Tuesday, May 26, 2009

contents of new issue of Verse

Anselm Berrigan (excerpts from two long poems)

Garrett Caples (poems plus part of Philip Lamantia's Tau)

Lidija Dimkovska (novel excerpt plus poems)

Rachel Blau DuPlessis (long poem)

Landis Everson (23 of his last poems)

Kathleen Fraser (nonfiction, poetry, letter, translations)

Pierre Joris (interview, poems, translations)

Gerard Mace (photographs, essay)

Nathaniel Mackey (poems)

Bernadette Mayer (poems)

Jennifer Moxley (essays)

Michael Palmer (essay)

Ron Padgett (poems)

Susan Stewart (poems)

Catherine Wagner (excerpt from verse drama)

456 pages / 15 contributors

$15 (postage paid)

English Department
University of Richmond
Richmond, VA 23173

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

NEW! Review of David Lau

Virgil and the Mountain Cat by David Lau. University of California Press, $16.95.

Reviewed by Douglas Piccinnini

“[M]ost not alive, I wasn’t afraid to die,” affirms the speaker in “Civil War,” from David Lau’s first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat. “Civil War,” like many poems in this collection, maneuvers with razored precision through contemporary and historical dramas. Lau approaches his subjects with quick, lean, gestures and offers portraits of civilization doubled over, brought on by what seems to be the effects of late Capitalism. “Civil War” begins:
I read, I write, I hate my life word after word.
Telescoping Mercury remains
a Septembrist in burglary,
eyebrows an overthrow

spring, snaky splinter
signal to another season, oppositional
turn back on the first day of the new?
The more mortal each jealous mischief/

All men are murderers the more the uneaten
fell out of charge as poems without words
(& i.e. etc. / CSPN e.g. Enron
found in the anthology of aging aleatory broadsides),

Lau’s syntactical constructions and deconstructions surprise and deliver meaning in parts equally fresh and astringent. The enjambed second line of “Civil War” carries on for six lines and, while failing the needs of more conventional grammar and syntax, this movement achieves a kind linguistic acrobatics. In the first stanza, the interplay of the repetition of “I” in the long “i” sounds found in “I read, I write, I hate my life” shifts in the second stanza to the short “i” sounds and consonance of “spring, snaky splinter / signal.” This type of craftsmanship endures throughout Virgil and the Mountain Cat, and the result is an often-jarring collection of poems that resist ah-ha! moments and succeed in their ability to enlarge the dimensions of expressive language and communicate complex and elusive swatches of reality.

In “Going Out,” a runway of visions magnifies a pre-apocalyptic age, yet the speaker does not seem to exist on the precipitous edge of doom, but instead merely accepts the dysfunctional as a surrogate for normalcy.
You say nuclear; I say nuclear.
What kind of word is together?
On Cadmium dunes we treasure our Celts.
A plane to parachute from, a city: you want the radio:
if you want the radio for free charge the living: you have to,
ladies and dental plans. Sprig of mint
on the bib ineffective against further
spread of contagion.
In pain like a blouse,
this period is a peacock
in our history: drive the continent apart:
one lung left in the window
display of the BBQ restaurant.

Despite the loaded-gun feel of “nuclear” appearing twice in the first line, Lau manages a bit of humor in homophonically translating the formal address of “ladies and gentlemen” to “ladies and dental plans” and in doing so swings the mood of the poem (though the tone never achieves lightheartedness). Beyond the casual critique of “this period is a peacock / in our history,” “Going Out” continues to scrutinize what it means to exist in the 21st century. The poem’s later mention of the “[c]ity at the growth spurts of a city” and “your interior tangle of wires” suggests an imbalance between internal and external features of existence.

Perhaps, the burden of generation after generation of artists and writers is to feel as if civilization is at its most critical moment, a world wanting to snap off the orbital grid shot perilously into space. And though the end is perpetually near, Lau seems all too familiar with this burden, and successfully shrugs off the what-happens-after features of human egotism and instead navigates the ceaseless traumas of existence.

The book’s penultimate and title poem, “Virgil and the Mountain Cat,” points toward an empire at its twilight, flickering in however long its dusk may last,
I was thinking I would like to own this house. Then I fell. Under
hat, stone, cent, moss. Cranberry season into black smoke
season. Plus a knife in the branchy flophouse.

