Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review of Barbara Claire Freeman, Endi Bogue Hartigan & Jennifer Martenson

Incivilities by Barbara Claire Freeman. Counterpath Press, $14.95.

One Sun Storm by Endi Bogue Hartigan. The Center for Literary Publishing, Colorado State University, $16.95.

Unsound by Jennifer Martenson. Burning Deck, $14.

Reviewed by Andy Frazee

Each of the poems of Barbara Claire Freeman’s first book might be called an incivility, as if the term referred to a new poetic subgenre alongside the elegy and pastoral. Even as the title may connote civics, civil society, and the Civil War—all of which play roles here, directly or indirectly—it is the way that Freeman’s poems act discourteously, uncivilly, that make her poetry exhilarating. “Imagine not having to apologize for the United States,” she writes in “When the Moon Comes Up.” “Let history decide which matters most, the weeds or the earth.”

This incivility, while not confined to it, finds its stride in tackling the current financial collapse, “the decade’s debacle.” “My purpose / here is to decline into the realities of the economy,” she writes in one of the book’s title poems. “Greed’s gone viral in someone’s sentence but a stock / that clings to its fifty-two week high begs to be sold.” More generally throughout the book, Freeman investigates the ways that underlying truths are mystified through encoding, whether it be the whitewashing of history by ideology, the occult initiation rites of religion, or the pseudo-mystical language of the stock market. “Better to live like an options trader awake before the market / begins its metronymic stream and the first scattered symbols undo / the possibility of hope,” she writes in another of the title poems. And here we find the tension at the heart of Freeman’s poetry, between poetry’s truth-telling function and its own type of encoding: poetic, especially lyrical, language itself. This tension is of special consequence for political poetry, torn between the need to witness and critique and the need to do so in a way that doesn’t push the poem into the realm of propaganda.

Freeman’s solution to this dilemma is to reconceptualize the lyric as public speech, in a way not out of line with the intentions of British poets of the 1930s—particularly the early Auden, whose modernist experiments in lyric and oratory are too often eclipsed by the reputation of his later works. Freeman engages a form of what the college-age Auden, piecing together texts lifted from myriad sources into anxious narratives, called “the Waste Land game”—as can be seen in Incivilities’s first poem “The Second Inaugural,” which melds textual appropriation (from George Washington’s inaugural speeches), dramatic monologue, and political speech:

Dear Necessity, the magnitude
          and difficulty of the trust to which the voice
                    of my country has called arises from the recent
tempest, adopted by the Spanish to name
          the storms they encountered in New Times

Here the inability to tell which words are Washington’s, which Freeman’s, makes for a shifting, hybrid speaker that partakes of the past and the present, of public eminence and personal effacement, of borrowed and newly-written language. A kind of melting pot, one might say, though one that serves, in the ostensible moment of national unity, to turn its eye on disunion: “In the night there is a coming / and going of people, but where are the former / ties?” These former ties lie at the heart of Freeman’s vision here, and the poems return to the image of an unraveling social fabric: “a territory made up // of objects connected unhappily,” “parcels tied together by chance bonds, folded structures, fracture / systems.”

In her emphasis on rhetoric, politics, and public language, Freeman does seem to be an acolyte of Auden, by way of the fractured, appropriative poetics of postmodernity. Incivilities shares similarities with Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, which explores ideology and social ties through a speaker seemingly infected with the culture of global capital, even as she rails against it. Like Spahr’s book, Freeman conveys a world caught in the general economy of capital, which frames each relationship, each connection, even as ideology conceals this framing. Equal parts experiment and jeremiad, Incivilities is an intense examination of the nation’s soul whose lyricism strives to overcome the lament at its center. Like Spahr’s book, Incivilities reminds us that jeremiad demands experiment, if only to free ourselves from complicity in what we would defy. “If you fax, attach, / or photograph this text / without permission from / the unbegotten one who hides / in silence,” Freeman writes in “Apocryphon,” “you will be / its replica.”


