Wednesday, July 14, 2004

NEW! Review of Rupert Loydell's The Museum of Light [Chris McDermott]

The Museum of Light by Rupert M. Loydell. Arc Publications, 6.95 pounds.

Reviewed by Chris McDermott

Rupert M. Loydell’s tenth book, The Museum of Light, confronts a world where epiphanies are everywhere for sale, and explores the creative process as the sole means for discovery and understanding. Whereas Yeats proposed that one must choose “Perfection of the life, or of the work,” Loydell is weary of the easy confidence behind any such formulae--as if the initial choice itself were the true difficulty--and is loath to rally behind any fixed motto for long. What he does instead, and his project is decidedly an active one, is a celebration of the interchangeable ars poetica. Insisting upon the freedom of choosing any path of investigation only insofar as it remains interesting, Loydell is quick to interrupt any direction with another. In the book’s first poem, one of five called “Background Noise,” he writes:

My own specialties
are beginnings and endings.
Everything used to be plausible.

Curl up and enjoy the possible,
draw nearer to the process
which forges the world we live in.

Garner a fair amount of interest.
How much do you need at the present time?
Become the object of your desire.

A recurring pattern in the book is the use of the imperative, the commands that set the process of vision and revision in motion. Like Eliot’s Prufrock who asks “how should I begin?” already midway through the poem, Loydell seeks freedom from the momentum of habit, but his tone, rather than conveying defeat, is much more varied, shifting between despair and optimism. A book’s overall tone is very often established by the echo of its ending, and Loydell’s final line, “Try to understand everything. Language is remarkably persistent” is an affirmation of using language as a material for making art, and art as a vehicle for understanding life. In this respect, he has much in common with George Oppen and the Objectivists, for whom life itself was always the greater canvas. Loydell, who is also a painter, is aware of “creating within the constraints of materials” (“Background Noise”), but refreshingly, he doesn’t wallow in a complaint over language’s inability to signify. In a poem titled “Instructions for the Journey,” he explores a wide range of word as deed, with such imperatives as “Consume novels you would not otherwise read,” “Possess superficial scraps of detail,” “Sit writing at a table,” and then swerving to such wryly ambitious “to do” items as “Eliminate social problems. Wipe away centuries of class division, inserting a layer of ironic distance.”

At the end of the book, Loydell lists more than twenty “sources,” including writings by John Cage, Charles Bernstein, Gilles Deleuze, and Loydell’s private correspondences. This raises the question as to which lines are Loydell’s, and which have been appropriated. In “Background Noise 3,” subtitled “The Museum of Light,” Loydell addresses this matter: “The poem does not need its own citations, otherwise it will never surprise you. // Do you know the source of the quotation? / Does it bother you?” It is as though citing quotations will lead to perceiving them not in a new context, but instead with a deadening, habitual association. The effect of the book’s title, then, is to propose a place where moments of “light,” as short-lived illuminations or epiphanies, can be stored. Whether they are perceived as curiosities, to be visited not for any redemptive clarity, but for evidence of a process of inquiry, or for something to try out for a while, would depend on whether the reader finds nostalgia or surprise. In “Background Noise 5,” he writes:

Any piece of information is potentially mine;
I am moved by the wish to preserve something.
I nearly always have a specific mission
when I insert myself into the work this way.

Loydell has alluded to the nature of this “specific mission” in “Background Noise 2”:

History gives us cause for flexibility and adventure.
There is an enormous amount of trash in this room;
a need for stability and order in the flow of events.
Scrawled translations prove discussion took place--
I end up letting myself be convinced.

It is belief, then, however tenuous or transitory, that serves as the catalyst. Doubt leads only to passivity, waiting, death. In “Adagia,” Wallace Stevens, who allegedly converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, wrote, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Loydell’s museum is one where either belief or doubt can govern as long as the process is alive. One of the book’s epigraphs, by Helene Cixous, includes the statement, “writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written: it is preknowing and not knowing, blindly, with words. It occurs at the point where light and darkness meet.” For Loydell, this process must be an individual one. As he writes in “Background Noise 2,” “It’s a self-refining process which takes for granted / that meaning exists and, if you press the point, / will form the basis of an equation for anything else.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

NEW! Nathan Jones poem

Nathan S. Jones


your shrill lurching god moves
on the water like you always say, my mother was just a girl you say, her face
                                        turned to the sun, pink as a crab. and you
pray yearly

for the discontinued model,
the full brunt of e coli and white count in the womb’s sagwater, mewing
                                        of the deep water and dusk, such a jellyfish
of young tongues,

and you love. you bray perpetual
about doubt and drag, about cool circumfluence and fusion with the lunar body,
                                        replicas of heaped garments like Michelangelo’s
half-done pieta.

you’ve been stone-broke
since the Pleistocene, wind-swept and glum. you’re caught in the act of seclusion
                                        --all types of saviors approach, all sorts mull
the mother’s load.

Monday, July 12, 2004

NEW! Review of Joy Katz's Fabulae [Joyelle McSweeney]

Fabulae by Joy Katz. Southern Illinois University Press, $13.95.

Reviewed by Joyelle McSweeney

Title aside, Fabulae is more concerned with divining parallels and mapping spatial relationships than with storytelling. Katz observes form in the world and bodies out her findings in metaphor.

An orange leaf on every finger bowl: a dozen tongues,
mute about their clear water and their own orange scent

and the way the glass presses the heavy, white-flossed linen
a little, as a cat flattens grass in the yard

reads a poem which responds to Stevens’ "The Poems of our Climate." "I don’t know how to live with beauty," the poet-speaker remarks halfway through this poem, yet her skill belies her claim. This carefully drawn world in which form answers form seems beauty’s ideal habitat, and a human one.

