Monday, December 18, 2006

NEW! Review of Catherine Bowman

Notarikon by Catherine Bowman. Four Way Books, $14.95.

Reviewed by Meg Hurtado

Catherine Bowman’s Notarikon fills its reader with a profound sense of the obscure, of the million tiny, sticky acts of irreverence that constitute an individual’s window to the world. She quilts together all the minutiae that make a neighbor, a marriage, or a vacation, to name a few. Her own ability to systematize images and information fascinates her, and the book’s title reflects this fascination appropriately: “Notarikon” is a Kabbalist term for making new words out of the first and last letters of other words in holy texts.

Bowman’s gift for synthesis does not always work to her advantage. Several of the poems in Part I veer toward moments in which her abundance of eclectic imagery becomes pure sensory overload. In the poem “Persephone and the Man of Letters,” each stanza focuses on a letter of the alphabet, followed by layers upon layers of imagery. For example, the “E” stanza concerned with the letter contains the line: “Of humidity. Of day-old coffee. And fries extra-crispy.” If this association bears poetic fruit of a Kabbalist persuasion, it excludes the vast majority of readers and appears excessive to the point of self-consciousness. That the poem takes the highly artificial form of a list only reinforces this gap between Bowman’s arrangement of words and what depths it might reveal.

But in the poem “Fish with Coco: Five Havana Milagros,” she manages to array such images as “an animal eye / marinated for days,” “a raft / named Jesus,” “a colossal frosted cake,” and “a pinch / of black camino” into a cohesive lyrical unit. “Fish with Coco” also takes the form of a numbered list, but in its case structure frees lyricism, rather than constricting it. At her very best, Bowman turns those techniques which evoke self-consciousness into absolute vision. Part I of Notarikon contains fourteen poems, and all of them reflect her love of lists, letters, and numbers. Bowman divides “Fish with Coco” into five numbered sections, titled “Eyes,” “Tongues,” “Ass,” “Ears,” and “Heart.” She speckles her poem “The O Store” with words containing the letter “O,” and the twenty-six lines function as an abecedarian.

Bowman also makes use of cross-references between poems, causing the reader to wonder just what kind of intricate world of imagery and meaning they have entered via her work. For example, the first poem is titled “Heart,” as is the last section of “Fish with Coco.” Her poem “1000 Kisses” contains multiple words containing the letter “O” in every line, like “The O Store.” “1000 Kisses” also features the phrase “convulsed, crucified,” which the reader may link to Bowman’s “Jesus’ Feet,” an earlier poem concerned with the moment when Christ has risen from his death by crucifixion and displays his wounds to the apostles.

Religious and spiritual concerns in Notarikon cannot be attributed to detached intellectual exploration. All of her poetry features some degree of “religious” diction, though the poem titled “Jesus’ Feet” displays its religious intention most blatantly--not only because of the subject matter and tone, but because only in this poem does Bowman muffle her impulse to load the poem with radiant eclecticism. What imagery she does employ can be found in the actual story of Christ: “shepherd crossing the valleys,” “vinegar,” “yeasty loaves of bread,” “broiled fish, and a honeycomb.”

In spite of her ability to successfully curb her verse with traditional imagery, Bowman possesses her own conception and spirituality, as well as her own mode of description. For instance, the Eden symbolism in “Heart,” the first poem of the book, is difficult to miss. But Bowman portrays the serpent as an object of wonder rather than revulsion, betraying a penchant for the inversion of values which pervades not only her use of language but the book’s paradigm as a whole. “Heart” ends with the thought that a snake “Tastes like / hope, memory, forgiveness.”

Part II of Notarikon contains a single poem called “1000 Lines.” A strictly composed account of a ten-year marriage, “1000 Lines” boasts one hundred stanzas, divided into ten cantos. Each stanza has ten lines, with ten syllables in each line. If her free-wheeling voice in Part I caused the reader to question Bowman’s ability to function within a strict form, “1000 Lines” leaves behind all such doubts.

Almost every stanza begins, technically, with the word “ten” (Bowman cleverly begins some lines with words like “tenderness” and “tensions,” etc). Her more obscure choices, like “tenement” and “tenebrionid,” would sound out of place if employed by any less skillful author, but Bowman wields them beautifully. She gives each canto a “title” in italics--a list, punctuated by dashes, of the most searing pieces of the stanzas, or the most pivotal moments in the “marriage.” They appear random, but prove rich.

The strict form of “1000 Lines” serves not only an aesthetic, but a reflexive purpose. It binds the reader to the speaker’s paradigm, insofar as the reader must view the poem in very much the same way as the speaker views her marriage: the poem’s beginning contains its end. The uneven manner in which Bowman divides her stanzas into cantos may produce a certain amount of disorientation regarding the reader’s pace, but the fact remains that the speaker’s world of “ten kinds of limbo,” “sulfur springs,” “summer and winter and what’s / found between” will vanish with the thousandth line. Yet, like the speaker, the reader must focus on the beauty and breadth of Bowman’s language because of the honesty and simplicity of the poem’s structure. Even beginning every stanza with the word “ten” never grows tiresome. Rather, the reader becomes devoted to the inevitable pleasure and comfort that the reader will receive from her linguistic cleverness. The speaker of the poem immerses herself in the pleasure of memory free from obvious analysis--“Ten reasons why we ended. I’m drawing / a blank” and “Ten years, and I remember more about / the trees we’ve seen.” The reader, free from the anxiety of over-analysis, engages fully in the act of rapturous hindsight.

“1000 Lines” brings Bowman’s insatiable penchant for eclecticism to intellectual and emotional fruition. Her bizarre, ecstatic imagery finally yields boundless originality and beauty. One parenthetical stanza in Canto 2 epitomizes her gift for synthesis as images of “the red dragon man,” “jailer boy,” “phone sex,” etc, build to a nightmarish pitch. Bowman then ends the stanza with a mystical sense of purpose, by bombarding the reader with the crystalline nature of love: “I screamed, What are / you? He bent down and whispered, I am you!

With “1000 Lines,” Bowman has unveiled the soul of Notarikon. She finishes the book with only one poem, “Nostrum,” which composes the whole of Part III and functions as a successful sugar-pill to soothe the violence and memory of “1000 Lines.” With such an ending, Bowman exhibits the awareness of her personal strengths and honesty about universal human weakness that make Notarikon both extravagant and essentialist.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

NEW! Review of Chad Sweeney

A Mirror to Shatter the Hammer by Chad Sweeney. Tarpaulin Sky Press, $10.

Reviewed by Chris Vola

The 20 shrewd, sparse poems in A Mirror to Shatter the Hammer resonate with potential and presence, vibrate with the maddened shouts of a dozen remarkably dissimilar narrators, and entice the reader with the sagacity of an elderly carpenter and the bright-eyed callowness of a newborn. The fourth chapbook from San Franciscan Chad Sweeney grabs the proverbial hand and flings it on an exploration through cities and deserts, across the boundaries of space, and far from the realm of hackneyed conventionality.

Many of the poems in the book sting from jarring collisions between the ancient and the postmodern, the bucolic and the metropolitan. Medieval vicars and slashing guillotines are interspersed with visions of the first colony on the moon, ancient grandmothers anchor themselves onto the antennas of satellite dishes, a cigar store echoes with the sounds of growing rice and prosthetic limbs. These juxtapositions endow the poems with a sense of timelessness, of a memory that travels far beyond the reaches of any single lifetime and the clear perception of a future that is at once hopeful and foreboding. In “Diurine,” Sweeney describes a homeward trip on the freeway that quickly becomes a journey through space, time, and language itself:
My house arrives
through the internet,
its corners landing everywhere.

To be a red night
watched carefully by Bedouins.
To be a comma

between two really important

The timeless element in Sweeney’s poetry allows for a rare cohabitation of narrators (some valiant, some disturbed, some naïve, others just plain pissed-off) from a wide array of geographical locations, moral and spiritual inclinations, and even spatial dimensions.

Beneath the liberation that this timelessness creates, there exists a more important and urgent notion that each passing moment, no matter how seemingly insignificant, must be appreciated and respected. Even though the poet has been bestowed with widely spanning visions of remarkable clarity, he understands that “Today a book is being hung. / Tomorrow it could be you,” that nothing is guaranteed, that time stops for no one, not even the most clairvoyant among us. Sadly, this respect goes hand-in-hand with more than a hint of bitterness and nostalgia, a longing for a time when “we were happy,” an evaporating connection to a family history, and a quickly approaching end-time. The cigar-smoking father, the sister who burns happy faces into her arms, and scores of mustached uncles and great-uncles fade with the flick of a switch. The narrator of “Harvest Time and Whale Watching” acknowledges and quietly surrenders to this inevitability when he admits, “Most of my life is in the past. / There goes some more of it.”

Oftentimes, Sweeney employs short, musical lines that contribute to many of the poems’ highly rhythmical qualities. The vast majority of these lines contain only three or four words and many end with some sort of punctuation, usually a period. The brevity of the phrases gives each line more weight and instills a sense of sharpness and exactness to the text and the space between it, a staccato march with accents on the notes of each striking image and idea: “No closer to understanding. / I’ve seen my wife sleeping. / A blue face on a pillow.” In “The Factory,” anaphora creates a persistent rhythm:
One key is a street.
One key is a glacier.
One key is a cardinal.
One key is a bruise.

From these lines the reader can easily deduce the accurate hums and the metallic chug-chugging of cogs, the relentlessness of a strange, yet pleasant-sounding assembly line.

In a collection that glides so gracefully and succinctly through centuries, across continents, from the bizarre to the rational, the element of surprise is a constant and unifying motif. Men teach sheep to fight lions, briar patches shiver with delight, cities spontaneously rise from the sea. It is never evident to the reader from the outset where each poem will end, but one can be fairly certain that the people and cities the poet describes in the beginning stanzas of his poems will almost certainly take on bizarre characteristics or be placed in seemingly impossible situations. However, nothing is ever impossible or improbable in the world Sweeney crafts, a place where “I’m a cancelled stamp. / You’re the carpenter / of an orphanage. / She’s an out-of-order sign,” a place where the idiosyncrasies of a startling reality in some way embellish and mirror our own. Therein lies A Mirror to Shatter the Hammer’s ultimate appeal. Within the pages of the book, the reader is drawn not only to Sweeney’s characters, but to his or her own grandparents, uncles, and neighbors, to the threads of a common past, and towards a future we view with equal parts hope and apprehension.

