Saturday, December 31, 2005

reviews 2005

Books & chapbooks reviewed on the Verse site in 2005:

Overboard by Beth Anderson
Selected Prose by John Ashbery
Backroads To Far Towns: Basho's Travel Journal, translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu
Fence Line by Curtis Bauer
Lord Brain by Bruce Beasley
Open Clothes by Steve Benson
Museum of Space by Peter Boyle
Sea of Faith by John Brehm
The Unrequited by Carrie St. George Comer
Adversaria by Peter Dent
In the absent everyday by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit by Timothy Donnelly
Einstein Considers a Sand Dune by James Doyle
Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum by Norman Dubie
Small Weathers by Merrill Gilfillan
Periplum and Other Poems 1987-1992 by Peter Gizzi
Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems by Durs Grünbein
Island by Charles O. Hartman
The Other Half of the Dream by Cecil Helman
American Godwar Complex by Patrick Herron
Lou Lou by Selima Hill
Our Fortunes by Julie Kalendek
Prime Time Apparitions by R. Zamora Linmark
Mischief Night: New & Selected Poems by Roddy Lumsden
Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing by Michael Magee
In a Combination of Practices by Barbara Maloutas
The Singing Fish by Peter Markus
Ancient Capital of Images by John Mateer
Representing Absence by Deborah Meadows
The Glaze From Breaking by Joanne Merriam
Lure by Nils Michals
Proof Of Silhouettes by Sheila E. Murphy
Red Juice by Hoa Nguyen
Waltzing Matilda by Alice Notley
An Essay in Asterisks by Jena Osman
Growling by Brian Louis Pearce
Watermark by Jacquelyn Pope
Fallen from a Chariot by Kevin Prufer
i my feet: selected poems and constellations by Gerhard Rühm
Tremors by Andrew Sant
Florida by Christine Schutt
Late Psalm by Betsy Sholl
The Book of Jon by Eleni Sikelianos
Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt by Charles Simic
Political Cactus Poems by Jonathan Skinner
The Window Ordered To Be Made by Brian Kim Stefans
In The Criminal's Cabinet: An nthology of poetry and fiction, edited by Val Stevenson and Todd Swift
In the Dark by Ruth Stone
Reel by George Szirtes
Some Mariners by Stacy Szymaszek
Subject to Change by Matthew Thorburn

Magazines reviewed on the Verse site in 2005:

Chain (Public Forms)
Chicago Review (Edward Dorn: American Heretic)
First Intensity
The Tiny

Thursday, December 22, 2005

NEW! Ed Davis poem

Ed Davis


It’s getting cold. Consumers will feel the pinch this winter. Soon, we’ll pay dearly for our pantyhose and bleach and disposable diapers. On East Quality Street, a suicide mistaken for a Halloween decoration hangs from a tree.

I discuss it with an acquaintance at the doughnut shop. She’s reminded of a mutual friend of ours, a kleptomaniac dead “these twelve years.” She tells me she became a Buddhist after he died. “The Buddhists do death really well,” she says. “Even now, I can feel him around me as just--energy.” She licks some powdered sugar from her lips.

Even reduced to energy, I doubt Justin would ever condescend to haunt a doughnut shop. His travels were always more whimsical. Once, he flew to Luxembourg and jumped from the most ornate bridge he could find. In his letter, he reminded us that there are 30,000 suicides a year in the U.S. He preferred not to be a negligible statistic.

Afterward, I went to his room to collect the things he had stolen from me: a few records, an ashtray from Graceland, and my Unrest t-shirt with the glittery logo. Myself, I once stole a Pixies CD from a boy with an artificial leg named Ben; he called his good leg “Sydney”. Anyone who indulges in gratuitous Mary Poppins jokes deserves to be robbed. I believe in treating the handicapped as equals, except for the blind--they should be feared. They can hear our louder thoughts. To protect myself, I distract them by whispering, “You know, the Lions Club has been collecting old eyeglasses for ages.” I sprint away before they can recover from their shock.

As for Justin, I have fond memories of him rifling through my attic, looking for hidden listening devices planted by a shadow. “They’re waiting for you to utter your fondest desire, so they can prevent you from attaining it,” he said. I tried to dispel his paranoia by telling him that my fondest desire was a stewardess covered in foam. His disapproving look cut me to the quick. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I meant a flight attendant covered in foam.”

He was too exacting. When he saw me with my notebook, he chided me bitterly: “You’re going about it all wrong. All the great Victorian poets, not to mention James Agee, wrote without pants. You’re just wasting your time.”

Perhaps he was right. And now it’s nearly winter, and nobody knows when I don’t eat. I need to find a moisturizer for life and a new perspective on my dining room. I want to live in an Italian atmosphere, but I don’t know who to call. Still, I’m sure I’ll remember his words the next time I find myself sitting on a curb, handcuffed and shivering in the cold, while a detective knocks on the door of my seedy motel room.

Monday, December 05, 2005

NEW! Review of Jonathan Skinner

Political Cactus Poems by Jonathan Skinner. Palm Press.

Reviewed by Chris Pusateri

Among the most difficult tasks facing an emerging poet is the crafting of a poetics. This undertaking is often complicated by opposition from above: it is a longstanding pastime for established poets to treat the contributions of subsequent generations with reactions ranging from mild bemusement to outright hostility. As we look back at American literary history, we see that each new wave of poets has had its professional foil--almost invariably an academician of canonical stature--who led the charge against the scurrilous influence of the young.

This pervasive skepticism has spawned a number of responses both public and private. One of the more even-handed treatments of the subject came in a recent issue of Boston Review, where Hank Lazer speculated that the poetics of the early 21st century were given more to refining earlier innovations than to creating new ones. He attributes this, at least in part, to the recent professionalization of poetry, which privileges craft--or the mechanical application of technique--over formal experimentation.

Upon first glance, one might think a book entitled Political Cactus Poems extends that earlier innovation known as ecopoetry. We recall that once upon a time, the prefix eco- politicized any word it modified. With its emphasis on sustainable practices and ecological interconnectedness, it was assumed to be antagonistic to the aims of global capitalism (a market logic in which increased productivity promoted limitless consumer appetites).

If anything, Skinner seeks to revive environmentalism’s radical roots. Ecopoetry is, for him, more than simple nature worship; it is a political act located in the space where humans encounter their environment. Not content to forward a warmed-over variant of nineteenth-century pastoralism, Skinner eschews the radical individualism of Thoreau in favor of a collective politics: one that sees people as an extension of their surroundings.
untroubled by impasto, her biography
would include a history of colors
nails, she conceded, were gutsy
but imperfect in this age of plastics
the spewed and shredded earth
hung about her ears, with one foot
she typed the word sardonic

There is little doubt that nails in the age of plastics are risky business. With broad strokes, Skinner lays the plasticity of human invention over the faux-permanence of the natural world, so as to point out that the boundaries between the organic and the synthetic are increasingly difficult to demarcate.

This book also intimates that any theory of eco-logic must acknowledge that the majority of the world’s populace now lives in cities. While environmentalists of the past dismissed cities as part of the problem, Skinner suggests that any modern ecological politics must count the urban environment as one of its core concerns.

hiccup then what
a side of something or peas
clattering down the way
elevator siding Tifft’s fence
Santa Fe Rail’s last ride
smashed down
in the brake with a muskrat
a friendly wave from the engineer
rattles the loose change

As the book’s endnotes suggest, the reference to Tifft is an allusion to Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, which, as Skinner points out, is “264 acres of secondary forests and wetlands reclaimed from 1.6 million cubic yards of municipal waste, since 1975, within the city limits of Buffalo.” The inclusion of Tifft subtly expresses the arduous but necessary task of resuscitation. A viable ecopolitics must not only critique environmental damage, but propose plans for its rehabilitation. As a people, we are fond of making our problems invisible (for instance, municipal dumps are typically located in remote areas or in urban districts adjacent to poor neighborhoods). Such strategies confirm the aphorism that putting something out-of-sight indeed places it out-of-mind. By making these sites (and their rehabilitation) occasions for poetry, Skinner makes them visible once again.

But as goes nature, so goes society: if we are to reverse environmental degradation, we must first examine those factors that contribute to it, such as overconsumption, poverty, and war. An ecopoetics, if it is to be effective, must realize that all environmental crises are the result of social problems and that no real progress is possible unless those issues are addressed.
the terminal, dome-like cephalium
of orange-brown bristles
at the thought of anything less
than total self-destruct, controls
one half by blowing off limbs
in random cow fields

Here we see the poetic field as a mine field, as a site of hidden peril. More procedurally, we see passages of textbook description intercut with the rough-hewn statements of political declaration. Beneath a seemingly beautiful façade lurks a threat both literal and figurative. Yet under the layers of beauty and danger, we have the makings of something sacred, something new.

If we return to Lazer’s earlier point, we might see Skinner’s ecopoetics as begging a larger question: what, precisely, is innovation in the arts? Since all progress is nourished by the developments that precede it, at what point does refinement give way to innovation?

Should we argue this point long enough, we’ll end up sounding like copyright attorneys who quarrel over an operational definition of “original work.” Skinner, however, has more practical goals in mind: the cultivation of a poetics whose concerns exceed the merely theoretical and whose lessons might extend from the page of a poetry book to our everyday lives. While Auden might have questioned the efficacy of poetry, Skinner’s book implies that, in a time characterized by war and social atrophy, the thing we can least afford is a poetry that does nothing.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

NEW! Review of John Mateer

Ancient Capital of Images by John Mateer. Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Reviewed by Mani Rao

John Mateer’s poems visit the scene after violence and its echoes have vacated, and narrate what is seen or encountered--minus opinion, minus sensation. In “Sanjo-Dori” of the sequence “The Ancient Capital of Images,” “His shop is deep and dim, like the cavity left in the face / after an eye has been removed.” Taken as they are, the anecdotes and encounters have the content of haunting horror. In “The Tourist” of the sequence “Ethekweni”: “The wall persists, abrasive, against his cheek / as he’s being bitten on the shoulder in this land of AIDS.” But the approach strips them of horror before it forms: “The tourist just off the plane has no witness to his struggle, / no one but himself to testify to his calm.”

The encounters are also political (with the poet implicated), but the voice persists in calmness and the consciousness does not tip over into distortion and perspective--at the most, it veers at the edge of half-wondering about its own blankness. In “One Year”:
In the autumn, when the elms refused to shed their leaves
and I spent the long calm days lounging at the pool,
I found myself explaining nightly to my students that simply being awake
is not insomnia, is political.

In every poem, the reader is acknowledged, shown a seat, and presented to--explanatory titling acts as captions and locates the events of the poem.

