Monday, September 20, 2004

NEW! Review of Mark Bibbins' Sky Lounge

Sky Lounge by Mark Bibbins. Graywolf Press, $14.

Reviewed by Carrie Adams

“So much flesh in the world / wanders at will,” reads the epigraph from Mina Loy that introduces Mark Bibbins’s first collection of poems, Sky Lounge. Bibbins writes not only of ephemeral pleasures and passing passions, but also of their relentless pursuit and the futile search for something that might endure or suffice. These poems are fleshy in their vulnerability and incredibly dangerous because of this. The collection, as a whole, maintains a coherent, singular voice--a self preoccupied with desire and the desire to be desired. As a result, this reader cannot help but feel intimate with the speaker as the speaker seeks intimacy within the world of the poems. The poems become necessarily and inevitably personal.

While employing diction that deftly incorporates everyday speech, the contemporary idiom, and a heightened aesthetic, these poems “lean toward love.” And it is specifically the leaning that remains central. In their direction, desire, and expectation, the poems of Sky Lounge hinge on love and, often, its dearth:

indeed we were suspicious of birds, but rats, well, rats
we found charming, with their eyes so full

of sympathy, their need for warmth like our own. We also
wanted loved to suffice.

When love is achieved or found in Bibbins’s work it is provisional and fleeting: “the one he loves fills his water glass / and is gone.” Elsewhere: “the tiniest inkling of tenderness / exhumed by a blink.” This is love “that’s one-third comma, two-thirds question / mark”--it’s an uncertain and quick pause. However, for the insufficiencies and failures of love, Bibbins indicts not love itself, but us, its incapable seekers, for our resistance to openly expose ourselves to it: “We position so others cannot see / then lie and call it contact.” Our concealment is one more form of desperation: “Here is how we beg: silent, faces masked / in sheer panty hose. Some would call us thieves.” Possibly it is this tendency to protect and shield ourselves that these poems attempt to rebel against. Yet Bibbins’s sense of humor enters these poems often at the precise moment the pursuing self is at risk of being too revealed.

So why are we such desperate thieves, hiding and plotting for a piece of love? Bibbins postulates in “After the Smoke Cleared”: “Since the gods went missing / we had to amuse ourselves, alas.” Perhaps this longing for contact is our response to the default of the gods. The landscape of Bibbins’s poems is a fallen, forgotten, industrial world--the ultimate intersection of man and nature, with bleak, twisted consequences: “Later let’s go swimming down by the electrical plant / since as you know the water runs out warmest from its pipes.” In “The Ice along the Road,” the speaker pleads, “I need you to tell me / the orange smoke of the plastics / factory is / beautiful against the moon.” The idea of beauty itself has become perverse in this landscape, though desperate for love one can’t stop wanting to be beautiful. In “Groupie” the speaker is developing a line of lipsticks with less than appealing names: “Foie Gras,” “Primordial Soup,” and “Contusion.” Yet the marvel of these lipsticks is that they render anyone who wears them beautiful. Similarly, in “No Lot Lizards,” an acid rain is viewed as good facial exfoliant.

One of the strongest poems of the collection, “Fledglings” fully develops the themes Bibbins plays with throughout. A boy finds a bird in a box and begins to carry the bird on his shoulder. A connection is immediately established between boy and bird through language; as the bird makes sounds, the boy begins to articulate them into speech. However, when the bird is stolen and replaced with a replica, the boy does not seem to notice. Later, the boy gives away many of the bird’s feathers, and by the devastating conclusion he is no longer carrying the bird but a painting of the bird on someone else’s shoulders: “When it rains--and it is always raining-- / droplets form as they would / on real feathers and roll off.” We realize it was never about the relationship between the boy and the bird, but simply about having a relationship--it is not about the other but an other, any other.

In the end, Bibbins’s talent is the ability to articulate our common desires with a combined sense of understanding and humor that unites us all in this endless pursuit.

Friday, September 17, 2004

NEW! Julie Choffel poems

Julie Choffel

Two poems


I thought I’d found a sight; just a hollow
in the undergrowth. Mistook
         kaleidoscope for telescope;
a vacuum in the scenery. A white hole.
          Filled with snow, it weighs like a diamond.

The crystal staircase winds and builds. Urchin rose opening
finally, what have you done meantime
with terpentinian abilities and oil?

Color’s ways of dissolving itself; airwaves have ways with pictures in heat.
Dunes southwest of here turn to others. Snaking

sideways, you look to your prey like a twisty kite,
a quiet gap in the sand, maybe a rope of snow.


One block upon another makes a bastion. Within a perimeter
of stairs is a funny room with lots of corners,
ornaments, clasping hands.
The thumb-doors open.

The generation of indoor symbols
came of big weather. Heady turbulence, thin
bodies, masonry, glass panes grouping the difference.
Spaces between fingers are cold as windows.

Concealed in layers of air, water, ice;
the whole thing wobbles.
Cup your hands and
Here are the people.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

NEW! Review of James Harms

Freeways and Aqueducts by James Harms. Carnegie Mellon University Press, $13.95.

Reviewed by Amy Schroeder

Warning: If nostalgia bores you, don’t read this book. Packed with throaty reminiscences of times gone by, James Harms’s new collection is deeply backward looking, suggesting that we aren’t so much connected to the past as we are trapped in it. “The evenings are a second chance to clear / away the strange regret,” he writes, “or worse, the fear / that all the day has left us with is hope.” Atmospheric and often lovely, the poems describe a place where the light is always honeyed and the leaves are always just about to fall off the tree; they are spoken by the kind of mournful guy who misses you even before you’re gone.