Monday, December 04, 2006

NEW! Review of Chris Pusateri

VI Fictions by Chris Pusateri. Gong Press chapbook.

Reviewed by Lauren Grewe

In his chapbook VI Fictions, Chris Pusateri explores the possibilities for language in a postmodern, commercialist word, playing the literary equivalent of a game of Russian roulette as he flirts with the idea that language is empty, that the signs lead to endless signs. For Pusateri, this carnival hall of mirrors view of language, rather than limiting the language of poetry, opens up a whole new range of self-consciously futile exploration, as Pusateri tries to make language, and poetry, relevant for a world of supermarkets, internet porn, and composite selves.

For many readers, Pusateri’s chapbook will lack immediate approachability since he writes in disjointed, somewhat terse phrases, often connected thematically rather than through logical narratives. Indeed, some poems in this short chapbook appear to work purposefully for disorientation, as Pusateri links images as disparate as business cards, swimsuits, shirts, and rice cookers in a single poem. Yet beyond the apparent disorder, these short prose poems, mostly paragraphs composed of loosely associated sentences, frame certain themes as Pusateri searches for the deeper meaning behind that impulse buy in the supermarket line. As a poet, Pusateri delves into a stereotypically superficial world and resurrects not reverence or awe or anything religiously associated, but a sense that the “Clothes suits walk[ing] by with people in them” hide the deeper psychological tensions he articulates in his poems.

Pusateri’s poems display a marked inability to seriously consider the world around him, or perhaps he has rather too seriously considered his world. His characters (the main ones always male) view life through the beer goggles of fast-paced modern media and consumerism, coping in various ways with the modern death of certainty. In one poem Pusateri muses, “Every day the sun comes up a little later,” while in another he comments, “He decided that this year, June would have thirty-one days. Beneath his feet, he felt the year leap.” If there remains no reference point, no preformed settings in this world, then the possibilities become limitless, and, in their sheer infinity, terrifying. This view of the world complicates language, enabling it to work without purpose, for the sheer play of words, which has always been a main draw of poetry anyway. Yet Pusateri takes what many have accepted in theory and puts such ideas about language into practice in his poetry, collapsing the real with the fictional, until we can no longer tell one from the other and must admit that we impose such boundaries to begin with. Such a liberating view of truth allows Pusateri to playfully propose in his own book:
The book was unhooked, unzipped--the book was a ledger of old accounts. Beneath the flaking paint was its old haircut. The book readed a needer. The book was published by Exxon as part of the settlement. True or false: the book just wants you to listen.

Beyond sheer language experimentation, Pusateri exhibits a consciousness of the politics involved in saying anything at all, and in several instances he mocks big businesses and Hallmark materialist America. His incorporation of American capitalism through his use of advertising slogans points toward the political--or at least the aware--as he subverts overused slogans, trying to make us think about the way they operate on our lives with an incandescent beating as steady as the thrum of florescent lighting. He remarks, “Use only as directed implies unnamed consequences” and intones, “Once you cut the tag, all sales are final.” One drawback of this hyperconsciousness of postmodern, consumerist existence becomes apparent in the book’s overly constructed feeling. Emotion often feels suppressed in VI Fictions, as if real emotions could not survive an overly active self-awareness which includes so many superficial brand-name bearing voices. Indeed, Pusateri’s characters appear trapped in the superficial snow globe of their own exceedingly complex and yet exceedingly shallow lives, unable to make any decisions, important or unimportant--stuck in the volitional stasis that perhaps comes from desiring too much too often. Pusateri humorously addresses this volitional failure when he remarks, “She said he had problems committing. He couldn’t decide between chicken and pork.” With so many objects in reach, nothing really “seem[s] reachable” anymore, not an address “Euthanized with a piece of box tape,” not a book, not other people--“When socializing, he thought of the weather as his hole card”--not even ourselves. Yet this pathetic development, far from leading us to pursue other means of satisfaction, leads to more pleasure-dredging:
The savings of one dollar the coupon promised was just enough to make him buy the new product. While the product is new the idea is old. He was thirty (nearly) and through careful attrition, was beginning to consider that, while not old, neither was it young. The savings of hair (or: wrinkles, time, worry, etc) was just enough to make him purchase the new product.

But Pusateri delves into a realm beyond mere capitalist hand-slapping in his brief sojourns into an uncertainty provoked this time by the possibility of meaningful human connection. In his only vertically-oriented poem, he contemplates the connections, perhaps self-invented, perhaps not, between himself and the outside world:
. . . I wonder
if the woman in the window opposite mine is
every night performing for me. This has never
been proven by empirical methods. All my doubts
are reasonable and what lies beyond is any-
one’s guess. The hyphen is bridgework,
a simile between two otherwise intolerable
terminologies. I’m so tired of “I.”

In spite of Pusateri’s constant musings, or perhaps because of them, nothing in this book proves anything. Instead VI Fictions contains a world of postulations, sometimes delightful, sometimes acidic, always qualified within a particular consciousness. Pusateri remains cynical and highly critical of his world, giving the reader the impression that maybe she or he should hide for fear of further manipulation by the ad-inspired realm of modern social desires. Pusateri takes thoughts and desires you wouldn’t admit to having but secretly do and drags them kicking and screaming into the open, unmasking them as life’s superficial decision-makers. For Pusateri there resides little or no logic behind the wants of the average American John Doe: “Nobody orders it for the parsley, but no one would stand to be deprived.” If Pusateri’s poems offer any hope for the modern human condition, that hope remains in the ability of his characters to make fun of their situations, to recognize in their desires an emptiness and to mock that quality without perhaps ever escaping from it.

More than heroes, Pusateri’s characters are survivors, armed with “Syntactic tomfoolery, void where prohibited” with which to shape their media-driven existences if they can. Through these conflicted, self-doubting, self-loathing men, Pusateri depicts the challenges and rewards of a postmodern, consumerist life, where man as agent has become a fallacy and language as truth an outmoded shirt on an aged supermodel. Although stylistically and thematically Pusateri does not make his latest ride a comfortable one for his readers, his tricky leaps sometimes lead to insightful connections well worth the jump. Pusateri’s questioning of language in VI Fictions should challenge readers to further contemplate the medium of words, the words drawing attention to themselves as well as to the world they reenact in a way that prohibits the clear sight of windows but renders the view all the more captivating and self-reflective for the grime.

Friday, December 01, 2006

NEW! Review of Arielle Greenberg

My Kafka Century by Arielle Greenberg. Action Books, $12.

Reviewed by Alex O. Bleecker

Arielle Greenberg’s latest collection of poetry, My Kafka Century, is a constant reminder of the impact psychology has had on the twentieth century, “the century invented / by Austrian Jews, analysts who peeled back the brain.” With the advent of the science of the mind has come an unprecedented emphasis on the individual, who grows increasingly complex. The book itself acts as a disclaimer--an apology, almost--for the saturation of the self in society. Nearly all of the poems are written in the first person, yet it is impossible to pin down a single, consistent “I.” In fact, each poem is written from a unique narration, the net effect being an assertion of the individual as an intricate, elusive, amorphous whole. Greenberg weaves a dizzying tapestry, insisting on the self as a unique permutation of memories, relationships, spiritual influences, and pop cultural icons. She maintains that, amidst the “fear-sets flickering” of our media-driven age, no experience--moment, chapter, period--begins or ends discretely, but rather bleeds into the next. We are “crackers die-cut into the shapes of fish,” “craft-paper pages,” and “sprinkles of glued-on glitter”--human collages, both literally and figuratively. Greenberg deftly fashions such varied themes as Jewish mysticism, 1950’s movie stars, linguistic criticism, pedophilia, baseball, and extra-terrestrials into continuous threads that resonate eerily.

This complexity bears a tension that is everywhere in My Kafka Century. The first poem, “Ewe, or The One Who Brings Water,” scrolls the reader through traces of a broken love, where “to you: I send this missive of false / starts, half asleep, half in jest, / wholly imperfect I took the child from you.” She leaves sentences dangling--“I am as needy as. / I cannot take another demon, fatigue, or.”--asking readers to fill in the blanks with their own images, like a Mad Lib about disturbed domesticity. The last stanza becomes self-reflexive: “So here I go . . . Attach me: thread of light I have: I do not have it,” with the speaker describing him/herself as completely incomplete and introducing a tone linear enough to be sensible as wel as schizophrenically fascinating.

As no experience exists in a vacuum, the title poem begins in medias res. Stylistically, the two- or three-line stanzas all begin like first lines of a speech: “By which I mean I have come to this dark county a carpetbagger / and left it in the body of a woman”--a mixed metaphorical acknowledgement of the ill-gotten gains of Reconstruction and the process of reincarnation itself. In a Plath-like moment, Greenberg writes, “that my father’s thumping love for me churns me . . . that I wear a grudge like a brass star locket on a chain.” She is both sheriff and persecuted Jew--hunter and hunted. Like Kafka, the complexity of neurosis in Greenberg’s poetry stems from the contradictory feelings of Jewish guilt and pride--“That my life is a kind of flag for Life in General; / that I am hateful and boastful and chosen enough to make such a claim.” Greenberg slips in and out of singular and plural first-person narration, from her own lowercase “life” to “this Life we speak about can be shared,” attempting to deconstruct, discover, and define the individual’s role in society.

A genre-bender of sorts, “Folding the Bed” is a blues nursery rhyme in couplets. True to the tradition of these two otherwise disparate forms, most of the couplets contain either some slant rhyme or a refrain. A jilted, jaded lover sings the story of how her man left her after perhaps gambling their money away. As in a drunken rant, the addressee changes throughout the piece; the speaker talks to herself, her neighbor, anyone who will hear the story of her woes. She begins by addressing her man: “Bedmaker. Spoonmaker. Carpenter. Crook. / You’ve left me with nothing. My braids tied in silk.” Lovelorn, she falls to addiction and entertains suicide. To her neighbor: “I need just a knife and a pinch of your sugar. // I need just a slug of the gin in your bathwater. / I need just a tub. Just a song. Just a lick. // Make whiskey from kettle. Eat it like smoke.” Entirely dependent and unskilled, she resorts to prostitution: “I’ve taken a rib to neaten my corners. / John Murphy. John Henry. // John Riley. John Doe.” Greenberg paints the picture of a desperate, derelict woman folding back her Murphy bed, “the bed resting inside the wall” each time a customer leaves, both begging and cursing her abandoning lover to “Remember this house cause you’ll come back tonight. / Bedmaker, Spoonmaker, Carpenter, Crook.”