Place-detail is firmed up in a summary slide, usually in the first few lines, setting the scene or arrival at the scene. In “Encountering a Bear” from the sequence “The Deepest North”: “Facing the Sea of Okhorsk, to my right the mouth of the invisible Iwaobetsu River.” In “Thoughts of Tatamkhulu Afrika” of the sequence “Uit Mantra”: “Climbing Bo-Kaap’s cobbled streets. In Nyoongar Country’s Statue of Mokare: I’m walking down the colony’s main street.”

These clear pointers at the outset are like postage stamps marking the envelope, but the postcard that falls out has the slap of the “plain simple,” and the movie is in mute. This is the distinguishing grain of Mateer’s voice--a quiet witnessing that is well beyond sensations, coming close to purity.

“Encountering a Bear” is a typical poem from this volume, an anecdote understood by the addition of the image (which is not a bear but “as a bear,” as if removed from reality) and the poet’s response (“nor do I know I’m running”.)

The is-it isn’t-it speculations and remarks, if any, are usually about the lack of pain. In “Contemplating a Migraine,” he writes, ”But maybe I am the mountain, / and the pain, hidden in cloud, is a foreboding shrine, unvisited.” In “Of the Northern Peoples” in the sequence “The Deepest North”: “Then he’s Yamamba, the Mountain Crone, my dying self/wordlessly screaming.” The structure of the narrative is chronological and goes like this: What was to the right, what was to the left, what was ahead, where was the poet, what went on, and did the poet act, oh? curious, and a mutter.

Stripped of event-based sensations, the sensations in these poems are the place-names. Mateer imports these new textures into his map and mouth of English: “Hanamikoji-dori,” “Sanjo-dori,” “Makwerewere.” This also sets up an opposition to the commonness of his own first name, notably in “My Name is Also John.”

Encounters with the twists and articulations of the cultures encountered are through words, without immersion, seen and heard from a distance: “Did you not hear the poet’s izithakazelo” in “The Valley of a Thousand Hills,” or “Of their words all I hear is the prophet’s name: Shembe Shembe Shembe” in “The Worshippers.”

South Africa, Japan, and Indonesia are the framework around which the poetic insight--and zen--is conducted, but if you take out the framework of places and characters, what you have left is emptiness as in the epigraph below--and this is evident even without the eulogies to emptiness in the book, functioning as the artist statement: “Because there is no answer but emptiness. --Tamura Ryuichi.”

Friday, December 02, 2005

NEW! Review of Hoa Nguyen

Red Juice by Hoa Nguyen. Effing Press, $7.

Reviewed by Nikki Widner

Hoa Nguyen's latest chapbook has the same affect that small pictures on walls do. Red Juice imbues the sense of walking into a stranger's house and being fascinated by what may be revealed. Room by room these poems trace the books, interior walls, paintings, portraits, snapshots, furniture, knick-knacs, and floors. The cover also evokes a sense of the everyday, watermelon red flowers, seed, stems, and rabbit on ivory paper, which looks like remnants of a house: wallpaper, bed sheets, and children's book illustration. Each poem is this kind of familiar arrangement, small snapshots of the everyday. Visceral and urgent, they are anything but ordinary.

“Up Nursing then make tea / The word war is far / 'Furry,' / says my boy about the cat / I think anthrax / & small pox vax / Pour hot water on dried nettles / Filter more water for the kettle / Why try / to revive the lyric.”

Her lines in motion turn both inward and outward (kettle and lyric), up and down (war and furry, cat and anthrax). They reflect lists or thoughts, agile and effortless. Yet they are built with rhythmic tension, open and active. In “Up Nursing,” the rhyming patterns are stressed at the end of words and lines (“anthrax / & small pox vax”). They, like her word arrangements, are unexpected sounds and tensions, as if they are replaying an arrival.

Nguyen's lines also disrupt expectation with imaginative leaps: “I could click the Earth / with my finger spin / to continents holding a cardboard box / on my head / I was trying it ou t/ It was an invention” (“Journey with Investigative Bees”). This poem expands outward from the page, from two to four dimensions, a pop-up book folding directions. It is the journey of possibilities, specific with each beginning or with each day.

“the lake was skinned Membranes /” exemplifies a physicality rooted in the poems' space (“YESTERDAY”). It is the reader, too, who belongs in these poems, who finds familiarity in a welcoming home. The walls made of dreams, stones in small hands, gold lacquered coasters and the smell and sound of eggs cracking and potatoes frying. Or the relationship between the shapes: stones, eggs, potatoes, earth merging in the act of creation, “The muse with cookies.”

Balancing such forces as destruction and creation, the poems refuse simplistic dualities. Opening the poem through disruption, layers of sound fold into timelessness. These limits are self-imposed, weaving tiny frameworks for greater discovery. “I am she who unknots the cord / and lashes us boatless.” This is how we travel in Red Juice, boatless floating in liquid. We are written into a small frame that stills us quiet, contemplating our journey and hoping that after the last page we can enter again, soon. We carry these pictures in memory and shapes in hand, shared but often discarded moments. What we are left with is the memory from her rhymes, her pattern making.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

NEW! Review of Brian Kim Stefans

The Window Ordered To Be Made by Brian Kim Stefans. A Rest Press.

Reviewed by Mark Mendoza

With a new book (What Does It Matter) appearing on Barque Press and a job at the joystick of UbuWeb, “The Kim Stefans sneak attack is [indeed] now in progress”. The Window Ordered To Be Made marks his most consistent and 'accessible' book to date. Though visually less varied than previous outings, there is a remarkable range of poetic modes covered in its beautiful binding, from the surprising masculine personism corrupted in 'Oliphant And Castle' to the communistic sentence-strokes of 'Attitudes And Non-Attitudes In May' à la Jeff Derksen. With hardworking titles such as 'Prelude To The End Of This Book', a well-tuned use of slashes and parentheses, and a wry lisp of lingo vispo invention and ambient ante-vellum throughout, the reader is made to feel the arbitrary restraints and loopy dupes surrounding a bit-stream that eschews the self-help service industry of main street poetics. For those who like their poetry on the wrong side of the fast conceptual art track, Stefans scores the poetic for its potential (anti)literariness, achieving a startling unidirectional détournment to added features in the absence of a known target. The result is refreshingly rhetorical at times (e.g., not afraid to superimpose hypotactic prolixity over an otherwise paratactic pick-n-mix), especially as arguments made in his other publications come to fresh forms and intractably matter.

While poets like Michael Palmer and J.H. Prynne might move us with calculated deferrals of semantic trade routes, Stefans--in this aspect rather like Tom Raworth--impresses us with the wisdom of a potluck presentation and the witty speeds he can wield when responding to an overcoded senseless sensory world. To mix metaphors, reading The Window becomes an act of making fun of hypercognitive pretensions. A veritable connect-for wizard, Stefans' poems shove their way past the plague of 'quiet, understated' high street poems, “where lightness is fitness”, by asserting their status as undecodable inscription, the surprise “surprise” wrenched from a clockwork deconstruction. In a comparable manner to Charles Bernstein, his greatest momentum follows the wandering of a well-aimed pun, where the time of laughter and carnival permits neither slipstick nor peel-back to reveal fancy. With a style that is both ironic and funny ha-ha, the madcap types, gifting us with a wealth of superb one-liners and thorny phrases: “We make high ceilings in central post offices in an effort to supplant old religions”, “Here is the colon: / and here, it's Happy Meal”, “the Gabriela Sabatini Intelligence Project. . .”, and “The Amish getting squeamish”.

Using the pharmaka-dart of satire to undermine the Hypocritical Oath, the poet revels in revealing the assonance of the grotesque. When this strategy trips up on its own premises, the result is little more than an anticipation of 'nothing happening' or observational comedy that curbs the reader's enthusiasm. For example, “Everyone thought you were beautiful / Now, to deliver the urban landscapes / Seems only normal: upsets, lapses, hosannas, bananas. . .” seems less inventive than other instances where the stakes seem greater. Similarly, “To be free / and ice skating!” might be more effective the closer you live to Central Park but otherwise risks sounding a cheap shot. And yet, in contrast to many other younger U.S. poets, at least the labour of the line-break here is recognised (though better so in “You consider Nicaragua / the imagination”), so as to liberate disaffection with the end of the poem. Given the risks each poem takes, the tender steaks they refuse, it is no wonder there is further to fall. Stefans 'goes there' equipped with the reconstituted grit and “twin flagpoles” ('I Had that Idea') that every good PomoRomo deserves.

In order to confine the 'impure' element or glitch and neutralise it after the event by non-dialectic com-position, lines separate into discrete events promising further trouble in the production of tickler pro-files. Sparing us the production of “remarks of unintended kindness out of undernourished witticism” permits the poems to sublate the uncounted “cavities of the Future” with decisive autopoesis (the window ordered to be made rather than the “Stained- / glass windows” or Microsoft icons that “keep the descendents / unhappy, but productive in masses”).
The word's out: cut your mouth. Bargain in the park.
I should just rip up those poems and create prose narratives
out of them, like I'm doing
now. It's now coming back,
with conversation about social leperdom
in 1952. Lucked / Bird / Perspective.

The cut of such lines produce randomised stop-gaps and strategic delays in conventional discourse, coaxing the striking from the open universe between full-stop and capital. Much of the poetry here relies on an interplay of the breakdown and recovery of the forms of direct statement or a presentation of the rhetorical blank at the heart of said discourse (e.g., “Putting a square patch on your shoulder to kill an instinct”). The beginning of 'General Statements Concerning The Rubberyard' is a good indication of verse that is less reliant on collage than accidental or nude mechanical arrangements of personal and public file contents:
General blankets descend on the rubberyard.

This pistol holistic
piles in the whinny
of the rubberyard. The dorsal trope
adjusts the rubberyard, until
stentorian, “profound.”
Germinal sweetness in the rubberyard.

