Saturday, May 20, 2006

NEW! Review of Cue

Cue #2.2. $6.

Reviewed by Micaela Morrissette

The latest issue of the prose poetry journal Cue is slight in form, slim and modest, and it must be confessed that many of the poems therein are rather slight as well. There are no grandiose failures, no doomed but brave and wild bids for glory. Nearly nothing is truly awful, which on the one hand is a perfectly respectable quality, and on the other hand is a clear recommendation for a good, healthy shot of hubris.

Several of the poems succeed inasmuch as they can be said to have fulfilled the rather paltry goals set for them by their authors--for example, Michael Malinowitz's "Handicapping the Help." This little riff on bigotry is as amusing and light as such things can be, and it identifies itself, in a witty, polite undertone, as racial humor about racial humor, a new dilution of the presumably once-pure bloodline of the metanarrative.

An excerpt from Ron Silliman's "Zyxt" suffers from a similar sort of friendly timidity. There's nothing wrong with this poem; each individual line stands up and is counted, but the overall effect is of having been invited to dinner and provided with a meal made up of leftovers. The sensation the passage gives is of having been cobbled together from stabs at other, unfinished poems. (It's true that this is taken from a longer work, but presumably it was judged by the author and Cue editors as worthy to stand alone.) These hypothetical other, nascent poems would have been good, too, had they been written, but the bits and pieces Silliman combines don't add up to one complete poem, or even one meaningful or evocative passage, but to an additional bit-and-piece.

Michael Schiavo's "Prothalamion" has a similar kind of final effect in which the stitching of patchwork is sewn too loosely. In this case, though, the strong repeating structure of the litany of lines is enough to create a vessel that holds the piece together, and individual passages do contain overt connections or a sense of building to something utterly satisfying: "The man whom fog knows as fog. . . . The man in certain places summoning autumn. The man guarding the secret wall from whence the woman emerged. The woman emerging. The woman smaller than a stockpile, larger than wool. The titanic woman. The woman of shoals."

"Prothalamion" is the last of a group of three poems by Schiavo that opens this issue of Cue and that is among its most wonderful offerings. The first poem, "Ode," is a kind of bourgeois ecstasy that celebrates not immortality, but death deferred, not wild celebration, but swooning absence from pain. "O pornography on Sunday morning--O pineapple--the royal peasant incarnate-- / . . . / O practical resistance to impractical love--O Donald--O Constance-- / O catfish on my plate with mustard-- / . . . / O nature I abhor--O I am done with wonder-- / . . . / O location of the hidden treasure--O Eye that Sees Through the Ages-- / O my big hands and feet and O my, madam, I agree-- / . . . / O the mountains do not crumble O-- / The mountains crumble slow." Here as in "Prothalamion" Schiavo makes effective use of insistent repetition of syntax, but here the lines call out to each other and reply to each other; the echo does not bounce only from one line to the next but ricochets in perfect angles from line to line and from poem to reader and back.

The middle poem of Schiavo's contribution is quite different: quieter, darker, more delicate, perhaps even more lovely. "Romantiqest" takes place in a house haunted by angels (possibly those cast out of Heaven), and it is a brooding poem in two senses: first, it is gently ominous, softly sinister; second, it broods like a hen on her clutch, nesting, protecting a secret too fragile or too monstrous to reveal. The haunted house where the poem lives is really an apartment ("These apartments, they keep them so small") where "something dwells imfumable, lavish and pomped." There is a "billionaire at love's open door, rebuffed by the angels dining at the table / On orange-cake and sweet tea, their sulfuric arsenal unguarded." The poem ends by escaping the haunted house in the very last line, but the reader may be grateful to be still trapped behind the tremulous shutters: "Tired throughout the household, nonetheless the shutters shook. The rest of the night was silence, / A silence somewhere else."

