Wednesday, August 18, 2004

NEW! Review of Carol Snow

The Seventy Prepositions by Carol Snow. University of California Press, $16.95.

Reviewed by Sandra Simonds

In her latest collection of poems The Seventy Prepositions, Carol Snow describes a world that is constantly “repositioned on the loop.” With a near clinical eye and ear, Snow investigates the linguistic and psychological implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Each poem becomes a study of the relationship between position and momentum where perception is king. The closer we get to the subject, like Heisenberg’s particle, the more we seem to miss. The following excerpt from “Notwithstanding” expresses this dilemma: “so when the artist extends his thumb before the / subject: what’s that about?--what (could have) / happened?--still missing--happened.” In these poems perception is a sort of puzzle-making, but each linguistic piece does not always fit with the next. Snow tears apart familiar lines from literature such as Shakespeare’s “a coward dies a thousand deaths, the hero dies but one” and splices her own questioning voice into them, thereby rendering the familiar line surprising. Take the poem “Considering,” quoted here in its entirety:

some act/ experience resists description--
    ‘beggaring’--a coward…a thousand…
  --that which demanded a
‘threshold language’--said of it: something held
   me back

Snow positions voices as diverse as Rogers and Hammerstein, Stevie Smith and George Oppen like “the fifteen changeless / stones in their five worlds” in a Japanese rock garden. But Snow’s puzzle-making is much more than an idle game. She is trying to piece the world of language together much in the same way that L. Zaseysky, the subject of A.R. Luria’s The Man With a Shattered World, does after being shot in the head. Snow quotes Zaseysky in the epigraph of The Seventy Prepositions: “then I’d take the words, sentences, and ideas I’d collected in this way and begin to write my story in a notebook, regrouping the words and sentences, comparing them with others I’d seen in books.”

In certain places Snow’s use of the child’s textbook as a form reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III. Compare Bishop’s “What is geography? / A description of the earth’s surface” to Snow’s “1. are / Some are saved and some are drowned” then “2. during / Would he hold my hand during it?” Bishop and Snow deconstruct a textbook style formal education which is the first time the task of organizing language becomes institutionalized; both of their analyses result in a sort of vertigo.

Narrative becomes a sparse thread woven through the book, which is somewhat of a departure from Snow’s previous collection For. When snippets of narrative do surface they are signposts the reader must use to find her way to connect the personal to the philosophical: “Mrs. Larney assigned / “Polonius’s advice to La-ray-tees” (we duly misread / ‘Laertes’) / and the Seventy Prepositions, rote.”

In her difficult and urgent world there are several funny moments as well: “when the mental “thwonk”s, my idiot sing-along, / -began” or “Amor fati / The love of fate”--but uh-oh will never / know whether it would have been better to-- / missing--” which arise out of verbal quirks and games. These instances serve the book well by lifting the weight of inquiry and providing range for the reader’s experience.

The integrity and master craftsmanship could easily be overlooked in this collection. Snow attempts to hold the world together via the careful positioning of voice, focusing on minute linguistic pieces. Prepositions are words that pivot a sentence into further meaning, but in this book they are the titles in the final section that serve as the jumping-off point to being pulled further down Alice’s hole: “either way the well was very deep or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and wonder what was going to happen next.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

NEW! Sarah Lang poems

Sarah Lang


But here, light begins as water rising

to break as a body falls. A chinook
over patched ground. You are

as a ghost, a stray hair stilled
in photograph already gone. How

to remember
and in what hue.


if whether this fell
if pin, gardens
if laugh's forgiving satin
if neat passes
if neat, bone
if feel and choice to
if of parts
will better
if better a tactile
if angled in a way
is a home is a spring
in health

Monday, August 16, 2004

NEW! Paul McCormick poem

Paul McCormick


Lately, when I dream of home, all the important people have turned to mice. It’s not that sycamores form a canopy to limit my words, but since you died, I’ve had to stand tiptoe on chair to watch the trains arrive beyond the fence line. Buttercups come in a flash.

And go. And what worries me is not whether today’s monkfish is today’s monkfish. “No those are bats.” “No those are swifts.” “No those are swallows.” --But how long he’s been iced. This goes on until the yearbook ends up in a hoax and the names are forgotten.

Festoon the warriors with quotes from Bartlett’s. The queen rodent, the one who’s jumped in the canal after her husband, assures me the bond market is stable. “You don’t look any different than before.” Not until she begins nibbling at my forefinger.

Was it really rhododendron that splayed so many in the hills?

For every bee there’s a man down and what looks like lunar haze is really just a lack of candy? I’m talking about the past: very little fool’s gold to assuage the moss-bitten locks, the underground city. The boy who confused the bat for a bird felt distorted.

