Tuesday, November 30, 2004

NEW! Review of Kelly Everding

Strappado for the Devil by Kelly Everding. Etherdome chapbook, $7.

Reviewed by Matthew Smith

Take Kelly Everding’s word for it: “It is dangerous to walk away / and leave a book open.” Purchasing her slender, striking chapbook Strappado for the Devil is like purchasing a playful, well-crafted grimoire. As much enjoyment and interest as you might draw from its language (both elusive and instructional), the physical presence of the words printed in ink grows disconcerting. Everding’s conscious mingling of smirk and shudder is palpable even in the first poem, as an oblique discussion of fowl worship finds its way along “a dark path traveled / only by chickens.” From the start, Everding offers us coy, unsettling transactions with the childlike frankness of a sociopath: “They met on a park bench / and exchanged eggs. / They raised each other’s young / like their own.”

Named after the satirical work by 17th-century poet Richard Braithwaite (as well as an antique torture device from which victims are suspended by the wrists), Everding’s book of nineteen poems is both cruel and indulgent, never too shy to tease (“I go unpunished / all day and night”). For every moment of incoherence, however, the book welcomes us back in. In “Infinite Granite” Everding’s lines gush and pulse like an incantation, with many of the words apparently in Welsh or some other foreign language. As the poem draws to a sharp, insistent close (“I killed plants. I moved too slowly / for them, increments of fever, / black other, thing story”), the speaker mocks our confusion but then draws us like animals again into her spell:
Playar fiskum yn creplos, kill, cry, kiss.
There was fear of never, fear inflated oblong.
I cannot move because I am so thick.
When was I ever worthy of your trust?
We’re all here in the same place,
our glacially slow reactions
to bleth, mive, kife.

Sections of Strappado for the Devil read like a witch’s memoir/instruction manual, but the specter of the book itself––the forms with which Everding has woven this glamor––constantly shimmers behind the anecdotes and lessons. In the elegant but sickening “Exes for Eyes” she writes: “She will peel off her clothes–– / her skin wound in ropes and rags, / her language a hook and a worm.” In “Beliefs Concerning Eggs” she sculpts a correlative for the process of poetry:
At midnight, let the white drip from the shell
into a glass two thirds full of water.
Place your palm over the glass’s rim and turn

upside down. The albumen will settle
into a shape. A ship? A tiny desk? An elephant?
It will foretell your future occupation.

More familiar to the reader of contemporary literary magazines are Everding’s games with syntax. While such play might, in a different context, seem merely cuteness (or, worse, more anti-lyric cud), surrounded by the creeping text of Strappado for the Devil, these dismantlings chill rather than amuse. In “Centrifuge” Everding tells us “the prefix shrieks like carps / in their final ascension,” and in “And Then Usurped His When” she narrates another metapoetic passage: “Eventually left / behind the period agog, / he saw well into the / next sentence.” Even when the language slips for a while from the reader’s grasp, the words seem to be gaining momentum, whether or not you are catching everything that sweeps past:
It is the Friday before the end
in the note you tore from my hands.
The moon tears itself from the sky
with a prolonged shriek.
I see your organs working.
It is the day after and another reprieve.

Despite all the superstitious images (“rats,” “a cat,” “a church bell,” “a comet,” “nails,” “sticks and shovels,” “a loom,” “entrails,” “coiled snakes,” “horses,” “tears,” “a bloodstained sea,” and “bits of shadow” among others), the vocabulary of modern science bubbles up occasionally in these poems. The tone, however, suggests anything but reverence for empiricism. If anything, Everding appears to be slicing with equal disdain into the immanent and the transcendent: “Oxygen commingled with carbon that night. / Mysterious bruise arisen from what collision?”; “On the long dusty road / between neutron and positron / we circled our camels”; “Solar plumes lick the atmosphere, curl and blacken.”

Pervasive and subtle as a watermark, the simplest voice in Strappado for the Devil is also the most redemptive. That a lyric speaker hovers over the book––injecting traces of humanity––is perhaps unremarkable; that this speaker’s world honestly seems to be the bleak world of the book’s ongoing hex is crushing. Sometimes these glimpses appear as self-contained poems, as in “Technology of Dead Voices”: “A voice came from it. / His voice left his body. / I trace my finger along a path / that ends right here.” More often the momentary respites nestle inside hostile poems, as in the otherwise icy “Unseen,” which concludes: “I believed in air, in the heart / beat. I believed I left one place / and arrived in another. / I believed I grew older.”

Slitting open contemporary language and implanting in it old, forgotten forces, Everding never shrinks from horror. The poems, however, do not estrange the reader from the text so much as they jab tines into a few tender spots––the better to keep the reading lively. The text’s focus, even when it eludes coherent gloss, is shared human experience. Strappado for the Devil just takes an unorthodox (and perhaps left-hand) path to get there:
And and And.
One could not distinguish
girders from souls,
the sun doing its job.
We are receptacles of grief.
We are breathing rectangles.
Then then Then.
We take the shape
of the thing that moves us.

Monday, November 29, 2004

NEW! Review of Kerri Sonnenberg

The Mudra by Kerri Sonnenberg. Litmus Press, $12.

Reviewed by Lyndsey Cohen

Kerri Sonnenberg’s first book, The Mudra, uses the symbolic gesture of the hand to invite the reader into a world hinged not only on the self, but also on worlds and words that can collide at any moment. The book focuses on love, war, time, and history. Such topics can be risky, but Sonnenberg explores these themes with simplicity and grace. The Mudra is divided into three sections, which propel it from a fragmented form to a more narrative form. The book becomes increasingly coherent towards the end, but instead of leaving the reader with any answers, Sonnenberg leaves the reader immersed in a world where “there is ante through adjusts.”

The book’s first section, “The Mudra,” is composed of untitled lyrical fragments in which Sonnenberg places the reader in a world “be side reasoning where we just repeat admittance.” It is in this world the reader encounters an “opposition between ‘natural kinds,’” where time seems to be at a standstill. These fragments are short, but the sparseness of the language works well and forces every word to carry weight. Because the sections in this book build on one another, the first section is perhaps the least complex. But “The Mudra” allows Sonnenberg to prepare her audience for what is to come, and she suggests that the “closer you draw the more generous words become.”

“Wake,” the second and shortest section, depicts a world that is not at war and not at peace, as the opening epigraph indicates. Unlike the first section where time is not active, here the poems balance between two different times. Sonnenberg presents a time where “meeting love” is possible and a time where “three-thirty shots fired the / a.m.” Although there is more of a narrative feel to this section, it is masked by Sonnenberg’s syntax. This is a world where “word is not afraid,” but everything else “reaches / search”.

Sonnenberg fuses reflection and contemplation with the notions of love, war, and time in the third and final section, “deact.” Here time reflects a changed world where “wars had ploughed,” but also a hopeful world:
in summer
how the wild
jerked flat
under shade
his knees
her coverlet
the tree
were entire.

It is in this section that the progression of time, from being immobile in the first section to having passed in this section, becomes apparent. The gorgeous and vivid language in the final section contains moments of quiet examination that are perhaps the most memorable in the book:
the light
a cup
and racquet
handed silence
a tangle
of herself.