The title of the poem “One Hundred and Eighty” alludes to reversals. The first stanza has shades of Sharon Olds in its use of eerily organic language and repetition to parallel the experiences of being someone’s child and having a child of one’s own--an about-face of sorts:
When I become a mother,
the hole in my heart will gasp a song of old world violins.
This, like all other stories, keeps me awake: a pack of lies,
a pack of wolves, animals who make
the machine of the future, the future
into which, like a transparent silvery tube,
I will make a child. The child will be made of glass.
I will be the glassmaker’s daughter, blowing a wish
into the burning, spinning hive.

Honest with herself, she acknowledges that becoming a mother is as unlikely as a lie, however being the “glassmaker’s daughter” (that is, glass and fragile) the speaker can only have an equally fragile child of her own. In the second stanza, we encounter a forest with one hundred and eighty hypothetical paths--the right, the left, and everything in between--wherein there is “only one path paved in true blood, / the blood of what is real. / If one is real, then this is the only path one can find. / No others present themselves. / The right have no choice but to be right.” This last line works on two levels: it acknowledges the non-dualist, Buddhist theory wherein polar opposites always coexist in a thing, therefore what seems like a decision between two choices actually is not a decision at all; and it also works as a critique of the conservative, religious “right” that calls for a singular, homogenous society and attempts to deny diversity.

Toward the end of the book, “Babel” echoes the overarching theme of collage identity in the twentieth century. The poem is a scathing commentary on an issue of recurring significance in My Kafka Century: Jews attempting to mask their Jewishness. The subject of Greenberg’s critique is Dr. Ludovic Zamenhoff, the late nineteenth-century Polish intellectual/spiritualist who created the ‘universal’ language Esperanto. The poem begins “The Jew who invented Esperanto: he’s a Jew, / don’t deny it.” In the second stanza “A Jew tried to bleach his tongue, / make the whole world his pidgin so no one / could tell what he was.” Since a tongue cannot be bleached, this fails, just as “Not a bone of language / is neutral.” Language is inherently political. Any attempt to construe it as apolitical is as fraudulent as someone denying his or her own ethnicity. “The twentieth century is an Esperanto: / it was invented by a Polish Jew / and never worked . . . now we speak mongrelese.” Instead of being the great equalizer, cross-cultural diffusion has simply led to a loss of ethnic identity where the speaker has no ownership over language, “and not even half of our words are our own.”

Amidst a whirlwind of pop cultural icons from the century that was--Peter Lorre, Shirley Temple, Kate Smith, Patti Duke, President Howard Taft, Helen of Troy, Burt Bacharach, Patsy Cline, Tom Verlaine, etc.--Arielle Greenberg’s My Kafka Century is a tour de force that simultaneously seeks to assert the self’s solitude while embracing the world. It is as fragmented as it is seamless. Upon completion, the reader comes to understand that these poems are not only Arielle Greenberg’s ‘Kafka Century,’ they are everyone’s.

Monday, November 27, 2006

next issue of VERSE

The next issue of Verse is currently, finally at the printer. We'd planned for the issue to be out by October, but various circumstances got in our way.

The issue is 300 pages long and includes work by 78 writers, plus reviews of 17 books.

If you pre-order the issue, you can get it for $7 (instead of the $12 cover price), postage paid. Just send a check to VERSE (address above) by January 15.


Seth Abramson
Samuel Amadon
Annemette Kure Andersen
Beth Anderson
Jeffery Bahr
Hadara Bar-Nadav
Dawn-Michelle Baude
Priscilla Becker
Simeon Berry
Judith Bishop
Emma Bolden
Jenny Boully
Victoria Boynton
Pam Brown
Julie Carr
Maxine Chernoff
Heather Christle
Bruce Covey
Michael Earl Craig
Mary Crow
Jen Currin
Crystal Curry
Ed Davis
Xue Di
Ray Di Palma
Landis Everson
John Gallaher
James Galvin
Sarah Goldstein
Chris Green
James Grinwis
Barbara Hamby
Michael Hansen
Jerry Harp
Sara Henning
Bob Hicok
Cathy Park Hong
Erika Howsare
Nicholas Hundley
Lesley Jenike
David Krump
Jesse Lichtenstein
Amy Lingafelter
Timothy Liu
Jennifer MacKenzie
Sarah Mangold
Peter Markus
Paul McCormick
Kevin McFadden
Gordon Meade
Sandra Miller
Stan Mir
Andrew Mister
Natasha K. Moni
Schirin Nowrousian
Jessica Olin
Ethan Paquin
Peter Ramos
Sarah Riggs
Peter Rose
Catie Rosemurgy
Christopher Salerno
Steven D. Schroeder
Morgan Lucas Schuldt
Roy Seeger
James Shea
Craig Sherborne
Anis Shivani
Lytton Smith
Chad Sweeney
Brian Teare
Jonathan Thirkield
Chris Tonelli
Sidney Wade
G.C. Waldrep
Chris Wallace-Crabbe
Mike White
Emily Wilson


Joshua Beckman
Ted Berrigan
Shanna Compton
Alice Fulton
Thomas Heise
John Kinsella
Jennifer L. Knox
Corinne Lee
Timothy Liu
Ted Mathys
Thomas Merton
Sawako Nakayasu
Ethan Paquin
Muriel Rukeyser
Gustaf Sobin
George Witte
John Yau

Sunday, November 26, 2006

NEW! Poem by Kate Hall

Kate Hall


I crawled out of a war machine.
You didn’t recognize it as such, but
I did. I held it and fostered it
and fed it strange wooden apples from my purse.

To spend a lifetime waiting inside
a stick horse is to live with confusion
between hollow and hallow. I’ve lived
in this one room my whole life.

It looks a lot like outside. A tiny farrier
by the red barn in the distance. Four horses waiting
to gather us up. We cannot see beyond them.
We colored their coats

to explain the end to ourselves.
The red horse and the pale horse
and the other and there is hunger. A tiny farrier
on the horizon line. Meaning, it’s time

to crawl back inside myself. As the wind,
I’m drawing these patterns in the sand.
Accept the horse as a dangerous gift
you find meaningful. The offering

before the first burning arrow is fired
into the city. It could have been
fireworks or lightning. For my horse and me,
it hardly matters. Though it will matter for you:

how you decide to read me or
whether you do. Overnight, one horse
will gather us. The equine sternum
a drawbridge to a corporeal castle

we are plotting inside. Four horses
released on the unsuspecting city. I am the only one left
inside the warhorse I am holding in my hands.
I will have to live with him, maybe

for him. I am ready
to practice non-participation.
I want this to be the last thing I’ll ever do,
to stop here and say I’ll go no further.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

NEW! Review of Marc J. Straus

Not God by Marc J. Straus. Northwestern University Press, $14.95.

Reviewed by Karen Robichaud

As a practicing oncologist, Marc J. Straus uses his own experiences to fuel his writing in his first play, Not God. Straus’ third book explores the hope, tragedy, and difficulty of communication felt when dealing with the effects of cancer. Though Straus’ first two books of poetry, One Word and Symmetry, also deal with human reaction to cancer, Straus enters new territory by creating a play in verse in Not God. The verse is simple and direct, sharing the stories of two people: the patient and the doctor. The subject matter of the poems ranges from the everyday gossip of the hospital to childhood memories to the nervousness of a patient following an MRI. To that end, Straus also explores the progression of a patient’s mental and emotional state nearing death, bringing his new and old work together under a different genre and connecting the poems quite differently. By alternating between doctor and patient, Straus depicts the concerns, fears, frustrations, and inabilities of both parties as they struggle with cancer.

Despite the absence of medical terminology in his writing, Straus depicts an emotionally charged medical world. The patient dying of cancer grows more overcome and frightened, while still trying to find dignity and comfort in the sterile hospital environment. The first poem, delivered by the patient, comments on the white lies told in hospitals to ease the shock of one’s own mortality: “She said he was old and frail / and his kidneys failed. / It is more than / she should say, but she is kind / to differentiate his circumstance from mine.” Straus shares what he has observed from years in oncology and never rationalizes the human behavior. His honesty creates very sympathetic characters, both of which grapple with the pain of cancer. The doctor, knowing that no easy answer exists, encourages himself to “say yes--a sliver of grace in an / excoriated world.” Straus strikes a balance between the direct ways doctors must find to deliver bad news and how one, as a human, must come to terms with mortality. By personalizing the doctor through descriptions of his own memories, Straus delivers a portrait of humans desperately trying to save each other and themselves.

Using natural language, Straus focuses on the lack of control one has over cancer, which emphasizes the value of the play. Neither the patient nor the doctor ever spins out of control, but both continually grapple how to exist in a losing battle. For example, in “Reward,” the patient reflects on the benefits of knowing one’s fate, as it consoles many, but decides, “I prefer not knowing. It sufficed / to know everyone died sooner or later.” Lack of control irritates the patient and the doctor as neither has the answers. Both learn each day how to understand a world in which cancer exists. However, in the final pages, Straus becomes rather heavy-handed with his metaphor in “Brine,” which sets up a nightmarish dream, a symbol of the doctor’s struggles to cure his patients, not always successful. Because the poem reflects the struggle, the reader understands exactly what Straus intends, but in the final stanza he shifts gears and alienates the audience by treating them like simpletons:
It is like this being an oncologist, and each time
I enter the brine I try to be buoyant. I try
to concentrate on the other side but the light
glares blindingly off that little girl in yellow.

This ending causes the poem to lose the momentum Straus maintains in the previous three stanzas. Without the final stanza, Straus’ message remains clear. In other poems, Straus does not create this problem. His final words often provoke new thought or add a twist to the overall idea rather than belaboring the point. Furthermore, Straus’ poems often reflect each other, though set pages apart, and his ideas about humans and cancer resonate throughout the whole book. In both “Luck” and “Say Yes,” both patient and doctor reference the quick fix people look for in bad situations. The doctors wishes he could “answer unequivocally, / to give patients a sense of purpose,” while the patient notices the tricks people play to fool away their bad fortune, “I have this itch under my arm. I’ll scratch it twice / in slow circles and my cancer is gone.” Both “Luck” and “Say Yes” represent Straus’ ability to look at human reaction slightly differently.

