Friday, April 29, 2005

NEW! Review of Chicago Review

Chicago Review 49:3/4 & 50:1 / Edward Dorn: American Heretic.

Reviewed by Matthew Cooperman

In a poem from Ed Dorn's first book, The Newly Fallen (1961) the poet declares: “The man stood / in his house / and thought to himself / the fence fell down-- / mad elements to be scrutinized.” Such diagnostic exactitude--of the thing to be seen, the landscape it's in, and the work to be done--is Ed Dorn's uncompromising contribution to American poetry; in his historical particularity he is a defining figure in late 20th century verse, situating “the inside real / and the out sidereal” within an ethos of current events, heretical resistance and late empire. The recent Chicago Review volume dedicated to his work, “Edward Dorn, American Heretic,” makes sure Dorn's savage acuities will continue to be appreciated. Published lately as a series of “primary figures” (the just released “On Zukofsky”; the forthcoming “On Christopher Middleton”), Chicago Review has made the leap from mere periodical record to focused scholarly commentary. Besides the usual fine gathering of poems, essays, interviews, and book reviews, the volume contains work from all areas of Dorn's career--poems, letters, lectures, class notes, “new journalism,” book collecting, editing, and essays. This is salutary in illustrating the wide range of Dorn's activity, an activity that was often at odds with traditional publishing practices such that much of Dorn's oeuvre is out of print. The intentions of Chicago Review are synthetic in this regard, bringing the range into focus while anticipating the publication of future work (Joe Richey's Ed Dorn Live will be published by the University of Michigan in the summer of 2005; a Selected Poems, edited by Michael Rothenberg, is forthcoming from Penguin in 2006).

Much of the credit has to go to editor Eirik Steinhoff, who has not only assembled a pungent selection of Dorn's (mostly late) work, and work on Dorn, but written a fine introduction to Dorn's sometimes abstruse career, and produced very helpful notes and annotations for future study. These appear throughout the volume, directing the reader to appropriate sources, and extending the address of Dorn's career (Dorn died in late 1999 of pancreatic cancer) very much into the present. So too, the order of essays, letters, and articles (and late poems) creates a useful trajectory of activity that corrects the incomplete (and problematic) nature of Tom Clark's recent biography Edward Dorn: A World of Difference, which leaves off in 1959, right at the beginning of Dorn's mature writing. Moreover, the design of the issue (the cover, photographs, drawings, ephemera), evoking the feel of 70s periodicals while maintaining in its 400-page bulk great attention to editing, makes Chicago Review 49:3/4 & 50:1 a very pleasing artifact. The issue satisfies, thereby, the Dorn expert and the casual reader, helping polish Dorn's lacerating critique of late capitalism, the po-biz, and the pieties of the culture wars, while locating him in a tradition of iconoclastic thinkers spanning Horace to E.M. Cioran. As we continue to gambol about in a field of “daisy cutters,” this recognition of “the mad work to be scrutinized” is particularly tonic.

Dorn's career is difficult to summarize, it being both a portrait of idealistic publishing ventures, poetic and otherwise, and a peripatetic road map of university postings. Chicago Review's theme issue provides an interesting “map of locations.” The early letters are seminal, exposing a young man reading everything, corresponding vociferously on the facts of the day (the Cuban missile Crisis, Black Power, hippies, Nixon), particularly with LeRoi Jones, and learning intimately the working conditions of his craft: “Out of a candor of short meter . . . a quest for more room. I can only look to the long adjectival line to stabilize my hold on the field . . . that the line will only stand so many nouns, and the line beyond five beats has not been practiced properly since Whitman” (Dorn to Olson, 3/19/61). David Southern's bibliographic essay on collecting the correspondence of Dorn makes a particularly useful point of suggesting how much talk and letter writing consolidated and refined Dorn's views. Dale Smith's “Forms of Dispossession” is important in linking Dorn's feelings of dispossession to historical land practices, from the black dirt tenant farming of his childhood in Villa Grove, Illinois, to the arid reaches of the Great Basin, and the subsistence practices addressed in his brilliant anthropological study, the sadly out of print The Shoshoneans. For Dorn, geomorphology was also social morphology; his working class background forged an identity with the dispossessed from Midwest Depression labor to Appalachia to Quebecois woodsman to the peasants of the Middle East: “I'm with the Kurds and the Serbs and the Iraqis / And every defiant nation this jerk / Ethnic crazy country bombs.”

Other highlights include Alastair Johnson's “Zephyrus Image and Ed Dorn,” which chronicles his collaborations with the crazed linotype and linocut artists Michael Meyers and Holbrook Teter, and Keith Tuma's “Late Dorn,” which adduces Dorn's late “topicality” as the utility of history as a living discourse into the forms and mechanisms of oppression. There's a compelling bridge here. The excerpt from Johnson's recently published book (Poltroon Press, 2003) shows how Meyers and Teter provided a graphic corollary to Dorn's kinetic zeitgeist-imagination, visualizing the drug-speech vocality of Gunslinger and the prophetic comic book Recollections of Gran Apacheria, Tuma's essay, covering primarily Languedoc Variorum and Chemo Sabe, distills the late poetry as a continuous registration of political resistance: “[His] late work is significantly informed by reading in economic, religious and legal history of Europe going back as far a the 1st Crusade, which is not only an historical event for him, but a living, still relevant sign of the violence of religious orthodoxy and all that it represents as the legacy of Europe in the world.” If Dorn made his writing (and publishing) life difficult by his intransigence, it was also a principled articulation of the means of production as complicit with history. As a heretical figure, his identifications were transhistorical; as a supremely ethical voice, his address to the contemporary was scathingly topical. Throughout his varied career, “the speed and synthesis” (Tuma) of his critique sharpened the realities of injustice, but always from the outside in. As a former student of Dorn's, I can say that I truly miss his “corrective vision” (and speech), in my moral consciousness, and in my application to writing; his piercing diagnoses are sorely absent in the blandishments and style wars of contemporary poetry.

I should add that the rest of Chicago Review 49: 3/4 & 50:1 is superb. There's a thread of resistance in the poetry included, most notably by Alan Gilbert and Mark Nowak; in the fiction of Jaques Jouet (tr. Brian Evenson); in the excellent interview with Eleni Sikelianos and the appropriately paradoxical essay on Robinson Jeffers, “The Man From Whom God Hid Everything,” by Peter O'Leary; and in the book reviews, which dovetail Dorn and other ethically uncompromising figures (Geoffrey Hill, Ammiel Alcalay, Devin Johnston). As a periodical that consistently spans the categories of creative writing and scholarship, Chicago Review continues to shine.