Ergonomic deficiencies were the major culprit, though Seattle bore a thin lisp on the totem. When I say distorted I mean “looking through the fish tank.” I’ve shackled myself to the last tree and am preparing a statement for the film crews.

Here’s how it will go.

Friday, August 13, 2004

NEW! Review of Ethan Paquin and James McCorkle

Evidences by James McCorkle. APR, $14.
Accumulus by Ethan Paquin. Salt Publishing, $15.95.

Reviewed by Eric Pankey

I hesitate to refer to James McCorkle's first collection, Evidences, as a debut. Such a label suggests the work of an apprentice. Evidences is a mature and ambitious collection and would seem as ambitious and mature if it were McCorkle's fifth or sixth book. The poems are accessible without every sacrificing their intricate complexity. McCorkle's poems call to mind the epigraph Wallace Stevens used by Mario Rossi for "Evening without Angels": "the great interest of man: air and light, the joy of having a body, and the voluptuousness of looking."

The first sentence of the book's first poem, "Estuarine," announces the bounty of the seen-world's air and light, the precision and bounty with which the body beholds it:

It would be here, the light soaring
Above the grasses, the flats that stretch

Across the bay or river gap, here the light
Molten, the birds glints

Of turned glass, the wash of things
In and out of vision, the water pushing

Out flat, tarnished, tannin seeped,
It would be here what is as

Abstract as light finds its measure,
Heaping up in weight, the sky

Pressured by fullness, where everything
Is below the surface, below light's press.

Whether in the body and the mind, or in both, each poem in Evidences is a journey through time, thought, and landscape, a lyric-meditation that pushes toward the not-yet-known

Where the fresh water of a river and the tidal salt water of the ocean meet and merge is the estuarine. Throughout the collection, the journey across or sojourn at such a threshold is the here. "What we know hurts us, and /" he writes later in "Estuarine," “What isn't known waits." McCorkle reads and rereads the oracular evidences before him, whether an epic-sized painting by Anselm Kiefer or the seasonal changes, but rarely settles upon a reading of what waits to be revealed, deciphered, or envisioned. In "The New Season," “Everything is a guide, I had thought, / But then the world would be here / Only to keep us from being lost.” The mind at work in McCorkle's poems wrestles with and against the conclusive, with and against the lyric's headlong plunge toward an end. He pushes to unearth new evidence, struggles to find what is consequence and what is coincidence.

McCorkle's sentence-making tempts us with the finality of their form. But their termination is then questioned and parsed, and the truth (we thought to be certain) transmutes into the indeterminate and the process begins again. The poems in Evidences keep "The dwindling and the absent tallied" and denote the "Convergences among / Script and light."

McCorkle archives as much as he can because "Everything holds it own beginnings." History, philosophy, physics, and botany serve as ways toward figuring the world, a world, as momentary and uncertain as that world might be. Theodore Roethke writes, "A poet must be a good reporter; but he must be something a good deal more." McCorkle is a good reporter and a good deal more as is evidenced in the closing lines of "Pyromancy," by their voluptuousness of looking and of seeing:

In one thing another becomes and then passes on
To the next, resplendent to the dark, and back,
And yet there all the while--

A blue light that flashes off the Pacific or Gulf of Campeche,
Another sudden divinity that comes, evanescent,

Coming each summer, when the salvia turn to sparks
Among blades of freesia
And spiked globes of beebalm,

That stays with us through winter, iridescing
The snow, the wings of crows,
The water running off our skin as we rise from the streaming bath.

Ethan Paquin's Accumulus is, in fact, two books: a reprint of his lively first book, The Makeshift, which was published in England originally and not available here, and a new collection, Dead July. If James McCorkle's work calls up Stevens and Ashbery in the rational, contemplative, and introspective habit of his syntax, Paquin will remind readers of the mischief that Stevens and Ashbery can make as they follow sound into sense into nonsense. With the book closed before me, I remember a smart, wry, witty, and elegant voice more than any single poem. I do not mean to suggest that the individual poems are not whole, but that style is at the heart of this poet's project and it is a style here that can haunt, tickle, charm, and even throw a knock-out punch.

Where in McCorkle's work, you can observe the path of the mind at work, the mind in conversation with itself, Paquin's mind darts about with almost dizzying speed. Paquin is a poet of leaps and strange juxtapositions, as in one of three poems with the title "Woe":

Such is my little disease--
like a poodle in a meadow
she makes the sky fall out of its joints.

She makes me ask what it's
been through--"What did you go through?"
I crouch. Creaky little melodies--

Can no longer stand the heft
upon which clouds shatter.