Katz’s poems are simple in their approach, depicting seaside drives, the deja vu effects of travel, one body learning the sense of itself in various houses or near other bodies. Against such simplicity, Katz’s beguiling metaphors are set like gems. The seaside drive reveals "neat paragraphs of beach"; the wary traveler observes "Black-eyed Susans / gone dead except for their centers--a cloud of small entrances"; a new wife considers "The new word husband / hush of a car up a street." Katz’s metaphors make these poems, and are poems in themselves.

The best pieces in Fabulae are those concerned with vision and artmaking, because it is in these that Katz relies most fully on her gifts of description and comparison. In the very lovely "Still Life,"

How things come to light as I draw them: the curved-wire stem
of that flower which, until my eye moved to the prill of dried petal
and past that to the dead sepal
and then down to the stalk, I didn’t see.
I can draw that, prill, which is both the look and the sound
that piece would make, if it could, the way a thumbnail skimming comb tines
sings this small-spoked bunch of reeds.

One senses delight on the part of the author in this observation-cum-self-observation. With precision and agility, she moves from straight description to an efficient disquisition on "the look and the sound," before settling on a metaphor which combines both senses. The entire poem has a neat trompe l’oeile effect, rendering the depth of the room on the flat space of the page, one kind of vision inside another.

Also noteworthy in Fabulae are the numerous poems charged with the misperceptions of childhood and memory. "Falling Toward the Furnace" recalls Bishop not only in its title but in the controlled yet hazardous panache with which it moves through its ingeniously patterned subject matter: cats inhabiting heat ducts, a girl inhabiting a mis-constructed dress, and a speaker stumbling through a new house in a blackout. Another poem about a house, "Four Storeys," also capitalizes on misprisms of scale as the speaker lifts away a (dollhouse?) roof and meditates wittily yet meaningfully on the precarious life therein: "The second story, with its darkened bedrooms, is empty save for the sleeping mother--and comes up too easily, like a glass pitcher that turns out to be plastic."

Given Katz’s skill in drawing from her own perceptions and memories, those poems attending to a diverse array of outside sources are less satisfying. While her explorations of footbinding and Adam and Eve are fully inhabited enough to be fine, there is something lacking in the corollaries drawn between accounts of the Holocaust, or of Jefferson the linguist, or of various naturalists and explorers, and the speaker-poet’s own life and poem-making. Set against history’s bulkweight, her two-way arrows seem flimsy. Yet there are enough pleasurable and surprising poems in Fabulae to counteract these transhistorical efforts. Katz is a poet of invention and verve.

The Yale Review, new issue

The new issue of The Yale Review (July 2004) is out. My favorite poem in the issue is the stun-gunning "Tomorrow's Living Room" by Jason Whitmarsh, a former managing editor of Verse and a much-missed presence. There also are interesting poems by Annie Finch, Nadia Herman Colburn, Barbara Hamby, and Elena Karina Byrne, whose "Moon Mask" ends with a 32-line syntacrobatic sentence. If you want some wisdom with a capital W, try Philip Levine's "The Great Truth," which ends, "... some / great truth to live by now that it was too late / to live in the world other than I do." There's also a translation of Mallarme by Richard Howard. Anthony Hecht has an essay on Keats, which begins with a look at Keats' hungry reading practices, esp. of Shakespeare, and ends, "It ['To Autumn'] is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language." Stephen Yenser's essay, "Inkles, Shreds, and Scales," is an engaging collage/notebook; it begins, "Not a knot of identity, nota bene, though perhaps a net, a nanonet, certainly never a naught, a nit, the salt and whit of difference, the bread of life." Among Yenser's own musings, the piece includes excerpts from Whitman, William James, Barthes, Bishop, Foucault, and, of course, Emerson.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

NEW! Review of Lohren Green's Poetical Dictionary [Thomas Fink]

Poetical Dictionary: Abridged by Lohren Green. Atelos, $12.95.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

In the "Preface" to Poetical Dictionary, his first book, Lohren Green declares that, while a "traditional dictionary" can lose "its sense of words" and become "a tome of variable tedium" that "immobilizes" language, he wishes to facilitate appreciation for words' heterogeneity. Rather than "definition," Green is interested in "informed portraiture, a conceptual calligraphy, a combination of lexicography and poetry ... that knows the style of information, the viscosity of concepts, the atmospherics of these sonic cum tropic logics that we call words." Although there are several fairly predictable, pedestrian entries (such as "heft," "impart," "pixel," and "torpid"), in most cases, the poet's elegant "self-blurb" is an accurate characterization of the poems. As Green claims, the forty words chosen for poetic exploration betray "no one overriding principle of selection," but the concept of change or transition, if not "viscosity," is important to numerous words.

The four-definition entry for "concurrence" is concluded by four diagrams that illustrate differences among "incidentally adjacent" movements, "elements" that "coincide in the abstract," "elements" that contribute to one another's motion, and ones that "converge." The second entry cogently dramatizes the rich diversity of intersections or confluences:

... the multiform schemata of a time:
coded twists of DNA that split and writhe
by the billions beneath a cut of clothes,
the winter jet stream pulling on the peaks
of a demand curve, trade zone contours,
the logic of the queue, a whole
statistical scurry of human circulation
catching in cross-section patterns of day
beneath concentric broadcasts
that pulse open like invisibly
mottled data flowers
among the bar-graph buildings.

The first image displays the vast disparity between the riotous growth and decay of human genetic processes and the relative simplicity of the appearance of clothing on an individual. Also, the connection and distinction between the "split" of one and "cut" of the other is striking. In this evocative catalog, the swirl of scientific and mathematical abstraction against less rarified concepts and concrete discourse, as well as intense focus on one:many perspectives is oddly reminisicent of A.R. Ammons' poetry, as are some other poems about dynamic processes. However, Green, emphasizing poetic condensation, avoids Ammons' chattiness, and his mention of "demand curve" and "trade zone" has a more political edge than Ammons' musings.