Harms likes to work in themes; his previous collection, Quarters, used the idea of the quarter as an organizing principle. The new collection employs the idea of place in much the same way. The first two-thirds of the book are concerned chiefly with the poet’s childhood in California, and the final third locates the traces of that youth in a new landscape, West Virginia. Driven by longing and loss, Harms makes clear that you can never really escape where you come from; the past persists like a song you can’t get out of your head. One poem, which describes the meeting of old friends at a burger joint in Pasadena, ends thus: “Ronny’s … pulling an extra shadow. / Come to think of it, we all are.” That extra shadow is the long dark shade of the past, the permanent effect of everything that has ever happened.

It’s a truism that nothing stays the same in Los Angeles, that the old is torn down daily for the new mini-mall, or condominium complex, or worst of all, the new superstore. But there is a parallel truth about the City of Angels, a deep melancholy fostered by the innumerable unfulfilled dreams of its resident seekers and hopers. Randall Jarrell’s long poem about his childhood in Southern California, “The Lost World,” contains something of this mood, and Harms has caught the quality as well in his slow-moving, evocative verse:

And as the sky darkened
from a dusty blue to gray--
no promise of stars
in the light-soaked sky--

a long thin line of pink
stained the edge of the world,
the afterglow of ozone,
the color of a teenager’s first
bikini or a flower power sticker
peeling form a bumper,
a slender neon warning
in the bruised Los Angeles sky.

Poetry of place has a long and venerable tradition; one thinks perhaps most immediately of Whitman and Crane, although neither has much to do with the kind of poetry that Harms writes. Unlike poets who attempt to speak to the throbbing heartbeat of a place, Harms’s poems are rooted in the individual experience--his California, his West Virginia. Although the tone is lyrical, the poems tend toward the narratively specific, the dangerous border between the autobiographical and the personal. Harms is inclined to avoid generalities--usually a good thing, but there is something about these poems that seems almost too specific, too much like an inside joke. “She liked my circus poem best,” he writes. “She leaned back / in her chair and said ‘Harmsy this is good.’” Such moments are off-puttingly cute, creating an effect that is surely contrary to what the poet intended.

These poems dwell unapologetically in the quotidian, attempting to transform the banal into the sublime. When this succeeds, it does so beautifully: “Walt slept once in a pram by Carrie’s pool / in March and woke covered in blossoms … his hair aged by flowers.” Too often, however, Harms’s efforts at metaphorical transformation are hindered by a banal that simply will not rise to the occasion. For example, the slowly receding creep of a friend’s hairline is described thus:

we’d been there all along
so the slow thinning never registered--
one minute the sugar maple’s laughing
in the breeze, shaking its hands
like a little girl in a bus station bathroom,
towels all gone and the blower busted,
the next we’re cold, listening
to bones click near the eaves.

By the time one reaches the end of this figurative farrago it’s hard to remember that it started out as a metaphor for male pattern baldness. What Harms is really risking here is sentimentality--a danger to any work that is so focused on mining the personal, and a particular danger for poems as plainspoken and determinedly accessible as these:

On the clean streets of Pasadena
a boy too young to care can’t bear
to let the sticky lollipop lie on the sidewalk,
picks it up, begins to lick.

Some of this work is just too sweet (pun intended). Overall, however, the collection is worth a good read--both for its images of quiet loveliness )“you cupped my face like a handful of water”) and for its masterfully sustained mood, the pleasant ache of chronic homesickness. At the conclusion of the final poem, Harms writes, “I am almost to the gate, / almost ready to depart … I am very nearly on my way.” Readers will sense that the truest words in those lines are “almost” and “very nearly,” spoken by someone who is never going to be able to let go.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

NEW! Review of Marjorie Welish

Word Group by Marjorie Welish. Coffee House Press, $15.

Reviewed by Standard Schaefer

Billed as a combination of Language Poetry and the New American Poetry, the latest book by Marjorie Welish is better explained as a cousin of Norma Cole’s Spinoza in Her Youth or Leslie Scalapino’s New Time, but one which raises more serious questions about where avant-garde poetry is headed. Out of a concern for the materiality of language, Welish shares a sort of speculative lyricism not unlike Cole’s. Like Scalapino, she seems to want to address big concepts, though not quite as ambitiously as Scalapino’s forays into phenomenology and the ontology of time. Reminiscent of “the analytical lyric” (and indeed analytical language is evoked), Welish’s central focus is more writerly, perhaps. The book features a concern for order: what it is, how it is achieved, whether it is possible and how sound and pattern contribute to it. The most provocative element of this exploration is her musicality. Cadence lends credence to otherwise uninspired meditations on textuality or reading theory, and were the music not there a series such as “Begetting Textile” might be seen as a rather mechanical attempt to touch on every possible parsing of “text” and “tile” with an emphasis on the interplay collage technique, whether used or simply alluded to. That series does avoid being overly regimented but to do so relies on further parsing games, sometimes venturing on explication as in “Textile 14” where the word picare and explicare are given extensive treatment. The irony there, however, is that the poem rolls into moments of statement and perhaps only in lines such as the following really invokes the New American Poetry of Donald Allen: “Because sequence is the pilot driven to commitment / because sequence is not automatic pilot but story committed / a rhetoric/-hot-.”

