Monday, April 30, 2007

NEW! Review of Dan Chelotti

The Eights by Dan Chelotti. The Poetry Society of America, (1 of a set of 4) $30.

Reviewed by Emily Hunt

The puzzle of death his architecture, Dan Chelotti has created a kingdom creased down the center, energized by sparrows, rain, and circling wolves. The Eights, composed of four multipart poems, begs extensive devotion: one, two, even five readings are not enough. Lines such as “there is something orange about every woman” and “you are the kingdom that sweats from my eyes” echo long after the reader stumbles upon them for the first time. These “words spun to ignore the dying” put readers in a trance comparable to the writer’s own hypnotic state: “I must follow the eights for the eights want me to follow.”

Once the reader soaks in the array of resonant images in The Eights, he or she begins to notice Chelotti’s methodical approach to structure. In a significant number of his lines, he uses a word or phrase twice. In these cases, the second half of a sequence mirrors the first: “Be done with it. Be done with it. / Look for clouds and see clouds.” For Chelotti, “folding [is] a given.” He speaks of a “dead father made of father,” a “rat-filled hut / That says from every song emerges another song,” and a desire to “carve a man from another man.” This recycling directly relates to the writers’ interest in the circle: “I’ve spent many years attempting the perfect free-hand circle.” Reader, writer, and poetic figure are subject to such loops. A recurring image of wolves orbiting a fire determines the pace of this collection. One naturally thinks of vultures circling the dead, of seasons blooming and melting, and of a man traveling the curve of a question only to find himself back at the launch of its dissection.

Chelotti “refuse[s] the world its right to be flat.” He finds doors within doors, questions inside answers. Unfolding this mystery he’s named “the eights,” he recognizes that to believe in something is to let it go: “I have an idea / And it dies whenever I say it. / I have you. You live even when I’m quiet.” Chelotti looks for the dead in small mumblings of the living, in “deer sniffing around [an] outdoor toy train setup,” in sheep chewing on grass until the green leaks out of it, and in the shadows that dirty the world. He detects that the losses he cannot see weave their way into the objects that surround him. Someone out there is dying now, and now, and within the completion of each of the speaker’s circles around a “dust-ridden bowl of oranges.” The energy left behind by the dead subtly replenishes pieces of his environment that had gone limp, still, or silent. In the fifth section of “An Anthem for Three Thousand Voices,” the “runners say they grow stronger / when the river claims another tooth,” and at the moment that “another powerline drops . . . a small boy with a stick suddenly rules their world.” Such brighter minutes stretch readers taut, remedying the sagging that ensues with the news of death.

At times, Chelotti speaks bluntly, and through raw confessions the reader grasps his exhaustion with recurring loss:
I’ll tell you: it’s easier this way
Because people die and I hate that.
Because people pretend to love death
And even the sparrows laugh at them.
I hate them more than I hate the dead.

He asks for two graves--one in which he can bury his fear, and the second in which he can lie next to it. These poems do not tire the reader, despite their bleak subject matter. If anything, the reader extracts fuel from Chelotti’s striking language; he or she cannot help but spread the little book wider and return to its opening image of a sliced, “steam[ing]” trunk to take on “the eights” once more.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

NEW! Poem by Doug Ramspeck

Doug Ramspeck


The argument, I think, was over medieval bishops
using a mace instead of a sword to circumvent
canonical law admonishing against the spilling
of blood. Or about the term fin-de-siècle
and the origins of “sweetypants.”
And then about what chemical can be used to burn off
a single layer of your skin or the way the words
sex and mockingbird are not interchangeable
but could be if only we’d agree
to start saying, “Look at that beautiful
sex singing from the shagbark tree,”
or, “I mockingbirded her good last night.”
Which is not the same thing as whether
a mace can bludgeon and maim and kill
without shedding a single drop of uncanonical blood,
which is not the same thing as whether
great planetary system makes a promising
metaphor for love, which is not the same thing
as whether there is more beauty or horror
in the enormous chandelier of human bones
hanging from the chapel in Sedlec
in the Czech Republic. All there was was argument.
And then, later, we heard a mockingbird
singing from a shagbark tree.

Friday, April 27, 2007

NEW! Review of Amanda Nadelberg

Isa the Truck Named Isadore by Amanda Nadelberg. Slope Editions, $15.

Reviewed by Benjamin A. Mack

In Isa the Truck Named Isadore, Amanda Nadelberg introduces 63 fictional characters doing things like bombing donkeys, cooking peacocks, and drinking motor oil. Each poem in this alphabetical collection is titled after a character whose eccentricities are described satirically by the narrator. Because the narrator often tells the reader to reread previous poems for greater effect (e.g., “Gwenda,” which reads, “Go back to school / and read ‘Ceridwen’ there.”), a back-and-forth movement transforms Isa the Truck Named Isadore into a sardonic interactive experience. Coupled with Nadelberg’s continuous use of subtle language twists and delicate wit, this strategy parodies American culture, society, and religion to an end both refreshing and warranted.

