Monday, February 28, 2005

NEW! Review of John Ashbery

Selected Prose by John Ashbery. University of Michigan Press, $29.95.

Reviewed by Jack Kimball

In Selected Prose John Ashbery is self-effacing, continually turning to textual evidence to deliberate over telling details and human ingenuity in the telling of details. Many of the essays take up a poetics of human accumulations, of "minute observation" and of "the strange position of elements." He writes of Marianne Moore, for example, as one absorbed in such particulars, "recognizing them as part of the rhythm of growth, as details of life possibly helpful in deducing the whole, in any case important as details."

In the influential middle sections of Ashbery's Selected Prose a central argument is upheld over a swath of subject matter. There are four essays in particular, dating from the middle 1970s, the period after Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and before Houseboat Days, pieces which examine the verse of Kenward Elmslie and Elizabeth Bishop, a film by Jacques Rivette and a fake autobiography by E. V. Lucas and George Morrow, titled What a Life! Citing Raymond Queneau, Ashbery writes that the 1911 publication of Lucas and Morrow's collage of catalog pictures and co-authored text was "the moment of the first conjunction of scissors and glue-pot 'with disinterested ends in view.'" The complex specifics of Ashbery's appreciation fix on the "veiled" unease evinced through the autobiography's myriad details, a sort of collaged disquiet remarkable in both its obvious admixture of "gothic touches," and, more of interest, its sustenance as "it can be felt throughout in the dislocations, sometimes farcically broad but sometimes very slight." These dislocations parallel faculties of "tragic ambivalence" that "exists in all of us and is the core of the situation which Lucas and Morrow elaborated within the confines of their exiguous comic masterpiece."

Moving to headier comedy, Ashbery admires Kenward Elmslie's 1975 collection Tropicalism, not for its vision, which has "changed little" from earlier work, but for its "surer, stronger . . . elaboration," a vision and a "visionary poetry which proceeds not by describing but calling into being." That evocation is a matter of capturing data and supplying details, we may infer, but as Ashbery indicates in his essay on film maker Jacques Rivette, it's more than that, it's
a genius for rendering a viewer hypersensitive to details: the pattern of a woman's blouse, furniture, cars, flowers, the gait of a passerby. Since 95 percent of the film is details, and since we unexpectedly find ourselves in the position of reacting violently to them, it becomes quite an experience.

Ashbery's argument is further synthesized when he addresses Elizabeth Bishop. The crazed 'reality' that Lucas and Morrow evoke through collaged data is telescoped in a last line of Elizabeth Bishop's first poem from her first book: "More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors." How is this so, Ashbery queries:
How could the infinity of nuances and tones which is finally transformed into history . . . prove less delicate . . . than the commercial colors of maps in an atlas, which are the product, after all, of the expediencies and limitations of a mechanical process? Precisely because they are what is given to us to see, on a given day in a given book taken down from the bookshelf from some practical motive.

Expediencies within limitations are part of what make poets "necessarily inaccurate transcribers of the life that is always on the point of coming into being." The contingencies then are formal and substantial for poets like Bishop and Ashbery for, as Ashbery views Bishop, there is "this continually renewed sense of discovering the strangeness, the unreality of our reality at the very moment of becoming conscious of it as reality." And there we will leave it, as Ashbery almost does. There are limits and then the details and their inaccurate transcription to be dealt with, interpreted, that is, to not quite disinterested ends. To substantiate this point, Ashbery borrows a metaphor from Bishop, "a sleeping ear." He writes:
--that is as good a metaphor as any for the delicate but imperfect instrument the poet has to use in order to construe the bewilderingly proliferating data of the universe that is continually surging up around him, threatening to submerge him at the moment he in turn threatens to pierce it through with a ray of interpretation.

Both that "threat" of interpretation and the "imperfection" of the poet's interpretive instrument shape Ashbery's repeated hesitations to pass definitive judgments in Selected Prose. True, one is struck by bits of pronouncement he off-handedly allows, criticism is the tail wagging the dog of poetry, for example, or not as debatable, the verb to witness is "pretentious and constrained" when it comes to describing a poet's activities. Nonetheless, the writing here is altogether less conclusive and less variegated a set of aesthetic propositions than in Ashbery's art chronicles, Reported Sightings. The subject matter in Selected Prose, poetry for the most part, is of course closer to a literature reader's bone--with fewer ephemeral or vernacular referents, it is less available to journalistic compression and visual deduction than topics on painting and art production.

Doubtless those engaged with poetry profit in having in one non-giant volume Ashbery's exemplary earlier pieces on Gertrude Stein, Giorgio de Chirico, Marianne Moore, Pierre Reverdy and, in particular, Raymond Roussel. As for another early piece, "A Conversation with Kenneth Koch," its co-brokered hilarity is a welcome interlude within Selected Prose that otherwise includes only written speech of Ashbery's. Exchanges between Koch and Ashbery veer toward a circus joust; you'll want to set aside a few hours to calculate the tonal shifts caught up in their high-wire act:
K.K.: Could you give an example of a very bad artist who explains his work very well?
J.A.: (Silence)
K.K.: I guess you don't want to mention names . . .
J.A.: Some people might get offended, I don't see the point of that.
K.K.: Do you mean you're afraid?
J.A.: No. Just bored in advance by the idea of having to defend myself.

There are editorial minutiae worth mentioning. Since a chronology is enforced, why the gap between 1978 and 1983? The Index is incomplete: among others, Bill Berkson, Jim Brodey, Ron Padgett, and John Yau have been omitted. There are a few pieces that are too brief to be as useful or informative as they need to be, one on Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets, an introduction to Charles North, three paragraphs on Rudy Burckhardt. (Utility is a good standard here, as there are other short pieces that explicate as they introduce us to the extraordinary if lesser known in Ashbery's circle of interests--snippets on the poet Joan Murray and a most restrained obituary for Pierre Martory are two examples.)

A more substantive concern is the impression that the last third of the text comprises mostly incidental pieces: introductions, a preface, a forward, a short review for an anthology of essays by movie buffs. Looking over the potpourri of later selections, however, and considering their heft compared with other critical material in the text, I am reminded of Ashbery's remark on Raymond Roussel's juxtaposing objects "similar in appearance but not in size."

Attempting for a moment to contextualize links or ratios between subjects taken up in Ashbery's Selected Prose, overall, and Ashbery's acumen for critical assessment, I'll refer to his account of Roussel's "tumultuous impression of reality" that derives from, among other things, using plots as "pretexts for description" in Nouvelles impressions d'Afrique:
A group of Europeans has been shipwrecked off the coast of Africa. Talou, a tribal king, is holding them for ransom. In order to distract themselves until the ransom money arrives, the travelers plan a "gala" for the day of their liberation. Each contributes a number utilizing his or her particular talents, and the first half of the book is an account of the gala, punctuated by a number of executions which Talou has ordained for certain of his subjects who have incurred his wrath. The second half is a logical explanation of the preposterous and fantastic scenes which have gone before.

This plot carries the human force of allegorical logic: Constrained by politicos, mercenaries and killers, almost any topics for the critical or poetical imagination constitute useful distractions from surrounding tyranny. Using the plot as a template for understanding the breadth of and links between critical pieces in Selected Prose, one could go further and offer that each topic, heavy or light, "contributes a number" eliciting particular talents required to render it gala-worthy for one's liberation (whose day has not yet come). Surely this allegory is as "preposterous and fantastic" as a range of others from Samuel Beckett to Gilligan's Island, but the selected "scenes" or expositions of Ashbery's prose are not preposterous, emphatically not "pretexts for description." Ashbery piece by piece elaborates each with details that slip away from facile generality or inaccuracy, yet play down their own importance, a prose flowing with critical acuity that is daring in its emphasis on close reading, scrupulous in its specificity, and full of life.

NEW! Review of Julie Kalendek

Our Fortunes by Julie Kalendek. Burning Deck, $10.

Reviewed by Chad Davidson

In her first full-length collection, Our Fortunes, Julie Kalendek positions three sequences of clipped, untitled poems in a mosaic depicting various “chemical flavored” relationships and their ends. The first sequence, “Retraction,” speaks with obituary-like coldness and impersonality: “My work on your behalf / comprises an addiction.” The second, “Make,” falters a bit with its reliance on the anaphoric opening line, “As we seem to begin”; moreover, the fact that each of the four poems in the sequence has fourteen lines yet offers little interrogation of the sonnet seems a missed opportunity. The final and title sequence, “Our Fortunes,” with its numbered poems stripped of punctuation, employs more architecturally interesting structures, usually by way of surprising rhymes, as in the fourth poem: “I faked a lesson / taught you verbs // we conjugate quite fair // Could I extract the message / if it wasn't really there.”

The power of Kalendek's poems resides mainly in her peculiar yet subtle turns of phrase, in her discovery of the loopholes in the language shared intimately by two people. At her best, Kalendek astounds: “was it better to have a man / look up to you or down your shirt, / look down on you or up your skirt?” Two poems later, she offers this: “What a surprise when the woman declines / and is vicious, but reclined / at the appropriate angle.” Kalendek employs a lyricism that is consistently calculated and--as the press release suggests--“analytical” in its systematic appraisal of lovers whose language “grew too much inward” and was ultimately “supplanted by a vocabulary of custom.” She dangerously employs a host of polysyllabic, Latinate verbiage that, in the hands of a lesser writer, might come across as excessively sterile. That she can invigorate such a seemingly bloodless lexicon is testament to her powers. We might even wish for longer poems from her, poems that could prolong and deepen her unique brand of lyricism.

