“I won! I won!! ‘I’ wins!!!
--the ‘Pullet Surprise’ for poultry,
better than lottery!
for years and years
I have pulled and tried
to get at that fishbone
stuck in my throat;
sometimes I wonder
if it’s just a tape
tucked under my overcoat
--a tape of foreign words
that ‘practical gods’ can use
when traveling
in strange countries.”

This poem shows Huang’s ability to use language for many purposes--to access and unlock the multi-faceted emotions of his speaker.

In a few cases, Huang makes his ideas regarding poetry and language apparent. “The Token Road,” another humorous pun on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” he states: “poetry is not derivative enough.” Later on in the same poem, he explains his reasons for writing:
I write in order
to pilfer epiphanies
every turn of the verse
serves as
reverse, converse, averse, adverse
inverse, obverse, traverse, perverse
but never universe
I call it nerverse…

In another poem, “The Liver Failure of Poetry,” Huang discusses the problem of the epiphanic moment in a more conventional lyric poem. He likens the epiphany to a “delivery:”
after years of alcoholism
straight shots of “the me”
or on the rocks
poetry finally delivers
having the spongy mass removed

it is a moment
of bilious epiphany
emotional enzymes released
from the hepatic artery
professionals call it a click
otherwise known as delivery

But in the speaker’s mind, nothing needs to click in a poem for it to be a poem. In this way, Huang is questioning the very notion of “a poem”:
…2. It is as though you needed some cri-
terion, namely the clicking, to know the
right thing has happened.

5. We are again and again using this sim-
ile of something clicking or fitting, when
really there is nothing that clicks or that
fits anything.

Here, we also begin to see the structural variances in Huang’s poem. There are numbers, but the numbering is not linear or logical, going from a “2” to a “5.” Part of the poem is in this prose form, while other parts are right-justified. Here, and in other parts of Cribs, Huang places quotation marks around entire prose sections, but there are no references to who is being quoted. Such floating quotations, in a sense, question the very use of references, of authority, of establishment. Some of his poems do not use capitalization and others do. In fact, in one poem called “Polish Central,” Huang points to the arbitrary currency attributed to capitalization: “if i capitalize all the letters / what will the interest rate be?” In our culture, capitalization is equated with importance, but Huang turns that notion upside-down and questions the very value of such rules by pairing capital letters with something seemingly unrelated--interest rates.

Although so much of Huang’s book is not necessarily “about” anything, it would be false to say that the book entirely lacks subject matter. One of the themes Huang confronts in the later sections of his book are those related to racism and ethnicity. But Huang does not recycle ethnic subject matter in an expected way. Many other poets such as Marilyn Chin in the much-anthologized poem, “How I Got My Name” (from Chin’s book, The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty) have already addressed such issues in a more conventional manner:
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”

Instead, Huang manages ethnicity and race issues in a wholly fresh way. In “A Foreign Student,” he uses language and punning as a frame for discussing race: “hey, behave your language / and take out the cabbage / be man, ok? or even manner / did you say you’ve lost / a tooth or truth?” In another poem, “Polish Conrad,” Huang touches on the potentially autobiographical “I” (although we can’t assume the speaker is the poet) but he couples it, unexpectedly, with a story about the Polish writer, Joseph Conrad. Huang follows the passage about Conrad with a quoted prose section that is written a very traditional narrative style:
“My grandparents on my mother’s side, for instance, used to
come over late after work and make my mother wake me up
and take me out of the crib just so they could ask me to perform
something--usually a song or poem, in either English or Japa-
nese (they spoke very little English, so naturally I was bilingual)…”

But then Huang follows this traditional narrative with a more journalistic prose passage on the arrival of Chinese immigrants to America: “They came by boats. Thousands of them, claming to be sons and daughters of native-born U.S. citizens. Paper-sons and paper-daughters….” This factual section of the poem is followed by a printed survey-type dialogue that illustrates the questioning that immigrants received, and how such answers to questions would need to match the answers of other villagers in order to receive immigration. “How many houses are there on your row, the first one?” and “When did he die?” are examples of such questions. Huang ties the theme of immigration and race issues with the idea of “cribs” by noting on the bottom of one page that the Chinese detainees relied on “coaching notes” or crib notes to remember basic facts about their villages so that their answers would match those of other detainees. Huang’s approach to ethnicity and race are entirely new and his fresh perspective allows him to re-approach a dusty topic with new interest.