Despite recently relocating to rural Minnesota, Nadelberg is a Bostonian at heart. Bean Town sports and Massachusetts politics become recurring themes throughout her work and sometimes serve as foundations for national comparisons, as in “Sanna”:
Massachusetts will be
the president of this
place and we will all
be honest with such
beautiful teeth and
a sense of water. It
makes you honest I

This poem addresses the 2004 presidential election, and through Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign, Massachusetts is personified as being “honest.” On the surface, the personification in the poem glorifies Massachusetts. Yet the narrator also possesses a quirky satirical tone that lacks political consequence and focuses on Kerry’s “beautiful teeth” and “a sense of water,” thus critiquing the superficiality and jingoistic nature of American politics.

A unique poetic structure contributes to Nadelberg’s quirky tone. Free verse, skinny lines, and indefinite line breaks mark each poem. The free verse allows for quick changes in subject while the lines and line breaks subvert the reader’s expectations, as in “Bean”:
Inside this small
place I can
love you. Let me
wash your hair in
the bathroom sink and
make you a glass
of water with many
cubes I promise they
will fit.

Each line possesses no more than four words, and the subject changes quickly from washing one’s hair to fixing a glass of water. The indefinite line breaks introduce additional uncertainty into the poem and make the narrator sound aloof and light-hearted.

Nadelberg’s tone and style are the source of her wit, which becomes most evident in portrayals of American pop cultural icons. For instance, in the book’s first poem, “Adelaide,” she writes:
Was walking on
her own street when
a bird flew in
to her forehead
like to Fabio
on that roller coaster
when he came out
all bloody

Unlike Fabio, who is “mad” as a result of the unfortunate occurrence, Adelaide is “sad.” She lacks a mother who can “clean up [her] head.” The narrator expresses adoration for Adelaide’s outlook on life as opposed to Fabio’s in the poem’s final couplet, “this is why I love you. / This and this and this.” This juxtaposition portrays Fabio as unappealing and mocks his popular icon status.

In “Wilberforce,” Nadelberg goes further in mocking American society’s embrace of pop culture--in this case, Miss America:
Miss Ohio
became Miss America
last year, back when
the pageant still had a
talent component. . . .
Miss Ohio sang a song
About Drew [Carey] living in
Iowa as an Amish person
and the audience loved
it and the judges loved it
even more.

From Nadelberg’s description of Miss Ohio’s talent, one immediately recognizes that talent is not needed to win the Miss America pageant. Without the validating aspect of talent, those who embrace the Miss America pageant are mocked and portrayed as being easily amused.

Nadelberg also satirizes Christianity and Judaism by pointing out the misuses and illogical aspects of each faith. In “Emmy” she writes:
Let us pray
for a safe journey of a few
bumps. I can see straight
into the ear next to me a good
inch and a half into this man’s
head. Fabulous. Truly. Just
send it all to Jesus.

In this poem, Nadelberg exaggerates the concept that Christianity will solve even the most insignificant of our problems. She directs a similar tone towards Judaism in “Kaapo”:
Jews bury quick.
Good to the body.
Theo died in the
morning and was
buried the next one.
My uncle sat with
him all night. Jews
keep the dead company.

Together the poems undermine religious tenant and practices, taking them out of context. As a result, certain practices sound harebrained or deranged.

The frailties and foibles of the human condition are revealed throughout Nadelbergs’s Isa the Truck Named Isadore. Using interesting perspectives and an unconventional style, she demeans those aspects of society and culture that many hold dear. Society’s idols and society itself are made to look absurd. According to Lisa Jarnot in her introduction to the book, these societal shortcomings are the “things that make human beings special” and are a result of our “constant effort to make sense of the materials of the world.” In other words, these shortcomings are unavoidable. Nadelberg’s light-hearted satirical tone does not distance the reader from this, and in the process serves the reader a fresh interpretation of Americana.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

NEW! Poem by Eric Pankey

Eric Pankey


Ark of river stone.

Ashen residue of straw.

Attic dust, cellar damp.

Calabash adorned with cowries

A conundrum, a compendium.

Corrosives that free an image.

Dried seed heads, boluses, antlers among the tangled roots.

Dusk pinned down on a stony draw.

Folio volumes of maps and anagoges.

Gaps in the narrative where coincidence enters.

The half of speech that is the listener’s.

Joists, beams, floorboards.

Loams and siennas.

The lure of light.

Models of earthly and heavenly palaces.

The moment’s spur.

Nest the wind picks apart.

A pause, a rest, an impasse.

Sound of waters coming together.

Stupa of rain.

Sufficient repetition to suggest endlessness.

Thrown voices, thrown shadows.

Tool-marks on the overgrown knots, char on the crossgrain.

Tress of hair.

Vectors and quadrants.

Verdict written in sand.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

NEW! 5 poems by Anya Cobler

Anya Cobler

Five poems


The breadth of this pile of pollen-drip day-
lilies, spread open to the sharp world, to
any passing genocide that may shut,
the wind pulling its parts out to rot at
the base of Earth. The man who they grow out
of, his arms not containing their full break;
he’s wash in talk about how for years now,
all he’s done is try to keep the outside
in, the outside in. He’s lost in a for-
gotten heat, ‘cause the two lost arts is dent-.
istry and house-building, as I am blown
over in his purple skin, repainted
by a sprint-flower that walks away now,
walking away from the bust, see ya babe.