Straus continues to investigate human reaction as the two speakers, doctor and patient, explore human futility in very different ways, often missing connections, frustrating both speakers. Additionally, both characters explore the idea of God in different ways. The title poem, “Not God” explores the power a doctor holds as patients preface questions with “I know you’re not God . . .” but then ask the unaskable. The doctor’s pain becomes clear, “Do you say this to your lawyer, accountant / or mother-in-law? And if I’m not God, then / ask me a question that only God can answer?” In contrast to the doctor’s annoyance and his own inability to console, the patient references God in a completely different way. In “Humming” the patient hums to his/herself and all those around him/her try to guess what song the patient hums, yet, “I am confounded by these inexplicable noises / from my mouth that each recognizes as familiar. I think / God hears them as my prayers.” The final lines of Not God demonstrate Straus’ range of thought and emotion. The simple language does not stand in the way of delivering a powerful message about human beings in a chaotic world. Just as each individual tries to create order in the world, often through a personalized relationship to God, like in humming, Straus looks for order in a world where anyone could have cancer.

The book closes with a poem from the doctor, “What I Am,” explaining how he knows how long someone has to live, slightly apologetic for his proficiency in delivering death sentences. Straus openly confronts the gravity of his profession and reveals the heart behind it. Without sentimentality, Straus addresses the fear, loss, and purposelessness his patients feel and also expresses the doctor’s feelings of helplessness. A play like Not God is able to put its actors alone in space and allow the words to speak for themselves. Straus’ Not God is filled with potential and power, making it a compelling read, but under appropriate direction, breathtaking to watch.

Friday, November 24, 2006

NEW! Review of Paula Cisewski

Upon Arrival by Paula Cisewski. Black Ocean, $11.95.

Reviewed by Kate Seferian

One could regard Paula Cisewski’s first book of poems, Upon Arrival, as the beginning of a significant journey, but she too often seems to hover around the surface rather than dive to inspect the massive potential below. Although the mediocrity of many of the poems elicits lukewarm response, Cisewski unearths a few gems in the pile of rhinestones. Her ingenuity manages to shine through some of the chinks in Upon Arrival.

The book opens with “All the Way Home,” a brilliant, pioneering piece suited for the beginning of the book because it suggests the collection’s underlying purpose as a poetical expedition and gives a colorful glimpse of the poet. Cisewski introduces herself as a feisty and bright writer who embraces her flaws as elements of a jaded perfection: “The greenfinch in me flying straight into the cracked mirror in me / The you-already-said-that in me / The firewalk: the glow, the blistered faith.” Cisewski combines nostalgia, introspection, and inner strength to create a backbone, or essential reason, for her work. “All the Way Home” spurs the poet’s, and ultimately the reader’s, journey: Cisewski performs a meet-and-greet with her audience and establishes a foundation for the subsequent exploration of her art.

Cisewski presents a collection rife with erratic and eclectic forms, an observation which lends itself to her obvious proclivity to experiment, as well as her struggle to find a characteristic niche. Each poem exhibits its own personality, and while this aspect hints at a sense of lyrical schizophrenia, it also motivates one to think that if the current poem does not evoke a strong reaction in the reader, the next page may satisfy any lingering appetite. In his review of Upon Arrival, John Deming notes that “the mania [Cisewski] is really indulging in . . . is an obsession with the notion of multifarious selves. Every person is burdened with an infinite number of conflicting impulses and emotions--indeed, of ways to finally envision oneself” (

In “My Dearest Memory” and “Origami,” Cisewski showcases an extraordinary ability to weave language with the heartache of memory and wasted chances. “My Dearest Memory,” at first glance, almost appears as two poems and quite possibly could be read as such--the two staggered columns maintain a hint of dependence on each other but still act as their own entities. Cisewski exhibits skilled control in playing the poem line by line, each one holding its own weight but also contributing to a whole. Cisewski reaches a climax in Upon Arrival with “Origami,” in which she beautifully depicts the intricacies of the what-might-have-been situations we all run into: “Something folds out in the shape of a bloom / for the pocket of quiet they guard with their lives.” These poems are what propel the reader forward as Cisewski flirts with a taste of her abilities, with what pulsates beneath the rough surface.

The book contains three sections, as the poet’s penchant for dabbling in a variety of structures can seem daunting to the reader if she unleashed everything in an unorganized fashion. One could associate the final section, which shares the book’s title, with the theme of the opening poem “All the Way Home”--the theme of the poet’s journey. Cisewski opens her final section with a quote from T.S. Eliot: “In order to arrive at what you are not, you must go through the way in which you are not. And what you do not know is the only thing you know . . .” Cisewski suggests her collection may actually act as a personal journey, but one may find it difficult to discern any destination or closure in the end; her constant changes in structure contribute to the collection’s choppiness. It is natural, with any journey, to want to achieve a sense of resolution or declaration in the end, and the poet does not deliver the conclusive note that some of her readers may desire.

Cisewski finishes her book on somewhat shaky ground, leaving the reader with “who else is not to be trusted / with language”--a stimulating and loaded question, and possibly one that readers could use against her. This question humbles Cisewski and serves as an interesting finale to Upon Arrival, but the lines hint at the instability of some of the preceding poems. Cisewski bounces between mediocrity and brilliance, sometimes floundering but also exhibiting fearlessness in dabbling in colorful, chaotic personality.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

NEW! Review of Jon Woodward

Rain by Jon Woodward. Wave Books, $14.

Reviewed by Lauren Grewe

In his second book, Rain, Jon Woodward wallows in the beauty of modern decay and the poignant absurdity of unabashed grief. A personal testament to mourning and recovery, to the stages of bereavement and the urban ghosts that follow, Rain explores the trials of modern life, quietly propelling the reader through the mental process of redemption after trauma, of a world fallen but not completely lost, mired in chaos but still striking.

Rain is in many respects an elegy for Patrick (the speaker’s deceased friend) and for the world that Patrick inhabited and that the speaker still inhabits. Woodward processes and reprocesses Patrick’s death, finding various forms within which to fit and contextualize his grief. “[I]t’s not that he died,” the speaker says, “it’s that he won’t stop / dying and reemerging fully ordinarily / through ordinary doors.” These “ordinary doors” emerge as the poems themselves, which recount the grieving process as one in which Patrick resurfaces more living than dead, at least in the speaker’s mind. “Patrick stood in a bucket / and died only one foot could fit in the bucket,” Woodward writes, “would not the body of Patrick this / bucket fit inside as the / bottle of my mouth fills / one of my head’s pockets.” Would not the ghost of Patrick fit within some shape, take some form within the speaker’s mind, so that, given substance, the speaker could face the vicissitudes of the world and “the stain” that those trivial but unforgettable acts of violence leave on the human soul.

Woodward’s short poems (never longer than a page) seem to write themselves, flowing from phenomenal reality without the mediator of reason or logic. For the most part he grounds his poems in everyday occurrences--he starts some of his poems with observations about a church down the street tolling a D flat over and over again, going to see Spider Man, strawberries and scrambled eggs. But Woodward manages to imbue these mundane events with personal and emotive (if not always cosmological) significance, perceiving the here and now not as an end in itself but as an illogical gateway to emotional recesses.

Structurally, Woodward’s terse yet mellifluous phrases flood the boundaries of conventional syntax, their laxity opening up new possibilities of meaning for each reader each time she or he interprets a poem. By leaving his poems untitled, Woodward creates fluidity reminiscent of the book’s title. Playing off ideas and meaning established in his earlier poem, which discusses fear and uncertainty over a bowl of chowder soup with Patrick, Woodward picks up in the same vein two pages later with the ending of his last poem of the section “Rain, Ocean”:
guy at a gas station

walked up to the car
began cleaning the windshield saying
as he did so Sic
Transit Gloria Patrick goes Sic
Transit my Chowder Shitting Ass

The poems’ lack of punctuation and unnecessary capitalization force the reader to engage with the poems and self-consciously make syntactical decisions that affect meaning, resulting in a heightened level of participation that causes the reader to feel like the poet’s accomplice rather than merely his audience. The poem that begins “a grown man the singer” rejoices in this ambiguity which leaves the reader with multiple possibilities of meaning:
he explains how this man
deliberately attempted to wall off
all of his anxieties by
singing about the sunshine it
couldn’t possibly work I tried

dancing at their show a
first for me but can’t
help overhearing the death stumbling
fear look at all these
idiots dancing I’m fucking surrounded

The words “I tried” could fit within the context of either stanza, leaving the reader to decide whether the desperate speaker tries to mask his own anxieties by “singing about the sunshine” or by “dancing at their show.” Either act would be a frenzied attempt by the speaker to affirm a nonexistent, nauseating optimism, through burning his retina with the bright side of life or trying to lose himself in the crowd. While Woodward enables both interpretations, dualistic logic and the need to pause for breath, may convince the reader that she or he needs to pick one possibility. But Woodward may be employing this inclusive, non-delineating syntax in order to avoid just that eventuality of decision that would splice the poem and deny the multiple ways it can work. An oral reading would necessitate a decision, just as an oral reading would necessitate punctuation, even if temporary and hazarded. However, a reading of the words on the page requires no such divisions of meaning, no such decisions. Instead, the indistinct syntax contributes to the overall fluidity of the poetry in Rain.

Throughout Rain, Woodward juxtaposes instances and employs non-sequiturs to make connections. He grasps at meaning in a world where hell and absurdity collide and eventually emerge as two aspects of the same modern reality. One poem begins with a discussion of fire extinguishers so small the speaker cannot imagine them containing anything more than chicken noodle soup. The phone rings and the poem switches to conversational form as the speaker talks to his mother, “hi / mom yeah I got it / it’s right here thank you / no I like chicken noodle,” when “the phone suddenly bursts into / flames um hold on mom.” These moments of absurdity and logistic failure hint at the depth of the speaker’s grief and his subsequent uncertain state of sanity throughout much of Rain. In another poem the speaker recounts:
. . . this morning when
I woke up I fabricated
the following nightmare you dangled
a microphone from your teeth
you were on a ledge

four stories up the microphone
swayed back and forth I
was jumping trying to grasp
it whaddya mean not scary
I’ll show you not scary

This fearful yet contained voice quietly shrieks out its terror in the middle pages of Rain, wondering all the while “at what point did the / bombs begin to fall exactly.”

While Woodward bemoans modern life, unmasking its raw and imperfect nature, his world reemerges with distinct glimmers of hope amid the failure. Working in a circular motion, the first poem in Rain reexamines these notions:
in spite of which it’s
hard to imagine it all
going to shit the pinkflowering
dogwood for example is my
newest favorite tree the decay

of what world we’ve got’s
not exactly what I’m afraid
of not now . . .

. . . what questions then to
ask for what if anything
about this coffee these fries

The speaker in Rain often despairs of life and events, but he never quits the game. He falters at many horrors--the death of his friend, decay and loss--but his sincerity reveals his unwillingness to revel forever in modern decay, to lose himself completely in his grief.