NEW! Review of Carrie St. George Comer

The Unrequited by Carrie St. George Comer. Sarabande, $12.95.

Reviewed by Ashley David

In the southeastern United States, in Mexico, and in other places governed less by the ethos of industrialization and the Enlightenment, and more by the complexity and familiarity of human relationship, reality allows the living, the dead, and the imagined to sit at the same supper table. In these contexts, perceived reality ranges a fuller spectrum, and what may be considered surreal in many contexts is not considered surreal in these. Rather, these contexts permit an experience of living that is more broadly real than what is recognized by the analytical west.

Carrie St. George Comer offers up a fine example of the more broadly real in The Unrequited, her first book. When we join her assembled company with this frame in mind, we have the opportunity to experience a transparent conveyance of a reality that is defined in different terms, as in “Crowscrowscrows”: “My parents are turning in the soil, / which disturbs the crows and means it's time for me to hush.” Although metaphorical, these lines are grounded in a literal sense of parental presence.

This broadly defined reality enables the author--and allows the reader--to explore a depth of human feeling, relationship, and history that is neither linear nor unencumbered. Comer does not hush after this moment in “Crowscrowscrows,” and in the lines that follow, she flirts with divination, with revealing more, before ending the poem with an empowered avoidance: “We stay away from there. / We drive all night when we have to.” The dilemma of revelation is just one of the unanswerable questions that populate Comer's psychic, cultural, and literal landscapes in The Unrequited.

It is not the landscapes she writes about, however, but the landscape she writes from that forms the backbones of Comer's poems. In a strange twist of metonymic relationship, these are the poems of a southerner gone out in the world. Thus muscadines and clam plates may populate the same pages as silencitas and blue morphos.

Blowing open the southerner and the south in this way is not a tidy undertaking nor process, and Comer is forthright about it. Her title promises us the unanswered and the unrecompensed, and the epigraph by Yehuda Amichai--“Who is shaking us? Who?”--positions the volume as something of an existential dialogue about this process. In “A Note from Olive Lane,” Comer writes:
I stood at the center
of my enormous house, wondering why I stay.
I stay because muscadines grow on the trellis
out back and because of my two dogs.
We feast at daybreak. We brew our own shine.
No one comes to visit.

The poem's last line leads the matter-of-fact answer Comer gives in the preceding lines back to the possibility, or probability, of a question: “Why?” These turns are characteristic of Comer's dialogue with herself, with the reader, and with the assembled company at her table. As poetic choices, they are part of what gives the book its depth.

The poems of The Unrequited also have depth because they walk a line between documentation and transformation. “Don't Let Me Forget You” is a clear example; it begins:
Memory: the enemy. Its nude and worthless body

enters the evenings as if on wings, smiling and waving a white feather,
first quiet, then tanked,

but still a rating of G: for mild peril, for some scary images,

for emotional brutality.

Comer's line and stanza breaks in this poem give us room to breathe and digest the fullness and significance of the lines, and they also pull us along the transformation implied in the poem. She ends with: “By morning it's gone, its print left in the sand / just inches from the sharky waters // where a lemon-yellow boy glides past in a sailboat.” This concreteness of scene, image, and metaphor helps ground a poem of difficult and painful subject matter.

The view Comer offers of endangered personal, cultural, and literal landscapes is intimate, and it invites the reader to envision that which cannot be understood. These poems request an uncomfortable and questioning acceptance of complexity and transformation, as in “Three Days Before”:
How do I say the word without the trembling chin?

How do I make a broom of my voice?
What did we look like, lying there in the glowing tangle of limbs?
Like lamps.

Listen, the sound of grief leaving the body.

See the girl talk to the young boy.
See her lead him to the river, taking his hand in her bird-bone hand.
See his face when they return, as if he'd seen,


Water moving backward.

Comer's questions are not just at her core; they are often at the core of what it is to be human, conscious, and more broadly real. To inhabit this realm is not easy or simple, and The Unrequited is full of signposts to guide the reader. As with “Storm,” they often provide access to an enlightened resignation that is beautiful: “I should / go home now. The trees are telling me it is night.”

NEW! Review of Barbara Maloutas

In a Combination of Practices by Barbara Maloutas. New Issues, $14.

Reviewed by Mark Bilbrey

Barbara Maloutas's first book, In a Combination of Practices, tests and eventually maps operations of artistic creation. Each of its three sections works out its own project, basing the relationship between these on method rather than on content. Rather than offer narrative structure, the poems fixate more on procedure than on purpose, on tools of measurement rather than on data.

The first section of the book, “In the Best Sense,” is explicitly about dreaming and often calls up the language or images of suburbia: dogs, cats, bathtubs, patios, and cashmere. Yet these poems are most concerned with creating, exploring, understanding, and then undoing a creative process. The sequential numerical titles for each of these seventeen poems serves as evidence that the first poem, for instance, is more importantly “1”--a first poem of a series--than it is a poem about a “dog as big as a house.” Here the form acts as a driving force; most of the section operates in couplets and uses only semicolons as punctuation. That form starts to break down in the unusually long fourteenth poem, and finally explodes in the prose sections of “15.” The next poem, “16: Oh Dish Say Us,” attempts to return to the couplets, but rebels against itself with a wordy title (breaking the numbers-only pattern) followed by eight divided sections labeled with roman numerals, a new form that is retained in the final poem, while ultimately abandoning the couplets.

This evolving form demonstrates a sense of pragmatism, exploration, and a dynamic state of perception that would more readily allow itself to be changed than to project conformity upon that which is perceived. The poem “8” seems to speak directly of this method: “the walls are chaos; a machine / of imaginative creatures . . . all together now forward / communication and control; a factor.” Murphy's Law comes to mind; understanding requires definition and measurement, but measurement always alters its subject. As Maloutas writes, it is “particularly true that stability modifies effect.” For Maloutas, form may be both necessary and disposable, as it balances always against the reality of chaos that it misrepresents; her tendency to impose a form only to watch it disintegrate becomes an elaborate experiment in perception.

