Saturday, December 31, 2005

reviews 2005

Books & chapbooks reviewed on the Verse site in 2005:

Overboard by Beth Anderson
Selected Prose by John Ashbery
Backroads To Far Towns: Basho's Travel Journal, translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu
Fence Line by Curtis Bauer
Lord Brain by Bruce Beasley
Open Clothes by Steve Benson
Museum of Space by Peter Boyle
Sea of Faith by John Brehm
The Unrequited by Carrie St. George Comer
Adversaria by Peter Dent
In the absent everyday by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit by Timothy Donnelly
Einstein Considers a Sand Dune by James Doyle
Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum by Norman Dubie
Small Weathers by Merrill Gilfillan
Periplum and Other Poems 1987-1992 by Peter Gizzi
Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems by Durs Grünbein
Island by Charles O. Hartman
The Other Half of the Dream by Cecil Helman
American Godwar Complex by Patrick Herron
Lou Lou by Selima Hill
Our Fortunes by Julie Kalendek
Prime Time Apparitions by R. Zamora Linmark
Mischief Night: New & Selected Poems by Roddy Lumsden
Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing by Michael Magee
In a Combination of Practices by Barbara Maloutas
The Singing Fish by Peter Markus
Ancient Capital of Images by John Mateer
Representing Absence by Deborah Meadows
The Glaze From Breaking by Joanne Merriam
Lure by Nils Michals
Proof Of Silhouettes by Sheila E. Murphy
Red Juice by Hoa Nguyen
Waltzing Matilda by Alice Notley
An Essay in Asterisks by Jena Osman
Growling by Brian Louis Pearce
Watermark by Jacquelyn Pope
Fallen from a Chariot by Kevin Prufer
i my feet: selected poems and constellations by Gerhard Rühm
Tremors by Andrew Sant
Florida by Christine Schutt
Late Psalm by Betsy Sholl
The Book of Jon by Eleni Sikelianos
Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt by Charles Simic
Political Cactus Poems by Jonathan Skinner
The Window Ordered To Be Made by Brian Kim Stefans
In The Criminal's Cabinet: An nthology of poetry and fiction, edited by Val Stevenson and Todd Swift
In the Dark by Ruth Stone
Reel by George Szirtes
Some Mariners by Stacy Szymaszek
Subject to Change by Matthew Thorburn

Magazines reviewed on the Verse site in 2005:

Chain (Public Forms)
Chicago Review (Edward Dorn: American Heretic)
First Intensity
The Tiny

Thursday, December 22, 2005

NEW! Ed Davis poem

Ed Davis


It’s getting cold. Consumers will feel the pinch this winter. Soon, we’ll pay dearly for our pantyhose and bleach and disposable diapers. On East Quality Street, a suicide mistaken for a Halloween decoration hangs from a tree.

I discuss it with an acquaintance at the doughnut shop. She’s reminded of a mutual friend of ours, a kleptomaniac dead “these twelve years.” She tells me she became a Buddhist after he died. “The Buddhists do death really well,” she says. “Even now, I can feel him around me as just--energy.” She licks some powdered sugar from her lips.

Even reduced to energy, I doubt Justin would ever condescend to haunt a doughnut shop. His travels were always more whimsical. Once, he flew to Luxembourg and jumped from the most ornate bridge he could find. In his letter, he reminded us that there are 30,000 suicides a year in the U.S. He preferred not to be a negligible statistic.

Afterward, I went to his room to collect the things he had stolen from me: a few records, an ashtray from Graceland, and my Unrest t-shirt with the glittery logo. Myself, I once stole a Pixies CD from a boy with an artificial leg named Ben; he called his good leg “Sydney”. Anyone who indulges in gratuitous Mary Poppins jokes deserves to be robbed. I believe in treating the handicapped as equals, except for the blind--they should be feared. They can hear our louder thoughts. To protect myself, I distract them by whispering, “You know, the Lions Club has been collecting old eyeglasses for ages.” I sprint away before they can recover from their shock.

