Friday, October 29, 2004

The Best Australian Poems 2003

(Black Inc., 2003), edited by Peter Craven, is 360 pages long--longer than century-spanning anthologies like Peter Porter's The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse--and therefore does a number on what can be called "the best." Critics reviewing The Best American Poetry frequently mention that poets in the U.S. never produce 75 great poems in a single year, so it's rather difficult to justify that Australia (which publishes 1/10 of the number of poetry books that the U.S. does in a year) needs an annual of this size. That in itself is a reason to read it.

I'm reviewing The Best Australian Poems 2004 (Black Inc.) as well as The Best Australian Poetry 2004 (University of Queensland Press) for Australian Book Review, so I've been reading the 2003 editions, which happen to be the inaugural editions in both series. Since many readers of Verse share an interest in Australian poetry but probably do not know about these new series, I thought I'd introduce them briefly in case anyone would like to seek them out.

As can be inferred from its title, the UQP series is modeled after The Best American Poetry in that it presents one poem each by 40 poets and offers explanatory notes alongside the usual bios. The Black Inc. series offers a sizeable batch of poems by each poet, thus resembling an anthology more than an annual. Oddly, the inaugural volumes in the series are edited by critics, not poets (Peter Craven and Martin Duwell), and the second volumes are edited by poets (Les Murray and Anthony Lawrence). Zero of the four volumes is edited by a woman. Craven was initially going to edit The Best Australian Poems every year, but apparently that plan has been scrapped. The Best Australian Poetry has a guest editor and two series editors (again connecting it to The Best American Poetry).

Concerns about "the best" aside, a 360-page book of Australian poetry must have some excellent poems even if it limits itself to a single year. There is interesting work by John Tranter, Emma Lew, Kevin Hart, John Kinsella, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, M.T.C. Cronin, Gig Ryan, Peter Minter, Craig Sherborne, Javant Biarujia, Peter Rose, and the novelist/poet David Malouf.

But I'd like to call attention to some stunning poems about the latest war in Iraq by Robert Adamson and Jennifer Maiden, which are offered a strange counterpoint by some Bruce Dawe poems.

Adamson is a poet whose work I've admired for a long time, for its commitment to lyricism, the natural world, and politics (including "current events"). Critics often mention the Black Mountain Poets in general and Robert Duncan in particular when discussing Adamson, whose Paper Bark Press has published outstanding books by Australian poets like Kevin Hart, Gig Ryan, Peter Minter, and Michael Brennan as well as the American poet Devin Johnston.

Some of Adamson's poems in this book focus on birds during war (they remind me of Hayden Carruth's poems "When Howitzers Began" and "The Birds of Vietnam").

Here's the epigraph and ending of Adamson's "Flag-Tailed Bird of Paradise":

"George W. Bush instructed 'the enemy' to hold up white flags and stand twenty metres away from their tanks, promising that if they did, they would be spared."

Flunkies fed them
and sultans hovered about them, marvelling
at how they became extraordinary in their deformities,
their cream-coloured plumage shot
through with pale, beautiful rainbows,
their eyes enormous, pink, their tail-flags heavy--
almost too heavy to hold up, but not theirs to withhold.

And here's the end of Adamson's "The Goldfinches of Baghdad":

The ones who cannot speak burn
along with the articulate; the creatures
who are oblivious of prayer, along with the ones
who lament to their God. Falcons on their silver chains,
and the children of the falcon trainer smother
in the smoke of burning feathers and human flesh.
We must sing or die. Singing death as our songs feed the flame.

I haven't read much of Jennifer Maiden's work--probably a book and some magazine and anthology selections in the late 1990s--but her poems in The Best Australian Poems 2003 make me want to read all of her books (and kick myself for not doing so earlier).

Maiden's "George Jeffreys" sequence breaks down into five parts:

1. George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kabul
2. George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kandahar
3. George Jeffreys Woke Up in London
4. George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin
5. George Jeffreys Woke Up in The White House

Wherever George Jeffreys woke up, "George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed / as usual with Baghdad."

Maiden is admirably incisive (and funny) throughout, and she must be the first Australian (and maybe American) poet to write about Scott Ritter:

Ex-Arms-Inspector Ritter
expressed an angle that he did not
care about Iraq but just cared that
America would be destroyed, degraded
by lies about Baghdad as dangerous.

The poem's final section begins:

George Jeffreys woke up in the White House.
George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed
as usual with Baghdad. And choking
on a pretzel. Who, thought Jeffreys,
would choke twice on a pretzel?
        And who
would leave him twice alone?

After Jeffreys saves Bush with the Heimlich manuever, they watch Condaleeza Rice on TV:

         W said,
'You know, Condy thinks it's okay
to just blow people up with a C.I.A.
missile where ever they are, or who.
She just said that and no one
minded much, maybe your Human Rights
outfit, or another one.
        You know, George, you
let me live because you knew
that if I live long enough the rest
of capitalism's probably over, hey, my
sort of capitalism, anyway, that dirty
puritan profit and revenge thing...'

Maiden's "Costume Jewellery" bears this epigraph:

"Let's get one thing straight. You're behind the counter because you have to work for $6.00 an hour. I'm on this side asking to see the good jewellery because I make considerably more." --reported remark by U.S. National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice to shop assistant who had pulled out some costume jewellery on seeing her.

The poem itself is a more effective demolition job than any work of journalism I've read on C.R., perhaps because Maiden juxtaposes ("clusters") details so quickly, deftly, humorously.

Bruce Dawe's "Umm Qasr" presents a (presumably American) soldier's thoughts in an ABAB rhyme scheme:

We thought that there'd be flowers along the way
and crowds of glad Iraqis lining streets
(they hanged a woman who waved to us today).

Though I admire the attempt, I think the form mars the poem because it facilitates too many vague descriptions that could apply to any war. And the form does not curb wordiness (e.g., the "that" in line one).

Along similar lines, Dawe's "What Is All War But a Wasting?" opens with the following stanza:

What is all war but a wasting,
And peace like a dream between wars,
An odd restless dream of heart-aching
From which men are forever awaking
To find blood on their innocent paws ...?

Is there a single original thought in those lines?

Dawe's "Flight 93" seems to buy into the "ordinary American heroes on 9/11" story perpetuated by the mainstream U.S. media:

today the Congressional building stands
as it stood then because
those citizen-passengers with one accord
chose certain death in rural Pennsylvania.

Aside from offering little to no sonic pleasure, the poem offers no real thinking--just received ideas in the form of a tribute. Although every anti-war poem is in some sense universal, Dawe's approach in these poems seems too accommodating, too decorous. Perhaps they seem too generalized because the poet has not done the difficult thinking (and research) that Maiden and Adamson have done.

For me, the truly best poems in Martin Duwell's The Best Australian Poetry (which generally leans toward the lyric anecdote) are Jordie Albiston's "Apostrophe," M.T.C. Cronin's "The Flower, the Thing," John Kinsella's "Lyrical Unification in Gambier," Emma Lew's "The Clover Seed Hex," and Peter Rose's "Late Edition."

Robert Adamson and Jennifer Maiden are also represented. Adamson's "Elegy" is in Craven's volume, too, making it twice a "best" poem of 2003. Maiden's "Missing Elvis" mentions "George of the Lethal Injection" a la Elvis:

There is something Elvis-like
in winsome, dyslectic mumbles, but
his vocal tone is better than
his father's: not so prim,
so childlike and super-ego ridden.
W.'s nose is sharper, looks
more deadly than Senior's, like a beak
built to tear not peck, his mouth
a drier, twitchier line. Baghdad
is already bombed again.

The book's web site:

Thursday, October 28, 2004

NEW! Review of Douglas Messerli

First Words by Douglas Messerli. Green Integer, $10.95.

Reviewed by Richard C Scheiwe

Douglas Messerli, the prolific writer of poetry and dramas, anthologizer, and publisher of Green Integer Press, has published a book of poetry that escapes the conventional descriptions of language poetry, a movement with which Messerli has typically been associated. The poems in his recent book, First Words, have the requisite wordplay and syntactical manipulation, but speak in a lyrical tradition, seemingly taking themselves away from the reader’s expectations of Messerli’s earlier work. The overt attention to language and its interaction with the interior/exterior (with what’s going on within the poem and with what’s going on outside the poem in the reader’s mind) is apparent from one’s first experience of the book.

In the book’s epigraph, Messerli illustrates an anecdote that comes to set the tone for the book as a whole: a tone of local ambiguity, and a preference for the poet to stave off his ultimate choice of (what one could assume) his best words, only to realize when the words come that they are not necessarily Messerli’s chosen best words, rather words that come out almost by a thoughtful consideration intermixed with chance. The epigraph shows Messerli as a baby, and his parents in long anticipation for his first words. But, rather than unconsciously taking the prevailing route of “mamma” or “dadda,” the baby Messerli waits until he and his parents are at a drive-in movie, and, upon his father leaving to get some ice-cream cones at intermission, Messerli finally announcing “bring me back a chocolate one.” A sentence at that, and not a mere word. And, conscious or unconscious, this is his first use of language.