The book shares its title with the second section, which refers not only to the combination of pictorial and textual information she uses here, but also to the different processes involved in the composition and perception of each. Notes at the end of the book explain that the technical diagrams she presents are from the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Yearbook of Agriculture 1957. If “foundness” and arbitrariness is important to this project, even more vital is the authorlessness that comes across as a destabilized subjectivity in the poetry, but as complete voicelessness in the diagrams. Even after learning the source of the diagrams and reading the captions listed on the “Notes” page, the diagrams still appear disembodied and without context. Thus, the “Notes” page itself becomes its own found, uncrafted artwork: “'You think you can think about': A device for illustrating hydraulic effects.” Here, a practice is more like organic growth than a stylized craft; every bit of language appears as interesting as any other when placed under a microscope. The language of agriculture and science suddenly reveal their artistry: “special practices are needed to use them successfully / rainfall may increase moisture in the heap.” These lines from “The Land of Heaps” express both the art of creation and its complete reliance on unmanageable factors. Maloutas exposes this paradox in “Too Silly” when she writes, “we must make what we find.” This process of making is presented as a process of perception, turning traditional expectations of art upside-down. Maloutas reconfigures what already exists, forcing new perceptions and new meanings. Of this mixing and recombining, Maloutas writes (or finds), “Contact with solution enters solution / It grows into fresh solution.”

The final section, “Matins,” returns at times to the dream-state of the first section. It also returns to systematic titling; a single word suffices for each title, usually obsolete and always Latinate. The process driving this section is best described in its first poem: “There is a way called thither. Assuredly, left over and not to be trusted.” As in previous sections, the process is both natural and unnatural, both fruitful and destructive. These are poems of “unexpected explosions” and “the hope of opposites.” After all, in such a paradoxical state, violence and fragmentation may yield unimagined rewards. In any case, there may not be an alternative to such struggle; Maloutas writes in “Acuminous”:
At least we have no choice. Still the awareness of details along the lines of skill.

Feeling her hip. And knowing too. While trying to avoid discomfort, disembodiment.

The added advantage of a window. Of the world. Not tied to a single solution. The abandon of flight.

Here, Maloutas directly addresses these issues of perception, of craft, of process; and she understands both the cause and the effect: through a single window, no “single solution.” Discomfort is embodiment, is feeling and knowing. Awareness is necessarily self-aware and therefore compromised. The “abandon of flight” sums up the problem with a pun on “abandon,” leaving “flight” both completely free and completely lost.

In his book Syncopations: The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry, Jed Rasula claims that “innovation is now distinctly associated with women writers.”. The legacy of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets has been handed down to a new generation of largely female poets who may not consider themselves “language” poets but have nevertheless benefited from the work of those writers. Brenda Hillman, who selected In a Combination of Practices for publication, falls into this group of innovative poets working between Language and lyric modes. Maloutas's work also seems to situate itself in this new terrain, a risky place for a first book. While this book stands as evidence of a larger development in poetry, it does not simply carry out the directives of any school or group, nor does it only follow the trail blazed by Hillman and others. Instead, it attempts its own experiments and makes its own contributions. In this case, we see the image of a mad scientist, frantically combining chemicals, unafraid of--maybe even hoping for--a reaction that would destroy her own laboratory. In “14” she writes of the kind of discovery she hopes for, both simple and powerful:
the other scientist
introduces his
asks what's that new
green he's working on

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

NEW! Review of Merrill Gilfillan

Small Weathers by Merrill Gilfillan. Qua Books, $14.

Reviewed by Erika Howsare

The sensing of Merrill Gilfillan's work is compressed and multiple. We hear, briefly, the sound of birdtalk in “Urban grebes, / grackle ghat” before realizing the choice before us: chalk up the passage as onomatopoetic, or interrupt reading to learn, from the dictionary, that “ghat” is not the language of the grackle, but a type of stairway found on Indian riverbanks. (A grackle is a large, glossy blackbird.) (Rivers and birds are essential touchstones for Gilfillan; indeed, his 2003 book of essays is titled after them.) We smell “. . . the scent of chocolate / with a trace of fish / and a grace note of kerosene”: the odor synaesthetically laced with the understated rhyme within its description. We see the geometry of experience:
“The Memory
                   shells him
from afar.”

                    --as though diagrammed, though with utmost simplicity.

And, very often, we are through these sensings placed bodily in a locus, a landscape, which in Gilfillan's view is always hospitable: “down the Big River to Cairo, / a hard left on the Ohio, way on up-- / Mooleyville, Rising Sun, we stop for melons”--a peopled landscape, certainly, but steeped in an old-fashioned sense of America as a setting for adventure--the bigness of that river. It wouldn't be so thrilling to feel the continent's rivers as a set of cosy neighborhood streets if that continent weren't so immense to begin with, and filled with wondrously-named inhabitants.

Indeed, the language of the land--not just its birdtalk, but the many layers of human names that illuminate and divide it--are central to Gilfillan's project. He does revel in the oddness of American place names (“Bucklin through Sitka to Buffalo”) as well as, constantly, a rich legacy of species and their monikers (“Red vines high in the pignuts-- / Mace on nutmeg”; “shagbark, shellbark, mockernut, / pig”). But more importantly, he is fully aware of language as a medium of experience, of all these nonhuman beings suspended within a network of human perception and invention. Herein poetry, if it means to heighten a sense of locality, must heighten as well the sense of that locality's language, including history, myth, and the different forms of ownership implied by place names like Irondequoit and Frenchman. Thus, places, flora, and fauna are not enumerated, as by reference book, but incanted, as by a particular speaker: “cedar, mycelium, and what we used / to call 'fishworms.'”

Who is this we? Ultimately, it is Gilfillan himself, of course, firmly rooted in context of smalltown-Ohio-raised baby boomer. The ruefully nostalgic character of this sensibility is summed up by a prose piece, “Fu with Grosbeaks,” in which the speaker remembers his parents taking him as a boy to the house of a neighbor, who's called to say that the annual migration of grosbeaks has ended at the feeder. The piece ends with a comic plot point, trumping the earnestness of the ceremonial birdwatching, in which the narrator returns to the image of a limp turtle whose youthful guardian had claimed it was sleeping: “But that turtle was unmistakably dead.”

This is not nature poetry born of the wilderness ethic. Rather, it is a benevolent vision of America as garden: symbiotic relations between residents and residence, studious Audubon Society tempered by (now nearly quaint) mass culture: “Now, lad, / it's just a scrawny circus leaving town.”

Thus, finally, the sensibility of the author becomes paramount, constructed though it may be through the senses and the sense of his peculiar materials. It is a thoroughly American worldview, though some of the poems are set abroad. Take “Morning with a Calisthenic from Walt Whitman,” and witness its plainspoken humor: “six men in Monkey Ward sportshirts.” Witness the Pop-Art belief in collage as catch-all: “Chromaticists bathing, / Painted Desert, / the first beam of sunlight / through guava jelly jars.” Witness the loping rhythm beneath, relaxed as a stroll on Sunday: “Old granny chops her chow chow. / Mumbling stripling dumps his pawpaws / at her bony knees.” The poem is typical of the book in that its form (and the book uses various ones) ultimately seems less important as a shape than as an instrument of juxtaposition, a lens that lends meaning to the divers collection of natural and cultural artifacts within, including the “the Spuyten Duyvils,” “Carp rolling in shadows,” and “the blind albino / in the New York subway.”