Paquin is a poet who is willing to embrace and discard a bit of poetic convention in a single instant, using it for all its power, while admitting to its obsolescence, as with the pathetic fallacy in "Thunder Over Louisville." a love poem of sorts:

Did you come last night

       but at least the lighthouse light
swung around the sky a bit, a bit
of consolation on my lonely grass

                          so even if you didn't

The tongue-in-cheek allows for sentiment--"my lonely grass"--as it mocks sentiment.

Paquin's poems play often at the boundary of the carnivalesque. Both Paquin and McCorkle confront what McCorkle calls in "Disruptive Patterning" "the old press / of contraries, the law of here and gone." Paquin does not strive for gnosis and insight, but something much more ambivalent: the melding of the self as performer and the self as spectator, the merger and marriage of dis-ease and impatience. We laugh, but feel uneasy in our laughter, as in "Bolus": “That bolus Z is no more mealy than your retinal discord, / The caldera in your stomach, the lymphatic gnosis your eyes corral / in vernal seascape--lone boats, toss'd umbrellae, ad inf.”

As Paquin shuttles from "Z" and "ad inf.," we discover a new world unhooked from gravity, where language is a world and the principle product of that world. Accumulus calls to mind poets such as Andre Breton and Paul Eluard. Dismissing Surrealism, Stevens writes that it is "invention without discovery." But Paquin's poems invent and discover. Then they innovate upon the invented, push beyond toward discoveries not always coupled with the previously discovered.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

NEW! Paul Kane poems

Paul Kane

Three poems


There came a day when to hear an airplane,
whether hard-edged drone or high whine,
gave one pause. We never were innocent,
only incurious within our managed lives,
worshipping household gods, lending unawares
our good name to a curse in others’ mouths.
What has befallen us befell the world
a long time ago--long before we forgot
the club, the knife, the whip were ours too,
that the land absorbed blood as readily as rain.
Look at the garden and the order of these flowers:
circle within circle, like a dance or
a beautiful song that catches the breath.
It is mid-afternoon in late summer,
the sky’s high dome of blue almost infinite.
Layers of sound separate out, each
a different register: the wind in the trees,
the cicadas in the grass, the birds calling
and twittering, and the wind chime ringing
pure notes, improvising a melody.
The eyes behold and are held by color--
the red barn, blue door, all the shades of green
and the riot of the garden. Even
the long shadows are clarifying.
Set this world on fire, you will know its worth.

Bequia, the Grenadines

The man on the mast swings in his red cloth chair
working to fix a snag in the mainsail rigging:
the labor of others is more compelling than
our own. The man in the chair raises and lowers
himself as a water taxi skims past in bright
Caribbean colors, with “African Pride” painted
below the gunwales, red on a yellow background,
like a national flag of dispossession.
Despair is the fruit of disparity, and where
it ripens it never falls far from the free.
The sailboat will cruise away leaving money
in its wake. The motorboat circles the harbor,
catching fares and chasing fairness in the guise
of freedom. No nation is an island says
Geo-Politics; no island is a nation
says Multinational Markets. To develop
importance, you import development
but you outsource sovereignty.
                                       The man in the chair
knows the precariousness of in between
but his yacht attests to wealth that’s grounded in
securities. “African Pride” cuts his
engine and glides to the dock, smooth and practiced,
professional. The yachties are set to sail:
the auxiliary engines billow diesel
fumes on the water as the boat finds a way through
the harbor out of the bay to the open sea.
Naked children, blonde and bronzed, with orange floats
on their arms, splash among the waves on the beach.


I am the mask I wear and know as little
about the wearer as the puppet the puppeteer.

The life I live isn’t mine, it lives through me
and I through it dance and strut on my strings

in counterfeit. If you told me about myself
I would not believe you, for how can I be other

than what I have known? When I die, who I am
will step out into the light to try another life,

while I--having passed away--will know all
and nothing. In the dark, I am riddled by doubt.

Monday, August 09, 2004

NEW! Ray DiPalma poem

Ray DiPalma


A pleat of light has been here twice
back to the day and the day back
a bearing refused at its source
the stalled mercury fused in its glare
with no conjecture to mark the limit
the motion is modified

convolutions of ancient scripts
half drawn half animal birth

the arch of the back

one surface
one depth
one changing shape

an apology for
crossing the pulse of offspring


Uncommon offerings commonly intuited
a wooden bowl with a gilded edge
five dark stone knives
a small clasped vessel for oil with a floating wick
flanked by two wax birds

space is a factor whose
mapping disturbs
our conversation
a prospect of careful planes
tended by argument and birdsong
then abandoned to palindrome

the flex of barrier
and immaculate reticence
relent in equal shares unseparated
by edge or rhythm’s orientation

amid the subtle claims of threnody
no other sense of praise
than wonder


mythic proxy inflected
the unanimous struggle of particulars
primed in situ
white for decay
red for the eye
blue beneath the snow

a cold wind noticed too late
now equitably disposed
something brought to completion
though the worm was in it
beyond the forms of Baal