Moments such as these are the most intriguing because the series, and to a large extent the whole book, is filled with repetition of certain phrases, often rather short, pithy rhymes such as “hot” and “not” slanting off words like “Pollock.” These sounds drive the music. It’s as if using rather automatic rhymes undercuts the larger automaton-like feel of the larger serial poem. That the poem then includes a seeming insistence that whatever is automatic, whatever is story is simply rhetoric really enhances whatever stance the book takes to official critical theory, the erstwhile subject of so much of Word Group.

The larger intellectual aim of the book, that part most reminiscent of Scalapino, is often to engage critical strategies, though perhaps with too much reliance on the critical terminology or the rather pedestrian if not overused references to such thing as Freud’s use of the fort-da game. The opening poem, “Else, in Substance,” which refers to “Helen, merely as a limiting case,” establishes a major theme for the book: the exploration of Otherness via “unfetishized” means, as Norma Cole aptly describes it. In this poem, the words “dress” and “address” in all its possible emanations are explored until the Other is given spatial associations beyond those of the mind such as memory or idealization. At its fiercest, the book is filled with such moments when ideas are augmented and emended by exploring their relation to substance. Such explorations, again reminiscent of Cole and her Spinoza, also suggest that the Other is itself only conventional or apprehensible through conventions. This is important and even compelling, handled as a jumping off place for critical exploration. It is undermined, however, by the fact that there is so much repeated use of such words as “modernity,” “text,” “neo-lithic,” “coding,” “decoding,” “symptomatically,” and “the class of things.” It is possible that there is fetish for overly intellectualized diction, rather than piercingly unique thought. Rather than producing an entire book of deconstructive force where disjunction coupled with puns causes the ostensible subject to break through to other registers both lyrically and conceptually, only a few moments of such promise take place. Otherwise, the book at times achieves something nearly taxonomical in its exploration of such things as “moieties” and “the logics,” quite a feat considering how it strives for lyricism.

Perhaps the most trenchant pieces are the shortest. “The Glove” opens with “Always in face, never in fact.” The poem is a list of cliches or near-cliches, this first one a faint echo of “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Other echoes of legends, bar humor, sculpture, painting, and Freud appear at first entirely disjunctive. Gradually, what emerges is an oblique love poem, an ode to surfaces. The final line “‘Once upon a time,’ alleged” is the closest that Welish’s work gets to exuberance, but as it plays against the rigid syntax of the whole, provides a moving endorsement of artifice. It enacts something from another poem in the book: the “tendency of ideas to go over into movement,” as it is put in “Textile 13.” Other poems of modest aim such as “In the Name of the Studio” are equally as moving. Curiously, it seems appropriate throughout the book to consider, if not over the poet’s intention, then at least the poem’s aim, as so often they are organized around repetition, even if those repetitions swing pretty hard beyond the usual associations. Little “decoding” seems really necessary, this perhaps a testament to the nature of music in poetry

To her credit, what Welish accomplishes in Word Group goes beyond celebrating surfaces as surfaces. She composes very intricate surfaces that in their intricacy do not become depth, that is, do not take on the traditional or fetishized conventions she is addressing, but in doing so many of them remain dependent on something arguably as dangerous: a critical apparatus of all-too-academic nods and winks, the inside jokes of the smart art crowd that may very well prefer to take the time to explain exactly why we should be laughing than have us laugh.

Welish is smart enough to recognize exactly this problem and may even be addressing it in “Word and Object,” a poem about an art installation involving evergreens, where the art/artery metaphor is recycled through repeated attempts to remind us that “glass” is not “my field” even as it obscures things through mention of “spectacular approximations” and “reinventing rented nomenclatures.” Even in poem addressing tranparency and opacity, a target seems to emerge: the “green” equated with “the unseasoned.” So again with the in-groups, this one standing in opposition to those who “empathize with straw / and confusing it with aesthetic.” Certainly, this is a fair target, and Welish fashionably but without freshness proceeds to then implicate the in-group with the crimes of the out-group in a set of lines not worth quoting (the last long stanza).

The question, it seems, is whether a book billed as a fusion of two avant-gardes should look so much like a set of notes for an essay. At best, perhaps, one could say the essay that would emerge would not likely be a critical one, but perhaps something general about the culture itself. Probably the culture would be characterized as post-human rather than inter-. What then about Word Group as a word group might evoke the much more promising notion of the trans-human? Maybe it could stand on it own without need for a critical apparatus? Maybe it would be closer to philosophy, than just the borrowing its language, and if so, then perhaps it would not explore the same old concepts, but, as Gilles Deleuze suggested, create new ones.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

NEW! Theo Hummer poem

Theo Hummer


The letter he carried from the border read in part, “I have never let him leave the house, but he can learn to do anything if you show him once. If you can’t keep him you'll have to beat him to death.” The only words he could say were “I want to be a rider like my father,” but he could write the name Kaspar Hauser.