The guiding sensibility is also thoroughly generous, both in terms of its thirsty curiosity for experience (especially travel; often, food) and its undisturbed view of what is really a tragically despoiled environment, despite the continued presence of multifarious natural wonders. The seer is just that, never an actor (though he, of course, walks and eats). And Gilfillan is a wonderful traveling companion: wry, poignant, willing to reach for the most flamboyantly odd diction. Much of the subject matter here is irresistible to anyone with a taste for Americana--the real, complicated, contradictory sort, not the cartoon. Visiting Bull Run, he looks at persimmon trees, ponders the recipe for scrapple, and autodiagnoses “Advanced chromomania / and a love of maps.” These elements are placed as meticulously on the page as they are in a geography.

This is what makes Small Weathers such lovely fun to read, in its lyrical dance with illegibility. (“'Tired but happy,'” quotes the speaker after the epic river-journey outlined above: as is often the case, Gilfillan here allows a disembodied voice to lay down the understated punchline.) If these poems, so linked to landscape, largely skirt the reality of environmental destruction, they serve a different, more oblique purpose: in their masterfully slow revelations of a mind lighting on the world, they enact a way of sensing--sensible, sensitive--that may be a necessary part of a more responsible way of living in the American garden.

NEW! Review of In The Criminal's Cabinet

In The Criminal's Cabinet: An nthology of poetry and fiction, edited by Val Stevenson and Todd Swift. Nthposition, £9.99.

Reviewed by Patrick Chapman

Since 2002, has been one of the more celebrated places in the world to find new poetry, stories and essays. The site hit the headlines at the start of the Iraq war with its series of anti-war ebooks, including 100 Poets Against The War. One of the remarkable aspects of that electronic collection was the speed with which it was put together. It took a week from call-for-submissions to publication, with poems pouring in from all over the world. Not long after, the book had been downloaded tens of thousands of times, the poems being read at rallies around the planet. Faber followed with its own, similarly-titled, 101 Poems Against War. One difference was that Faber drew on war poetry's back pages whereas nthposition's poems were written in that very moment of protest.

Now, nthposition has put out a print anthology of its own. Edited by Val Stevenson and Todd Swift, In The Criminal's Cabinet collects poetry and prose that has appeared on the website over the last few years. As a print anthology, Cabinet is significantly different from its predecessors. The old question of validation is raised again, but in a new way. It has been argued that editorial standards in cyberspace are less respectable than those in print media. This book demonstrates the snobbery implied in that argument. In print, the selection reflects the eclectic nature of the web. Ultramodern poetry rubs shoulders with almost classical prose. In The Criminal's Cabinet is like a biosphere of modern literature: all the colours of the world, so close to each other that the contrasts are immediately striking.

Take “[the return of the ring]” by Maxine Chernoff. At first it appears impersonal and fractured:
a fault-based
ends in a break-up
(of rituals
and rites,
         their permutations)

until you realise that this is the point. The shattered intimacy of a broken relationship lies there like a mirror, in shards, on the ground. In the end,
we hope
to learn
from things
         a lesson
         into grace.

The horror of war is illuminated in Pal Hardacre's “The River Is Far Behind Us”:
fingers on buttons &
phones rubber generals on
sticks (model jump-jets in
         gunmetal, commandos /
                  crafted dust &
                  TV empty box
         another downed life the eastern plains as toohey
                           forest burns.

Kevin Higgins, in “November,” pictures the season as an army.
November rampages down the avenue
like a gang of victorious soldiers,
drunk but still thirsting for more,
eager now the slaughter comes easy.

“Burning Omaha” by Tom Phillips recalls the Cold War unease most of us grew up with. He contrasts childhood innocence with adult dread:
We were racing through the woods
while parents stocked up on tins
and candles or stared at the radio
with palms against their throats
as if by suddenly tightening their grip
they could hold their little faith in.

In “Taking Your Fun While You Can,” Hal Sirowitz crystallises the resignation of a man who has found himself adrift in a supposedly ideal set-up, a family. Addressing his child, the man declares:
                  I only
act like I'm having fun
when I'm with my family,
so your mother won't yell at me.

The prose is as varied as the poetry. Startling and funny, Zdravka Evtimova's “Blood Of A Mole” is like Richard Brautigan channelled by Stephen King. A customer asks a pet-shop owner for the blood of a mole, which, apparently, has curative properties. The owner gives her own blood instead. It works, and more people arrive at the pet shop, demanding blood. The ending is comical and horrifying all at once.

“Stop The War Or Giant Amoebas Will Eat You,” by Richard Peabody, is reminiscent of JG Ballard's later short stories, but it also has a touch of Vonnegut. It posits a dystopia in which China is at war with the United States and asks how Westerners might cope with the Shock And Awe recently inflicted on other countries.

“The Waxwing Slain,” Seamus Sweeney's story of a jealous writer who discovers the fierce power to eradicate public figures from history, begins as what appears to be a standard tale of literary envy. Its central conceit does not outstay its welcome, but serves as an amusing fantasy and a meditation on fame. One of the questions it asks is if the work is good, does it matter who created it? Would Nabokov's Pale Fire be as good a work if only it, and not Nabokov himself, existed?

The standout story for this reviewer is David Finkle's tender and bittersweet “Memorial.” A six-part meditation on the stages of a relationship, from initial abandonment to final abandoning, the story is also a somewhat Gatsbyesque portrait of a remarkable man, Noah Goodman, whose inability to connect intimately with others is masked by his outwardly dynamic professional life. Between the two stands a narrator left behind when the fancies of his lover wander elsewhere, almost capriciously.

The first print anthology of nthposition, In The Criminal's Cabinet showcases some of the freshest, most urgent voices in poetry and fiction today, in an entertaining and eclectic melange of the strange, the intimate and both.