Schiavo's poems are not the only successful ones in this issue; he is well-matched by Janet Kaplan. Where he is moving and sublime, she is exclamatory and intellectual, but each has a knack for measuring out doses of pure, addictive loveliness in small teaspoonfuls. Kaplan's poems, "Change" and "Meals," both deal with dichotomies in a manner playful, beguiling, and in the end, profound. "Change" takes movement as its trope. The invocations of Ulysses suggest that this movement is a return, homeward-bound; the repeated use of words like "lost," "fleeing," and "evaporated" suggest obversely that the movement is an exodus: "The aftermath of Gabriel fleeing, like a palette of charcoals--ashes aglow--cold as galvanized steel. . . . The surface of the moon seen from television shortly before lift-off. Ulysses is visible in Circe's mirror, fleeing the spacecraft." The dichotomy in this poem is not only between exodus and return, but, as we can see in the passage above, between art and reality. Kaplan has a deft way of understanding the real world as a canvas or sculpture, if by "real world" we mean not simply the natural world, unaffected by man, but also cities, which are manmade but difficult to understand as distinct artworks and myths, which are works of imagination but also depict historical events. As she describes the "palette of charcoals" that color the flight of the Angel Gabriel, so she describes the "accordion folds" of "rain solidified in thin metallic beams. A-line dresses and steeples, giraffe necks and raised rifles. My lost aunt, her perfect bouffant." Of "ice-slough, snow-melt, runoff," she writes: "Such control in an abstract piece. It gets darker as it moves from left to right." Or again: "organic bomber planes, zucchini flowers, captions. All of it blurry, a Seurat that never comes clear, no matter how far you stand."

This mode of description, this sort of simulated coldness and distance of approach, is put to use in Kaplan's "Meals" as well, but in that poem the dichotomy of figurative/abstract, concrete/imagined, real/art is the subject under discussion as well as the mode informing the voice. "Meals" is accomplished, wry, hilarious, intelligent, intermittently gorgeous. It plays in varying keys on the theme of that which exists as it is versus that which exists as we understand and describe it. Or, to put it infinitely better, in the words of Kaplan's epigraph from Damiel's "Wings of Desire": "To be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal. . . ." And to put it better still, in Kaplan's words: "Wide brushstrokes are meals, black and green and orange. They descend and encroach upon the blue limited place. . . . A poached egg that illuminates inward. And here on earth a light that doesn't reach the foreground and is therefore not the cause of the colors one sees in these peaches. What is the cause? The painter's mind, her own dual nature? Then there's the skull. . . . Two bowls of spaghetti. One is sharp but uneaten. The other is vanishing quickly and so the mind paints over it, actively and malignantly abstracts it. . . . How much is intentional and how much is chaos? Eggs equal gravity. Flour equals dominant subject matter. Mustard equals the disturbance, getting closer to or further from the disturbance. Wine vinegar means that the rectangle, though disappearing, is still very strong. . . Wind pushes the fork, rain sweeps away the knife. . . . The placement of the condiment is often a paradox."

There is one other unqualified success in this issue of Cue: Tony Tost's "A Game of Tennis." Tost's tennis match is played like Risk, with gods on one side of the court, apes on the other, an Emperorship as trophy, and stands packed with outlaws, fishermen, and others of the teeming dispossessed. An epic poem that punctuates the battle narrative with occasional rhapsodies and glosses it with political overtones, "A Game of Tennis" is consummate work: "A peculiar, visual game of tennis, which this is, must change. Overhaul. Is what I can call experimental myth not so different from myself. Destruction may pave the courts in time. There can only be one champ & one simple rule: apes are not allowed to know a thing about gods. . . Event of the game: not up to the ape! . . . The perfect game is the game of reconciliation; exquisite, closer. . . . Beds, meds, & affordable housing. Some details of a winning strategy. . . . Complete massacre of a defenseless people: is this not merely the game of one game refusing another game? On one side of the net, even before his real trial starts, a guy runs around. His mind is endless picture. Words confuse this territory not as outcome but as duration. Countries are ignored or deflected by an ear that has been waiting so long to hear them. Utterance-game that never replies. Game: put these philosophies together as one man, as an Emperor of ours. The game will be played by a dramatically invisible & theoretically simple Emperor (he has already lost the game)."

