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.