In a book of such spartan gestures and calm, understated emotion, however, any repetition calls attention to itself, even a syntactical repetition. The preponderance of what we might call the “calculus of stone” construction--one in which two unlike nouns are connected with the genitive “of”--begins to overpower the more innovative moves. Some examples: “civilization of machinery,” “facts of desire,” “geography of your need,” “framework of belief,” and “a parcel of each day.” Indeed, localized repetitions of syntactical structures seem symptomatic of the book's somewhat limited emotional register. The narrator herself appears to acknowledge such a shortcoming in the “Make” sequence's finale: “I can't arouse a single hope / from the impure line.” What's more, poems that attest to the failure of words, or of the poet who writes them, have also become a kind of poetic cliché--after all, isn't the poet's job to find the words? Kalendek does such a thorough job of linguistic foraging throughout the collection that these lapses into the well-charted territory of poetic ease stand out more emphatically. Ultimately, though, Kalendek achieves a mostly vivid portrayal of failing intimacy, which is all the more impressive given her chilly and distant lexicon.

NEW! Review of Durs Grünbein

Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems by Durs Grünbein, translated by Michael Hofmann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.

Reviewed by Francis Raven

Anyone who is interested in transatlantic poetics, European poetics, poetics after communism, poetics after regime change, etc., should buy this book. It is arranged chronologically and extends from his first book, Grauzone Morgens (1988), through the zoological poems of Falten Und Fallen (1994), through Den Teuren Toten (1994) a series of 'reports on the death of insignificant people,' written in the form of ancient epitaphs and finishing with Nach Den Satiren (1999). From his publisher, we learn that Grünbein was born in Dresden in 1962, and “is the most significant and successful poet to emerge from the former East Germany, a place where, he wrote, 'the best refuge was a closed mouth.'” We also learn that Grünbein has received many awards, including Germany's most prestigious literature prize, the Georg Büchner Prize (1995). All of this sets the stage for a certain type of political reading. Although the major societal clash is now between liberal democracy and a certain type of fascist-fundamentalism, Grünbein's poetry reminds the reader of the barely buried clash of the Cold War. The author rewards the reader with poetry that is more ambivalent than purely political poetry requires. Most of the pieces here are everyday poems inflected by the political.

Grünbein's world is a grey world in which we do regular things. For example, in “A Single Tin,” Grünbein writes about a tin of sardines that has drifted up among the “flotsam & jetsam / so far inland” that it “keeps / whatever this morning promises / by way of beauty.” Things float to shore, as into our lives, some of them are awful, they jumble together and yet there is something beautiful coming in on the tide. In Grünbein's work, bits and pieces of culture float together to form poems. This is the everyday world and it is deadly serious business, yet it is also possible that it is impertinent or irrelevant. One of the questions these poems ask is What is not impertinent?

These questions are also related to the questions of garbage: How do things come together? Or the Aristotelian, what is substance and what is merely accident? What parts of our identities can we dispense with? Garbage is another recurring theme, as is seen in “Untitled”: “I said I had enjoyed / wandering over the garbage / heaps with you. But you / were wearing those crazy / shoes: canary yellow, and / we were in a hurry as / a particularly cool drizzle / started to fall.” The idea of flotsam and jetsam (or of fragments coming together) reemerges when Grünbein attends to the act of writing poetry itself. In “MonoLogical Poem # 1” he asks, “what is the whole surreal jokeshop / of terrors compared to the / infinitely chance little / tricks of a poem.”

Yet life is often dull and boring during times of soldiers: “Impregnated by the foul / breath of a soldier, / whose outing had / gone wrong, she stood / in the last carriage feeling / seasick and you had to wonder / frankly how she would / ever get out of there.” These are times of soldiers, but not times of war. In this respect, Grünbein's poems are essentially European. They are poems of memory, but not of aggression. And as was seen in Europe's response to America's war in Iraq, they would prefer diplomacy to bombs. The standard line is that because Europeans remember the ravages of war they will not allow them to occur ever again except under the direst circumstances. This memory creates a morality centered on ambivalence and skepticism.

Philosophically, grayness and ambivalence permeate the book. In “Almost a Song” Grünbein writes, “Stands to reason / almost any poem / is going to make you puke / with boredom / like an ill-fitting / speech bubble: / one line's / as good as another / on this graygray color chart.” Later in that same poem he concludes, “Otherwise / it's probably just about OK.” And this is the landscape these poems inhabit: just about OK. In fact, this is perhaps the landscape of much of the world right now. It is not a time for holocaust poets. It is a time for moving along with history. And indeed on display in these poems is the morality of moving on with history. Moving on from history is not in man's design. If we move on we carry things, and Grünbein carries a certain feeling about Europe and East Germany.

A profile in Poetry International remarks that “Grünbein urgently requested to be left out of the Flemish magazine Deus ex Machina which was planning a special on literature from the former D.D.R. a few years ago. In an interview with Der Spiegel he commented briefly and angrily: 'I was lost to the D.D.R. the moment I was born.'” Ambivalence about the D.D.R. persists throughout the poems until East Germany is placed into poetic opposition with Europe.

Or, as Grünbein writes in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie),” “What a country, where a word on something topical / Provokes more than the unsayable / Remaining unsaid.” The hidden history of the D.D.R. is visible in its absence from speech. In another section of “Portrait”, Grünbein writes, “In the West, so they said, the dog precedes / His master. / In the East, he trails him--at a distance. / As for me, I was my own dog, / Equidistant from East and West, in the suicide strip.” The article in Poetry International also notes that “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Durs Grünbein became one of the first writers of the reunified Germany. His personal life clearly reflects this: he lives with wife and daughter in East Berlin, but works in a rented room in the West.” He is a skeptical unified man living his life with these tensions.

In an analysis of Grünbein's zoological parable “To an Okapi in the Munich Zoo,” Renat Bekbolatov writes, “The poet clearly displayed the formation of the new identities and new stereotypes . . . he uses the identity of a wild animal as a metaphor for the east Germans . . . The poem's main theme is that the east Germans had to adopt a new identity, however it wasn't pleasant to them; they had no choice. They came from one cage to another. The poem is a skeptical remark on the unification of the Germany, because the author understands that the German Wall meant more than just a physical wall; his view is that the Wall, being a border, created two different identities for people of East and West Germanys.” This skepticism concerning reunification (and thus, the rationalist's project) emerges through the book. If unification is not possible, flotsam and jetsam will have to do.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

NEW! Review of Chain

Chain #11: Public Forms, edited by Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr. $12.

Reviewed by Francis Raven

The editors of Chain #11: Public Forms, Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr, took great care to include examples of all that 'public forms' might mean. This is the primary advantage of a topical journal like Chain: it has the room to outline the aesthetic grammar of a concept such as public forms. That is, it can explore the idea of public forms in public art, planting, traveling, taking up space, politics, surveillance, community theater, mail art, street art, and surveys. In so doing, Chain #11 truly illuminates public forms.

Although Chain is topically bounded, it does not offer a theoretical framework for its topic. It presents a laundry list of public forms, but does not tie them together with a philosophical framework. This is actually beneficial since a weighty philosophical framework might unnecessarily interfere with the integrity of the individual pieces. That said, a meatier introduction might have served this purpose better without interfering with the variety of included pieces. However, I am sure that the question of how robust the editorial and curatorial framework should be is a recurring theme at Chain and one that must be resolved differently from issue to issue.

While most of the authors investigated what public form means, a few investigated its oppositional concept: private form. One such piece is Jane Dalrymple-Hollo and Eleni Sikelianos's “[I had a private thought I thought],” a collection of six captioned line drawings investigating the concepts of public art, war, and ownership.

Elke Lehmann describes her piece “Portraits” as follows: “Simulated surveillance cameras were installed throughout the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan in 2002. Non-functional and playfully constructed from a variety of materials, each of these sculptures was a unique 'portrait' of a standard surveillance camera commonly found in public space.” Five photographs of these fake surveillance cameras (made out of newspapers, cardboard, handbags, etc.) are the evidence of this project in Chain #11. It would have been interesting to complement the portraits with a piece on Bill Brown's walking tour of surveillance cameras in New York City. “By taking a walking tour you'll learn how to spot surveillance cameras, the different types of cameras used, and the general ubiquitousness of the cameras.” (See

In Lauren Gudath's “Awe Shucks: A Survey and a Poem,” a private form, poetry, is transformed into a public form. The piece consists of a survey (with questions both about poetry and Iraq) Gudath administered to 50 people in November 2003 and the poem created from answers given. As such, one of the main questions asks the participant to “Read the following statements about the current situation in Iraq and the events leading up to it. Please indicate, on a scale of one to five where one means strongly disagree and five means strongly agree, whether you disagree or agree with the statements.” The statements included most of the suspected political and media controversies. Gudath then generated a poem by using the responses survey participants gave her.