While Freeman’s poems take on current events directly, the poems of Endi Bogue Hartigan’s Colorado Prize-winning One Sun Storm portray these events as humming just beneath the surface, a kind of background radiation ready to intrude into the poet’s meditations. Juliana Spahr has called for a nature poetry that does not fail to image the bulldozer as well as the bird whose habitat the bulldozer threatens. Hartigan’s is a nature poetry, but one that takes the bulldozer (or in this case “the war”) into account, and in a way that is perhaps more startling for the naturalness with which the threat appears, as if it is an essential aspect of the scene:
You are instances of lichen falling, instances of white fingered lichen
     sprinkling from the bridge          You are two sisters talking there,

it is reported that the sun has fallen on your hair

or that your hair reflects the war above the bridge, or that your hair
reflects the water that is bridged,          or that the water is not there

The cofounder of Spectaculum, a journal devoted to long poems and series, Hartigan alternates more expansive sequences with shorter lyrics; many of the pieces, like “Icestorm,” marry long lines with the intricate repetition of minimalist music. “[A]nd in the fusion of ice drifts we were two of / three, then three of three, then one,” the poet writes. “[A]nd were repeated, as a dance / to which the lost are drawn / in the midst of disperson—.” Others, like the opener “Owl,” compress the poet’s perceptions into lines of lyrical precision: “Here the animals / we've plucked / from books or fields, placed // into our hearts / like lanterns / imagining keener sense.”

One Sun Storm anoints Hartigan an heir to Gary Snyder’s consideration of nature through the lens of Buddhism, even as other influences—Jorie Graham, Brigit Pegeen Kelly—make more direct formal claims on the work. Though the poet does not speak of it in Buddhist terms, the Buddhist conception of multiplicity-in-oneness (or oneness-in-multiplicity) is at center stage here. Importantly, this oneness is experienced as a kind of ecology the poems’ speakers are within and a part of, rather than acting as poles of a subject-object dichotomy:
     The people in the horizon, one people and no horizon, one horizon, one person
three billion horizons, two people, three billion people in no horizon
          To not equate horizons with horizons

Here is the center, no, here is the center from which one field is drawn
          Here is my statement, no, here is the field in which statement is drawn

                    Let us be clear.

It is this weaving and unweaving of details perceived in nature that grants Hartigan’s poetry a visionary status, in that the poems’ acute observations, like the nitty-gritty of quantum physics, reveal a complex and wondrous reality, even its ostensibly mundane manifestations:
There is a French men’s store on the corner in which the tourists try on hats.

There is design, and envy of design,
          and cars designed for envy, and actual chartreuse birds.

This visionary cast finds its revelation—as nature poetry often does—within the already-revealed. Or, more precisely—and this is what makes One Sun Storm more than just nature poetry—it finds revelation at the moment of becoming, which occurs and then, just as suddenly, is gone, replaced by another becoming. Hartigan’s poems, particularly the sequences, are recombinant organisms, becoming and becoming again, like double helixes evolving into eyes and ears and skin. “The day the puma licked her face,” goes the Lorcaesque “The day the puma,” “the pace of the past / raced unwed, she said, no fear, no fear, no fear.” “The said world slid, tumbled, rained,” it continues, “the world began again, again.”

Like Snyder’s poetry, Hartigan’s political critique arises from an awareness of events that are ignorant of or threaten this ongoing revelation of unity in multiplicity. Hartigan goes so far as to take Whitman to task:
The third thing is the grass,
                         not the multitude of grasses.
A completion that was singular in nature as a nation is singular
          and torn for it.

Unity is implicit in reality, Hartigan seems to say; to claim it as a function of the state is to reduce oneness to ideology, to claim (unilaterally, one could say) that the centerless has a center. Lovely without losing its edge, critical without losing its heart, One Sun Storm achieves that rarest of poetic feats: it makes wisdom new.