As for Justin, I have fond memories of him rifling through my attic, looking for hidden listening devices planted by a shadow. “They’re waiting for you to utter your fondest desire, so they can prevent you from attaining it,” he said. I tried to dispel his paranoia by telling him that my fondest desire was a stewardess covered in foam. His disapproving look cut me to the quick. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I meant a flight attendant covered in foam.”

He was too exacting. When he saw me with my notebook, he chided me bitterly: “You’re going about it all wrong. All the great Victorian poets, not to mention James Agee, wrote without pants. You’re just wasting your time.”

Perhaps he was right. And now it’s nearly winter, and nobody knows when I don’t eat. I need to find a moisturizer for life and a new perspective on my dining room. I want to live in an Italian atmosphere, but I don’t know who to call. Still, I’m sure I’ll remember his words the next time I find myself sitting on a curb, handcuffed and shivering in the cold, while a detective knocks on the door of my seedy motel room.

Monday, December 05, 2005

NEW! Review of Jonathan Skinner

Political Cactus Poems by Jonathan Skinner. Palm Press.

Reviewed by Chris Pusateri

Among the most difficult tasks facing an emerging poet is the crafting of a poetics. This undertaking is often complicated by opposition from above: it is a longstanding pastime for established poets to treat the contributions of subsequent generations with reactions ranging from mild bemusement to outright hostility. As we look back at American literary history, we see that each new wave of poets has had its professional foil--almost invariably an academician of canonical stature--who led the charge against the scurrilous influence of the young.

This pervasive skepticism has spawned a number of responses both public and private. One of the more even-handed treatments of the subject came in a recent issue of Boston Review, where Hank Lazer speculated that the poetics of the early 21st century were given more to refining earlier innovations than to creating new ones. He attributes this, at least in part, to the recent professionalization of poetry, which privileges craft--or the mechanical application of technique--over formal experimentation.

Upon first glance, one might think a book entitled Political Cactus Poems extends that earlier innovation known as ecopoetry. We recall that once upon a time, the prefix eco- politicized any word it modified. With its emphasis on sustainable practices and ecological interconnectedness, it was assumed to be antagonistic to the aims of global capitalism (a market logic in which increased productivity promoted limitless consumer appetites).

If anything, Skinner seeks to revive environmentalism’s radical roots. Ecopoetry is, for him, more than simple nature worship; it is a political act located in the space where humans encounter their environment. Not content to forward a warmed-over variant of nineteenth-century pastoralism, Skinner eschews the radical individualism of Thoreau in favor of a collective politics: one that sees people as an extension of their surroundings.
untroubled by impasto, her biography
would include a history of colors
nails, she conceded, were gutsy
but imperfect in this age of plastics
the spewed and shredded earth
hung about her ears, with one foot
she typed the word sardonic

There is little doubt that nails in the age of plastics are risky business. With broad strokes, Skinner lays the plasticity of human invention over the faux-permanence of the natural world, so as to point out that the boundaries between the organic and the synthetic are increasingly difficult to demarcate.

This book also intimates that any theory of eco-logic must acknowledge that the majority of the world’s populace now lives in cities. While environmentalists of the past dismissed cities as part of the problem, Skinner suggests that any modern ecological politics must count the urban environment as one of its core concerns.

hiccup then what
a side of something or peas
clattering down the way
elevator siding Tifft’s fence
Santa Fe Rail’s last ride
smashed down
in the brake with a muskrat
a friendly wave from the engineer
rattles the loose change

As the book’s endnotes suggest, the reference to Tifft is an allusion to Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, which, as Skinner points out, is “264 acres of secondary forests and wetlands reclaimed from 1.6 million cubic yards of municipal waste, since 1975, within the city limits of Buffalo.” The inclusion of Tifft subtly expresses the arduous but necessary task of resuscitation. A viable ecopolitics must not only critique environmental damage, but propose plans for its rehabilitation. As a people, we are fond of making our problems invisible (for instance, municipal dumps are typically located in remote areas or in urban districts adjacent to poor neighborhoods). Such strategies confirm the aphorism that putting something out-of-sight indeed places it out-of-mind. By making these sites (and their rehabilitation) occasions for poetry, Skinner makes them visible once again.