In an afternote to the poem, Gudath writes that she did the piece because she was “[i]nterested in exploring the process by which survey results can be turned into public discourse.” Surveys normally influence public life when they are acting as polls. In that case, they often determine politicians' stances on a variety of issues. But they do not normally determine the form that the media uses to present these polling results. Gudath's piece takes the potential of surveys a step further by having participants shape the form of the poem (the media of presenting the survey results).

Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand's report on the Southern Maryland Sign Project outlines a traditional project of activist art: placing poetic and political signs in public locations. They write, “We are interested in the social mark signs can make. Placing a sign into the public is an act of submission: one releases art into the social commons.” These signs range from: “WHERE IS THE DEAD/END OF OUR IMPERIALIST FIASCO” to “NO MORE YELLOW CAKE IN THE SKY.”

David Buuck's “Reports from B.A.R.G.E. (Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-Aesthetics)” uses a similarly traditional oppositional aesthetic approach: a post-Situationist tour through Oakland recorded in the journal. As Buuck writes, “Public art in this case becomes less a body of fixed monuments and works but a mobile, ongoing retelling and literal renavigation of history's in both time and place . . . To (de)tour through Oakland by the logics of historical counter-narrative and local sites of resistance too fraught and fragile have become museumified by the state, is to radically undo what the Situationists used to call the psychogeography of everyday life.”

In their introduction, the editors quote David Antin's “Nobody knows who the public is or what it wants or needs.” That may be true, but Chain #11 gives readers a better sense of what forms public life can take.

NEW! Review of Basho

Backroads To Far Towns: Basho's Travel Journal, translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu. White Pine Press, $13.

Reviewed by David Berridge

Cid Corman's co-translation of Basho's Backroads To Far Towns first appeared in his magazine Origin in 1964. It was expanded and published by Grossman in 1968, by White Pine Press in 1986, and now, by White Pine Press again, in a small pocket-sized edition as part of their Companions for the Road series. For English speaking audiences this reprint makes available a Basho different in form and structure from others available in English. It is also a text of historical importance in tracing connections of haiku and haibun to several generations of American poetry: from Lorine Niedecker's development of a five-line American “equivalent” to the haiku to, for example, Andrew Schelling's recent explorations of the haibun and travel journal/poem.

Corman began translating Basho in the 1950's, publishing versions in Origin, and in his self-published Cool Melon (1959). He continued up to his death in 2004 and a substantial selection of this work was recently collected in One Man's Moon (Gnomon Press, 2003). Corman's translations reveal his sense both of haiku and of the methods and assumptions underlying Basho's relating of experience and poem. Take, for example, Basho's most famous haiku, which Corman, in a version included in One Man's Moon, strips down to a bare minimum “Old pond / frog leaping / splash.” Even the smooth leanness of Robert Hass' translations in Essential Haiku has double the number of words: “The old pond-- / a frog jumps in, / sound of water.” Hass also introduces Basho to English-language readers through a biography stressing class background--his father was of the landed gentry or samurai class--and social conditions of a still feudal seventeenth-century Japan. Backroads To Far Towns concludes with over twenty pages of detailed notes elucidating names and cultural references but Corman is attracted to an essence he abstracts from Basho's poems and biography. Corman highlights this in his introduction:
Most of his poetry . . . evokes a context and wants one. The poems are not isolated instances of lyricism, but cries of their occasions, of someone intently passing through a world, often arrested by the momentary nature of things within an unfathomable “order.”

Backroads To Far Towns chronicles Basho's journey north from his home in Edo in spring of 1689. He did not return until 1691, although Backroads To Far Towns chronicles the journey only as far as his arrival at Ogaki in Autumn 1689. How Basho chronicled this journey and how differently he comes to us through Corman's translation, is seen by comparing part of the entry for March 27 in, first, Corman's version with that of, second, Nobuyuki Yuasa's roughly contemporary Penguin Classic translation of 1966:
Yayoi: last seventh, slightly hazy dawn, “a waning moon, a failing light,” summit of Fuji vague, crowns of blossoming cherry at Ueno and Yanaka, when would they--and would they--be seen again.? Friends, gathering since nightfall, came along by boat to see us off. Landed at Senju, sense of three thousand li ahead swelling the heart, world so much a dream, tears at point of departure.

It was early on the morning of March the twenty-seventh that I took to the road. There was darkness lingering in the sky, and the moon was still visible, though gradually thinning away. The faint shadow of Mount Fuji and the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka were bidding me a last farewell. My friends had got together the night before, and they all came with me on the boat to keep me company for the first few miles.

Corman attempts to convey what he terms Basho's “unusual syntax” with “its lack of rule . . . curious, characteristic, and exact.” This removes Basho's writing from the descriptive narrative we find in Yuasa's translation. Instead it inhabits a space of environment and its allusions; present, past and future; personal and cultural history. In Corman's translation the relationship and interfusion between them cannot be conveyed in the grammar of a conventional sentence, nor in the accumulation of sentences into narrative paragraphs. Details accumulate as a structuring and condensing of experience that considers weight and juxtaposition of word and detail, texture and rhythm as a way towards narrative. Corman writes how the haiku concluding each haibun “help clot passages, so that one doesn't read too rapidly.” His use of Japanese vocabulary and quotations sending the reader to the notes also clot and slow the prose, and Basho emerges as a writer who constantly pauses and reflects during a slow, gradual process of composition.

Understanding Basho in terms of field and condensery, montage and particulars highlights, of course, how comfortably Basho fitted into the pages of Origin alongside Charles Olson, Niedecker, and Louis Zukofsky. This translation reveals Basho's response to a place, like that of many Origin contributors, to be a multi-layered montage. Commitment to particulars and direct response to the object, in Basho as well as Zukofsky, produces complex and often allusive writing. In Basho this means a quality of “grounded in season and particularity, no matter how allusive” goes along with limits to how much an experience can be conveyed to those not part of the situation itself or its wider cultural context. Corman's use of Japanese words, for example, emphasizes more than other translations how much these poems depend upon a shared, literate culture to be written and understood. Sometimes this goes as far as to remove the need to write or imposes a restriction: “story behind it common knowledge.” Other times, the joining of poetry and landscape becomes disjunctive. In contrast to a poem's fixity, Basho observes, “landscapes and floods have altered paths and covered markers with earth.”

Relationships of traveling and writing are also more complex than a sense of Basho's haibun as “cries of their occasions” allows. Demands of travelling, the continual memories it provokes and the strain of “being entranced simply by the sense” mean that “there wasn't much chance for thinking words of my own through” Basho often seems to need excessive prompting to write at all, as when, leaving a temple, “young priests came hurrying down the steps after me with paper and ink-slab . . . Sandals already on, jotted it [haiku] hastily down for them.” I may be missing a cultural protocol or etiquette here, but it also connects to a wider lament about the failure of words: “who with brush or speech can hope to describe the work of heaven and earth's divinity?” The strength of Corman's translation is that it allows all of these difficulties and complexities into its very grammar. It is this that relates Basho to recent traditions in American poetries responding to nature not as the securely external and observed but as an always intertwining ecology involving mind and culture.

Friday, February 18, 2005

NEW! Review of Eleni Sikelianos

The Book of Jon by Eleni Sikelianos. City Lights, $11.95.

Reviewed by Brad Flis

“I see the lines of our ancestors laid out in filaments looping here and there, bifurcating, disappearing; and there are breaks in the thread and dead-ends into the dark . . . the ranks moving forward and forward, branching, fucking, splitting, until they reach the edges of history; and forward, farther, till they hit the periphery of family lore . . . This portion of the tale is about my father, Jon.”

If The California Poem, Sikelianos' majestically composed long poem, in vitally reconceptualizing what may pass for American pastoral, memorizes and recites back to us the viscera of a nation's atoms, her memoiresque poetic work, The Book of Jon, acts as an immaculate compliment in its cartographic inscription of a nation's adam, an elegy for the idealized abstraction and often plaintive realization of a distinctly Americanized father figure. Sikelianos traces the recklessly haphazard life of her father through personal and familial document and recollection, but extends her textual canvassing far beyond the particular toward a communal amplitude indistinguishably human, where the unsettled ruminations of our own past facsimiles reject the idea of a nurturing pop-iconography, the father's book and the book's father, outlined in simulacra, where mimicry and failure serve as paths to passed love and a love suddenly passing (on/through/out).