Such repetitions seem to mimic the circuitous route of the academic approach to concept-forming and the spidery anaphora the poet favours in his works so far--represented here by the prose-block and paean to soft labour 'We Make'--likewise pleases by deprivation (like the instructive uselessness of Kevin Davies' memorable 'Anselm's fisting Cheetos' in Comp). There is a tactics of Duchampian counters and faked resets in The Windows, where “Of an 'ooh' and an 'ohh' we know nothing / but numbers.” Another look through these zeroes and one can see a serious criticism being made of logicians like Rudolf Carnap who have presumed that thought can be reduced to language, leaving feelings to lag behind as blind discharges of self-expressive demonstrations. This may also explain why Stefans enjoys using contrariness as a basis for reflections that do not regress into reflex navel-hazing:
These are like
Dropping off the guys off somewhere
(Bakunin's temp hair is limp)
The anonymity of the “I” on the web page
Remembers graduation

A careful economy is at work here, with the end-position of “like” and the suggestion of failed revolt (Bakunin's strategy of “the free association of all productive associations”) leading logically to a condensed statement regarding the current maturation of the ego in the electronic job market. The plural tone creates a congruence as opposed to coherence, sampling the loony tunes of everyday defeats, “with this kind of information / available to panic”: “the Chinese years symbolized by animals/ Worthy of reading / If only for the erotica category” (a sly nod to Said Orientalism and the new meanings my generation attaches to Asian-fetish). Appropriately, in the facing poem entitled 'Midas Ears' we have a snotty “punk” utterance, “divided between the rout of Pollocks / and What's Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers.” Rather than accept the blumen-speech of abstract modernism, Stefans uses his Smart Word Paint to spray these flowers through a variety of tools until they resemble Saying, e.g., the “spilled cosmos made patterns / of roses in the pool.” ('Howlings in Favor of Tulsa') “[S]hut off all / auto-correct features” ('I Had That Idea'); in a poetics that allows the 'programme' to demonstrate its monstrosities, don't expect these indeterminable acts to come up rosy: the capitalism of the history-machine is not the history of the capitalist machine. . . “Given any time, and the web of incestuous comeuppance / generates its angular rose. / Vocal / Caverns.” Sources emerge as pointers and flash-backs of alienable experience that dislike their coding in snap images or the lyrical tag hung around the emotional tie-rack. The dialectic of singular negative production and the labouring of burrowing meet in a cautious reframing of expression allowing cross-pollination from urgent masks.

The Windows proffers the shock of reprogramming when two provisionally isolated and hollow grams are juxtaposed and misled to an embrace worth its weight in icing sugar. For instance, many of the finest passages rupture the involving orders of ordinary syntax with deictic prescience (“No symbols are involved. . .”), performing the arbitrary or pro-grammatic organization of alphabetic lists ('Gatt's Freedom') and regimental linguistic fatigues:
Move to Brazil. Something like Pink Floyd
atmospherics; something decades-past
achieves new relevance. Peek-a-boo eyes
like steady-cams in the toilet swilling darkness: lost.

At the end of the game they alphabetize the names.

Count yours in it.

Too / Tall / Harry.

One / With / Sun / Stick.

Instrumental break will not convert them;
she races through the galleries, gender-crippled.
Hostile arrangements:
it's called editing.

Read slowly, these lines show something of the alienating aspects of the culture-jamming and “editing” the poet must undergo in order to achieve a form sufficiently open for incisive political put-downs and a decentred wellness. Another fine example, “Self-hatred: keeping your arms spread out”, appears in a short poem entitled 'Corso', after the 'Beat poet' who famously predicted the sad course of a socialist writer's 'post-spectacle' stance when he wrote “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is power.” There are no more books of pleasure; even “Raoul Vaneigem // ended up on one of those Iraqi playing cards.”

The model of the contemporary poet downloaded by Stefans antagonises the distinction of s(t)imulation, using his relibidinized mouse and customised Explorer to delineate the deprivations of the reality principle in poetic pleasures. However, the principle behind such pleasures is free to speculate on further speech-acts in order to maximize satisfaction, sparing the reader the trauma of actually living out the content of their drives and offering instead an embedded interface, in-yer-face. Even the ungoogleable cannot keep their heads above the deluge of junk information, rehashable trivia, and the snooze that stays news. “Another conveyed his position on recent developments / in Van Halen: he was an 'anti-Samite.' / I want to be immune again” ('The Journalist'--the last line of the stanza quoted here rhyming crudely to my ears with the hero's lament at the end of Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries). That is, we are all users, “tiny zeroes in the astro-turf. . .” ('Provincial Hack'), “we make codas out of what we were once highly anticipated, fresh beginnings.”

From the misgivings the poet has found expressed in the “politics out of unsorted data” comes a persuasive disarticulation of reconfiguration before it can become orthodox reconnaissance. The complex lets its context slip, exposing the shadowlife of line feeds; where forced digits are as unreal as Pop's satellite dishes. Thank the Stefans module, for a book that is--in the (r)ear of advertising idioms--critical of its own 'flashy' uses and avoids baiting readers into passionless beholding. Rather, readers are asked to consider themselves as subject-positions that do not belong to the web, but are a limit of the web, entangled in a composite of hyperlinks.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Gerald Bruns' The Material of Poetry

: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics (Georgia, $24.95)

includes cd with poems by Steve McCaffery, Christian Bok (doing Kurt Schwitters' 20-minute "Der Ursonate"), John Cage, Jackson Mac Low & Anne Tardos, Henri Chopin, Francois Dufrene

based on a lecture series delivered at Georgia Southern University


1. Poetry as an Event of Language: The Conceptual Achievement of Contemporary Poetics
2. The Transcendence of Words: A Short Defense of (Sound) Poetry
3. Poetic Materialism: The Poet's Redemption of Everyday Things
Conclusion: On Poems of the Third Kind (a Thought Experiment)

two excerpts from chapter 1:

"My idea is that what is philosophically interesting is a poem that is not self-evidently a poem but something that requires an argument, theory, or conceptual context as a condition of being experienced as a poem (or of being experienced at all), as if poetry were, as I think it is, a species of conceptual art, where the relation between theory and practice is a two-way street. In reading a poem, one might experience a theory of what poetry is. The point is that what requires no thought, what can be accepted without question--the chesnut, the museum piece--cannot be of much philosophical interest. A kind of oblivion hovers over 'the canon.'"

"Academic quarrels about critical methods notwithstanding, the university study of poetry, such as it is, is not governed by concepts and examples much different from the criteria and models that underwrite such respectable institutions as The Harvard Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, The New York Review of Books, the poet laureateship of the United States, the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month, the Pulitzer Prize, and Garrison Keillor's Writer's Alamanac. Ours is, being Western, an Aristotelian culture, where unity and coherence of form, clarity of meaning, and rhetorical accessibility are indispensable conditions of efficient coexistence."

Steve McCaffery is a major presence in the book. Bruns quotes his "Poetics: A Statement": "I have no steady poetics, no position or school that I defend, no fixist stance on art or anything else. I have a constant stream of feelings and ideas that constantly change, modify and carry into action as techniques for living. What I try to do is understand this flux and develop for myself a thoroughly nomadic consciousness; a mind in constant movement through stoppings and starts, with the corollary of a language art in permanent revolution, contradiction, paradox and transform."

Clark Coolidge appears, too: "there are no rules. What I think is that you start with materials. You start with matter, not rules." Bruns continues: "And the matter is language or, more exactly, words or, more exactly still, the material of words--the sounds of the voice and the letters of the alphabet, where the letters are experienced not only phonetically but also, as in visual poetry, as patterns of print or ink."

Bruns also writes about Lyn Hejinian's and Charles Bernstein's poetry and prose: "Bernstein's poetry is difficult not because it is obscure in the way poetry often is (sheer density of language) but because it is rooted in parody, quotation, mimicry, and pastiche--and also in what performance artists call 'breaking the frame.'" Further on: "Bernstein's poetry theatricalizes the languages of everyday life, including the contexts in which these languages are used. ... Theatricality is the enemy of naturalization, normalization, standardization, routinization, and obliviousness."

As is probably clear by now, much of the book is a defense of "difficult" contemporary poetry--finding ways to read it "as something other than nonsense." While some readers will wonder about the need for such a book now that this poetry has infiltrated/broadened the mainstream (and thus MFA programs and literary magazines and even the awards superstructure), it's worth recalling that the book began as a lecture series and that the organizations mentioned in the second excerpt above do their best to ignore this kind of writing. (Bernstein's "official verse culture" doesn't mean exactly what it did when he first advanced the phrase, but it's still relevant.)

To that end, one of Bruns' more common approaches in the book is as follows: "the problem [of Coolidge's book-length poem The Maintains] is arguably not one of nonsense but of too much sense, augmented or invigorated by alliteration, assonance, and echoes of all sorts. ... The poem forces us to expand our boundaries of what we think of as meaningful." The Maintains "teaches us something about the limits of exegesis or about the shortfall in the way we are taught to read in school, where the rules of information theory are almost exclusively in force."

Oddly enough, Bruns echoes Vendler's comment re: John Ashbery (in a review in The New Republic): "We make sense of a poem not by the application of critical methods but by living with it until we are part of its world."

Is Bruns a kind of Vendler, but a Vendler with a greater capacity for / interest in experimental writing? If Vendler's attempts to offer "synopses" of Ashbery poems seem misguided or old-fashioned, then how do we take Bruns' attempts to "make sense" of McCaffery and Coolidge (and Bernstein and Hejinian and Retallack) poems? If both Vendler and Bruns want to make sense of difficult poems--i.e., to render the effects of the poems in normative prose--then are they as different as their topics / associations / tastes would lead us to believe? Or do venue / rhetoric / assumptions trump method in how we view / align critics of contemporary poetry?

Does one need to be an experimental critic to write about experimental poetry in an appropriate way, or just an open-minded reader? Do university-based critics still need to follow the rules of academic prose when championing work outside the center?

Bernstein clearly has demonstrated a way (or, really, many ways) around the normative in his criticism, but most prose about "difficult" poetry is as straightforward as the poetry it denigrates. A prominent example is Ron Silliman's writing on his blog (, which contains some of the clearest, most cogent writing about poetry today; yet Silliman does not work in a university and thus seems freer than Bruns or Vendler to pursue non-normative critical prose. But the techniques of his own poetry (as well as those of the poetry he champions) and of the writing on his blog seem quite different, if not at odds.

Bruns has a sharp mind and wide-ranging tastes (he also writes approvingly of Marvin Bell in the book), but The Material of Poetry cannot be considered experimental itself. This could be due to the book's origin in a lecture series, though when one considers the possibilities for innovation in that necessarily performative format (in which Bruns played sound poems for his audience), that doesn't seem like a valid reason. Consider a book on the same topic and with the same impetus if David Antin, or Bernstein, wrote it.

Verse would welcome responses to the questions above as well as responses to The Material of Poetry itself. You can use the comment field or send 'letters to the editor' to Brian Henry at bhenr [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

new issue of Verse

The new issue of Verse is out. It includes an interview with Mary Jo Bang

& poems by

Charles Simic
Tomaz Salamun
René Char
Charles Wright
Cate Marvin
Arielle Greenberg
Oni Buchanan
Andrew Joron
Richard Roundy
Jennifer L. Knox
Ted Mathys
Joy Katz
Christopher Edgar
Debbie Urbanski
Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle
Michael Farrell
Wayne Koestenbaum
Michael Savitz
L.S. Klatt
Juliet Patterson
Herbert Scott
Kerri Webster
Philippe Jaccottet
Peter Jay Shippy
Julia Story
Chuck Stebelton
Vona Groarke
Aaron McCollough
Craig Coyle
Sharon Kubasak
Nathan Hoks
Lisa Fishman
Alissa Valles
Elena Karina Byrne
Megan Johnson
Steve Langan
Jennifer Militello
Kevin Craft
Karla Kelsey
Christof Scheele
Philip Gross
Beverley Bie Brahic
Joshua Kryah
Isabelle Garron
Thomas Heise
Julianne Buchsbaum
Carl Tillona
Nick Twemlow
Daniel Coudriet
Meta Kusar
Charles Wuest
Richard Meier
Jamie Thomas
Kostas Anagnopoulos
Karen Leona Anderson
Abby Millager
Garrett Doherty

152 pages in all.