Emptied markers burning in the ruts

deliberative motives
more in balance than real
fixtures of an arguing anxiety
more generous less fragile

neglected by speculation
plainest increase finds the barb
in the morose distortions of small forms
and the thin yellow words of the infatuation

it brings its own set of questions

like something brought to be abandoned
by the side of the road


Description is what has been taken away
the infinite lost in the simulacrum of displacement

a number not in arrangement but farther on
not in the distance but insistence

the hours gained in anonymity
the years lost word by word

contradicted by the myopia of its internal logic
uphill favors sediment

imago the gift imparted
the cross-eyed shuffle of expedience

too late the song too late the door flies open
too late the spoken mercies too late the fabric bone


Wandering ligatures accelerate expansion
to primary acquisition

nomadic recourse
absorbed in gerundive detail
reclaims the discretionary pursuit

the exactions of light
extolling the riot of genetic ambivalence

no ulterior duplicates
no delivered verges
in shallow equilibrium

only the instruments make rapid movements
adapting to internalized mechanisms
adjusted by accretion


and impossible replicas

regret or loss
become a gesture for that limit

schemes of evidence
offered in contradiction


As intimate as doubt
all that is personal in chance
distinguishes one to one from
the one from the other

reinterpreted in the dark
and shared only with number
the objects in the room
the articles on the desk

are an assent to a consequent perfection
that is abandoned in moving on
pursuing neither a conclusion nor
a new point of entry

what had become unacceptable
is now overburdened only partially remembered
timed to the word denied with nothing
else to take its place or make its order

sustained by mechanism and the simulation
of some capable version or familiar resource
a preemptive predecessor quietly virtual provides
something other than an option

July-August, 2001

Friday, August 06, 2004

NEW! Review of John Kinsella's Peripheral Light

Peripheral Light: Selected and New Poems by John Kinsella. Norton, $23.95.

Reviewed by Stephen Cushman

As any equestrian statue has in its family tree the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Campidoglio in Rome, any author photo in a book of poems published in the United States has somewhere in its bibliographic genealogy the engraving of Whitman at the front of the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Although Whitman hardly invented the convention of introducing readers to books by means of visual images of their authors, he did introduce a new visual vocabulary of body language and clothing: the cocked hat, the open collar and visible undershirt, the fisted right hand on a hip, and the left hand casually pocketed. Like Whitman’s, John Kinsella’s first American book of poems has had what Emerson called “a long foreground,” but unlike Whitman’s, Kinsella’s presents its long foreground in the form of an “Also by John Kinsella” list, placed before its title page, as a kind of poetic passport through U.S. literary immigration: twenty published books, sixteen of them verse, two fiction, one a collection of plays, and one an autobiography. Meanwhile, a visual image of this prolific writer, born in western Australia in 1963 and so only forty when Norton published Peripheral Light, awaits his reader in color on the inside flap of the back cover: longish hair prematurely gray; a youthful, friendly face with a wide, white smile; glasses with large lenses that suggest bookishness and intellect; black open-necked, long-sleeved shirt, black pants, black shoes; a straight look at the camera; and a comfortable pose on a bench in a green-grassed park or on a college campus (he teaches at Kenyon), legs crossed, left arm bent at the elbow and resting on the back of the bench.

Elegant, even dapper, intelligent, balanced between age and youth, balanced between formality and informality, something conventional, something unconventional, openness, reserve: what can be said of the visual vocabulary in the photograph also goes for the nearly two hundred pages of poetry in the book itself. Anyone needing more of an introduction to Kinsella and his work than that provided by the list of other publications and the photograph can plunge into Harold Bloom’s twenty-page prefatory testimonial, about which more later, but unfortunately he or she cannot consult a scrap of chronology, since neither the poet nor his editors thought it necessary to include a single date anywhere in the text or to group poems by previously published books. As a result, a reader coming to Kinsella’s work for the first time cannot tell new poems from selected ones or know which poems came at which points in his career. This large omission will not bother all readers or perhaps even many of them, but those who do notice the complete suppression of chronology may wonder about the reason for withholding such basic information.