One final example of Huang’s innovative approach to race issues is his use of humor, a topic already discussed earlier, but worth mentioning again in a different context. Much of topically ethnic poems are more serious. A recent example is A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, a book about an African-American girl who, in 1936, was kept from winning a spelling bee because the judge used a word not on the official list. A few representative lines: “I sit alone. / I am Job, a leper, skin / But not flesh, flesh but / Not soul, soul but not human, Human but not equal being.” Unlike Jordan, however, Huang injects his poems on similar ethnicity issues with humor, as in “Not a Chinaman’s Chance:”
One day, in the street of New York City, he was asked
by a white man who was apparently annoyed by his
exotic appearance: “What sort of ‘nese are you? A
Chinese, Japanese, or Javanese?” The famous author
of The Book of Tea replied: “What sort of ‘key are
you? A Yankee, donkey, or monkey?”

And that is how Huang ends Cribs--with humor, the humor of language, and an understanding of the role humor and language plays in the sphere of the human condition. Huang’s book is anything but simplistic, but it is anything but complicated; it is happily both and happily neither. Huang’s work is original and bodes well for Asian American poetry, avant-garde poetry, and poetry at large.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

NEW! Review of Ray Gonzalez

Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems by Ray Gonzalez. BOA Editions, $23.95.

Reviewed by Peter Ramos

It’s heartening to think of Ray Gonzalez as the latest American poet to take up from his masters--James Wright, Robert Bly, and W.S. Merwin, among others--the long tradition of the deep image. This is all the more gratifying when we realize that Bly and Wright, among the first poets of this country to name and incorporate the deep image, developed this poetic tendency in no small part through their translations of Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Octavio Paz. No less “American” than his masters, Gonzalez is linguistically at least, if not ethnically and culturally, closer to those Spanish-speaking poets whose work served as the original, mold-smashing model for Bly and Wright almost a half century ago. But Gonzalez brings to the deep image the very element so painfully missing in the work of his mentors: history. In its most Jungian aspects, the deep image tended toward the a-historical, seeking to recover some long buried universal object from the collective unconscious--some original stone or light we would all recognize, no matter the differences in our separate cultures. Gonzalez’s work never allows us to forget the striations of civilization and conquest one must break through to get to that image.

In this collection, one that spans almost twenty years and includes his newest, uncollected poems, Gonzalez’s practice directs itself toward the historical elements that force the speaker backward, illuminating the power and the transient nature of the colonial past. In “The Carved Hands of San Miguel,” the speaker begins by confronting the Christian, authoritative statue:
I stood before the carved hands at San Miguel.
They could not touch the child walking home,
so they touched me.
The carved fingers were cold and hard
and they jabbed me in the heart.

By the poem’s end, the speaker has broken through toward that original element out of which the statue was carved.
I stood before the carved hands at San Miguel.
They could not touch me, so I held them
until I could reach beyond the wrist
and the arm--the form of rock that
became the white body left behind.

Climbing up or digging down, the speaker in so many of Gonzalez’s poems begins from a particularly situated “home” in order to reach that place we might all recognize, despite our different origins.

In “Ascending the Stone Steps at the Gran Quivira Ruins,” it’s difficult not to hear an echo of Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” and yet, Gonzalez’s poems remind us over and over that one cannot confuse the particularity of home. This is not Peru but Southern New Mexico. It is only by way of a perspective--from below or from up above--that we can see beyond our particular, historically situated place. More often than not we can only imagine such a place. Reaching the top of the mountain, the speaker senses a universal clarity to be imagined, even glimpsed, but not secured:
I totter there and wait,
mountains to the north and south
threatening each other with
the black reach of a short day
when the valley below does
not catch up with the truth,
ignoring the impassable ceiling
of time I can’t reach, the ledges
above the holding place
where many died, some rose,
a few giving birth to the turning
tide that took the people away.