Sonnenberg’s constant reference to words and language is more apparent here than anywhere else in the book. In “Wake” the repeated image of the house seems to stand as something unchanging in a time where history “had lost her place.” Sonnenberg leaves her audience in a heartbreaking but beautiful world where absence and uncertainty rule:
houses drop from embrace
or dwellers were made
shelter alone

was all they spoke
turned fields without
color was night before roads

With its memorable and energizing language, The Mudra is a book that can be easily read and reread yet still maintain its freshness.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

NEW! Charles Simic poem

Charles Simic


I’m the furtive inspector of dimly lit corridtors,
Dead light bulbs and red exit signs,
Doors that show traces
Of numerous attempts at violent entry,

Is that a rustle of counterfeit bills
Being counted in the wedding suite?
A comb passing through a head of gray hair?
The sound of a maid making a bed?

Eternity is a bathroom full of spider webs,
Dostoyevsky wrote.
I better get the passkey and see for myself.
I better bring some matches too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

NEW! Poems by John Yarbrough

John Yarbrough

Two poems


Rush to the nursing home
Reclaim Mom
Restore her dignity
And your own


A cop walks by.
I look at my feet.

Friday, November 19, 2004

NEW! Paige Ackerson-Kiely poems

Paige Ackerson-Kiely


Night is a wheelchair
and the wheel cock-eyed.
I feel strongly about fireflies
and am lining up the mayonnaise jars.
It goes like this,
night does, excuse to get somewhere
not directly.
I love our children sleeping
in dens of sour breath
and the curtain red and slightly parting.
Baby, this. All of the shadows
are hands beckoning rain and rain again.
All of the tendrilled, mounting dark.
You weren’t anywhere I was planning to go.
The path from the porch to the car
for example, feeling my way along.


           Friend, I will not tell you how you really look.
I will no longer tentatively poise my hand in midair--

I won’t say midair.

Unreasonable it happens, the dress is a lanky
notion of suffering, things that go on for too long--
let’s just call them beautiful.
And no more crying.

What really happened in the mirror. Where there is
reflection, you say create the incidence. So I do.
Here is a woman pinning the curtains, here is
a woman giving a blow job
every time you look up just know the fact of it.

The sky and lo, light filtering thru branches.
If you bend your head, the grass imparts
its timid reach; you can say Jesus if you want.
Whatever suits you.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

NEW! James Doyle poem

James Doyle


We have Joseph of Arimathaea to thank for it.
After he scrubbed the dirt and vinegar off the body
and sealed the gashes with wax, he worked
oil into the stiffening limbs and loosened the purple
clots thick across the torso. When he came
to the face, he peeled the lids open again
but the eyes were still no better than marble.

He laid a thin insulating film over the bony
features and built the mold up, layer by layer.
The straight line of the lips hardened even more
for the split in the tongue and the cracked teeth.
To Joseph, the mask began to seem almost
like a parasite, drawing the pores of the face up
into its own linings for the only life it could have.

It is said the mask is now in the Vatican, locked
in a vault and forbidden to anyone but the Pope.
Perhaps the face is too distorted. Or too ordinary.
Some say the resurrected Christ shattered
the mask and it was methodically rebuilt
by heretics Others clamor to let the mask be
a dark sealant on the last two thousand years.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

NEW! Review of Dane Zajc [2]

Barren Harvest by Dane Zajc. Translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak.
White Pine Press, $14.

Reviewed by Bridgette Bates

Barren Harvest, Dane Zajc’s first book-length collection published in English, presents forty years of poetry from a leading Eastern European writer who remains relatively unknown in the United States. In his new selected works, Zajc, born in 1929 in Slovenia, delivers a history that endured: a world war, the rule of Marshal Tito and the social revolution, the collapse of communism, and the struggle for democracy as Slovenia declared its independence in 1991. Although Zajc’s poetry ties atrocity to its haunted landscapes, his poetry fortifies a relentless sentimental instinct to observe, scathe, and resolve.

In the introduction to this collection, Ales Debeljak provides a context for Zajc’s suffering and flight and declares, “Dane Zajc is the greatest living Slovenian poet, not only according to professional opinion but also according to general popular consensus . . .” Through ideas of greatness, Zajc represents the literature stemming from a troubled generation of Slovenia: Zajc’s childhood home was burned by the Nazis, he spent three months in prison in 1951 under a communist regime for an opposition literary reading, he spent two years in the people’s army, and he spent his subsequent years dedicated to anti-communist movements via literary causes. Zajc’s collection reflects his country’s time and place, yet his poems are not generic explorations.

In the first poem, “Dead Things,” from Zajc’s first book, Burnt Grass, he establishes a precedent of absence. Zajc evokes a list of images that depict varieties of things passed, and for Zajc a list issues reflection combined with the urgency to remember: “Your elbow has decayed. / Your hand is soil.” At this point in the poem, it is unclear if he is addressing the father figure from the previous image or a greater world lost, as he often addresses a Yugoslavian history. The poem concludes, “Who will dig up from beneath the hearth / the decaying faces of dead years.” Zajc often modifies a catalogue of earthly images: from a rhetorical address of remorse to navigations of his homeland to confrontations of historical atrocities. This first poem bridges the reader into the ongoing dialogue Zajc pursues in many of his books, especially Burnt Grass, where he combs the lands of his past and arrives at open-ended interrogatives.

The next book, Tongue of Soil, continues with the theme of interrogation, but Zajc approaches a figurative quest as he begins to explore paradoxes in his previous decaying worlds. This book contains Zajc’s only distinct series of poems, “Gothic Windows,” where he obscures the single image of a church window by examining it from different angles, and thus furthers the motif of delving into changing landscapes. The first poem steeps in violence as the sun “shatters” the glass of the window, then in the second poem of the series the hostility is transferred to sexual violations as he evokes images of Mary Magdalene. In the third poem, Zajc elaborates on the sexual tainting of Magdalene through symbolic colors: red imagery represents Magdalene as red taints images of purity and white. Zajc often employs the use of symbolic colors to adjust his perspective of the landscapes he explores, be it tangible, historical, or religious. In all of his books, variations appear on the theme of white juxtaposed by other colors: “White saints in high windows. / Saintly women bathed in red light.” White often represents the unscathed, but the representation of innocence soon becomes contaminated by other elements of the scene before the simplicity of the color theme grows mundane. For example, in the sixth poem of the series, “The crows killed a dove / in the blue window of morning.” When a white dove becomes a symbol of death, a natural act of sacrifice, the white evolves into realms of absent life instead of innocence. As Zajc illustrates in this series, he deconstructs an image, a color, and a state to identify the complexity of existence through the various states of careful observation. However, the tension of his poetry intensifies because this deconstruction process deeply troubles Zajc. By the end of this series, it is not merely the symbolic gestures of a gothic window that suffer, but it is the speaker, the “I” that “struggles” with his own varying positions.