A tendency to withhold something informs Kinsella’s work at another level as well. At the uncharacteristically straightforward opening of “Approaching the Anniversary of my Last Meeting with my Son,” the poet puts the matter bluntly: “I never write ‘confessional’ poetry / but your voice--like forked lightning / etching a thunder-dark river--leaves me / no choice but to speak directly.” Saying that he has no choice but to speak directly at this moment implies that at other moments the speaker does have a choice between speaking directly and not doing so and that at such moments he usually opts for the latter mode. No existing law mandates that a poet speak directly, and in the history of American poetry, amidst which Kinsella’s book now asks to be considered, precedents for not doing so abound. Whitman often spoke of approaching a subject, such as the Civil War, by indirection; Dickinson advised us to tell all the truth but to tell it slant; and Frost slyly asserted that poems are the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. If Kinsella chooses as his rule indirectness, so that in his work directness becomes the exception, he has plenty of good company around him. But in fact in his case the matter may present more complications, complications having something to do with his wanting to hold the word “confessional” at arm’s length, handling it gingerly with the typographic tongs of quotation marks. (Interesting that in a book heralded as the poet’s American debut, the copy-editor has retained the Anglo usage of single quotation marks.) What do these marks mean? That Kinsella does not trust us to recognize the term “confessional” as naming a mode of American poetry that has been around since the 1950s? That he feels a little uncomfortable with the term, as though he were saying “so-called confessional” poetry? That he can only approach the term ironically, winking at those of us who know better than to take seriously such a misguided enterprise as writing confessional poetry?

This moment has some awkwardness to it, and its awkwardness provides a glimpse into Kinsella’s poetics. Whether one relishes or despises confessional poetry, to have any accurate sense of what the confessional mode can do at its most effective, one must recognize immediately that it has its own set of conventions and artifices and that among them perhaps the most successful and memorable are those that generate illusions or images of directness, so that what appear to be directly literal first-person revelations actually function as another set of figurative maskings, slantings, and indirections. Surely, Kinsella knows all this at some level, but just as surely a new reader of his will quickly discover that the poetry of Peripheral Light, much of which is good and worth several rereadings, does not often commend itself by way of the personal and the confidential, or by images of the personal and confidential. Instead, as suggested by poem titles such as “Eclogue on a Well,” “Chilli Catharsis,” “Skeleton weed/generative grammar,” “Bluff Knoll Sublimity,” “Anathalamion,” “Skylab and the Theory of Forms,” “Sine Qua Non,” “Lyrical Unification in Gambier,” “First Essay on Linguistic Disobedience” (there are seven such essays), “The Semiotics of a Truck Overturned in Fog,” “Boustrophedon,” and “Intimations of Sign and Subjectivity in York,” the sensibility behind these poems, no matter how deeply involved in personal matters of the heart, chooses to represent itself primarily in a way that tends toward the impersonal language of the head, often self-consciously literate and literary, intellectual, abstract, theoretical, and academic. To say so is not to judge that sensibility and its creations negatively, but rather to attempt to describe quickly and efficiently the delights and instructions they offer, as well as those they do not.

Kinsella claims never to write confessional poetry and distances himself from speaking directly, but confessional poetry and direct poetry are not necessarily the same things. One way to approach Peripheral Light is to study its shifting tides of direct clarity, albeit non-confessional, and indirect opacity. Here are neighboring strophes of the long sequence “Field Notes from Mount Bakewell,” which is dedicated to Bloom:

Bandwidth locusts mono rain
bending frequency interlock wandoo
rock sheoak the botanist
Ludwig Preiss, priority one taxon,
and, of course, Thomasia montana,
which I don’t see: oedipal, unreceptive,
adjusting the bandwidth.

The guy from the chemical company
drinks a half-glass of Herbicide.
“There you go, harmless to humans.”
The farmer, impressed, sprays
and gets his sheep straight back in there.

Fans of Stein, Williams in Kora in Hell, Pound’s Cantos, and Language poetry written over the last twenty-five years can probably find the first strophe perfectly legible (wandoo and sheoak are trees), while fans of simple, free-verse narrative of the kind that has dominated so much American poetry since reductive imitations of Williams began to emerge, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, can feel right at home with the second strophe. These two modes define the extremes of Kinsella’s range, and an impressively wide range it is. The second strophe contains the baldest verse in all of Peripheral Light, and its exceptional uniqueness comes as no surprise in the work of a poet who elsewhere rails against “this sick patriotism to vernacular,” but the first strophe does have various cousins throughout the book, as in this bracingly unvernacular moment from “Diagnostics”: “gnosis epodes dogma / all agisting the form / and offerings.”

Reading Bloom’s introduction to Peripheral Light, one would have no sense of the linguistically disobedient side of Kinsella’s poetic practice, as not surprisingly the Sage of Yale and NYU massively represses his subject’s sweet tooth for verbal play and experimentation in order to adopt him into the Bloomian canon of the strongly sublime and to link him at various points with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Emerson, Ruskin, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Crane, and Ashbery. Kinsella makes clear his fealty to Bloom (is he the Harold to whom the book is jointly dedicated?), and the people at Norton are savvy enough to know that the Bloomian name-recognition factor enhances the marketability of Peripheral Light. But Kinsella has another, un-Bloomian side, or perhaps many other un-Bloomian sides, to his mercurial poetic temperament, and it would be a shame if Bloom’s sponsorship cost him readers who might otherwise find something congenial in his work.