The language of First Words comes after the reader is able to absorb the poems and after the slight conflict between the lyrical style balances out with the more language-driven side. As with the first poem of the book “Icarus,” the wordplay at first is jarring, but is shortly resolved as necessarily stylistic. The reader willingly accepts it is the drive of the poem: “the way / sometimes / sometimes / goes forward / the way / silence— / this is what / it is still.” Messerli asks the reader to give him (the poet) leeway with the wordplay/manipulation of “sometimes / sometimes” and also with the breakoff after “the way / silence—.” The two phrases, taken together, could overpower the reader, or confuse, because they are pushing two different syntactical prosodies: on the one hand, “sometimes / sometimes” is a play on the part of speech of the given word; on the other hand, the lack of punctuation before “the way / silence—” and its subsequent dash (mimicking the feel of silence) are manipulations the poet uses as his own freedom, as a writer. If this language and freedom were not so consistent and convincing throughout the book, it would be hard for Messerli to keep his language together. But he is able to keep it together, and simple wordplay becomes not so simple: it becomes its own language.

A lot of attention has been drawn to the fact that these poems began as exercises, taking the first few words or so from another poet and embedding them in the poems of First Words. But as Messerli began these poems as exercises, they metamorphosed into something very personal, and they became ultimately a reflection of his own despair, as the back cover states. It would be somewhat difficult to find the entrenched words Messerli used as jumping-off points, but it remains difficult because of how much these poems became his own, and how much the words of other poets are so insignificant in lieu of his style and substance in these poems. One poem that is hard to forget, and which most readers will walk away with, is “The Resolved”:

I resolved, found
center, it is
a tree beyond view
the weather reaches

only as wind, deadened
by the insistent
nothing between

something feeling
and the walk to.

In this poem, Messerli is attempting a more lyrical address to his augmented aesthetic. The importance of “a tree beyond view / the weather reaches // only as wind” resounds throughout the book because, if these new poems are words to/out of despair, how can one reach them and the true nature of despair only through poetry? To Messerli, it is beside the point. It is the fact that he can begin to reach them with poetry, and that this is the vehicle (with language not words) he is using to get at “the insistent / nothing between // something feeling / and the walk to.” The “walk to ” is language for Messerli, and he has found that first words come in media res, whether they be his first words ever spoken, or the first words on the way to seeking out despair, and evolving his style.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

NEW! Review of Christine Hume

Alaskaphrenia by Christine Hume. New Issues, $14.

Reviewed by Heidi Lynn Staples

Christine Hume’s first collection, Musca Domestica, presented a remarkably coherent set of motifs and themes that articulate a governing aesthetic. Her second book Alaskaphrenia offers readers another ambitious articulation of philosophical insight and rich meditation on human consciousness.

Like Wallace Stevens, who famously wrote of a Florida-of-the-mind, Hume uses the landscape as a trope through which to communicate her poetics. She presents two concerns most salient within her project: an evocation of the poetic imagination--like other wild places--as host to fracture, refraction, variation, and mutability (to name a few of the more familiar species), and an implied caveat that the “Cliff-dripped blinking” fecundity of associative logic where “Cold will be holy,” “Wild will be holy,” has been rendered fragile by an approach that fences off the imagination with convention, that drills for modernist code, and that exploits until “Everything goes to prospect.” Implicitly and explicitly, Hume pursues a perpetually transforming (and transformative) consciousness. She asserts the poetic over the narrative, the circular over the linear, the process over the product, the mutable over the monumental: “Therefore, I dumpstered the novel and did not threaten any sodden hills with bombs.”

Not content to rest on her binaries, Hume resists a prescribed lyricism--notably, the collection offers no traditionally formal verse--but instead, she infuses the prosaic with the poetic. For example, Alaskaphrenia’s reader encounters institutional forms and documents transformed by a lyric imagination. Examine these titles: “Comprehension Questions,” “Dialogue Among Unincorporated Towns Concerning Alaska’s Resources,” “Do’s and Don’ts About Fur,” “Brochure,” “Diagram Explanatory of Lucency,” “Index of Observations on Pioneering Portraiture, “Translation Key to ‘Exercises and Dialogues II,’” “Explanation,” and “Instructions for All Parties A.K.A.” Within paper-work’s flourescent-lit partitioned cubicles of bureaucratized consciousness, Hume riddles in her chains hikes the freeze.

By which I mean, word-play and metamorphosizing metaphors took this reader on quite a journey. Hume, by her own description, has “adopted an Alaskan ear long before; with it, it’s not unusual to hear from inside the hammer: stampeded terrain, yea, avalanche.” Perhaps by Alaskan ear she means that within the common phrase and association handed down in traditional iambs, Hume hears meanings thunderous with possibilities. Read darefully the following lines from “No Less Remarkable Is the Metamorphosis of the Mastodon:”

“Under these circulations
You could not wear cirrus the way cows do

Always your mange meant to be smoke
molting, moonglow

You own the smoke, its slow muzzle
Involuntary growl
in sheep’s clothing.”

A close look reveals intricate hilarity married to portent. The associative logic refracts the poetry’s tone; thus, although words like ‘cirrus’ ‘mange’ ‘moonglow’ and ‘growl’ come from a familiar body of poetic diction and cast a pervading shade of portent, the poem’s logic and wordplay turn the tone with a sharp, glittering bit of cracking up--check out how she moves from ‘circulations’ to its aural echo ‘cirrus’ and from the then implied ‘cloud’ to its seek-sound-cousin ‘cow.’ She goes on to superimpose the cloud image with ‘smoke’ and then echoes the cow’s lowing in ‘molting, moonglow’ (‘mo,’ ‘moo,’ ‘low’). Finally, she conflates the cloud and the cow in the image of a smoke’s muzzle. At this moment in the poem, the Mastodon of the title becomes many things at once, as the decentered description freezes many times as one; the muzzle becomes smoke, cloud, extinct pre-historic animal and that sadly terrifying implement of modern man, the smoking gun.

Hume’s felicitious aural patterning puts a sensational spangle and spin on her words. Her poems reward and reworld multiple readings with deeper ever and more pleasurable mystery. Less interestingly, the poems often close with an overly familiar evocation of profundity and/or gravitas. The concluding sentiment or perhaps merely the final word of a poem goes a bit frequently and too gently into the night--words like ‘ecstasy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘spirits,’ and ‘blood’ simply fail to surprise as arrival points for a poem. What strikes me as frustratingly ironic about repeatedly portentous endings in a book is that their ordinariness as an artistic gesture (conventional as they are) simply seems at odds with the augury they connote.

That said, Alaskaphrenia offers a dynamic tonality across the collection, and Christine Hume has again given us ingenious forms, suggestive syntax, transformative metaphors, and exquisite wordplay. In her palpable lands, “The mist possesses authentic talk.”

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

NEW! Anthony Robinson poem

Anthony Robinson


And it is not my window, but the window of the cat of friends

Andrew came over to retrieve his book and his wife is someone I used to despise

These things

These things, observations I suppose,

Are healthy.


I am still not a reasonable man and I am one to despise. My despiseability knows no bounds.

Neither attractive nor particularly brilliant, I still love little things like Doug Powell’s beautiful book, Tea.

I don’t particularly like the drink that men call tea. I prefer coffee drunk in my own small town that I despise and love in the way a man can only love his kid brother who picks too many fights and acts like an asshole in public. I love this town because it’s mine and it’s in this town I drank and fucked and failed and.

Assholes, like Gabe Guddings, are numerous. They are so numerous, in fact, that there are more assholes than there are people because all mammals have assholes. The same holds true for many non-mammals.

Kent Johnson is an asshole, but he is lovable, though I’ve never loved him in a family way, nor in a bath-house way. I’ve loved him in a far away way like a son who was bad.

I am a bad son and I haven’t loved a woman in a physical way for nearly 14 months and before that another 14 months and the gestation period of my sexual couplings is fourteen months--more than a human baby’s gestation but much less than that of an elephant.

I became fat to provide an excuse for my lack of coupling. Alice Toklas, Andrew told me today (just minutes after I read his book and the dedication that slammed my beloved/hated hometown) that Toklas uses too much butter and is unhealthy.

It is unhealthy to live with Gertrude Stein. I am sure of this.

It is not unhealthy to cook with three tablespoons of lard. It is about living. Doug Powell said this in his book. The part about the living, not the lard.


Gabe Gudding Cloud has morphed into Can of Beer Cloud, and then Tamale Cloud, and then Elk Antler Cloud.


I think I am in love and it’s fucking terrifying. Only the anonymous people on the street deserve my love. Everyone else is in the wrong business.