Like Hartigan’s work, the poems of Jennifer Martenson’s Unsound are texts to move around in; like Freeman’s, they pack a sharp political edge. Most of all, they remind us that words are things too. This is not concrete poetry, though the words do interact with weight, and their texture matters as much as the more traditional syntax of the sentence. Taking her cues from the spatial, appropriative poetics of Susan Howe and Jena Osman, Martenson performs an autopsy on the page only to prove the language is still alive, its heart beating all the faster.

In poems like “A Priori,” it is the way that words touch that is paramount over what order they come in. And in this Martenson reminds us that poetry is an art of alternatives—particularly of alternative syntaxes, whether they be between two words, two pages, or two lines:

The trouble seems to have stemmed not from the synapses but from the word “sexuality,” about which much was said but little known. Her perception (taken over and assigned a different value) of her impulses was forced into alignment with THAT IS, THROUGH a lexicon gleaned from those old standard fantasies (retained in spelling due to conservatism) which had by default passed into public domain to disguise themselves as private longings while THE MEANINGFUL AND OBJECTIVE misogyny and homophobia REACTIONS OF THE OTHER raked in the residuals.

Martenson experiments with the way language touches in order to examine how this shifting linguistic surface may enact the perceivable world—but only to lay claim to an unseen world of meaning that resists scientific discourse’s appeal to an authoritative truth. Yet this is less an appeal for the soul than a recognition of what is elusive, and how the very difficulty of defining the elusive lends too easily to conceptual distortions. Martenson frames this most clearly in the series “Xq281,” which at once takes a cue from Jenny Boully’s “The Body” and which differentiates itself though its playful rhizome of reference. Comprised of 12 footnotes (the main part of the page is blank), the poem behaves like the bio-linguistic mutations of the first footnote, which seem to lead to nothing less than the “ideological mutation” of human selfhood:
While numerous experiments have demonstrated the ability to bind tightly with strands of DNA,9 thereby producing ideological mutations, the exact mechanisms by which these paradigms exert their effects on the economic ramifications of sexual preferences are, at present, unclear.

We’re then lead to the ninth footnote, and from the ninth, the tenth:
9 (While the spines are relatively durable, the information stored within can be banned10 at any time.)

10 This process is known as indoctrination: traditions normally stored in the form of two vines wrapped around the status quo separate in order to guarantee the reproduction and survival of laboriously alienating complacency.

To say that Martenson’s writing “slips” easily from the linguistic to the material, the conceptual to the physical, or the biological to the political is to mislabel the work, for the slip is no mistake and the poet calls our attention to it: this is what language does, and what poetry in particular makes evident. “Is there something / buried in the hybrid / testimonies of medium, / skin, and prediction?” Martenson asks in “Centerpiece.”

Appropriately, the more traditionally-versified poems of the last section take on their own sequential state, their own duration as an object of inquiry, using line and stanza breaks to make visible the in-betweenness, the aporias that lurk within one’s seemingly coherent worldview:
Let flute equal raw sensation
and let medium et al
stand in for language
with its veils and chisels.
I thought to find a block of marble
where instead I found an echo
splashing back and forth
between resemblances.

This “echo / splashing back and forth” is for Martenson the kind of fact that science fails to measure, and because of this, holds the possibility of escaping its confining, defining discourse. In her emphasis on the physicality of the page and in the way her language constantly breaks its conceptual frame, the poet suggests that this echo, this fact, is poetry itself, uniquely equipped to handle the interface of the physical and the ideological, the biological and the cultural. “I get stuck where the tree provides merely // shade, not philosophical positions,” she writes in “Preface,” “I had either to seek out a different gender or to climb across the blind-spot and resume my identity // on the other side.” Unsound is finally a book both defiantly experimental and, in a way, defiantly traditional: it seeks to approach the unspeakable, and speak it.

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