Jon is the antithesis of Musil's Man-Without-Qualities. He is the Man of All Antagonistic Extremes, suffering from pride, drugs, restlessness, poverty, and misdirection. In portraying her father's brusque nature, Sikelianos skillfully constructs as many forms of depiction within the book as will elicit some fragment of his daily nemesis and her own anamnesis, capitalizing on the dynamic formal potentials of list, interview, notes, essay, poem (some pulled wholesale from her own previous publications), story, letter, photo, travelogue, myth, dream, obituary, memorandum, and family tree. Her dexterous manipulation of form grants her the freedom to multiply the permutations, resculptings, reformations, and sleighted similarities which veer into biographic variance, revering the slimmest of revisions, yet Sikelianos steadily inverts the reverence of a father-vision, reverbs further through new versions, re-verbs father through nude visions: ad lib (i.e., adam's rib), a visceral broadening and breaking of lines and delineation to shear away the rehearsed. What you seem/seam is what you get, greet, regret, rebeget:
“Dear Dad Dear Father Dear Jon Dear Pop,”

“It is wearying to write about my father the big-bad-druggie-with-gun-dabblings-guy over and over. I'm tired of the brilliantly-talented-tortured-father-sometimes-mean-guy persona on him. I know this to be because I saw him today and there before me was my father”

“There is my father
in the doorway. What is he

doing there?
He stands. He happens

again and again. I happen
to be here, where my father is”

Sikelianos' here-vacant, there-invaded parent-space, spared the predictably complacent Plathic vapours, venerates the Paleolithic in poetic patrimony (“My father's early aquatic life is redeemed”), sacrificed clean slate by confiscating the confusion of tales passed down from clan-pattern (Abraham's tabula pater), no confession, no secrets, only furtive secretion through historical plateaus, the invisible playthings of creation vacated. Within this orphic patronage, Sikelianos fidgets, furies, and falters in her tracking the trans-parent, valences of what is seen, has been sensed, envisions, will evince, and dispenses before the lost begetter, what these sentences present as unseen evidences after an incensed apprentice, what, uncensored, is descended and a parent, the tapered patriot's part-patois, self-entrapped as in another dream (“The sounds of the voice and the music . . . wondrous topics . . . there on the . . . at that house . . . with those people . . . the music . . . the Jon . . . the Chris . . . the son and on . . . where and when you're . . . been with the Bald mother the Daughter of Southern my the sound heard own voice pipe in lyric recurring . . .”).

Divisions and dreams interceding the ancestral lyric, clipped echoes jutting from the father's centripetal mouth. Yet Sikelianos keeps her volumes vocal, speaks to her selves (“I went through it in all the languages I know. My father is dead”), wreaks havoc on the “thin veil, a flimsy partition” of the dispersed person, Jon, and the patrial-personal, attributing to him neither slave nor salvation, no safe salve but value veiled as vice where Jon is “full of an unboundable energy that fairly ripples under his skin . . . strong as anything” but also the judged and addressed Jon “with a shoelace strapped onto your biceps, or tumbling down a long flight of stairs with your brain in a quivering yellow seizure,” no ideas but skin-things, forged and foreign scratchings (feigned scathings) of the superficial surfaces (hero or hag/Hague?). All these hollowed faults forgiven as dad fled fads, fed fears, and feared Feds, but retamed in the dream of escape and the dream-like escapist's trapeze, one which Sikelianos teases into place. Take her scant litany of unliteral advents in “An Inventory of Jon's visions I know about (Dream Events)”:
--Owl with a 60-foot wing span flits over the highway at Tres Piedras
--Ghosts arrive in carriages for a high-class tea in an orchard
--Enormous ponies crossing the roads to Chama
--Devils and ghouls and the generally dead busting through doors in Mexico City

This unilateral spatialization of the mind's dim frieze, a coroner's animated Americana, a cornered-in American animism (whose views? New Mexico's young zoos? poets exhumed through Jung?), though here a fork-tuned landscape, a fortune freed from the ma(i)zes of made space and demasked spasm (“What this has to do with is pipe-dreams. A man, my father, a nation of pipe-dreams. Enough pipe-dreams to fill up several countries, countries full of pipe-dreamers”). Autonomy is not automatic, and where we converse is not where we conceive. Nativity is a naturalized (nationalized) cul de sac, so as dreamt-up dreamers redeemed, we are also culpable, also capable of our own self-replacing, one's glance-rip in the mirrors.

From California to New York Island, as folk goes, this Jon is our Jon, a sojourn, and should be scene as such, not the person but the personification, not the citizen but the city sung, the buttressed citadel, where Sikelianos incites, “I would like to be inside the lights / of these peoples' / houses (with our ancient nostalgia for fire) but not / inside these lives.” And always the returning which Sikelianos nurtures. The look back to light, her glint, yours, mine. As I embark with Jon by lamp, what begins with me is ample, my father in the turnpikes. With one man in his trough, the name is not enough. Thus, I applaud this book's balked apple. What Sikelianos tempts the reader with is dearer than addiction or desired dad, unlicensed trundle without additioned rupture, dad's last asp for breath. The Book of Jon asks us to excuse our fathers through kind gestures, fleeting love. By Jon's own rattled testament:
The time of us on earth is spent lightly
on good peas and gravy
good enough for a seconds time
in an hour

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

NEW! Rebecca Lilly poem

Rebecca Lilly


The stone is plain and irregular, not the pure form of fire or air. A bulwark, it rests for centuries in desert ruins, or dry stream beds, or under the forest earth as a tomb. If it pokes through, like the hull of a sunboat, or the rim of a cauldron that once boiled witches' brew, wind and rainfall eventually expose it.

For the nymph who bathes in lake waters, with her negligee of moss, it's a movable bench, while the naturalist marvels at its bumps and crevices, as if it had a lamp behind it. “Ah, fossils and shell scraps. What to make of its pocked eyes?” wonders the naturalist, who admires its survivalist creed, “and if we read it properly, what secrets would it tell if it could speak!” Cleared of snow-melt, sun-baked on an over-look, or by a woods stream, a stone shows itself to be merely nothing more, and ages with dignity.

If an animal ingests it accidentally with its leaves or berries, it's excreted unchanged, and fares well over the centuries, a dewed covering of ivy, moss or lichen sparkling after rain, attracting a butterfly's fireworks. Dust motes are radiant in crevices and other hiding places when the sun strikes: praying mantises, ladybugs, snakes, toads, and other insects rest inside.

So the legend goes, wood sprites and elves will claim ownership, for a stone records the history of forest-dwellers. Before dark settled on our world, fire marked ocean floors, caverns and grottoes, now knobbed and scarred. The stone is a peephole on the cosmos, holding the sun's heat even as it darkens--remnant of its previous life when the stone was a star.

Monday, February 14, 2005

NEW! Review of Matthew Thorburn

Subject to Change by Matthew Thorburn. New Issues, $14

Reviewed by Matthew W. Schmeer

The examination of personal nostalgia resonates throughout Matthew Thorburn's Subject to Change, and this underlying thread of sadness and remorse and hopeful expectation--a quest for what might have been and might yet be--makes the emotional edge of these poems burn with brilliant clarity.

This clarity can be attributed, in some respects, to the arrangement of the collection itself. Briefly thumbing through the pages, I was struck by the musicality of many of the titles: “The Oboe,” “Graciela and the Song of One Hundred Names,” “Plunky's Lament,” “Variations,” “Little Waltz, “ “Refrain,” etc. This symphony of words is also reflected in Thorburn's manuscript, as each of the four sections--or more properly, movements--build upon each other, reinforcing the theme of past remembrance, how memories are subject to the whims of the moment they're remembered and how they affect the course of future paths. Take, for example, “The River,” a multi-sectioned poem which closes section two. Here, we find the speaker having made the ultimate relationship faux pas, calling his wife by a former lover's name, and chastising himself for lingering over the memory of that relationship, how the wisp of a scent can bring a memory tumbling back without restraint:
Or, for there was always something else,

the vanilla scent she loved
to wear and he loved to smell, that he sniffs now
over his shoulder in the copy
room on the thin wrists and neck of the new
secretary. Olfactory aches as memory comes
wafting back. Nosing around
on the past, he thinks, like Proust
with a crush on what was. His back turned
to what he's headed for,
as with rowing a boat, turning over
the oars out of a love for that motion
which passes for a kind of progress.

Not only do we see the speaker tracing the thread of memory for us, but the physicality of this backward glancing draws us forward even as we go backward in time. This blind driving toward the future while facing the past is echoed again in “Refrain” and “Coda: Where the River Runs,” both of which close section four and the entire collection, the rising and falling and circling back to sound the final notes of memory.

The musicality of the poems doesn't stop with the titles, of course, as Thorburn has a penchant for traditional forms, most notably the sonnet. The mark of a good contemporary sonnet is that after you read it, you don't recognize it's a sonnet (think Ted Berrigan, Beth Houston, and Mark Jarman). Then, two or three days later you have the urge to read it again, but this time you linger longer over the page, scrutinizing the rhyme scheme and scanning meter, and then it hits you that it is, indeed, a sonnet. The eight sonnets included in this collection have this mastery, and Thorburn displays his craft to its fullest in “Triptych,” a three-sonnet sequence in remembrance of a deceased lover. In the first two sonnets, Thorburn interrupts the lines and utilizes white space to create the absence the poem remembers, as in the first sonnet section, “Scaring Up Crows.”

Thorburn also plays with form, as several of his pieces make clear. His sestina. “Just You, Just Me” is a rollicking good one, a delicious romp through young love and marriage, role-playing and lowered expectations. And then there are his prose poems, of which “Italian Coffee” and “Little Waltz” are perhaps two of the finest examples of the form I've seen in recent reading. But other experiments aren't as successful: “Jim & John,” a conversation with Siamese twins, falls a bit flat in its contrivance; “Three Part Constructed Form” a Dadaist/Surrealist arrangement, feels out of place in its sequence; and “White,” a single-stanza ballade, relies too much on the shock value of its final two lines.