The poem for "doodle," which features an "allover (the page) composition" of brief, short-lined strophes, breaking up of some words into smaller components, and even a sentence fragment that undulates like a doodling wave, is far from Ammons in its affinity with the page-play of Susan Howe and other Language poets. "Doodle," Green reminds us, is related to "dawdle." The poem is full of agile alliteration involving the letter "d" and intricate assonance:

      Dew  a   spr  ink ling
    dawn's  days  with  dots'  still
  so   point  les  sly  many
     un  wed  ways    .

This poem enacts what it is "about": freedom, pleasure, and an expressive medium's material presence. In "sprinkling," there is the doodler's "ink" and an "inkling" of a "dewy" figuration within abstraction. In "pointlessly," there is somehow a "point," perhaps on the "sly."

"Miro" celebrates an aesthetic exemplar of freedom and pleasure. With effectively balanced line-indentations and evocative imagery, Green offers a fine ekphrastic approximation of "dabbling" "feats / of balanced motion" in European Modernist painting. Green's zest for imaginative phrasing is true to Miro's biomorphic shapes and offbeat landscapes: the poet speaks of "petri dish playgrounds" and "dumbbell / stars," and he coins the compound terms, "beak-line" and "cross-wisped."

Whereas "Miro" hails pulsing energies, in "pale" the poet aptly reduces affective intensity in the way he leaves spaces between words in sentences yet still allows for a residue of verbal "luster." The stark monosyllables of "Definition 1" suggest how "pale" connotes movement from presence to absence, from proximity to diffusion:

alba ,  a quiet miss ,  bone  faint  and  out/ spread, or apart

Here, "miss" is achingly close to "mist." The third definition offers a subtle surprise to tweak what would otherwise be a visual cliche:

      vague ,  and

  dimming  outwardly  (photos  bleaching  into  light ) ;

 not  vital the difference  wan  losing  itself ,  less

The pun on "light" (noun or adjective?) and its relationship to the preposition "into" force us to ask whether "bleaching" paradoxically causes "photos" to evince a new illumination, however "pale," or whether this process leads to photos' being less dark. Interestingly, the second, more obvious meaning involves the more unusual grammatical form. Also, the juxtaposition of "wan" and "losing itself" concisely underlines how "paleness" can signal diminishment of material or psychological features of an entity's "self."

"That" fascinatingly calls attention to the complexity, strangeness, and arbitrary patterns of linguistic functioning: "that" can be a "pron., adj., adv., and conj.," and it is "a most general specification that / is always particular..." Through deft and surprising enjambments, Green achieves an excellent modulation of short, medium, and long lines that imitates the uncanny variety of "that":

A. that,
I mean that right back there, B. that which is not this, or C.
that further away in space or time which
is not this,
or D. a subject or object that
serves in a relative clause, or E. the convergence
of rapier and wit, take that-

The poem goes to K., but A. through E. furnish a strong sense of Green's analytic extension of the attention to the seemingly "humblest" words that found in the poetry and criticism of Zukofsky, Williams, and other Objectivists.

The dictionary format provides an enabling structure for emphases on process and diversity in Green's book. The book, however, provides meta-commentary on epistemological and sociological aspects of dictionaries less than it embodies an effective collection of poems that foregrounds a multiplicity of linguistic and contextual possibilities.

Friday, July 09, 2004

NEW! Joy Gonsalves poem

Joy Gonsalves


Observe the breakable bird,
both compass and a root,
eking shadows on the wall. It is fixed,

at least, on alighting. Living things
have made homes in its claws.
In one lost corner, a woman needs

dusting. Called to fetch the day
with her chin, to slip the evening
a sin, to catch a drop of water and a coat--

she’d like to trim the wick on her finger.
And here, a man without hands,
feet, or breath, is loosened from the rubble

of roadbuilding. A spare wire driven
through a block rests his body on air.
He has begun to smell like the seasons.

Inocencio says they are his creations,
these wayside boughs that neither
trees nor passersby want. He preserves

the shape given them by rain, wind, the toe
of a boot. But first to whittle them: from banyan
to bird, woman to light, leper to resurrection.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

NEW! Review of The Canary No. 3

The Canary, No. 3. Edited by Joshua Edwards, Anthony Robinson, & Nick Twemlow. $10.

The new issue of The Canary contains an extraordinary amount of strong work between its subdued & elegant canary yellow covers. (We were wondering when The Canary would go yellow.) There is no interior or cover art, there are no panels or forums or doodles or cartoons--just poems, lots of really good poems. We do wish the bar code was on the back cover, to keep the front cover clean & textual, but the magazine is still a beautiful thing to (be)hold with its restrained design, matte finish & squareness. (Sometimes, when we wonder why magazines like Fence, American Letters & Commentary, LIT, & Crowd are squarelike, we pick them up & remember why: they're pleasant to hold--more pleasant to hold than Verse, we think, but oh well, we'll stick with the 6x9.)

Every issue of The Canary has demonstrated a determined eclectism & keen editorial intelligence. Issue No. 2 seemed to set the bar impossibly high, but this issue, we'd venture, exceeds our already high expectations, not by changing the formula or adding new features, but by maintaining & building on what's made this one of the most exciting new print journals for poetry.

The mix of un- or recently published poets, innovative lyric poets (NY Schoolish, Post Language, etc.), emerging poets (i.e., those with 1-3 books), & unsettled established poets (i.e., they're not content with being established) also seems healthy, & welcome, & good. Almost no one in this issue seems to be riding on name recognition or laurels, though a few were probably invited to contribute. The Canary seems to combine open submissions with solicitation, thus generating the mix we see here.