I’m trying to be a good son. My vision has been obscured by “the compacts of sluts.”

The compact compacts I make with compact people impact my tacky tactless life.

O, you ... O elbow and hymn. O drudge and bastille-stormed Nancy. O, you un-Franced, much frenched like a fancy lambchop. O

I’ll push you off the map.

Monday, October 25, 2004

NEW! Review of Elizabeth Treadwell

Chantry by Elizabeth Treadwell. Chax. $16.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

In Chantry, Elizabeth Treadwell has devised an unusual structure. Interspersing poems (often without stanza breaks), prose poems, and hybrids of the two, Chantry begins with a three-page prose poetry sequence, moves on to eight texts of a page or less, then fills the 50-page middle section (of about 90 pages) with four long texts in a row, including a self-styled “novelette” (“codes of the very femininity”). The remaining pieces are short, except for a six-page “hybrid” near the book’s end. If the center of gravity is in the center, the entire collection, undivided by sections, possesses great density; this involves a piling of relentlessly disparate, often vertiginously surreal images, consistently strained or fractured grammar, and challenging allusions. And do not look to T.S. Eliot-style footnotes or explanatory passages like Susan Howe’s for assistance.

“Torn/town,” just shy of 20 pages, is the book’s longest poem. As in “Europe” and other poems collected in The Tennis Court Oath (1962) about a decade before first-generation Language Poets learned from this phase of John Ashbery’s work, violently interrupted sentences evince the pathos of a pulverized (“torn”) speaking subject: “And during the past week I’d.” “The heart is commonly.” Disruption of grammar and syntax marks the poem’s first sentence, which features not only stammering repetition of subjects and the removal of crucial punctuation but independent clauses set ambiguously beside fragments: “I I have been constant any future tragedies he he died for the sea rose-water redhead.” The initial declaration of constancy is ironically undercut by the impossibility of confidence about syntactical relations.

A sprinkling of proper names with historical and mythological allusiveness (“Troy,” “Adam,” “Adonis,” “Cherokee,” “Cassandra,” “Isis,” “Myrmidon”) and dates (1209, 1542, 1907) seems to suggest that historical data could be unearthed. However, the “serpentine” progression of bits of language “torn” from a “town’s” context, from causal chains, gives “inches of cities,” if that much: “Clementine serpentine but this is not a history!” At times, the co-presence of histories and geographies is asserted: “Spiral Japan: postcard ice cream both single and Mesopotamian. Where is.”

Various passages signifying violence are moments of linguistic energy: “Electronvolt frontier confection. Everyday whip, reestablish, thrall. In semidetached contusion mangle. Quit tirade tire--underpaid massacre.” “Confection” retains the signification of movement and heat in the expected “convection,” and it conveys the notion, implied elsewhere in the poem and book, that sweetness serves as a rationale or front for (male) dominance. The play of “contusion”/confusion in relation to “mangle” has a similar effect of “semi-”attachment and “semidetachment.” Alongside the idea that to stop shouting is to admit fatigue and find that energy needed to act violently is not cost-effective, part of “tirade” is “lost” in “tire” and then is “found” again in the last syllable of “underpaid.” These instances of linguistic play in “Torn/ town” and other long texts in Chantry are “readable” in ways that many other passages are not: “mental transitive 1907: no child stars / six petitions correspond.” Unless one happens to know what “petitions” were made in 1907 (and where and why), this line will have little interest, even if one senses that the concept of the “child star” emerged after that year.

A salient example of Treadwell’s shorter pieces is the unindented, single-paragraph, roughly half-page prose poem, “composition.” Here is roughly the first third:

waitress of mercy glance in the hollow tube underwear glen. dear calamity profile, hunky bearer of wand and limbs. Newton’s alchemical harpooned state dreams like argyle roughage. she was a literalist in the tradition of wander mer. time being nonsense water, vapid arcane hands translate the ice floes though had jumped bikini wooden.

Because “glance” has no “s” at the end, we can surmise that the first unit of the prose poem is a fragment, not a sentence, and “waitress of mercy,” like the three words prior to the final “glen,” is an adjectival phrase modifying the main noun. (Long adjectival phrases are common in this and other texts in Chantry.) But “glance” might be a verb of command without a comma preceding it. This first sentence might be described as surrealism run amok. The literal absurdity of “underwear” in the form of a “hollow tube” plays against the plausible, figurative sense of penis as “tube,” but is an “underwear glen” a dresser, a closet, or just an environment where the “waitress” encounters men? Does her “glance” embody the “mercy” with which she has been tagged, or does it have a different impact--perhaps anxiety, as indicated by the appositive beginning the second “sentence” that suggests that looking at the “hunk” with “wand” (“tube”?) involves the likelihood (“profile”) of “calamity”?

The word “wand” in the second sentence reaches over to “alchemical” in the third (and “wander” in the fourth), but why is “Newton’s . . . state” aligned with alchemy rather than hard science? The poet’s verbal “dream” magic may be denying the separation of science and magic, just as “argyle roughage” declines to separate food and clothing: a “waitress” “serves” “underwear.” It follows the “literalist . . . tradition” of a “wandering” sea/mother (French: “mer”/”mere”) in the sense that Gertrude Stein, as interpreted by Lyn Hejinian and others, privileged metonymy--a continual displacement that honors surface interactions and questions large symbolic unities--over metaphor. The body of water/maternal “origin” of this linguistic movement through “time” does not yield primordial sense, but the priority of language as material, hence “nonsense.” To settle intentionally for an “arcane” simplification, “vapor” “translates” “ice” into “water.” According to the logic of this “nonsense” and its grammatical ambiguity, either a layer of meaning (“bikini”) can be “jumped” (over), but “woodenly,” or the “bikini” itself should be regarded as “wooden,” an impediment either to translation or a more immediate reading that questions translation as limitation.

In its concentration on extremity of disjunction between words, phrases, and larger units, complication of imagery, and grammatical/syntactical deregulation, as well as on development of prose/poetic structures, Chantry induces considerable readerly anxiety, some skepticism, and (for me) pleasure in the struggle to stretch past habits of reception and perception. These features mark Chantry as a promising elaboration of the important concerns and innovations of Elizabeth Treadwell’s Language forebears.

Friday, October 22, 2004

NEW! John Latta poems

John Latta

Three Poems


Gap-tooth’d and blue, I

Dive the slurry stretches of

Sky, sky myself and goatish.

I want a minstrelsy wench.

I want a slender Russian

Apple-picker to chuck green

Granny Smiths at me, beginning

With a zhili byli, one

Way to momentarily lock up

A sizeable piece of continuum.

Or snatch the booger’d Starres

Downe and pluck a handy

Something, something like a muddy

Drench of ale, wise-making

And tragickal-like. Inestimable my

Pudeurs in th’amorous repudiate dark.


Loud’s my hangdog sonata, I

Pee roilingly into th’ebon bowl,

Night foaming up a translunary

Crescendo against whatever be feeble,

Be duff’d. Earth’s an erratic,

A boulder-dropp’d crumb out

The glacier’s maw. Milky Way

Extend’d a pedicle and fill’d

It with itself the way

A paramecium moves, as if

To say it never met

A ne plus ultra it

Didn’t like. --So’s your old

. My crabbed signature nebulaic

Trailing off into semantic froth

Looks like spit on water.


Clatter in the dailies is

All box-score debt load,

Kudos to the weimaraner, noogies

To the wisenheimer, all stalked

By the back-lit escutcheon

Of th’undiplomatickal eye. Don’t call

Me Linnaeus, who never left

Uppsala, who claim’d the swallow

Winter’d under water. I am

Not fond of Liars. Armed

With a xyster to debone

The keister of one Criminal

Secretary who downs Rums in

The Field. He shalt not

Have nothing good chepe, he

Shalt never have my boy.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

NEW! Review of Skanky Possum #9

Skanky Possum #9.

Reviewed by Zackary Sholem Berger

The most successful poems in Skanky Possum #9 (Autumn/Winter 2003-2004) do not grab you by the collar and pin you to the wall behind your reading chair, nor do they suicide-bomb you with political accusations or scatological evocations. Rather, they insinuate, as does Andy Schuck’s “Fence”:

to wait and wire
as in debate:
jumping and shifting
to show intruders in
to avoid answering
before one repairs
a boundary

That’s the beginning. Perhaps I can be forgiven if I see a hint of a criticism of “Mending Wall”--Frost (or his narrator) doesn’t answer any questions himself, does he, before he goes off repairing the wall? He just does it, with the help of his neighbor, and only later criticizes that neighbor. But if “good fences make good neighbors” is such a foolish saying, says Schuck’s poem in response, why not question the boundary before one goes off to repair it? “Fence” continues, itself straddling multiple possible meanings, cataloging the roles a fence can play, until ending with an enlightening compromise:

to jump over
shifting ground
to restrict
one commits

The fence, that is, is its own division, setting itself apart from the surrounding landscape so that our limited ability to “commit” might have a limited and more realistic realm of operations.