Despite these few stumbles, Thorburn's freshman effort is both masterly and effortless; his poems have such ease of language that you almost don't believe they've been carefully crafted. Even the natural music of his free verse poems such as “What to Say, an Aria,” where we glimpse the internal struggle of the momentarily tongue-tied, or “In Lansing, ” where the holiday hangover and winter blues collide, exhibit the same attention to detail. My favorite of the free verse pieces is “For Friends Who Are Married and Expecting More Babies,” where the relationship between the speaker and the friends is blurred between discussion of the proper recipe for cucumber soup and the paradox of whiskey. Overall, Thorburn doesn't mince words, and he doesn't waste them, either. That's hard to do when writing about past loves and present lovers without falling into wrist-wringing sentimentality.

Friday, February 11, 2005

NEW! Review of Deborah Meadows

Representing Absence by Deborah Meadows. Green Integer, $9.95.

Reviewed by Anthony Hawley

Representing Absence, Deborah Meadows' first full-length collection, devotes its attention to history, myth, historiography, and, literally, “representing absence.” The book's three parts--two long poems and one faux translation--wrestle with interpretation. Examining, dismantling, and recreating “multiple versions” of history and subjectivity, they come to terms with our changed (and changing) sense of self. The first section, “from 'The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick',” contains chapters one through twenty of Meadows' long serial poem. While I'm not familiar with the full range of this mammoth work (parts have been published in chapbook form by Krupskaya Books and Tinfish), these twenty chapters' multifarious tongue--part Meadows, part Moby; part Ishmael, part Queequeg--is exemplary not only of this project's linguistic scope, but of the book's as a whole.

The poem interrogates constantly. In “from 'The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick',” Meadows finds ground for cross-examination in the 19th century's cultural, social, economic, and architectural facades: “the dreary sleep in the governor's cottage,” the “knowledge by formula,” and “the companies inheriting / the earth by asserted claim.” It researches surface tensions and asserted misapprehensions: “. . . cement / banisters merge public and private lives, / how can order disguise the bows, bowspirits, etc.” But these aren't simply questions for questions' sake. Language slips into and out of disguise, infiltrating “small towns [that] / sweet by appearance, destroy what fugitive / kind they don't understand.” Ingesting other tongues, integrating the “stuff” of Melville's milieu, Meadows creates an identity turned pastiche:
Made of patchwork, this self
interminable squares and palimpsest scrivened

               As a procedure
to fill or to empty: my mother of circumstances
the sea of scholarly conditions and strange
questions contribute to the misfortune
of selfhood, punning at the window
with blankets and the sound of a house
going from bad to worse--at least
I got circular in the garden, steeped
in trouble.

Indeed, much of the poetry here is procedural, a poetics designed “to fill or to empty,” even to “contribute” to the selfhood muddied by “the misfortune[s]” of industry, imperialism, and “the sound of a house / going from bad to worse.” The more time I spend with these poems, the more I feel like Meadows is taking stock, archiving components of subjectivity, not establishing a fixed vision. Perhaps getting “circular” in the garden speaks to the continual going over that is the “palimpsest scrivened / language.” For the “patchwork self” serves as both the means and the end in Meadows' first full-length collection:
The clutter of implements mounted here
turn utility to historic trophy
to faceless, headless objects of conversation
barwise. What belongs to what? A pasture
for slander, this is me and my parts.

“The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick” takes issue with the “historic trophy,” with things stripped of their “utility,” contending the presumptuousness of ownership: of the seas and of the self; “boats arranged to capture oceanic / wealth, power and multiple meanings / attributed to whales.” Expressing its concerns with history-making and myth-making (and the confusion of the two), the poem cum “pasture” both accepts and invokes “slander” as it grapples with the question “what belongs to what?” Here, the tone of the poem seems both accusatory and cautious. Meadows constantly girdles her chapters with queries like the following: “squares have a sameness, yet do they extend or segregate ignorance?” Sure the “self” may be of “patchwork” but do we profit from this? The broad range of voice and the various guises the voice subsumes make for constant dialogue. Meadows' great accomplishment here is her ability to fuse tongues at once indigenous and “fugitive.”

If the first third of this book amounts to an investigation into the social, economic, and physical malpractice of Melville's 19th century, the second third seems to me a similar treatment (though less directly) of the 20th century. However, Meadows does not confine herself to a single landscape as she does in “The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick.” “Not a treatise on the line segment” draws on a wider variety of sources, including Dante, Edmund Jabes, and Osip Mandelstam. This second section is as entrenched in a multi-faceted concept of the self as the first, but highlights circularity as a conceit. Take the invocation of the ouroboros in the second line:
        From a silence, many versions…

with a mouths full of gravel, these ouroboros,
      symbolizing selfhoods' extent--

range, might be more accurate, in their baby agitation feed.

The semantic possibilities between the ouroboros--the snake or dragon circling around to eat its own tail--and this poem are numerous. But for Meadows the notion of continual return that this image evokes is of utmost importance since palimpsest consists of devouring, refertilizing, erasing, and reinventing very much in the vein of the ouroboros. All this suggests to me a violent effort to efface linearity.

And as Meadows contemplates “return,” violence surfaces throughout “Not a treatise on the line segment.” The image's initial cruelty--the snake constantly snacking on itself--begs the question “how.” How does the snake live through such horror? How does it reconstruct itself? How do we recover from violence? With this in mind, Meadows frequently invokes Emond Jabes and his poetic project as she reconciles not just the snake and violence, but language and disaster:
to return from there
      is inexplicable

to return from there
confounds all language

Lines like this seem to wrestle with the very issue Jabes did: the problem of writing poetry in the wake of extraordinary “atrocity.” How does the poet represent death, represent, in essence, absence? But with Meadows' work, the reader must also factor in the violence on the page, the violence of writing over, through, or upon another text.

A haunting quiet permeates the spare lines and the page in-between throughout “Not a treatise on the line segment.” While “The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick” is a compelling journey, I am more drawn to this project's lyrical contemplativeness. If the reader is meant to view the poems as a whole, “Not a treatise on a line segments” doesn't congeal the way “The Theory of Subjectivity of Moby-Dick” does, but it sometimes offers more resounding fragments:
even how we think


      Someone had
      to hold
           the idea
           the method

The formal choices here allow the reader some breathing room to ponder the “atrocities” at the foreground of this section. The lines' conceptual content (i.e., “how we think”) and the poem's broad application of the word “atrocities” add to this. At one point Meadows writes the following:
words picked out of the historic document like eyes
      or tidbits leaving the thing with holes and gaps

word      word word
   word          word


But at times, I can't help but feel aimless while navigating Meadows' pocked terrain. It's then that I get skeptical. Is there an overabundance of the “tidbit?” Do the “gaps” and “holes” leave too wide, too deep a void? Of course, Meadows doesn't simply have a passing interest in the “tidbit,” in the “holes” and “gaps;” they are as integral to her project as her own diction, and proportionally, there are as many in the final section as there are in the first and second. False cognates, fake cognates, and willful misreading are characteristic of the last part, “Faux Translation of Charles Baudelaire's 'To the Reader'.” Like Zukofsky, Meadows translates against meaning, letting her sonic impulses guide her. By joining accuracy with inaccuracy, Meadows makes a humorous, hodge-podge text sucked of much of its original denotation.

I worry about palimpsest. I worry that the theoretical cart sometimes comes before the poetic horse. Palimpsest makes for a thought-provoking, but arduous journey. Then again, isn't this what Meadows intends? Doesn't she want to make it tough-going? Perhaps palimpsest, perhaps writing over, through, and within the unchangeable horrors of history, that is, by accepting and integrating, though always with a scrupulous eye, is the only way we can move forward.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

NEW! Review of Gerhard Rühm

i my feet: selected poems and constellations by Gerhard Rühm. Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. Burning Deck, $10.

Reviewed by Jennifer Ludwig

Concrete poet Gerhard Rühm was one of the founding members of the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) in the 1950s and 1960s. The work presented here, dating from the early
'50s (Rühm was one of the early practitioners of concrete poetry) to the late '80s, is both a whirl of permutated words and images and a concise historical survey of the career of one of the most important poetic innovators of the twentieth century. i my feet: selected poems and constellations is volume seven of Dichten=, a series of contemporary German writing translated into English and put out by Burning Deck. Founded by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop in 1961, the press was avowedly established to break down the (false) boundary between beat and academic poetry. Pound's much-beloved catchphrase “dichten=condensare” reappears here as a description of the aims of concrete poetry, of which Waldrop says that “its most obvious feature is reduction . . . Both convention and sentences are replaced by spatial arrangements.”

Concrete poetry's revolt against what Waldrop calls the “transparency of the word” is in fine evidence in this volume, which includes works ranging from 1954's a heart in the left: cool poetry to 1989's VI. Albertus Magnus: A Reliquary History as Book of Hours, a bizarre chronical of linguistic decay that ends with a series of black pages broken by lone letters and graphics. This section section from Rühm's a heart in the left: cool poetry exemplifies both the appeal and the difficulty of this collection of “poems and constellations”:
my feet
and you
your feet
our feet

i could also say other things
about other things

Rühm's is an expression of disembodiment that enables a degree of social engagement. Here, “I” is at least slightly bewildered and fascinated by “my feet,” those strange appendages that seem oddly detached from the self. If the body's connection to the mind is uncertain, though, if the body is somehow other, that othering allows “I” to look at “your feet” and recognize them, too, as equally other. Those two sets of feet “walking” become “our feet / walking”; this is perhaps not the greatest statement of human connectivity, but the strangeness of one's own body is here what enables a connection to the determinably unknowably “you.”