Friday, April 15, 2005

NEW! L.S. Klatt poems

L.S. Klatt

Two poems


The pine threw down its needles

The squirrel played in a pile

What a strange response
to the loss of tingle

Spine cannot budge--the feet

Suppose a hunchback that foundered was found
to be a pole, bipolar

Yea, humpback in the flammable sea
yea, pin-cushion with pikes


Like a piano hinge
the door of his belly swings

he titters
a pinecone hemorrhages

The bomb goes dumb
& he can't steer it

nor can caw emancipate the good seed

all he can foresee is sequin
or sentinel

The weeping bombardier woos
his propaganda

the notes he puffs can't sing straight

another hellfire cone
another iridescence of grey light

Monday, April 11, 2005

NEW! Review of Charles Simic

Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt by Charles Simic. Tin House/Bloomsbury, $18.95

Reviewed by Ryan James Wilson

Charles Simic's newest collection, Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt, revisits themes familiar to his work. As the title suggests, the self-proclaimed “mystic of the frying pan” endeavors in this collection to glimpse the mysterious and erotic within the mundane. And, as usual, Simic's eccentric metaphysics serve as passport, allowing these poems to travel freely into bizarre and stunningly beautiful places. Consequently, while these poems address the hackneyed subject of romantic love, the reader gathers the sensation that he is sightseeing in his own home amidst the familiar but overlooked. Indeed, Simic's collection transforms the familiar into something wonderfully strange and metamorphoses the small kindnesses of loving relationships into actions of mythological proportion.

Dionysian in nature, these poems bask in the light of ephemera, ignoring the great shadowy forms of philosophical or aesthetic systems. For instance, in the poem “Beauty,” the speaker describes an interaction with a simple countergirl. “Beauty,” itself an indefinable abstraction, has been identified as an inauspicious clerk; however, it is of more importance that the speaker is contented when he rushes “home to unwrap and kiss the / pink ham [she] sliced for [him] with [her] own hand.” By finding the ham capable of providing sustanence on more than the physical level of alleviating hunger, the speaker reveals something uncommon in our consumerist culture: the ability to be momentarily satisfied and free of the desire for something more.

Nevertheless, this momentary contentment is indicative of Simic's work. Delighting in “the squabbling of philosophers” and the frustration of those who promote long-views of the world, these poems focus on extracting the latent joy from the immediate. In “The Invitation,” Simic writes:
And if some bird graciously assents
To chirp for us after the grilled lamb,
The cheese and the wild blueberries,
We'll raise our glasses and toast
The golden light between the leaves,
The shadows lengthening,
And keep them raised till the song is over.

In these lines, the speaker faces the “shadows” of reality outside the moment, but he is not inclined to cower before them. Rather, he enjoys himself, enjoys the food around him and the birdsong. Furthermore, that the speaker toasts implies that he is also enjoying his company, the other half of the earlier “we.” Because on a larger level the symbology suggests a fearlessness of failure, of loss, and of death, the reader finds through microcosm that love provides man with the strength to look into the proverbial abyss without flinching.

Despite the yawning expressions that might stumble out in dishabille to describe the traditional themes of this collection, Simic nevertheless keeps his poems sharp. For instance, the short poem, “Small Feast,” describes a man and a woman sitting together naked at a table, eating squid. The last stanza reads:
Eat some bread, I say.
She just laughs at that,
A hot pepper flake stuck
On the tip of her tongue.

The last lines evoke a Christ-figure offering fish and bread. Furthermore, the “hot pepper flake” creates associatively an image of Satan and Christ eating together as lovers, an image which forces the reader to contemplate a literal representation of Blake's “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Furthermore, the poem “Martha's Purse” nicely incorporates Biblical allusion. The speaker, remembering make-out sessions with the pragmatic Martha, recalls how her purse was constantly in the way, preventing the consummation of their relationship. Appropriately, this practical object, the handbag, serves as a barricade, barring the fruition of impractical love.

Concomitantly, while stigmatizing practicality, Simic exalts the imaginative and the non-sensical with poems such as “Venus in a Bath with Cockroaches.” In this poem, the narrator is walking the streets, looking at “windows either dark or lit” when his imagination takes over, allowing him to see through a drawn curtain
one already undressed
Who waits for a tub to fill with hot water,
Imagination, that devil's helper,
Showed me her heavy breasts
And her narrow hips as I hurried by
With my head tucked into my coat,
Because the wind had chilled me to the bone.

Freeing him from the cold that “chill[s] to the bone,” the speaker's imagination allows him to transcend circumstance and to grasp briefly the duality of beauty and horror.

Of course, Simic's referring to imagination as “that devil's helper” is tongue-in-cheek, as it is his imagination which makes the majority of his poems exquisitely entertaining and amusing. Poems such as “Pretty Picture,” “Touched By Something Higher,” and “St. George and the Dragon” are all bawdy works, simultaneously nudging the reader's ribs and pointing out earthy subjects as worthy of contemplation. Appropriately, the collection's second poem, “Love Flea,” pays homage to that earlier metaphysician and sensualist, John Donne.

Howie Michels' skillful renderings underscore Simic's humor. Nude women romp on men's shoulders playing “horsey.” Shriveled couples make love inside goblets and salad bowls. Children on a museum tour become voyeurs, peeping at ecstatically writhing nudes. However, the drawings ultimately distract the reader because they disallow full imaginative range.

Finally, this collection has its foundation in the quotidian: in kitchens, bedrooms, and back-yards. And from this base, Simic erects a monument to love, sensuality, and humor. Comedic in the classical sense, these poems are triumphant.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

NEW! Review of Alice Notley

Waltzing Matilda by Alice Notley. Faux Press, $13.50.

Reviewed by Chad Davidson

In “My Bodyguard,” one of Waltzing Matilda's many prose poems, Alice Notley declares, “I just want to do the same old thing differently.” And the reissue of this book-length debut (originally published in 1981 by Lina Hornick's Kulchur Foundation) affords readers the perfect occasion to reassess her unique brand of “differently.” What's more, the book acts as a cross section of the then-contemporary poetry scene, a sampling of playful lyrics, shiny, near-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, second-generation New-York-School nonchalance, and hauntingly intricate dialogues.

Even though Notley had already been publishing poetry in slimmer volumes and chapbooks for a decade before the arrival of Waltzing Matilda, part of the excitement in reading through the hodgepodge of wildly varying poems and voices is to witness the formulation of an aesthetic, the honing of a style. The short lyrics, for example, possess the charm of Joni Mitchell lyrics, where the “clearest of gins taste of / bluish protection” and “the earth slopes kindly down around me as if / To say the closure will be a little, just a little, like this.” The book is also pocked with cigarettes, booze, and drugs in the sprezzatura of the 70s, while giving readers a backward gaze at the relationships between Notley and other New York artists, most importantly her husband and poet, Ted Berrigan. And for the initiated, certain lines become all the more doleful given Berrigan's amphetamine use and subsequent death in 1983: “I'd die for you, too, // though, you fuck-head / I do hope / I don't have to.”