You change, babe (pour chercher) velocity
will rip holes in grids. My behind stairs/fares
sliding down the hips of scree, hill by road
by works in the city. . . and then a green
paper plane in a red back. I hid my
breath in the dark V of its bend. I avenue
a future/tree-lined. Your bowels are deep &
open & sleek. and hunger by night. Who
knows the rove from Chauncey, the street-throbbing
wink-down plan-me: a tv screen tongueing
me knees in the floor. What that she bore is
just the deep parts of something very large.
Don’t whurry. One in droves and droves. Heard thru
the door, the wheel, wind, mills the night, heards, birds.


It was me and you in the terrible.
Old man black cycles past in his pyja-
mas thru the sleet or we cut him knees down.
But Jove is a river rat who finds the
floating pimps, sprays out not a letter, not
a pardon for the miserable life, a
howling dog in heat during your flood blank
night. You haf so joy, that when you laugh the
chord is quite sad; in Aug when it shines most
leperously, a thousand no-emit stars
show up out of boom town. Darken the gal-
lows, pray together away for their free-
dum. O my you. We did divorce my head.
His rat hole opening squats for a lid.


This red dress decorates me, it bleeds in
encloses, like the Tanzanian flag.
This corresponds to her and the hour of
flight, orchid black of tomorrow, a break
liberation, her flight picture: what you
have counseled me to do I have not done.
The green shrouding most poured I’d ever toughed.
Says mother, an anvil is always pierce-
ing my bladder, I shall not return o
seasons o silence like peace castles flees,
o hands in the man in the streets feeding,
which treats me so badly as I walk by
as if with a sword, as with skull raised I
should see the crust teeth white of tomorrow.


I made hen in the hoor lay, in my hoor
lay. Why am I output? A trail of my
mark mews about, then shrieks midday while do-
ing nothing. Mye ash do naught while I with
hoor lay, of thor, the horsehair pinks-a-pinks.
A-fore, lady, a-toon. Mind’s led you a-
loon. Was it from the nut. The wisdon of
nuts? From the boar--I lay in the hoor. I
lay as if a hoor. A heart-don tips tips,
cuts the muscles to their sin. Harbor the
sin-made hert in her moor. Moor. Moo. Not I,
not I count heads. Not nopevein. Watch her neck-
vein moo as the story, as the testi-
mony. Leaves her more talented than live.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

NEW! Poem by Graeme Bezanson

Graeme Bezanson


All my closest compadres were named for Idaho
which was named for nothing. Eleven set out west
to the mountains planted on the horizon
like a row of cattle's teeth. Ten gathered their clothes
above their heads and swam to the east
and the school bus shaped island. I wandered
from village to village with one boy to carry always
alongside me two liters of Coca-Cola, one boy
to follow me everywhere with a short-handled spade
to bury me with, wherever I fell.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

NEW! Review of Robert Lopez

Part of the World by Robert Lopez. Calamari Press, $17.

Reviewed by Leigh Murphy

In his first novel, Robert Lopez leads the reader into a peculiar “part of the world” on his own terms. The novel itself deals with the everyday actions of the narrator, from renting an apartment to buying a used car. However, these tasks become yard sticks by which one must measure the narrator himself and his sense of reality. By the end of the novel, the reader is forced to question the validity of everything the narrator has said, as a new, obfuscated yet elucidated reality begins to appear.

The narrator reveals himself in a piece-meal fashion, immediately declaring that, “Sometimes I know the particulars when asked, but I just as often forget.” In this way, Lopez brings the reader into an unnamed, vaguely described place in America. (One can only assume it is America, as the narrator, who is himself unnamed, differentiates himself from a proclaimed female foreigner because of her use of typically British colloquialisms.) The narrator depicts his own part of the world in a series of oppositions throughout the novel. He observes other characters, and remarks on their part of the world in contrast to his own. Certain “parts of the world” are described with simple statements such as, “Where she is from the women admonish the men for being perverts.” Rather than describing his surroundings to the reader, the narrator seems preoccupied with diction, and the story becomes intertwined with, and eventually inseparable from, these anxieties: “Imposing is not the correct word in this instance, the proper usage. This is the second time imposing has been misused. But I like the sound of it, accentuating the soft vowel sounds.”

As a reader, one is at first concerned for the narrator and wonders how he survives, as he is plagued by strange daydreams and an inability to pay attention to anything other than himself. In this way, he resembles Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger. The narrator’s mantra--“Almost nothing has anything to do with me”--becomes superfluous as the novel progresses. The reader sees that the narrator is unable to relate to the outside world in much the same way as Meursault, through his fumbling interactions. His familiar apathy is also illustrated in his statement that, “Whenever someone tries to explain something to me I get lightheaded and fall down.” What distinguishes him from Meursault, though, is that this apathy does not seem to be intentional. While at one point he states that sequence is of no importance, he later expresses his belief that “Certainly someone was responsible for it, for all of us.” Similar contradictions can only mean that this character is not determined in his beliefs, as was Meursault. Instead, it appears that the narrator is simply unable to comprehend others’ feelings and attitudes. Moreover, he acts disgusted by what he cannot understand. Especially troubling is his concern with the so-called Teardrops: middle-class, overweight individuals who seem to make up most of the population. While this indifference bordering on contempt appears symptomatic of some mental defect (e.g., “Choosing something from a take-out menu can induce anxiety, even paralysis. I have gone without more than once, have gone to bed without my supper”), the narrator remains self-aware, assuaging to some extent most of the reader’s concerns. Also comforting are his relatively functional relationships with a neighbor and sister, though they are functional only from his viewpoint.

