Friday, March 31, 2006

NEW! Review of John Olson

Oxbow Kazoo by John Olson. First Intensity Press, $12.

Reviewed by Matthew W. Schmeer

Since Christopher North first coined the term in his essay “Winter Rhapsody” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1831, writers and critics have argued over what constitutes a prose poem. The modern take is that the genre is coiled in tension created by what the British poet Nikki Santilli calls the intersection of “the axes of poetic and prosaic language.” And, Santilli adds, the prose poem should be brief, because tension increases with containment. Thus, the prose poem demands an imposed structure, and more often than not that structure has been the narrative--however loosely a writer cares to interpret. Narrative is the underpinning of lived and imagined experience, and taking a poetic approach to narrative discourse means the writer must balance the prosaic and the poetic so as to clearly display the difference between poem and paragraph. This definition might seem loose to the casual observer, who perhaps would apply Oliver Wendell Holmes’s line about obscenity to the form: we know it when we see it, or more accurately, hear it. This idea of the aural quality of prose poetry is what ultimately separates it from dry, commonplace prose. But there’s more to it than simply writing rhythmic prose.

In Oxbow Kazoo, John Olson, to his credit, often relies upon the poet’s skills of synecdoche, cacophony, onomatopoeia, assonanace, consonance, and other aural elements. But the volume, the author’s fourth collection of prose poems, also illustrates a tin ear for the structure of prose, and this ultimately reveals what’s wrong with too many writers’s approach to the genre. Too often, these pieces read like minor treatises on their subjects masquerading as prose poems; Olson’s attempts read like poor stream-of-consciousness imitations of Gertrude Stein. This is not to say that Olson doesn’t have flashes of insight. But these are often buried in blocks of dense nonsense. Take, for instance, the brilliant punch that misses its target at the end of “Sweet Fever”:
. . . The telephone rings. It’s a credit card company. Tell them to send us a credit card immersed in leeway. Let’s order a box of cogs and build a cognition and move it around with tongs. Or tongues. Or tom-toms. Or tokens. Tornados and trout. Translucence and trowels. Transcendence and tops. Tarpaulin and tone. Tone is where the moods unlock. Tone is the hum of five hundred volts. Tone is the bone of the button of being. Tone is the timber of timbre and the pi of the punch of topaz. Sympathy density wax. It is the summer of our discombobulation. It is the sparkle of consonants stiffened and still and heavier than air. Ad-libs and egrets. Women’s apparel and a few exuberant pesos of blown glass. Is there really such a thing as loose change? The recession makes it all seem pertinent. Language is to consciousness what seasoning is to soup. I feel engorged with prognostication. There is a paste of the past called memory and a glue of the future called reach. Movement sternum and suede. Nothing is given. Everything is made.

All the wham-o, right-on-target lines about tone lose their energy when he kills the mood with the nonsensical but alliterative “sympathy density wax” followed by the cheeky allusion to Richard III. But even worse, he stops to explain himself (a habit Olson ought to avoid) with a line right out of the now-discontinued SAT verbal section: “Language is to consciousness what seasoning is to soup.” Yes, it is the most lucid idea in the entire piece, a gem tumbling in a steady stream of babble, but it indicates Olson lacks an understanding of how chefs carefully layer and combine seasonings to enhance the taste of a dish, not render it unpalatable.

To better understand Olson’s problem with how prose poems should taste, try these opening lines from the last poem in the book, “Writing in Light”:
One can write the word light but in writing the word light does the word light light up? Does the meaning of the word light correspond to the actuality of light? I say yes. I say when the word light is written the word lights up. So if photography means, literally, writing in light, writing in light must be an actuality. But a photograph always disappoints. It is never the moment we experienced. It is only a weak visual representation of a moment isolated from its gestalt.

Writing a poem that contains a declaration of intention damns the poem to failure. Olson’s pieces often suffer this fate. To indulge in a mini-discourse on semiotic theory in a volume of poetry is just bad form (even if it is at the end of the book).

Individually, some of the pieces have their merits, especially the early poems that feature Arthur Rimbaud as a central character. But on a whole, the book is a mess. This perhaps is the central problem with Oxbow Kazoo: it seems good at first taste, but upon closer scrutiny it’s a spoiled broth.

Olson’s pieces here lack that necessary seasoning, that ingredient that unifies and completes the dish, that holds everything together. He has not imposed an overall structure--linguistic, grammatical, or otherwise--on his prose, but instead relies on the shock of juxtaposition to carry the day. This is a different and weaker approach than other current prose poets such as Eric Baus or Noah Eli Gordon, who create temporary alternative grammars that carry their work, or even Ray Gonzalez, who tends to layer word-sounds in anaphoric patterns. Instead, Olson merely zigzags and crisscrosses, substituting adjective-noun pairs or noun-verb pairs in faltering attempts to surprise. The results are spectacularly unsatisfying.