There is more than merely charm, however, to Notley's O'Hara-influenced “I do this, I do that” poems, as in the beginning lines of “First Pre-Spring in Five Years without Own Crocuses”:
Why today is the first of the lovely springish days
yet I've used up all the praise words other years
and see & hear & smell nothing specific to
tell am only the one sense in which is a body
body knows it's one of those good warm days . . .

Hidden in playfulness, though, are the nodes of anxiety and, at times, darkness that are perhaps out of the range of O'Hara's lunch poems. When asked at the ending of “Dream” who she is, for example, Notley's narrator answers, “Why I / am almost exactly Simone Weil.” Similarly, the “melancholic tense” of the narrator in “Poem” becomes evident as the husband goes east “To see his mother this heavenly morning / She has lung cancer, wants, says she, to make it through / One more World Series with the Red Sox. Doubtful.” If that isn't enough, the last line clinches the deal: “He married me, we say, because I smile like her.”

Waltzing Matilda, though, is most provocative in its lengthy dialogue and epistolary prose poems, which dominate the book. Some verge on the surreal, for instance, “The Wall of Paintings,” in which the characters include “Lady in the Clock,” “Lady with Breasts,” “Wizard,” and “Black Oval.” In other cases, as in “Elephant & Ocean,” surrealism becomes a veneer hiding what appears to be difficult psychic territory, as when “Ocean” declares, “He's turned and gone. What shall I do? Shall I rage & destroy a coastal city? Shall I become pure sorrow & then evaporate? Shall I swim north & freeze to melt only when he loves me? Shall I shriek with the gulls & clutch at Hart Crane's bones?” Notley's dialogue poems take enormous risks and offer readers drastically different voices, from the stripped down, two-dimensionality of “Reading Evelyn Waugh” (“We're not interested in sex, we're only interested in climbing mountains”), to the sometimes comical and lexically intensive “My Bodyguard” (“Here's the Greek word that means desire to cross over to the other side. Pothos. / You mean the Greeks stood on the river bank and said Pothos! Pothos! / Something like that”).

Perhaps the most compelling of the long poems is the title poem, which begins with the beguiling scene of her son in a fever:
I am an exhausted not-that-chrysanthemum Oh brother
Nothing's funny nothing's pretty, all the jokes
& gems collided at Gun Corner & then they did that
you know rolled over & over down the hill to the bottom of
the tin-can gulley
And then there's me you know I that am like a stomach sick of.

Rather than hold to any linear narrative, the poem more closely resembles movements in a long symphony, tonally sequenced rather than narratively arranged. Interspersed throughout the twenty-page poem are various forms including mostly diary-like entries and epistles, one recipient of which being simply the “Adviser.” During these letters especially, Notley's narrator and her various and manic veneers appear to break down a bit offering us a look at emotionally troubling material in the guise of a confessional or helpline. The first of these letters involves mainly what the narrator should do regarding a comment her husband made while leaving the house, “that he was beginning to realize he should start batting [her] on the head more often when he felt like it that was all there was to it.” Her questions to the adviser, though verging on hilarious, are still haunted by the gravity of physical abuse, for she is at first “of many minds to bat on about this.” She also begins to analyze his statement to her, thereby avoiding the force of it: “Do you suppose my husband woke up thinking he & I were two other people [. . .] or do you suppose he was momentarily gaga as I believe they say in England and imagined he had once or twice batted me on the head?” The Adviser's reply is worth a citation as well:
So if down on you & your husband
it pours
The light that wreaks temporary change the kind that distresses
Remember it's not psychology sociology numerology history or you, it's
the gypsy moon's shivery long dark white tresses.

No doubt his evasiveness, not to mention his suspicious rhyming (the entire page-and-a-half letter rhymes), lends to the entire sequence an ironized chauvinism.

Waltzing Matilda is a tour de force of Notley's multifarious talents and her earlier experiments. Likewise it reads like a “who's who” of the 70s poetry scene and a “what's what” of the poetry trends. Finally, and this is most important, the poems are wonderful: engaging, revealing, ambitious, frustrated, and always aiming extremely high. If they fail at times, their failures are extravagant. Notley is an American original, and Waltzing Matilda is, for her readers, an apt foundational myth.

Monday, April 04, 2005

NEW! Review of Beth Anderson & Stacy Szymaszek

Some Mariners by Stacy Szymaszek. Etherdome, $7.
Overboard by Beth Anderson. Burning Deck, $10.

Reviewed by Jake Kennedy

“The relational space is the thing that's alive with something from somewhere else” --Susan Howe

Since we're all mariners of some sort, Stacy Szymaszek is Boatswain, Seaman, Cook, Boy, Steward, Seawoman, Officer, Carpenter, Captain, Stowaway, Captive, Writer, Ethicist--on our behalf. I read Some Mariners as grafting a politics (attentive to the ebbs, flows, breakers, swells of history and power) of desire onto the tradition of marine formalisms. As this sometime nineteenth-century vessel disembarks, then, the “sequent of waves” are already elegiac and the mournful request is “grieve with me--Slavic Indic Arabic.” So that through these discoveries (“Darwins of sound”--brilliant, packed conjunction of abstraction, history and image) the lyrical trembles of “James caresses / a silver fish” gets irrevocably troubled. And James's caresses move pretty fluidly into motions of yearning and Szymaszek's gift for tracing the political over the lyrical over the erotic over the and-so-on is certain and commanding:
beneath the tarpaulin

you are a sea monster

I am your sea

And the next five words--“rubies plummet from outer space,” which conclude the poem--dangle (plummet) vertically down the page and, besides drawing concrete attention to the beguiling action of the luminous night sky, they also highlight the importance, for Szymaszek, of language as living (desire) material. And I like how ink is always being spilt or drunk in this collection, as if the book itself aspired to the palimpsestic qualities of an ancient mariner's log. Of course, what's traced most boldly here is the sea as a site of intercourse or ideal but delayed intercourse. All the spillages, the movings up and down, the longing, the rhythms, the dream shapes, are glyphs for the body in need. Aye, it's good.

And somewhere in here, as the sea rises and drops, there is a step beyond the ever-hooded into an ecology of reverie and wanting. Szymaszek's spaces, like Susan Howe's relational modes, create laminations of history in which one meets the multiple registers of ancient Chinese nature verse, Virginia Woolf's experimental elegiac novel-poems, 20th-century environmental theory, and a sea-burnt Wallace Stevens listening to the ocean's “imperishable / syllables.” The tattooed mariner body appears and appears and appears as a book or poet that is also a lover . . . to be a night watcher, for example. As if the crow's nest was invented by/for the bard. Is this what the poet is? In your nailed down chair, both artist figure and lover; so the world meets there, Szymaszek suggests, even as the world is losing itself--the sources are also about intransigence.