The structure of the novel is patterned around repetitions. The narrator repeats himself, nearly word for word, on several occasions. Each time he does so, however, the passage takes on a new significance both within the narrative and to the reader. As the work progresses, the reader begins to question the veracity of the narrator’s account. There are holes in his stories, and each time he repeats them the details change. While he admits this occasionally, and states that he does not intend to deceive the reader, this does not provide any sense of confidence. Instead, it increases the reader’s concern for the narrator’s functionality.

At the same time, the narrator begins to refer to his health problems more frequently. What begin as allergy pills eventually morph into some type of medication that results in sluggishness, drowsiness, and confusion. What at first appear to be idiosyncrasies begin to suggest a more dangerous, innate problem with the narrator. He can no longer distinguish his own present from fiction and memory. The narrator’s repetitions begin to take on new meanings. “When the phone does not ring is never a problem,” a seemingly innocuous statement insinuating that the narrator does not like to answer the telephone, ultimately leads the reader to see that the narrator is paranoid and anti-social, or worse. The repetitions of certain passages, word for word, acquire new meaning when the narrator changes the subject of the descriptions. He describes his neighbor, with whom he has a sexual relationship, in the same words as his sister. He describes the neighbor’s car in the same way he previously described his own. The reader begins to question everything he or she has just read, and wonders whether the other characters were ever real at all.

Part of the World is simultaneously accessible and complex. Lopez chooses each word carefully, giving the novel a two-tone sense of superficiality and depth. The repetitive structure gives the reader a distorted perception of reality, parallel to that of the narrator. The banalities of everyday life are reconceptualized as fascinating, important, and complex through the eyes of this equally mesmerizing narrator. The reader must come to a conclusion at the end of this novel and decide for him/herself whether or not to believe the narrator: a refreshing literary technique since the author provides balanced evidence for numerous conceivable endings. Ultimately, Lopez gives the reader the unique opportunity to determine reality in Part of the World.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

2007 Verse Festival Introductions

Andrew Zawacki

Introduction: Peter Gizzi / Andrew Joron / Elizabeth Willis

Verse Festival / Thursday, March 29, 2007 / Mercury Art Works, Athens, GA

-itsy / -antsy / -ing / -oid / -ed
-ology / -ocracy / -onomy
-ation / -ality / -archy
-obic / -etic / -ectric / -ency / -istic / -esse / -esque

These are a few of the lyrical, laconic, lapidary sounds that Peter Gizzi makes in the second of two title poems from his latest book, The Outernationale, while “Standing,” as he puts it, “at the corner of nth and twilight.” Partly suffix and partly self-sufficient—that is, part part and part whole—these fag-ends /slash/ ends-unto-themselves seem to me a fitting way to open this poetry festival, the poem being what, among other things, celebrates the life of words, however mutated, mutilated, or mute. Characteristically plainspoken but elegant, Peter Gizzi seeks, despite all ruptures, “to be complete inside the poem / To be oneself becoming a poem,” “that one day / we might find ourselves lit up.” But not so fast: for poetry is likewise mourning, the cry of an existence that, as the hyphens in Gizzi’s litany of terminations indicate, is at best a half-life. For language, especially poetic language, inevitably standing in for reality by erasing it, to replace with a parallel real, finds itself not only present, as matter placed on a material page, to be manipulated or measured, but also transparent, absented from the reader’s immediate awareness. As a visible, tangible medium, poetry is awake as its own message, and elegizes the thing it signifies, singing a song of itself over the object’s open grave; but as a forgotten, always already posthumous word, poetry eulogizes its referent by effacing none other than itself, keeping quiet so things as they are can speak. In the shorthand of one of Gizzi’s titles, the word, like any corpus, is “Bipolaroid,” with “continuities, gaps.” The fractured once-were-words, or words-in-waiting, scattered throughout Gizzi’s poem—gathered into alliterative and associative phrases of two, three, or four elements, like a verb being conjugated, or a noun declined—are at once dead in spirit, we might say, and alive to the letter. They call out to be completed, but they can also make a go of it alone. As “broken tiles,” to quote another poem, as “sine and cosine,” as both “written speech” and “barely legible,” these crippled but nonetheless breathing bodies arrive “almost home.” Allergic to teleology, then, but nonetheless ambitious to function in our actual world, among human being, the poetic word is, on one hand, revolutionary, a mode of revelry, what Gizzi calls a “Protest Song,” poised anarchically at the outer of the nationale, like an American word with no foothold in France, or a French word unwelcome here; while on the other, poetry is a form of respect (or what we might term reverence), a mode of knowledge (or revelation), and a conduit of dreams (or reverie). The Outernationale makes me think of these things, for it stakes out the frontier not of a poem wherein a fugitive ‘we’ might hide, but of an ‘us’ in which the outlaw poem may remain at large. Across his several poetry books, from Periplum and Artificial Heart through Some Values of Landscape and Weather and this year’s volume, Gizzi offers us a poetry that is as compassionate and communal as it is turncoat and torn-from: “Confetti in April / Confetti in May,” he writes, “This was the last party . . . Bird, enough of your trill.” Gizzi is concerned with the “tink tink” and “Clank, I love you” of language; with the “Ça va?” and “everyday sprecenze” of speech; with the “A is for knee socks” and “O stymie dewy” and “H I J K L banner” of our alphabet; with the “Whoa, Saturday. / Whoa, morning” and “Dear Saturday, thank you” of our ordinary time—but never for their own, lonely sakes. “When I asked what happened,” he says, “I meant what happened to us?”