One aspect of poetry, and Kinsella’s in particular, that does not interest Bloom enough to draw commentary from him is formal technique. As lovers of the Romantic sublime can find something in Peripheral Light, along with lovers of Language poetry and its antecedents, so can lovers of traditional poetic form and formalism. Examples of the villanelle and terza rima, along with copious rhyme and meter throughout, will surely please them. Kinsella’s verse may be at its best, combining tautness with suppleness, when he shortens his lines to a two-stress norm, as he does at many moments in the book. Not every formal feature of Peripheral Light reaches impeccability, though. Kinsella has, for example, a weakness for lackluster enjambments between adjectives and nouns, the latter widowed as one-word syntactic remainders, as in “from the heart of the white / silo,” “through its unguent / body,” “out of an uncharacteristic / torpor,” “fizzes and winces with impending / rain,” “at their exclusive city boarding / schools.” Such enjambments become distracting tics, making no use of the Miltonic legacy of drawing sense out from one line to another in order to generate phantom images, double meanings, or opportunities for suggestive misreading, and they mar the verse. Usually, however, the high quality of Kinsella’s lines and stanzas strongly suggests that students who study creative writing with him have the opportunity to learn from a skilled craftsman.

But it would also be a shame if debate over his poetic allegiances, affinities, and bloodlines distracted Kinsella’s potential readers from his most immediate and substantial contribution, the deeply textured evocation of a realm unfamiliar to most Americans, the landscape of western Australia, with its distinctive flora and fauna and features and objects and words that appear throughout Peripheral Light: spinifex, cockatoos, salt paddocks, sheep skulls, mallee, sheoak, dugite, wandoo, echidna, jinker, rosellas, digeridoos, and always everywhere in this oasis of fertility the wheat, which farmers struggle to grow and harvest and which, when gathered in a silo, can drown the boys who play in it. Some may opt to read Kinsella’s poems about the Australian wheatbelt under the literary sign of the pastoral, associating him perhaps with Frost, from whom he clearly has learned. But the imaginative scale here is larger than in Frost, for although Frost gave us poems from the then overlooked world north of Boston, Kinsella has given us, or at least many of us in America, a vision of a wholly different, powerfully strange world, a world in which the “hot glacier” of salt encroaches on the fertile world of wheat, a world dotted by sheep skulls that come to glow and haunt like the visionary totems of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of the American southwest. The scale of accomplishment, at least in the context of geographical representation and all it entails, is analogous to that of Derek Walcott, who first showed so many American readers the beauties and layers of St. Lucia and the Caribbean. It is a large achievement, and although it may be unfair to him and to us to burden a mid-career poet with Bloom’s prophesy of “a major art,” it is an achievement that deserves both attention and gratitude.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

NEW! Mark Lamoureux poems

Mark Lamoureux

Three poems from "Astrometry Organon"


I wait for a voice like rain
on an umbrella, the silver April weather
rushing like molten glass to
the speaking fissure where harp
strings stretch as sutures, solemn
& the white darts fall
where they may--a dark face
backlit, harboring the terror
of words: burns eyes when read
this necronomicon my heart holds
burnished secrets, my poison
idols: a little ghost
collects in the damp lamplight the green
hairs on my barren arms make a banyan
tree. Some wasted thing, a letter
in a bottle in the hull of
the Flying Dutchman: tiny metal balls
in the bloodstream are all that's
left of that adventurer, no dry
season, a shadow tells a story
to the votive candle: I might've forgot
myself in you, remember my arms
as if they were alive, a cage wrought
with jade holds a canary face-
up, I named this constellation
for you before all
those suns went out


The heat is her &
it hurts me.


caught in this
black jade loop:

polar memory,
the shoals' air

off her sandal-blood &
the machete-
colored unsheathed

months made
of mealy apples,

helmets, dangling
arraigning arcs for

I hid it in
my sleeve, scatter
ashes or salt

behind the hydraulic
equipment, the swollen
a plastic tongue

pulls you down
to the weak earth,
the weaker sky,
the weakest of
all my darling you
are paper-pulp,
you are a stickbug's

leg that breaks
in the goddamn


Futurist bulb of an office box
shines its red robot vampire
eyes between the old shaman-
rattles of the trees;

when that midnight & its
kooky horses come-
th in the night of the comet, of
comely daggers--well or in
come said horses, the horses'
daggers, that midnight &
its robots, its lonely trees,

its merlot spit--unkempt spirit: Speedy
Gonzalez, enter the gnomes
with the dawn, fat bakers come
with the bacon &

the only remnant of that other life is
those dead spoons dang-
ling from their noses.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

NEW! Review of Rae Armantrout's Up to Speed

Up to Speed by Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press, $13.95.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

A typical poem in Up to Speed, Rae Armantrout’s first collection since Veil: New and Selected Poems (2001), consists of several numbered sections or parts separated by asterisks. Each section tends to have one- to three-line strophes with relatively short lines, and occasionally there is a single-sentence paragraph or one with a few sentences. These formal qualities are not dissimilar from those of Robert Creeley’s post-60s serial poetry, but the quirkiness of the imagery, gender-inflections, and line breaks ensure that the work could never be confused with Creeley’s. Generally, the relationship among Armantrout’s sections is far from transparent, and titles seldom solve the issue.