Tost's poem is followed by work by Karen Brennan, who's a bit of puzzle. Her first piece, "Tributes and Tribulations," suggests a sort of fragmented mini-narrative--a dinner party, a stroll in a garden, the departure of the guests--that rides on the back of a massive, submerged narrative the way a whale plunging through the deeps will cause a current to run on the surface of the sea far above it; or the way the creaking and settling of a house can be caused by unheard footsteps--innocent, predatory, sleepwalking?--several rooms away (in her words, "a whisper along the track of floor boards, creak of galoshes, as in the story where snow falls as a metaphor, covers our heads & scarves"). But her second selection, "Two Prose Poems," isn't nearly as good. The first section reads like a series of hints at experiences that ought to be shared but really are private. That sounds promising, but the way she conducts it is a dead-end: "She wore what you'd expect with a name like that. . . [T]he walrus still has that walk. You know the walk." And the second section is a series of perfunctory slashes toward tragedy, like the desultory hacking of a self-cutter who's more interested in the aftermath of scars than the immediacy of pain. The kind of despair Brennan is interested in evoking here can't be taken down in the shorthand she employs: "In the museum the boys had other plans. . . Dick said, I can't seem to get a good grip on the edges. A rectangle of sky. A triangle of roof. What means these views? . . . We have to keep doing what we're doing, she whispered. Or else we'll all die sooner than we thought." Obviously Brennan is a good writer, but she needs a more expansive form than brief vignettes to do justice to her themes.

Even Brennan's failures aren't total flops, though there are a few of those in the issue, most notably the poems of Donna Stonecipher and Deborah Bernhardt. Stonecipher has an unfortunate knack for giving a false impression of innovation by punctuating passages of banality with abstracted questions or quotations, as in "Inlay (Emerson)," which interrupts a truly mediocre meditation on snowflakes, grasshoppers, and autumn leaves with the question "Who doesn't want a little piece of the vestigial?"; or as in "Inlay (Oppen)," which sets repeated fragments from George Oppen's "Of Being Numerous" against such undistinguished examples of Stonecipher's own thought as "But which is it [the grass] doing--ruining the sidewalk, or starting a meadow?" or "And why is it then, when all one loves is flawed, one tries to make perfect things?"

Bernhardt's poems are tame little paeans to lust ("Mistletoe's no hedge--cover me, pagan. Permission's running rampant in our veins."). Her "The Kiss," however, is not the only poem in this issue guilty of the abrupt confessional about-face. By this I mean that inexcusable tendency to write a poem about themes more or less outside the poet before, in the last line, ferociously bringing it all to bear on personal woe, usually romantic, usually self-pitying, usually with the expectation of a deep profundity being thereby cast upon the poem as a whole, rather than, as is usually the case, any hint of profundity gained previous to that point being shattered and ground to bits by these sorts of surprise endings. In Bernhardt's case it goes like this: "Over ninety percent of all creatures kiss. Kissing is a landmark. Are we all programmed to put a kiss before a fondle? Glancing from eyes to lips: a Jungian kind of thing? Kiss-etiquette? The famous Klimt clasp-bodies are spun in gold paint euphoria. Doisneau's clinch is silver emulsion. Rodin's version, Francesca and Paolo, is a first kiss. . . . He did not kiss although his hands had flown down my sides like the seams of a long dress, already grazed the length of me."