Translation, as Bly and Wright both demonstrated, offers poets and readers alike the chance to see the world anew. Certainly their contribution to the deep image practice depended on their ability to translate German and Spanish verse into stateside English. But, as Gonzalez reminds us through his own work, translation is only another term for transformation, new possibilities of thought through language. In this sense, each stanza in his poem “Another” addresses this multivalent characteristic of translation:
Another word for understanding is light,
as in the light that leaves the mind
and kneels over the garden.
. . .

Another word for knowing is darkness,
as in the falling bird that lands
in the green and disappears.

Combining elemental, transforming images with the kind of assertive biblical language that Merwin is known for, Gonzalez nonetheless keeps the poems particular in time and place: not any stone of any age, but this stone here. The repeating possessive pronoun in “My Brothers” reminds us that the speaker’s brothers here are not necessarily “ours”:
My brothers lie under the darkened stones.
When I wake them, they ask my name.
When I answer, they disappear
and I keep polishing the stones.
. . .
My brothers tell stories under the rubble.
When I am left out of the legend, tree roots
grow to the horizon, their underground
roads never crossing my path.

Such a separation often seems to exclude the speaker as well. These may be “his” brothers, but they are locked away, obscure, out of and beyond this particular time. In fact, throughout Gonzalez’s work there is this sense that history is the mark itself giving way to cultural and social division. Here is most of “Tiny Clay Doll with No Arms”:
Given to me by my sister as a gift,
the tiny Indian doll stands with no arms.

Received so I can raise my hands
and stop the world from getting closer.

Something has been taken from here--
a day when reaching out was death.

Something has been lost
with my own hands.

. . .

The clay doll stands on my bookshelf.
It stares out the window.

It does not have any arms.
I don’t know why it was carved that way,

Don’t know what it means, why
Invisible palms hold everything together. . .

As in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” this delicate, inscrutable object from an unrecoverable time and place nonetheless commands the living speaker in this present.
The power of silent objects, of dolls in particular, is a familiar poetic conceit: we see this not only on Rilke but in the work of many of the deep imagists as well. Charles Simic makes considerable use of such images. But in Gonzalez’s use of these silent objects, he is able to both include and question the presence of an historical, ethnic connection: the Indian doll points to a Pre-colonial past of what became the modern Americas. While the speaker feels responsible for preserving this object, compelled to hold it up at the end with “sweating hands,” he/she cannot read the significance of the object’s lack of arms, cannot understand what the doll is trying to say.

Again and again, Gonzalez’s verse positions the work of history itself on a particular speaker in a particular time and place, marking the transformations that separate. But such transformations also give rise to new possibilities. A once obliterated past might return transformed, as in “The Head of Pancho Villa”:
The rumor ran that the head became
the mountain surrounding the town.
Others said it was the skull that sat for years
on the highway west to Arizona.
It was true because my grandparents lived there,
told their children the skull glowed
on the roads, until my grandfather died
and his family returned to the other mountain.

I see the head of Villa each time I drive into El Paso.
It rises off the setting sun as the evening turns red.
By now, I am convinced the eyes are open, the hair longer.
After all, the moon is enough when I turn to take a look.

Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems plots the trajectory of Gonzalez’s work in the last twenty years. As the current and latest heir to the deep image practice, Gonzalez corrects an oversight of the earlier practitioners in so far as his poems remind us of the consequences of ignoring history and its effects. These are poems that repeatedly present us with a speaker who struggles responsibly to make something in the present out of a vanishing, hardly conceivable past.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

NEW! Review of Cecil Helman

Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds by Cecil Helman. Quale, $12.

Reviewed by Zackary Sholem Berger

Few things are as foolhardy as venturing a definition of poetry, but the history of poetry can provide safe harbor. One of many strands that has contributed to poetry is the song. Thus the reader seeing a poem for the first time, blessed or encumbered with common cultural baggage, would expect it to be something singable, or at least tuneful. If you claim that a poem can be nothing more than a virtuosic display of variegated wordforms, I can still ask where the music is. Though the question may be naïve, it is not illegitimate.

Trying to define the prose poem would be just as foolhardy, but the historical uses of prose provide one way to understand the genre's possibilities. At its broadest, prose has been whatever can be put down on paper, from lists of military conquests to the roll-call of the dead. So the prose poem is not the intersection of prose and poetry, but the use of prose in the widest sense of the word, in the way encompassing the most possibilities.