Overall, the issue features a range of aesthetics, approaches, concerns, emotions, moods, & forms. There are prose poems of various stripes & lengths, poems in couplets (the issue's dominant form) & tercets & quatrains & sestets, single-stanza free verse poems, double- and triple-spaced poems, a hemistich, and some visually oriented poems. Traditional forms are more gestured toward than followed, so those yearning for tradition should stick with The Hudson Review.

Of the poets whose work we consistently read with interest, most show up in fine form. Here's a quick rundown/summary.

Hoa Nguyen's untitled poem about pregnancy makes room for emotion--positive emotion! (remember that?)--without getting sappy; & as usual, her approach to language is full-on & engaging, a collision of disparate yet wholly appropriate dictions.

The first half of Mark Levine's "Refuge Event" is oddly reminiscent of W.S. Merwin, in terms of style & content. Nice, but we were happy to see the poem take an unexpected turn midway through, in "the workshop."

Peter Gizzi's "Scratch Ticket" is, as usual, precise & moving & unpredictable at every point.

Joyelle McSweeney's three poems are energetically performance-oriented in both concept & language.

Joe Wenderoth's excerpt from "Agony: A Proposal" is an annotated list of "Terms Used in Academic Discourse Touching on Agony."

Anselm Berrigan's, Matt Hart's, and Cathy Park Hong's poems are captivating & fun, not least because of their languorously agitated voices/personae. (Does Hart have a book? If not, he should.)

Brenda Hillman's "Clouds Near San Leandro" opens with some clean iambics that seem intended to smooth out the violence depicted in those early lines, & part 1 of the poem is marked by an uncommonly keen eye & mind for detail. The violence-smoothing iambic comes back in the second line of part 2 ("you cast aside the brittle flame"), & the poem mulls on how, in middle age, "we're done with the old ironies." So no more Liz Phair.

Donald Revell's "Landscape With Free Will and Predestination" brings Christian thinking/living (angel, Christ, God) into domestic life, which creates a productive contrast with Maggie Nelson's two punch-lined angel poems. (Revell's and Nelson's poems are also strong on their own, but The Canary people put them in close proximity.)

Kevin Young's "The Alias" & "The Suspects" are from a forthcoming noir/verse novel, & provide glimpses of a compelling narrative/narrator.

Kevin Larimer's "Whether the Abbatoir" is terrifying & weirdly beautiful, kind of like its title.

Kent Johnson's "The New York School" claims to invent a new form--the Mandrake--& does.

Brandon Downing is represented by four solid poems (five if one counts "Two Poems" as two poems instead of one). Our favorite is "New Sonnet." Everyone's been looking for the new sonnet. We'll be looking for his new book.

In Rae Armantrout's "A Distance," the lines "A girl's doll is herself, / caught as if / unawares" seem so true & memorable as to be instantly Immortal, or at least worth passing along to girls with dolls--a kind of immortality, we think, & something worth aiming for.

D.A. Powell's poem is untitled & unpunctuated, & contains long lines in couplets--like almost all of his poems.

Also recommended: Christina Mengert's "Storytellers," Lisa Lubasch's "On Hysteria," Jennifer K. Dick's "Kiln," Michael Tyrell's "October in Idleville," Cal Bedient's "Hippo, the Logic of This Music, To Walk on the Bottom of Such Copia," Elizabeth Robinson's "Wind," Martha Silano's "No Refunds, No Exchanges," Max Winter's "The Dive Into the Drought" & "Stopped Along," Gabriel Gudding's "Dear Eagles," Christine Hume's "Field of Suspicion," Tracy Philpot's "Watching Coyote Porn," Rae Armantrout's "Seed," Kevin Larimer's "Untitled," Mark Levine's "Document," John Koethe's "Adelaide," Aaron McCollough's "Superliminare #25," & Andrew Feld's "C" & "Intermission."

Of the poets whose work is un- or less familiar to us, Ted Mathys ("A Whole in the Factory of Null" & "The Factory of Liquid is a Lair") really knocks off socks with his poignant, manic, friction-full, layered energy.

Bridgette Bates ("Broadside at Night / 12 November"), Lisa Cooper ("Emphasis"), Jeff Bernard ("We Are Merely House Guests, Awkward Like House Guests" & "The Increasing Generosity in Absence"), Sasha West ("Naming"), Ed Skoog ("Horror Show"), Albert Flynn DeSilver ("Cranial Vineyards Incorporated"), Kevin Litchfield ("Moonlight Arrangements for Whispers and Chitin" & "Clams"), & Alex Green ("Summer Job, Year Seven") also make us eager to see more of their work.

We don't see much point in reading magazines if they don't offer some news, & The Canary brings a lot of news to the table. That a good deal of this news comes from new poets is to be expected only because the editors have worked to make it happen.

At $10, this issue is priced barely above cost, especially considering the distributor's cut, so we suggest ordering directly through the magazine's web site. That way, the 40-50% that usually goes to the distributor can go to the magazine.


Disclaimer-like note & policy announcement: two current Verse associate editors--Lara Glenum & Sabrina Orah Mark--have poems in this issue, which includes work by 50 poets.

Sometimes, magazine reviews on this site will cover magazines that include work by someone affiliated with Verse--there currently are a dozen such poets (maybe more), floating around the desk & elsewhere, & most of them are publishing, often in new(er) magazines. It just so happens that new(er) magazines are the ones that benefit most from being reviewed & thus are the magazines we're most interested in having reviewed here. (Please note, however, that we won't limit magazine reviews only to new(er) magazines, especially if people are finding interesting work in more established venues & want to mention it.)