More than a book of elegies, Rain experiments with ideas of what to do with this “brutally fascinating world” of which we can only “see a / tiny part.” How then to cope with grief in a world of self-conscious absurdity? What questions wait for us to ask them, if indeed there survive questions worthy of asking about “this coffee these fries,” this world, this being? By the end of Rain, Woodward convinces his reader that human experience is more complex than grief, more varied than despair, that, by gaining “momentum” from the “depths” of suffering, humans can transcend tragedy and “hang for / some seconds in the sun,” breaching out of states of sleep as “whales out / of the ocean whales silhouetted / like souls.”

Monday, October 23, 2006

NEW! Review of Christine Garren

The Piercing by Christine Garren. Louisiana State University Press, $16.95.

Reviewed by Christopher C. Vola

In her newest and most engrossing book, The Piercing, Christine Garren showcases her faith in the exhilaration found in the overtly commonplace with 50 short, strikingly beautiful poems. Her imaginative, surprising, and yet somehow accurate reactions to routine events and objects call to mind recent collections such as James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys and Mary Ruefle’s Post-Meridian. However, unlike Tate and Ruefle, Garren’s poems rely for the most part on understatements, on calmly describing the things that all of us see to uncover any number of darkly energizing truths. In “Childhood” from Among The Monarchs (University of Chicago Press, 2000), she uses her surroundings to explore a powerful moment between a mother and her daughter:
From the tree, a swing is hung. A mallet
rests against a fence. And on the lawn, a woman gathers pecans.
I think about her all the time,
partly in disbelief, partly because she is my mother. But now it’s dusk.

The calm and momentary sounds, the familiar objects, the subtle change in the sky--the spaces in between the moment--all seem to endow the brief and apparently insignificant reflections of a child with a mysterious and captivating strength.

The poems in The Piercing begin just as innocently, often painting an objective, tranquil, and pastoral picture--a flock of geese passing overhead, rain falling through trees, two boys swimming. When read alone, these descriptions are quaint and occasionally touching, but Garren’s true prowess surfaces later in the poems when she describes her own interactions with these scenes in order to create personal, sensitive moments that lead to abrupt yet rewarding resolutions. For example, in “The Teaching,” we see a “long rectangular yard behind the house. / At dusk the birds came, eating the berries / while the olive-colored leaves blackened,” and think that we have seen this autumn scene hundreds of times, that this is our own backyard, that this is a place that merits little more than a passing glance. But Garren shows us that this small patch is in fact an invigorating jungle filled with strange trees, strangling vines and explosions, and implores us to look to “the small wildernesses of it, / the blown-everywhere leaves, as it was true / here / its ruin was its beauty.” An unlocked door, a large box, and an old photo album elicit similar responses from the poet.

In his review of Garren’s first book, Afterworld (University of Chicago Press, 1993), W.S. Di Piero writes, “[Garren’s poetry] lives in the commonplaces of life but opens into mysterious invisible orders.” Throughout The Piercing, she continually takes the reader to a world where even the most fleeting images conjure the ever-present longings of a not-too-distant past, a world where “The gulls, blanched in the dark / were coming in behind the boats--from so long ago / this has gained such force inside of me,” a world where the surreal and the rational collide with a seamlessness that is rare and, in most cases, visually satisfying. Summer grass, torn bits of paper and the whirring of a ceiling fan all serve as catalysts for the emotional and sometimes frightening confessions, for the stories that exist behind the mask of the ordinary, for the “little death beneath the clouds / that the bells fragment.” These stories are what make Garren’s latest work a stirring read. In “Break,” she relates to a deep sense of loss when “a few autumn leaves fell past us, with spots on them, drifting / over us, with a distinct departing noise-- / and we looked up / into exactly how they came, those early ones / that frightened us.”

Many of the poems’ lyrical qualities stem from Garren’s expert use of line breaks. In “Safe,” as well as in other poems, this lyricism allows her to instill a subtly driving rhythm, one that provides the reader with a sense of anticipation, of not knowing where the poem is going, but of wanting to get there:
the sound of dark rushing past us
the damp scent of darkness

the cocaine powders, the thoughts

not beautiful

In these lines one can find the music for which Garren is best known--a quiet sonata resonating possibility, desire, and an interior fierceness that drives the reader to an often unlooked-for conclusion.

Within the arrangements of this music, there also exists a sense of finality that hangs over The Piercing, much in the same way a dark rain cloud slowly expands over an otherwise pleasant picnic. Unlike the picnickers who may begin to curse the sky as its downpour ruins their tuna casserole, Garren understands the inevitability of time’s continuously buzzing machine and embraces it, acknowledging that “The exhilarating life is finished. We must accept it / this late afternoon and move / back into the rational world.” While so much of The Piercing relies on uncertainty, one concrete message is that all things must come to an end, an end foretold by such inconspicuous and overt signs as the coming of winter, a dead goldfish floating in a pond, an anchor being lifted from the water, a nervous cow before its slaughter. However, alongside this notion of fatality lies an equally salient notion of regeneration, the sense that “death must be equal to its directionlessness,” that the world is cyclical and can revert from blackness to daylight in an instant, that the failings of a middle-aged woman can be forgotten in the quiet steps of her tiny daughter.

The sparseness of Garren’s prose and her superficially simple musings make The Piercing a complex book--accessible yet densely packed, calm and focused yet completely unnerving. The book ends much in the same way as it begins, unassuming but sharply poignant: “Look, there you go. There I go--There our landscape goes as if / through a fantastical roof’s hole, the shingle pulled off, the nail off-- / our death is / flying over the city.” In a collection so plentiful in ambiguity, in melancholy and hopefulness, in arrivals and departures, one thing is certain: The Piercing is Garren’s finest work, a book for those seeking adventure and for those who have already found it in their own backyards.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

NEW! Review of Tony Tost

World Jelly by Tony Tost. Effing Press, $7.

Reviewed by Ezekiel Black

Many book reviews and blurbs enjoy describing a book in its own words. They use a quote from the book, for example, to derive some convenient insight. This method might be considered empty, equivalent to the pandering spiel found on a Historical Romance’s back cover, but it could also be considered profound. Many editions of the Bible, for example, include the section “What the Bible says about itself,” where a collection of scripture outlines the Bible’s divine authority. Although World Jelly’s introspection does not offer the word of God, it does provide a glimpse into the book’s overall project:
Words are magic
because they hang
one mystical experience
away from a crisis

Words can separate the crisis, the fight-or-flight immediacy, from a mystical experience, so one can examine the poetry held within. If words did not remove the crisis, one could not digest the situation’s poetry, like someone unable to think “I can’t wait to tell my friends about this high-speed chase” because he or she is too busy getting out of the way. Essentially, words distill the everyday into poetry, and one can see the everyday in World Jelly, as in this stanza:
Rhetorical answers
to actual headlights
in the unbroken slowing
too cold for the animals
to decompose

The headlights answer the speaker’s rhetorical question about what is in the road, and the speaker must abruptly decelerate to avoid the roadkill. The speaker would not initially think “I could make this into a great stanza” because he or she is taken by the situation’s urgency, but once the speaker and the incident have some distance, the possibility for poetry becomes apparent. Maybe this interpretation--the reformation of the everyday into verse--is coincidental, but World Jelly does paraphrase its mission again and again, like in the stanza “Small bag of the present / at the mercy of the sentence.”

The fun of World Jelly emerges from the surprising range of the everyday. The book is not through-and-through white-knuckle crisis. Although it can be heavy, some of the crisis is lighthearted: “Buoys and gulls / the rhetoric of inevitability / hits its spot every time.” If the “buoys and gulls” reference seems opaque, World Jelly does provide an insert to clarify some of the pop culture allusions, like Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, and The Band. These notes also reveal how esoteric the book is, how some poems employ anecdotes that only Tost and his company would know. For example, one poem includes the stanza “Rett has duende,” which is a game to compose the best three-word poem that Paul White, Robert Bell, and Tost play. The reader could not, prima facie, appreciate that stanza’s depth because its full significance lies hidden inside the notes. As long as the notes are present, though, World Jelly’s impermeability seems insignificant. Fortunately, checking the notes is not a chore because they contain material that is just as entertaining as the book.

World Jelly is a playful book, similar to Invisible Bride, but much less concrete. The book will suspend the reader in a pool of abstract thought, heightened by the lack of punctuation, and the book is self-conscious of this fact, adding some self-deprecating humor:
My blue rags
have some kind of power
smaller than the period
at the end of this sentence

The lack of punctuation allows each thought to bleed into the next line, each line to bleed into the next stanza, and each poem to bleed into the next poem. To aid this movement, the beginning of each poem, except for a modest initial, is indiscernible, containing no title or epigraph. This ebb and flow will lull the reader into the book’s dreamscape, where one-line stanzas, esoteric humor, pop culture, the everyday, and a menagerie of animals rule. Altogether, this book contains a strange but praiseworthy universe.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

NEW! Review of Eleni Sikelianos

The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls by Eleni Sikelianos. Green Integer, $10.95.
The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos. Coffee House, $16.

Reviewed by G.C. Waldrep

Eleni Sikelianos established herself (in Earliest Worlds, 2001) as a poet of ecstasy, that is, of sensual epistemology. The human body mediates between a sensual intelligence and a phenomenologically verifiable exterior world; poems create fields of resonance between an objective, even scientific natural world and the subjective, lyrically charged perception of the poet. The question to which Sikelianos returned again and again in Earliest Worlds was what, in such a fearfully expansive universe, might constitute grounds for hope, joy, love? In the context of Sikelianos's deployment of language--her formal intuition vis-a-vis those lyrically charged perceptions, and the generous skill at which that intuition was deployed (the inimitable formal shaping of her poems)--such questions seemed not only fresh, but also perhaps even answerable, at least in some subjectively specific way.

