Tuesday, April 25, 2006

NEW! Review of Leonard Schwartz

Ear and Ethos by Leonard Schwartz. Talisman House, $13.95.

Reviewed by Maged Zaher

1. Otherness

The moment one enters Leonard Schwartz's new collection, one becomes a witness and an accomplice to his dialogue with the Other. Schwartz does not assume Rimbaud's “I is an other” stance; instead he starts from a realization that the other exists outside the self's boundaries--hence the need for dialogue. Conducting this dialogue seems to be the imperative under which Schwartz writes. Or, as he states in the poem “Six Ways Two Places At Once”: “The very being of language / Implies an other with whom to speak.” As the title of the poem suggests, this dialogue is not selfless: the other triggers the self's desire to explore, to be in two places at once, to experience life six different ways. The Other, then, is both an independent interlocutor, to be respected, and a channel allowing the self to expand.

Schwartz's poems embody this very idea of an expanding self through the multiplicity of forms they take: prose poems (“The Eden Exhibit”), short, jazzy poems (“Sheep's Head”), long-lined lyrics (“Occupational Hazards”), and sonnets (“Apple Anyone”). Just as Schwartz uses myriad forms, he also adopts a variety of voices, from the playful and witty--“I want to eat every mango / There ever was like a small / Unemployed carpenter / Not Christ, just a small unemployed carpenter” (“Method”)--to the soft yet constrained--“Sometimes I must seem hard to you, the starts gathering and glittering in your eyes bursting with focus. Wash your hands, eat your noodles, pick up the clip, and so on. And all the while the bomb continues its downtown countdown. One, two, three, four, five, all gone. What is the name again of the city we live in?” (“The Eden Exhibit”)--to the philosophical, essay-like--“Because its material substratum remains transcendental / the freedom of the subject, which the transcendental is designed to rejuvenate, / allows us to inhale and exhale refreshing drafts just as we approach the summit” (“The Library of Seven Readings”).

Schwartz's openness toward otherness manifests itself in the spectrum of others he addresses--political, cultural, poetical. At the heart of this task, he confronts modern-day colonialism and “Orientalism”: in his “Apple Anyone” sonnets, he collages English words of Arabic origin with lines from Shakespeare's sonnets, in an attempt to demonstrate that the Islamic East and the West are not two radically different cultures; they can mix. Dialogue with the East becomes an alternative to the conservative dehumanization of Arabs:
. . . a whole system
Howling “Sub-Humans”
And acting on that precept
Having pursued in tanks
     The tortured
Right into their ruined hives?
(“Six Ways Two Places At Once”)


2. Poetry and poetics: the gap and the opportunity

In his 1990 essay “A Flicker At The End Of Things,” Schwartz made a Hegelian move, positioning the “Transcendental Lyric”--his brand of poetics--as a synthesis of largely content-based poetry, with its reliance on “immediacy of the self,” and some of the radically formal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, characterized by what Schwartz called “negation of the immediate” via insistence on the “exclusivity of the material, social, and linguistic nexus from which the poem arises.” Schwartz defined the Transcendental lyric as that which “involves an art in which language is used in such a way as to produce at least the illusion of the presence of regions of being outside personal experience, an art in which subjectivity is again given access to visions.”

Although some of the poems in Ear and Ethos, such as “The Eden Exhibit” and “Six Ways Two Places At Once,” operate under this banner, others are less faithful. In some of the strongest poems of the collection, Schwartz deals with immediate and timely political issues. In “Occupational Hazards,” his subject is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. He builds his poem from a collage of news reports, reflections, fragments, and commentaries:
It was while the army demolished a neighboring house, belonging to the family of a militant from Islamic Jihad, that the wall fell on the Makadamah family.
Opposition came swiftly from the 36 hidden justices.
. . .

With ambulances blocked from reaching the scene, Mrs. Makadamah, 41, died while neighbors were carrying her to a clinic.
. . .

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. . .

Not genocide, not ethnic cleansing: a name has yet to be conceived for what is undergone in these curfewed quarters.


Penelope transfers her strength to the medium of her subjective expression, in order to then subordinate herself to that medium, more than subjective, in the act of destructive defiance.

And in the brilliant poem “Invitation,” Schwartz's weaving of the names of different Palestinian cities into this text becomes an investigation of love, hate, occupation, and language:
Yes, your visa will expire at the end of this poem.
Yes, you will need a new passport to exit
This nightmare, a new genre of passport.
If every veteran of reality rose up and protested
Every single case of war mongering
                   Or Jenin.

In this set of poems, Schwartz lets go of dialogue and comes as close as possible to identifying himself with the other, as he rewrites Marina Tsvetaeva's line, “All poets are Jews” as “All poets are Palestinians.”

Also in these poems, Schwartz works outside of the Transcendental lyric insofar as he exhibits more visceral reaction, anger, and immediacy. This recalls Donald Hall's observation, in the article “Theory X Theory,” that a poet whose poetry exactly matches his or her poetics can end up being very boring: it is in the space between poetics as project and actual poetry that good poetry is created. In a way, true negative capability puts the poet in tension with her or his poetics, and in Ear and Ethos Schwartz sidesteps--or perhaps expands--his poetics. The transcendental is no longer universal but grounded in the immediate. This sideways or expansive act is negative capability at its best, the work of a mature and important poet.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

NEW! Review of Wayne Chambliss

The Traveling Salesman Problem by Wayne Chambliss. The Caitlins.

Reviewed by Brandon Downing

Wayne Chambliss' The Traveling Salesman Problem is a small book of ten-line works, each ostensibly sent by the author as 'postcard dispatches' to his project managers as he coursed around the country peddling "biological agents, content management software, and engineering services" (and perhaps a touch of snake oil) from such locations as San Francisco, Oak Harbor (WA), and New York City. The book is also a wonderful aggregate of light heartbreak, throwback meter, lost-kid watchfulness, and truly fresh air. It has been a long time coming.

The author has previously published several installments of excellent translations, particularly of the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, and, while scattered outbursts of his own work have been showing up more frequently in journals, this is the most substantial dose of his work most readers will have seen.