Andrew Joron is not alien to poetry as the perfumed word, both a rose in its own right and a sign that only signals a further flower. As early as his debut poetry book, Science Fiction, he has been revolving the Mallarméan bouquet within his mind and heart. In his most recent volume, he elaborates this meditation on the mirrorlike traffic between “rose” and “eros” to embrace yet another anagrammatic form, “sore,” thereby returning poetry to its primordial status as pain, as a wound that will not heal or even close. Indeed, we cannot help hearing in the book’s title, The Cry at Zero, an exhilarating cacophony of open channels: zero-degree writing, for instance, and its effort to strip the author of any authority; Dickinson’s “zero at the bone,” her figure for an afterlife of interminable dying, that is, of writing itself; Ground Zero, a placeless place where many of Joron’s most poignant, pressing, responsible remarks on American imperialism are situated; Zeno, who plied the paradox of the halving of halves; the Greek letter tau, often an abbreviation for zero, and also the title of Philip Lamantia’s ‘lost’ poem, to which Joron feels an affinity; and “O, the grieving vowel,” as Joron names it. Joron has staked his poetics, not exactly on the Heideggerian privilege accorded to etymology, but on the hunch that any word is likely the harbinger of other words, whether by homophonic vibration or unexpected coincidence, and that often words appearing to collude in fact collide. Dedicating his book to the late Bay Area writers Lamantia and Barbara Guest, for example, he appropriately conjures “lament” and “ghost.” Elsewhere, though, as when he interposes a colon between “rending” and “rendering,” Joron indicates not equivalence, or even valence, but opposition: to render, of course, is to give, whereas to rend is to sever; so while they seem to share the same root, what the former joins together the latter sunders. Consciously deploying what he calls, in reference to Jacob Boehme, “a musical chord of morphemes,” Joron is far from merely playing semantic games. “Where language fails,” he argues in his opening text, “poetry begins.” For Joron, poetry is the emergence of a Cry that, while composed of language, nonetheless constitutes an emergency for language, which cannot contain it. Poetry is the part that overwhelms the whole. “A poetic impulse,” Joron avers, “will cause the system of language to exceed its own boundary conditions, and to undergo a phase transition toward the Unsayable.” Steeped in the pre-Socratics, in German philosophy, and in the Surrealist hasard objectif, Joron espouses a poetics most indebted to the post-structuralist tradition that has attempted to think the impossible relation between a restricted economy and its exception: for Joron, poetry claims a radically disruptive role, akin to that leveled by the “Autrui” of Lévinas, say, and the “jews” of Lyotard; by Bataille’s “free expenditure” and Blanchot’s “scandal”; by Barthes’ photographic “punctum”; and most recently, by Jean-Luc Marion’s “saturated phenomenon.” Like the human body, our most immediate site of self-disruption, poetry is non-dialectical and non-identical. Bearing out the “structured randomness” so frequently his theme, Joron has organized his so-called “Selected Prose” as a cross- or perhaps non-generic work, wherein essays, book reviews, and even a personal letter are situated alongside ‘prose poems’ that had appeared earlier, in Fathom and The Removes. This is further evidence, if we needed it, that poetry, at once urgent and insurgent, is “the Opening to Otherness” by which we, in turn, are opened.

