Friday, October 21, 2005

NEW! Review of Coconut

Coconut #1.

Reviewed by Teresa M. Pfeifer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2005

NEW! Review of Peter Markus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 15, 2005

NEW! Review of Jacquelyn Pope

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

Reviewed by Emily Taylor Merriman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

NEW! Review of First Intensity

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

Reviewed by Heidi Lynn Staples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filling the gap.

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

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

Sunday, October 09, 2005

NEW! Review of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

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

Reviewed by Joshua Marie Wilkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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