By his sixth book, Zajc exposes the figurative presence of the early books. The translator, Erica Johnson Debeljak, captures the repetition of syntax and imagery in these translations to help preserve the rhythmic qualities of the original Slovene. In White, Zajc directly confronts the past images that have haunted his previous books; it is this haunted world that reveals the power of Zajc’s language. Many of the poems focus around an iconic title that allows Zajc to understand the symbolic abstractions as he demystifies the history surrounding these objects: “Milk,” “Goats,” “Mountain,” and “The White Weasel.” These poems layer the imagery of white that connects them, yet ideas of innocence and later corruption do not neatly unite the images. In many of these poems, although Zajc confronts these images, the iconic histories of these objects do not contaminate his perspective. He remains removed in his interrogation in “Mountain”:
Sometimes between the clouds
we catch sight of a path above the abyss.
It looks like writing across the heights.
We see it only for an instant and we know:
it is the path to the mountain that is not.

Zajc engages a world he keeps at a distance almost as pre-awareness of the temporal world. This dissolve between the speaker and the scene alleviates his periodic risks of sentimentality attached to self-awareness. Zajc seems to respect the rift of the world that he lives in, not as a defense mechanism, but out of acceptance of a paradoxical universe. Although he must settle into a world that violence or void will ultimately disrupt, he continues to engage with these objects laid before him, and he confronts the dynamic of himself as witness to the landscapes that he ultimately can never fully understand. In his earlier books, Zajc creates a great urgency in the images of his unsettled landscape, but by the later books he grows comfortable in the vastness between him and the unknowable.

The oxymoronic title, Barren Harvest, resonates throughout the entire arc of the book’s thematic landscapes. By the final book, Down Down, the internal conflict of Zajc’s scenes surface in the first poem, “This and That.” Zajc characterizes his torment, “This one swears, / that one whispers verses / into a sea of his own verses.” Here, Zajc begins to conflate the two opposing “ones,” instead of focusing on the nature of the contradiction. The conflation of the juxtaposed worlds becomes the ultimate solitude in the end, where Zajc arrives in the final poem of the collection, “Silences”:
that place where you gave your word
that country in the sky
transforms, grows, vanishes

there a bird flutters there
under a great mountain

This triangular cycle of action that Zajc formulates to reach final insight follows the overall trajectory of Zajc’s work. The book ends “soft as a sigh,” in a quiet echo of the awareness reached through Zajc’s deconstruction of the landscapes he endured by introducing the duality of contradicting forces to a third possibility: vanishing.

These poems are not history lessons or personal memoirs, or any simplification of two opposing worlds, yet the wonder between the external and internal worlds coexist and are haunted by the imagery they inhabit. The appearance of the language growing quiet in the end offers a moment of closure or rather pacification for the previous tormented poems without falsely turning from the torment, but rather gradually comprehending the profundity of the tensions. Zajc’s command offers the reader a terrific return for engaging with troubled foreign scenes: the beauty of resolve where images vanish into magnanimity.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

NEW! Review of Fence

Fence 7.1 (2004)

Reviewed by Zackary Sholem Berger

“In the aftermath of September 11th,” begins the editorial foreword to the new issue of Fence, not in the editor’s own voice, but in italics: a quote, a reference to the flood of post-9/11 musings that has swept over us. This, plus the next sentence (“we sat down together to discuss what an appropriate editorial response might be”), might seem unpromising. What does poetry have to tell us about September 11th? What about this historical event is accessible to the poet that’s not available in overabundance elsewhere? 9/11 was elemental and tragic just like whatever else overwhelms, puts into context, explodes or illuminates our miniature individualities--in other words, everything treated by poetry. But several paragraphs later, one finds with relief that this acknowledgment of 9/11 is of just the right sort, a pair of unassuming revelations from the editorial mountain: what the editors want is “more emotion in poetry” and “positive definitions of our desires.”

These two short phrases aren’t a bad summary of the many honest, untricksterly, powerful poems to be found in this issue of Fence. (The only failures, in fact, are the overtly political poems that indulge in cartoonish demonizations of their opponents, in the service of the Michael Moore or Matt Drudge schools of rhetoric.) I’m not going to spend limited space on the reprinted “Canto One” by Nabokov, the issue’s opener, but will leap right into the grisly shock-and-awe of Lara Glenum’s “Prayer in the Time of Terror.”* The poet addresses herself to a “Lamb of God / O ringleted Lamb,” a “bright-fleeced,” skipping angel which is done in by a sickeningly effective line break: “with your face so entirely / blown away.” A cheap, graphic trick? No, because the dismembered lamb, “cooked and steaming on a silver platter,” “illuminated / by a sniper’s nest,” is also the Bodiless Lamb, paradoxically an even more faithful fulfillment of the Godliness of Agnus Dei. “O Little Lamb,” concludes the poem, “Why can’t we be like you? / Headless / Eating clouds”: like a lamb, but without being subject to slaughter; like an angel, but able to eat.

Glenum’s weirdly spiritual meditation is paralleled by a similarly sobering piece in the second half of the issue (the axis of which, among many other works I don’t have space to treat here, is a collection of drawings and sketches called “The Three L’s of Real Estate”), a short quasi-fable by Heather Smith called “Burn.” It’s a children’s story gone wrong: “The sparrow asked the boxwood, Boxwood / Why Are You All Black?” The answer is more than a just-so story. A spark “flew from a train” and set fire to an entire town “as far as the mosque of Sulejman / to the home of Fadilbeg.” Though there is nothing here to indicate that the fire wasn’t an accident, the smoke of foreboding hangs over the aftermath (perhaps because of the other poems in this issue). Last, and terribly, the children themselves become part of the fable, with a survivors’ mixture of confusion and mutual aid. The boy “asked her, Does It Burn? The girl / turned to her brother. Does It Burn?”

This issue, in its very length (a crammed-full 180 pages) and ambitious variety, includes more than poetry of prayers, forebodings, and tragedy. There is Jennifer C. Manion’s “At Three, the Girl in Red Shoes Leaves,” a precisely rendered appreciation, bathed in a Vermeerian light, of the three-year-old’s walk and touch. Its tender sharpness is shown clearly in its last few lines: “Where she steps / Is sensitive to light, / As paper // To scissors.” Kevin McWha Steele’s “Brooklyn Criollo” is a lover’s Whitmanesque litany with the soul of a Wendell Berry rhapsody to nature and a Lucie Brock-Broido’s rococo vocabulary, with rapidly succeeding (and near-unconnected) images: “I am the spinning wheel . . . the ocarina . . . the ether.” Here there is no didacticism, just a lesson to be learned about multidimensional personification, the poet that goes anywhere and is anything.

Here, too, are sequences from longer works. Alistair McCartney’s “The End of the World Book” is an alphabet of grim images with the sidelong sneer of an Ambrose Bierce. There is more than just scare-the-bourgeois in the pleasure derived from “V,” an excursus which leans a violin up against a boy: “But still, we enjoy contemplating this. / The boy’s ribs cluck against the ribs of the violin. / This is corresponding. / This has consequence.” But then, directly after: “This has no consequence.” The poem is not sure whether the violin is important, cannot provide evidence “that the nerves of boys were ever used to string violins.” These are playful, insouciant, maddening lines, whose indecisiveness is their charm and their weakness.