Copies are available at a discount for $6, postage included, until December 1 (after that, they're $8 each). Order by sending a check to Verse, English Department, University of Richmond, Richmond VA 23173.

Friday, October 21, 2005

NEW! Review of Coconut

Coconut #1.

Reviewed by Teresa M. Pfeifer

When you arrive, Dear Reader, you will want to laugh. Maybe it is that big red coconut, but Bruce Covey, editor and designer, has a keen sense of web page design. The organization of this site is lovingly ordered for easy reader navigation. The front page connects the reader immediately to the work through five sprouted coconut trees of saturated colors, lined up and hot linked--they are the “buttons” to: 1. Contents (listed by author) 2. Notes 3. Submission Guidelines. 4. Links (a compilation of other online journals), 5. The Associate Editor(s) and Copyright statement. Open any coconut tree button, and find each subsequent page lined with faint coconut tree wallpaper behind the text, except for the poem pages which are infinitely white. Also, at the main page, a very large, very ripe, red, extrovert coconut greets you.

Here's where it gets fun. The font is large enough that it is accessible to readers with impaired vision, it looks great, the words are fairly bulky, and because of many of the writers' take on language, this enhances the word as object in virtual space. It is to Covey's credit that he has forsaken the bells and whistles approach for a form that mirrors content while being pared down to the essential.

Once you enter and click on a poet's name, the author's name is at the top of the page with the poem below it (this is worthy of note because the author's name is hot-linked to the Notes page where readers can shift back and forth to read about the poem, the writer, the process, before, during, or after reading the poem). Reading through the Notes, one discovers that there is a keen interest in the online world among these writers: Covey has used the “I'm Feeling Lucky” feature at to create a composition structure; Aaron McCollough uses what he refers to as “google-sculpting.”

The poetry is a wonderful collection of emerging and established-yet-questing poets with different sensibilities, occupational backgrounds, a bit of a generational mix, and very distinctive voices.

Coconut highlights include a glimpse of Alice Notley's tentatively entitled, A History of the Ghouls, “The Rare Card” being the first poem in the third section of her new work. Trinidad offers two stanzas of a work that, upon completion, will consist of twenty stanzas. His notes reveal part of his modus operandi: “each stanza must be written in one sitting; the first line of each stanza must include the word 'pink'; each stanza must include a confession.” These are heartbreaking and hilarious, reminiscent of Frank O'Hara; not surprisingly, the project is dedicated to the New York School.

Wang Ping (her notes should be updated) has three poems in this issue that throw weighty punches. It's lovely to read a poet who can weave language on a delicate thread that ties one in a rigid, unbreakable hold. Ping can elevate open sentiment to a sacrament, as in “Crab and Catfish,” when the poem's narrator observes what happens when buckets of crabs and fish have been accidentally dumped onto the street in Chinatown. The narrator expresses full throttle sentiment while observing her own reaction from an objective stance: “Outside the crowd my tears come / This is a kingdom where low creatures are killed daily / Like the moon circles the earth / Like hunters hunt, peasants plough / And trees fall for highways and cows / There's no more reason to cry for the bottom feeders / Than for the little girl in a dingy bakery / Devouring noodles and wanting more.”

Jon Leon's language moves like machinery, according to some algorithm that Kurt Schwitters might have endorsed for breakfast were he a digital native. Do they have any siblings?: “5.9 suburban outpost. Get 4.9 jobber, / relative, over. Squeeze ventriloquist shasta. / The sea squires whisking parrot.”

The poems of Frank Menchaca are not for consolation; rather, they take note, with an eye that is bent on observing the unseen. Although only one of these poems was written in response to the collapse of the World Trade Towers, each carries a sense of loss. Weird and wonderful, in “The Secret City” Menchaca perfectly distills the digitized world, its clarity, and its requirement of something human.

Fabulous work by Ken Rumble, the edginess of self-consciousness over everything! The obsessive, awkward, and pleasing rules. And don't miss Amy King's moves from the devastating to the hilarious. In one poem she is able to say “Love has always been / the woman in the lake,” snd later, in the same poem “But mostly, I am taken / by the sense / of a blue suede dress / that shrinks to fit you.”

Alex Lemon's poems read like laments. Laurel Snyder's voice is deadpan funny, Chaplinesque, and, like artful comedy, completely tragic. In her poem “It's Only Natural” the narrator begins “The little girl pulling the puppy's tail / Should stop her pulling. No amount / Of force exerted will turn the puppy / Inside out.” The subsequent turns in the poem are well worth the ride. Also, included in the journal and equally worthy of remark is poetry by Shanna Compton, Katy Lederer, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Lisa Lubasch, and Sawako Nakayasu.

Monday, October 17, 2005

NEW! Review of Peter Markus

The Singing Fish by Peter Markus. Calamari Press, $10.

Reviewed by Andrew Richmond
What I want to do is associate words so they produce a certain fact. If you mix two chemical products you produce a reaction. In the same way if you put together certain words you’ll obtain a reaction which will have a value for people on this planet. --Sun Ra, cosmic philosopher and jazz composer

The Singing Fish demonstrates Peter Markus’ ability to cut away a familiar landscape and shape into its place a perfect language. Using words that are character of their sound such as “moon,” “mud,” “river,” and “fish,” Markus forsakes the limits of designation and uses reiteration and persistence as catalysts for a rhythmic language that feels like impeccable mantra. Calamari Press has put together this comprehensive and vibrant vessel for these hypnotic stories, at last providing Markus some real estate for a fixation that has spanned seven years and resulted in hundreds of comparable stories scattered across a litany of literary journals.

To be fluent in the language of The Singing Fish is to be confident in its folklore. In the collection’s bellwether piece, “What The River Told Us To Do,” we are provided exactly what we need in order to take on the anima mundi:
Us brothers said some words back to our father, words such as ‘moon’ and ‘mud’ and ‘river’ and ‘fish,’ but even these words, words that were the world to us brothers, these were sounds that our father did not hear.

This isn’t to say that without such an introduction we would be unable to appreciate each story in The Singing Fish. The stories are carefully supportive of each other and allow the collection to read more like a novel whose components you can rearrange and still feel grounded.

The characters in these stories carry on in their own obsessions. The narrators, two brothers who exist mostly indistinguishable from each other, tell their fables in a single voice:
Us brothers sometimes have this thing between us. Sometimes we say what it is the other brother is or has been thinking.”

Aside from an ongoing argument over which each brother is “Fish Head One” and “Fish Head Two,” the voice is consistent and unswerving. The brothers are captivating in their interpretation of boyhood, and at once can seem innocent in their bond or apparent as colorable, wall-eyed, and gaping mouthed creatures.

Other characters are just as extraordinary. The brothers share a mother and father who offer little dialogue but maintain their cohesiveness, be it through displays of affection or stern authority. We are also introduced to a tongueless “Boy,” afforded characteristics of a dog before ultimately becoming a “keeper.”

On more than one occasion we engage in a relationship between the brothers and a girl they construct from mud and fittingly refer to as just “Girl.” In one story, Girl’s eyes become moons and then shatter into stars, and in a different story the brothers crawl into Girl like a cave and discover their stick-figure representations on the wall. Their sequence of encounters isn’t key. What is principal is that the events happen and it is telltale of Markus’ ability to craft astounding fiction.

The omnipresent themes in The Singing Fish hinge on creation, mortality, and revival, and feel both haunting and jubilant. Anything goes in the world Markus has created for his brothers. Characters are created from mud and spring from the natural world just as easily as they are dismissed, only to reappear again. We learn of the brother’s obsession with mud, to the point of ingestion, and their obsession with fish, perhaps most notably involving a telephone pole studded with fish heads--measurement of the brothers’ merit and devotion.

Markus has a gift of warranting the circumstances for which his language is contained. And in doing so he is able to manipulate word play that feels foreign at first, but continues and remains sweet and eloquent, such as, “Out back to the back of our back yard,” or when Markus renders ownership to less obvious proprietors, “Our front yard’s ground” and “Our bedroom’s window.”

Markus’ language is not just clever text built around bizarre characters and circumstances, but illustrative sound that frees us from the concrete provisions and provides an environment for the text. When those sounds come together and tell such a story as The Singing Fish, the obtained reaction throws a wrench into our own realizations and holds intrinsic value for people on this planet.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

NEW! Review of Jacquelyn Pope

Watermark by Jacquelyn Pope. Marsh Hawk Press, $12.95.

Reviewed by Emily Taylor Merriman

Jacquelyn Pope's first book of poetry, Watermark, coheres: her voice is mature, and the tone is strong and even throughout. The cover image, an intriguing old map of Amsterdam, grounds the reader in the world of the poems, many set in the Netherlands, where the American poet lived for seven years.

The first of Watermark's three sections establishes the atmosphere of living as “other” and as “wife.” In poems like “Woman in Translation” Pope describes the experience of being transplanted and needing to learn other ways of living: “Let me / be written into this world: / something of substance / behind me now.” The second section explores ongoing adjustment and beautiful, strange flowerings, in “Ghostlily,” “Iris,” “Anemone,” “Tulips.” Departure and loss mark the final section, but with a narrative undercurrent of time's renewing force. This section also meditates on home, as when she writes, “I've settled with dust / and disbelief. I'm home” in “Letter in Two Drafts.” Pope reimagines her past for the reader, who is invited to experience intimately the sensory and mental world that the poet once inhabited, and, through the poem's re-creation, can inhabit again in spiritual form, even as a “devoted old ghost.”

The opening poem, “Raddled,” explores life's dynamic movements between separation and connection, dissolution and integration. The collection develops these simultaneously embodied and psychical movements through an impressive range of poetic forms, including a prose poem, “Red Scarf.” Pope makes good use of internal rhymes and alliteration. Some of the poems (“Hoogstraat,” “Vagabond”) are tightly woven; in others (“Iris,” “First Lesson in Silence”) the syntax starts to unravel. This range of formal textures inhabits the broad territory now open between the competing powers of the traditionally formalist and the experimentally “free.” At the same time, Watermark stretches the conventions of the mainstream personal lyric.

Pope's poems often enact a transformative movement, most often a descent (“Persephone Descending,” “Woman in Translation”), sometimes a rising (“The Baker's Wife”), and often a horizontal movement--for example, out to sea (“Hoogstraat,” “Rain Diary”). In the final stanza of “Dwelling,” Pope succeeds in keeping still and moving up, down and out all at once:
Under blankets, under beams
we sheltered by blank windows
tucked under roof tiles
and chimney stones, under
the briny air, its muddied stars.