Wayne Chambliss was an underground legend at Stanford University, where rumors swirled about this wild performer of old-style 'verse' who semi-haunted the campus. One Friday, as Spring Quarter was winding down, I caught a ride down from San Francisco to catch a Wayne 'event'. The performance had been advertised only by word of mouth: Wayne was going to do a show right in front of Rodin's bronze doors, The Gates of Hell, sculptural jewel of the University, just before dark. But when we showed up, there was a real crowd gathered up for it, stretched out across the lawn, little picnics at sunset, many of whom, somewhat nervously, seemed to know what was in store. "He's really into Brodsky," someone whispered, but when I heard him boom and trill out the first four or five hundred lines of a middle-aged-persona-lament of the seasons and the arthritis of time--fully from memory --I was thinking about more than Brodsky. This was old throwback oratory of the first, and weirdest, order: pulsing, William Jennings Bryanesque monologue, fiery, fully convincing and fake, elated and depressed. And it was fiction: true theater, seeming to inhabit the desperate pull of bitterness and regret, global consciousness, goofball rumination. It was like the gangleader’s opening speech of The Warriors (1979), translated by James Merrill.

I was quite blown away. This was unearthly shit. Recited by a chain-smoking, surfer-handsome, baseball-cap sporting kid of twenty-four or so who slept many of his nights in the Student Union, having slipped through the grill of the Stanford system a few years before, circulating from couch to couch with his book-bag and toiletries, hitting on smart girls. I got to know Wayne a little bit over the ensuing years, as he cycled through several phases of sofa-surfing, jobs as the 'encyclopedic' cashier at different video stores, the brain behind several brilliant (and perhaps less-than-brilliant) internet start-ups. He has ended up doing just about everything and running around just about everywhere. And that's one of the reasons so few of us have become familiar with his work. The Traveling Salesman Problem should help with that.

While the author's peripatetic condition, and occasional instability, has perhaps prevented him from rooting his work and letting it grow in the past, this rich motif of displacement lies right at the heart of the The Traveling Salesman Problem:
Everywhere now, intimations of North.
Even the little bronze weather vane's attempting a migration.
And cats grow lean in the court-
yards watching the peregrinations
of squirrels with cheeks like Louis Armstrong.
Cinnamon, hickory, chamomile, clover.
Embedded in the eiderdown,
"you reach for a shirt and the day is over."
And words are off-colored as leaves, flecked with the old neurosis,
gasping like wind in the trees. Or else tuberculosis.

And that's the poem. There are about twenty more of them here. His four- and five-hundred line odes of endurance have become, in this short new collection, ten-lined, epigrammatic videotapes of change. With some of his earlier wilderness shed for a brighter sense of purpose and passing time, there remains that clever Britishized need for rhyme, and that ex-patriotic style of line breaks. It’s a real campfire.

Wayne Chambliss is The Traveling Salesman. That makes it even more perfect that his new collection is so titled. Ironically, it's here in NYC--where The Traveling Salesman Problem itself ends all cute and abrupt--that Wayne, always at the perimeter of so many lives and influences, has found worth settling into for a real spell. I can only hope that work like this continues to be the result of his new rooted-ness, however illusory it might be. And while these short poems retain much of the epic nature of his earlier work, here it’s much more graspable and lived: the moment-to-moment flashes of mood, gentle japanese rhyme, shadow puppetry, the weariness behind all that fucking mobility. Let this be the beginning of a lot more Wayne.

NEW! Review of Andrew Gottlieb

Halflives by Andrew Gottlieb. New Michigan Press, $7.

Reviewed by Summer Block

It is fitting that Andrew Gottlieb’s chapbook Halflives takes its title from a line by James Salter, the Korean War veteran known for a down and dirty style that eschews ponderous ruminations in favor of swift, powerful images and manly forthrightness. “Still, it’s depressing,” the quotation reads on Gottlieb’s title page, “One feels like a fugitive from half a dozen lives.” Though Gottlieb follows Salter’s example of clear, concise language, his empathy for “half a dozen” other lives is uniquely his own. In an era of writing that can be so challenging as to seem antagonistic to the reader, Gottlieb is refreshingly approachable. His style is human, narrative, and observational.

For a man who makes his home in soggy Washington, Gottlieb’s poetry is redolent with heat: “leaping heat seers skin deep,” “long dry days,” “hot sun burns,” “the heat of summer,” “still air,” “black smoke and grease,” “heat, static as a junk car,” “stale air.” The result is poems that feel at times claustrophobic, suffocating. “Standing Patterns,” the first poem in the volume, constructs the American South out of rusty screen door hinges, sweltering summers, and the skitter of roaches. A fretful young bride feels the still, oppressive heat stifle possibility. Time is slow: “Second hands clack / and you see how often life is a wait / you weather.” Only in “Spider” can Gottlieb say to the wise creature of the title, “You know time’s an ally.”

Gottlieb’s portrayal of women is kind, even when not very nuanced--he has the compassion to feel a young girl’s “hope [as] a seed in warm peat”--but the subtlety of poems like “Standing Patterns” is missing from “All She Wants” and “Amaryllis,” explorations of teen girlhood that feel more voyeuristic than empathetic. What’s lacking is the wisdom of a line like “A man / will remember a love that left him / but will settle again for his house, porch, family / noise like a TV, and with a cold beer / in the backyard, he’ll know the chilly twinge / of unreceptive things piled in his garage,” from the excellent “Choosing Channels.”

If the women in these poems feel somehow false, Gottlieb is a master of masculine reticence, the long ache of stubborn silence: “How two men / tooled of the same line / can argue themselves to silence.” The fishermen in “On Mere Point” “toss these baits in frail hope / that one dark mouth will take the hook, / end up caught in a cold bucket / of lost talk,” and while “Men are good / at missing out on lessons,” he explains, his work nonetheless offers many poignant ones. There are the occasional clichés--strippers, dive bars, taciturn men with beer bellies and sad eyes--but his consideration gives them depth and substance.

Gottlieb is on his surest footing when mapping the losses that make up family life. “Tourist Canoe” feels less fresh and more familiar: the scope is too wide--not the intimate wanderings of a spider or struggles of a hooked fish, but the whole American West--and the canvas is too large, the brushstrokes too hasty. “California’s ancient golden invitation” is a well-worn idea, without the dash and vigor of lines like “The weather’s like a fight you want a knife in: / unpredictable and quick.”