Horse you call me, horse, and my dog
horse. Horse lapping milk
by the barn-door, horse perched
on a twig and singing. When I kill
the horse buzzing round
my curing cheese, you wail and will not
be consoled. They would have
hung you in the chimney,
you. Uncallused. You can feel
the movements of the ether. I
know. I’ll hold the magnet
to your chest, you’ll say it’s
blowing. Turned round: it’s pulling
something out of me. That’s after
you learn words: quickly. Maybe just
remembering what you knew
before the nothing? Small as me
with clumsy tender hands. Talk is
you are not interested
in men and women, how they spend
their bitter nighttime sweat. They think
you are a boy: your too-large soldier’s
clothes the day you just
appeared. You said
you want to be a rider like
no one who’s ever brushed
the hair back from your
burning. Can read in total
darkness and you know me
as beech from birch--by
smell. A whiff of wine’s enough
to make you drunk. Your favorite color’s
red: first-time-shod heels, the scar
over your heart. I’ve bathed
you. Said your first Once
upon a time, whispered the boy’s name
you wrote in charcoal on my
apron. Whispered in the kitchen
door, you heard me
from the stall. You want
to be. Brilliant learner, when
you awe the local cavalry I won’t say
anything. Won’t tell I watched you
point out constellations
in daylight. Talk is I never
leave the barn these days. Its
horsey darkness. I’m remembering how
to see, to smell and taste black
bread, metal and static. Pull, it’s pulling,
what I know. It’s something out
of me.

Monday, September 13, 2004

NEW! Review of Sarah Day

New and Selected Poems by Sarah Day. Arc Publications, £8.95.

Reviewed by Judith Bishop

The Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo writes in El Taller Blanco, “Reading a poem my first curiosity consists in discovering the distance between the I of the speaker and the generic body of the words.” A second distance is the one between the world and the speaker, mediated by the words. I wanted to discover both distances in Sarah Day’s poems. Ever since the ‘linguistic turn’ in literary theory, much poetry has emphasized the agency of words, their independence from, and even bullying of, the ‘I.’ The resulting distance between the ‘I’ and its words is often great, and also closely monitored. This is not the case in Sarah Day’s poems: the distance that matters is the one between the world and the speaker, and if her words rarely seem to have a life that’s independent of the poems’s many voices, it’s that the words have other, just as important work to do. Compassion and imaginative involvement are two emotional keys to Day’s poetry. The ‘I’ is frequently displaced by the vicarious third person, or addresses in the second, as Day’s words attempt to plumb the experience of being in the bodies of beings and organisms that are different--sometimes utterly different--from herself: a Jersey cow, a chrysalis, a crab, an iris bud, horses panicking in the dusty summer streets of Rome, the mother of a premature baby, a woman gone mad, a Lufthansa pilot lured to lift and leave the earth behind.

Sarah Day is an Australian poet, born in the U.K. This is her fourth book of poetry, and her first full-length publication outside of Australia. A notable feature of her poems is their vivid engagement with transitions and liminal states--between past and present, origin and destination, chaos and pattern, immanence and transcendence--which might well have begun with her childhood experience of migration. A giant crab hauled from the ocean into air “relives / the crashing through water-tension”; the Lufthansa pilot, settling in at cruising altitude, “is released / at home with absence, intimate with cumulus, cirrus.” The poem “Chaos” moans, “It is hard to see the pattern / when you are the lines that construct / or the lemniscate you are riding.” Despite the complaint, these poems often insist, in quasi-Emersonian fashion, that patterns and repeated moves--metaphorical “thoughts” and “idea[s] … unfolded”--can indeed be intuited in the natural world:

Between the green and the red,
between the stalk in the soup tin and the yew,

between the bare wood and the plum paper blossom,
tomorrow, next spring and ten springs ahead,

are clear thoughts. (“Paeans”)

Day’s New and Selected Poems shows that she has always been fascinated by the idea of material traces left behind by other lives. An anecdote: some years ago, I came across an odd graffito scrawled on the half-burned wall of a brewery: Be Sacred, it urged. Nearby, an anarchy symbol disappointingly pointed up the likely scrambling of those letters: I guessed the artist merely meant to write Be Scared. Day’s poetry and the slip in this graffito both call to mind the way such traces can, in time, become a source of either reverence (at the limit, saints’s relics) or reflection on our own mortal vulnerability (the frescoes of Pompeii). True, in Day’s hands these traces are more often a source of wonderment, laced with quirky humor, than morbidity. In the poem “Handles to the Invisible,” from her brilliant second book A Madder Dance, the narrator finds “words on broken crockery” in shallow water on a beach, among which, the name Phyllis. “Who are you Phyllis?” the poem asks, and chides playfully, “We know / you inhabit towers // that your bottle is rose and / amethyst and the fruit on your plates // more voluptuous than that between/your lips ...” She has an eye for time’s sly transfigurations of the new, such as flowers on a woman’s hat, “those dusty old hydrangeas / in congregations and on buses,” carrying the faded aura of a once-novel fashion into history, or “a newspaper’s urgent, ten-year-old / headlines”: “how quickly they become past to the uninvolved.”

The material world in these poems is hospitable, viewed at human scale; there is no hint of Melville’s ocean in this “sea-level vision”: “Time mixes and matches-- / sea-level vision with kitchen wisdom; / mussel shell, willow plate fade the same washed blue (“Handles to the Invisible”). Observing material traces, Day communicates a meaningful intimacy with others’s lives, made possible only through the impersonal I Was Here’s of used and broken things. “Porcelain question marks conjure countless long drunk cups of tea,” and an heirloom christening gown retains the “shape of children / roughly one age // intimate with one another’s faces, blood, / each wearing, knowing the other, all the others.”