The frequent descents suggest the influence of Weldon Kees, and the lively poem “Mrs. Robinson” is a response to Kees, simultaneously an act of homage and an implicit remonstrance at the marginalization of women in the world of the Robinson poems. There are also echoes of W.H. Auden (“I asked for hope, and no hope came”), of Sylvia Plath's sharp humor (“You wouldn't stick by the likes of me, / but you do, you do”), and of Adrienne Rich's determination to glean and grow from the past.

In Watermark, time and weather bear down on the human psyche. Time sours, but also heals: “Time cured me past caring.” Scars are “weathered by the dark”; one can become “wind-grown.” Many of the poems succeed in moving between the realms of cityscapes and seascapes in the outer world, and landscapes of the unconscious. These scenes do not merge, but flow into each other--like the fresh water into the salty sea, the poetic line into the poem, reality into imagination--as in the powerful final poem, “World's End”:
One day I shall walk out and cross the sea
and crossing it shall carry me from tides
below the oyster shell of sea meeting sky
and I shall come up on the other side--
back of beyond, a land covered with frost,
studded with fires.

The last line, “I'll come alive in the wrack of the sea,” is an unsentimental assertion of survival, a subtle reference to poets like Kees and Hart Crane who have drowned, and even an apocalyptic vision in which, post-tempest (and the last section is full of storms), this great globe itself shall dissolve. The word “wrack” here is excellent, incorporating seaweed cast on the shore (a metaphor for the unavoidable detritus of each lived life, for destruction, for the ironic eventual “wreck” of the sea itself--place of so many shipwrecks) and the “rack” (wisp of cloud) of Shakespeare's “leave not a rack behind.”

Pope is particularly good at evoking the experience of being a woman participating in heterosexual domestic relations (“The Good Wife,” “Dwelling,” “The Baker's Wife,” “Persephone Descending,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Furiouser and Furiouser”). “Household Economy,” written in cookbook second-person, employs a clipped iambic pentameter, with lines that often lose the opening unstressed syllable, in illustration of the poem's purported message: “Begin by paring back, by peeling down . . .” In the penultimate line, “Cut down or turn out whatever wears out,” the poem's first spondee aptly interrupts the iambs, as if the rhythm of the verse were itself wearing out. The last line yokes the poem's themes of keeping house and keeping silent: “save your breath for shaping mending words.” The meanings of “shaping mending words” multiply: words may mend; words may need to be mended; the woman poet may need to speak up, or be quiet, for the sake of peace in her home, and she also needs to write. Jacquelyn Pope's poems are at once recipes, whose ingredients are carefully selected and kept words, and the spicy, savory, or even sour meals that those words--cut, stirred, and simmered--create.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

NEW! Review of First Intensity

First Intensity: a magazine of new writing, #19. $14.

Reviewed by Heidi Lynn Staples

The dream people need me
and I need them. They come
and move outside the tent of sleep
I see their shapes moving
on the pale fabric wall, shades
cast by the dawn of light
and I know they come for me again.

So dream people bid Robert Kelly go in the opening poem of the most recent issue of First Intensity. Similarly, poetic reverie invites this issue's readers; works beckon by writers such as (listed in order of appearance) the aforementioned Robert Kelly, Diane Ackerman, Laura Moriarty, Robert Vivian, W.B. Keckler, Robert Haynes, Sean Mclain Brown, Toni Mirosevich, Christopher McDermott, Michael Rothenberg, Tom Whalen, James Grinwis, Bradley Greenburg, Joseph Harrington, Richard Rathwell, Jacob M. Appel, Ryan G. Van Cleave, John Rinnegan, Arielle Greenberg, Jeanne Heuving, Michael Heller, Michael Hassan, Ray Di Palma, Miriam Seidel, Bruce Holsapple, John Olson, Robert Wexelblatt, Geoffrey Detrani, Jaime Robles, Debra Di Blasi, Priscilla Long, Max Winter, Tim Keane, Peter Gurnit, and several folks reviewed and reviewing.

Following Kelly's “Twelfth Night,” Diane Ackerman's three non-fiction pieces--“The Beautiful Captive,” “A Magic Lantern in the Pacific,” and “The Fibs of Being”--firmly set up #19's investigation into human consciousness--what Ackerman calls “the great poem of matter.” These pieces explore the limits and possibilities experienced by “the animal that studies itself. The animal that worries. The animal that lies most easily and most often.” Much of the work in #19 draws attention to the peculiar fact that where there is language, there is liar and there is lyre; that with our narcissism, trepidation, and bullshit, “somewhere in the human beast, dreams are made, art is created, romance unfurls.”

A delightful formal variety distinguishes the issue. A great many pieces inhabit the space between lyric play and instrumental prose. Prose poems, short-shorts, lyrical stories, and hybrid texts create a formal continuum. Joseph Harrington's “Flag,” a stream-of-consciousness piece concerning American idealism, includes first-person narrative, parenthetical interludes, and lyrical passages like the following:

Everywhere else is only a sign: We are the flag. Flog. Stripes. Signs of stars. Bright, flashes, probably in the mirror. This planet ends where the rest of the world begins: broken parts, dust, limbs, fences through water, corrugated metal (rusted), peonage, detonated hills, falling birds. Stick your thumb in your ear and say the jesus prayer--that's a spell that you can only tell over and over and over: america strikes back america payday loans america standing tall america standing firm--

#19 reveres the quotidian as artistically and spiritually relevant. James Grinwis' “Three Loki Pieces,” for example, celebrates a simple dog named Loki. Here's the entire first section:
Loki my dog was braying in the living room. It was 6 a.m. I was lying in bed next to my wife because we usually don't get up until 7:30. 'What do you think he's barking about?' Loki had been experimenting with the oral form in unusual ways these past ten months. 'A fly,' she said, 'a fly is buzzing around outside.'

John Olson's manifesto “Debuffet Buffet” urges readers to find the divine in the daily: “No way is more clear than that of impulse. Treasure accidents caused by chance. Don't cut art off from the world. Every stroke, daub, and smear is a birthday.”

Articulating a strong editorial vision, the selection and presentation of the work in #19 places a high value also on the mysterious between. Jeanne Heuving's poems “Limbing” and “Limning,” for example, unite theological and sexual discourse, collapsing the binary between the sacred and profane so that the body's holes are the holiest of holes:
Insert into me and my body
will talk, one-thousand petalled lily.
Uvula. Vulva.
Enfold. Enclose.
Mary took a pound of pure nard,
and anointed his feet,
and wipes his feet with her hair;
and the house was filled with fragrance.

Filling the gap.

Often the pages of First Intensity #19 summon one to read and write a return from habitualized states of recognition toward states of heightened perception, to develop (as Ray DiPalma puts it in his poem “What Were Their Names”) “A reach unlike the written frame a reach / unlike a common place of pain.”

Enter a word world in which creative production holds primacy in the human quest for a spiritual experience that embraces life's inscrutable unfolding; read First Intensity #19. Depart. In Max Winter's words from “By Way of Explanation,” take “a drive so pronounced it almost whirs.”

Sunday, October 09, 2005

NEW! Review of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

In the absent everyday by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. Apogee Press.

Reviewed by Joshua Marie Wilkinson

In Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s new book, In the absent everyday, virtually every line is written in such a plain-spoken style, that the eeriness and wonder of these poems don’t slip into one’s mind until well into a first reading. But there is an elegance here, too, as with lines like “Fern moss covers a name on the wall / and so a story becomes secret” from the book’s title poem. The form of Dhompa’s poems--long lines; mostly complete sentences punctuated much like prose; mostly single stanza chunk-like poems, solitary or broken into sections--allows for a meditative accumulation of recollections, held moments, patient attention to detail, and unraveled musings. Even with the largest leaps from line to line, the sentences the poet constructs never seem to compete with one another, and that is the marvel of this book.

Perhaps oddly, then, nearly all of In the absent everyday’s 48 poems start with a line/sentence of reflection like these: “Nothing in her life, she liked to say, prepared her for this”; “Mrs. Dondup says life is not a happy lollipop / and she has said that before”; “Politeness prohibits saying what I really think.” But the prose-like feel of the introductory lines again and again is subsumed seamlessly into the meditative, lyrical lines that follow them, as with the poem “Spotless pots”:
Nothing in her life, she liked to say, prepared her for this.
They were never sure what she was referring to. When she
said this, her fingers pointed towards a metal spoon
embedded in the wall. A remnant of a passionate outburst.

The poet’s lyrical meditations, stunned questions, silly ribbing, fragments, and saddest, loveliest lines all seem of a single arc. The magic of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s poetry is precisely that uncanniness (the familiar strangeness) of myriad lines which simultaneously do and do not cohere at once, which seem disparate and effortlessly linked at the same time.

Even when the eeriness or wonder (or elegance) turns to silliness, the poet’s humor doesn’t shout over its own simplicity: “But here again Betty, the family fish, bangs into her reflection / all day. She is forgetful we say. Perhaps she likes herself too much.” And even the lovely line, “Part of the confusion lay in the way light appeared on the / horizon like a thin sheet of marmalade,” is followed by the stark “You were not / prepared for it.” What is it that “you were not / prepared for”? The confusion? The “part of the confusion” embodied in the appearance of the light? If a gravity lurks behinds these lines, the unusual observations, the plaintive play of the language, always take hold.

Thus, the poet’s found beauty never seems self-congratulatory and her humor never seems content enough with itself to offer up mere punch lines, as with these two lines: “The youngest in the family has learned her first word. / Mother, she says to the milkman who comes to the door.” In the hand of a lesser poet, those lines would never be followed by “In a free country, we say, this girl would have a brother / or a sister. In a free country, her father would be her memory.”

The poet’s gift is that smart balance between spontaneity and control, between seeming like she’s wondering aloud and nonetheless designing layered and enigmatic poems. Perhaps more than most prose poets, Dhompa is a master of the sentence and the line; in fact, much of the book is comprised of full sentences. The simplicity of the tone is disarming and the prose-like sentences are enjambed deftly in peculiar ways that invite the reader still further into the structures she builds.

When a poem seems to proffer a platitude (“The function of the earth is to be constant and to enfold” or “It will all end happily, again”), those commonplaces are often juxtaposed with her strongest, strangest lines:
Sentences shaped like the swallow
of your throat. When the pied piper comes
to this town, you will hide your shoes
and cover your ears. The river will not rush,
the mountains will not cleave. Chocolate
trees will bend so you can lick
their sweat off. It will all end happily, again.