Avery E.D. Burns’s Ambulatory Refrains is also excerpted in this issue, and the title of his collection is appropriate for these deceptively simple, epigrammatic poems, balancing irony and contradiction in a way reminiscent of A.R. Ammons’s shorter works. “I want what you want / you want what I want,” begins the first, a stalemate which is both gridlock and compromise, and the last, in its entirety, reads as follows:

my heart is wild
and I must rest

pebbles sound

within searing

my heart is wild
and I must rest

This poem is not narrative, but momental--almost a palindrome, but at any rate something that should be read (if it were possible) all at once, without regard to the relationships between pebbles and waves, within and without, wildness and rest: is the one cause of or caused by the other? Burns does not tell us, and he has faith enough in his few lines to grant us that uncertainty. This, of course, means that his poems dance dangerously close to the edge of sentimentality, as in the “house in a heart” of the second poem in the series, like a “house on the hill”: with all modern conveniences, but “yours for a song.”

The third poem here is most arresting and thought-provoking, starting with a ringing image (“coins spilt / on a table // the feel for one / thing over another / reels”) and suggesting, albeit in a tone almost too oblique to be called suggestion, that there is a universe of emotional connections that can be understood in terms of “barter”: “... what shifts / from shells / & drilled stones / to hearts / strung on a rope / of sand.” If it’s not clear whose hearts these are, and why they’re on a rope, maybe that’s the point: the jingling of coins and the speed of barter can overwhelm our “feel for one thing over another.”

It is mostly the poems by Burns which save this issue from its weakest poems, tired attempts to epater les bourgeois or strenuously contrived, self-righteous political commentary. It’s the poet’s paradox: when so much is going on and life and death seem to hang in the balance, the fewest words carefully placed can work wondrous simplicity.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

NEW! Review of J.H. Prynne

Furtherance by J. H. Prynne. The Figures, $14.

Reviewed by David Shepard

To proclaim J.H. Prynne the “most important poet of the 20th century” may not have been Randall Stevenson’s intent, but the subsequent furor over the misunderstanding of his words demonstrated Prynne’s significance. Given the century’s variety of poetic activity, it is unreasonable to select one poet as its best, but the scope of Prynne’s latest book, Furtherance, suggests he might at least claim to exemplify the period. In this intriguing collection of his last four published poems--“Red D Gypsum,” “Pearls that Were,” “Triodes,” and “Unanswering Rational Shore”--he employs postmodern techniques and ideas in a Modernist poetic project to depict the twentieth century in the structure and sense of his poems.

One of Prynne’s main projects has been to collect and represent bodies of knowledge into a comprehensive whole, as illustrated in “Red D Gypsum” and echoed in “Unanswering Rational Shore.” With its complex vocabulary, the former joins human, animal, and earth in a single system by illustrating their mutual effects upon one another. We “trek inter-plate reversion to earth buy out” to find a pure state under a “flawless glucose shimmering sky” formed from a basic sugar and illustrating untapped potential. Prynne uses the motif of analogous circulatory systems within organisms, rivers, and ecosystems to illustrate the way they function through exchange. Humans impose value judgments upon the earth through the act of speech and economics, both methods of inscribing meaning, but the environment acts reciprocally. At the end, “set lichen” becomes a “set ikon,” while “vivid strips of tree bark circle the room,” silencing a speaker, and the sky is “broken.” The whole is reached through the collection of human, animal, and geological into a system.

It is for this project that he includes elements of postmodernism. The use of science and social science moves outside lyric voice subjectivity into apparent objectivity. Never satisfied to speak from one point-of-view, he embraces multiple perspectives, as in “Triodes” with its two archetypal narrators, Pandora and Irene. When a first-person speaker does emerge, he is limited by his sexism: he calls the women “chicks” and assesses a “giant classical nipple” as “not ... to die for.” No single subjectivity is prized in an effort to represent them all. This multiplicity leads to postmodern irresolution via an acceptance of multiple points-of-view. As Jeremy Noel-Tod says, “Prynne’s work is inclusively honest about the confusion of trying to see life whole”; the apparent collages of “Red D Gypsum” and “Unanswering Rational Shore” represent the information overload that confronts residents of the developed world. Likewise, Prynne does not simplify or exclude to propose a solution; as in “Pearls that Were,” there is “no pica among these withered leaves to bind up the sunken floor.” With “leaves” being the book’s paper, the line asserts that the function of this poetry is not to solve problems, reiterating the impossibility of reaching a conclusion without exclusion.

Furthermore, like many postmodern artists, Prynne repudiates modernist elitism, using eclectic vocabulary from countless different sciences and humanities for its precision, with the secondary purpose of educating the audience. On one level, the poems become vocabulary lessons with utilitarian educational value; as he says in “Unanswering Rational Shore,” they “may contain nutrients.” One representative line, “Lutine falsetto belies the gravamen of a loose quadratic, before this court ... of currency fonts” invokes medicine, music, mathematics, economics, and print. Unlike other modernists such as Eliot, Prynne uses few mythological allusions. Pandora and Irene from “Triodes” are made archaic, rather than universal, through their juxtaposition with modern conflicts. At the end, Pandora is consigned to a portrait. Such allusions otherwise tend to be a vehicle for demonstrating the poet’s knowledge of mythology, with the requirement that the reader be similarly intelligent. Prynne makes no such assumption but seeks to educate.

We can therefore read Prynne’s use of complex vocabulary as an attempt to recoup F.R. Leavis’s organic community and recombine a language fragmented into technical jargons. He reclaims this language for poetry and causes readers to incorporate these words into their vocabulary. This moves language closer to the organic whole Leavis believed permanently lost: by incorporating terms from each discourse, Prynne returns this knowledge to the public sphere from its sequestration in the ivory tower. At the same time, it also gives his poems the flavor of a modernist nostalgia for lost wholes rather than a postmodern acceptance of fragmentation.

For this reason, Prynne’s poetry is modernist in spirit. Unlike a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet (to whose poems his bear a superficial resemblance), he does not fragment the self into its influences by representing its speech as unrelated phrases. Instead, Prynne steps outside the self into multiple points of view and apparently objective realities of science. These poems also have a strong sense of originality and even emotion. “Red D Gypsum” leaves us with “vocal folds glowing deep unwinding did they forage out reparted sound shift, closing did the canted ferox inter-vocalic tissue,” conveying desperation in the effort of speaking, while the “closing” suggests the finality of its impossibility. The placement of these words is quite novel in its complexity, and we are drawn into ideas rather than forced to confront words as non-representational objects, pieces of an illusory whole. Prynne is not a pure postmodernist, then, but takes a more classical view of the function of language.

However, there is no denying that he has learned from his predecessors and found lessons in the past sixty years of poetry. This is why Furtherance is so compelling. By fulfilling his modernist project of totalization with postmodern irresolution and avoidance of a single subjectivity, Prynne collects from two periods at odds with each other. He can be called representative of the twentieth century because this book encompasses both of its major movements, its general feeling, and a good portion of its knowledge.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

NEW! Jennifer Tynes poem

Jennifer Tynes


No one traveling through the country

eats at the side of the road. A blanket demeans

a body with small stains that carry across the lawn.

It doesn’t scream anything in particular

when I buy condoms from the machine. In a very primitive way

we knew what was coming. After our excursion through

the Alleghenies, indelicate dreamlife in which cancers

grind each other in the wash.

Growing out of the practice of gathering long tables

to my chest, my gratitude for the idea that attaches itself

to the animal is no longer bore out

by any solid article. I take your hand.

Monday, October 18, 2004

NEW! Review of Prageeta Sharma

The Opening Question by Prageeta Sharma. Fence, $12.

Reviewed by Kathleen Ossip

When you open a new book of poems, it’s easy to be distracted by technology. Is this book suitably equipped with the latest up-to-dates (and if so, which brands?), or is it dustily and earnestly furnished with the artifacts of a bygone day, for which we may sometimes cherish a lazy nostalgia?

But technological demonstrations quickly grow boring unless the content engages, and so totting up gizmos is ultimately a sad way to approach a book. Sure, you can’t separate content from technology, but don’t forget that both are in play, and that a mere display of “look what gadget I just bought” without content is unlikely to matter for any length of time. In The Opening Question Prageeta Sharma uses many of the technologies of the present period style to make meaning around the Big Deals: Culture and Otherness, Death, Love, Violence, Power.