That last poem, “The Christening Dress Comes Airmail,” incidentally exemplifies the prosodic fireworks Day is capable of setting in her most successful poems. The poem opens on a prepositional phrase, “Between Manchester and Melbourne / jetting a blue arc,” and only offers a resolution, in the form of the main clause of a periodic sentence, twelve lines later:

a brief scrawled address
and the diminutive portrait

of an unblemished queen
its pinked frame of reference

among so many Christmas greetings,
single serves of Life-Long milk,

hundreds of turkey dinners
warming to the indefatigable

engine sound, above, a pilot murmuring
to time-lapsed sleeping listeners

in a prolonged indigo dawn
that India drifts somewhere down below,

the century-old cambric dress comes flying.

In contrast, the previously uncollected poems that end the book are somewhat undermined by a lack of attention to the prosodic tension of the lines. Inconsistent punctuation gives a wavering feel to the weight of line endings, which couldn’t be said of the poems in Day’s middle two collections.

Montejo’s words are, finally, a lens through which to examine why a few of the poems, at both ends of the volume, seem considerably weaker than the rest. These poems are strongly projective; almost every descriptive word is emotionally colored by a judgment. The ‘I’ here overshadows both its words and its world; I miss the distance between them: “Even now you hang back, / loath to touch the fleshy female forms / recoiling from the plump translucent lips // of scarlet sea creatures--phantom lives / which float unanchored and without direction ...” (“Anemones”). A poem that tracks the televised responses of a sailor’s mother to the submarine disaster in the Barents Sea, four years ago, observes, “She is standing in a forum / of motionless men / gesticulating, shaping with her arms / the boundless dimensions of her rage ...” (“Russia”). The men are “motionless,” the woman’s grief “boundless”: the recourse to emotional stereotypes obscures the experience the poem wants to understand.

If much of the humor and rich expansiveness of Day’s imagination comes through in this collection, some very fine poems, such as “The Maid” and “She Hears Fear,” are inexplicably absent, while other, less successful poems, such as those cited, are included in their stead. Day’s curious compassion, her drive to experience existence from the viewpoints of other minds and bodies, is captivating and seductive. It’s to be hoped that this volume will garner new readers for the whole of her past and future work.

Friday, September 10, 2004

The new issue of Australian Book Review

includes reviews of Joanne Burns' Footnotes of a Hammock, Sarah Day's The Ship, Ian McBryde's Domain, & Tony Page's Gateway to the Sphinx.

NEW! Review of Chad Davidson's Consolation Miracle

Consolation Miracle by Chad Davidson. Southern Illinois University Press, $12.95.

Reviewed by Carrie Adams

If we depend on the fleshy zero
of their caps, so much is nothing

more than beauty wrapped
in night’s clothes.

In the preceding lines, Chad Davidson is describing a mushroom. This image is characteristic of Davidson’s ability to carefully excavate the often pretermitted, to invigorate the common, and to conjure the extraordinary. These astonishing and unusual images shape his first collection of poems, Consolation Miracle. In Davidson’s attentive and inventive eyes a mushroom becomes “the closest thing we have / to edible encomium,” and a match is Prometheus “come as a toothpick.” Davidson gives the reader the gift of transformation. While some poets confirm one’s view of the world, others like Davidson construct new worlds out of the old. After reading Consolation Miracle, some objects can never be viewed as being as dull and commonplace as they once were.

In Davidson’s work all events, as well as objects, are equally revealing. He achieves an overwhelming sense of balance: the large and small receive the same interest and meticulous notice, so that witnessing a fatal car accident and feeling the sensation of a hand falling asleep in the middle of the night possess equal poetic potential. Consequently, it is difficult to accept the poem’s assertion in “The Contents of Abraham Lincoln’s Pockets,” “This / is why we love spectacles. / The better to see ourselves.” For these poems reveal just the opposite--spectacles are unnecessary, for we come to understand as much if not more about ourselves from attentive meditation on the small, the everyday, the unassuming. If a starfish can be “such brilliant boredom under the sun,” then there is no need for anything more spectacular.

This is most clear in Davidson’s long poem “Space,” about the California businessman who paid the Russian government for travel to the space station. Despite the intense curiosities regarding the countless mysteries the expanse might contain, space is “well, / mostly boring.” And as some of the great science fiction movies, like “Solaris” and “2001,” attest, space can teach us more about life on earth and human nature than it reveals about itself. Therefore, the speaker wonders less about whether the American space tourist has come to learn anything about the science of space than whether he has become indoctrinated into Russian culture:

But, I’ve come to enjoy his Russian
three-day growth, ask myself under

my breath if he’s learned any Russian,
if he’s eating borscht, and if they’d had
more space, and they’d asked, would I have gone.

Space, which has the potential for the excitement of a spectacle, is, in the end, defined in earthly, domestic terms. It may be the great unknown, but space, Davidson tells us, is simply a “matter of perception.” And our perception is limited by the events and objects that permeate and shape our day to day lives.

Elsewhere, the transformative contemplation of objects allows Davidson to puzzle the line between sex and art, or to question if such a line even exists. In his observation, the sensual and sexual become inherently connected to the impulse of art, as in this description of a pear:

Or as their profile
imitates a lover’s pendant
breasts, we take them in

as we do our own bodies,
as infants do, wanting anything
to give our wanting form.