We ask that reviews of magazines that include work by Verse-affiliated poets not specifically recommend these poets' work. (This request does not apply to poets who no longer work with Verse--if in doubt, just ask--or to poets affiliated with Verse Press, which is a different entity & edited from a different state & by different people than Verse). We realize it is possible that a positive review of such a magazine could be construed as a positive review of, or plug for, the Verse-affiliated poet(s). But this makes sense only if a negative review of a magazine that publishes a Verse-affiliated poet is then a negative review of, or dig at, the Verse-affiliated poet(s). The two don't necessarily compute, & neither really makes sense because we do not dictate the content or tone or angle of any of our reviews, or even commission all of our reviews.

Our primary intentions in publishing magazine reviews on the site are to spread the word, foster community, acknowledge hard work, provide hints to poets publishing in other magazines to submit to Verse, start some conversations, & bring some attention to poets who (because they haven't yet published books) otherwise wouldn't get reviewed. That said, we will accept negative or mixed reviews of magazines, regardless of who's included.

As always (& especially when we try something new), we welcome feedback.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

NEW! Review of Joanna Fuhrman's Ugh Ugh Ocean [Jerry McGuire]

Ugh Ugh Ocean by Joanna Fuhrman. Hanging Loose Press, $15.

Reviewed by Jerry McGuire

Jeffrey McDaniel, in a characteristic razzle of enthusiasm, has picked Joanna Fuhrman as one of his "Real Chancellors of American Poetry," paying special note to her work at the Poetry Project at Saint Mark's. Ugh Ugh Ocean is her second book (following Freud in Brooklyn), and it rings with the eclectic energies of that noble venue, which is to say that its virtues (which are many) like its vices (which are not so many) are both interesting and fun.

Fun is kid stuff, of course, of which more later. It's worth first identifying three tendencies of her writing that combine in a distinctive way to shape her voice. The first is an enthusiastic anteing-in at the game of chancy image-making sometimes called New York Surrealism. Second is an investment in postmodern mythophilia, in the Barthesian sense in which myth signifies incipient symbolic realizations of the cultural imaginary from Advertising to Zeus, with nods to Bible, Fairytale, the Holy Company of Muses (Berryman, Berrigan, and Spicer, to be sure, but also Duchamp, Judy Garland, and Will Rogers, as molders of her imaginative possibility), and Chance itself, as the locus of coincidence from which our overdetermined flashes of insight bound upon us like the weirdly familiar monsters they are. The third psychologizes the surreal and mythic tendencies in personifications and near-personifications--more a loopy leaping among, and connecting, the inner life of objects (window, door, hydrant) and the narrative suggestions of mythic grandees (Zeus, Orpheus) than a technical enactment of je est un autre. It's not true ventriloquism, but it's close enough to give her wiggle room for imagistic extravagances and catachreses that might otherwise seem no more than the reproduction of a school insignia--the way, sadly, much leaping--image stuff feels. Fuhrman's associations don't just leap, they bounce.

But back to the matter of fun. Generally (sadly) this tends to be the province of poets who aren't "serious." "Serious" ideas may be ironized for tropic scrutiny or deployed according to their tragic repercussions, but not orchestrated in Spike Jones (or Jonz) extravaganzas of play. The exceptions to this truism are good for real, deep pleasures: John Ashbery and Bill Knott, Bernadette Mayer and Heather McHugh, the Charleses Simic and Bernstein. McHugh and Bernstein, in particular, seem like a Sublime Maternal Wisegirl and a Paternal Mensch Supreme to the younger poets--of whom McDaniel and Fuhrman are preeminent examples--who've defined their projects in terms of a two-faced attention to worldly sadness and verbal pleasure. In McDaniel this intersection tends to lead to dark humors; Fuhrman's world is brighter, though wetter.

The reason for this distinction is partly in Fuhrman's investment in the oceanic imagery indicated in her title. More conceptually than formally (there are a sestina and a villanelle here, but the poems aren't adventurous in their spatial expression), Fuhrman's poems feel much more open than McDaniel's, whose distinctive space is both claustrophobic and vertiginous--the "bad pilgrim's room" in which his speaker was confined as a child, for instance, or "The Mirror in Which I'll Be Judged" or "The Everlasting Staircase" (from his Splinter Factory). Fuhrman's spaces feel lonely, perhaps, but not strictly isolating. They're much more likely to make one feel lost than confined, confused than imperiled. Even for her book's primary epigraph, instead of choosing Stevie Smith's poem in which a swimmer who appears to be "waving" is in fact "drowning," Fuhrman quotes Jules Supervielle: "A man in the sea is waving and screaming 'Help' / and the echo is replying, 'What do you mean by that?'" This steers Fuhrman's oceanic preoccupations away from tragedy and toward puzzlement--indeed, toward a perspective of childhood.

For one lure of ocean is regression--think of Stevie Smith, or Cummings--and Fuhrman frequently indulges a bigeyed wonderment in the face of largeness, mixing a diction of child-sized straight talk (“BAD STUFF / STILL HAPPENS / EVERYWHERE”) and a babble of syllabic play. The key to poetic regression has always been two-fold: first, the child one becomes still feels transported by the wonders of language and the world; and second, the poet and the reader/other have both been here, have shared this language in its freshness by virtue of having been children before being anything else. It is also a regressive impulse, I think, that puts the special bounce in Fuhrman's imaging. Of course, "bounce" is no simple concept, but a variable effect dependent on a variable spin--leaping with english on it. It has a distinguished history in music, especially jazz. It shouldn't be confused with rhythm, which can be, and often is, a quasi-mathematical set of values, admirable but abstract. When "bounce" comes into play, rhythm engages the imaginal body and turns into dance. Its analog in poetry, too, entails a bodily connection--not rhythm under the abstract cover of formal variations from a metrical structure, but rhythm as a manifestation of the body danceable, the body prior to being shamed into abstracting itself.