One of the current technologies that Sharma makes the most of is a relaxed surrealism. Any poet sensitive to the countless stimuli of contemporary life and smart enough to cope with the complete human range of emotions and blessed with a capacious imagination will find realism a pretty paltry implement. Sharma’s variant has a sweet gravity, as in the opening lines of the opening poem, “Calendar”:

Separated into parts for an afternoon or the day of the week--
I had a right to conceal,
I had a right to an apron--I was used for a gemstone,
for a social climber’s pocket watch--
an influence of human affairs to an earnest and awestruck constellation;
ear-shaped, we poets are ear-shaped like harps.

Less widespread is another of the tasks Sharma seems to be set on: to remake (or re-re-make) the sentence, to render it absolutely fluid and supple enough to mold around the author’s sensibility and every impulse:

That dream, she said, with the Indian child in it, sleeping
on a small sofa, dream she said, alongside his shoulder,
he wept, almost, as if they were at the train again,
the while ankle left for good, it sank under the tracks
the rat jumps upon tracks for the last rites, a meal
so pleasant, his slacks lazy underneath, perhaps,
she spoke this aloud, he is the man, he tips his hat,
the inhibited manner, could there be a Sufi in this crowd?

Imagine your fifth-grade teacher trying to diagram that one! But how else could the poet pack her fragmentation with so much connection?

Language here, no matter how ornamental, serves the poet’s astutely complex meaning; for this reason, Marianne Moore came to mind several times as I was reading. The refrain of “Catalogue of Swindles and Perversions” alerts us to a careful precision (“Do not pervert another phrase”) while “A Most Feeling Girl” reads like an ars poetica, signaling readers (or formulating for herself) that her technology doesn’t operate in cold impersonal space:

One last time, study
The dream for its feeling.

The feeling girl felt
this to be the truest,
and the most accurate
creed to feeling.

Yes, what’s noteworthy is how skillfully Sharma plies her tools to capture feeling. In “Speech Turns Orange” the feeling she tackles is gloom, the play of acceptance and detachment delicious:

What day is this that lacks so much comfort?
There came some grief in the form of an owl,
it struck me that my mind was jumping from place
to place hooting melancholia. I won’t have it here
so I flung it out into the open like economic recovery
for the poor museum. I don’t want to be the poor museum.

How necessary, and how wonderful, these technologies--this disjunction, these imaginative leaps, which allow Sharma to avoid both self-pity and sterility and to allow all the nuances of the emotion, and the reaction to that emotion, to emerge like a bas-relief.

Similarly, “Miraculous Food for Once” is a marvelously joyful love poem, Donne-ian in its momentum and its conviction, to which the only fitting reaction is a sunny smile:

how provocative and alluring
verse and tree, lamb and locket,
gently daring without a pull of resignation--
not hot oven, not branded in doom
or silence, my valentine is forthcoming,
Basque, on horses and on time.

This poem does not depict or describe a love affair; it embodies the emotions of one. “About” has little to do with it. The nouns (tree, lamb, locket, horses) aren’t 3-D stage settings in a field, they are verbal objects in the poem, at least 4-D and richer-colored for their lack of (realistic) context.

As an Indian-American poet, Sharma also writes of cultural disconnects, lovingly and wryly. Some of the most valuable poems in the book are those in which she studies her heritage, what it means to be other in two cultures. “Family” reads like Ionesco but in service of the individual who struggles against pigeonholing. “There are silverfish bugs across the windowsill / in the white house” it begins, and then recites the numbing litany of belonging, especially in a culture tainted by empire:

This is my house. I am a child. He is Jug Dish. We are an Indian
family with Indian friends from India. Jug Dish studies English poetry.
I study English poetry, I point west to take a stab at a silverfish.
The mountain of ink is paint, there is memory here, for friends
of the Indian community ...

At the end, “The family hands me over to that silverfish.” But this quoting of an individual poem outside of the rich ground of the whole book doesn’t do justice to Sharma’s intricate understanding. In other pieces, a cast of characters prisms up to paint a foreign, familiar world that contains multitudes.

The title The Opening Question hints at a searching, a quest. Fable-style, “Questions” suggests that, from birth, this poet’s quest was for truth via language, not for truth first and language later: “I am forward with my questions: / How do you stay alive? How do you move to its rhythm? How can you / press down?” Staying alive and moving to its rhythms is a fine definition of Sharma’s poetry. I finished her book feeling lucky to be reading in an age when the technology is in place and Prageeta Sharma deft enough with it to produce this volume of truly charming, truly interesting poems.

Friday, October 15, 2004

NEW! Review of Mario Petrucci

Heavy Water: A Poem for Chernobyl by Mario Petrucci. Enitharmon/Dufours, 8.95 pounds.

Reviewed by Brendan O’Connor

A physicist before he was a poet, Mario Petrucci is intimately familiar with the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox, probably the best-known “thought experiment” in modern physics. In Petrucci’s words:

Only a physicist, perhaps, would decide to put a cat in a box with no more company than a radioactive atom, a Geiger counter, a hammer and a vial of Prussic Acid ... The set-up is that if the atom decays, it activates the Geiger counter which then causes the hammer to strike the vial and release the cyanide, killing the cat.

What’s the point? Since we (the observers outside the box) have no way of knowing whether the atom has decayed or not, we cannot say with any certainty whether the cat is alive or dead before opening the lid of the box. Therefore, for us the cat “is neither dead nor alive, but a mathematical blending, or admixture, of both ‘states.’” The experiment, though never actually performed, is meant as a neat illustration of the Quantum-Mechanical principle that the act of observation itself alters the state of a system. But it leaves us with an unsettling intuition about the building blocks of nature, which, it might seem, are leading double lives (like the cat, permanently in limbo) when we’re not looking.

Such is the case with Petrucci’s Chernobyl survivors--although the term “survivor” is problematic in this instance--who resemble Yeats’s Byzantine phantasm, “an image, man or shade, / shade more than man, more image than a shade,” neither alive in the sense they used to be, nor truly dead, though they carry and disperse the seeds of death. The figures in Heavy Water are keenly aware of the ironic dimensions of their tragedy: rather than claiming their lives at once, radiation sickness takes months or years to devour them, leaving them in the cat’s position. These people haven’t survived, exactly, but they aren’t exactly dead, either. In this context, we encounter a “Soldier” who wonders bitterly at “this, a strange war. You get killed / when you get back,” and the “Sleepwalkers,” women laborers irradiated as a result of the disaster, “paying / respects at the bright coffin of themselves.” Petrucci achieves some of his finest effects by giving us an opportunity to ponder the absurdity of his speakers’ “death-in-life and life-in-death,” perhaps nowhere better than in the first poem, where he imagines “The Man Buried With Chernobyl” stirring from his grave beneath the reactor, “lift[ing] / from his calcined mould like a grit jelly.” It is a remarkable image of organic memory surfacing to confront the legacy of industrialized terror, and a fitting way for Petrucci to inaugurate his project of bearing witness to Chernobyl’s dead.

The nagging question about Heavy Water is not, fortunately, “Is this poetry necessary?” If a book of poetry can be said to be “necessary” in any meaningful sense of the word, surely Heavy Water is a necessary book, bringing its readers face-to-face with a forgotten tragedy and operating simultaneously as elegy and prophecy. We might, however, pose the inverse question to Petrucci and other contemporary poets of witness: “Is this necessarily poetry?” That is, does it have to be poetry? What is there about Heavy Water, for example, to set it apart from a work of investigative journalism? The author draws heavily on a book called Voices from Chernobyl, composed of interviews with “survivors” of the disaster, and in an interview of his own (in Jacket), praises the Russian author’s “uninvasive sensibility.” Petrucci’s work of poetic witness often seems to privilege such a sensibility. Indeed, in certain poems, the author exhibits a formal commitment to presenting the reader with the least embellished version of events possible. One can imagine Petrucci making this choice out of respect for the survivors’ testimonies (which must remain the “definitive” account of the tragedy) and a sense that the stories must speak for themselves, beyond his “poor ability to add or detract.” As a result, however, the situations described in the poems are sometimes more interesting than the poems themselves, as in a tale of “Two Neighbours” arguing about whether or not to eat contaminated produce:

They tell us--bury
your cucumbers. You--
you eat them.

You were not in the War.

So for you Chernobyl
is less than a cucumber.

It was a good crop.

And so on. The concept is intriguing, but the language might as well be a recorded conversation between two not-especially-articulate farmers. They have a right to tell their stories and be heard on their own terms, of course, but one might argue that journalism is a more appropriate (and arguably far more effective) medium for unvarnished testimony than poetry. Certain other poems in Heavy Water (“Spring,” “Rite,” “The Room,” and “A Name” to name a few) fall victim to the same tendency towards flat, declarative sentences, clipped imperatives, and flaccid dialogue. Happily, there are moments in Petrucci’s “survivor” poems when less is more, and his weary speakers hit just the right note. Take, for example, the peasants “painting door-planks and fences with / parting notes” as they evacuate their homes (in “Soldier”). The poet’s careful framing of these victims’ last utterances in the eyes of a soldier, whose coming spells his own death sentence, gives them a special poignancy:

’10 May. Dawn. By donkey and cart.’
‘May 24. There is pilaf in the blue pan.’