One way to explore these possibilities is to turn back the clock, imagining that the deadening effects of various contemporary uses of prose can be reverted. You can become a myth-maker, mining a spare but connotative vocabulary that has its parallels in the Bible or the French neoclassical playwrights: the same words, images, and ideas, repeated over and over again in different combinations, can cover the entire universe--just like (it is said) God took only ten utterances to make the whole world.

This mythmaking lies at the foundation of Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds, a book of prose poetry by Cecil Helman. Besides being a novelist and a poet, Helman is best-known for his medical anthropology. Story-archetypes, and the ways they are made concrete in lives and bodies, are his very bread. People falling in love, giving birth, dying, becoming insane--these basic stories appear time and again in Helman's research and his literature.

The most effective poems in Helman's book preserve the immediacy and vividness of such basic stories. It feels wrong to give away for free “The Second Ark,” the last poem in the collection, but it's hard to resist quoting:
The Second Ark

I think of Noah, his crowded Ark. The symmetry of it all. The neat geometry of design. The two-by-two of everything. Half male, half female. Two doves sent out. A Flood that lasts exactly twice times twenty days. Not more. All this symmetry makes me think that, somewhere out there, there's another Noah. In another Ark, on another Flood. A chaotic Ark, filled with irregular numbers of beasts and birds. A bewildered Noah with three wives, or none. Still floating. Sending out doves in random threes, or fives. A Noah who cannot calculate when it will all end. Whether the Flood will go on forever, or end the day before it began.

This prose poem encapsulates Helman's strengths: the cyclic nature of all existence that he can contain within these short pieces; the deceptively simple approach, beginning with a short remark ("I think of Noah . . .") that blossoms into an entire garden of observations. Here, a myth (the Bible's) with a definable beginning and end, destruction and redemption, is transformed into something more like our own experience, with an unclear destination and no promised rebuilding. Because Noah doesn't find his Ararat, because he might have to sail on forever, his experience is more like our own. But for that very reason--because the reader's eye does not light upon the expected redemption--this prose poem is wonderfully strange.

This is what Helman does throughout the book, bringing myths (scientific, romantic, religious) into confrontation with our everyday, whose cycles are less sublime. In "Relativity," we meet the woman who bends time: "Wherever that woman is, time either stops, or it runs too slow." Another woman (in a different piece) speaks hieroglyphics. In "Bar Scene," a "crowded bar[, s]moke and sweat, and juke box roaring" gives way to a series of images, and increasing confusion on the part of the narrator:
Woman in a leopardskin leotard, big earrings, peroxided hair, screaming into my ear. Who is she? . . . Behind the bar the barman pours me out yet another drink, shrugs. Why is he shaking his head?

For the reader fed on prose, such deceptively simple myth bust-ups pose a problem. When an image from the everyday is presented as an artistic unit, without enlivening context, it can seem only everyday--boring, trivial. The piece "Therapy" can be read as a sharply ironic portrait of a therapist ("Tick-tock. A plush Persian carpet. Uh-huh. I'm afraid our time's up. See you tomorrow, then. Same time. Tick-tock."), or, on the other hand, as a same-old-same-old therapist cliche. Sometimes Helman asks too much of such a reader, piling on the blunting cliches just when a piece is tapering to a point. "Relativity" ends with: "They say even Einstein was puzzled by her. And so am I." The last observation is unnecessary. "Artist" is a clever portrait of a renowned artist whose canvases are all blank, whose paints are untouched: "That's why they say he's a great artist. Perhaps the greatest abstract artist of them all. They must be right, I guess." Here too the last affirmation weakens the poem.

If poetry should be good prose, this should be all the more true for prose poetry. But this is a misleading supposition, especially if "good prose" is taken to mean (as it often is) clear, workaday, expository sentences. When reading a prose poem, we should expect different things from what our quotidian eye is trained to see. We want to strip away our layered expectations and arrive at a basic, mythic, immediate understanding. (At least, this is one possible way of approaching the prose poem. It could be called the Turgenev model, as opposed to Baudelaire's conception, rich, heady stews just this side of overwrought.) If this is the approach we want to take, we should give the prose poet some leeway, enough to let him use certain tropes ("And so am I") which have become cliched through careless overuse. We should cut him some slack as--we hope--he cuts away the weeds and leads us back to the myths which language was connected to in its earliest days.