In “Almost,” Armantrout speaks of disjunction as a humorous defense against death: “the way we joke / by using non-sequiturs, elliptical remarks / which deliberately suppress context / in advance / of time’s rub-out.” The “we” may include Armantrout’s fellow Language Poets. Successive rereadings of her poems enable possible “contexts” to crawl gradually beyond “suppression.” Before giving a more general account of Armantrout’s persistent themes, I will support this contention with a close look at the three-section “Afterlife,” which begins with a terse judgment about “heaven” as a failure, even an exhaustion of imagination: “Heaven is just this: // twined strands / of winking bulbs // and shiny, fragile ornaments / understood to represent grace // weakly.” This strangely lyrical passage embodies “the paleness of representation” without gesturing toward hope of a vital alternative.

Section two, itself divided into four parts in prose, seems to depart drastically from the title and the first section’s critique of heaven; three separate mini-narratives involve a male (not necessarily the same in each) and the last a male’s observation about the speaker’s poetry:

That morning he feel asleep on the couch, or seemed to, giggling
himself awake repeatedly, once saying, “Orange hair! Orange hair
is orangutan hair!”


Or when we were in bed, he throwing me into a new position
every few seconds as if frantically searching for something.


I followed him to the store because he’d been gone too long. As
I rounded the corner, he was just coming out, but, instead of
turning toward home, he went into the parking lot, scanning it. I
noticed his walk was different.


He always said my poems were lonely, as if each thing (word, per-
son) stood still, waiting for meaning.

In each part, efforts at representation seem incomplete; each perception (“thing”)--perhaps waits “for meaning”: an achievement of a goal (assessment of implications of a discovery of sound-relations, sexual pleasure as profound understanding, exposure of unacceptable behavior). Also, they each include at least an implicit reference to home (“the couch,” “in bed,” “instead of turning toward home”), and the fourth may suggest that a linguistic tendency involves “homelessness.” Then again, in retrospect, the opening section is full of imagery--Christmas ornaments--associated with home, and “heaven” or “afterlife” are figures for home in the anticipated life-after-death.

Section three begins, “I think your homeland / is in sleep’s vicinity.” Indeed, “unconscious desire” is “home,” however uncanny. Next, we find talk of “some reiterative / noodling / in absentia, // almost ‘brush-clad’”: is the poet conveying that the dreamer, absent from conscious intention, repeats waking themes in the dream-state, or that the dead, more literally absent, are used by the living who “noodle” around with “pale” conceptions of “afterlife”? The bizarre adjectival phrase “brush-clad” intensifies uncertainty.

The listener/reader is taunted to articulate the impossible--what the speaker/author, “in absentia,” perceives at the time of utterance: “Can you tell me / what I’m seeing?” Each individual’s vision of “home” is probably unique, but includes a desire for psychological security amid uncertainties about living and “afterlife”:

There’s a sound like voices there
singing, “Don’t worry.”

Does that make any sense
to you?

I think you’re being escorted
Between “woe”
and “woven.”

Then the tip encysts
where a search
has been called off

Desire causes listeners to turn mere “sound” into a simile with the command of reassurance. “Between” the two words enclosed in quotes, difference depends on the presence or absence of “v” and “n,” but the words also gesture toward something between hopelessness/homelessness (“woe”) and a perfectly “woven” expectation of “home.” Gaps threaten this weaving of possibility; so does the sense of premature closure, an end to the search for “home,” “heaven,” or alternative concepts. Such closure promotes infection at “the tip” of thinking. Against this infection, the poet refuses to end the last sentence with a period.

As “Afterlife” suggests, many of the book’s poems dramatize self-understanding as a persistent problem: “Does a creature / curve to meet / itself? / Whirlette!” (“Up to Speed”). This is not a matter of “confession” or excessive inwardness, because exploration of the self is intertwined with the measure of the environment. Awareness of the unreliability of whirling perceptions is crucial, and the often comic ambiguities of language engender further complications: “The material world is made up / entirely // of collisions // between otherwise / indefinite objects. // Then what is a collision?” (“Entanglement”). In a grammatical sense, “the indefinite object” is protected from direct “collision” with the subject, but a material “object,” though surely discernible, is not “definite” because of the mutability resulting, in part, from its colliding with other material elements.