But as goes nature, so goes society: if we are to reverse environmental degradation, we must first examine those factors that contribute to it, such as overconsumption, poverty, and war. An ecopoetics, if it is to be effective, must realize that all environmental crises are the result of social problems and that no real progress is possible unless those issues are addressed.
the terminal, dome-like cephalium
of orange-brown bristles
at the thought of anything less
than total self-destruct, controls
one half by blowing off limbs
in random cow fields

Here we see the poetic field as a mine field, as a site of hidden peril. More procedurally, we see passages of textbook description intercut with the rough-hewn statements of political declaration. Beneath a seemingly beautiful façade lurks a threat both literal and figurative. Yet under the layers of beauty and danger, we have the makings of something sacred, something new.

If we return to Lazer’s earlier point, we might see Skinner’s ecopoetics as begging a larger question: what, precisely, is innovation in the arts? Since all progress is nourished by the developments that precede it, at what point does refinement give way to innovation?

Should we argue this point long enough, we’ll end up sounding like copyright attorneys who quarrel over an operational definition of “original work.” Skinner, however, has more practical goals in mind: the cultivation of a poetics whose concerns exceed the merely theoretical and whose lessons might extend from the page of a poetry book to our everyday lives. While Auden might have questioned the efficacy of poetry, Skinner’s book implies that, in a time characterized by war and social atrophy, the thing we can least afford is a poetry that does nothing.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

NEW! Review of John Mateer

Ancient Capital of Images by John Mateer. Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Reviewed by Mani Rao

John Mateer’s poems visit the scene after violence and its echoes have vacated, and narrate what is seen or encountered--minus opinion, minus sensation. In “Sanjo-Dori” of the sequence “The Ancient Capital of Images,” “His shop is deep and dim, like the cavity left in the face / after an eye has been removed.” Taken as they are, the anecdotes and encounters have the content of haunting horror. In “The Tourist” of the sequence “Ethekweni”: “The wall persists, abrasive, against his cheek / as he’s being bitten on the shoulder in this land of AIDS.” But the approach strips them of horror before it forms: “The tourist just off the plane has no witness to his struggle, / no one but himself to testify to his calm.”

The encounters are also political (with the poet implicated), but the voice persists in calmness and the consciousness does not tip over into distortion and perspective--at the most, it veers at the edge of half-wondering about its own blankness. In “One Year”:
In the autumn, when the elms refused to shed their leaves
and I spent the long calm days lounging at the pool,
I found myself explaining nightly to my students that simply being awake
is not insomnia, is political.

In every poem, the reader is acknowledged, shown a seat, and presented to--explanatory titling acts as captions and locates the events of the poem.

Place-detail is firmed up in a summary slide, usually in the first few lines, setting the scene or arrival at the scene. In “Encountering a Bear” from the sequence “The Deepest North”: “Facing the Sea of Okhorsk, to my right the mouth of the invisible Iwaobetsu River.” In “Thoughts of Tatamkhulu Afrika” of the sequence “Uit Mantra”: “Climbing Bo-Kaap’s cobbled streets. In Nyoongar Country’s Statue of Mokare: I’m walking down the colony’s main street.”

These clear pointers at the outset are like postage stamps marking the envelope, but the postcard that falls out has the slap of the “plain simple,” and the movie is in mute. This is the distinguishing grain of Mateer’s voice--a quiet witnessing that is well beyond sensations, coming close to purity.

“Encountering a Bear” is a typical poem from this volume, an anecdote understood by the addition of the image (which is not a bear but “as a bear,” as if removed from reality) and the poet’s response (“nor do I know I’m running”.)