The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls picks up where Earliest Worlds left off. The poems of the first section of the book, "Captions for My Instruction Booklet," continue the poet's quest not only to render ecstasy but also to communicate (via that rendering) beyond the charmed circle of the poet's Blakean rapture. To quote from the tapestry-like sheets of Sikelianos's verse deprives the excerpts of the exquisite texture afforded by context. Here is a shorter poem in its entirety:

I the roses love in the garden of Adonis
I the salted fry of marguerite love, the one chamomile, the
tiny white that snaps
dancing in the gutter with funny
I reddest poppy painted in blood love
Love I the final columned crown
Ever a flower inventory wept, I dreamt
Of death, wedding flower; treading
purple will I go
Into that drowning house
With wet little lambs one-day old (amakia), white horses
(waves) lapping
at the heart-knobs
When the slave pumped the handle, and the water rose

In this poetics, nothing exists apart from ecstasis, not Science, not airplanes, not even Alice Cooper. From "The Cooking Stove Has Thoughts":
Real math shimmeringly swimming somewhere
on a plane high
above the head--Nothing

ever came from heaven, not even

your foul
mouth, child, unleashing
Alice cooper's brutal planet--Does he know the
military method
of taking an M-16 apart?

"This is a subregister of a larger field," Sikelianos writes in another poem, "perhaps / of a desert hunt with wild dogs." In rapture, even failure is beautiful: "Will I fail // in a brittle manner, like glass, or will I fail / in a ductile manner, like gold?" These are astonishing poems.

In the second and third parts of Monster Lives, Sikelianos's lush language and peculiar investment in the physical world remain constant, but the locus of the poet's voice shifts. The book's middle section, "Summer at St.-Nazaire," is a poetic sequence chronicling a season in France. Whereas Sikelianos's earlier poems had described events in space--the dilation of event (time) inside a larger, shifting theater of location and from an ever-shifting point of view--the poems in "St.-Nazaire" constitute a dilation of space within a larger, shifting confabulation of time. The poet's voice, in its role of conveying point of view, remains more constant. In the third section of the book, "The Bright, The Heavy," the focus is on neither place nor event but on the poet's own subjective intelligence: these are the most recognizably lyrical poems in either Monster Lives or Earliest Worlds, at least in terms of an "I" that seems relatively fixed. In both sections, the poet's syntax is more relaxed, more standard than before; less pressure is placed on the mechanics of the language, and there is a greater unfolding in terms of the affective content of the poems. The net result is a slowing, or calming, of the manic electricity, the intellectual rush to wonder that characterized Earliest Worlds and the opening poems of Monster Lives.

Sikelianos followed The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls with The California Poem, a book-length lyric meditation on her home state. As the title suggests, The California Poem builds most obviously on "Summer at St.-Nazaire." The lush language, the poet's subjective eclecticism, the lyric "I" are all yet present but are subject, here, to a larger design. That design is the place, or rather Place: Sikelianos's California is a cynosure, an object of attention and reverie, if at times a troubling one.

The poem, Sikelianos has said, began with lines written in a dream, and it retains a spacious, dreamlike quality. In part this is the poem's sheer length (196 pages), in part the expansiveness of stanza and (especially) line, in part the inclusion of black-and-white photographs that heighten the visual registers of Sikelianos's discursive text. The work is panoramic on multiple levels. Some of Sikelianos's frames of reference exist wholly within the imagination; othe¬rs thread the poet's childhood, or else that (peculiarly Californian) space between imagination and reality, the cinema. And then there are moments of pure collage, from history textbooks, guides to endangered species, etc. In The California Poem there is not so much a dilation of time as a multiplication of times: the poet's personal and familial histories, historical time, geological time ("A spine brought to the whole length of California was laid out like a golden wheel-veil / of cascades of oldest & largest living things and everything was crushed"). And of course what Mircea Eliade called sacred time, "the Big Time" in which Virgil and Descartes, Herodotus and Karl Malden, General Patton and Evel Knieval coexist. There is a California of the soul.

Which leaves us with the present, the contemporary moment. "Now: to let go what we knew / to not be tight, but / toney; to find a world, a word / we didn't know." This could well have constituted a charter for the ecstatic verse in Monster Lives, but to my reading it's an imperative that falls curiously flat in The California Poem. There are, to be sure, moments of ecstatic recognition:
Mob rule of toxic monarchs & desert Queens, fiery brushfoots burst forth
from parti-colored caterpillar feeding on backlot milkweed
jewelry for a ringfinger

The tobacco hornworm eyes me from a tomato plant, its threatening spike veered north

Instars of my larval life running
through poison oak & toothed coyote brush, tethered to mountainsides & falling
for the honied romance of names

But there are also moments, indeed entire passages, where the images and the rhetoric slacken, where the gesture seems too easy--where the poet's hand merely mimics the donnée, rather than drawing a tuned landscape to itself. At one early point, California is described as
all of New York, New England,
Pennsylvania, & New Jersey combined.
Laugh for the eucalyptus as an object of pity
The truth of Georgia is not to be found here in sushi dinners

but there is the dirt bike parade
in the mud behind subdivision A-3, Santa Maria . . .

There is nothing exactly wrong with these lines, except for the listless way they cycle through the standard cultural lexicon. The California Poem will eventually invoke cactus, film sets, John Steinbeck, Crips & Bloods, jacuzzis, Hollywood, LaBrea, the Spanish, Jayne Mansfield, Death Valley, condors, Big Sur, Marlon Brando, earthquakes, avocadoes, "a lot of pot," the gold rush, the effacement of Native American cultures, smog, Haight-Ashbury, Evander Holyfield, Junipero Serra, the San Joaquin, Ronald Reagan, redwoods, Lana Turner, Tom Hanks, Chinatown, the San Andreas fault—but too often in such a cursory way it feels as if the poet, in wanting to cram everything California into this one poem, was merely crossing tropes off a list. (I kept waiting for the Manson Family, the Donner Party, and/or Altamont, though it's possible I missed them in passing.) Ultimately, The California Poem is less a successful whole than a brilliant congeries of moments, some lyrical, some descriptive, some affective, some biographical. I wished for more distillation, in terms of both the thought and the language--for a more insistent precision of language, for a more indelible whole.

To say that The California Poem makes an attempt at the epic is to place the book less in a league with its Greek or Roman predecessors than with such modernist classics as Hart Crane's The Bridge and William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems and Thomas McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend. "Who is / the hero in / this dream?" Sikelianos asks at one point. In the most persistent of American myths, the heroic figure at the heart of the landscape is always the landscape itself. At the level of engagement, however, the poet's gaze is distended over simultaneities of space and time that threaten to swamp the specificities of language. "Memory can be anyone's shimmering / Albion," Sikelianos writes at one point, "bathyspheric hellhole hideout trop sevère / in such a book of sun I like too much . . ." The best of Sikelianos's work constitutes an electrifying phantasmagoria of exquisite moments. For all its pleasures, The California Poem is a book of sun the poet likes too much: she is not always able to see clearly on account of the glare.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

NEW! Review of Brenda Hillman

Pieces of Air in the Epic by Brenda Hillman. Wesleyan University Press

Reviewed by Tara Gorvine

The second book in what will be a tetrology of the elements, this collection takes air as its subject. Writing an entire volume of poetry based on a concept is a tricky business, and one that in less adept hands often feels forced. But Hillman avoids this pitfall. Air by its very nature is mutable, and hence can change identity and avoid feeling like an affected trope. Here air appears in different guises: wind, space, breath. We don’t always recognize immediately whether it is the subject, object, or protagonist of a poem. Air takes yet another form when translated into space on the page--extra space between words and phrases, odd breaks and enjambments--so that we pause after each, give them more weight, and wonder what is missing and what else could be said.

Hillman’s approach now has more in common with language poetry than with the lyricism of her earlier work. Her transition--or perhaps transformation--is that of a figurative painter who turns to abstraction. Much of it is intentionally cryptic:
When you enter the colorless
Center of the epic
If they sideways a harp
After the inlaid griffin
Into a courtyard of foam and mint

It is then a single air will spin the epic
Suffering of a little epic

Is there meaning here, or must the reader make his own? Well, a little of both. These poems demand participation. The reader is given the materials but must put them together himself. This makes for challenging reading, and some may find themselves feeling confused, possibly even alienated. Others may find in Hillman’s work exactly what they are looking for, and feel liberated at the freedom the poems achieve.

To read Hillman we must trust her. Only she knows the way through her poems; there is no guessing where they will go. Whereas lyrical and narrative verse makes order out of chaos by establishing patterns, Hillman willfully breaks sense down even further, makes an effort to avoid order. We are not able to build expectations. Her vision is fractured, refracted, dispersed by space. In the first poem, “Street Corner”
meanings grew past a second terror
finding their way as evenings, hearing the peppermint
noise of sparrows landing
like spare dreams of citizens where abstraction and
the real could merge.

Here we have a moment of pure lyricism, “the peppermint / noise of sparrows” encountering the intersection of abstraction and the real world--the method of the collection as a whole and a fair description of what we encounter in subsequent poems--lines as strange as someone else’s dream bleeding into moments of clarity and precision.

Rather than relying on a lyrical thread or narrative line, Hillman is associative. In this way she approaches the heart of her poems, coming at them from every angle, taking away the form and leaving the language, an accumulation of sense and sound. Her language is often whimsical and deliberately opaque, as if to mirror a likewise incomprehensible world. It is as if the poet here makes no claim to greater wisdom, and cannot, will not, make order and meaning out of that which has none.

In some poems the “I” feels less like a narrator than a point from which to describe another piece of the epic. Such is the case in one of the “Nine Untitled Epyllions” (“epyllion” being the word for little epic or scrap of poetry):
I am a seamstress
I have no country
So when I count our dying hero’s breaths
as stitches carrying Trotsky
south, it seems cloth
is a state though
every century changes what
cloth is.

Lines like these create and keep a certain distance. This is an existential riff, more intellectual musing than heartfelt question. Yet there is a greater sensibility behind these poems, and the “I” may turn and address us, as this poem does in the very next line:

Now you
might enter: what kind
of cloth is your
soul, do you think.

This is no idle question, but neither is an answer expected.

Few American poets these days are as forthrightly political as Hillman in this collection. It’s risky, in the sense that the polemics can easily overtake the poetry. In these moments however, her language gains force and there is no mistaking the meaning. Because such lines are interspersed and not the whole body of a poem, and because her poems change like quicksilver, these moments are an interesting contrast to the abstractions around them: “They were mostly raised in tanklike SUVs called Caravan or / Quest; winds rarely visited them. Their / president says global warming doesn’t exist.” And a bit later in the poem, enter Iphigenia, the perfect marriage of air and epic, sacrificed for wind to blow the troops to Troy. Hillman offers a compelling twist--sailors who had the wind all along:
father could have removed the sails
and rowed to Troy. Nothing makes
sense in a war, you say. Throw away the hunger and the war’s
all gone. There’s a section between
the between of joy & terror where the sailors know they shouldn’t open the sack of winds. It gives the gods more credit.