The poets I've named above all have that function in some measure, and many of today's performance poets (though not McDaniel or Fuhrman) are willing to sacrifice other poetic virtues to sustain it. Such sacrifices are an old story in music, too, as "bounce" has been lifted from the synthetic complexities of jazz and reduced by various "pure" dance musics to a sine qua non and, sometimes, the only thing happening. There are excellent reasons for this--more people want music to make them dance than to make them think, or even to make them feel some sort of aesthetic complexity. Popular younger poets like McDaniel and Fuhrman, too, are faced with a special problem of balance that has already been solved in very different ways by jazzmasters like Ashbery, Bernstein, and McHugh--how to satisfy the thirst for bounce that your position as public poet constantly imposes while holding true to other conceptual and formal demands that your cultural experience tells you are critically important. McDaniel's provocative list of "Real Chancellors" reflects his own preferences for balancing such competing public and personal demands. Ugh Ugh Ocean reflects some struggling on Fuhrman's part, I think. If it were necessary to point up a failing in the book, it might be an occasional lapse from bounce--or, better, an occasional refusal to sustain the expectations she's set up because she needs to articulate something that doesn't have much bounce in it--having established those conditions, some complexity of thought or figuration forces her to abandon them. Failures like this are evidences of rigor and integrity, and ought to be welcomed.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

NEW! Kerri Webster poem

Kerri Webster


There’s a word for sadness that dwells in the small
of the back, the dell where you bury your chin. You mark
the page where the animal comes down to drink
from stale water. There’s a word for release born of grief,
tempered with soapy musk in the creases. There is no
gazelle. There’s a catalogue of frequently absent hours,
a figure of speech for ellipsis that starts at the throat
and sashays night continents, skirting veldt, dwelling eons
in tundra where underbrush is just story, fabulous tinder.
You rise several times to drink from the sink’s moony
white, under-pipes moaning like vast mammals
shimmying through canyons of sea ice, somewhere
a ledger that measures the damp of the sheets,
charts all things alluvial between first longing
and loss, breviary of the sub-zero plains where I toss,
insomniac, missing. There’s a phrase for absence gullied
just short of reckoning, ghost-damaging your rise
and falling weight inside me, there’s a verb for slow peril
logged in a commonplace book dog-eared
and oily--finger, finger. You mark the chapter where drowning
mirages into understanding, the whole book stab-stitched
or was it accordioned, a flaunt of unfolding and the pilgrim
drinking from a dirty glass.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

NEW! Review of Timothy Liu's Of Thee I Sing [Danielle Pafunda]

Of Thee I Sing by Timothy Liu. University of Georgia Press, $15.95.

Reviewed by Danielle Pafunda

Crazed as many contemporary readers are for identifying identity in poetry, Timothy Liu (wherein we might mine Mormon, Chinese, American, scholar, gay, missionary) has been a jackpot, a goldmine. But it is a mistake to use identity as the key to Liu’s work, even as Of Thee I Sing tempts us to do that very thing. Of his Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, Liu has said, "my anthology seeks to complicate the relationship between one’s sexuality and one’s textuality." Similarly, in this new book of poems, Liu complicates the relationship between the tripartite--one’s spirituality, sexuality, culturality--and one’s textuality. An articulate complication arises in poems such as "Anniversary":

The monthly rent check due.

Camouflaged by smoke.

Could someone open a window in here?

A marriage in lieu of talk.

In the metaphor of self as dwelling, as an apartment, it is stuffy and crowded, the dinner has burned, and the money spreads thin. At the same time, lovers persist. There is a "marriage in lieu [self] of talk." Language is unified where the trappings of identity are not. The language is newlywed, passionate, strained, and through its filter, the dingy surroundings are transformed from lodgings to home.

But this home refutes its own romanticization. On the Poetry Society of America Web site, we find Liu’s "That's what's American about American poetry--a place to call home after all is said and done." Apply this definition to poems such as "Felix Culpa":

Beguiled by excess.

By like-minded folk

in ever tinier courts.

wherein we might read a nuclear family, with whom one shares a lifestyle of ease, but can never be at ease. A family with whom one must retain, in the den or at the dinner table, only those tropes of identity which do not place him in contempt of court. Or consider "Just You Wait," in which "plates came / crashing down on entry-hall tile" in the first two lines, and we recognize:

a tone in us that we had somehow
always known whenever our home
began to sail out of the harbor--

The very structures in which we craft identity may be uprooted and tossed to sea. They house courts and battleground, they are "wrapped up in burnt-out / Xmas lights." The short lines, in couplets, tercets, or boxlike stanzas further evoke the tract house or cramped apartment.

The families who reside in these structures suffer, luxuriate, and construct an ill-fitting solace in their complicated, contradictory labels. We find parents who are not parents, defined by those domestic activities in which they can no longer participate, as in "Marriage":

Not feeding

is also a kind of feeding
that feeds on everything

we have known, our child
already two years dead.

We find "A Blessing" in a sin unrealized:

 She does not seem to know her husband
stops at a roadside strip club each night ...
  ... where those pussies in fishnet
panties hover just inches from his face

"The Gates of Hell" ironically provide shelter for the lovers, who in public, would be scrutinized, perhaps reviled:


room between us opened
wherein we could feast
without anyone’s notice.

Here, in particular, Liu has co-opted a label, has reshaped a prison into a haven. While this may provide little compensation to the object of a violent label, we must acknowledge such a remarkable survival skill. Perhaps language is the site in which such a transformation is most possible. In public, in politics, church, or family, we cannot so easily rid ourselves of the connotations of the labels with which others identify us. We cannot transform the rock through the window into the dove on the sill.

In language, then, in American poetry, one might be alchemist. One might be architect of a home that defies the physics of our quotidian America. On the page, Liu occupies paradoxical space, his tropes of identity rendered vehicles for the language, and the language complicating the vehicles on which it travels. If we enter Of Thee I Sing without our contemporary lexicon, without our cultural pricing gun, we readers might find an anthem, an empathy, might find a lean-to in which to shelter.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

NEW! Review of Richard Greenfield's A Carnage in the Lovetrees [Joyelle McSweeney]

A Carnage in the Lovetrees by Richard Greenfield. University of California Press, $16.95.