The is-it isn’t-it speculations and remarks, if any, are usually about the lack of pain. In “Contemplating a Migraine,” he writes, ”But maybe I am the mountain, / and the pain, hidden in cloud, is a foreboding shrine, unvisited.” In “Of the Northern Peoples” in the sequence “The Deepest North”: “Then he’s Yamamba, the Mountain Crone, my dying self/wordlessly screaming.” The structure of the narrative is chronological and goes like this: What was to the right, what was to the left, what was ahead, where was the poet, what went on, and did the poet act, oh? curious, and a mutter.

Stripped of event-based sensations, the sensations in these poems are the place-names. Mateer imports these new textures into his map and mouth of English: “Hanamikoji-dori,” “Sanjo-dori,” “Makwerewere.” This also sets up an opposition to the commonness of his own first name, notably in “My Name is Also John.”

Encounters with the twists and articulations of the cultures encountered are through words, without immersion, seen and heard from a distance: “Did you not hear the poet’s izithakazelo” in “The Valley of a Thousand Hills,” or “Of their words all I hear is the prophet’s name: Shembe Shembe Shembe” in “The Worshippers.”

South Africa, Japan, and Indonesia are the framework around which the poetic insight--and zen--is conducted, but if you take out the framework of places and characters, what you have left is emptiness as in the epigraph below--and this is evident even without the eulogies to emptiness in the book, functioning as the artist statement: “Because there is no answer but emptiness. --Tamura Ryuichi.”

Friday, December 02, 2005

NEW! Review of Hoa Nguyen

Red Juice by Hoa Nguyen. Effing Press, $7.

Reviewed by Nikki Widner

Hoa Nguyen's latest chapbook has the same affect that small pictures on walls do. Red Juice imbues the sense of walking into a stranger's house and being fascinated by what may be revealed. Room by room these poems trace the books, interior walls, paintings, portraits, snapshots, furniture, knick-knacs, and floors. The cover also evokes a sense of the everyday, watermelon red flowers, seed, stems, and rabbit on ivory paper, which looks like remnants of a house: wallpaper, bed sheets, and children's book illustration. Each poem is this kind of familiar arrangement, small snapshots of the everyday. Visceral and urgent, they are anything but ordinary.

“Up Nursing then make tea / The word war is far / 'Furry,' / says my boy about the cat / I think anthrax / & small pox vax / Pour hot water on dried nettles / Filter more water for the kettle / Why try / to revive the lyric.”

Her lines in motion turn both inward and outward (kettle and lyric), up and down (war and furry, cat and anthrax). They reflect lists or thoughts, agile and effortless. Yet they are built with rhythmic tension, open and active. In “Up Nursing,” the rhyming patterns are stressed at the end of words and lines (“anthrax / & small pox vax”). They, like her word arrangements, are unexpected sounds and tensions, as if they are replaying an arrival.

Nguyen's lines also disrupt expectation with imaginative leaps: “I could click the Earth / with my finger spin / to continents holding a cardboard box / on my head / I was trying it ou t/ It was an invention” (“Journey with Investigative Bees”). This poem expands outward from the page, from two to four dimensions, a pop-up book folding directions. It is the journey of possibilities, specific with each beginning or with each day.

“the lake was skinned Membranes /” exemplifies a physicality rooted in the poems' space (“YESTERDAY”). It is the reader, too, who belongs in these poems, who finds familiarity in a welcoming home. The walls made of dreams, stones in small hands, gold lacquered coasters and the smell and sound of eggs cracking and potatoes frying. Or the relationship between the shapes: stones, eggs, potatoes, earth merging in the act of creation, “The muse with cookies.”

Balancing such forces as destruction and creation, the poems refuse simplistic dualities. Opening the poem through disruption, layers of sound fold into timelessness. These limits are self-imposed, weaving tiny frameworks for greater discovery. “I am she who unknots the cord / and lashes us boatless.” This is how we travel in Red Juice, boatless floating in liquid. We are written into a small frame that stills us quiet, contemplating our journey and hoping that after the last page we can enter again, soon. We carry these pictures in memory and shapes in hand, shared but often discarded moments. What we are left with is the memory from her rhymes, her pattern making.