Gottlieb’s gift for observation serves nature no less than his characters. He takes careful note of weather patterns, insects, birds--a function of his characters’ stoic patience. But nature here is not all flowers and rainbows. Halflives is full of images that force us to confront the gross bodily manifestations of illness and decay: “thin, wrinkled lips taut over teeth / reddened with blood she coughed,” “clothes clotted and black.” Families hold vigils over the dying or stand helpless in the face of calamity. Infirmity and death are ever present, as a reminder of our true, physical selves. In “Fugue For Wheelchair,” Gottlieb gently chides, “We’d find my father sprawled on the hard wood / floor of the master bedroom, fallen from / his scooter--as we called it, hoping names / could make things not what they were.” Euphemisms are an indulgence, a false comfort. In “Stand-Off, Bedside,” gathered relatives implore their dying grandmother to hush her anguished muttering “as if silence / could comfort our watching,” but the grandmother speaks on in a rush of words that carry her life away with a “march” and a “song.”

Despite the book’s title, these works are less about incompleteness than metamorphosis. Here stasis is a misery, but change is still avoided, or impossible, or unrelentingly cruel. Only animals, not freighted with fear, can live spontaneously and without regret: “Overturned, a boat / that doesn’t float will shade a spider or a mink / or some other surprise, live or long past / needing shelter.”

Friday, April 14, 2006

NEW! Review of Pam Rehm

Small Works by Pam Rehm. Flood Editions, $12.95.

Reviewed by Jason Stumpf

The poems in Small Works are short pieces and sequences of short pieces--small works--but “small” describes not only their length but also their style. The poems are spare. They foreground white space, silence, and the precise unfolding of language and idea. Their speaker moves not from place to place but among the remnants experience has left her. Each line feels legitimated by hard thought and expresses, or seeks, hard truth. The mind within these poems enters and contemplates moments, meticulously separating from the daily, from the domain of the self, perhaps from the domain of the soul. For Rehm, abstractions such as memory and wonder have an almost personal presence and are, in places, literally embodied, as in “Charm for Sleep,” where “Fear has an ear / in it.”

The title Small Works is, in one way, misleading: it suggests that the book might read as if assembled to catalogue a subset of the poet’s corpus. However, the poems are not an odd gathering of pieces united only by their size; they share an animating sensibility and the project of drawing language from truth and truth from language. One exemplary case is the poem “Eden,” which begins:
Endure has an end
you may rue
at the outset

But it also has need

and need is an Eden

“Eden” goes beyond being merely clever. That is, it has more to offer than the realization that the word “endure” contains letters to spell the words “end” and “rue” and that the letters in “need” can be reordered to produce “Eden.” Here, anagrammatic play provides a means for revealing the connections between words, but the true link, it seems, is born from the speaker’s experience of their meanings. The valence of the letters depends, as Rehm writes later in the poem, on “How I hold it.” One doesn’t feel as if Rehm shook the words to see what fell out, but that these meanings had been hidden all along. This notion about language--that its arrangement and rearrangement conjure an already existent understanding or belief--is central to Rehm’s work. In this and other ways, Rehm’s sixth collection roams similar terrain to her previous books, especially Gone to Earth and The Garment in Which No One Had Slept. In this newest book, her language is as stark and honed as ever.

While Rehm’s references include symbolically charged Biblical imagery--paradise, Hell, Solomon, shepherds, lamb--her primary subject is not faith but the experience of faith, which is to say the poems’ threads spread from an individual dwelling in the world rather than emanate from a pure, impersonal concept. The poems unfold with a careful beauty of thought--an authority--that announces a mind in contemplation of the world. For example, “Bow Down” tracks spiritual longing while observing the natural world:
Faith comes to one noiseless
and yet, keeps one exasperated

Eager to touch touch

A bird’s nest

Here, as elsewhere in the poem, the physical and spiritual are blurred, as faith and touch are intertwined.
The second of the book’s two sections, “Acts,” accounts for approximately the last third of the collection. Here, the linkages between poems are most apparent, signaled by each poem’s title as an act: “Acts of Anxiety,” “Acts of Will,” “Acts of Knowledge.” The poems share the project of distilling abstractions to essential associations and experiences. Such is the case with “Acts of Habit,” where the speaker equates habit (and building a habitat) with myth-making and, in turn, creation myths:
A spider’s web rebuilt at dawn

With nothing wasted
Does not change with the times

So earthly and ancient

The myth of morning
The morning makes us

Given the ways insight springs from these poems’ spare gestures, perhaps the title Small Works refers not to poetic works but to the work that precedes their making: the daily, personal exchanges between belief and reality, and the wresting from language what one can be said to know. In Rehm’s hands, this work, much more significant than it first appears, is imbued with a richness and urgency that beckons us to return.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

NEW! Review of Edward Foster

What He Ought To Know: New and Selected Poems by Edward Foster. Marsh Hawk Press.

Reviewed by Nicholas Manning

Edward Foster’s New and Selected is once more proof of his often astounding poetic capabilities: sureness of register, intelligence of arrangement, delicacy of emotional patterning, elegance of effect. Which only makes the flaws of What He Ought to Know all the more surprising. And disappointing. The question is perhaps not, finally: how well can Edward Foster write? We know that he can write very well indeed. What seems more pointed is rather: why has Foster chosen to include some of the poems in this volume? Are they simply weaker, or do they rather indicate a different--and for Foster, perhaps equally valuable--aesthetic orientation?

If one had to identify a dominant preoccupation here--and on the one hand, “why?” but on the other, “why not?”--one would no doubt point to the tension everywhere present between knowledge and desire. Desire as a form of knowledge, but also knowledge as a form of desire. Desire as a means of obtaining knowledge, but also knowledge as a modifier of all initial impulses. Thus, we find Thomas Mann quoted above the poem “Watch Hill”: “Desire is a result of not knowing enough.” (That this desire is homosexual desire has perhaps already been too dwelt upon by critics.)