She was coming at certain daytime, with interest. We were getting
ready. Carried dishes that smelled like a hoax candle in the
empty room. Nighttime followed the switch the guards used to
guard everywhere it went on the mountain. As she, this changed.

Knew. Knew alert. Those alarums her boy had bargained to us.
The glow would lightbulb around his head as the sun banged
down the western slope. The newspaper headline reported foreign
container ships’ rust flakes profuse in the harbor. So we were
telling. It hadn’t happened yet.

As the shore sounded.

The portentous feeling, which lurks throughout “Virgil and the Mountain Cat,” is delayed in its fruition as the speaker notes, “It hadn’t happened yet.” However the final poem, “Jellyfish,” formally address the ostensible source of this feeling, and begins “Dear XX century,” and goes on to condemn the spineless 20th Century as an age that has burned in a kind of hellfire. “Jellyfish” continues,
no one can darken skies like,

have you even been in meaning?

the forest on fire grows and glows
with sediment gorges hauled by

the clinking antiquated chain gaff:
words are worms more than what it’s not:

“The Unnamable” “The H Age”

a fucking sick hello, hymeneal subjoinder
from the whole fire and the sick

Colorfully dense, Virgil and the Mountain Cat is a rewarding book that demands rigorous attention as Lau constructs and deconstructs his subjects. Much like an Abstract Expressionist painter, Lau uses a kind of mark-making to engage with the materiality of language, and explores the semantic and sonic possibilities of verbal and ideological expression, while avoiding non-representational babble.

A detail of Cy Twombly’s Tiznit (1953) aptly adorns the cover of Virgil and the Mountain Cat, and subsequent images of Tiznit act as gateways to the book’s three sections. In a rare, published statement, Cy Twombly once proclaimed, “one must desire the ultimate essence even if it is ‘contaminated.’” Lau neither insists on nor resists presenting “contaminated” or dystopic visions in his poems. The presence of Twombly’s visual cues reminds a reader of Virgil and the Mountain Cat of not only the gestural intimacy and immediacy of art but also its ability to provoke and disturb. Twombly’s graffiti-like scratches on the canvas convey the limits of the application of his materials. The effect in Tiznit is that of raw (though intentional) rakes of color, which question not only the formal elements of painting as a medium, but the medium itself. And Lau, like Twombly, achieves a heightened connection to his subjects in an almost violent application/presentation of his materials. And for both Twombly and Lau, this complicates their authorial connection to creation, as the act of creation involves a condemnation and/or a potential dismantling of their subjects, the medium and its history.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

NEW! Review of Jennifer Moss

Beast, to Be Your Friend by Jennifer Moss. New Michigan Press, $8.

Reviewed by Sara Lockery

Jennifer Moss’ Beast, to Be Your Friend is a collection of dense, kaleidoscopic poems whose dynamic energy propels the reader through a world in which trapdoors hallucinate, clouds are “arranged by pain,” and “smoke rises like seraphim.” Sharp, burnished, and fiercely original, Moss’ poetic voice animates the static and grants precision to the most intangible and abstract of concepts. In fact, the atmosphere is oftentimes just as (if not more) alive than the poem’s subject. Skies “noose” horses and “rush over startled skins,” sentences and voices “uncoil over the square acres,” “fasten down the land,” and “twist in the air.” Tension and contrast are alive, not only in the form, which fluctuates between narrative past and the lyrical present, but also in style and tone, which alter from mythological and detached to distinct and personalized.

One staple of Moss’ poetry is the ambiguity of the speaker’s attitude toward her subject. For example, in “Ducking in and out of Shadows,” the goat is initially portrayed in a sympathetic, humane manner. “I felt a debt to the goat,” the speaker confesses, her “womanish head bobbed up and down, one yellow eye turned toward the sun.” However, the tone darkens as the speaker almost immediately goes on to describe the unsightly gash in the side of the goat, which she then hits “with a switch.” Similarly, in “Beasts Framed the Field IV,” the speaker gallantly declares, “Beast to be your friend I’d gather the clouds swarming / over the river,” after which she goes on to threaten/propose, “I’d like to feed you…the suffering inborn / disease of my blood.” In each case, the tonal transition occurs in such a way that it almost suggests manipulation on the part of the speaker. By initially personifying the animal subject, a sense of connection with and sympathy for the animal is established. Therefore, when the animal is ostensibly hurt or threatened by the speaker, the reader almost feels deceived. At once menacing and inviting, coolly detached and warmly humane, Moss has generated a daunting atmosphere of unpredictability in which the reader is left susceptible to her whims.