“We are living in an era,” Andrew Joron argues, “. . . of the convergence of science, mathematics, and poetry.” If that’s true, then we have, among other writers, Elizabeth Willis to thank for it. Science has impelled her art from the beginning, in the guise of thermodynamics. Her first book, Second Law, set decimal to decibel, claiming in the sharded minimalism of her title sequence, “No meaning was before there was a night / No mention before there was Divide.” What was scattered throughout Second Law has been newly bound, as if by gravity’s tug, in her most recent volume, Meteoric Flowers. Yet even its dense prose poems, however compact in rhetoric and thought, are perforated and internally fissured: partly literary and partly “unfixed by science,” their words Willis’ own but their titles taken from Erasmus Darwin, they will not decide between the prose and the poetry that constitute their duality. The title says much about Willis’ style and investigative methods. Whereas a meteor hails from afar, hurtling down to earth from outer space, a flower moves up and away, growing from the inside of the earth toward the sun. From a human vantage, the meteor is vatic, and can harm us; the flower, like us, is veined: “We’re only clay,” Willis writes, “blossom machines.” One is hard, comprised of astral bits broken off from something larger, and rushes headlong toward its destruction, unique insofar as it will never be heard from again, while the other is soft, composed of tiny organic elements, and flourishes slowly before fading—only to return the following season. The marriage of meteor and flower, like the strange harmony proclaimed in the title of her earlier book, The Human Abstract, is Willis’ way of saying that poetry is singular—and plural. So she is sometimes given to lyrical glissando, à la Wallace Stevens, whose epigram, “A poem is a meteor,” provides the book’s epigraph. “What gives, or gave, to get us here, what wired fluorescence?” Willis asks in “Rosicrucian Machinery.” Her answer, from elsewhere in the book: “As luck conducts the inner man, a trumped up art will fly beneath the wings.” But Willis is also pragmatic, demotic, terrestrial, socially and politically savvy: “America owns the moon,” she ventures, not entirely hyperbolically, and “We all live under the rule of Pepsi,” in “the garden of western expansion,” walking around as we do, daily, in Rutherford, or Gatorville, or Brownsville with its flying flag, or Sweet William, Virginia. Whether “at the edge of L.A.” or “the edge of Venice,” according to Willis, we are “living in a desert of bolted-down things,” where what is “public,” she warns, “can’t be protected.” Not surprising, then, are her several elisions between “idyll” and “Idly,” as though America’s relative peace and prosperity were also the surest sign of its doing the devil’s work. “Among the lower orders,” she muses, admonishing the administration, “a W is sibilant.” Trying to negotiate “a careful avalanche of we and they,” while “The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun,” Willis crosses over to the side of the verb, capriciously but with total conviction, transiting and transforming all self-centeredness by speaking from Whitman’s Texas-sized mouth, by trying to discover “how dirt thinks,” by “joy[ing],” as she promises, “to dream / a more fortunate planet.”

Introduction: SÉbastien Smirou / Jena Osman / Olena Kalytiak Davis

Verse Festival / Friday, March 30 / Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA

When a direct object is suddenly asked to become the subject of a following sentence, but is forbidden from relinquishing its role at the end of the earlier, transitive phrase, something confusing and probably uncomfortable happens to our sense of agency and orientation. The story, such as it is, starts to unravel quickly. When an adjective is unwittingly separated from its noun, an adverb from its verb, a pronoun from its antecedent, and when the candidates for any one of these referents are plural, it is literally unclear who’s who, what’s what. When a quatrain tries to become a painting, by converting its words as if into image, its margins into full-justified frames, and when a series of these aspiring tableaux, hung meticulously side by side, shows a book trying to morph into a museum, the onlooker is obviously at a loss for how to proceed through this would-be Uffizi. And when a wealthy Italian statesman, art patron, soldier, and lover tries to live inside the French language, he finds that his currency, as it were, is no longer current. I don’t know, of course, whether this was Lorenzo de Medici’s experience of the Renaissance world, but it is certainly the experience any reader has when facing Sébastien Smirou’s appropriately titled Mon Laurent. In his book, the whole universe may hang in the balance of the tiniest of words. “ayant appris une future rémission des étoiles,” begins the fourth stanza of the eighth and final section, “les médecins / regardent . . .” Laurent is dying of gout, so the court astrologers consult the stars for advice. On first take, the sentence—if one can speak of sentences where there are no capital letters, no punctuation other than parentheses—seems to say: “having learned of a future remission from the stars, the doctors look around,” as though the medical entourage had divined, from the stars, a lessening of Laurent’s malady. This would be a relief, not least for the sick man himself. But there is a second order to the ‘same’ phrase, and it offers information that bodes as ill as the previous version’s promise: “having learned of the stars’ future remission, the doctors look around,” where what is at stake is a pending remission of the stars—their fading or disappearance. Grammatically treacherous, Smirou’s line locates the fate of Laurent, and hence of Medici Italy as such, within the single, seemingly insipid conjunction, des. Nor is the welfare of only one man, one country, or Europe suspended. Just as children of the Copernican revolution were learning that the universe had never revolved around them, despite their illusions, so too does Smirou’s des encapsulate a celestial dilemma: either human proficiency can continue to interpret the heavens, to discover therein its salvation, or else the stars themselves are growing dim, receding to where we will no longer have any access, leaving us to our own, insufficient devices. This is the classical abruptly declassified—but not declassed. Mon Laurent is an elegant, funny, often sad meditation, as concerned with physical arrangement and fractal symmetry as it is with perplexing semantic eccentricity and ruminations on matters philosophical, political, and sentimental. Constructed according to a 4 x 16 x 8 pattern—of lines per stanza, stanzas per section, sections per book—with the gaps separating individual words rendered as regular as possible, Mon Laurent is a mélange of traditional format with an un-constricted modern idiom. Smirou’s emergence began a decade ago with his appearance in the Revue de Littérature Générale, a massive magazine-anthology that detonated on the contemporary French poetry scene, throwing the collective gaze toward new aesthetics and revised ambitions. As founding editor of the micro-editions rup&rud, Smirou once published Peter Gizzi, and he has since been earning an increasingly serious reputation among several innovative American poets, including Cole Swensen, Stacy Doris, and Susan Howe.