The desire for form and the need to give our longing shape in language is at the center of Davidson’s project and his talent for close inspection of the small. In the opening poem, “A,” Davidson turns his eye to the composite structure of words: letters. He examines them as though they were ideographs, as if their shape could endow them with meaning: “the pouting y, the disconcerted r, the liquids caught inside the concave u.” Is this perspective, this skill of perception, the “consolation miracle” of the book’s title? The term is taken from a Garcia Marquez story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which the miracles performed are more absurdly ironic than useful, never curing the original ailment. But perhaps this too is simply a matter of perception. And the consolation is that the ordinary and the quotidian are miraculous if properly seen.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

NEW! Poems by Jibade-Khalil Huffman

Jibade-Khalil Huffman

Three poems


It was in sleet that he arrived
by another misreading

he was an hour late
for the sentence, “counter

smothered in feathers;” in others
like it no mention of place

was made. The effect only
of girl on seams, in

her own jeans
into margins of the earth

trespassed, into the margins
of the earth--in villanelles

the victim is given
an hour from the town

to complain its distance
upon resorting to the tape

the guaranteed Swahili
his passing unannounced.


I have in mind the arch tome, I have
the funnel aimed to sweep in flecks
of paint like those, the fallen

upon inspection, face revealing verdict
by viola’s tune, by the cello tune
closing to applause, to go on for

other schillings, to save a life and
stand the hands as on a myth with
the hand grenade and with the statuette

from Cuneiform he seemed
to have been reading. Through sand to
course and sand to shake

by right I have the wronged, I have
the beach emptied in a drill in
case of their assault.


Those turned quiet by knives, by night
in shrill, remained the possibility
of children stove off from sleep
held in her arms. This was so

the blinds might not arrive, carried
in wind from once set in a window
twice to pry
some space from her lap, occupied or

not by the one child, had second
gone pacing; those that held
several brands. Colored and shaken
effect of a rocking horse and

trembling, to mark on walls to
leave on names, on
a landable room that
hawk attacks.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

NEW! Review of Andrew Joron's Fathom

Fathom by Andrew Joron. Black Square Editions, $12.95.

Review by Michael Theune

Andrew Joron’s Fathom opens by asking “What good is poetry at a time like this?” This question launches Joron’s prose essay, “The Emergency,” a striking manifesto that calls on poetry to be responsible to the world and attempts to define what, in fact, poetry should be and do in our own destitute time and place, not only in an America post-9/11, but in an America in the midst of its own illegitimate actions. In these dark times, Joron sees clearly through the veil of waving flags the United States’ terrible foreign policies, including a military retaliation in Afghanistan that, at the time of Joron’s writing, had killed at least as many innocent civilians as had the 9/11 attacks. But in this awfulness, Joron, holding the hope that Holderlin and Heidegger had before him, that “where the danger is, there also is the salvation,” anticipates a new event: “A kind of topological fold or failure (called a ‘catastrophe’ in mathematics) precedes the emergence--constitutes the emergency--of the New.” He prophesizes a new Word, a “Word that opens a solar eye in the middle of the Night.” Insisting that “the words of a poet must come together with those of others struggling for peace and justice,” Joron asks the poet to provide the voice, the cry, of lamentation, the voice of a “deep blues,” “in a word, the uncanny reflection of an unfinished world.”

“The Emergency” is necessary, timely writing, and the poetry it demands will be some of the most vital writing of our day--if it gets written. It is not written in the four sections of Fathom that follow “The Emergency.” The largely abstract, philosophical, speculative poems in those sections are too cerebral for our bloody world. Joron’s poems, in fact, make little reference to the reality, the law, politics, economics, religion, of our time. Instead, they mostly look to the past, to poetic and intellectual predecessors, including Joron’s own work in his previous book, The Removes, published in 1999, two years before 9/11, and read more as commentary than as cry.

Fathom’s third section, “Constellations for Theremin,” for example, employs parallel instances of image use in the poetry of Yvan Goll and Paul Celan, the material for a long-defunct charge of plagiarism against Celan, as Joron’s prose preface to the section makes clear, “the antennas of an imaginary theremin,” that “electronic lyre of the Russian Revolution.” According to Joron, the “etheric waves” produced by these antennas then pour over and energize the writing that follows. But the writing that follows each set of parallel usage--six abstractly-imaged and aphoristic fragments, two of which are quotations taken directly from the work of Celan and Goll--contains mostly dry assertions of willed mysteries: “Pictures of ancient noise, hieratic news. Suggesting hair, birds, & the blue banners of the invisible,” “The burn of whiteness/witness. The book a scene of heavy curtains, wind-inhabited,” “If there is a word that marks the place where language was born, it is ‘you.’” Almost completely missing here is the visceral quality of so much important poetry. Nowhere is there outrageous blasphemy packed into killer lines like Celan’s “Pray, Lord, pray to us, we are near.” Nowhere is an image so meaty or gorgeous that one would have to, and want to, sink one’s teeth into it, that would force one to have to, as Celan demanded, listen one’s way in with one’s mouth.

Named after a Dada poem-cycle by Richard Huelsenbeck, Fathom’s final section, a series of alternating prayers and “blasts,” is called “Fantastic Prayers,” but the writing in the section is anything but fantastic. Unlike Joron’s earlier, more image-filled work in science-fiction poetry, and even unlike Huelsenbeck’s phantasmagoric prayers, with their violent and megalomaniac shtick--clear in lines like “I am the meteorite dropping out of the nipples of the moon,” and “Unexpectedly my head dropped onto my butt / Tarammtata rammta”--Joron’s fantastic prayers read like cerebral exercises, and the “blasts” that accompany the prayers sound a particularly exhausted, exhausting note. One blast begins: “MOUND TO SOUND: DER MUND. // MINED / MIND / MOANED. // MOANED / MONAD.” Another begins: “DARK MARKER / THE MAKER. // NEVER THE NERVE / OF ARRIVAL. // NERVE / TO CURVE TO CARVE.”