Throughout the book there looms a general sense of interconnectedness. In “Making the Centaur,” the will of the horse is “fiercely tangled” with our own. “Portrait” creates a similar situation, in which the speaker unites the isolated man waiting atop a building to commit suicide with every other living thing with the statement, “You know he is going to die sometime…everything does.” “The Storm” displays signs of cerebral interconnectivity in its opening statement, “Where one mind stops, another begins,” as well as in the speaker’s portrayal of the sky as a giant, cohesive spider web in which “the dead bees of memory” of all living beings are housed. Related to a sense of multiplicity and interdependence is the recurring phenomenon of projection; internal emotions are often transferred into external entities. “I fill his body with my mind / to give my thought a shape,” the speaker informs us of the zebra in her poem “In Mammal Hall.” Such cohesiveness and interaction between subjects not only blurs the line between individual humans and all other humans, but also between humans and animals, calling forth a surreal landscape in which animals take on human characteristics; beasts and centaurs speak, and octopi are depicted as “aristocratic.”

Moss’ stylistic treatment is equally as compelling. Throughout the book, the speaker intentionally universalizes, or lends abstraction to, a particular image. For example, in “Making the Centaur,” the atmosphere is portrayed as “earth’s symbols.” All elements of nature, presumably sun, sky, and other natural manifestations, are grouped together under a single blanket term, thus blurring distinctions between them. Likewise, in “Beasts Framed the Field II,” the speaker equates the beast’s act of digging a hole to digging back in time to his “red and black birth.” Moss’ generalization of these images establishes an atmosphere of mystery, opening up limitless possibilities as to the precise visual representation they will form in the reader’s mind. Additionally, the act of symbolizing grants these poems the weight and feel of legend. The use of the phrase “earth’s symbols” harks back to ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and the act of digging has become a universal emblem for reaching an earlier, more primordial state.

Furthermore, the use of such generalized language provides a counterpoint to Moss’ equally consistent use of precise, pared down imagery. In fact, the same objects Moss lends abstraction to are elsewhere sculpted into sharp, specific images. Several lines up, the same beast who is portrayed as a distant figure of mythology, “digging back to [his] red and black birth,” is perceived so clearly by the speaker that she can “see the vein jump in [his] neck / and the salt shimmering over his lip.” Likewise, at the end of the poem, the same horse who is situated in the legendary position of being chased by the “earth’s symbols” is so real that the “foam smeared over his flanks” is visible and the “tingle in his nerves” can be sensed. This sense of clarity and immediacy directly contradicts the formerly vague, allegorical treatment of these subjects. The effect of this is twofold; by pairing mythology side by side with realism, each acts as a foil to the other, emphasizing their differences. At the same time, however, portraying the subject of the poem in manifold ways blurs the distinction between them and suggests the possibility of their interrelatedness.

Beast, to Be Your Friend masterfully balances surrealism with minimalism, violence with humanity, and past tense narrative with the first person lyrical. Just like the “silver thread blowing in and out of visibility” in “Fields,” the seamless movement of Moss’ poems explores the discrepancies as well as the connections between these disparate elements, reflecting the larger theme of an underlying connectivity and multiplicity. “The signs sit in everything / They are true, but untranslatable,” the speaker tells us. Indeed, delivered in a detached, elusive voice and peppered with furtive allusions, one could say the same of Moss’ poems themselves.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

NEW! Review of Katy Lederer

The Heaven-Sent Leaf by Katy Lederer. BOA Editions, $16.