The jewel of the issue, tucked away at the very end like a prize for reading all the way through, is Thalia Field’s “Story Material” (an excerpt from her forthcoming Incarnate Story Material [New Directions, 2004]). It’s an Odyssey, or at least an excerpt, with the Cyclops and Circe both identified with and exploded by the poet-narrator. At least, I think so. Field’s is an approach shorn of many linguistic aids (conjunctions, punctuation, identifiable, non-shifting points of view), which gives the unsettling sensation of being both on the island and on the ship, out to sea:
[. . .]                               Oblivious we sail          stuffed with oracles
Stepping right into spiraling              Recording smells and senses, riddles
this violent episode            stops or doesn’t                  Land or not

This isn’t an easily quotable piece. Each brick-laid stanza invites multiple interpretations, reweavings of the ancient stories, and many attempts to rethink what is actually going on. This is both invigorating and frustrating. Similarly, at the end of this multi-variegated issue, with many directions to take for future poetic acquaintance, one feels more oriented to the possibilities of poetic variability, but less sure about what “positive definitions of our desires” can be forged in the light of that heterogeneity. As the end of Field’s piece has it, ushering us into the sea with Odysseus:
Home or nowhere          a Hero,           two eyes          open two eyes          shut

* Note: Lara Glenum worked with Verse until May 2004. Because Fence does not provide contributors’ notes, the reviewer was unaware of that.

Monday, November 15, 2004

NEW! Review of Fanny Howe

The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life by Fanny Howe. University of California Press, $ 16.95.

Reviewed by Michelle Detorie

The first pages of a poet’s book of prose often contain the key to its overarching concerns. This collection's introduction (an essay in and of itself) finds Fanny Howe providing an auto/biographical context for the pieces that follow, highlighting the importance of her experiences living in and around Boston during the seventies. She describes the ways in which the social and political climate of the period contributed to her experiences as a woman in an interracial marriage and as the mother of racially mixed children.

It should be clear, then, that the The Wedding Dress is much more an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual autobiography than a set of essays that deal exclusively or pedantically with issues of poetry and poetics. Howe’s creative work and personal life are treated as a thematically unified whole. In formal terms, Howe’s meditations on word and life are, as the subtitle suggests, studies, observations, recollections, and imaginings. Technically, these are essays--ten lucid and lyrical essays--but as is increasingly the case among poets and writers considered “experimental,” this genre designation seems inadequate. For example, Howe’s “essay,” “Catholic,” was selected by Lyn Hejinian for inclusion in 2004’s Best American Poetry.

The Wedding Dress is populated by real-life characters--Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Thomas Hardy, and Ilona Karmel--iconic figures whose actions arouse a sense of wonder in the author. Propelled by questions of faith and Howe’s luminous curiosity, these life studies progress simultaneously toward both resolution and its deferment.

The first essay, “Bewilderment,” introduces a central theme in her artistic imagination: “What I have been thinking about , lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and a politics.” Howe’s interest in bewilderment infuses the entire collection. For Howe, bewilderment is not a state of mind from which she wishes herself released. Rather, “Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.” Howe’s essays do not operate within the confines of an either/or logic; rather, they explore the potentials inherent in the layers and folds of multiplicities, dualities, complications, and contradictions.

“Immanence,” the essay at the heart of the collection, considers the life of existentialist theologian Edith Stein. Stein, who was raised Jewish and then converted to Catholicism early in her adulthood, eventually became a Carmelite nun. Howe muses on Stein’s written work, both as an academic philosopher and as a religious adept. Though Howe does not mark out a strict dichotomy between the two, she does find evidence of Stein’s transformation--a change that Howe sees manifest in her relationship with language and symbolically represented by the bridal ceremony by which Carmelites enter their order. “She who had started out a skeptical thinker and remained one who used the phenomenological method became a poet who was married to the spirit. The silk white wedding dress she wore at her ceremony . . . was afterwards made into a chasuble.”

Long time readers of Howe’s work have likely wondered about the details of her creative process, and the relationship of that process to her lived experience. To those wonderings The Wedding Dress surely responds, while also inspiring new wonder. The Wedding Dress accomplishes the rare feat of forcing the reader to confront anew familiar themes like language, faith, race, and motherhood.

Friday, November 12, 2004

NEW! Review of Chain

Chain #10.

Reviewed by Jason Oliver Chang

The tenth issue of Chain, TRANSLUCINACION, will attract new readers of this annual publication and strengthen the admiration of readers that ordinarily enjoy the magazine’s brilliance. Editors Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr, along with Thalia Field and Cecilia Vicuna, have rallied artists to grapple with an idea from Andres Ajens, “describ[ing] how translation is a form of reading and writing that creates new work, [and] new conversations.” This is the definition of TRANSLUCINACION, which, like the topic of the previous issue (Dialogue), is also about “cross-cultural encounters [that are] loaded with hope and yet always in danger of doing wrong.” The writers found here show an honest apprehension of translation yet are willing to challenge the limitations of such an apprehension which present exciting results. This exploration into the politics, power, and experience of moving texts through cultural, cognitive, and lingual filters not only brings this creative work into a space of critical imagining, but elevates the dialogue about what can happen with the act of translation. This issue is so rich, that every time I return to it something curious and exciting (re)emerges. This volume offers a trans-disciplinary perspective with many points of access for the unfamiliar reader and immense depth for the experienced.

There are ‘tests’ of poetry moving from Chinese to English to Portuguese to Finnish to Spanish and to French (Charles Bernstein, Haroldo de Campos, Leevi Lehto, Ersto Livon-Grosman, & Traduction Collective A Royaumont). Other tests put the translators of Chuang-Tzu through the Tao of contextual translations; through the noise of the shower, from a cell phone on the street or in a Check-Cashing Office (Allison Cobb & Jen Coleman).

Michael Cueva and Perry Mamaril “Invoke:Evoke” three ancient Philippine verbs, a noun and an adjective with pictures of their beautiful amulets symbolizing secret prayers that encourage the reader, ‘to remember, to endure, nationality (ethnicity), to endure (to be able to), strong.’

Others use the tools of translation as creative partners, like a ‘Teach Yourself Swahili’ text (Albert Flynn Desilver) and ViaVoice software for the Mac (Nada Gordon). The Canadian Erin Moure rewires herself when she translates the Chilean Ajens with an English modeled on Ajens’s sense of resistance to assimilation. Rainer Ganahl translates the cognitive process of learning Arabic into an impressive materiality; or in his words, ‘trying to show what cannot be shown and create some kind of informational congestion where there is really nothing to see ... [representing] the biased and “impossible” task of representing others.’ He also includes a short but dense reference list, which I really appreciated.

One-third through the issue you will find Monica de la Torre bouncing off of Paul Hoover’s poems of performed Spanish authorship. She beautifully (re)inscribes Hoover’s poems into Spanish in order to relinquish them to loose associations to lines from texts by Spanish language authors revealing a poem located within the Spanish language imaginary.