NEW! Review of Mark Rudman

Sundays on the Phone by Mark Rudman. Wesleyan.

Reviewed by Daniel Sofaer

Readers expecting a mood of ease and hominess, of a quiet Sunday chat on the phone, will soon encounter something more intense. We learn early in the book that Rudman mostly dreaded his mother’s phone calls, which rang shrilly on a green phone at exactly 10:47 AM. In fact, most of the mother-son conversations in the book are face-to-face conversations, and this is all to the good, since Rudman is a kind of lyric dramatist, and his mother’s character impresses us most in person.

Though this book is the last volume in a quintet, it stands on its own quite well. Some of the poems present Marjorie directly, in some we catch glimpses of her, while others are still more remote, but linked to the story of Mark and Marjorie by themes like shock, displacement, the sense of violent attack: “In my mental world, someone is always attacking me.” Rudman also intersperses the poem with lighter pieces about his childhood and youth.

Hovering over the characters of mother and son are the tragic figures and sublime unsteady language of Medea and Hamlet. Rudman spins a metadramatic megafantasy, in which these two greats face off without bothering too much about Gertrude and Jason. Rudman lets in Medea by including a poem inspired by the Abbey Theatre fall 2002 production starring Fiona Shawe, at the climax of which Rudman heard what he renders as a “horripilating electronic screech.” Hamlet comes in a little later, once mother and son get to talking.

What most moves me in the book is a courageous and sometimes desperate effort to find common terms, common ground. Mother and son have come to live in different worlds. They speak very different English. Rudman isn’t afraid to represent himself, the character in the book I’m calling Mark, in a somewhat unattractive light, as a bit of an aesthetic snob. For instance, one feels while reading it matters a little too much to Mark whether his mother has read Jane Austen or the poems of Blake, whether she knows Latin. This self-representation amounts to a self-reckoning, even an atonement. For his mother wins out in the end, and the poet Rudman wins too by rescuing her words from oblivion. Also, in the end, he does find common ground, common language, and proves to all concerned that his mother did authorize him to be a poet, despite never having conferred on him the official title.

One artistic thing Mark learned from his mother was concentration, trance: “When she played [a record], she listened.” And as she later remarks, “I know about trances, why do you think / I did all that painting, gardening, swimming.” When she finds him listening to her copy of Ella in Berlin, she tells him that what he is hearing is called scat. “I adored the name like a key to an earthly heaven.” And Rudman is careful to transcribe: “da da da da dee dee dee deed um dad um dad um da da da da . . .” They could discuss “Walker Evans’ Depression period,” go to museums, and in her letters his mother presented him a calmer, more verbally masterful self. They also share a psychological incisiveness, a hatred of phoniness, and a sort of feminist protest at the stupidity of the men around them, their unfair advantages in life.

When Marjorie gets older, this side of her gradually disappears, and Mark experiences more of her rage and compulsiveness. He is also disappointed by the fact that she takes no interest in his son Sam. It is grim but funny that the only question she ever asks Sam, and only when told to ask him directly, is “Do you eat anything other than steak and noodles?” But the way his mother speaks in her rages is also close to poetry, closer, perhaps, than Mark’s proper diction. There is something ludicrous about Mark’s “She must have intuited that because I was little I would like the diminutive fowl.” Compare the bluntness but also the playful metonymy of one of Marjorie’s mantras: “I married one bottle and then I married another bottle . . . I didn’t know that Rabbis came with bottles.” Elsewhere, Rudman manages to juxtapose the voices of son and mother in a single line: “you unsheathed your spite and penned / a vicious missive about ‘two skuzzballs, human slime . . .’” But my favorite of Marjorie’s dicta has to do with her brother-in-law, Mark’s uncle: “Mark, Jack wasn’t a fake. He didn’t have to play mind games or lay on the charm like Sidney. He wasn’t a talker, he was a doer. It was he who introduced the idea of aptitude testing as a business.” That’s the beautiful humorous note that goes back to Delmore Schwartz’s “America, America.” It doesn’t matter that aptitude testing is now soberly questioned by readers of the Times. Marjorie is talking about the life she has seen and lived. As Schwartz’s story puts it: “She spoke always of her own life or of the lives of her friends; of what had been; what might have been; of fate, character and accident; and especially of the mystery of the family life, as she had known it and reflected upon it.”

NEW! Review of Stephen Burt

Parallel Play by Stephen Burt. Graywolf.

Reviewed by Mike Smith

Writing on Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell observed that “it is impossible to comment on him without the humiliating thought that he himself could do it better.” I feel similarly about reviewing Stephen Burt’s Parallel Play, for I first became aware of Burt through his work as a critic and scholar. But perhaps this is suggestive of the kind of poet Burt reveals himself to be in his second collection. Like Jarrell, Burt the poet shares much with Burt the critic: the speaker in Parallel Play is, with few exceptions, the author; the poems are often in second-person (the reader as conversation partner or eavesdropper); Burt’s voice is discursive, witty, precise. There is a satisfying tension between the topicality (and topical language) of these poems and the subtle use of more conventional devices, not to mention the considerable intelligence evident behind them.