‘Don’t kill our Zhuchok. He’s a good dog--4th June.’
‘June 1st. Forgive us, house.’

That being said, the really interesting poems in Heavy Water are those in which Petrucci sustains a note of skepticism with regard to the possibility of the reader (or the author) understanding much of anything in the aftermath of the meltdown. A particularly vicious, oafish character named “Ivan” scorns “your microphones. / That pity in your eyes like small print,” suggesting that anyone’s experience of the disaster is finally irretrievable, in spite of Petrucci’s efforts to write footnotes to Chernobyl in “small print.”

Heavy Water is most compelling when the author steps away from the wreckage, in effect, and acknowledges his own distance from the events. In a series of lyrics evocative of the turbulence of salvage operations, Petrucci puts on his physicist’s lab coat once again and emerges to size up the damage in the bold, dispassionate language of science: “See--the stacked / borders of fault analysis / are losing their crisp definitions / to rain,” his speaker observes in “Box,” a sort of concrete poem that weaves fragments of testimony into the shape of a double helix. On the very next page, (“_ _ _”) the physicist lends his expertise to tease out the implications of Chernobyl for the previous speaker’s DNA:

and then we come to Gamma
           which can home in on

one strand of DNA and tie
          a knot in it that takes

generations to unravel

and, in so doing, contributes his own perspective to the still-unfolding story.

The fusion of lyrical and clinical perspectives results in the most original and accomplished poems in the book, such as “Ukritye” and “Exposures,” which remind the reader of newsreels on fast-forward, the author scrambling to keep up with the nightmarish flood of images sprung wholesale from his subjects’ memories--yet straining to make sense of it all through the lens of science. In “Chain of Decay,” a jarringly minimalist poem listing radioactive isotopes, the types of radiation they emit, and their half-lives, the final couplet--“Uranium-235 / 703.8 million years”--arrives with the devastating loneliness we associate with Gary Snyder’s lyrics. The camera pulls back at the very end and pauses just long enough to give us a feeling for the enormity of time: poetry on a geological scale. That Petrucci succeeds so well in certain of these poems suggests a new track for poets of witness: by coming to terms with their own subjectivity, they can make the (cruelly silenced) voices of their subjects resound all the louder in their poems.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

NEW! Review of Lee Ann Brown

The Sleep that Changed Everything by Lee Ann Brown. Wesleyan, $15.95.

Reviewed by Heidi Lynn Staples

Alienated from our land and often enough our loved ones, in the aftermath of two world wars and a terrifying spate of morally corrupt military operations, in the face of desertification and a mass extinction, ours is an elegiac age. And perhaps that partly explains why the poetic themes of loss and death gong out in ever-increasing volumes of carefully cast gloom and dispassionate portent. It’s the rare poet who offers more than a restatement of what we already know--that is, these is damn sad times ya’ll. Delightfully, voluptuously, vibratorally, Lee Ann Brown offers wild joy, extreme abandon, “higher powered” enthusiasm, and “fly-by shooting” exhiliration in the face of ex nihilo--and it’s not merely in its theme of redemption, but in its language, its open-endedness, its shape-shifting and voice throwing, its embrace of contingency, ordinariness, and community that The Sleep that Changed Everything is a powerfully life-affirming book.

“Insufflation,” “Estivation,” “Vibratory Odes,” “Devastation,” and “Inflorescence” are the sections into which this abundant 175-page volume is organized, and this evocation of florid spring frames poems that are dedicated mostly to a member of Brown’s circle--familia letter or familia genome--who has died, which marriage between life and death foregrounds Brown’s general appreciation for the generative process entire. Brown writes in a burgeoning variety of forms, including acrostic, ballad, blues, encyclopedia entry, free for awe, sonnet, and villanelle; and her stance as a speaker varies from the straightforward overheard outpourer, particularly touching in poems Brown has written from her grandmother’s bedside, to the decentered subject of a language-driven poem, especially striking in her homage acrostics, to explicitly persona-based work, like the ballad of Susan Smith (that disturbed woman from Brown's homestate of South Carolina who looked "so innocent and white," drove her children into the lake, swam herself to safety, and then accused a "Black Man, Black Man" of the crime--not one of my favorite efforts in The Sleep due to the didactic overtones, but an interesting example of Brown's project to reinvigorate poetry as a medium to express a shared rather than a lonely-as-a-cloud experience). That identity remains unfixed, mutable, permeable, and transitory is an insight explored thematically and formally by Brown here and in her first book, Polyverse, and it remains a governing principle; however, whereas previously she reveled in the lovely cerulean violets brought forth by the erotic--Polyverse was ripe with fecund association, sensational slipperiness, and a theme of a sexuality by turns penetrating and absorbing--in this book, she delves into the low-lying cruelest violence brought forth by eros:
 ... a hard
Its ground shifts

Time goes on

We're still
              it takes courage
                    to face, to fact it
without dread

Readers of Polyverse will find that book’s frolicking romp-a-day speaker changed, deepened, and shaken in the face and fact of dead, but they will not find her less aflame with ardor. Brown’s is a worldview that, at least as it’s expressed in her poetry, embraces ephemerality. Subsequently, her writing choices facilitate acceptance of a random universe and the individual personality’s final insignificance; many of her lines and even whole poems are what the hard-liners (who exhort that writing ‘good lines’ must forever entail ‘hard work’) might call 'throw away'--she lightly blips and slips, as in the above “to face, to fact it” or in another poem, “Amo / Amas / Amat.” She writes slight acrostics, most dedicated to a poetic mentor, like this one for Hannah Weiner:



She states bare and deeply unpoetic daily occurences: “Greenwich Avenue & Jane / ‘Burritos’ hot pink / Only me and my mind / Snow is falling on the Avenue.” She rhymes in a meandering arbitrary manner: “watch the turn of yonder screw / We sacked the city, Feverfew.” She samples sentimental lyrics like the following written by Joni Mitchell (famously performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young): “We are stardust / We are golden.”

One might be inclined to say that’s not the real deal. But seen as examples of meditative practice in which a person accepts mistake, chance, and “The particle waves in your firmament,” the poems in The Sleep that Changed Everything can be said to throw a way for the willing reader to journey from clinging to the immortal monument to embracing the mortal moment, and, by an insistence upon appreciation of the right now and a casual stance toward the right know-how, to illuminate the “No Blame Chaos Form complete.” Brown lights this unsettling plight of ours that we call being; she goes by the grace of humor, assuring us that “Cruel behavior’s handiwork--undone-- / All phenomenon O Lord--can laugh.” Hear! Har!

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

NEW! Ted Mathys poem

Ted Mathys


There is a starfish in my mussel.
There is a starfish marinated in my mussel shell and a bulldog
on the barstool. There is a French bulldog perched
like a sage before the Catholics’
table and the master Catholic’s acolytes
are gawking at the bulldog with little charcoal
crucifixes scrawled across their foreheads to mark
the beginning of the season of lack.

There is a starfish in my fennel
wine sauce molded elliptically to the shape of the dark
elongated shell, one spiky limb limp
and tethered from the process of being
inadvertently served to the world.
There are the bulldog’s wise, coruscating eyes
and there is the man’s
liquid voice in my ear rehashing the grisly deterioration of a former
partner. There is a star
beyond Sirius that is this man next to me: a ball of light in a Stereolab
t-shirt, the voice an uneasy equilibrium between the solar
energy of his nuclear fusion and his propensity to collapse mid-story under
the weight of his own gravity.

As all things mammoth and behemoth end in a moth,
the beginning of hopelessness is always hope.
Our hope is not in the poem precisely, the hope is that the poem embodies
a hope for what it cannot accomplish. Over goblets of faux
Bordeaux we would sacrifice the body of any
text for an index of first lines,
those entry ribbons into
the laws of invisible things:

Tangerines and remorse; 217
The hypochondriac waiting with a punch 14
They gather in the saplings for a fire, 223
Truncated Om from 13

He fingers the starfish in my mussel and becomes
a black hole. Time becomes
a tuning fork he gongs on the counter and we slip back weeks
through a wormhole between prongs
to a velour disaster of a sofa from which
he points out over Stoli martinis up with a twist the painting
whose nebulous letter shapes refuse to coalesce into anything resembling the word


We agreed the canvas was a hieroglyphic Ouija
board but couldn’t decide
who was the Ouija master or whose hand went
on top. Redemption: to be
re-deemed, to be deemed
again, but what if we were deemed
worthless in the beginning?