Such structural procedures are used throughout Fathom; its poems are replete with this method of proceeding, running on lines such as “The pilot knows / That the plot is missing its / Eye” and endless plays on pairings such as “told” and “tolled,” “missing” and “massing,” “think” and “thing,” “singing” and “singeing,” and “cloud” and “crowd”--a particular connection Joron also employs in “hand that crumbles,” a poem in The Removes. This echoing occurs, as well, among many other poems within Fathom. One “Constellation for Theremin” ends with a reference to “fantastic prayer.” Another constellation begins with the words, “Mazed interior,” the title of a later poem. Through such methods, Joron makes his book seem crystalline, or else the product of self-similar, fractal reproduction, and he seems conscious of this, including signs of his awareness in his text; in “Mazed Interior,” Joron states, “A mazed interior. Self-similar aisles of isles, pouring / form from form.” However, the result of such reflection is a sense of feeling lost rather than amazed. This feeling is especially palpable when one of Fathom’s few notes of protest--“--a free word says death or, better, death / To the president”--is immediately overcome by the text’s more abstract fallback thinking: “Imagine the spoken, O’s / Spokes convergent on no center. No place / Is polis / but there are violins preceding violence.”

Reflective, sequined sequences, conglomerations, and constellations, Joron’s poems never really are allowed to accumulate, and so they can never enact the almost miraculous “phenomenon of emergence” that Joron describes in his prose essay as “a chance combination of preexisting elements result[ing] in something totally unexpected.” Though Joron connects his work, through reference, to all manner of great twentieth-century thinkers--Adorno, Bataille, Benjamin, Breton, Wittgenstein—and their thought, Fathom is too much homage to, and not enough embodiment of, such powerful, transgressive thinking. Too enthralled by predecessors, Joron cribs too much from them and depends too much on their strength rather than speaking to the world now, as it is, its critical and vital, timely and emergent word, a word for which it is time it were time.

Friday, September 03, 2004

NEW! Joanna Fuhrman poems

Joanna Fuhrman

Three poems


We unpacked what
I thought was mystery
and found a horse
straddling a precipice.
I said, “take off your
plywood wings and
I will ride you to
the center of a digit.”
I could see my own
brain glue bubbling
on the plastic flowers.
In the orange kitchen,
the replicas of my heart’s
tubes hung, while my
favorite rock star
prayed to the
luminary computer.


I was angry at that horse. I was angry as that horse. The horse became another name for anger. It’s huge white teeth: a substitute. The mirrors of its eyes: my only way to see.


Have you
ever felt this
as small as
my small
your only
frog folded
from a
of false


     He was two separate baby boys dressed in the frills of a single pineapple, so he had to wear his grown-up sadness pasted to the outside of another’s face. The woman, in the bleachers, loved this and tied a phone cord around his neck as a reward.
     Taking the metaphors out of sex would be a challenge they agreed, not easily accomplished in the time they had allotted to the task.
     So long magnificent marigolds, fresh mornings in Hanoi, fly swatters! “Sacrifice,” would be the requisite catchword for their newly anointed endeavor; a fuzzy rat-shaped pencil top, their only other pal.


You drove your toy car into the tub so I would dive for it, holding my breath. Your cock turned summersaults in the mirror’s amphitheater until that game turned into what I was young enough to believe was a new form of symphonic notation: a canary’s brain waves flowing through the pages of magazines.

We were both conscious of a certain same feeling. It wasn’t like being awkward in the locker or at the doctor’s.

The room might have been wearing trench coat. There was a knocking from beneath a knee.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

NEW! Review of Elizabeth Willis' Turneresque

Turneresque by Elizabeth Willis. Burning Deck, $10.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

The sole “blurb” on the back of Turneresque, Elizabeth Willis’ third book of poetry, is Arthur Rimbaud’s: “The world marches on! Why shouldn’t it turn around?” Willis joins the diverse company, since Rimbaud, who have attempted derangement of the senses and of commonsense sensibilities to “turn around” (trope) worldly referentiality’s linear “march.” Like feminist experimentalists from Stein and Niedecker (on whom Willis has written) to Susan Howe and Ann Lauterbach, she is more attuned to gender complexities during the course of this derangement than most of the guys.

After the four-page introductory poem “Autographeme,” Turneresque is divided into five sections. Section one, “Modern Painters,” features poems and prose-poems inspired by (yet never excessively imitative of) Mackintosh, Turner, Chardin, and Constable, but also such authors as Ford Madox Ford, Blake, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud. The second section, the fourteen-page poem “Sonnet,” moves swiftly through varied meditative topoi (the influence of others’ “music,” women’s vulnerability within patriarchy, linguistic instability, and love) without settling on any. The title-section consists of prose poems parodying Hollywood romances and adventure films. “Elegy” is an apt title for the death-centered poems of section four, including one for Matthew Shepard, the young victim of gay-bashing in Wyoming. The eleven-paragraph prose poem “Drive,” the fifth section, free-wheelingly examines desire, movement, illumination/darkness, impermanence and the will “to last.”