With certain poems, like “Explosion of tires has no meaning,” it’s tempting to wonder about the poet’s biography (Dhompa’s biographical note at the end of the book says that she “was raised in India and Nepal”). Consider the following lines: “The prince / declared his love for a common girl and the parliament / dissolved before astrologers could be reached. If I send / you love letters it is because this is not the age for it.” I know next to nothing about Tibet and I imagine that, if Dhompa’s poems last, and I insist here that they should, someone better equipped will come to explore the traces of the political, biographical, and geographical in her poetry. Indeed, the subsequent lines make me wish I myself were better equipped:
Once a week we question whether our
country will be free. We are not warriors. We know
a working bowel is proof of a healthy life. We know
people who do not speak our dialect are sitting
at a table. With a pen and paper they will map our future.

Remarkably, the poet never seems to romanticize the past or her childhood environs, and better still, she avoids peppering poignant-sounding bits of other languages to stand in for the “depth” of her transnational experiences, thus shunning stereotypes of her own Asian landscapes and history without avoiding those same landscapes, histories, or experiences.

In the poem “Increments” she writes, “Oh, cuttlefish, / I say, but the invocation is a test to see the effectives of the / word against a mundane moment.” What strikes me here is that the poem’s speaker doesn’t rely either on a romanticization of the “orient” nor on a meta-poetic disclosure to keep the experience of coming to terms neatly boxed away in linguistic reflection. The “test” is always there in these poems, and the experience the poet recounts and enables through language is more fully developed because of her testing--with all the humor, sorrow, beauty, and perplexity intact.

In his note on the book, Ron Silliman writes, “There is an inevitability implicit in the directness of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s poetry that leaves the reader quite unprepared for the sudden leaps in reality it then proposes.” Yes, the book makes leaps, but it seems to me they are less on the order of “reality” than on the order of the various worlds the poems construct: worlds full of frank humor and unresolved reflections, a child’s world in the presence of elders, a daughter’s world far removed from her mother’s. And each poem is a scene where the poet’s questions seem to extend from her own longing, curiosity, and pleasure in order to reflect on them from a different angle into something knowable or recognizable, even if only for a moment. The result is a disarming, beautiful, and uncanny book of poems.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Best Australian Poetry 2005

With all the talk of the latest Best American Poetry, edited by Paul Muldoon, Verse would like to call attention to another BAP edited by a non-U.S. poet: The Best Australian Poetry 2005, edited by Peter Porter.

Highlights include Javant Biarujia's prose poem "Icarus," MTC Cronin's "The Dust in Everything," Michael Farrell's "Poem without Dice," Jennifer Harrison's "The Lovely Utterly Cold Snow," J.S. Harry's 15-page "Journeys West of 'War,'" John Kinsella's "The Vital Waters," Anthony Lawrence's "Wandering Albatross," Jennifer Maiden's "Thunderbolt's Way," Peter Rose's "Quotidian," Craig Sherborne's "Journo," John Tranter's "Transatlantic," Chris Wallace-Crabbe's "From the Island, Bundanon," and Fay Zwicky's "Makassar, 1956."

Unlike Les Murray (who edited The Best Australian Poems 2004 for another publisher), Porter does not include his own work in the anthology.

One drawback in this series is its general editors' decision not to include poems by Australian poets published in journals outside Australia. This is unfortunate because a lot of Australian poets have been publishing in U.S. journals like Verse, Slope, TriQuarterly, and others. This policy also restricts the number of journals represented in each issue (BAP 2005 features work from only 14 periodicals). Granted, it makes sense for Australian journals to represent most of the poems published in the series, but it would be useful--and more accurate, in relation to Australian poets' publishing practices--to include U.S., British, and online journals that regularly publish Australian poets. This year's guest editor is a case in point: he lives in London and regularly publishes his own poems in non-Australian periodicals.

Monday, September 12, 2005

NEW! Review of The Tiny

The Tiny #1, edited by Gina Myers & Gabriella Torres. $8.

Reviewed by Summer Block

New York may be a sprawling metropolis, but its new magazine The Tiny is a tribute to "small" poems. Without an official mission statement or editor's letter, The Tiny nonetheless presents itself as a skillful compilation of the careful, the precise, and the minutely observed. At a respectable 6x8, the journal is not unreasonably small, but retains its spare feel with clean fonts, a simple layout, and an absence of drawings, notes, or other cluttering marginalia. One may take issue with the tricky reverse cover, its retro-lettering served up in an unprepossessing pink and brown. Still, the same respect for simplicity is evidenced here: "The Tiny" is spelled out without any further information; interested parties can repair to the copyright page for credits, contact information, and volume number.

Inside, the magazine is full of elegant, austere work, most of it comprised of few words. These tiny poems aim to pack as much curiosity and cunning as possible into a handful of lines. For rookie poets, ellipses and telling pauses can be a mere gesture towards mystery, a way of willfully obfuscating the message, a haughty antagonism to the reader. But when ably handled, the tiny poem is not only complete, but dense, self-contained, essential--every word is carefully chosen, nothing is filler.

The most powerful small poems are those that marshal nuances, that put telling gestures to work in the service of big ideas. Aaron McCollough’s "The First Poem of Jan Vandermeer" is full of such weighty gestures, with its wry musing on "my Michigan (camero hood propped / up with a hockey stick) of Netherlands." Humor is often in short supply where serious poetry is concerned, but Daniel Magers displays a rare, self-deprecating wit in his piece "The Dylan Songbook," a meditation on growing older and inward-looking.

In other places, small poems hold out the possibility of intriguing narratives, of landscapes that the imagination is left to populate. "Dramatis Personae," by Kristin Abraham, demonstrates the possibility of a tiny poem to suggest so much, with its cast list for an imagined "mortality play." Shaefer Hall's "And Then The Whole Place Got Dark" is cinematic rather than theatrical--a movie told in fifteen lines. Maggie Nelson, Del Ray Cross, and Karl Parker are others that deserve special mention for their extremely intricate pieces. In "From a Purely Mechanical Standpoint," Mary Ann Samyn discusses the experience of producing these carefully crafted missives, where "Completion made its small animal yawn."

A number of entries are nature poems--and sometimes, poems that examine the possibility of nature poems in the modern world. The beautiful "Nocturne," by Amira Thoron, is perhaps the most successful, in which night is populated by "the viscous breath / of moles, the furtive // diggings of a skunk, / grubs coiled / in moonlight." Meanwhile, with "In the Pastoral I am a Deep Red Rose," Mike Sikkema ruminates on "pixies and billy goats," daisies that are "safe and feral," and "coin-operated epiphanies."

These delicate selections are lent additional weight by the inclusion of two well-considered essays, Samyn's "Two Bits of Tiny" and Geof Huth's "Why Visual Poetry." The latter, followed by several examples, seems a bit of a departure from the rest of the journal's collection, especially when concrete and other visual poetry styles are often associated with the large, public, and outrageous. What unites Huth with the other "tiny" poets is his use of revealing details to suggest more than what is being said.

The first issue of The Tiny is rich with reference, a network of allusions that stretches far beyond this magazine to incorporate Shakespeare, Rilke, and Christopher Guest, among many others. Aaron Raymond, in particular, creates a conversation between Hamlet's ill-fated friends in his "Rosencrantz Letters" (excerpted in the magazine), and in the process enters a conversation about "Hamlet" that encompasses hundreds of years and extends around the world.

If the creative inspirations that drive The Tiny's inaugural poets are wide-ranging, their social network can feel insular. It's no surprise that these very gifted writers should be accomplished, published poets assembled from a variety of MFA programs and journals, but their biographies reveal that by and large, they have all published previous work in at least one of a small group of other journals, the same small group of journals The Tiny links to on its website. There is certainly nothing inappropriate about this, but hopefully an open call for submissions will diversify future volumes of this densely powerful magazine and allow new writers the chance to be a part of this exciting new project.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

NEW! Review of Peter Gizzi

Periplum and Other Poems 1987-1992 by Peter Gizzi. Salt Publishing.

Reviewed by Anthony Hawley

In “Deus ex Machina,” one of the many outstanding poems from Peter Gizzi’s Periplum, the poet makes the following declaration:
I will compare knowing and saying
and tell of such coordinates
that run together to the river replete with its ghosts
in this instance of talk.

If read as a kind of ars poetica, these lines indicate exactly what Gizzi makes it his business to do in Periplum: craft a new and personal geography. And, fortunately, Salt Publishing’s recent reissue of Gizzi’s Periplum, Music for Films, and Hours of the Book again provides the reader with a copy of the poet’s valuable atlas. Periplum and Other Poems 1987-1992 brings together all of Gizzi’s poetry outside of Artificial Heart (Burning Deck, 1998) and Some Values of Landscape and Weather (Wesleyan, 2003), and represents the poet’s humorous and sorrowful lyric, sometimes nonchalant, often seriously concerned with fashioning a unique map of the real. Here, in his excellent early work, Gizzi plots the “coordinates” of the seen and unseen, attempting to reconcile the sticky relationship between “ghosts” and “talk.”

First published by Avec Books in 1992, Periplum takes a youthful, surreptitious, but likewise sincere attitude towards its subjects. A very real current of grief runs throughout the poems in Periplum, a grief that both mourns and feeds on absence, on the gaping land that the book attempts to map: “And there are fissures too small and / too many, everywhere, to find.” Tension between what can and can’t be apprehended runs throughout this book. Consider the following section of “Mise en Scène,” which begins with a literal mapping of space:
The shortest distance between
two points is around the world
and commerce is a word we can
appropriate to use here, but more
than this it is our achievement
of evening silence. A scarf
billowing, draped upon a door latch
in fragrant air. Vulnerable is
another word to attach to this
opening, a vivisection I fill
with eyelash teeth.

Here, the reader gets the impression that dissemination of self and self-knowledge threaten speaker and personal pronouns alike. Only the “achievement / of evening silence” can compensate for the very public and publicized world (“commerce”), and the poem becomes a kind of anthem for the vanquished. But if these songs sing allegiance they do so to an interior, to “the music in our night space” from these later lines in “Mise en Scène,” or to the “inescapable cant of the axis/heart” that Gizzi elsewhere mentions:
. . . Although
there was no piano to state the theme
there is music in our night space.
Breath making skin upon ribs taut.
That the formal alphabet of silence
(with or without a future) reveals
a language of the spine and sphinx
of wrists and ankles.

Perhaps in this loud climate, a poetic rendering can only be accomplished by writing an “alphabet of silence.” Or perhaps any other kind of alphabet besides a silent one would be inadequate for these times. In either case, what strikes the reader is that the alphabet is directly related to the flesh: “the formal alphabet of silence / . . .reveals a language of the spine and sphinx / of wrists and ankles.” In Periplum, as Gizzi maps, charts, and graphs anew, weary of trusting others’ prefabricated divisions, he turns to the body to help him accomplish his re-mapping, “for body is an instrument.” The landscape of the book privileges intimate scenes and addresses that plot the points for a phenomenology in a fractured, untrustworthy environ, where the speaker and the spoken to often dissolve into each other.