If Berlin 188
If both breasts were of blown glass, 143
If not now, when shall the butterflies 130
If she hadn’t born enough sons to bear her pall, 57
In a swathe of 140
Interior landscapes shall profess: 4

There is a starfish in my mussel and a bulldog in the narthex
of a church I don’t know how to enter.
The light: puce. The score: one
death to zip. The world
becomes a series of ropes and we run our fingers through the knots
looking for a way to unravel it.
If depression is a finger, and liberation is a finger, this disoriented not
caring is the tightening
fingercuffs between them. We are stuck here in the mild
concussion of living.

“I have begun to shower in the dark.”

The starfish in my mussel is not the starfish on my beach
in Santa Cruz, where alone with two cronies the hunt
was for seagulls and the tools our hands.
I was a bad stalker. I thought of scissors. Each of us was
drawn in sand, represented by an X,
the schematic of our strategy a Delphic triangle of how to kill
everything we loved using nothing
but flesh, wood, kelp.
I was trying to be a goldfish
because they have a memory
span of three seconds. My thoughts
were simple: Da Vinci invented scissors, I was born without kneecaps,
I am in my aquarium, I understand my fingers
in the runnels in the sand, but the rest of perception
is a codex of loose sheets and I am just
beginning to learn how to stab
bind. I was sewing a book to enter the world
when one of us noticed one of us
had wandered off into the sea and was standing knee
deep in surf, covered with kelp, dripping
like a postmodern Proteus with a bandanna around his bicep and a dead and mangled gull
hanging from his hand.

Yes, I 138
Yes, inferior to scarabs, the anxious ants 4
Yesterday’s leaves will fall again 210
Your little eyes scouring outer space 84

There was a starfish in my runnel and one in my
mussel, a bulldog, the crucifix, the index,
there is a man in my ear and the girth of his lover’s
death, the imploding, the helix, the spume,
yet the harder we try to cultivate
a caustic view of humanity,
the more the birds fly in reverse
retracting the scars they’ve made in the sky.

No more irises 12
No more irises 12

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

NEW! Review of Amy Gerstler

Ghost Girl by Amy Gerstler. Penguin, $16.

Reviewed by Kirsten Kaschock

In Ghost Girl, Amy Gerstler’s eighth book of poetry, the parade of voices from the margins begins with “Touring the Doll Hospital.” The initial question of that poem, an over-arching question of this book--“Why so many senseless injuries?”--is half-answered half-way through the poem: “Hurt me, big botched being, they whine in a dialect / only puritans and the frequently punished can hear. / It’s what I was born for .... Gerstler’s poems, mask after mask, are bent on an obsessive concern with the meting out of pain, and whether or not that pain is deserved. The figures she chooses to relay her unrelenting queries range from dolls, fetuses, and widows to an adolescent reincarnation of the Oracle at Delphi and a new dog. The characters question both general and personal suffering, and they tend to ask if some fault--some reason for their current discomfort--lies within themselves. “The Fetus’ Curious Monologue” ends with such a move:

I’m a festival of cells. My blood’s rich as Christmas
punch. Was I a horse thief in another life?
A blasphemous priest? What were my crimes?
What have I done to be bottled up thus?

Despite the aptness of the first metaphor, it is the pleading tone and dramatic pacing of lines like these that move a reader through Gerstler’s work. Sometimes too quickly. Each scenario, each inner monologue, is presented cinematically--the montage creating, in effect, a poetic mid-way. Although ghostly half-personae are central to this book, few of them are given enough room to haunt; they are contained too effectively in their individual tents. The frequent quotations and italicized passages engender an excerpted quality so that the poet does not seem so much a medium--channeling these voices--as a documentary film-maker, choosing just the perfect 30 seconds of dialogue and image to make the audience comprehend the phantom-life as symbol.

In “Listen, Listen, Listen,” Gerstler employs a different tactic; here disembodied voices congregate around the idea of voice itself. It is in this poem that Gerstler seems closest to successfully performing the seance the rest of the book prepares the reader for. The long prose-like sections of this poem do not rely on line-breaks for their impact and the result is more melodic, less staged:

Carefully pronounce the words soft cloth. Each vowel has its own savor and tang. Say Icy diamonds suffice. At least we can still warm and anoint each other with words when so much else has fallen away. Say What glorious pork! Say hideous police machine. Say dubious human future. Say Prove he is in the tomb.

This subject matter--words, their sound and their performance--allows Gerstler to meditate on the tools she uses to interrogate suffering. The voices that ask her questions throughout much of this book are themselves objects of constraint. Her voices are contained, altered, influenced by their training. And if the voices are unreliable, too damaged to ask why pain? and receive an adequate answer, what remains?

For Gerstler, the body--specifically the body’s pleasure--answers the question of pain not with a rationale but with countering demands. In “Buddha Sonnet 3” the poet writes, “... If the Buddha keeps / his back to you, seduce him. Kiss his rough / stone face, worn lips, calm nose ...” The mostly female personae in Ghost Girl do not accept the hurt that seems their fate, and they do not accept that such pain is randomly allotted. They attempt to own their pain--first by self-blame, as in “A Domestic”: “Did I sin in this?,” and then by creating past lives where transgressions might demystify the current chaos, as in the prose poem “A Blessing and a Curse,” “So far in this life, you’ve done me no harm. But in past incarnations your crimes against me were numerous and abominable.”

Amy Gerstler sets the horror of incomprehensible suffering among familiar figures of twentieth and twenty-first century female alienation. But the circus freaks, the broken dolls, and levitating girls should not disguise the honest terror and sweaty work of the ventriloquist. The poet behind all the puppets is compulsively attempting to physically work through answers. In the last poem, “In the Aspirin Orchard,” the speaker suggests possible relief--not logic, but sensuality. The pure sonic play of this poem is elsewhere in the book treated as an indulgence--used sparingly in the service of dramatic action. Here, the tercets, the sibilance, and the repeated vowel sounds model the lilting comfort offered to the body. The poem soothes; it lullabies:

...Wearing relief’s
crown of flowers, sex re-enters
the room, uninvited, shy--

disguised as religion, robed in blessed
caresses that address every last malady.
Reckoned rightly, all suffices.

In the notes at the end of Ghost Girl, the reader learns that the italicized line is an inversion of one of Christina Rosetti’s. Amy Gerstler has corrected the emphasis. Once fully questioned, the world may begin to be accepted--grievances noted. But not before.

Monday, October 11, 2004

NEW! Review of Explosive

Explosive #9, edited by Katy Lederer

Reviewed by Brennen Wysong

There’s little doubt that the last several years have opened up numerous promising avenues for innovative or experimental poetry. Whether it’s independent print or online journals, these new outlets have managed to draw attention from university-bound magazines trafficking in casual quasi-personal narratives or emotionally effusive lyrics packed with faux know-how. Online magazines like Slope, Vert, and Typo are offering poetry and its authors what print journals just can’t. Beyond the postage stamp-sized tract of land that literary journals somehow manage to stake at the local Barnes and Noble, online magazines can essentially promise a shelf-life that will endure until the site itself goes bust. The last several years have also seen the rise of such independent print journals as No and Crowd. Along with publishing fine and challenging work, some of these magazines have buried their battle-axes into the austere shape of the traditional print journal. Conduit is tall and bean-pole thin while jubilat is squat and squarish (the Laurel and Hardy of print journals?), proving there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Finally, the rise of the blog has done much more than just give the lonely hearts of the world a place to confess their hand-wringing and dreams. It’s made running a poetry-oriented Web site efficient, free, and easily accessible. While this mild usurpation of electronic space won’t have the impact grime has had on British pirate radio, we can still hope sites like Verse and its constellation of links will only help to widen the poetry net.

Explosive Magazine then seems to buck some of the prevailing trends of the day. More 'zine than magazine, Katy Lederer’s Explosive proves the punk rock ethic of DIY is alive and well among the fancy-pantsing world of poetry. Visually, the magazine is a curiosity that might befuddle the reader to some degree: no masthead, no ISSN, no copyright notice, no table of contents, no page numbers, no authors’ bios. But its humble, handmade look is immediately inviting to the eye: between two-color block print covers, there’s good old-fashioned 8 1/2 x 11 paper stapled twice along its edge to give a semblance of spine. (One can almost imagine Lederer late-nighting it at some gloomy Manhattan office, waiting for the grumpy boss to leave his roost, sneaking into the photocopy room amidst the janitor’s suspicions, putting this wonderful object together.) The size of the magazine, though entirely utilitarian, has yet another advantage: it gives room to graze.

And Lederer seems intent on letting her poets out to pasture here, giving them plenty of space to wander across the white fields of the page. While many print journals opt to feature merely one or two poems by each author, Explosive turns its seventy or so pages (mind, I’m hand-counting) over to less than a dozen accomplished writers. These poets weigh in with everything from terse dramatic monologues (Hal Sirowitz) to lengthy narratives (Jennifer Moxley) to prose poems (Elizabeth Willis). And lest we forget, Lederer is also the publisher of Spectacular Books, which has attracted such notables as Lyn Hejinian, Juliana Spahr, and Leslie Scalapino. So it should come as no surprise that her original pact with the devil would also allow her to attract the aforementioned talents as well as the likes of Brandon Downing, Matthew Rohrer, Monica Youn, and Canon Wing.