Reviewed by Joyelle McSweeney

When served up the rarefied souffle of poetry-writ-from-academia, many are the readers who gnash their teeth, pound their flagons and cry for "content!" In his first book, Richard Greenfield plates the red meat of lurid, psychological content--yet it is not in its seeming confessionality but in its language, its self-consciousness, and its careful technique that A Carnage in the Lovetrees is a strange and memorable book.

In the field of traumas come the base savannas--crosshairs tighten
on the flaring pink of the evening.

Recognize the world. After the bit of blue, after a window opened
to air and the portioned stereo of love and grandeur, after--

These couplets open the book and its first poem, "Schema," though almost any stanza in this book could serve as well as another to represent Greenfield’s sensibility, which fact speaks to the claustrophobic Cinerama that is this poet’s paradoxical metier. Greenfield writes long lines which brim to the margins, yet these lines progress phrase by painstaking phrase, girded by patterned syntax, partial rhyme ("traumas"/"savannas," "tighten"/"evening") and assonance. That even the seemingly abundant is fractured and effortful is the book’s subtheme and its governing aesthetic.

Another of Greenfield’s habits is the shoehorning of boundless abstraction into the syntactic space conventionally reserved for the concrete, and vice versa; witness "the portioned stereo of love and grandeur," and the "flaring pink" and "bit of blue" which substitute for sunset and dusk in the passage above. Also characteristic is a kenning-like compression of parts of speech so that noun is pressed into service as adjective, verb as noun. Thus, birds become ‘sorrowbirds’ or ‘roofbirds’; trees become ‘flametrees’ or the eponymous ‘lovetrees.’ Many lines feature both effects, as in "I watched the windowbird at the honey-feeder eating loss, eating love-me."

It is this overtly writerly world that the reader is then commanded to "recognize." And in the firm hands of this poet, we do begin to recognize, to breathe heavy air, to feel, as an overwrought phrase in another poem has it, "the quarterlight dawn." But Greenfield’s overwroughtness is not contemptible, as it might be in the hands of another poet. Indeed, it is often lovely, and also useful, in that it points up again and again the wroughtness of memory, selfhood, and certainly poetry. This awareness dominates the book. Poem titles that suggest confessional account ("The Abuses in Color," "Burn the Family Tree") are outnumbered by those which brazenly insist on the artifice of what follow ("Schema," "Vantage," "Vectory," "Piece Together," "Two in a Series of Encryption," "Cipher in Scene," "Camera Obscured," etc.). The poems themselves are rife with beautiful metapoetic passages:

In a revision of the line, I walk among electric ruins and memory
loss. In another, nothing happens. I find the crop. I see it framed--
I see it arrive. I see it replayed endlessly.

This pastiche of metapoetics and imagery creates a lush, well-seamed, repeating landscape for the speaking "I" to traverse--and because this "I" is a product of these same artificial processes, he can indeed traverse it, to wondrous effects.

Ironically, the madeness of this speaking "I" is particularly emphasized when the speaker asserts his own immediacy. "I have called it the fluttery bird-heart. I have seen the everlasting burn of the forest," he declares, but the symmetry of these statements, their order, and the hyperbolic poeticism of both the "fluttery bird-heart" and the "everlasting burn" suggest that witness ("I have seen") has no precedence over madeness ("I have called"), and that the witness’s account is no less artificial than the poet’s invention.

What, then, of the threads of confessional-seeming content running through the book? Incest, beatings, parental drug use, abandonment, incarceration, and (possibly) murder put in appearances in these poems, forming a vague undernarrative of something very bad indeed, and the speaker’s continual return to the vantage of childhood seems to gesture towards the autobiographical nature of these referents. Yet this disembodied account is but one element in a potently edited montage and, if anything, is crowded out by a welter of imagistic and linguistic novelty. Greenfield’s achievement in A Carnage in the Lovetrees is to have created a readable, saturated universe of thinking, writing, and memory, in which no term provides purchase on another.

NEW! Brandon Downing poem

Brandon Downing


Poor bored Teutonic virgin,
Passion for gold, & the lockjaw of a friend.
The ultimatum of her pants.
This environment is my dragon, greedy,
But I always finish fourth in poetry.
Just some weak rocks near the light-houses.

Pass a kid living in the woods,
He beats you with ham.
As a kid living in the woods,
Being most of his elite selves.
Where does money come from?
Where that’s evil of meditation.

Or bring it up to the family,
They have incredible concerns.
Their little misgivings are always children of the self.
How do you get to that? It’s spiritual, right off 57th Street
And 5th Avenue: you sit down with a butterfly’s mouth,
You drink the sandy ice-water.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

NEW! Ray DiPalma's "Agora" [poem in 20 parts]

Ray DiPalma


Never solved the world within
the world without
come from so far
set in the right place proposing
morning already securing
not harmony but something put to the test
neat footprints in the snow
that have fallen through eleven floors
accountable to the dream
and its unfinished storm
radiant and exacting
lit by a solemn burning of wood
crouchings gala and interpreters ancient
scavenge a torpid enlightenment

lights before and after the flood
the slowly brightening face an
oddity of conviction
an alchemy of cadence
a bundle of printed documents
tied together with broad red tape
alias upon alias
misattributions of mood or belated prophecy
brittle and occulted by
a deposition of mirrors
deeper and deeper in the overlook
the rose-ace snagged
in a loop of ash lifted by
the mordant scuff of plumes
a parody of piety and shame
the arcane restraints of restitution

inexact as step from step
the desert the clarity beyond
any sense of memorized time
extruded from the lurk of symbol
prelude is stray measure
lengthening the complexions of sleep
its perfected vexations are
attrition and query in
a cartouche of ropes and weeds
pictograms and night signals
arrangements of names
fill a folklore of fragments
the sample of one and its reflection
canonic sentiments and
makeshift paradoxes
a panel of yellow light
on a faded ochre wall

surprises fed on disappointed warnings
extended by the blowing sands
to any creature hanging on the guess
fever or birdsong passed through degrees
and textures of preliminary sound
first before first before first
interdiction as a mode of chagrin
the moon unravelling
drifts across her eyes assessing a river life
eyes that look back
infinity summoned by color