The interaction between dream and waking states is a persistent trope for the difficulties of sorting perception, of being “up to speed” with one’s experience: “Can a dreamer / outwit her dream? // Not on a first date” (“My Advantage”); poetry can act as the “second date” of consciousness: “When a dreamer sees she’s dreaming, / it causes figments to disperse” (“End Times”). “Figments” recall “fragments” which the perceiving self must not coerce into an illusory totality, “Luxuriant and spurious code // as art”; the speaker in “End Times” recognizes that the “time-consuming” and “rushed” transcription of experience breeds error, deviation: “It occurs to me that later I may not be able to read what I wrote.” Even though specific, imagistic description--“Solemn, / blunt flash of sun / off the window / of a Coor’s Light / truck” (“Form”)---appears in many Armantrout poems, such flashes of perception are not reliable touchstones for sensory understanding but keep the individual “an ignorance / on the point of revelation” (“The Fit”).

In “Box,” a poem consisting of single-line stanzas, a dream image suggests how time and the representation of death are the problematic elements for the self, who tries out defensive clowning: “We laugh // to accommodate death. // Dream someone’s placed me // in a red, plastic box // from which now I pop up, // clown-like, // into consciousness. // A time when we agree // the present does not exist, // has never existed.” Of course, how can the eternal non-existence of the present be conceptualized in time as “a time”? How can the living imaginatively enter the “box” of the dead, the non-space of the absence of consciousness/unconsciousness?

Laughter cannot “accommodate” this “beyond,” and the language of paradox exposes its own limitations. It is not Armantrout’s job to resolve such difficulties, but to “play” them on her subtle instrument, to pursue them elaborately, from diverse angles. She masterfully keeps exposing “thought” as “a wish for relation / doubling as a boundary” (“Interior Design”) and keeps representing the frailties of such boundaries.

Note: Rae Armantrout has six new poems forthcoming in the 20th anniversary issue of Verse.

Monday, August 02, 2004

NEW! Joseph Donahue poem

Joseph Donahue


Back then, the dying lay
hypnotized. We let each see
his desire. (Dialysis took all day.)
One might love making birdcages:
Step into your shop. Another,
crave heaven: climb this street --
See the far off glowing wall.
We’re out of your wine,
the waiter concedes, words
cut up in clatter, face starred
in disco light from the dance floor.
But we have another, a lot like it,
from a vineyard called Clouds At Night.
There will be a gap in the black
when you die. Luckily, you are
board certified for instrument flight,
or the joy of seeing miles in darkness,
cities and farmhouses scattered along rivers
would be a fireball as the plane races
into a mountain, upside down.
So, Days of Awe dwindle away.
A moon, unseen for 47 years,
announces “hawg killin’ weather.”
Leaves turn the color of bourbon
and hogs tremble deep in their guts.
What dark force has deleted
the Email refuting all this? What
devious legion from your past drags
out the nickname you hoped would be
forgotten, O "Pythagoras Reborn?"
(On the news, Guliani lets slip --
The Surrealists are back from the dead.
They have consented to reside here,
in New York City, under cover,
for the foreseeable future.
Reporters stir, astonished,
shouting out names. Breton?
Artaud? Desnos? Eluard? Dumal?
Perhaps the long lost Pierre Unik?
Marcel Noll, not seen since
the Spanish Civil War?
The mayor lifts his hand:
If you knew who and where
they were, he cautions, it could
compromise their dreaming.)
Or here, in the swamp of
Neveranger Isle, where our souls
turn the deepening blue of patients
in an imperiled ward. And I lie down
where your lovely scent falls
like rose petals from a cloud,
and the pain under the bandage
on my side flares. Elsewhere
in this video game called
Acts of the Apostles,
an elixir wagon speeds
into the next county, just
ahead of the sheriff, and the voice
of W. C. Fields rises in the last
flickering of the day's flame
over a forest of thirsty snakes,
at the hour the grandson of
Herod kills the brother of Christ,
hour I open the home testing kit,
piss like there’s life inside m . . .
We are trading our hopes
away like derivatives based on
cloud flow over the Valley of the Kings,
where a circus tumbler turned adventurer
finds, now, the tomb of whoever
I once was: 1) Osiris, 2) Eros,
3) Christ, 4) Marcus Antonius,
or 5) whoever’s viscera now
win rebirth as bait in that final
pit bull match behind the military
school, where leaves are turning
the color of a lemon cake made
for a birthday, if this were Honolulu,
and the night sky were a blindfold,
black, as the thicket from which
Abraham pulled the lamb, black
as the bodice of a pop diva.

Note: Joseph Donahue has two new poems forthcoming in the 20th anniversary issue of Verse.