There is a great tenderness to Edward Foster’s verse. Such is his intelligence, however, that he manages to express this tenderness while, if not parodying it, at least undermining it, enabling the reader to see, by means of a profoundly empathetic gaze, the absurdity of everyday intimacies: “What kind of man / rolls over saying (in effect), “‘Don’t wait on me / to wait on you.’” The elliptical conclusion here, as elsewhere, rings true of an emotion which somewhere, on its way to expression, has lost its way. We see what the speaker means, in a general sense: but the confusion makes us feel that this language is so charged with sentiment that it has become, in a positive way, obscured by it.

This is one example of the subtleties of Foster’s verse. In fact, this is the sort of word one often thinks of with regard to these poems: subtlety, nuance, gradation, tone, hue, variation, light. But there is another category of terms as well, equally important, and it is perhaps the complex combination of the two that is interesting: control, balance, order, restraint, arrangement, structure, elegance.

It is precisely this unlikely amalgam which confers upon Foster’s poetry its particular beauty: order and arrangement, but also the careful colouring of this order with emotional light:
The hills, we said, were made for tourists. The broken bits of columns, Adonis in his grave. The earth was closed, we’d say, or, then, the boy at least was ill. His face, we knew, would never heal, and women would be kind. He would depend on them. This night, what difference if the words were not the same. I move your hand, and now for all the world, we never change and live in this decision.

What is so refreshing about such pieces is the sheer linguistic, emotional, and imagogical control often absent from the contemporary “prose-prose.” The limitation this writing seems to impose upon itself, even during the act of its being set down, means that it remains focused upon its goal, and thus stable in its relentless forward movement.

Foster, then, is capable of writing well: what is surprising is that he his also capable of writing, if not poorly, at least poems strangely lacking in direction. One would be tempted to call these pieces “occasional.” Of course, occasional poetry can be very good: one need think only of the brilliant dedicatory vers of a Mallarmé or Apollinaire. But “occasional” here refers rather to a general laxity uncommon to Foster, as in “Careless Love”:
You want me to belong
The work is done
All acts are simply acts

The parlor’s bright
The guests have gone
All acts are simply acts

We once did things together
You make your choice alone
All acts are simply acts

You choose another carelessly
You make your choice alone
All acts are simply acts

Now, what is aimed at here, we may think, is no doubt the sort of song-like, refrain-based lyricism found in mid to late Yeats. (It is interesting to note, for instance, the almost identical form of Yeats’ “Crazy Jane on God,” which has as its constant post-stanza refrain “All things remain in God.”)

What we get from Foster, however, is a veritable jumble-sale of ideas. Firstly, one need merely point to the bizarrely anachronistic, fin de siècle, listless Eliot moment in: “The parlor’s bright / The guests have gone / All acts are simply acts.” Thankfully, the guests here are not talking of Michelangelo, but we feel they could be. This moment of emotional anaemia is then followed by a series of love-truisms, which culminate in the moral of the story: “You choose another carelessly / You make your choice alone.” The sentiment is trite: we care little for a speaker who expresses in this way a situation so possibly rich in sentimental meaning. Of course, one may argue that this is precisely the lyrical tone Foster was aiming at here. But what does this tone achieve? We may think, for example, that in regurgitating clichés about love (“We once did things together”), Foster is again employing the delicate, faceted irony underplayed so effectively in his other poems. Unfortunately, however, it seems that in this case he is not: this poem is pure surface. There is nothing to indicate a deeper awareness that these expressions are in fact clichés, nothing to indicate the underlying mechanics of the speaker’s emotional state. The tone is singular and immutable. Like another failed “song” in the collection, “Wheat From the Chaff,” there is little energy here; any initial music is quickly stifled by an absence of tension.

On the page facing “Careless Love,” we are treated to a photo of pigeons congregating on ten (or so) urban marble steps. Their black shapes speckle the white locale. This is useless illustration in the worst sense, a moment when Foster’s unabashed, often delightful “aestheticism”--by this term we simply mean an explicit valuing of the poem as visual and aural object--takes a turn for the worse, reducing the poem and its (supporting?) image to the status of product, as thin as the paper upon which it is reproduced.

This brings us to the unfortunate issue of Foster’s own photos throughout the collection. These photos are not necessarily bad: they are attractive in a picture-postcard sort of way. (Here a tree in a snowy field, there a crepuscular sun over a dark wood.) But their relation to the poems, and to the book as a whole, is at best uncomfortable. To take the example of the first image in the book: we have a poem, “Former Care,” which spirals into a beautifully controlled meditation on decay and disappearance: “This stage is bare, / and, sensibly, abstractions mark / the guilt we found in fairy tales.” However, beside “Former Care” is a photo of crumbling ruins. This rapprochement is vaguely insulting, for if we are indeed meant to find parallels between the image and its facing text--and this is everywhere implied--then do we not demand a more satisfying parallel than this? Individual dying, thus monument in decay: the image forces us to read “Former Care” in a way which the poem itself does not want to be read: that is, simplistically, isolating one element of its nature to the detriment of other conflicting subtleties. This is all the more unfortunate because “Former Care” is a fine poem: it has no need whatsoever of this type of metaphoric reinforcement.

This is fortunately the case for very few pieces in What He Ought To Know. In the main, these are poems of stunning tension and beauty. Take the first poem of the book, “In Your Words,” quoted here in its entirety:
In time, we will not kiss, and your face given into fire will tantalize my dreams, and I will sear my hair as I lean close, looking at your shadow in the smoke. That much will rise, and singing for me then, as you cannot sing now, it will emerge with other songs, in tight unyielding chords.

This is strong passion so strictly controlled, so forced into the regular shapes demanded by expression, that we feel the poem itself has become the song of which the speaker dreams, made of “tight, unyielding chords.” The sentiment here, though perhaps initially in conflict with this imposed restraint, is finally strengthened by it, and thus brought to its full fruition.