“Autographeme,” a mostly unpunctuated poem of couplets and single-line stanzas, with capitalization signaling a new sentence, features a speaker, “fluent in salamander,” who confronts how “everything / wrote itself onto skin / with a tangled blowing.” Also sailing through less immediately recognizable topics, the poem subtly shows how patriarchal culture has written upon the female body. An aura of many forms of local resistance accompanies this demonstration of the oppressive “abridgement” of women’s possibilities:

My colony sought revolt
in every yard

The present was a relic
of a past I was older than

Taking its language, I became an abridgement
of whatever I contained

A social imperative of silky fears

I wanted air
I wanted the balloon.

The “I” (as part of the category “woman”) asserts that she is “older than” patriarchy, which “yard”-bound, “colonized” women see as making “the present” into a mere “relic” of its former force. Another artful paradox unites the female subject’s truncation and her ability to enclose. Fear stemming from this condition generates the “social imperative” for vital expansion. “The male of the species was / louder than the female,” and “females” are said to produce the “sound of offstage sweeping,” domestic indicator of secondary status, which, phonologically, contains “weeping.” Might not “Turneresque” in such feminist poems signify the movement from victimization to self-empowerment in Tina Turner’s music and life?

In “Modern Painters,” though, the single-paragraph prose poem, “Van Tromp, Going about to Please His Masters, Ships a Sea, Getting a Good Wetting,” articulates the expansiveness of J.M. W. Turner’s brushwork and chiaroscuro in his sea paintings, his “revision” of natural processes that anticipates abstract expressionism’s gestural energy: “Consistency scribbles itself out in waves: a revisionary litter of brown light. Fleety with anchor and going abroad, a fulcrum pulls to left of center. A slap in the face of a sail. A device spies down a-swing in salt and gunpowder, an amber passage.” The noun “litter” strikingly compares storm-water-in-motion with garbage’s potential sprawl at the same time as it indicates an organizing structure—of new-born animals. Alliteration (of “a,” “f,” and “s”) mimes the agitation of a storm engaging in a violent “writing” and seemingly disrupting the picture plane’s “constancy.” In this perilous “arena,” “Van Tromp at the prow” struggles to control his intercourse with the elements by maintaining “his inner course,” but he is “asunder surrounded”—the first adjective largely constituting the effect of the second—and “afield and legion.” Like “legions” who endanger themselves “to please [their] masters,” Van Tromp is destabilized in a “field” (starkly “the opposite of grass”) that exceeds his choosing.

In Section three’s prose poetry, characterized by disruption of predictable cinematic flow, “Turneresque” recalls Ted Turner’s defamiliarizing colorization of “classic” Hollywood fare. Perspectives on characters and their interactions shift rapidly. In the Romantic touchstone, “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold’s male speaker uses the device of “ignorant armies” that “clash by night” to persuade his beloved that they should “be true to one another,” but the romantic leads in Willis’s “Clash by Night” may be the clashing “armies,” or perhaps the sentences themselves are at odds:

A good man’s up to his waist in mackerel. Sometimes
there are no other fish in the sea. A stormcloud roils over
his primitive kitchen. Her eyes are starlight headed for a
crash. She wants the part but not for long. Dancing
shows everyone where she comes from. The projectionist
is a dark horse, but he’s at home there. The pin-up’s a
bunny in jeans, drinking milk, thinking up babies, a lesson
in endurance. The martyr trades her wings for a day at
the beach, but who can blame her? You can’t reform a
lighthouse. The worker knows he’s been gulled. His
catch is no match for noir. (“Clash by Night”)

The word “fish” in the second sentence tweaks the word “mackerel” in the first by pointing in a cliched way to a love situation. Further, “primitive kitchen” displays Willis’ ability to fish for startling metonymies. When a woman is introduced with references to “starlight” and “part,” should we view her as a character or as the actress playing her? This double focus may be the poet’s aim. The assertion about “dancing” and origins undermines its authority, because the connection’s specifics are left unsaid. Then, inclusion of “the projectionist,” “at home” in his booth’s “dark,” in aesthetic distance, widens the drama’s scope; this Brechtian “alienation effect” shows how cinematic fiction is materially constructed. But since “dark horse” signifies an improbable candidate, could this be the “good man” of the text’s opening? Does he “project” his fantasy onto the so-called “pin-up,” who herself endures objectification for inherited ideals?

The next difficulty involves whether “martyr” and “lighthouse” both refer to the woman tempering her self-sacrificing endurance with a little hedonism, or whether the second noun conveys how illumination influences the woman. To “reform a lighthouse” would be to blunt its luminosity; if Hollywood cinema is such a “lighthouse,” the prose poem’s dislocations perform that function. Has the fisherman (“worker”) been “gulled,” as though transformed magically into a sea-bird, by his own fantasy, or by large cultural framing, or by the woman’s conscious seductiveness? At the text’s end, Willis stays a step ahead of us with the slippery word “catch,” suggesting that the “fish”/woman, like the fisherman, is “no match” for noir cinema’s dark manipulations, or the fact that “his catch” will slip away from him, as each sentence of the text has eluded a perfect fit with its predecessor.

In 1890, Fredrick Jackson Turner affirmed the centrality of the frontier in U.S. history and considered the West Coast an end to possibilities of “beginning again.” Some may hold that poetic experimental opportunities reached their California in the twentieth century and that poets should return to traditional modes. While Willis would challenge the “Turneresque” valorization of Manifest Destiny, Turneresque implicitly acknowledges the accomplishments of past literary “frontier” exploration yet manifests continual efforts to keep the linguistic frontier open—if not with grand flourishes, then with subtle “turnings.”