Here the language of the epic gives Hillman the perfect entrée into political territory, a conceit with which to discuss it. But what is the epic of the title, and since we’re asking, the air in the epic?
For centuries people carried the epic
inside themselves . . .
Side stories leaked into the epic,
told by its lover, the world.

In the world of this book the epic includes the gods, men and women of classical mythology. We, it would seem, are the side stories that have leaked in, our breath joining theirs.

Monday, July 24, 2006

NEW! Review of Matt Hart

Who’s Who Vivid by Matt Hart. Slope Editions, $14.95.

Reviewed by Keith Newton

The shape that many of the poems take in Matt Hart’s first book, Who’s Who Vivid, is one of dizzying self-definition. Some variation on the fundamental ways we have for defining our experience (“I am . . . ,” “I was . . .”) recurs throughout the book, determining the formal construction of the poems and revealing to us what’s at stake for the poet. From the opening lines of “Completely by Accident”--“I was in a fix. / I was sloshing with joy. / I was looking at my feet and my feet looked good”--to the formula by which the closing poem proceeds--“I am of the mind . . . I am of the gut . . . I am the shadows . . . “--Hart undertakes the urgent, frightening, ridiculous task of self-recognition, and through that process shows us what it means to inhabit our identities in a culture of mesmerizing falseness.

The subject of Who’s Who Vivid is not hard to define: the modern search for authenticity, the search for the authentic self. But, of course, it’s what we find along the way that interests us, and in those terms Hart’s journey is immediately compelling. Attributing to itself aspects of both coherence and incoherence, the book takes us through the pleasures and absurdities of our cultural moment (“Tristan Tzara . . . Welcome / to America, may I take your order”) without relinquishing the strong, consistent lyric voice that guides the poems, a voice at once cheerful, irreverent, disarming, and sad, lost but hopeful, cynical but optimistic. It is the voice of the faux-naif, but also of the faux-skeptic, with a kind of innocence that has somehow already passed through a stage of total disenchantment. Yet there is, at first, no way to know how this condition has been achieved. Does this sense of the self come, perhaps, a little too easily? A little too cheaply? It is the risk of this cheapness, in fact, that makes the book work so well, since it is Hart’s knowledge of the inherent absurdity of our search for ourselves that drives both the thematic and psychological tension of the poems. In “Poem Where the Message Trails Off,” Hart manages to evoke, in an absurdist mini-epic of losing and finding oneself in a dark wood, not only the self-perpetuating conventions of poetic urgency and poetic vision that we use to generalize our experience of identity, but also the paradoxical nature of the actual language of the self:
Once upon a time I was missing completely
and that time, once upon, was now.

In my shoes an intruder.
In my face a world of trees.

Whosoever may know these seas, row your boat out
to the meadow to meet me.

Do it soon, and do it quickly.
Don’t stop to read this, please!

The title of the book, Who’s Who Vivid, goes a long way toward characterizing these tensions--and those of the volume as a whole. Certainly there’s a kind of playfulness and light-hearted absurdity, but also a deep-seated misgiving about the relation of language to identity, an inherent refusal to give to language the capacity to identify us. Implicit in the title is the problem of how we recognize the individual self: does it operate as a question, an opening of possibilities, or as a clarification, a defining and closing off?

In poems such as “Nervous Aluminum Rabbit” and “Giant Traumatism,” Hart displays an energetic lyric mania that is one of his strongest modes. Through the force of the poems’ imaginative momentums, built on the disjointed logic and propulsive absurdity of a mind adrift in a culture already lost to itself, Hart evokes the ways in which we never cease to be called by the world to take part and--although “there are no incorrect answers,” as he writes in “Self-Helper”--to be sustained in an endless hunger to know the meaning of our experience. What complicates Hart’s writing throughout the book is that, despite his attachment to the idea of a poetic mode of candid self-expression that not only exists but is, by its nature, a condition of authenticity, he reveals a profound instinct for a satiric and parodic style that takes the materials of self-expression as one of its primary targets. The book’s final poem, “To the People Who Know Better, Let Me Say in My Defense,” negotiates this division perfectly, since the apology comes to serve as the natural mode of self-definition, simultaneously self-revelatory and self-justifying.

The poems “What’s Inside a Giraffe?” and “Letter to a Friend Who I’ll Never See Again,” each self-defining catalogues of the poet’s life, also make this conflict explicit. In “Letter to a Friend,” the act of self-definition takes the form of rendering what the poet “believe[s]”--and what he reads and thinks and feels and remembers--in a style as down-to-earth and conversational as he’s supposedly capable of, while the form of “What’s Inside a Giraffe?” is that of an actual list, answering the question he poses in the title with, in a sense, his whole life. This means, in fact, not only his memories and experiences but also all of the detritus of culture that forms his associations: “Narcissus. / Mommy, I’m thirsty. / Somebody give me a beer. / Evening caught in a parasol weeping. / Nerval out walking his lobster on a leash. / Rooftops. / Postmarks . . . / The proper method for modeling a turtleneck. / The distance from here to your mother in spots. / From there to your father in shredded coconut. / Why pregnancy isn’t an option . . . / Survey says . . .” That all the books and movies and music and TV shows and culturally conditioned beliefs and fleeting images of childhood could ever possibly do the hard work of making a self is clearly being parodied in both these poems, yet what Hart slyly suggests under the surface is the idea that without this detritus, without the accumulation of the bits and pieces of our life and thought, without the ridiculous and arbitrary nature of the culture we happened to be born into (“Completely by Accident” is the opening poem of the book), we would never come to recognize ourselves, never come to be attached to the world and attached to an idea of ourselves in the world, and therefore never come to recognize the self.

Is this an argument that the source of our authenticity is the hours we spent watching Family Feud? Not exactly. But what Hart shows us is how easily we confuse the “surface” and the “depths” and don’t think to look for ourselves in the most familiar places, for fear of discovering our inherent poverty. For all of Hart’s successes, though, the book has weak poems, which tend toward the unfocused, with touches of the sentimental, and treat the absurd more as a posture than a state of being. Because he maintains a consistent voice through the book, Hart also runs the risk, at times, of the constriction of a limited register. Yet overall this is an exciting first book, in which it’s easy to share the poet’s sense of the “ridiculous/delicious” aspects of the world. “What luck!” he writes in “Half-Empty,” “to be alive and engaged.” Or, as he puts it another way in the same poem: “Yippee!”

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

NEW! Review of Yunte Huang

Cribs by Yunte Huang. Tinfish Press.

Reviewed by Victoria Chang

Although biography does not always seem relevant to a poet’s writing, it seems essential to Yunte Huang’s project. Huang came to the United States in 1991, after graduating from Peking University with a B.A. in English. He then earned a Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo in 1999 and teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He has published several books of criticism, but it wasn’t until 2005 that Hawaii-based Tinfish Press published his first book of poems, Cribs. Tinfish describes Huang’s book as follows:
Cribs is a discrete sequence of critical and poetic probing into the manifolds of the book’s title word: ‘crib’ as a small child’s bed, as literal translation, as plagiarism, as a summary or key to understanding a literary work, as a manger for feeding animals, as confinement, as home, as a memory aid for illegal immigrants, and so on. Speaking in a forked/chopsticked tongue, the author explores translingual and cross-cultural terrains where the inchoate, tangential, and back-translational emerge and diverge to unsettle an adopted diction.

Despite the publisher’s attempt to explain what Huang’s book is “about,” it is precisely the difficulty of articulating the book’s subject matter that is at the core of the book’s intelligence. In Huang’s own words in the long-titled poem “A Crib-ute to Gertrude Stein, who, according to one critic is ‘engagingly childish’”:
what is life
“that” is

caught up
in a narrative

that goes nowhere
but now here

For Huang, poetry is not about a conclusion, an end-point that can be neatly tied into a bow, but rather it is about the playful process of language and all the discoveries and paradoxes along the way. To Huang, “what / is a death sentence.”

Huang’s book is innovative and interesting in many ways. The most obvious way is through his playful punning with language. During a reading at the University of Southern California in February 2006, Huang said: “Language is autoeroticism. It reveals itself.” Language, for Huang, an immigrant from China, is not fixed; the land of signs and signifiers is never straightforward or set in stone. In one poem, “Nearly Half of Crib Deaths Tied to Sleep Position,” Huang begins a poem with a syntactically straightforward phrase: “do you love / a cup of tea / in the afternoon,” but the meaning of such words keeps morphing as Huang prunes the phrases and rearranges words to show the boundless potential variances in meaning:
do you love
a cup of tea

in the afternoon
or do you love

in the afternoon
or just love

the afternoon

as for me
i love

the tea

In another poem, “For MIA, Made in America,” words are only tenuously attached to their meanings. In Huang’s world, words are parts of other words that have vastly different meanings. Here, “bell” becomes “belly,” “nip” “nipple,” and “yes” “eyes.” In Huang’s poems, there is a sense that everything is connected and nothing is connected:
I am
the bell of your belly
nip of your nipple
yes in your eyes
no in your nose
should on your shoulder
so in your torso…

It’s important to note one of the effects of Huang’s punning and playful language, which is humor. Granted, Huang uses language in many poems to depict more serious issues, but Cribs can be outright laugh-out-loud funny. And in a world of deeply pensive, self-reflective, personal Romantic lyrics, funny is refreshing. In the poem: “The Pullet Surprise” (an obvious pun on “Pulitzer Prize”), both emotions intermingle and the poem begins humorous, shifts into pathos, and returns to humor:
“I won! I won!! ‘I’ wins!!!
--the ‘Pullet Surprise’ for poultry,
better than lottery!
for years and years
I have pulled and tried
to get at that fishbone
stuck in my throat;
sometimes I wonder
if it’s just a tape
tucked under my overcoat
--a tape of foreign words
that ‘practical gods’ can use
when traveling
in strange countries.”

This poem shows Huang’s ability to use language for many purposes--to access and unlock the multi-faceted emotions of his speaker.

In a few cases, Huang makes his ideas regarding poetry and language apparent. “The Token Road,” another humorous pun on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” he states: “poetry is not derivative enough.” Later on in the same poem, he explains his reasons for writing:
I write in order
to pilfer epiphanies
every turn of the verse
serves as
reverse, converse, averse, adverse
inverse, obverse, traverse, perverse
but never universe
I call it nerverse…

In another poem, “The Liver Failure of Poetry,” Huang discusses the problem of the epiphanic moment in a more conventional lyric poem. He likens the epiphany to a “delivery:”
after years of alcoholism
straight shots of “the me”
or on the rocks
poetry finally delivers
having the spongy mass removed

it is a moment
of bilious epiphany
emotional enzymes released
from the hepatic artery
professionals call it a click
otherwise known as delivery

But in the speaker’s mind, nothing needs to click in a poem for it to be a poem. In this way, Huang is questioning the very notion of “a poem”:
…2. It is as though you needed some cri-
terion, namely the clicking, to know the
right thing has happened.