Four circular rooms
of varying sizes contiguous
to a central rectangular room
There are no windows
or compromise with light
The chalk lines of the builder
after three hundred years
still mark the limits of the central room
a reciprocation of the codices
of Euclid and the dimensions
abstracted from the quarry
The eye goaded by conceit
is pulled away from every corner
to the arcs beyond
The absence of features
indicates disquiet and
a regard for wholeness
and decided mass
held within the centrifugal
sweep of the cloister

sound falls on your name
this is what the hands have done
to make their preference known
a word at a time
a miracle of hanging air
the remainder a phenomenon of foreground
the luminous air’s
separation from all migrating birds
under whose scrupulous motion
you stand reading a letter
contrived of veiled concessions
and the moving parts of an apology
an ill-assorted collection
of hagglers in bird masks

a snap of flint
more syntactic than lexical
no longer a part of the city
always six hours behind the sun
certain ideas and symbols keep occurring
excuses for newsprint facts
of a short-lived dream
held in hand to
fade away more quickly
its emphatic secrecy
dado and scrollwork
lit from behind

recast is the discard
episode and admonition
the metaphysics that interferes
the patinas of an internal life
what turns from the center
reenacting the doubt
with grinding intuition
an owl vamping
its sense of the dark
the run of the sky
of sound of words
spoken on a road
that ebbs away

handwritten letter shapes
fill the page
animation dismantles anarchy
the testimony left
a mobius a zero dilated upon a zero
what is exemplary is unnamed
every day’s jagged edges
broken under the tongue
a ratio moving from fact to facet
directs the sound by light
surviving the r’s and l’s m’s and n’s
maps and pawns

invented to be described
sent instead of given
nothing of it remains
what else is there
what is in the breakers
what deduction
what do they count to each other
facing one facing
I could hear the words
but other words separated me
from what they meant
to pronounce or recall
the buffalo and the white whale
their epic qualities seen in new places
amid a failed sense of duty

a famous subtraction
preserved in red lacquer
only bread and hypnotism
permit its proper name
a yellow sky set against
a grey circle of moving clouds
the closer to the sun
the more important
a given surface
nothing moves
following the circle

a brutal flatness
a kind of modesty
no water only ink
drained from the inner ear
a few sentences scratched
in the dirt with a match
cold as smoke
analogs and conclusions drawn
from certain isolated facts
six plus five minus nine plus
seven minus three plus six
a circle ever thinner
five plus three minus five
plus seven minus one
hand and eye turning
one upon one

the final version
left on the tongue
what has been said
change and depiction
placed side by side
as second thought
drops of the flood traces
of the adduced revelation
a scrimped oblivion
of imagined privileged moments
anxious with surmise

agreement is subversion
of direct action
what matters cannot
be remembered or named
shelves of books tilted paintings
and scattered papers
the damp-stained walls
a lament that achieved
some general expression
just another set of terms
confided to its own alphabet
every mark of punctuation
isolated and repeated two
or three times along
the bottom of every page
elements in the embodiment
of second-hand privacies

printed in red ink
and 100 point type on folio
sheets of grey paper
all the street-smart words
not who but when
not where but why
determine their accuracy
a translation indebted
to an associative procedure
involving interpolations of motive
corresponding to mutually
identified expressions of debt
once familiar and dependent
now confined and continuous
nothing given nothing shared
nothing taken nothing lost

speaking for one whose name
was never recalled who spoke
for one whose name was never known
no more than a guess
an assembled story of themselves
scenes in a hymn sung
in total darkness
the page left unfinished
bearing no dates as
is the custom when scarce
and isolated things are rendered
at the limits of a coherent life
run along a pavement radius
over the lip of an horizon
that barely spans a desk
a wall and a ceiling

in the jungle thirty miles
from the capitol
patience wears thin
there was no such man
kept in a room
blindfolded and poorly fed
a number with a story
about another number
an emerald dealer stands
under an elm whose branches
touch the ground he
has nowhere else to look
what time is it he asks
are you leaving right now
it’s been the twelfth of the month
for at least a year
nothing else pulled from another pocket
improper distances improper time
obedient to but unmoved by the sun

dust lifted from a reference
intuition error and stubborn conviction
it still may happen
an unnamable point of view a prediction
closer to a legal right than a need to be said
given a colloquial emphasis
suspicion slowed to a start
the wrong person in the right place
at the wrong time
the next direction anything off the map
exposure pushed between the dark drifts
against the far wall

black red white and grey knots
in thick threads of similar hue
a tally of tributaries and moments
of silence put to use while old doubts
persist as as a species of luck
more what the bones say when the water
floats them than the fable that explains
how the practice of waterbones began
all that’s certain is that there was some
point to placing the windmill in a valley
rather than on any of the adjoining hills
but something about the feigned civility
that tempered the lengthy explanation
made the windmill and the shadow it cast
as suspect as the thistle offered for a handshake

100 miles of road say it’s okay to want something
after all something broken will always
conspire with anything impartial
first person to first person
glare provides for any lack of detail
overhead the seasons get easier
the scarecrow totems of the uninitiated
as uncomplicated as they are cautionary
the only thing to do when they blow over
if they turn up head or feet first
is to step around but never over them