The demanding, multifarious work of Jena Osman is an ongoing exercise in displacement. The first thing to be stretched and snap is any conception of the poem as a self-contained, lineated verbal artifact, complete with beginning, middle, and end, and written by a single consciousness. Indeed, many of Osman’s projects are not ‘written’ at all, but are rather curated, coordinated, given space in which to circulate as an interactive collage, in which text, context, and numerous para-texts all border one another. Among the many elements that work together in Osman’s arenas, be it harmoniously or, just as often, through cacophony, are citations, sometimes attributed but often not; handwritten manuscripts, notably Dickinson’s; Supreme Court rulings and other juridical and political memos, including sound-bytes culled from press conferences; images, whether static and pictorial, stolen from a book of gestures, say, or else projected, such as those we’re about to see on screen; phrases whose typeface bolds, enlarges, until suggesting billboard copy, before slimming down to 9-point font, as footnotes, endnotes, asides placed literally at the side of the page, so that suddenly what appeared to be peripheral comes into view as the central concern, pushing the ostensible subject to the margins. Hermeneutically suspicious, adamantly pitched against anything smacking of uniformity or received wisdom, none of Osman’s operations is identical to its neighbors; instead, each ports a logic and a logistics tailored to her present preoccupation. Her writing provides the perfect example of texts “conditioned,” as Andrew Joron has said about someone else’s poem, parts of which were published in Osman’s journal Chain, “but not controlled, by the application of rules,” in which “formal constraint serves as a propaedeutic for the poetic imagination.” The formal constraint of Osman’s “Memory Error Theater,” to take an example from her recent book An Essay in Asterisks, involves a legend, or key, containing a 3 x 7 grid. With each cubicle corresponding to a planet, a copyeditor’s mark, and an abstract idea such as “relativism” and “the question,” the sequence proceeds to open each of those Pandora’s boxes like a computer file, in order to address the slippages of personal and historical record, particularly the way in which memory is invented, edited, revised, changing over time as the remembering agent changes. Ostensibly similar in its consciously hypertextual layout is her 16-page “The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist,” from her first book, The Character: different elements from the table communicate logarithmically with small poems. But as Osman’s note to the text makes clear—although text is obviously a word not wide enough to accommodate what we’re talking about—the activity of reading “The Periodic Table,” as published between two paper covers, is only to experience one of the who-knows-how-many permutations and combinations made available by her parametric experiment. Osman’s ambition is to refuse deciding for the reader what and how to read, and in printing the poem she brings us up against the limits of ‘the book,’ with all the potentially sinister connotations of that phrase. The result of Osman’s ‘poems’ is not to interpret the aesthetic, social, and political spheres in which we inevitably live, although her work makes overtures that direction, employing ‘multi-media’ strategies precisely to critique the perniciousness of news and how it’s fed us. She is too mistrustful of the readymade version, too skeptical of anything that would claim to be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” to want to impose an orthodoxy on us. Instead, suspending anything remotely resembling a full-proof interpretation, what Osman wants to illuminate is the act of interpreting itself, from its procedures through its consequences. For all the formal virtuosity and singular deformations in Osman’s repertoire, it’s that last that strikes me as imperative to her work and why we need it: consequence.

“Hence sordid bullshit, leave me the fuck alone.” Like everyone who’s read Olena Kalytiak Davis’ latest book, shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities, I feel the basic human urge to say that line aloud, preferably in front of a roomful of students. Explicitly ironic and explicitly explicit, the invocation mimics the rhetoric of a seventeenth-century sonnet while making no bones, obviously, about its gen-X expletives. And that, according to Davis, may be the very rub that gets irritating: the methods for negotiating the sentimental life that we inherited from poets and lovers of the past are no longer operational, and instead of fixing them we get pissed off, or hurt, when they break down. Davis seems to wear her emotions, her baggage, her dirty laundry, and even her wariness on her sleeve, if not “hanging // down / my deepest cut / shirt,” but that is likely just subterfuge. Her self-reference is a front for a more deeply ingrained self-irreverence, and it leads her to solicit the protection, or at least the presence, of someone else: the Reader, the Lord, you. For it may be, via litany or profanity, that one of these folks can forgive her. But absolution is hard to come by when the confession itself is a lie. “i have never told anybody / about the time i i i / slept with three guys at once,” she admits in “keep some stuff for yourself,” “cause it never happened.” Brandishing a sexuality more volcanic than veiled, Davis is a teller of tall tales and of tales below the belt. To wit, she is less interested in old wives’ tales than in young—perhaps premature—wives’ tales and also ex-wives’ tales. “i have decided that we do not want other people’s . . . husbands,” she writes to a friend, “as we do not want our own.” The question of fidelity has always been on the loose in her work. Her first book, And Her Soul Out of Nothing, contained a diptych of dueling poems, “In Defense of Marriage” and “Against Devotion,” a dilemma to which her more recent book contributes a lyric called “to love” and another called “poem convincing you to leave your wife.” She even fears—or feigns to fear—that her own reader will leave her, for an Italian mistress. The site of all this anguish, of course, is the heart, and Davis is desperate to understand how and why it gives itself, or is taken by force; how it cracks, withdraws out of shyness or spite, betrays or is betrayed; how heavy it is, and how light; how necessary and unwieldy. No amount of bookish consolation will offer any solace, as when she invokes the famous dictum about the heart’s reasons, only to tell Pascal to “shut up!” The speaker of Davis’ poems is indentured to first-hand experience, often leading to disastrous results, as we might expect when a “freakèd heart” is married to a “prosthetic soul,” both of them housed in a body that loses first its virginity, then its vanity—before deciding to sport them both once again. Davis is the Ukrainian-rooted, raised-in-Detroit lovechild of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a strange offspring when you think of it, he a Jesuit and “time’s eunuch,” she refusing to leave her father’s house. But as parents they imparted a good deal to their daughter: a diction that manages to be both stringent and baroque; a tempo turning ever back on itself; an obsession with salvation and the general oh-shit of the self; a fraught rapport with nuns; a predilection for spring; a valedictory outlook, often self-lacerating, even kinky; and the incredible incapacity to make up her mind. “So far,” Davis writes, “Anti- / Thesis and then, maybe, a little thesis.” But there is also this contrarianism, and a frequently unrepressed anger, and a confusion of love with lust, which makes me think that the father was actually John Donne. “Reader Deaf and Reader // Dear,” beware: something dastardly, something bastardly, is among us, and she introduces herself as “sir olena kalytiak davis.”