“we pass hands upon its surface and embrace
the creative object, throbbing waves fly over” --Barbara Guest

When I open Beth Anderson's Overboard, it makes the same kind of timber-creaks as Some Mariners but its lines are much longer, more planky than SS's. And if, as Anderson says, this “tale begins in a small desert town,” then this is still another kind of sea in which the register is much more second-person intimate--we get repeatedly addressed here:
Like flatware, we all have an address, a drawer, a noun
to which we like to be compared. Interruption reveals how distance shifts and falls in real
time and makes you a marker just like a subway sign. So determinedly there, in line.

These strike me as tricky marine tales to tell because they teeter on the overly-knowing, overly-authorial sound. And yet to me they dazzle because they arrive, as Lyn Hejinian's sentences so often do, with a tactile modesty regarding the fraught fascination with the writer's desire to both categorize and also to surmount that act of naming. If we are “made a marker” then Anderson is also doubling and redoubling her insights because we also learn that “we break ourselves into categories.” In this way it seems that even what appears as the identified or fixed also indicates a further, productive fracturing.

Anderson's “Hearsay Sonnets” are moveable sonnets, and the effect of reading them is sort of like crossing the country in someone's trailer-pulled yacht (“Severe stretches / will save the long tendons connecting each finger to a / skyline blip”), leaning off the stern and looking: “It smells like exhaust despite the nearby sea.” It's thrilling to ride these lines especially when Anderson matter-of-factly returns the cycling generalizations into a precise noting: “just that possible air.” Such a guided poetic experience reaches notes of philosophy that ting with clarity (reminding me of Barbara Guest's gift for making the invisible so see-able). So what the book gradually compiles is a concrete investigation of multiple elemental possibilities: how does the mind work as the sea? the air? the earth? fire?

For Anderson, I think, the mind keeps seeing itself approximated, mocked, mimicked, bested, lauded, enhanced by the physical environment particularly as these tangible “surroundings” intersect with the chimeras of the lived past. Even more originally, Anderson convinces a reader that each line--like each thought, wave, or material thing--has a legitimate connection to an array of strange personal nouns. In these lines below, from “Eureka,” we can feel the throb of recollection but also how dependent all private/domestic time (memory) is on language itself:
               Tight string cuts off the memory
it was meant to brace. I'll use it to tie up cornice and trim
under preservation rubric, for instead of practicing
we protected. We'll be ready if society comes by later after
making use of stored-up interjections.

I love how Anderson's tactile images “tie” together the intangible connections between the drive to preserve--in its multiple forms: writing, jam-making, house-maintenance, memory--and our desire for protection and the potential loss of action this entails. That “We'll be ready if society comes by later” is thus imbued with a paradoxically sardonic and compassionate tone--the line seems to gently suggest the futility of our “stored-up interjections” yet also implies that these verbal acts are utterly necessary. So “preservation rubric” is an apt, wry description of a kind of poetry that refuses merely cynical metaphysical pronouncements and instead can see that “Even as the dam is washed by the river // it adds to the river's bed.”

And I want to know if there are any more ethical, exquisite lines than these from Anderson's long poem “Hazard” that closes the book: “In communities / uncommunal we keep missing the chance / to tie planetary dimensions to method”? If these lines are “so true!”--and I think they are--they also don't mess around with admiring themselves overly much either. I think the umph of the lines, then, arrives partly from their intrepid and finally utterly convincing use of the plural pronoun. That 'we' which can so easily look inflated and self-admiring, is--again!--charmingly, modestly employed. Anderson's “overboardness” is not a merely romantic or expressive obsession with the thematics of the sea so much as an adjectival hint that her core preoccupation is with lostness. What prevails in her vision is a glimpse of a limpid but ego-eradicated futurity, a place in which
>               Naturally

what we wish is to think ourselves serious
but according to the age of its firmaments
this must be a sun-centered universe, ever

pulling inward from its own flawed orbit.

Friday, April 01, 2005

NEW! Review of Roddy Lumsden

Mischief Night: New & Selected Poems by Roddy Lumsden. Bloodaxe Books, £8.95.

Reviewed by Matthew Smith

It’s not that Roddy Lumsden’s poems would be better read aloud. It’s that they would be better shouted across a crowded pub, or gasped out in a motel room, or recited drunkenly at funerals and christenings. The ongoing affair between hedonism and mortality in Lumsden’s poetry is as much a context as a subject for his work––“Death whispers, looking at the time, / ‘I’ve got to have you now. Your place or mine?’”

In this collection, Lumsden in turn tenders and skewers countless life philosophies, especially those underlying his writing. In “The Answers,” an exhaustive list of infinitives, he suggests (promises?): “to paint the town with a brushful of blood / to be the millionth customer of love / to have to have.” With similarly double-edged glee, “Lines to a Missionary” concludes: “The Christian soul is quite inedible // and better ones than you have turned in awe / to tentacle, to lion’s claw.” Lumsden neatly unseats religion’s alternative with the lines “what has she done but swap one implausible God / for a full menagerie of impossible ones?” in “Pagan.” Even more brusquely, he delivers a litany of scientific grails into domestic extinction in “The Beginning of the End.” Despite such ideological carnage, the scope of Mischief Night extends beyond brute cynicism––“Does it read like a draft for a suicide note? For it’s not that, never”––but to say that these poems aren’t all fun and games would somehow undercut the poignancy of Lumsden’s fun and games. No, the poems don’t often cut below the surface, but they do reveal a stunning breadth of pain, romance, and possibility lying across that surface. In “From the Valentine Studio,” he writes, “Why is it that when I encounter evidence that I have a nook in this world, it always shows its face in the guise of misprints or, even more satisfying, in the international currency of downright lies?”

Mischief Night includes selections from all of Lumsden’s previous books––Yeah, Yeah, Yeah; The Book of Love; Roddy Lumsden is Dead––as well as The Bubble Bride (a commissioned pamphlet), the previously uncollected sonnet sequence Cavoli Riscaldati, and The Drowning Man (a new collection). This is quite a load, both in terms of word-count and timeline, and one that Bloodaxe compounds by fitting roughly 180 poems onto about 150 pages. The result is a relentless crash course in the entirety of the poet’s career to date.

