Monday, August 29, 2005

NEW! Clayton A. Couch poem

Clayton A. Couch



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

Saturday, August 27, 2005

NEW! Review of Betsy Sholl

Late Psalm by Betsy Sholl. University of Wisconsin Press.

Reviewed by Chivas Sandage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Verse Book of Interviews

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

Friday, August 19, 2005

NEW! Review of Jena Osman

An Essay in Asterisks by Jena Osman. Roof Books.

Reviewed by Kathleen Ossip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 11, 2005

RIP, Verse Press (2000-2005)

Verse Press is now officially defunct. The press is being folded into Wave Books, a new venture which will have Matthew Zapruder and Joshua Beckman as its editors and Lori Shine and Monica Fambrough as its managing editors. Charlie Wright will be the publisher of Wave Books. The press will be based in Seattle and western Massachusetts.

Existing Verse Press books will be sold through / distributed by Wave Books from now on, which makes The Verse Book of Interviews, Gillian Conoley's Profane Halo, and Dara Wier's Reverse Rapture the last crop of Verse Press books.

Verse magazine will continue with Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki as editors, Henry Hart as managing editor, and Chris McDermott as associate editor. The magazine will have offices in Richmond, Athens, and Williamsburg.

Monday, August 01, 2005

NEW! Review of Michael Magee's Emancipating Pragmatism

Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing by Michael Magee. University of Alabama Press, $27.50.

Reviewed by Rodney Koeneke

Michael Magee is out to save democracy. His Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing uncovers the hidden nerve structure that connects Ralph Waldo Emerson to Harryette Mullen via figures as dazzlingly diverse as John Dewey, Amiri Baraka, Kenneth Burke, Ornette Coleman, William Carlos Williams, Paul Goodman, Frank O’Hara, William James, Susan Howe, and Ralph W. Ellison. What Magee sees as the link between them is a practice he calls “democratic symbolic action”: an insistence that the meaning of democracy--its yen for heterogeneity, improvisation, and collaborative experiment--be enacted at the level of the sentence. Through a lucid riff on the pragmatist tradition, he reminds us that the search for a relationship between aesthetic practice and political action so central to contemporary poetics has been an ongoing obsession in American letters since at least the 1850s.

Pragmatism is the Kevin Bacon of American literature: scratch any writer in the last couple centuries who’s looked for a uniquely U.S. voice and sooner or later you’ll find an engagement with our only homegrown philosophy. Even Ezra Pound, in the deeps of 1940s Rapallo and Fascist dreams, could summarize the whole Modernist constellation of experiment as simply “Pragmatic Aesthetics.” What’s fresh about Magee’s study is the way he shows pragmatism as growing out of a profound engagement with African American culture: the product of blacks and whites together trying to find sense in the paradox of a democracy with slaves.

The book begins with a brilliant rescue operation on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Magee takes the oracle of Concord by the heel and pulls him down from the Transcendental aether, through the latter-day self-empowerment folderol of Oprah and Dr. Wayne Dyer, to ground him in the heat and muck of Emancipation politics on the eve of the Civil War. The slavery debates of the 1850s make civic life under George W. look like a Mormon sockhop, and Magee argues that Emerson’s growing involvement in the abolitionist movement galvanized his politics in ways that fundamentally changed both his prose and his sense of self. The propaganda that made slavery defensible in terms of freedom or constitutional rights drove Emerson to deepen his notion of a ‘liminal self’; a subjectivity alert to the contextual basis of meaning, the dynamic instability of language, and the need for novel ways of speaking to address a social world constantly making itself anew. Magee connects these ideas to Emerson’s late style, full of suggestive indirections and syntactic leaps that invite the reader’s collaboration in the making of meaning. As the Civil War ground on, this ideal reader increasingly began to take shape for Emerson as the African American soldier. “American genius finds its true type,” he famously announced in 1864, “in the poor Negro solider lying in the trenches by the Potomac with his spelling book in one hand and his musket in the other.”

Emerson’s conviction that terms like ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ turned to “bilge water” at the hands of pro-slavery interests has an uncanny parallel in our present day Iraqi adventure, and Magee does a deft job bringing Emerson’s insights about the democratic possibilities inherent in language into the 21st century. He shows how Ralph W. Ellison fuses a pragmatist approach to writing (via Kenneth Burke) to the African American tradition of jazz improvisation in Invisible Man; how Amiri Baraka and the “Poetics of the Five Spot” fueled O’Hara’s sense of the poem as “a heterogeneous inclusiveness”; and how contemporaries like Susan Howe and Haryette Mullen continue the practice of literature as a form of emancipation that lies at the heart of the pragmatist tradition. A bias toward contingency, process, polyvocality, indeterminacy and improvisation over fixed meanings, classical ‘finish’, universal truths and the transcendent subject has been a staple of avant-garde writing for nearly a century; Magee shows how these qualities flow directly from an American habit of working to see what democracy might mean when it’s extended to other forms of cultural life, and how that effort in turn connects to black music in rich and surprisingly direct ways. His analysis of Emerson’s dirge for the mixed-race 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and of O’Hara’s close but respectful attachment to the new black music pouring out from the Civil Rights-era Village, lend especially strong struts to his thesis that “pragmatism survives most unexpectedly, and therefore most startlingly, in black music and contemporary experimental poetry.”

One strength of Magee’s study is the sense he gives that he’s not just “onto” something but “into” something: not splitting hairs over academic definitions but out to make pragmatism do work in the present. Since L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E there’s been a certain guardedness about equating writing experiments with social change, and given where we are now it’s reasonable to wonder whether a new way of writing ever really changed the world. Magee makes me rethink what I mean though by ‘world’, and why the social dynamics in a jazz performance or a poetry reading or in the myriad invisible exchanges that take place between readers and writers aren’t just as real a measure of democracy as a hijacked presidential election. When you’re into the moment, going on your nerve and riding along with whoever you can find, freedom is always somewhere in the room. The great gift of Emancipating Pragmatism is to remind us that those contexts still exist, that democracy’s happening around us all the time.