The variation in forms throughout the volume is effective: Foster’s prose is as well-handled as his verse, but it provides us with moments of an entirely different pace and atmosphere. As we follow Foster through Venice, Moscow, and St Petersburg, the prose form reveals itself as being entirely appropriate to these almost journalistic portraits. Mood governs these pieces, the “baroque and Prussian palaces” of St Petersburg and the “islands” of Venice providing the central motor of these veritable hymns to Nostalgia. (Like these “travel pieces,” Foster does Ut pictura poesis refreshingly well, as proved by his “Ophelia, And the Reeds, At the Tate”).

Sadly, however, the contrasts continue. There are some embarrassing moments of self-reflexivity:
Poems
can’t be made
to self-destruct,
the way a garden can.

But then, to make up for it, we have poems of such extraordinary force as “The Litany”:
And there is nothing to be longer seen.
           Crystals refract
                and darken his sight:
                        desire is the imagined
aspiration he has never seen but always known.

The sheer beauty of these calm and affectionate poems, which are never didactic nor overbearing, and which seem to constantly assert their proud if unassuming presence, is impressive. It is simply regrettable that several times the reader is irritated by errors of judgement which, I would suggest, are of a critical, rather than poetical, nature. Without the weaker pieces, along with the postcards which accompany them, we would be left with a collection of a rare beauty, and of a rare humanity as well.

Monday, April 10, 2006

letter/response from John Olson

"May I ask how language can listen to itself?"

             ---  Matthew W. Schmeer

Ok, I will tell you. Implicit in Eshleman’s observation is the idea that language has a living dynamic. It has a pulse, it has a biology, it has texture and skin. Tang, temper, tongue. It has, most importantly, a certain autonomy. Poets who respond to the inherent autonomy of words  -  words in collision, collusion, or tumbling colluvium  -  write great poetry. Great because they are not so pompous and ridiculous as to trump it up with their silly plumage. Great because they have discovered the genius of language and have learned how to nourish rather than tame and control it. To create a compact, jewel-encrusted Tiffany prose poem you can show off to your friends or use to win prizes and grants is fine. But it isn’t really poetry. Because poetry, whether it is a free verse howl, cyclonic pantoum, nuclear sonnet or double-barreled sporophyll disguised as a prose poem, has this one quality about it: it is alive. It spits, sputters, spins. It ambles forward angry and confused chased by frightened villagers. It breaches in the ocean a thunderous hulk white and marvelous. It squawks and sprouts and spurts. It roars. It stomps through Tokyo. It wings its way over Manhattan casting dark shadows. It glides on a pond preening its neck. It knocks its beak against the skull of the reader. Those who can hear the life in the egg of a word and have the minds to warm and incubate it until it breaks from its shell and assumes flight in the imagination are responding in the truest way possible to the polymers of a language self-replicating itself in surprising, unpredictable patterns. The very language underlying all life, DNA, would still be a stinking pool of amino acids if it did not develop a capacity to listen to itself. 

John Olson

Saturday, April 08, 2006

NEW! Review of Amy Clampitt's Letters

Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt, edited by Willard Spiegelman. Columbia University Press, $41.50.

Reviewed by David Galef

All too often, the careers of well-known American poets follow a predictable pattern: early promise capped by a major award, followed by years of uneven work or a slow downslide. Late-blooming exceptions are almost refreshing: Wallace Stevens, for instance, whose first book came out when he was 44, though one should distinguish between a late bloomer and a late publisher. The career of Amy Clampitt presents a striking instance of this second career flight, cut short in 1994 by ovarian cancer. Clampitt’s poetry has always been both sensuous and cerebral, with a layering of the past in nature and culture. The poet herself, or at least the persona in her work, made her seem like the kind of individual you’d want to meet: modest but with high standards, slightly romantic but pragmatic where it counted, and perpetually curious.

Now, a decade after her death, Willard Spiegelman, an American literature professor who once described Clampitt’s verse as half voluptuous and half Quaker, has published a carefully tailored selection of Clampitt’s correspondence to present, as he says, “A poet’s life in letters.” The picture is an intriguing mosaic with some early pieces missing. The last fifteen years of her life, Clampitt encountered fame, which makes for its own distortions, though she seems to have handled it rather well.

Graduating from Grinnell College in 1941, Clampitt left the midwest for New York, though for quite some time she worked at a low-profile job, first as a secretary, then as a librarian, later doing editorial work. In these respects, her career arc was like that of the British novelist Barbara Pym, an author whose quiet but penetrating work Clampitt admired: two smart, talented young women who went to the big city and performed office work for years while writing on the side--in Pym’s case for the African Institute, for Clampitt, the Audubon Society. Their interests, too, seem to have coincided: flora and fauna, the weather, and landscape, as well as food. Judging from their letters (Pym’s were collected in 1984 under the title A Very Private Eye), neither was immune to celebrities, though if they were snobs, it was only in the Virginia Woolf sense: they valued talent. Both retained their intelligence to the end.

Love, Amy starts in March 1950, with a letter to Barbara Blay, an Englishwoman whom Clampitt first visited in London the previous year. Blay, the recipient of letters on everything from the holes in Clampitt’s shoes to the presence of Seamus Heaney, represents just one of many long-term friendships that sustained Clampitt over the years. She wasn’t a temperamental artist famous for feuds. And her letters are sustaining rather than vitriolic. As she writes in her essay collection, Predecessors Et Cetera, in a review of women’s epistolary literature: “The writing of letters--real old-fashioned ones, as distinguished from the copiously scripted and distributed appeal to its recipients’ worst or better instincts, or even to both at once, that like weeds in an untended plot may soon crowd out all else--is a dying art.” Her prose is chatty but structured, with casual observations on life often linked to art or literature. In this respect, she seems a fine embodiment of the thinking, feeling poet whom T. S. Eliot praised, the kind who connects reading Spinoza and falling in love.

But Clampitt never adopted the crabbed, progerian stance that Eliot often affected--an early 1940s shot of her in Central Park makes her look like Carson McCullers--and she displays unabashed enthusiasms. As she writes her brother Philip in the early fifties, “Then there was the evening when I listened to a poet reading Yeats aloud, and practically floated out of the window, the effect was so intoxicating.” She could also be political and droll at the same time, referring to left-leaners as “the dictatorship of the vegetariat.” And always, always, she writes about what she’s been reading, from Toynbee to Stendhal and back. Clampitt clearly continued her education on her own long after leaving college. In one of her letters to Philip, she thinks about taking The Faerie Queene on the subway, a scene similar to Arthur Miller’s reading War and Peace while strap-hanging from Brooklyn.