I was glad to find several entries from Hawai‘i including, Hi‘iakaikapoliopele Destroys the Mo‘o Pana‘ewa. I appreciated the use of “informal” Hawai‘i Creole English by Ku‘ualoha Ho‘omanawanui in her defiant translation of a traditional Hawaiian tale of female heroism, thus separating herself from Hawaiian language purists. (Ho‘omanawanui is an editor for Oiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal.) Her translation is accompanied by a painting from Matt Kaleiali‘i Ka‘opio depicting Hi‘iaka battling the evil Mo‘o, a depiction that, for me, represents Ho‘omanawanui facing the cultural stigmas of translating Hawaiian.

Jill Magi offers evidence of a “translation event” connecting her work with that of her Estonian father in excerpts from Threads. Majnun Songs, Sections 1-3 by Qays Ibn Al-Mulawwah, Alla Borzova, Denis Hoppe, Michail Kurganstev, and Ann E. Michael show us the translation of nomadic, oral-tradition, Arabic poems into English-language cantata using a Russian mediator. This work constitutes a re-translation that follows a historical geography that contextualizes the composition, “yet [strives] to maintain the tone and content of the Arabic original.” Similarly, Mahwash Shoaib translates a few sections of Kishwar Naheed’s Composition of a Scorched Heart with the aggravations of the “lack of radically embodied translations of her work.” The various drafts illustrate a kind of wandering through the translation experience in an attempt to end up at the beginning. This notion is echoed in Padcha Tuntha-Obas’s Translation in Six Steps: Thai to English. Conversely, Ammiel Alcalay writes of Shimon Ballas’s Outcast in which he reconstructs himself in the politics of translation into something new. With evolution in mind, Adam Degraff and Pamela Lu translate painting into poetry with Thomas Scheibitz’s Judith & Maria.

My two favorite entries are “Imigrayson / Immigration / L’immigration / Immgarasion” (Michel-Rolph Trouillot, A. Isadora Del Vecchio, Abdourahman Idrissa, Kiran Jayaram, and Karen Ohnesorge) and “Translation as Matricide (the Sequel!)” (Heriberto Yepez). I was enthralled with the manner in which the former demonstrated a critique of U.S. immigration policy’s attempt to categorize ‘outsiders’ in relation to ‘insider’ politics. The process of translating Trouillot’s poems was both engaging and rigorously conducted. The latter concludes TRANSLUCINACION with a poetic narrative of the historical coloniality of translation. The non-standard form Yepez uses reflects tonal afterthoughts of his critical narrative and locates the reader within a logic of translation that Chain #10 spends more than 200 pages refuting.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

NEW! Review of Dane Zajc

Barren Harvest by Dane Zajc. Translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak.
White Pine Press, $14.

Reviewed by Naomi White

Considered by many as the greatest living Slovenian poet, Dane Zajc is a founding father of Central Europe’s post-World War II modernism. Born in 1929, he was exposed to the violent death of his brothers in the war and forced to survive a meager existence in a war-torn country. Zajc’s poetry is bleak and brutally desolate. Like many other Slovenes, Zajc found literature as a voice of liberation, and has become part of a long line of Slovenian poets who combine literature and politics. Translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak, Barren Harvest is the first comprehensive volume of Zajc’s work to appear in English.

The poems in Barren Harvest are composed in simple language with a repetitious structure. Zajc’s lines are almost mantra-like, as if he is repeating the words to himself, in order to stay sane in the midst of tragedy. His short choppy sentences emphasize each word and allow Zajc’s desolate landscape and stark images to stand alone, without excessive language or experimental structure. Through the use of natural images, such as soil, rain, rocks, and animals, Zajc creates a vivid world of life that contrasts with the chilling images of death that involve people, fire, and broken buildings.

In “Lump of Ashes,” from the 1961 volume Tongue of Soil, Zajc explores the inability of language to express grief by using the image of a mouth on fire, burning down into ashes. The poem reads:
You want to utter a word.
But your mouth is full of ashes.

And instead of a word
A lump of ashes rolls down
Your blackened throat.

Zajc’s poetry does what he says poetry cannot do: verbalize suffering.

Because Barren Harvest selects from all eight of Zajc’s volumes, the evolution of his poetry becomes visible. The poems from his 1958 volume Burnt Grass are his most sparse, presenting images of death and destruction, such as “Barren Harvest,” which begins hauntingly: “I recognize his skull, mother said, / by its beautiful white teeth.” Over the years, Zajc’s poetry becomes more bitter and more complex. Rather than simply providing shocking images, poems such as “Rain” from Snake Killers (1968), vent anger: “But you know the cadavers conveyed upon the night’s glassy / rope / and you hate them with their own hatred.” In “You Are Not” Zajc pointedly accuses his oppressors: “It’s a lie that things exist only to soothe you / with tranquil memories, / because one day your whole world will turn against you.”

Later, in his 1984 volume White, his work seems to take a less pessimistic turn, using natural images to create poems of recover. As if cleansed of the burnt ashes described in previous poems, the pieces in White repeatedly use white imagery, such as snow, milk, goats, and silk, to suggest a sense of purity in his heart. In “Milk,” Zajc demonstrates the end of devastating grief by describing the simple act of milking a cow:
you hear a stream of milk squirting from a cow’s udder
on the white floor
and you no longer wonder what happened to
         the screaming in your mind
you open the door and the sun strikes your face
waterfalls of beam and milky lights

The day-to-day ritual serves to take over the pain, giving a sense of normalcy and routine. Also in White, Zajc begins to experiment with eliminating capitalization and punctuation, giving the pieces a barren, silent feeling, as if stripped of all but the essentials.

Zajc’s poems do not just chronicle his own grieving process, but also address other subjects. There are love poems scattered throughout Barren Harvest, such as “Brown Call,” from Children of the River (1962) and “Golden Hat” from Down Down (1998). Even in these pieces, Zajc uses striking natural imagery, as in “Brown Call”: “The light shining through your body / will run through my body and through my bones. / . . . Because you are the tongue in my mouth.”

Zajc can write about subject matter verging on cliche while maintaining freshness in his language. The clear political statements about the nature of war elude a didactic tone because his approach to death, love, and the insufficiency of language avoids sentimentality by presenting images without commentary. The beautifully tragic poems explore the horrors of modern war while focusing on solitude and isolation with stark, bare images.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

NEW! Review of Xantippe

Xantippe #2. $10.

Reviewed by Raechel Anglin

Xantippe: for a magazine whose name references the fifth-century wife of Socrates, known as a scolding shrew, this youthful magazine is a delightfully open, wide-ranging, and accepting adventure in poetry. In its second issue, Xantippe presents the poetry of twenty authors, ranging from the newly published to the poetically established, and concludes with five poetry reviews. On its title page, Xantippe declares itself out of Oakland, California; comfortable in its location, the magazine is brimming with Californian writers, including Julie Carr and Jennifer Scappertone. Not to suggest that Xantippe is geographically limited, as poetry hails from Paris, New York, Colorado. More importantly, Xantippe evidences a breadth of poetic styles.