Lumsden’s flair for formal roguery is evident throughout the collection, as is an increasing awareness of this trend and of others’ reactions to it. The poems in Yeah, Yeah, Yeah especially are typified by an anomic voice so playful that the pithy accounts of misdeeds provide delightful refreshment. The most moving passages are often those that most reveal the speaker’s moral and emotional deficiency. The straight-faced, “Prayer To Be With Mercurial Women,” slips this sort of sucker punch into the middle of a running joke:
          And spare me too
from palmy evenings which sail by
in restaurants, on barstools,
without a storming off or two.
‘Darling, you were made for me.’
I pray I’ll never hear those words.
I need to feel I’m stealing
love another man would kill for.

Early poems in which the shudder of a conscience (vestigial or otherwise) can be felt presage Lumsden’s later, more self-conscious work. “Mercy,” a clean, shrewd piece about murdering pet turtles, gives just the slightest indication of moral concern: "how we’ll stand and laugh, / Though something sharp will snag us, later on.”

If Yeah, Yeah, Yeah is the nocturnal chronicle of one man’s perfect sins, then the next two books are the hungover morning after. “Cavoli riscaldati”––literally “reheated cabbage”–– is an Italian phrase for one’s effort to revive a defunct love affair. Given the kinky logic of his first book, Lumsden’s forthright, resigned approach to these poems is perhaps disappointing, perhaps just depressingly apt. A set of twenty-four sonnets, this section is characterized by sedate movement, careful and unsurprising tropes, and eons of back story to which the reader has little access. Most of the time, the gist of the poems’ history is apparent, but it’s also more or less apparent in the title. The restlessness that haunts this sequence is no more defined than that which spurred the villainy of the preceding section, but this time it seems to have less potential. Read one poem, and you’ll know where the rest are going to end up. “Heatwave,” one of the more self-contained of the sonnets, narrates a brief encounter between former lovers:
I shared a sidewalk table with her wraith,
Hung with the sun, a poppet on her knee.
I sank a bitter coffee, tried to up
My temperature. She stared down at her feet.
I tried. I smiled. I fiddled with my cup,
Then rose, cut down to Broadway in the heat.

Although unextraordinary in language and content, these poems show evidence of great formal care. Such a hopeless combination may be about as keen a representation of reheated love as any.

Although sharper and more lively than Cavoli Riscaldati, The Book of Love is also anchored by a recurring sense of regret. These poems pick up and juggle a variety of topics––ventriloquism, Athena, vinegar, love, love, love––but the conclusion is predominately defeat: “my suffersome jowl at rest / on the miscued curling stone of her breast” (“Lithium”), “Meanwhile, our banns could barely blot / a pity’s weight of blood” (“Proof”), “One eye didn’t seem so much to leave behind / as I sped to my job in the kingdom of the blind” (“Solo”). Some hopeful moments, as in “Troilism,” a funny, twisted treatment of ménage à trois, suggest the development of a lyric sensibility beyond the limitations of either loveless joy or joyless love. The final selection from The Book of Love, “The Man I Could Have Been,” conjures the opposites of promise and defeat and conjoins them: “The man I could have been, he learns from my mistakes. / He never thought it would be you.”

It’s in Roddy Lumsden Is Dead that we finally get the crane shot; the camera zooms out to reveal the speaker’s place, if not in the world, then at least in his own life and work. It is here that the poems’ speaker achieves self-knowledge:
Though I hate to cheapen a poem
with slang, it needs to be said
that our brief time together
went straight to video.

The vicious twinkle of his early poems is back, but without quite the same autistic glare. The speaker is no longer any kind of persona, projection, other. This book is Roddy Lumsden writing as himself, in memoriam. The old questions and concerns return, but with a somewhat more sublime perspective. Lost love is still lost, but retrieval is no longer the goal. This time it’s a tribute: “you’re lost forever / and the actors who will play us not yet born.” As author of his own requiem/obituary/wake, Lumsden radiates great vitality. Less Walt Whitman than Tom Sawyer, however, he stays focused on the coffin. Ultimately, his sentence hasn’t changed, it’s just been clarified. No need for morbidity to spoil a perfect carnal moment. Not because it’s not there, but because there’s no longer any competition:
Year in, year out, I catch myself at it:
quelling the candle, drawing down the smalls
of the latest literary starlet,
crushing them into a soft, white ball

I launch into a corner. Deep in the carpet,
the dust mites, to whom I am the God of Virility,
gaze upwards gladly at this cotton comet
which guarantees a season of fertility.

For strength of theme, for honesty, for resonance, the selections from Roddy Lumsden Is Dead make up the heart of this collection: “I want love to be hollow, sham; / I long to be held under.”

The Bubble Bride––commissioned by a hotel/spa near Lumsden’s home–– is a short, fanciful sequence that more or less serves as an empty parking lot for Lumsden’s flashy skateboard tricks. Linguistic control is the primary concern in this section. Hence the twenty-four lines of verse written in a Scottish dialect so thick Lumsden offers a translation (but doesn’t for another, thirty-two line piece). Hence the following list appearing in the section’s title poem: “a fizzcake fusing in the water, / her ration, her ruddy Romeo, her helping: / a suddy and sizzling Szechuan platter, full.” Lumsden’s technical facility with language is certainly impressive, but it’s a bit like seeing Daniel Day Lewis performing in a low-rent kung-fu flick.

The newest poems are encouraging. The Drowning Man, a thirty-two poem collection, doesn’t read like a cohesive book so much as a loosely themed poetry journal. Many individual pieces and moments stand out––“when meat rains from the sky, / accept it, love will not be hovering nearby” in “Love Cannot Do” and “why did we heave with our fins and gasp / and leave the swamp, if not to hear / the porch door creak, the strangler on the stair” in “Moments of Terror”––but an integrated work it’s not. Good poems that seem less aptly prefaced with ‘The New Book By’ than with ‘More From.’ One particularly well-crafted (and surprisingly warm) piece seems to indicate a departure for Lumsden from some of the old phantoms:
And though the puppy names you gave embarrass them,
that’s all they have, as they huddle on the quayside,
waiting for the ship you promised would arrive,
a ship they are sure will come.

As the ‘new and selected’ appellation suggests, Mischief Night is a whole-hog introduction to Roddy Lumsden. Some generalities you’ll probably sift out: narrative (or at least intensely lyric) needs drive these poems; although the verse is hopping with linguistic antics, the foci of the language are music and rhetoric (unified imagery is not Lumsden’s strong suit; impact is); and, whip-smart as these poems are, they tend to resist chin-stroking analysis. Throughout Mischief Night the rhymes, the larks, the brutal punch-lines tug Lumsden’s poems off the page and into the living context they describe. It’s not that I’d like to sit down for a heart to heart with Roddy Lumsden. It’s that I’d like to be at the next table over when some unwitting filly joins him for a bite.