Formally, the long, thirty-plus-page sequence of brief, highly compressed lyric in Music for Films (published the same year as Periplum, this time by Paradigm Press) offers another sort of reading experience than Periplum does. But the two books’ conceits are not dissimilar:
silence within lives
the teeming meaning gleaned
from a broken tongue
broken song

I was telling the real


as approach of
had your mouth
about it

As with Periplum, Gizzi is still “telling the real,” though perhaps in a more “broken” manner. While Periplum often displays an absence, Music for Films enacts it. The syntactical compression, almost Zukofskian, makes for an Objectivist blending of body and space, in which the distinction between foreground and background dissolves and lines like those above appear a single “thing.” Interestingly the “+” sign that so frequently divides passages in Salt’s “Music for Films” didn’t appear anywhere in the original Paradigm Press volume. The latter’s lack of a divisive sign further enacted the blending of figures and ideas. The new volume, however, forces a pause that dramatically alters the experience of the book. The reader is forced to stop after “I was telling the real” before proceeding to “as approach of”--a strange, if not significant, alteration.

Much of Gizzi’s work takes its cue from Spicer, and Gizzi is, of course, a great reader of Spicer. Nowhere is Spicer’s Letters to Lorca felt more than when reading the line “I was telling the real.” When Spicer writes, “I want to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste,” the reader can trace an almost direct line between Gizzi and Spicer. Both poets are trying to fashion “live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits . . . a collage of the real.” Gizzi also sometimes reproduces the self-deriding tone so characteristic of Spicer’s poems. However, he is at his best when combining this tone with a kind of New York School levity, and in this way, he differs from Spicer. Take, for example, the following lines from “Life Continues”:
The world happens at your doorstep. There is no method to
decipher the day. The birds and the bees are both moving geometric patterns. To connect one plain with another horizon. There are doors everywhere we walk and occasionally stumble upon a carcass, which now is only a frame--the door is ajar. This place once marked by an exit. Today it is a wall. Where is the magician of openings?

To question the infinite is an inarticulate gnarl, better to blur at the humidity of touching. Love, I stopped by to pitch some woo, we walked to town in Chinese shoes. There are doors into which we can enter, to move through this room, indecision and terror.

What has always struck me about this poem, and many of Gizzi’s, is his ability to put forth serious concerns about meaning production while not taking himself too seriously. To me, the first paragraph is so thought-filled it seems about to burst. But the strangely beautiful and funny second paragraph rescues the first from preciousness. Thus the poet can get away with “question[ing] the infinite” as long as he remains self-aware and aware of his “gnarl” and returns to “the humidity of touching,” itself enough of a “blur,” or as Gizzi says in “Mise en Scène,” a “sphinx.”

In “Poem for John Wieners,” from “Other Poems,” the third and final section of the Salt volume, Gizzi makes one of his strongest cases for the poet’s orphic role:
I am not a poet
because I live in the actual world
where fear divides light
I have no protection against
the real evils and money
which is the world
where most lives are spent

Much of the poem’s strength lies in the choice to use comparatively relaxed syntax and casual diction to convey so revelatory a message. That the poet is bound--bound to reality--comes as no surprise. But the very dichotomy in Gizzi’s work between having to “tell the real” and not being a poet because “I live in the actual world” makes the work intriguing beyond its years. We are lucky to have it available again.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

NEW! Review of Steve Benson

Open Clothes by Steve Benson. Atelos, $12.95.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

Self-reflexivity is built into the structure of Open Clothes. The “After Notes” cites the procedures that Steve Benson used to generate the book’s poetry/prose-poetry and experiences he underwent in the process: “The words in the texts in this book are, with extremely rare exceptions, just the same words as were written or spoken in the acts of composition described below.” Benson also includes a transcript of a question and answer session with him about a talk-piece transcribed in the book. Framed from within, this volume by a noted Language Poet features three poems composed of mostly declarative sentences and eight--like Ron Silliman’s quarter-century-old Sunset Debris--entirely in question form. The book’s first poem “’Until the Fall’ was written over thirteen months, one line at a time, on a folded sheet that Benson kept “in a back pocket of [his] pants.” He sought “to come up with each line at a different occasion, without trying to stay faithful to any other governing plan, theme, or principles about how to write the poem.” Some poems, like “Crows Landing,” were spoken without premeditation into a tape recorder; others, like “Did the Light Just Go Out,” materialized in front of a live audience.

What, then, is “open” about Open Clothes? If actual words are “clothes” (fabric) on the body (process) of writing, Benson’s procedures, precluding revision and thus discouraging a great deal of conscious control over theme, development, patterns of imagery, and tropes, etc., “open” his texts to accident and heterogeneity, including unanticipated elements of closure (“clothing”?): “So there’s the quality of closure and openness that occurs at every point, at least potentially.” Contrasting his “talk poems” with David Antin’s more narrative work, Benson admits that, since he is “channeling from all the contingencies . . . of thought, mood, the room, what I saw this afternoon . . . to make some verbal material,” “whether the . . . material is continuous or discontinuous is . . . pretty much out of [his] control.” This is no paean to Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought”; Benson understands the risk that “first thought” might be dully thought:
It is winter
Can I write a poem one sentence at a time?
I can do anything
Still I hope for more
I hope the sky will pop blue
In a moment, it has
It has a place in the remote present
One frame at a time.

Given how revision is proscribed, the poetry of Open Clothes cannot always manage this opening passage’s lyric energy, balancing evocative concreteness and cogent abstraction. “Crows Landing” includes the following forgettable lines: “The darkness / the loo k/ we’re almost there / raindrops glistening on the windshield / streams in the darkness.” But why hold Benson to higher standards than someone like the less experimental A.R. Ammons, whose meandering Tape for the Turn of the Year, for example, has its share of dull stretches about weather?

In some of Benson’s question-texts, exploration of the process unfolding and its contexts and intriguing juxtaposition of questions foster powerful overtones and undertones. The five-page paragraph “Am I just listening to myself think” begins: “Am I just listening to myself think? What makes you say that? Who do you think you are?” The defensive second question and indignant third one suggest that a respondent has somehow given an affirmative answer to the first, but ironically, by acknowledging the perspective of a “you,” the talk-poet may undermine the sense of solipsism. In holding the floor, he lacks access to the audience’s spoken words, but he may scrutinize their reactions while “listening to [himself] think.” Of course, “you” could be a signifier for another side of him. Further, the third sentence might serve as a literal, honest call for audience-members’ articulation of subject-positions--outside this procedural framework. Many of the prose-poems’ questions point to the irony of exclusively using the interrogative mode while being unanswerable, except perhaps in an interpreter’s transposition of a subsequent question into an answer. Benson soon asks: “Can the answers trail slowly behind like slugs on leashes, or do they have to race ahead like frisky terriers?”

Clearly, Benson in this prose-poem is not “just listening to [himself] think”; as its ending indicates, he raises problems of political intersubjectivity. First asking whether the tremendous “inequivalence . . . between the experience of someone who is safe and faced with the challenges of balancing wants and needs and” that of one “whose physical and psychological integrity is so repeatedly in jeopardy and occasionally violated to the point of trauma” destroys possibilities of “communication between them,” the poet pursues the issue from various angles:
Is it possible to get on the phone with someone in this kind of fix and not waste their
time? Is there any good reason not to, again, write to Washington, read the data, talk
with friends and family about it, and get to work organizing? Is your heart a safe place? When do you listen to your fatigue and try to stop putting out so much energy? How do you know when to research and when to act out? What inner disturbance undermines that impulse to engage in social organization to correct injustice and cruelty? What makes private, intimate distress at humiliations suffered in an intimate relationship overwhelm pragmatically evaluated efforts to do the right thing?

Even if Benson, speaking in the middle of W. Bush’s first administration, overtly criticizes how the “inner disturbance” of individual egos undermines the efficacy of social justice movements, the accretion of his questions shows how the economics of the expenditure of physical and psychological “energy” in both “private, intimate” matters and public efforts becomes too complex for simple yes/no answers or black/white moral judgments. For the reader/listener, these questions can be much more than rhetorical.

Monday, August 29, 2005

NEW! Clayton A. Couch poem

Clayton A. Couch



Quits and walks, or presupposes a redneck firecracker party. They're the dead come knocking. Where the shades are drawn and cats careen into woods. Savor my head, drawn up at dawn. That I quit is self-evident, but what is drawn against the dead is another paragraph. The ceiling was described as chaotic seething. Strange organisms, shadow people if you will, came running for their offspring. You can see them where your eyes meet the back of your head. To invite your hair to dinner. My, what bad table manners you've displayed in front of your neck! Or, to heave the same hometown down the gullet. Wonder what they're doing? Diagramming verbal infusions for the sake of the rugrats and fixing chicken casserole. Mustard seeds to grow on, and the smell of red onions mixed into guacamole. Wine kicks back, and I'm on Amazon giving away cash. Approximately 3.5 billion years ago, a large meteor collided with ocean. Only bacteria on high mountains survived, and you're sure that Shangri-La had something to do with it. Recent tests would say that we're due for a whole lot of wreckage, which is another way of saying that the space debris will eventually write an alphabet of craters across the Midwest. Burial mounds call it payback, a long snake undulating up the stem. Reawaken to dawn of coffee, and in this taste, the carrier pigeon of the New World Order slides into the northern Atlantic right along with the Greenland ice sheet. The creation is spoken, and you would do well to share the milk. Or give orders to your own hands. I think of Peter Sellers. They say that monotheism began in Egypt, where economics ruled all other gods into the Earth's hiding places, by order of the Pharoah Amenhotep IV. I've been busy making it up. Vote on it. The same day the wreck of a shipping liner was recovered, some signal bounced off of our galactic center and returned home.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

NEW! Review of Betsy Sholl

Late Psalm by Betsy Sholl. University of Wisconsin Press.

Reviewed by Chivas Sandage

A psalm is a poem meant to be sung, and Betsy Sholl’s Late Psalm is filled with narrative, rhythmic jazz songs meant to be spoken. The collection’s central metaphors revolve around sound, song, and speech--bird, musician, singer, writer, and speaker are woven throughout. Sholl’s sixth book picks up where her latest, Don’t Explain (1997), left off: its title poem, which appeared next to last, ended, “the music couldn’t keep itself from breaking.” And while the fear of lost song is an underlying tension throughout, the collection is triumphant, embodying song itself.

Sholl’s newest book is darker, braver, recounting deaths without flinching, yet is full of feeling--something she breaks down, note by note, into a score of aural sensation. This poet hears music in everything--the screech as well as the aria. Rising from the pages of Late Psalm, “You’ll hear / engine grind, halyard clank, and fog’s / ghostly horn . . .”; “a sign swinging on one rusty hinge” in a “parched yard / where the clothesline has squealed on its pulleys / all spring”; or a mockingbird’s jazz solo that goes like this:
three simple notes,

then a complicated run, then she squawks
like a crow--back and forth, notes and braided twill,
something else I can’t grasp, punctuated

with that crow blat, as if she’s pushing
a sax so far out she has to flutter back
start over, from the top, voice after voice . . .

