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.