This is Rühm at his easiest: this section is as legible as any lyric, and reads as a meditation on the self and the self's relationship to both other people and language. Language is, of course, the mediator, the “feet” also poetic feet, and the space of the page as a place of kinship becomes troubled by the takeover of the feet. The last two lines of the section break that illusion of, or allusion towards, a more traditional poetics. If “i could also say other things / about other things,” there is a certain nonchalance to the import of the words. The words on the pages are here “other things” that seem often to take over from the poet and to place this and other poems in a space that questions the relationship between word as utterance, word as object, and word as sign.

Rühm is a big fan of word games. In this volume words jump, jumble, are arranged and rearranged, and generally allowed to flow in all of their excessiveness and continual reformation. The poet rarely seems to have the control he shows above, nor does he generally want such control. Rather, he is interested in the play between word and word and between word and page. Indeed, with a turn of the page, the tight verse form above moves into a litany-like verse seemingly perpetuated by language itself:
with him
who her
where I
through that
in at
for too
her most
and then
you half
who he
she it
there to
with him
who her
just half
so that

This volume is both profound and joking, deeply invested in the most fundamental questions of poetics and lightly brushing those questions off with a flick of the verbal whip. Yet translation is not the ideal form for (particularly) Ruhm's work. One finds oneself wishing this were a bilingual edition, if merely to sound out the German original. This is work that is so deeply invested in sound and pun that it seems to lose in translation, particularly since this particular rendering is less careful than one might want (the term “modem” appears in a poem from 1954). Indeed, since Rühm's works are unavailable in the United States, I would beg Waldrop and Waldrop to produce bilingual editions, so that even those who don't know German could sound their way through.

The pieces in this volume that are most successful are the ones that do not require translation, like the “word pictures” and the following poem, “the shortest route from constanz to constantinople”:

No German is needed to understand this verbally simple but theoretically complex poem, which plays on the fact that the Council of Konstanz (which ended the so-called Great Schism and reunited the Catholic church) and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks both occurred on May 29 (of 1415 and 1453, respectively). Here the careful carelessness of Rühm's verbal play speaks to a larger incapacity to find meaning in the vagaries of historical conflict and religious conquests, while equally wondering about the strange accident of dates. It's also funny as hell, in English or in German. This is where Rühm works best, when the flouting of linguistic rules speaks to larger aesthetic and historical issues, yet the poet's enraptured play with words and sense of (good) humor is not lost in the verbal shuffle.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

NEW! Patrick Culliton poem

Patrick Culliton


Patrick is not the chalkboard but there are problems written all over him
Patrick is not the chalkboard but there are problems written all over him
Patrick is not the chalkboard but there are problems written all over him

(You sit still now. Still and upright. If you have a solution I will salute you)

Patrick is a chalkboard constantly erasing itself
Patrick is a chalkboard constantly erasing itself
Patrick is a chalkboard constantly erasing itself

(Turn your palms up so I can see if you're cheating)

Why does he constantly rap his own knuckles?
Why does he constantly rap his own knuckles?
Why does he constantly rap his own knuckles?

(Red hands are the Devil's favorite thing)

I would like to go home now. It's cold in here
I would like to go home now. It's cold in here
I would like to go home now. It's cold in here

(ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

I am stuck in Patrick, constantly erasing myself
I am stuck in Patrick, constantly erasing myself
I am stuck in Patrick, constantly erasing myself

(And you can see beneath the erasure until it's washed away)

Problems written all over him, Patrick would like to go cold now
Problems written all over him, Patrick would like to go cold now
Problems written all over him, Patrick would like to go cold now

(But the blood, like the knuckles, you see, is still red. It still works)

I am constantly Patrick, I am constantly Patrick
I am constantly Patrick, I am constantly Patrick
I am constantly Patrick, I am constantly Patrick

(You are constantly Patrick, you are constantly Patrick)

Monday, February 07, 2005

NEW! Review of Norman Dubie

Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum by Norman Dubie. Copper Canyon, $15.

Reviewed by Brendan O'Connor

Reviews are necessarily reductive. That being said, any review of Norman Dubie's latest collection will be especially so. The poems are so various in subject matter, tone, and form that it is difficult to characterize them in a few pages, much less a word. Nevertheless, in searching for a word to offer the reader at the beginning of this review, I wonder if it is possible to call a book of poems “entertaining” without seeming to condescend to the author. It is not my intent to patronize Norman Dubie; however, these poems partake of the exuberant concoction of irony, valediction, and sheer playfulness that makes Allen Ginsberg's poems so “entertaining” to many of his readers. In this respect, it is significant that Dubie shares with Ginsberg an engagement with Buddhism--in Dubie's case, Tibetan Buddhism. Reading Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum, we willingly abandon our objections (if we have any) to beautiful nonsense; at the same time, we are rightfully suspicious of the poet's addiction to extravagant, even indulgent, language and surrealistic detail. The poems are Maya, in Buddhist terms: the whirling dance of illusion we call the material world, whose gaudy surfaces peel back from time to time to bring the reader face-to-face with the conundrums of existence.

Throughout his entertaining book, Dubie addresses the naggingly serious question of “the happiness / that suffering must instruct” (“The Last Sentence of the Evening”), though he cannot resolve it. The problem is a peculiarly Buddhist one: as Buddhist thought evolved in the Mahayana tradition, people stopped regarding nirvana (extinction of desire or “enlightenment”) as a condition separate from the worldly condition of samsara (suffering perpetuated by desire, roughly.) The way to enlightenment, then, was not to overcome or circumvent suffering, as in the older Indian religious traditions, but to experience the liberating insight in the midst of samsara: not over or around suffering, but through. The problem for Dubie, therefore, is how to regard suffering as potential happiness--as salvation, really--when there is “so much pain / and the consequences are real.” How can he or anyone give suffering its due as a means to enlightenment without diminishing the real consequences of suffering for other living beings? Dubie's speakers evince anxiety at feeling “inhuman,” as in “Confession,” because of their perhaps misplaced commitment to regarding suffering with equanimity:
Something inhuman in you watched it all,
And whatever it is that watches,
It has kept you with loneliness like a mob.

In “The Pasha on the Hill,” a poem of desperate honesty, Dubie goes one further. The speaker pokes fun at his beliefs, commenting that
Now that everyone suffers,
even the practice of torturing prisoners
seems the highest immutable kindness

in what, if not a nod to the Abu Ghraib debacle, surely sounds like a prophecy of the same. The speaker goes on to admit that, yes, the pervasiveness of suffering has disheartened him to the extent that his worldview is in jeopardy, that he “may not / find the heart to hope for the more perfect misery.” The lines bear elegant witness to the speaker's (or author's) experience at the extremes of faith, though Dubie would probably hesitate to call it that. Still, his question confronts many a lonely seeker: Just how far are we willing to go in pursuit of enlightenment? How much misery are we humanly able to hope for?

And so, beneath their mesmerizing surfaces, the poems in Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum compose a fragmentary chronicle, a far-from-complete record of atrocity and heartbreak stitched together with a longing for justice. Dubie's protagonists are haunted by the fear that, despite the eloquence of their testimony, there may be “no one to read it” in the long run. Dubie prefaces “Elder Gogol's Pond at Plokhino Skete” with a quotation from St. Eleazor to that effect, repeated for good measure: “There is no one to read it. / There is no one to read it.” The epigram represents what we might call a crisis of faith for the author, or his protagonists, in more ways than one. In an obvious sense, how can the speaker maintain faith in the universal law of karma, which holds forth the promise of restitution, when the accumulated total of suffering in the world continues to provoke doubt? Reading the poem, however, we see that the speaker's view of the situation--involving a Bolshevik officer who has recently finished off “the river saints of our province”--is somewhat more complex:
All the executions of Bright Week.
He laughed beside the pond.
But then his young daughter suffered
a hernia in her sleep
and died vomiting lengths of her own feces.

The gruesomeness of the image speaks for itself: Does the crime justify the punishment? Even more troubling to the aspiring Buddhist, can one hope in fairness for “justice” to be done, when it seems inevitably to entail an increase in suffering for one person or another? There are no easy answers in this poet's cosmos, but it doesn't keep his protagonists from wishing for some: “I sometimes wonder / if it wouldn't be less trouble / having an obvious god” (“The Desert Census . . .”). From Dubie's perspective, we can imagine that this is the most dangerous fantasy his speakers entertain: they have become so disillusioned that illusion looks more and more attractive; they are tempted to trade an “enlightened” outlook for a comforting one. In the context of the book, we might even call it a sin, since everything depends on these figures' willingness to take suffering at face value, and more.