Sleek in its photographic black and white cover and metallic blue typeset, Xantippe seems to advertise a smooth ride through its pages, which it delivers. Given that the cover’s photo issues from an apparently abandoned suburban setting that is “Quitting, Closing, Moving to Baghdad,” one might be worried that the poetry will also be vaguely political. Xantippe, however, focuses on narrative, language, and style, not a political agenda. Reaching Laynie Browne’s “Welcome 67946, Looting,” a poem with a directly political theme, refreshes and fulfills the cover-art promise, without overbearing election-year yammering.

Overall, Xantippe evinces a flair for the philosophical question, a conceptual interest in endings, and a welcome focus on the poetic sequence. Opening with five poems by Killarney Clary, this issue offers charm in delicate prose poems, as well as a poetic introduction to “telling,” to “Charts outside of saying,” to “Not rush hour--not any hour really--the ordinary wonder of people going one way or another.” Xantippe moves through the ordinary, through detail that often feels concrete and honest, even in syntactic disjunction and dissolution. In her second poem, Clary queries: “What is weight? The cab smells like honey.” Here, she exemplifies Xantippe’s interest in balancing questioning with the tangible. When Clary says, “born with a tendency to laugh, born smart, born at least,” she could be speaking about Xantippe.

Highlights of this issue include:

Joseph Lease’s poem “My Sister Life,” which skims through metaphor, is light-filled and fulfilling. Lease also offers the first sequence of the magazine, “Self-Portrait as the Downhill Slide,” an approachable experience of narrative build-up. He paves the way for Carol Snow’s “from Karesansui” and Donna de la Perriere’s “Occupational Marks and Other Signs,” among other poetic sequences.

Julie Carr’s selections from Mead: An Epithalamion are dramatically diverse, including fantastic lines like “I thought of you as a circle caught within a rectangle, / which meant there was space around you but you couldn’t get to it.” Her poems are feminine and observant, sketched across “a permanently ruptured sky.”

Laura Mullen’s “A Noun’s Meant” is the longest selection in Xantippe, and it earns its space. Mullen dances with and across narrative, so that:
You are reading
                   broken into
What we see her seeing what she sees

In what might otherwise be taken for a declaration            shining a
division representing breath guides another arc . . .

Denise Newman’s poem “Good Zeal,” a lovely exploration in narrative, builds through beautiful clarity:
not that I’m in hell
there’s just no where private
to cry, so I must let him hug me with the wet
yellow rubber gloves waiting by the sink
into a devastating poem that is “a peak of pleasure.

Glen C. Silva’s review of The Frequencies by Noah Eli Gordon is daring in voice and completely engaging. He instructs, “Put on your favorite record or radio station, open this book, and dance,” and after his hopeful and humorous review, we are inclined to do so.

Other highlights include Geoffrey Nutter’s “Journey by Train”; Tom Thompson’s “Mode et Accessoires Femmes”; and Elizabeth Robinson’s “Tracks.”

Xantippe is a solid new magazine, which manages both to explore its sense of self and to retain an awareness of its innocence--an equilibrium that produces enjoyable reading. At $10, Xantippe is well worth ordering from xantippemag@yahoo.com or Xantippe, P.O Box 20997, Oakland, CA 94620-0997.

Monday, November 08, 2004

NEW! Essay/review on Jesper Svenbro

Three-Toed Gull: Selected Poems by Jesper Svenbro, translated by John Matthias and Lars-Håkan Svensson. Northwestern University Press, $16.95.

Reviewed by Kevin Hart

“On the night of October 27, 1981, the Soviet submarine U-137 ran aground in Gåsefjärden (Goose Bay), a prohibited military area on Sweden’s southeastern coast, and finally had to accept the Swedish navy’s assistance in order to be able to return to international waters.” So begins the translator’s note to Jesper Svenbro’s poem “Coastal Defense.” It is as though John Matthias and Lars-Håkan Svensson have stood on either side of a heavy anchor and then thrown it from the poem they are translating. For the poem pitches and heaves from its first words:
The incident of the Soviet submarine in Goose Bay
raises the issue of how we want our archipelago poetry to look:
older metaphorical defenses from the fifties
may of course still have a function to fill
but a modern lyric coastal defense obviously must work
on entirely new premises, at once more efficient and discreet.

How does poetry provide a coastal defense? By shielding Swedish from attack by Russian, Danish, Norwegian, French, German and that most invasive of all modern languages, English. Of course, the fact that we read “Coastal Defense” in English translation suggests that no amount of border control, no matter how “efficient and discreet” it is, can keep the “thirty-kilometer boundary” intact. And since Svenbro’s poetry is profoundly concerned with “the roughness of language,” as he puts it in another poem, we receive it in English more surely at the level of concept than at the tactile levels of reading and writing.

For anglophone readers at least, the most celebrated “coastal defense” of Swedish poetry was deployed by Tomas Tranströmer in the 1950s. “Storm,” the first part of “Autumnal Archipelago” from his 17 Dikter (1954), is exemplary:
Here the walker suddenly meets the giant
oak tree, like a petrified elk whose crown is
furlongs wide before the September ocean’s
      murky green fortress.

Northern storm. The season when rowanberry
clusters swell. Awake in the darkness, listen:
constellations stamping inside their stalls, high
     over the tree-tops.
          (trans. Robin Fulton)

Visually precise, and more than a little baroque, these stanzas indicate the “older metaphorical defenses” that Svenbro has in mind. When Tranströmer returns to the same Baltic seascape twenty years later in Östersjöar (1974), his language has been loosened up and stripped down:
There are days when the Baltic is a calm endless roof.
Dream your naïve dreams then about someone coming crawling on
      the roof trying to sort out the flag lines,
trying to hoist
the rag--

the flag which is so eroded by the wind and blackened by the funnels
      and bleached by the sun it can be everyone’s.

For all that, Tranströmer’s poetics have not fundamentally changed over the decades. Nor has his relation to Swedish. Asked to specify the nature of Tranströmer’s Swedishness when the poet won the 1990 Neustadt Prize, Lasse Söderberg quoted Carl Jonas Love Almquist (1793-1866) on a quality that the latter held to be essential to being Swedish--poverty: “To be poor is to be restricted to one’s own resources.” Restriction generates concentration in Tranströmer, Söderberg observes, and again quotes Almquist as saying that in general the Swede “has very much the manner of seeing quickly and straight through things, which customarily is called sound Swedish sense” (Söderberg, “The Swedishness of Tomas Tranströmer,” trans. Lief Sjöberg, World Literature Today 64: 4 (1990), 576.)

Svenbro would agree. He makes the same point, with a nod towards Tranströmer (and his success overseas), in “Coastal Defense”:
Swedish literature’s long-standing prioritizing of the air force
has gradually resulted in a visually advanced poetry
that has done well at international air displays,
but acoustic poetry has found itself in a backwater
forcing the navy to require subsidies for antisubmarine poems.