For all her reading, in the 1950s Clampitt went through some failed-novelist years. As her letters show, she could work lovely descriptive touches but wasn’t as adept at reproducing scenes, and her unsuccessful narratives were apparently skimpy on plot and characterization. Certainly, she could be both clinical and lyrical in evoking atmosphere, as in “From a Clinic Waiting Room”: “Down in the blood bank / the centrifuge, its branched transparent siphons / stripping the sap of Yggdrasil / from the slit arm of the donor, skims / the spinning corpuscles, cream-white / from hectic red.” She could also quickly penetrate to the heart of a matter, which may be one reason for her impatience with the Freudian fervor of the fifties and sixties. She preferred the rigor of religious morality over psychoanalysis, as she explained in a letter to Philip back in 1957, concluding, “And good luck with your psychotherapy!” She was a free spirit, though not a careless soul--that Quaker background. Hence her self-description in a letter, “Within limits, I do pretty much as I like,” and a telling reference to “My own brand of nonconformity.”

Clampitt’s letters also reveal the family she left behind in Iowa (for a poignant view of her great-grandfather, “A settler / From Indiana, his mind scarred by whippings,” see her long poem “The Prairie”). Clampitt herself was one of five children, and her sister Beth spent some time in and out of institutions. Clampitt, for her part, spent time in and out of church. In fact, a semi-embrace of Episcopalianism around 1956 seems to be involved with her starting to write poetry. By the 1960s, she grew dis-enamored of the church, quit her job at the Audubon Society, and began to travel more. Around the same time, she became more overtly political, canvassing for Eugene McCarthy and proclaiming anti-war sentiments. Her February 1971 letter to Henry Kissinger about the Vietnam War is a masterpiece of controlled, eloquent frustration. Almost ten years later, she revealed in a letter to a family friend that she’d grown distant from the church because of its lukewarm reaction against the war.

But she never lost her adoration of art. She writes admiringly of other writers: A. R. Ammons and his poetry book Sphere; an old reliable, the work of e. e. cummings; and the chants of Allen Ginsberg, whom she terms “completely himself.” But she also notes, in 1975, that the definition of poetry has lost all coherence nowadays. Her work was more in line with that of Elizabeth Bishop, clearly a poet whose sensuous grace influenced Clampitt significantly. Finally, around 1979, Clampitt’s own poetic career began to blossom. The poet Mary Jo Salter plucked a few of Clampitt’s poems from the slush pile at The Atlantic Monthly and decided to write her a real letter, thus beginning a correspondence (in both meanings) that would last some fifteen years.

Clampitt took a creative writing workshop with a public reading as a practicum and writes to Salter about “how heady a pleasure it can be to have an audience,” though in the same letter, she notes ruefully: “more poets writing than there are readers, it would appear.” In a March 1978 letter, she notes triumphantly that a poem of hers is to be printed in The New Yorker. From that point on, Howard Moss, the “kindly, unassuming, pleasant” poetry editor at The New Yorker, figured in many of her letters, and Clampitt started meeting Big Name poets, including James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Joseph Brodsky, Galway Kinnell, and Derek Walcott. The Harvard-based scholar and critic Helen Vendler also entered the picture, at first puzzled by the appearance of this poet without academic credentials but quite cognizant of her talent. Along with Frederick Turner of The Kenyon Review, Vendler was an anointer who could make a poet’s reputation. (She was probably instrumental in securing Clampitt a Guggenheim and eventually a MacArthur Award.) Clampitt’s letters to her show how a critic can help a poet with the work itself: editing suggestions. She also relied on a man with a musical ear: her life partner, the law professor Hal Korn, whom she had met at a political rally in 1968.

Even before Clampitt was “discovered,” life was a fairly pleasant mélange. Writing to Blay in 1977 from Corea, Maine, where she and Hal spent the summers, she mentions work on a Dutton manuscript, that they’re living on blueberry pie and crabmeat, and that she and Hal saw a local production of Così fan Tutte. These details could easily figure into a Clampitt poem, a loose commingling of the natural and the stylized, though so much depends on the arrangement and the vocabulary. This is a woman who casually refers to vernissage, physids, and amphipods. And for all her book-knowledge, her letters also include a lot of naturalism, not surprising given her interests and work at the Audubon Society.

Spiegelman shows the poems enclosed in a few of Clampitt’s letters: a version of “Palm Sunday,” for instance, eventually pared down for inclusion in her first volume. From her letters during this busy era, one can appreciate the texture of her life: house guests arrive and depart; she and Hal are jogging these days; “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” is published in The New Yorker for a payment of--an exultant note here--$183. And after some uncertainty about whether she would ever come out with a book, a new editor at Knopf, Alice Quinn (eventually succeeding Moss at The New Yorker), accepted the book that came out as The Kingfisher in 1983. After that, Clampitt published four more full volumes: What the Light Was Like, Archaic Figure, Westward, and A Silence Opens.

Such prolific success, and at the expense of the reigning minimalist aesthetic, occasioned a fair amount of criticism. In a letter to Salter, she notes that another poet accused her, “You’re in love with words.” Though this label seems the very definition of a poet, Clampitt is typically modest: “What he meant, I guess, was that I tend to use too many of them.” During the summers, she and Hal reread Dickens and George Eliot, and in late 1981, Clampitt writes Blay that she’s learning ancient Greek.

In the last years of her life, she became a luminary, and some of the placid pleasures change to descriptions of reading tours, publication events, and meeting other luminaries--not to mention the inevitable reviewing work thrust at her, as well as judging literary contests. But New York was changing, and the 1980s were not the 1960s. In a sign of the times, Clampitt’s beloved 12th-Street walk-up turned co-op, and The New Yorker altered under the editorship of Tina Brown.