An interesting question with regard to Ordinary Mornings concerns the place of the personal lyric in a longer work so preoccupied with historical personages and events and so given to surrealistic techniques. The poet who is capable of writing lines such as “The propane ghost / of the dead girl weaves through the broken permission / of trees where caterpillars are boxing rainbows” is equally capable of a relatively straightforward narrative about an undertaker who “thinks [a deceased woman] is actually her younger sister / whom he adored in grammar school” and gives her the other woman's face, to her family's and the town's amazement. The last poem in the second section of Ordinary Mornings, “Of Art & Memory” could have been little more than a slightly macabre and poignant short story in the wrong hands. In the larger scheme of the book, though, Dubie's childhood memory (or replication of such a memory) adds a note of hopefulness and purpose to the whole enterprise: the brilliant, clueless subterfuge of “the mortician, who everyone / acknowledges was a genius” suggests that the very absurdity of existence--not to mention the futility of human effort in a world where even “snow fails at totality”--creates a space for beauty. The claims of art to enshrine memory and give an accounting for struggle and loss are disingenuous, to be sure--since the mortician is able to remake a dead woman in the image of her sister. But the townspeople cannot deny his exquisite achievement. In his ignorance, he has gotten hold of something, though his evocation of the woman's life is at odds with the official version. The poem's ending, in which the dead woman's sister faints upon seeing her double in the casket, brings home to the reader the impossibly precarious position of the artist: in his moment of triumph, the mortician gets a glimpse of the abyss:
If she had died in her faint,
striking her head on that pew seat
my brother collapsed into . . . what
would the mortician have done then
with his best work behind him in a sister's grave?

In debt to the absurd conjunctions that make art possible, the artist cannot help but see his work as an unsatisfactory stay against the emptiness of existence. The awareness of this condition is written all over the poems of the tellingly-named Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum, decked out in fabulous language for the day's blood sport.

As with any book, some of these poems are more successful than others. The reader will draw his or her own conclusions; I will say that, in general, the shorter poems stayed with this reader longer than the multi-page sequences did, though I enjoyed the longer poems well enough while reading them. The poems that stayed with me the longest I made the backbone of my discussion of the book--“The Pasha on the Hill,” “Confession,” “Of Art & Memory,” “Elder Gogol's Pond . . .”, “The Desert Census of Elder Cyril . . .”--but many others reward repeated readings. Dubie concludes Ordinary Mornings with a poem called “Riddle,” which is exactly what it claims to be: a question mark at the end of the poet's long sentence, leaving the reader hanging in midair, just as Dubie intended, we guess. Dubie seems to align himself with the speaker in “Riddle” more closely than in other poems; the poem takes the form of a dialogue between the poet/speaker and one Laura, who interrupts a quiet winter evening by observing that “a brazen mathematics / of stars in the illustrated night / is signaling its approval to us.” The skeptical speaker may find this irritating or merely quaint; either way, he teases Laura with his response: “I say, “Oh, really? And which stars are these, / precisely?” ” The pleasure of “Riddle” comes in Laura's rejoinder to the speaker's by-now-familiar resistance to the idea that the universe might be anything but indifferent:
Childlike, with a sigh, she points and whispers,
“That little blue one, in Orion,
just beyond the stomach
of the hunter and his trapezium.
What do you think, how many wars
in our new millennium will reach
their natural conclusions, and blink?”

Laura's “childlike,” gently impatient dismissal of the speaker's ironic stance is remarkable in this context. Dubie leaves open the question of whether the simplicity of faith might, in fact, give the believer access to the kind of secret knowledge that permits her to know “precisely” which star is signaling its approval. In Laura's affirmation of our continuity with the universe, the poet also teases the reader with the prospect of an antidote to the skepticism produced by suffering and our experience of a less-than-obvious God. It is a fitting end to the book, and one that showcases the best formal qualities of Dubie's writing, to boot: the carefully lined-up cascading syllables of “Orion” / “trapezium” / “millennium” / “conclusions,” the subtle internal rhyme of “think” / “blink” and its loose echo of “stomach”; and, best of all, the short last line, running its course in three beats (after three lines in tetrameter) a moment before we expect it to end. As the reader reaches the word “blink,” the line blinks, omitting the fourth beat and leaving us hanging, prosodically as well as spiritually.

In closing, my advice is not to let all this suffering distract you from the gorgeous scenery: the poems are entertaining, and funny in ways I can't convey in an admittedly reductive review. On the other hand, if you can't bring yourself to ignore the subtext of the book, at least don't bother trying to resolve its paradoxes. Even the poet hasn't been able to do that--or, more likely, he's not interested.

Friday, February 04, 2005

NEW! Review of Christine Schutt

Florida by Christine Schutt. Triquarterly, $22.95.

Reviewed by Chris McDermott

Christine Schutt's difficult aesthetic--striving for a sense of unity, symphony, and essence--has never been much in fashion in prose fiction. Nightwork, her first collection of stories, was an amazing achievement soon remaindered, though its qualities were evident to such poets as John Ashbery who called it the best book of 1996. Most readers of fiction have always seemed uncomfortable with anything other than discursive language, a situation described more than fifty years ago by Susanne K. Langer in Feeling and Form. Langer explained that “it is hard not to be deceived into supposing the author intends, by his use of words, just what we intend by ours--to inform, comment, inquire, confess, in short: to talk to people.” The greater alternative, she said, and the real challenge for the prose fiction writer, is to create a “virtual experience,” an “illusion of life entirely lived and felt.” This Schutt does with her first novel, Florida. No memoir, no travel guide, Florida is a masterful symphony of language and life as well as a book that should increase her chances of being recognized in her time as one of the rare artists whose work is not merely the currency of a career, but a contribution to the art.

Just as oral poetry becomes memorable largely through cadence and rhyme, Schutt's sentences are composed to be heard. Once heard, they echo relentlessly, as though the feeling driving them continues to petition the language but cannot be exhausted by it. Schutt thus overcomes one of the greatest challenges to literary composers--the challenge of making the craft appear secondary. When Walter Pater remarked that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” he evoked music's relative freedom from discourse and how difficult it is, by contrast, for literature to achieve form as an end in itself. Part of Schutt's technique consists in distancing her narrator, Alice Fivey, from the reader's likely expectations in reading a book called Florida. Growing up in an unnamed cold state, Florida is a romantic concept to Alice and her parents, who plan to move there together. According to her father, Florida meant “good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors.” But their Floridas will have to be private, substitute Floridas. They name a foil bed, made for sunbathing, “Florida.” When Alice's father dies underwater, his car breaking through ice, her mother's Florida takes the form of a sanitarium, and Alice's remains akin to Joyce's Araby, but it is a destination already lost.

In one chapter, Alice quotes from the Lyrical Ballads: “Plot abandoned in favor of insight,” and Florida is less concerned with plot than it is with episodic insights into the life of Alice, who moves from relative to relative and tries to make sense of her life and the adults around her--the rich Uncle Billy and Aunt Frances, the family driver/servant Arthur, her mother's abusive boyfriend Walter, her inspiring teacher Mr. Early (“He loved sound, the way a sentence sounded. Mr. Early did not hang his hat on plot.”), her grandmother Nonna. The language of Florida--with such an abundance of liquid “l”s and “r”s and the occasional open vowel coming up for air--feels much like the word “Florida” itself.

Ezra Pound's statement that “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” and the modernist impulse toward unity and perfection have become devalued largely because of their association with the brutal ways in which a concept of “perfection” can be abused. In Pound's poem “Ité,” he proclaims, “Go, my songs, seek your praise from the young / and from the intolerant, / Move among the lovers of perfection alone. / Seek ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light / And take your wounds from it gladly.” Figures such as Pound, intolerant in his fascism and in his anti-Semitism, have offered alibis to writers whose deeper problem with his aesthetic ideals may be the difficulty of attaining them. It has never been easy to build a career when the bar is set so high, and when a routine audience simply does not exist. It is worth noting that Joyce's Dubliners sold only thirty copies its first year, after almost as many publishers rejected it. Schutt writes firmly in the tradition of those whose sentences are charged with meaning, as she does in the following passage: “Arthur said, 'When she was unhappy. . . ,' but I knew, I knew, I knew what she did. My mother broke her body against the weather and overused the Florida Arthur had made, the foil-lined box where she lay winter-sunning herself sick.”

Schutt's concerns in writing are a poet's concerns. As with Joyce, if one looks closely enough, sound patterns become evident. It can seem impossible to tell whether or not they occur by design until one realizes that language rarely sounds this beautiful. One of Schutt's riffs most pleasing to the ear involves a sound turning back on itself, as in the way the name “Molly Bloom” does. A passage showing Alice as a teacher discussing the wordiness of Jane Eyre with her students reads as follows: “Make a life in the brisk climes, honest and alone, or travel with your lover undercover in warm places, but in less than forty pages, please! Yes, yes, yes, I agree, and why resist the sea and the comfort of his villa?” Aside from the more obvious consonances and assonances, “villa” turns back on “a life” and “yes” turns back on “sea.” Consecutive sentences late in the novel read “I know about snakes. I take a late-night swim in the lap pool and astonish myself with the color of my skin.” Here, “lap pool” turns back on itself sonically, and “snakes” resonates recursively with “skin.” If one is going to adopt poetic techniques for writing prose fiction, these are the kinds of effects, unlike rhyme, that a reader feels well before knowing how it was done.