The elemental poverty of Tranströmer’s language, its reliance on a minimal Swedish vocabulary, has made it resistant to translation. In “The Station,” for example, the sound and texture of domkyrkoklocklang are lost in “peal of cathedral bells.” On the other hand, the visual brilliance of the poetry, its sense of gazing down upon a landscape or seascape from a great height, has encouraged translation. A poem such as “Vermeer” has a strong appeal in English as well as in Swedish. In “From March 1979” the speaker is weary of those who speak “words but no language” and goes to “the snow-covered island” where he comes upon “the tracks of deer’s hooves in the snow” which are, he says, “Language but no words.” Tranströmer’s poetics rebel against the doctrinal (in politics as in religion) and seek the apophatic (as a response to nature more than to the divine). By contrast, Svenbro wants what we might call “language with words” or “words with language.” His is “acoustic poetry” not only because it reads well at “the increasingly popular poetry readings” in Sweden but also, and more importantly, because it figures the voice as being completely at home in the written word.

Svenbro’s early poems frequently make sudden shifts from one register or perspective or time frame to another. Hence the feeling of pitching and heaving at the start of “Coastal Defense” when we pass from a prosaic statement about a foreign submarine to questions of poetics and literary history and then back to a children’s game, Sänka skepp or “sink-a-ship.” Anything but breathless in its recording of mutations, the voice in the poem remains dry and laconic. Svenbro takes pleasure in managing a difficult balancing act while appearing almost indifferent to the risks he takes. What makes the act so impressive is that there is nowhere smooth and steady on which to stand. We have been alerted that this is the case by the opening poem of Three-Toed Gull, “A Critique of Pure Representation”:
In order to restore to the words their semantic roughness
I told myself that there was no difference
between the stone I held in my hand and the word “stone”
clattering in language: I love the roughness of language
which marks its own presence and I claim passionately
that love of language in this sense
means resistance to pure repression.

In a gesture familiar to readers of la nouvelle critique, “pure representation” becomes “pure repression.” A more instructive recollection would be Francis Ponge’s prose poem about a pebble, “Le galet,” from Le parti pris des choses (1942), and the passage of Maurice Blanchot’s important essay “La littérature et le droit à la mort” (1947-48) that touches on it.

Blanchot argues that literary language searches for the moment before literature, when the stone is still a stone. A poem gives us the word “stone” but the word is drained of the stone’s being. How then to capture the stoniness of the stone? “My hope lies in the materiality of language, in the fact that words are things, too, are a kind of nature--this is given to me and gives me more than I can understand. Just now the reality of words was an obstacle. Now, it is my only chance. . . Everything physical takes precedence: rhythm, weight, mass, shape, and then the paper on which one writes, the trail of the ink, the book. Yes, happily language is a thing: it is a written thing, a bit of bark, a sliver of rock, a fragment of clay in which the reality of the earth continues to exist” (Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” trans. Lydia Davis, The Work of Fire (Stanford UP, 1995), 327-28). Svenbro would like to stop here, insisting on “the kinship of the stone / with the hard and obstinate word ‘stone’.” Blanchot, however, goes further and observes that the poem places us in touch less with the earth than with what precedes and succeeds it: “It is not beyond the world, but neither is it the world itself: it is the presence of things before the world exists, their perseverance after the world has disappeared, the stubbornness of what remains when everything vanishes and the dumbfoundedness of what appears when nothing exists” (328). So Blanchot’s récits explore the approach of the Outside, the ceaseless generation of being as non-being and of non-being as being, while Svenbro’s poems are committed to the possibility of words “representing themselves, / before their validity is extended to comprise the things / that together . . . / constitute what we mean by the ‘world’.” The poem is spoken--a voice trembles and syllables vibrate; it is a body of air before it becomes a body of meaning.

If there is a unity of material reality and language, there are also crevasses between them through which one can fall. “Classic Experiment” risks “taking our stand in a simile near the middle of the Iliad / where the snowflakes are falling thick.” Immediately we slide from outside the poem to deep inside it: “the wind has calmed down, / the landscape with its ridges and woods, fences and fields / appears behind curtains of falling snow.” Standing in the middle of the poem, without continuing to read, the snow does not stop. “Soon the roads leading into the simile will be totally blocked!” Svenbro exclaims in mock horror. (American readers will recall a similar move made right at home in Kenneth Koch’s “The Railway Stationery.”) Another poem, “Cynegetics,” amusingly relates the story of students having to hunt for the Greek verb thereúo, “I hunt,” and then finding themselves being hunted in book XIX of the Odyssey:
          Up to now
We had only hunted with hesitation, unsuccessfully,
While the aorist designated a completed action--
In the past, the present, and the future.
Branches were broken, big piles of leaves were rustling,
From now on we would be successful in “hunting,” our tracking sense
Surpassing even that of dogs as we localized
The Wild Boar behind an unusually dense thicket
Right out at the end of the text. There it was!

And now the students find themselves being hunted:
“we were being hunted” here in the passive, fled
and surely would have been goners had not Ulysses,
age fourteen, taken his stand in the path
and stabbed the boar with his spear in the aorist indicative.

Poets are often identified by their daytime jobs. X is “librarian and poet,” Y is “scholar and poet,” while Z is “mortician and poet.” The Australian poet A. D. Hope once pointedly observed, “These are the sort of people who would call Jesus of Nazareth ‘Carpenter and Prophet’!” True enough, except that Svenbro explicitly courts being styled in a double manner. He never disguises the fact that he is a scholar of ancient Greek literature (his appointment is at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris), and he plays up--and plays around with--the figure of poet as scholar. Even so, one should be careful not to tie “scholar” and “poet” too close to one another in his case. “Pedestal,” for instance, is not a poem written in school; it concerns change and sadness, and has nothing of the footnote about it. Nonetheless it circles around the statue of Phrasikleia, which has been the subject of acute scholarly attention by Svenbro. Facets of his poems are illuminated by the quiet and beautiful essays in Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece (Cornell UP, 1993). Only some facets, though: the poetry is finally independent of the scholarship. That said, a recent uncollected study, “Eyerite: The Greek Alphabet and its Metaphysics of Presence,” brings retrospective clarification to his emphasis on “acoustic poetry,” while also placing him in a critical relation with Jacques Derrida’s account of the relation of subjectivity and speech in La voix et le phénomène (1967).

Like all good poets, Svenbro does not “develop.” If his poems change in their preoccupations and technique it is imperceptibly, like waves slowly advancing over a beach. Loose monologues in the first-person, given to anecdote and sudden shifts, remain constant throughout the book. And yet by the end of Three-Toed Gull one hears a voice that is less content with conceptual agility and more given to the darker tones of experience. Here the flatness of the language, its absolute refusal of “older metaphorical defenses,” conducts an implied weight of experience rather than providing a stage for meta-critical play. At times there are small epiphanies that recall Eugenio Montale’s lampi and that verge on a poetics of redemption. Thus “Frascati”: “The Frascati wine was on our table, / sparkling in a sunbeam. / As I remember its transparency, so many years later, / it changed our vision completely.” Self-reflection still occurs, even in the splendid last poem of the collection, “The Starlings.” One autumn evening in Rome a flock of starlings settles on the trees in the Via Ottaviano. They are “chattering, quarreling and laughing,” and inevitably the poet thinks of Virgil’s description of the souls of the dead in book VI of the Aeneid:
The souls of the dead have gathered in the trees.
Their number is incredible, suddenly it seems ghastly:
is this what it will be like?
For a moment I am a prisoner
of the poem I am writing.
There must be an exit.