Monday, April 02, 2007

NEW! Review of Joseph Lease

Broken World by Joseph Lease. Coffee House Press, $15.

Reviewed by Emily Hunt

In Broken World, Joseph Lease scrambles for self-definition in a deliberately muddled composition of “shiny cars parked in a lot” and bits of broken mirrors, “red buds” and “torn strips of city.” This collection of poems, awash in political overtones, leans on potent imagery to address the corruption of a country once “blank, blank, blank.” Lease tosses text from hand to hand as if it were a solid object; with the repetition and reweaving of single words and phrases throughout the book, he tests the weight of these tools, looking for a way to sculpt an understanding of his identity, inherently colored by America, his home.

Broken World, sufficiently dappled with white spaces and room to reflect, lends itself to a reading in one sitting. Lease’s poems are as vulnerable as they are demanding, as tentative as they are assertive. He asks and tells, gropes and glues. By Part Two, which is composed of twenty-six individual poems that share the title “Free Again,” the reader finds him or herself digging through the contents of a man split open, spilling words.

The structure of “Ghosts,” Broken World’s first poem, signals for readers Lease’s concern with the limitations inherent in words: “the word for dawn / is others / the word for light / is freefall / the word for hand / is others.” The rhythmical piece reads like a man out of breath trying to spit out meaning. Lease has written down these phrases--given them some sort of physical body and enough space to breathe--so that he, like a painter gauging the accuracy of his composition’s proportions, can step back and look at them to decide if they hold true. "Ghost" ends with “nothing,” open and defiantly blank, dangling against a background of airy white.

“Broken World,” the poem to which the collection owes its title, initially gains momentum in its painting of America’s portrait, only to fall back into this naked place, “blank as glass” and “erased by snow.” The repetition of “won’t be” delineates through negation, while phrases like “America equals ghost” lend definitions ultimately void of certitude. By “Soul-Making,” readers discover that this deceptively empty space holds a man, “bodiless and bright,” whose “soul is like a green used car . . . an old drunk king, a patch of ice.” America, then, becomes a nesting doll of ghosts, stacked and stacked with the spirits of men and his objects.

Time and time again, Lease examines the interplay between authority figure and subject, teacher and pupil, superego and ego. Referencing paintings that resemble scratchy lessons on a chalkboard, he speaks through “Cy Twombly” to readers as if he were encouraging a group of curious students: “you are getting it and you are getting it / here or there or somewhere.” The speaker (or teacher) himself searches for a gem of recognition, for “thick ropes of light” inside his words. Later, “Little Lightning Bolt” introduces a recurring “Simon says” theme. As readers we are puppets, hands on our heads, hearts exposed to whatever may fly our way: “Simon says, put your finger on your nose. Simon says, you haven’t done enough . . . Simon says, you only have blood, marsh light, and sparrow.” Through these modified playground commands, Lease cries out from the perspective of a manipulated subject.

Like several of Lease’s pieces, “Lightning” ends with a dash, rushing readers along to the next page. In this case, the dash points to 1944 Litzmannstadt, a scene that stinks of ashes, hunger, and dirty names. Here, Lease continues his exploration of the weight of a word assigned, shaking it out like a dusty rug to see what settles: “They made us garbage--I was garbage-- / they call me / human garbage--I was garbage / so I still am.” Such simple constructions serve as poignant expositions of a culture’s ugly underbelly. Broken World thrives on these moments that address the power of a label, whether it be “garbage,” “Jew,” or “American.”

Lease applies the notion of tabula rasa to America itself throughout “Free Again.” He steps through the mud of a world stuck on money, “drunk on not / having to / respond,” and clouded with the neon emptiness of strip malls and parking lots. Trekking through such an environment, one cannot help but think of how its once-clean slate must have shimmered. Lease begs us to look at our reflections; he highlights bits of shattered self, heavy as glass in the air of this country. In his Broken World, habitat defines inhabitant and vice versa, and both remain swampy. These poems possess an uncanny synchronization of insistence and wonder. A tainted, money-hungry country rapt with the color green (e.g., “When we’re gone our names will mean green body . . . our names will mean green thought”) soaks those born into its homes and tossing in their beds before sleep, cuts their darting thoughts with the bare and haunting honesty of a face in the mirror. Lease cracks open these icy reflections to fish for something worth “free[ing].”