While some critics have complained that the novel is short, with many of its 156 pages not filling the page, with the use of line breaks she could break it into several books of poems. When Alice says goodbye to her dying mother at the novel's close, the writing is particularly sublime:
I am not sure she understands what we are looking at: so much water and the line that is the other side. Mother is in the sun; she is in her Florida. Squinting in that tin box of refracted light, she has to frown to see, and what does it mean what she sees? The world is a comfort and then it is a discomfort. Mother is all thin hair and vacancy, tears and starts, a small clutch of bones, and old woman, grown innocent.
Who will forgive me if I do not come again?
“Alice,” she speaks, and she looks at me, and it has been a long time since Mother has used my name, which is also her name, as a good-bye, and I think she knows, as once she knew, what will happen to us. “Alice,” she repeats. It may be no other words will follow or it may be a downpour of speech.

With Florida, Schutt's symphonic downpour of speech places her in the company of the artists who work their lives to get their sentences right as if their lives depended on it.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

NEW! Joshua Edwards poem

Joshua Edwards


When it
Breaks      something
Else mostly gets broken

'Almost over with the year'
'It is empty'
'Frame-wrecked & windblown'


'How to return?'


What is lost
Moves in
Across the street

Another          object of desire--
They drain the pool
For winter

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

NEW! Review of Sheila E. Murphy

Proof Of Silhouettes by Sheila E. Murphy. Stride Books.

Reviewed by Jen Tynes

I feel I could review this book best by writing a list of stricken dichotomies. This small, elegantly square-shaped book is oddly intimate and oddly alienating, strangely inclusive and strangely exclusive, feverish and calm, intellectual and emotional, not balanced exactly, but tensed. Speaking in tenses. I am most intrigued by the many levels at which Murphy explores the relationship between part and whole. From “Following”:
Me llamo Sheila Murphy. When I used to sing I was the flavor of a Sunday roast. Served as anchor to the floating voices. Always heard, having not released myself to the idea blend. How does one grow memorable? And more important, why?

And as Walt Whitman says, “One's-self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the world Democratic, the word En-Masse.” The voice of these poems seems always to be 'singing' itself--proclaiming itself or, conversely, making itself 'blend' into song. How does an individual voice situate itself and to what end? In the poems that describe the experience of singing in a choir or performing in a musical group, there is a tension between what we learn and what we know, individual presence and group cohesion. In “Laced Preamble Teaching” there is “Pacem inordinately singing” and In “Brass Section”:
Hapless cadenzas make their way into an adolescence unrehearsed. This might be the derivation of unmarked chalkboards from another sphere. The teacher is responding. Peers, likewise, in wordless samples of the language that interpolate gut feeling.

How does the voice predict the consequences of its expression and the consequences of its silence? How does it maintain the tension between what its accentuated and what fades into the background?

The voice of the poems seems to come from one throat and many different angles, prisms of voice. At times it could be shimmer: the successful arrangement of a group. At others it is the natural fluctuation of a person exploring their own position. In “Slate,” the voice says, “I will alter speech and charity. I will offend my reach.”

The varied structure of the poems creates a super-awareness of prose versus broken line that seems organically fitting--the reader is never quite lulled into recognition of the landscape or movement of this book, and yet it manages to move together, to speak a whole thing with clarity but without oversimplification. The form of the book as a whole creates, like the American haibun--a form which Murphy favors and includes in this collection--its own considerate and considerable relationship between lines of verse and prose, progression and procession. Even dichotomous relationships deserve and receive examination from all angles. Murphy allows for not only broken line/prose but also public/private, she/he, lyric/language/story, both a recognition and explosion of the choices, positioning side-by-side poems that begin with the lines
So far we have only one to three things, none of which is beneficial (“Untitled”)

Serene quill imitates a hairline fracture formidable quiescence logarithmic in its
wafer filo normative esprit confounding tilled heat (“Conformity”).

Likewise, the language of this voice scatters into different categories: the language of the everyday; the language of lyric intimacy; the language that seems descended from a larger and/or higher voice or choir; the language that ascends from newspapers, eavesdropped conversations and streets; the language that resembles the detritus an owl leaves behind, the little bits of bone and fur coat that are indigestible but full of presence and information, shells both impenetrable and empty. Murphy allows us both the pleasure of their cleaving together and the pleasure of their cleaving apart, but not without a little bit of valuable talk first and finally about the cost.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Poetry of John Forbes: An Intro

by Ken Bolton at Jacket

NEW! Review of 1913

1913: a journal of forms #1 (2004). $10.

Reviewed by Matthew W. Schmeer

It is the rare journal that boldly proclaims a manifesto without issuing its own manifesto. Usually when a new journal emerges, we expect an editorial statement, a raison d'etre which lays out the editorial vision and provides insight into what we should expect in the issue we're holding and what to expect in subsequent issues. These statements have become so standard in the literary publishing field that many journals put forth such a statement in each issue. But once written, how many journals live up to the lofty goals laid out therein? By the third or fourth year of publication (if lucky to survive so long), the struggle of slogging through the slush pile each submission period and securing funds to pay the printer take their toll, and the journal's guiding principles usually pay the price as the journal sinks into mediocrity.

Not so with 1913. Instead of telling us what they plan to do, the editors do it, and it starts with the journal's design. This is not your traditional 8x5 journal. 1913 is 9.75 x 7.75--a landscaped design that more resembles a mini-coffee table book than a literary journal. And the cover artwork is a reprint of orphic cubist's Sonia Delaunay's Der Sturm (Nos. 1 à 52), a bold canvas wherein the pattern of contrasting dark and light color creates deteriorating form. And form is, of course, what 1913 is primarily about. Don't expect sonnets, villanelles, and roundeaus, however. A central theme running throughout the selections in this issue is that words--or better yet thoughts and ideas--should create their own form, and whatever form they take is the right one.

The journal's name in and of itself points to this abstraction, as 1913 was a crucial turning point in terms of art, literature, and music. It was the year of Cubism and Imagism, and the year Edison invented talking motion pictures. Igor Stravinisky's The Rite of Spring caused a commotion at its Paris debut, and in New York, the first International Exhibit of Modern Art--the “Armory Show”--rocked the art world. In Berlin, Guillaume Apollinaire gave a lecture that proved he was at the top of his game; in Portugal, Ferdinand Pessoa began publishing and writing under his four heteronyms, and in Chicago, Harriet Monroe's fledging Poetry had been publishing for a year and would publish three of Hilda Dolittle's Imagiste poems late that year. It was a year of artistic upheaval and renewal as the ties to Victorian-era ideas about the arts were eagerly severed by the new emerging creative class.

And so, here we have a new call-to-arms, where deconstruction, re-invention, and the evolution of form converge. This journal is not a literary journal per se, but an art journal, where text--while the predominant medium--takes its place next to photography, painting, and drawing. “Mixed media” is too loose a term for what 1913 aims; “collage” is much better.

Thus, we have the most striking piece in the journal, Joshua Clover's “Baader Meinhof Three-Person'd God,” which literally spirals inward, a visual CD on the page as it explores the Baader-Meinhof era of terror which swept West Germany in the post World War II-era in a collage of passages taken from John Donne, Gerhard Richter, Astrid Poll (one of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists), and others. It's truly a stunning visual display condemning the waves of Baader-Meinhof nostalgia that rippled through Germany in the late 1990s.

And then there are Chris Chen's visual poems, created with fonts whose characters have been replaced with clip art, political phrases, and idea branches, all of which create dissonance through the abstraction and connection of ideas which seem counter-intuitive, but begin to unlock themselves the more you stare at them. Other poetic pieces that impressed this reviewer were Chen's “[the] [idea] [of] [order] [at] [key] [west],” with its quiet scolding of Key West merrymakers; Pamela Lu's “Several Composers, Their Songs, and Their Musicians,” a send-up of performance playbill performance notes; and Steve McCaffery's deconstruction/reconstruction of three of Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets (Nos. 22, 42, 43) as contemporary prose poems.

I've hinted so far that there is no statement of belief buried in these pages, and that might be a bit misleading; while the editors themselves don't present their views on art, prosody, and poetics, several of the pieces they've chosen do. Prominently featured is self-taught Russian Cubist Natalia Goncharova's foreword from the catalog to her retrospective exhibition at Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow in 1913. Here, Goncharova rails against the past and declares her independence from it while claiming that it is the East (Asia, India, China, etc.) where artists should turn for inspiration. Later, John Taggart's “Black Light,” a transcript of a talk the poet gave at the Art Institute of Chicago, explores the relationship of color in the visual and written arts, and ends with a prophetic call to arms. And Ales Debeljak, a Slovenian poet and critic, gives us “Celebration of the Impossible: Testimony and Vision in My Ars Poetica,” the introduction to his collection The City and the Child (White Pine Press, 1994) which attempts to justify the transcendency of self apparent in his work. Taken together, these explorations and justifications present a rather complex set of values for any new artistic movement: to transcend the self and the past while embracing worldly experience by shining a contrasting light on the world. It's a tall order, and one that I doubt the editors themselves can bring to fruition. But they're doing their damndest to try.