A June 1993 letter to the poet George Bradley refers almost glancingly to surgery and chemotherapy. She left Manhattan, selling her place on 12th Street and buying a retreat in Lenox, Massachusetts, with money from her MacArthur. Growing increasingly weaker, she married Hal three months before she died. A photo in this volume records the event, with Clampitt, unable to stand but wearing a smile under a swoopingly broad-brimmed hat. The last letter in the selection is dated September 5, 1994, from Phoebe Hoss, writing for her friend, who died just five days later. As for what remains, her Collected Poems, issued by Knopf in 1997, is a good place to start. The volume shows the same multiplicity of interests as in her letters. As she wrote to Philip back in 1954: “I have never known exactly what the accepted version of myself was, if there is such a thing.” Posterity shimmers in these refractions of a variegated life.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

letter from Clayton Eshleman re: Olson review

Schmeer operates out of a simplistic prose poem theory. When he cannot saddle John Olson's rambunctuous and unpredictable sallies and branchings, he pouts: tin ear, poor stream of conscious imitation of Gertrude Stein (Olson's writings actually have little to do with Stein--even tho there is a fascinating homage to Stein in this book--he is much more akin to the Jackson Mac Low of Pieces O' Six--that is, in Olson, we have a granular, self-listening language, surging in jump cuts and waves, sometimes purely associational, sometimes with a "subject," which becomes the stem of branching variations).

Rather than seek a weak phrase or limp line (any poet, Stevens as well as Olson, can be made to look stupid by singling out the occasional botch and highlighting it), Mr Schmeer (one wonders if this is a pseudonym--if it is not, alas) should have focused on what Olson can do. For, in my opinion, Olson is the most dynamic and far-ranging prose poet of the last fifty
years. He has, like Robert Kelly, an extraordinarily inventive imagination, and he takes real risks, another reason to praise him.

At the point that the reader puts on critical pajamas, imaginative delight falls asleep. So Schmeer becomes a lie detector diviner, looking for howlers.

It must be acknowledged that Olson, at times, zigs like a digger wasp seeking an unknown host! Wonderful! Such are the perils for one of our masters, exercising, like Robert Duncan and Rommel, "his faculties at large."

Clayton Eshleman

NEW! Review of Thomas Sayers Ellis

The Maverick Room by Thomas Sayers Ellis. Graywolf.

Reviewed by Lydia Melvin

To fully understand the masterful and challenging poems in Thomas Sayers Ellis’ The Maverick Room, one need look no further than the poet himself, a genuine “Massa” of wit and play, both on and off the poetic page. Ellis refers to himself as a poem, deflects questions about his aesthetics, and happily erases words that have fallen, quite artfully, out of his mouth.

The Maverick Room takes its name from a 1980s-era youth go-go club in DC, in which Ellis saw, for the first time, someone shot and killed. Without doubt, one can imagine walking up, down, and across avenues and streets of Washington, DC until finally stumbling, star-struck, upon the doors of the Maverick Room. The poems that drive us to this central location take us first NW, then NE, and afterwards, push us back into the crisp and murky air of SW, then SE, into the ease of the city as contradiction. However, one cannot and should not simply see The Maverick Room as a youth club in which violent acts sometimes take place. One must wonder, with Ellis’ panache for puns and for squeezing language until definitions run out like water, if the go-go club is a perpetual destination. Where are we “going” (squared), and how do we get there (squared)?

The first poem in the collection, “Starchild,” imagines a futuristic, psychedelic freedom for P-Funk musician Garry Starchild Shider. Ellis contemplates the nature of being both “starchild” and “child star,” and how a man who strives to live in this world and beyond this world, simultaneously, will eventually leap to the next world: “Newborn, diaper-clad, same as a child / That’s how you’ll leave this world. No you won’t die, just blast off.” This premature obituary celebrates the life of Shider, ironically, by anticipating his “blast off.” The active verbs “blast,” “break,” “crack,” “tear,” “pluck,” “bang, bang,” out of context, and listed as such, imply a kind of violence, but these words are used to honor a man who believed in the above-life, the “flash of light: comets, whistles / Glowing noisemakers” of the universe. Similarly, by paying attention to the soft sound of “Star Child” and infusing the poem with “s” and mid-frequency vowel sounds, even words like “crack” and “bang, bang” come off as a lullaby.

In stark contradiction to the playful metaphors (“Guitar: a lover, slanted in a hug, plucked”) and uncharacteristic use of simile (“lift like a chorus of neck veins”) of “Starchild,” the remaining poems in the NW quadrant of The Maverick Room take on a decidedly more turbulent and serene tone. The poems are a house comprised of stanzas that are both maven and maverick.

The oft-quoted “Marcus Garvey Vitamins” begins with an aggressive claim: “All us we folk // person community first // Invent truth.” The poem then moves rapidly to an argument between a couple of people: “no he didn’t, // yes he did. Ain’t English.” This poem, perhaps less inviting (due to its unconventional use of sections and language), attacks the senses, dipping and diving between jive-thought and truth-talk to a conscious disruption of “proper” grammar, syntax, and mechanics of language: “I break beat, I rhetorical strategy, // I escape route. // I, I, I, psych.”

Has violence been meted upon our sense of the correct usage of language and syntax (“don’t Pulitzer me.”)? Would Strunk & White, Truss, and Stilman pull out their bloody rulers and pulverize the knuckles of the enormous fist of this poem? Can one only invent truth by inventing syntax, grammar, and language mechanisms? “Marcus Garvey Vitamins” seems to think so, and crafts a semantics of cultural literacy that both raises a fist to (give props to) and raises a fist to (black power, brotha) education programs that homogenizes (yes, as in fat particles in milk being emulsified to create a consistency that halts these particles from separating from the milk; as in fat particles signifies dissidents, milk signifies whiteness) language. “No child left behind,” as political agenda, is left behind, replaced by “each one, teach one; each one, reach one” as community conscious. Or, as Ellis says in interview: “I’m so tired of massa (little m). ‘Marcus Garvey Vitamins’ are for those of us who are tired of massa (real little m) and are looking for ways to Massa mass without using Massa’s maps.” In Ellis’ estimation, the violence of grammar and language is not done to “standard English” by “non-standard” practitioners, but vice versa. The poems “A Roll Call” and “The Baptist Beat” are a hallelujah to this practice, each embrace community and individual.