In this ninth issue, it’s Youn and Wing who seem to profit most from the open air Explosive has given them, though for entirely different reasons. In Youn’s case, we perceive a range in her work that wouldn’t be detectable in cramped quarters requiring a more limited selection. Her prominent mode here is the lyric, which she often builds through delicate couplets or tercets. But even within her lyrics, Youn shows alacrity as she moves from the largely observational (“Home Savings”) to unexpected linguistic associations (“Muscae Volitantes”). Finally, she makes us reassess the possibilities of her work anew with “Drawing for Absolute Beginners.” The poem takes on the rigid outline structure of a how-to guide with numbered sections and lettered subsections, appearing every bit ready to teach the beginner how to draw. However, Youn writes against the analytical mode of such a how-to guide and mixes in various discourses and voices until the piece becomes collage-like. Wing’s hymns and psalms, on the other hand, simply appear to be made for the size of Explosive’s pages, which, of course, they were, as their author was obviously aware of the freedoms and restraints of 8 1/2 x 11 paper while composing them. Wing’s poems are often marked by clipped syntax and refrains that build over wide spaces and lonely periods claiming their places within the line. Much as Olson’s Maximus poems look best when given room to sprawl, these pieces by Wing manage to maintain their spatial integrity simply by the glad-luck of appearing within this magazine’s particular format.

Explosive Magazine, with its low budget and high talent, just may prove to be the little-engine-that-could. And any number of adjectives of praise could describe this unique project. But orange you glad I didn’t say “explosive”?

Friday, October 08, 2004

NEW! Review of Liz Waldner

Saving the Appearances by Liz Waldner. Ahsahta Press, $14.95.

Reviewed by Stan Mir

Liz Waldner, in her challenging new book Saving the Appearances, extrapolates the complicated relationship between language and self where language’s function corresponds to Kepler’s thinking in Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, “... astronomy has two ends, to save the appearances and to contemplate the true form of the edifice of the world ...” In short, our lives are spent upholding the simulacra around us. Kepler, who shares similarities with Waldner’s project, worked with optics and mathematics in addition to astronomy. Waldner takes Kepler’s dictum to heart as if channeling Kepler into her poetry; she explores what is seen in order to discover what may lie beneath the surface. While she is skilled in her explorations of the appearances, the book’s outcome leaves one wanting. Although she does not offer a world that defies edifice, she points to blights and, in some cases, the benefits of appearances.

From the first poem, “Mirror,” Waldner begins the indecisive seesaw, which runs throughout the book: “I do not notice much about myself for other reasons / This I do not notice for its ubiquity: / I am not too willing to appear.” This is the poem in its entirety and shows a speaker distracted by a self that is hard to pin down. As a poet, Waldner’s interest often intersects with the elusive or missing self. Self and Simulacra, The Dark Would (Missing Person), and Homing Devices are some of her other book titles that demonstrate this tendency. Since she has spent several books’ worth of her time on the pursuit of self and/or home, it seemed Saving the Appearances would startle with new insights, but the book ends up treading familiar ground. Throughout the book Waldner’s approach to ideas echoes a passage from Wallace Stevens’ “Ideas of Order at Key West”: “And when she sang, the sea, / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song, for she was the maker.” Waldner’s poems suggest she desires to be this sort of poet, i.e., one that is all encompassing and controlled. The poet or maker, in order to do this, must do more than acknowledge a status quo. Her proclamations lack a significant breakdown of constructions that stifle us; they are more static than kinetic. Nevertheless, Waldner assertively takes the path to demolition. Perhaps her aim is to show how to wreck the walls without actually performing the task for the reader. However, it would embolden readers to see a poet risk a diagnosis with a complete treatment plan. For now though, take a look at what Waldner does offer in these poems.

Language, for the poet, holds the value of a hammer or table saw; it is a tool to wield and shape our perceptions, and Waldner knows there must be a self behind the tool. She elucidates in these lines, “... each word will call to certain others; certain words allow (me) to be.” If language preserves us in the edifice of the world, Waldner uses language in her constant pursuit for something concrete, while oscillating between the tangible and the intangible. From the same poem quoted above, “Self Extension,” Waldner writes, referring to Jesus’ famous saying, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.” It is not the physical presence of Jesus in this line, but the spiritual being Jesus has become. Similarly, language and self are ephemeral yet powerful enough to alter the outcome of one’s life. Waldner implies it is this nature of self and language that makes it difficult to operate beyond the status quo. Interestingly enough Waldner juxtaposes the above example with these lines from the same poem, “The worker’s tools are an extension of his body, said Marx.” In this case, the poet is the worker and language the tool, which may be the only means poets have for instigating change. Waldner presents us with Marx and Jesus, two people with ideals to reveal the truth and, arguably, dissipate the appearances into something actual, like salvation, which, unfortunately, is more fleeting than desired, and in this presentation Waldner provides inklings of how to go about altering the appearances.

Waldner clearly investigates more than language as an extension of self. She also explores notions of how society sees sexuality and family relationships. (Or take this title, which demonstrates how wide Waldner casts her net: “Pro(verbial) (Re)creation in the Time of AIDS.”) Always alert Waldner explores for meanings adeptly, but as she writes in the title poem of Saving the Appearances:

I did it to speak
the language of ice
or the language of white,
I don’t have to know.

The “language of ice” preserves things as they are; it saves the appearances, which is what the poet aims for as indicated in the title of the book. However, Waldner declares language a tool, so she could have used it, like an ice pick, to breakthrough the appearances, thereby startling us all.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

NEW! L.S. Klatt poem

L.S. Klatt


Red heifer skips
in the head-
waters of the Jackson River
paper mill whiskey fumes
& more fluke
the Hercules
Chemical Plant burns down
Railroad switches
coal to diesel


the timber stutters
off flatbed trailers
like skeletons
bleached converted
half-ton spools
the crews catch stacks
of product
flip-top boxes
cigarette cartons
conveyor belts rub their hips


the unemployed
lie still
on the face of Lick Mountain
& conserve
even wild turkeys grouse
& doves hole up
in the brown
swath of the Gypsy moth


the acids inks
out come ashes & water
consummated in the city
& yea the war
of spirits

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

NEW! Review of Caroline Bergvall

8 Figs by Caroline Bergvall. Equipage chapbook, no price.

Reviewed by Jake Kennedy

She begins with the ampersand torqued title page into the given reclining body of a pun of Ingres or Rodin the birth of the Greek vase by way of Duchamp’s twisted eye. An 8, really, slipped, snipped, or broken. & the ampersand holds within it the question mark, too, so that it asks us: am I a keyhole, an infinity, a perfect knot, even?

32 lines for each or so to say that each Fig--I do give one--is a moving pattern. In turning the figs into figures though--these leaves--the pages flash a starkness and what’s at stake is learning to see a slowed syntax performed by space. Slow down! So Bergvall says in Fig. 1 that “A purple fig is purple first” in order to learn that the process of meaning accumulation is a pattern within a pattern. This thin book, its elegance, gets to be elegiac-light in the hands as well as joyous ode-light. “To seem more seen when gone” I would take as epitaph any day and CB makes it OK to talk about ghosts again.

That is because she’s bent language back to living and action and how it dies into the past always: to play with the pattern of reality-making and to see paradox as the wrench of good art. Figurative but socially urgent in that (it hardly ever figures anymore!) “To act so that today will matter in form.” Another way, the way the & is not the & when you can see it less and less through the page, is this keeper: “Making sense of less, or with less.” This understanding less or creating less sense or gathering more because forfeiting that which is unworthy. Good bad-book of prayers.

And there is so much accumulating here which flatters the reader. As Bergvall arm-fulls traces of activity, things are always moving accordingly and thus--hazard on--these apprehensions are the junctures in which “memory won’t stick.” How wonderful!

The scrappings of speeches turn as these figures to follow. You get bliss, yes, from “the smell of blood and Spring grass” but the cruellest moth--dusty flapping night &--also offers: “what speaks for me ghosts me.” And this is the largest generosity here to “&” all the discoveries with the facts of erasure, telling us what’s there and what’s been found isn’t the thing but the performing approximation--it cuts an exquisite figure.

These modesties--“it is ridiculous / both civic and miraculous / to be writing”--take place on the level of sublime, peaceful acting out. A type of love keeps happening with the talk & the talk & the pattern here is not the boastful pride of lyrical discovery but, again, the civic miracle of the given: 1, a fig; 2, the illuminating mass. A regular old beautiful being, earthy as a fig: “what is found / needs testament, not archaeology.”