So the poem stalls for an instant, fascinated as much with the Aeneid as with itself. There is no “linguistic moment,” though, no pitching and heaving, no slide to the Sibyl or Charon. The spell is broken in a commonplace and human way--by a soldier who comes up to speak with the poet. The recovery allows the poem to modulate into an elegy for Ludovica Koch, a scholar of Gunnar Ekelöf:
I seem to detect your lively gaze.
And we shall see how the starlings come flying
across the field in teeming swarms.
They will come from Rome and spend the day out here
where they will eat snails, worms, and seeds
and suddenly they will fly up from a field
as at a given signal
and make us look at the sun.

No gesture is more common or more tempting than the last one, especially for someone trained in Classics. Yet the moment of transcendence is not easily won. The poem has been embedded in the immanence of Rome and its history: Svenbro walks through the modern city, ponders Virgil, recalls his friend who spent time in Rome, her love for Ekelöf who wrote of Rome in a volume of translations, Elective Affinities, a title that recalls Goethe and, inevitably, his sojourn in the eternal city. Svenbro is a poet of historical strata and their dislocations, whether brutal or minute, and perhaps no other poet writing today is more at ease in negotiating the fault lines that are revealed when one looks beneath the surface of the earth on which one stands or the time in which one lives.

Friday, November 05, 2004

NEW! Review of Skanky Possum #10

Skanky Possum #10

Reviewed by Zackary Sholem Berger

“Before you go any further, read the instructions,” writes Catherine Kasper in “Manual Instruction,” the poem that feels like the true introduction of Skanky Possum #10. Kasper has three pieces in this issue, each with a title in near-bureaucratese that assumes additional dimensions in her hands--the other two are called “Border Declarations” and “Citizens’ Leaflets.” What are the instructions presented here, in a no-nonsense second person? It’s something of a tease, because what we are given are actually pre-instructions: “They have been composed with you / specifically in mind”; “They are presented in a neat, linear fashion / effortless to follow; there is a visual image / so that your emulation can be nothing less than / exemplary. In some cases, everything / cannot be anticipated.” The last lines are a step into concreteness:
It has been assumed, of course,
that you’ve purified the water, that you possess a newly-
charged generator, that you have previous
experience striking a match.

But since everything that’s been said up to now about the “instructions” centers on the ability of the recipient to understand and fulfill them, one might think that the water, generator, and struck match are as much representations of mental or psychological states as indicators of coming adventure.

The second person is a tricky form of address, as anyone knows who’s tried to have a simple conversation without putting their foot in their mouth. This poem doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls. There is a sameness and unclarity about the diction. (“They understand you are / important, busy, and so they have been written / to make your life easy.” Are the two “they”s referring to the instructions themselves, or is the first gesturing toward some authority in the wings? This is a confusing repetition.) When it’s said of the instructions, at one point, that “they jump right to the specifics / and provide the essentials without cluttering / your household, or increasing your consumption,” the reader is confused by the last word’s sudden broadening of reference. (What is “increasing one’s consumption,” and--assuming what’s meant is the purchase of goods and not the virulence of tuberculosis--are we meant to understand it as a good or bad thing?) These criticisms are worth making because the poem is worth reading, the “pre-instructions” of sufficient suggestiveness that the reader wonders what the instructions themselves might be.

As with the previous issue, this issue of Skanky Possum includes many different kinds of work: both studied prose poem and seemingly tossed-off bon mot, love poetry sensitive to every gust of wind and broad parody. It’s not clear whether these juxtapositions were planned or unplanned, whether there’s any unifying theme for the issue aside from a generous crop of poetry from different sizes and species. In any case, there’s another point of similarity with the last issue: the best poems are the simplest--whether that’s defined by number of lines or the paucity of formal, theoretical, jokey, or political infrastructure. Or, for that matter, by the ability of the poet to convince the reader of such simplicity, while hiding the true complexities underneath the surface.

Thus Jerome Rothenberg’s “The Burning Babe,” in two parts, can indeed be read as a detailed contemporary reworking of Robert Southwell’s well-known nativity poem. But it’s just as possible, and even more immediately worthwhile, to be naively introduced (in the first part) to the “babe / is infant boy / he sings,” who “flies into your dream,” a babe with whom we can “somehow muddle through,” and whose own hand, mystically and connectedly, in response to our own hand’s being raised with the threat of violence, “bursts / like worlds emerging / into flame.” With that introduction, the second part (a skeletonizing, or slimming-down, of the Southwell depiction), leading to a universal tragedy in its conclusion--
a babe dissolved
like molten iron
casts himself

into a pit
where others fall
& vanish

bathed with blood

--can plausibly (or perhaps this is wishful thinking on the part of this reviewer, always seeking consolation), in light of the first part, be re-interpreted as a possibility for redemption: the babe’s sympathetic fire-of-compassion is present and possible even in the mass grave.

The simplicity of Thomas Fink’s “Frigate” is of the cunning variety: it characterizes the average reader’s cast of mind while cajoling or seducing its own reader into that very mentality--or a substantially altered version of it. “There’s something new / and learned // before you read / the page / every time you // meet a picture,” the poem begins, with less than perfect clarity. But the image at its close brings things into focus: “We hear ‘lunch’ / and picture / the yellow word, / bubble-lettered, / with sandwich, / with salad / next to it.” Why “lunch” is a yellow word, and bubble-lettered: well, that’s the difference between the canonical “reading of the page” and what the poem is allowed to sneak in around the edges. (And what sort of frigate will the reader of this poem see in her mind’s eye, steaming away from this page of poetry?)

The last poems I’d like to mention are those motivated by the whimsical and personable intelligence of Duncan McNaughton. The simplicity I’ve been talking about here is best paired with an allergy to cliche, the use of sensory realia in the service of the level gaze. The accidents of love and sex are here evidenced by single objects--“a pair of gold shoes,” the ‘araq that’s “good, remorseless”; “the hem of her slip”--but in combination with psychological sensitivity (“the relation / between magnetism and electricity / is it a happy union, or is it torment?”) and a nimble lightness which enables him to leap from culture to culture, from Arabia to Pan to J-Lo, in the space of one poem (“An immunity”). He’s a guy I’d like to know more about, and figure out the connections personal and poetic between the modest-but-inviting dedications (“to the uncertain,” reads one of them) at the end of these poems.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

NEW! Simon Perchik poem

Simon Perchik


You wait as if every river
begins in ice, then moonlight
seeping slowly through

--you don’t wait! the coffee
is sweeping all Earth
on its side, both poles

flowing into the equator
and what you swallow
is already shoreline

huddled around this table
and your lips in the open
the way small stones are left

to help the dead wander back
as the dim light they make
and any morning now.