The question is, then, how to appreciate Helman's book. The myths are powerful but the cliches are dangerous. If a balance can be struck, it might require the ability to synthesize the two: the familiar patterns of the expository in the service of poetry's ability to creatively undermine. This ability, in turn, might depend on the reader even more than the author. Which is to say that the reviewer (like this one) who felt impatient at this book's cliches should also be grateful for the myths dissected by Helman.

Monday, July 03, 2006

NEW! Review of Kevin Craft

Solar Prominence by Kevin Craft. CloudBank Books, $12.95.

Reviewed by Carrie Olivia Adams

Kevin Craft knows how to spin a metaphor and to disrupt what seems simple. In his first collection of poems, Solar Prominence, he proposes:
If the body is eighty
percent water, a man
might drown simply lying
down to sleep, or walking
to the corner store
for bread and a newspaper
find himself struggling to stay afloat
in the riptide of his own bad blood.

These lines from “Medical History” are enough to make us uncomfortable and untrusting of our own individual bodies. Craft skillfully constructs his lines to unsettle, as evidenced by the unparallel structure of the stanza above, in which the second dependent clause has already lost (or drowned, or pulled under) the subject.

As much as his verse is unsettling, Craft writes about being unsettled. His poems are fascinated with the idea of the journey--in the physical sense of a journey from place to place, in the sense of the progression of time, as well as in the sense of the emotional and intellectual journey of a self through life. These are poems infused with world travel, sailing voyages and shipwrecks, the arrival of comets, and the importance of the weather in heaven, among other subjects of roaming, begetting, becoming. He states in “The Difference”:
His thesis was terminal restlessness--
cloudy islands and theatrical volcanoes,

bays groomed by canoes and circled by float planes,
the migratory stunts of coho and flycatchers,
a small brown estuary
in the saucer on his table.

Craft might as well be describing the thesis and tone of his poetry, which has its own relentless restlessness. In “To an Amphora, Salvaged @,” a poem unlike the others in the collection due to its long, wordy sentences that tumble and roll down the page, he writes:
. . . --all motion
ascribed to the heart's steady restlessness
but likely more akin to an electron's
struck from the shell of its whirlwind and spinning
out counterclockwise to the antic world,
the cipher sea, @ large again, a silence
speaking volumes, blinking now and then

like a Cyclops whose godsent ship's come in.

Throughout his poems, Craft captures the movement and resonance of various journeys in the images and descriptions of the small things glimpsed and gathered along the way. As he writes in the long poem “After a Journey,” “To journey is to make a day of it, / to find dailiness sufficient, the mundane divine.” As a result of the act of journeying, the mundane is elevated to the role of souvenir and thus assumes a significance beyond the ordinary:
I make a little pile
of stones I've picked up there & here--
my hermeia, ambit cairn
of touchstone souvenirs--
agate, jasper, meteorite, carnelian,
each enamored of a mile.

Of course, it is a given that the journey puts one in a liminal position: “ --broken instep, stone half / skipped, half sunk restlessly between.” It is this tension “between voyage and the void,” that makes these souvenirs so important. The traveler is a body in motion, and consequently arrival guarantees departure: one has always already left, and therefore one is perpetually absent. In the poems of Solar Prominence, the souvenirs are tangible placeholders, markers of an undertaking, a voyage undertaken.

“After a Journey” concludes:
The story is restoration, sing-along,
in millennial Avignon: the city plans
to rebuild its bridge's famous, missing
spans, only to tear them down again
the following year. At what cost? A song.

It is to this question of cost that I find myself returning, upon reading Craft's poems. These are poems written in a language carefully honed within a syntax that begins on a straight path, then twists and turns and rises and falls in keeping with content. Yet, despite the glimmering moments when Craft encourages us to question the commonplace, as he does in “Medical History,” the poems are, in general, lyrical without a cost, without risk. This is their weakness. The poems stand at a distance, for one to admire them; however, one does not feel invited into their travels. As a result, this volume is a formidable step toward a work as intense as the celestial phenomenon its title evokes.