Mary Ruefle is perhaps even more guilty of being an undercover confessional operative in "Peek-a-moose": "And I knew somewhere deeply recessed, 'away from it all,' the real with-it-all took place; there, in the undulating mists, a moose eating the dark green mosses was barely seen through the pines . . . all around him millions upon millions of other moose lie dead and buried, and no one ever had a peek of them (though there were glimpses) and in the glare light of the pizza parlor I chose anchovies which I did not like but seemed ancient and suffering, such small animals, and I took the pie home with me and ate it with my mouth gaping, painfully aware I was not a moose and had never been a moose and would never be a moose, but I had loved you in such an eerie and unnatural way." Moose and anchovies have some potential for interest, but in "Peek-a-moose" hints do exist, from the beginning of the poem, that they are only stand-ins for the real meat of the speaker's personal, trivial preoccupations. But even when Ruefle does not betray her themes with private sorrows, she undermines them with mannered, glancing treatments, as in "Lichen," where perfectly servicable ideas about the inscrutability of lichen, the inability to draw distinctions between living and dead or young and old, the morality of kidnapping, and the hold of bears on the imagination, are dealt with summarily and neurotically.

Mark Horosky is the ersatz confessional poet in this issue, the voyeur or interloper who pretends to be a native. Horosky writes poems about the gritty, sensual, nasty, uncomfortable lives led in suburbia, in trailer parks, in low-income urban housing developments, rife with visceral, authenticating details ("duct tape on the guitar case," "heavy metal karaoke"); and the intensity of his documentary need is awkwardly evident ("Out to make change for my laundry at the Circle K, I saw a man wrestled to the parking lot's grit. I've spat on that parking lot before. . . . I was one of those people."). But Horosky's attempt to bridge the gap between him and his adopted homes is strained, unconvincing, and nearly hysterical in its pitch ("Bleeding, a cigarette came to rest between my lips in a kitchen of bad curtains" ["On Seeing an Engagement Photo of a Girl I Used to Date"]; "She asks in a voice that cigarettes rude, could you shave my pussy? . . . Feeling the razor catch, feeling it catch" ["Mender"]).

The final three poets with whom this issue concludes are Donna Steiner, Luke Trent, and Hugh Steinberg. Steiner's poem "Light Tenders" nearly succeeds in creating a mysterious and compelling alternate or fringe existence lived on dark ships, in prismatic light houses, amidst buckling ice. But Steiner's work is undermined by her tendency toward epigrams and explanations ("A circuitry of desire; sometimes we shun what we've summoned. . . . Resistance is erotic"), which pin down and kill the strange fluttering realities, like moths, that she ought to set free. Luke Trent's "Snow White" is also almost amazing; it catalogues a few minutes, or an entire night, in the career of a mortuary worker, who is perhaps herself a corpse. It's extremely well-executed, but Trent's vociferous use of adjectives at every possible juncture muddies it up ("new dawn," "pink cursive," "soft love," "dangling tag," "well-meaning book," "scattered notes," "pasty graveyard tongue," "fiery chew," "unbendable blue," "fine, healthy cuticle," "yellow liquid"). And Hugh Steinberg's piece, "K-Series," simply fails to beguile. It plays with the idea of a strange language called "K," which can be spoken without the speakers knowing what they say (and which incorporates many other mysteries). There is something shallow about "K-Series," something obvious, as in the way Steinberg makes references to Special K and Kafka's K. ("K is not a car, not a cereal, not a drug. Nor is it a measurement. Or men in hoods, or a man from Prague"). Something like banality in disguise ("What began with sympathy meant I had to see someone who wasn't you"). Something that follows up strength with weakness ("The choice is K or swallowing your own teeth, from keeping too many secrets").

Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of individual contributions, Cue does an impressive job of gathering together a wide range of those specimens that travel with the passport of "prose poetry." These poems have broken lines, paragraph blocks, numbered sections. And the voices vary widely in their articulation and their themes, which does credit to the editors. Certainly it's worth picking up a copy of this issue for the innovations of Michael Schiavo, Janet Kaplan, Tony Tost, and Karen Brennan, and for the interesting questions posed by the less compelling contributions.

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