Despite the book’s title, the favored moment of these poems is the twilight of contemporary American adolescence rather than toddler-hood. Often, the poems evoke and comment on instances of stubborn persistence in the face of stubborn persistence, the plans that should not work but do, the imitation product that is “‘funner,’ a customer says / agreeably, ‘than the real thing.’” It’s the formality of the precisely placed “agreeably” that sticks with you, not the young customer’s misuse of language. The characteristic stance is the ironic “Us/Them” of, say, high school theatre groups who watch the spectacle of the Oscars for the camp, not the clothes.

Burt’s connection to Randall Jarrell is stronger than the happenstance that they are known equally as poets and critics. Burt has authored a book on Jarrell and collaborated on another. Aesthetically, they share a great deal, and, in places, Jarrell’s presence becomes almost corporeal, as in “Rachel Newcastle: Diptych: Girl and Diary”:
She balances her journal in one hand:

The trouble is, when you’re not anything
You think you could be all kinds of things
And then you choose. And then you are one thing
And nothing else is you--the other things
You could have been aren’t yours to keep or say.

Is it possible not to perceive “A Girl in the Library” behind the blank-verse (though Burt’s iambic pentameter is much stricter than Jarrell’s) and occasional rhymes, the speaker’s literary voice charmingly sympathetic to its subject “Half-lost in the large world of settled things”? More often, I see this affinity with Jarrell through Burt’s preference for female speakers and subjects, basketball players, and kittens. However, Burt’s female subjects and speakers are all heroes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not the unhappy woman of “Next Day”; a professional basketball player so good she plays by her own rules, not an undergraduate sleeping under an official rulebook.

Parallel Play is divided into four sections, and poems of personal history bookend the collection. The second section is devoted to poems about NYC, the poet and his companions as tourists. The third section continues this theme of traveler, but also includes some overtly political poems that are the least achieved in the book. The experiment of these poems is whether or not the poet can master, for his own purposes, the mode of spin practiced by our current administration, in which reasons and justifications do not matter. Or, if they matter, it’s only for their usefulness as catalysts to further action. For the most part, Burt masters this mode of discourse without paying many of the predictable costs. And it’s a brave move, requiring an odd mix of looseness and certainty, though sometimes in these few poems the voice becomes too familiar, the well-meaning friend who repeats the same conversation over and over again, earnestly fighting fire with fire, as in the sestina “Our History,” which begins: “What else can I say about my country / this country where the worst of the evildoers / win popularity contests, and the poor / crowd into the army.” But I’m being unfair. Even within this third section, the successful pieces outnumber the poems I’ve been describing. “The Road Builder” strikes a different note entirely: “Nothing is spared. / The prayerful, seemingly rickety high / Radio towers let the wind beseech / Them.” Such poems recapture the voice of the first two sections of the book and its nearly endless capacity to surprise and to fulfill.

The last poems of Parallel Play recapture this voice as well, and they also return to the territory of the first two sections, further proving Burt’s considerable lyrical gifts. We also get in this fourth section a decent dose of Ekphrastic verse, that well-lit room in the house of poetry in which most contemporary writers spend some time and into which some even move their bureau and bed. I admire Burt’s choices, Gerhard Richter and Franz Kline, but I’m even more impressed by the poems that respond to other literature, such as the expertly rendered, wicked, and funny “Six Kinds of Noodles.”
you, too, been trying to keep up with John Ashbery?
Every time I check there’s another new book,
another entry--entrée--on the menu
from which I seem to have ordered my whole life . . .

The familiar forms present in Parallel Play are structural more often than metrical and achieve their effects through off-rhyme, assonance, and even greater stretches. I suspect that the same aesthetic impulse that lies behind Burt’s preference for non-metrical, historically pseudo-serious forms such as the sestina and villanelle (or his remarkable “Paysage Moralise,” in which the same word ends each of the poem’s thirty lines) lies, also, behind the attempt to recover the possibilities for ironic earnestness buried in the language of American commerce and politics. The villanelle I have in mind is “For Lindsay Whalen,” WNBA basketball player. It’s characteristic of Burt to choose a form of evident strain to convey observations like “You don’t show off. We know you by your moves / A feint, a viewless pass, a perfect tease / Make space for all the skills that you can use.” Then, later: “--Win or lose, // Such small decisions, run together, fuse / In concentration nothing like the ease / We seem to see in all the skills you use, / Till someone wins. Then someone else will lose.” Burt’s not showing off either, since so many of the poems point out the consequences of action and performance. Above all, this book is courageous work.