“Sticks” muses on the “escape route” that is “I, I, I,” while also questioning the heredity of violence as practice and language. A narrative poem that yanks itself out of the narrative by poem’s end, “Sticks” shows how “imitation” can turn to “influence” and how “influence” is remixed in order for the narrator to “massa” himself. What I love about this poem is its ability to remix language, to violate form and structure in order to unleash the violence of metaphor, and the surprising line breaks that, in their own way, perform, brutally, as metaphor.
My father was an enormous man
Who believed kindness and lack of size
Were nothing more than sissified
Signs of weakness. Narrow-minded,

His eyes were the worst kind
Of jury--deliberate, distant, hard.

There is an economy of words here that causes us to slow down and deliberate the “enormous” father, a man who unfolds like well-packed work shirts, crisply, seamlessly, wrinkle-free, one surprisingly long arm, then the next. Each line tricks our sight of the father, beginning with the benign, factual statement “My father was an enormous man.” Despite the enormity of the father (and the lack of enormity of that particular line), the narrator is ruthless in his condescension: “Big man, man of the house, king,” an overstatement of the father’s position, the repetition of “man, man,” the words nearly hitting each other, but spared by the comma, they seem to cancel each other out. They also take me back to “Starchild” where we see “bang, bang” used as celebration. “[M]an, man” is seemingly a glorious look at the father, yet we see this “man, man, king” hitting the mother and using his fists to terrify people. Is the father’s only salvation the ability to cause physical harm to others? With closed fists? Son, by poem’s end, learns to open his fists, flex his fingers, tongue, mouth and gray cells, and turns “slaps” into the beats of music, the rhythm of pain and resistance.

We witness the poet’s growth (as poet man and man poet) at the beginning of stanza 6 (“--I discovered”). Ellis disturbs the sense of the line by inserting a hyphen as the first “word” instead of an actual word. While a poet less invested in creating risks than taking them would have placed the hyphen at the end of the preceding stanza, Ellis senses violence and violates the senses. He proves that he has and is “discovering” the “I, I, I, psych.”

Saturday, April 01, 2006

NEW! Review of Brandon Downing

Dark Brandon by Brandon Downing. Faux Press, $15.

Reviewed by Jen Tynes

Reading Dark Brandon, I am thinking, in a very unpoetic way, about sources: how we define, acknowledge, utilize and integrate them and to what end. This collection of poems is cross-listed with cinema studies; both its titles and poems make reference to films and television, and a reader will respond to these poems differently depending on their relationship to the allusions, but Downing lets us understand pretty quickly that we are off-book, off-source. The "dark" in Dark Brandon is, in part, the darkness of the screen and screening room, the ability of a program that is more ambient than focused or focusing to intimate, isolate:
"You poor, poor Jonesy." "The story
Made you want to cry, all over the French kids."
"In a fiery metropolis of woods."
Bug-eyed children make for a starry outlook branch,
And find a candy jinx made with neat rox.
Pissed, colossal checkerboard rivets. Fake!

Poems like "Johnny the Giant Killer (1950)" seem to reference and extend their "sources" in several different ways: possibly by quoting from the film directly, describing images, and summarizing plot points, but these poems also freely interpret and associate movies and the contexts (both personal and universal) of movies. Lines are crossed, and film becomes a natural element, a force akin to nighttime or conversation. Words are occasionally underlined, creating an emphasis but also possibly reading as dead links, gateways to a context from which we have been disconnected. Who owns or makes these elements is a minor but nagging question for both the author and the reader. Where is the constant by which we understand the variable? The poet tells us what he thinks and understands via his choices and correlations. Ambient language is necessarily without specific direction or particular source. The poet doesn't matter and the allusions are only part of the landscape; the reader is forced to invent a new context for the poems.

But I don’t think this book is truly ambient, certainly not without focus. The title itself includes the author's name, and the collection both begins and ends in self-consciousness. The first poem, "Joseph Campbell & The Power of Myth," begins:
In the creation, you are a creature, a motif,
One who always plays Bluebeard, but interpreting

Blame, a woman's tendency, with a spontaneity,
Like teflon, all the love thrown off

Or the priest's freak refusal to affirm life,
For heaven's sake, or an opposite's downfall,

Passive in the sight of a phantasm.
To thoughtlessness? For you and me never

We deplore the teachings of Jesus Christ.
To participate definitively, without reticence, rancor . . .

He just wasn't a human, he went on deadly diets
He wrote poetry and he was a hero.

"What do you mean, 'Poetry'?" An accord of underlines.
I promise he will have nothing to do with history.

In one of the later poems, "Philharmonik," Downing writes, "I like to use this poem on wizards. / This book is ending badly; I don't apparently / wash dishes right," and the last pages of the book include a series of poems titled "Poems." This awareness of what a poem is, should be, could be, is both funny and worthwhile but, most importantly, it reaches back into the world, becomes viable. Forrest Gump’s “accent was bad, bad like the puke of / 15 Dr. Peppers.” A poem titled “G.W.B.” faces a terrifyingly close, cropped photo of George W. Bush’s face, and it begins:
Again:
You warned our culture of the approaching Rock.
It run off to get questions ready for my black oracles.
But the joke is me being another of the walking dead:
I know there ain’t nothing I can do about female couples.
They gone into Sam Goody, doing their windshield-wiper
moves & hanging amulets.
It’s my guys are gonna respond: Mike, nuke the goddamn bread.
Track down the fuselage: nothin’ leaves the forest.

Other images in this book are equally ghastly--restaurant placemat advertisements and cartoon heads that are both familiar and strange, funny and terrifying. The author’s hand--his cropping, graffiti, doctoring--is hardly distinguishable from the original strangeness, the obscenity. That is, we need little additional focus to see these images and languages for what they are; what they are is sourceless. Sourcelessness is both a reality and a danger. The preoccupation of these poems suggests an immersion, even some love, but the author does not drop his critical eye. One poem, titled “Poems,” ends, “I was not wedded to their decisions, / I walked out on the back balcony instead . . . / & I stood out like a bulb.”Another, also titled “Poems,” reads in its entirety:
Attack, after attack
After attack, after
Attack.