Found sound is no greater or lesser than other forms of music such as jazz, opera, gospel, rock, or rhythm and blues. And Sholl writes as if she plays, as if she knows: “It’s a deep groove in the brain, / whether you play on top or behind the beat, / walk the line or break out.” The narrator, maintaining one consistent voice, redefines the nature and sources of sacred song; a Walkman’s dying batteries give birth to a new, slow-motion sound from James Carter’s saxophone: “arriving at / such a viscous tone, it’s as if he played / through viscera, deep throat of God” leaving the speaker “stunned by the belly, the being of song.” The failing cassette player reveals an elemental, inner core of the music that cannot be heard in real time.

The breaking down of things--entropy, illness, death--is an essential subject in Late Psalm; often handled with humor, it is always embraced, made beautiful and true. In “Shore Walk With Monk,” the narrator describes the final moments of a worn-out, “eaten” cassette tape:
a Mobius strip of Monk, Monk billowing
over dune grass and rocks, ringing the car’s
antenna, Monk in hundreds of tiny

accordion pleats I couldn’t undo
no matter how I try, all spiraling out
of their plastic shell, catching the light, pouring
a kind of broken music the maker’s
done with, just slipped out of and left behind.

Developing upon Sholl’s previous book, what is damaged is significant, almost celebrated. We are told “Whatever rises, falls,” and this “law” appears in numerous poems, many of them elegies. While Sholl states, “Maybe music’s a way of weeping,” grief is continually balanced by the speaker’s experience of meaning derived from listening, observing, and feeling. And instead of offering answers, this poet asks questions that begin “Maybe,” “Will we,” “Can we,” “Is this,” “Do they ever,” and “Who isn’t?”

In Late Psalm, sound breaks down in the process of being born into words; turning thought and feeling into sound and sense can prove a trap. In the poem “Impediments,” Sholl writes: “No more stammer and ruse, / quick switch to a safer word, slippery mind / faster than the mouth, so the world’s all translation.” There is tension evoked here, as if there’s a singer inside this narrator who longs to hit her notes with ease “after all those years of throat lock and panic / at the lips, roadblock, detour.” What Sholl does not write: stammering as score! Why not let a word be caught, break down to its syllables and root? Perhaps stammer as jazz would be the ultimate transcendence of:
the enemy within,
that stymied child unable to say a word
without foot stomps and blinks, unable to let
a thought come easy and smooth. So much
feeling coiled inside her, a mouthful of sparks.

Sholl’s use of psalm, the biblical name of the Hebrew book, counters and plays off poems that are irreverent, multifaceted responses to contemporary life, and like their namesake, “range in mood from joyous celebration to solemn hymn and bitter protest” (Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature). The collection begins with a line from Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon all hope . . .” and proceeds to string together, through call and response, arguments that go beyond being simply about or against hope and despair. Sholl inverts our most basic beliefs about what keeps us going--or fails to--when she writes lines like: “lice-ridden prayers, nothing to do with / what you wanted, with sorry or please--“; “I was suicidal, my friend said, / until I got cancer; or “a bird is all instinct and moment, no ambition, / no better and worse driving it to the edge of song.” Sholl ends the book by saying “And maybe our best chance, yet, is to believe / the world’s not empty, not nothing in fine clothes, / but everything, marrow, muscle, skin.” Ultimately, these poems suggest that hope is a kind of endurance born of longing--instinctual as hunger.

The book’s title offers a koan that echoes one of the book’s underlying questions--even if it’s too late for hope, does it matter? Sholl thinks and writes about giving up, ends the first poem of her book asking, “And for what?”--a question the book goes on to grapple with in poem after poem. These late songs suggest that our demise is as natural as our rising, and bears a depth of being--even beauty--with a power of its own. And perhaps, if we can hear the broken music that is around us and within us, the experience of listening is more vital to our lives than survival, or however the song ends.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Verse Book of Interviews

One of the last books published by Verse Press, The Verse Book of Interviews collects interviews with an array of poets--including Charles Wright, Tomaz Salamun, Medbh McGuckian, John Yau, Marjorie Welish, Hayden Carruth, Agha Shahid Ali, Anselm Berrigan, Marcella Durand, John Kinsella, Christine Hume, Matthew Rohrer, Dara Wier, August Kleinzahler, Reginald Shepherd, Martin Espada, Claudia Rankine, Miroslav Holub, Lisa Jarnot, and Ed Dorn. Though most of the interviews are reprinted from previous issues of Verse, some were commissioned specifically for the book.

Friday, August 19, 2005

NEW! Review of Jena Osman

An Essay in Asterisks by Jena Osman. Roof Books.

Reviewed by Kathleen Ossip

When I read Jena Osman’s The Character in May 2000, I wrote the following in my journal:
For me, a book like The Character is just about as sentimental as Hallmark verse. In that it assumes its reader is already on the same page with it, it is preaching to the choir. Maybe any language that does not seek to elucidate something new--really elucidate, for someone who might find the point tough--is sentimental. . . . It's almost pornographic too in that one side of things--what would you call it: the intellectual, haute philosophical?--is highlighted, twisted, powdered and rouged, overblown and fetishized to the exclusion of all else. All other pleasures are forbidden. No lyric pleasure. Just as there is no pleasure in pornography other than the sexual, and no pleasure in Hallmark other than the crudely emotional. And "experimental" (the word connotes the opposite of conventional) it may be, but it never steps outside the conventions of the experimental. In this, it is genre writing.

Two years later:
Update (6-02): I now love Osman’s book. I pulled an Yvor Winters and slammed something because it didn’t conform to my preferences . . . I would be embarrassed to admit this . . . Alas, I do still feel it’s preaching to the choir in its political content ... no one but the choir is likely to read it. But at least it has content ... And it is interesting, not too starchy to read, and has an appealing form . . .

Already I’m the unreliable reviewer. What happened in those two years? I reread and got less defensive about a poetry that was doing something I myself had no interest in doing. And I caught on to Osman’s M.O. and let go, a little, of a need for the old music. Then too, a serious political poetry seemed more important and more relevant in 2002 than it had in 2000.

Now we have Jena Osman’s new book, An Essay in Asterisks, which I necessarily read with a more open mind, but I do think this is a much richer book than The Character, more generous in its pleasures. Here she is again, probing consciousness and politics and language in a variety of inventive ways. These tricks might be called wordplay but the end is anything but playful. The best element of the collection is its political (and I mean the word in its broadest sense) content. Osman’s poetry might be considered truly utilitarian were there any chance it could end up in the hands of a reader who did not already believe, for example, that the U.S. war on Iraq is wicked or that the justice system doesn’t always live up to its name. Since that is all but impossible, I suppose the book might be considered a memento mori or memento belli, a reminder of what we already know, for the purpose of bringing it to our fore-minds, encouraging meditation and, perhaps, action.

The opening piece, also called “An Essay in Asterisks,” lets us know from the start that nothing perceived will go unquestioned:
If we place all stock in the space where words are missing, there is greater possibility of emotional range. Because memory is often like that as well . . . You fill the blank (the hollow of what you can’t remember) with a picture. First there is a series of images that you can’t shake, as if you were there and it was a significant part of your childhood: a burning car, the crux of a tree, a desert scene and walking through branches. Also a bright kitchen in the sun . . . These must have been part of your life. Yet later you learn that they were just images from a film . . .

Thus, the setup: Osman’s speaker does not trust language, does not believe perception and wants to persuade us to the same. How can we disagree? But the logic of her arguments is always complexly didactic. The ellipses in the above excerpt take the place of action images, whether from life or from cinema we don’t know. For example:
If we place all stock in the space where words are missing, there is greater possibility of emotional range. Because memory is often like that as well . . . LOCKING THE BOX AND PUTTING THE BAG OVER SHOULDER. You fill the blank (the hollow of what you can’t remember) with a picture. First there is a series of images that you can’t shake, as if you were there and it was a significant part of your childhood: a burning car, the crux of a tree, a desert scene and walking through branches. Also a bright kitchen in the sun. WALKING OUT THE DOOR WITHOUT LOOKING . . .

From this first piece to the last, pieces of various types of language are put together; Osman’s meaning emerges in the ways the pieces jostle each other. Yet Osman does proceed--what else can she do?--to fill that space where words are missing with words . . . or almost all of it. It is the space that’s left where the emotional (and philosophical) meaning resides. This is the logic of juxtaposition.

Her methods are Socratic; she interrogates language, as the engine of belief. Her aim is philosophical/epistemological; she asks “How do we create memory? What makes communication possible and meaningful?” If in the past 15 or 20 years there has been an explosion of poets interested in using every resource of language (in An Essay in Asterisks, Osman uses textual and typographical and graphic and photographic effects), and if they seem to fall into categories, Osman lives squarely in Gertrude Stein’s villa.

I think the term “experimental poetry” is cringe-worthy, but it is currently used to suggest poetry that foregrounds language, letting content recede. “Experimental” poets, then, trust to some degree in the wisdom inherent in language. Osman does a neat turnabout: she uses this wisdom to cast a very skeptical eye on the capacities of language, its distorting powers, its powers to create unrealities. Osman is an experimentalist in the same way that all poets are who write beyond the edge of their own confidence and certainty (which means all poets who deserve the name), and the results of experiments must always be open to failure or they’re not worth much. So “Press Scrutiny: The Doubles” includes the following elements:
A synopsis of a New Yorker article on censorship in Burma
Snippets of a conversation in which mishearing plays a part
Several short fiction-like narratives
Some language equations that call language into question (e.g., “HOSPITALITY” = THE END OF LOVE)
Some language transformations (e.g., “analysis of the straight right” in one section becomes in the transformed next section “synthesis of the late night”)
A couple of short-lined lyrics
A consideration of a list of homophones (air, heir, ere, err)

This list isn’t exhaustive, and many of the elements are gratifying, pleasing, thought-provoking, but I’m not sure they strike against each other and ignite.

Other, more successful sections include “Bowdlerizer,” which considers euphemisms in contexts from popular music to the Bush administration’s newspeak; “The Astounding Complex,” in which the author subjects Supreme Court case summaries to various linguistic procedures in the hope of investigating how much of “certainty” is “grammar”; and the final, long “Memory Error Theater,” a rigorous exploration of memory which springboards from the speaker’s discovery that “three sharp images from my childhood” were actually memories of the Nicholas Roeg film Walkabout. The inventiveness of An Essay in Asterisks is bracing and truly impressive; this is an essentially didactic book that is also extremely readable.