5. We are again and again using this sim-
ile of something clicking or fitting, when
really there is nothing that clicks or that
fits anything.

Here, we also begin to see the structural variances in Huang’s poem. There are numbers, but the numbering is not linear or logical, going from a “2” to a “5.” Part of the poem is in this prose form, while other parts are right-justified. Here, and in other parts of Cribs, Huang places quotation marks around entire prose sections, but there are no references to who is being quoted. Such floating quotations, in a sense, question the very use of references, of authority, of establishment. Some of his poems do not use capitalization and others do. In fact, in one poem called “Polish Central,” Huang points to the arbitrary currency attributed to capitalization: “if i capitalize all the letters / what will the interest rate be?” In our culture, capitalization is equated with importance, but Huang turns that notion upside-down and questions the very value of such rules by pairing capital letters with something seemingly unrelated--interest rates.

Although so much of Huang’s book is not necessarily “about” anything, it would be false to say that the book entirely lacks subject matter. One of the themes Huang confronts in the later sections of his book are those related to racism and ethnicity. But Huang does not recycle ethnic subject matter in an expected way. Many other poets such as Marilyn Chin in the much-anthologized poem, “How I Got My Name” (from Chin’s book, The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty) have already addressed such issues in a more conventional manner:
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”

Instead, Huang manages ethnicity and race issues in a wholly fresh way. In “A Foreign Student,” he uses language and punning as a frame for discussing race: “hey, behave your language / and take out the cabbage / be man, ok? or even manner / did you say you’ve lost / a tooth or truth?” In another poem, “Polish Conrad,” Huang touches on the potentially autobiographical “I” (although we can’t assume the speaker is the poet) but he couples it, unexpectedly, with a story about the Polish writer, Joseph Conrad. Huang follows the passage about Conrad with a quoted prose section that is written a very traditional narrative style:
“My grandparents on my mother’s side, for instance, used to
come over late after work and make my mother wake me up
and take me out of the crib just so they could ask me to perform
something--usually a song or poem, in either English or Japa-
nese (they spoke very little English, so naturally I was bilingual)…”

But then Huang follows this traditional narrative with a more journalistic prose passage on the arrival of Chinese immigrants to America: “They came by boats. Thousands of them, claming to be sons and daughters of native-born U.S. citizens. Paper-sons and paper-daughters….” This factual section of the poem is followed by a printed survey-type dialogue that illustrates the questioning that immigrants received, and how such answers to questions would need to match the answers of other villagers in order to receive immigration. “How many houses are there on your row, the first one?” and “When did he die?” are examples of such questions. Huang ties the theme of immigration and race issues with the idea of “cribs” by noting on the bottom of one page that the Chinese detainees relied on “coaching notes” or crib notes to remember basic facts about their villages so that their answers would match those of other detainees. Huang’s approach to ethnicity and race are entirely new and his fresh perspective allows him to re-approach a dusty topic with new interest.

One final example of Huang’s innovative approach to race issues is his use of humor, a topic already discussed earlier, but worth mentioning again in a different context. Much of topically ethnic poems are more serious. A recent example is A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, a book about an African-American girl who, in 1936, was kept from winning a spelling bee because the judge used a word not on the official list. A few representative lines: “I sit alone. / I am Job, a leper, skin / But not flesh, flesh but / Not soul, soul but not human, Human but not equal being.” Unlike Jordan, however, Huang injects his poems on similar ethnicity issues with humor, as in “Not a Chinaman’s Chance:”
One day, in the street of New York City, he was asked
by a white man who was apparently annoyed by his
exotic appearance: “What sort of ‘nese are you? A
Chinese, Japanese, or Javanese?” The famous author
of The Book of Tea replied: “What sort of ‘key are
you? A Yankee, donkey, or monkey?”

And that is how Huang ends Cribs--with humor, the humor of language, and an understanding of the role humor and language plays in the sphere of the human condition. Huang’s book is anything but simplistic, but it is anything but complicated; it is happily both and happily neither. Huang’s work is original and bodes well for Asian American poetry, avant-garde poetry, and poetry at large.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

NEW! Review of Ray Gonzalez

Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems by Ray Gonzalez. BOA Editions, $23.95.

Reviewed by Peter Ramos

It’s heartening to think of Ray Gonzalez as the latest American poet to take up from his masters--James Wright, Robert Bly, and W.S. Merwin, among others--the long tradition of the deep image. This is all the more gratifying when we realize that Bly and Wright, among the first poets of this country to name and incorporate the deep image, developed this poetic tendency in no small part through their translations of Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Octavio Paz. No less “American” than his masters, Gonzalez is linguistically at least, if not ethnically and culturally, closer to those Spanish-speaking poets whose work served as the original, mold-smashing model for Bly and Wright almost a half century ago. But Gonzalez brings to the deep image the very element so painfully missing in the work of his mentors: history. In its most Jungian aspects, the deep image tended toward the a-historical, seeking to recover some long buried universal object from the collective unconscious--some original stone or light we would all recognize, no matter the differences in our separate cultures. Gonzalez’s work never allows us to forget the striations of civilization and conquest one must break through to get to that image.

In this collection, one that spans almost twenty years and includes his newest, uncollected poems, Gonzalez’s practice directs itself toward the historical elements that force the speaker backward, illuminating the power and the transient nature of the colonial past. In “The Carved Hands of San Miguel,” the speaker begins by confronting the Christian, authoritative statue:
I stood before the carved hands at San Miguel.
They could not touch the child walking home,
so they touched me.
The carved fingers were cold and hard
and they jabbed me in the heart.

By the poem’s end, the speaker has broken through toward that original element out of which the statue was carved.
I stood before the carved hands at San Miguel.
They could not touch me, so I held them
until I could reach beyond the wrist
and the arm--the form of rock that
became the white body left behind.

Climbing up or digging down, the speaker in so many of Gonzalez’s poems begins from a particularly situated “home” in order to reach that place we might all recognize, despite our different origins.

In “Ascending the Stone Steps at the Gran Quivira Ruins,” it’s difficult not to hear an echo of Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” and yet, Gonzalez’s poems remind us over and over that one cannot confuse the particularity of home. This is not Peru but Southern New Mexico. It is only by way of a perspective--from below or from up above--that we can see beyond our particular, historically situated place. More often than not we can only imagine such a place. Reaching the top of the mountain, the speaker senses a universal clarity to be imagined, even glimpsed, but not secured:
I totter there and wait,
mountains to the north and south
threatening each other with
the black reach of a short day
when the valley below does
not catch up with the truth,
ignoring the impassable ceiling
of time I can’t reach, the ledges
above the holding place
where many died, some rose,
a few giving birth to the turning
tide that took the people away.

Translation, as Bly and Wright both demonstrated, offers poets and readers alike the chance to see the world anew. Certainly their contribution to the deep image practice depended on their ability to translate German and Spanish verse into stateside English. But, as Gonzalez reminds us through his own work, translation is only another term for transformation, new possibilities of thought through language. In this sense, each stanza in his poem “Another” addresses this multivalent characteristic of translation:
Another word for understanding is light,
as in the light that leaves the mind
and kneels over the garden.
. . .

Another word for knowing is darkness,
as in the falling bird that lands
in the green and disappears.

Combining elemental, transforming images with the kind of assertive biblical language that Merwin is known for, Gonzalez nonetheless keeps the poems particular in time and place: not any stone of any age, but this stone here. The repeating possessive pronoun in “My Brothers” reminds us that the speaker’s brothers here are not necessarily “ours”:
My brothers lie under the darkened stones.
When I wake them, they ask my name.
When I answer, they disappear
and I keep polishing the stones.
. . .
My brothers tell stories under the rubble.
When I am left out of the legend, tree roots
grow to the horizon, their underground
roads never crossing my path.

Such a separation often seems to exclude the speaker as well. These may be “his” brothers, but they are locked away, obscure, out of and beyond this particular time. In fact, throughout Gonzalez’s work there is this sense that history is the mark itself giving way to cultural and social division. Here is most of “Tiny Clay Doll with No Arms”:
Given to me by my sister as a gift,
the tiny Indian doll stands with no arms.

Received so I can raise my hands
and stop the world from getting closer.

Something has been taken from here--
a day when reaching out was death.

Something has been lost
with my own hands.

. . .

The clay doll stands on my bookshelf.
It stares out the window.

It does not have any arms.
I don’t know why it was carved that way,

Don’t know what it means, why
Invisible palms hold everything together. . .

As in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” this delicate, inscrutable object from an unrecoverable time and place nonetheless commands the living speaker in this present.
The power of silent objects, of dolls in particular, is a familiar poetic conceit: we see this not only on Rilke but in the work of many of the deep imagists as well. Charles Simic makes considerable use of such images. But in Gonzalez’s use of these silent objects, he is able to both include and question the presence of an historical, ethnic connection: the Indian doll points to a Pre-colonial past of what became the modern Americas. While the speaker feels responsible for preserving this object, compelled to hold it up at the end with “sweating hands,” he/she cannot read the significance of the object’s lack of arms, cannot understand what the doll is trying to say.

Again and again, Gonzalez’s verse positions the work of history itself on a particular speaker in a particular time and place, marking the transformations that separate. But such transformations also give rise to new possibilities. A once obliterated past might return transformed, as in “The Head of Pancho Villa”:
The rumor ran that the head became
the mountain surrounding the town.
Others said it was the skull that sat for years
on the highway west to Arizona.
It was true because my grandparents lived there,
told their children the skull glowed
on the roads, until my grandfather died
and his family returned to the other mountain.

I see the head of Villa each time I drive into El Paso.
It rises off the setting sun as the evening turns red.
By now, I am convinced the eyes are open, the hair longer.
After all, the moon is enough when I turn to take a look.

Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems plots the trajectory of Gonzalez’s work in the last twenty years. As the current and latest heir to the deep image practice, Gonzalez corrects an oversight of the earlier practitioners in so far as his poems remind us of the consequences of ignoring history and its effects. These are poems that repeatedly present us with a speaker who struggles responsibly to make something in the present out of a vanishing, hardly conceivable past.