Monday, September 19, 2005

The Best Australian Poetry 2005

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 12, 2005

NEW! Review of The Tiny

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

Reviewed by Summer Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 08, 2005

NEW! Review of Peter Gizzi

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

Reviewed by Anthony Hawley

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was telling the real


as approach of
had your mouth
about it

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 01, 2005

NEW! Review of Steve Benson

Open Clothes by Steve Benson. Atelos, $12.95.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

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

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

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

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

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

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