Reviewed by Sara Lockery

Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf probes the conflicting yet interrelated concepts of art and commerce, establishing a fruitful tension between the technical and the emotional in contemporary society. At the heart of this tension lies the startling observation that the spirit of money occupies the core of such timeless institutions as poetry and love. “There is, in the heart,” Lederer reminds us, “the hard-rendering profit.” Likewise, the threat of art continually rebels against the order of city life, voicing a recurring plea for its emancipation from the doldrums of industry. Behind every facade of society, we are told, the artist is “waiting, like an animal, / for poetry.” The dynamic quality of Lederer’s language further exemplifies this tension; alternating between observational narrative and lyrical rhapsody, it is at once detached and intimate, tentative and insistent.

One of the most apparent themes in The Heaven-Sent Leaf is the interaction of the external world of business (money, capital, trade) with the internal, primal state of passion (love, art, nature). Such association becomes evident in the second “Brainworker” poem, in which the narrator begins by expressing the need to “keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal mind.” Located along the borders of logic within the mind, however, is a “silky white cat. / Howling,” an image soon interrupted by the narrator’s anxiety over her “year-end review.” The poem finally closes with “The moon… settl[ing] into its shadow” and the narrator “howling.” The reference to the cat howling within the “mind’s little prison” gives the impression of entrapment and suppressed desire, which reflects Lederer’s recurring assertion that the expression of the artist is stifled by the monotony of the business world. Additionally, the perpetual oscillation from the dreariness of office life to the unruliness of the creative intellect establishes a tumultuous dialogue between these two opposing forces, exemplifying the state of constant flux that pervades much of the book.

Another way in which Lederer creates tension between opposites is by structuring her poems as quasi-sonnets that simultaneously transcend and adhere to form. Such experimentation with the sonnet is evident in “Heavenly Body.” For example, in the second to last line, the formerly detailed depiction of vast distances (“Between these mountains runs a pass blasted through by the / movements of water and indebted plateaus. / Imagine it widening, eternally, as the owl will fly or flower bloom”) is solidified into “Long silences between us.” Likewise, the previously elaborate reference to the serenity of the moon* is compacted into “Imagine, Love, the patience of the moon.” In clear, sparse language, the ending thus operates as a kind of condensed summary of the fundamental elements of the poem, a technique characteristic of the sonnet. And by breaking the poem into thirteen lines, Lederer roughly recalls the sonnet form. But the odd number of lines defeats the possibility of consistent couplets and the poems do not regularly follow iambic pentameter, thus distinguishing Lederer's work from the sonnet by upsetting its symmetry. In this way, the structure of Lederer’s poems provides an additional example of the interaction between order and chaos.

Aside from the continual fluctuation of subject and style, Lederer’s technique is further distinguished by her ability to grant physical, tangible properties to the abstract. For example, in “The Rose, The Ring,” thoughts are depicted as diamonds falling to the floor. The genius of this portrayal lies in the fact that something as theoretical and intangible as thought is successfully embodied in the distinct, concrete form of a jewel. Furthermore, such characterization resonates with the larger theme of commerce; the narrator has in effect transformed the act of thinking into a commodity: “We sweep them up, the little jewels,/ The little bastard trinkets.” By illustrating human thought as a token of sorts, Lederer has raised the possibility that anything of value, even ideological value, has the potential to be channeled into a form of capital and used to obtain power. The seeming disparity between the timeless, psychological value usually associated with mental reasoning and the temporary, mechanical value Lederer assigns to it reflects the general atmosphere of tension that characterizes her work.

An additional trademark of Lederer’s technique includes a distinctive kind of repetition that involves a refocusing or development of particular concepts. Take, for example, these lines from “Heaven-Sent Leaf”: “To imagine oneself as a river. / To imagine oneself as a stretch of cool water, / Pouring into basin or brain.” The repetition here is both linguistic (the reusing of the phrase “to imagine oneself”) and conceptual (the recurrence of the idea of water). However, in the first line the tone is dry, fragmentary, and abstract, whereas in the following lines it is lyrical, rhythmic and precise. The idea of a river has thus been extended and developed into something entirely different. The effect of this particular kind of repetition at once ties the images together through shared wording and conceptual grounding and isolates them by splitting them up into two tonally and stylistically separate contexts. The interaction between the opposing ideas of variation and repetition and between unification and differentiation reflects Lederer’s larger theme of the interrelation of conflicting concepts (money and love, business and nature).

Lederer’s adeptness of execution, including the way in which rhythm, alliteration, and repetition perpetuate the mood of the concept at hand, further demonstrates the strengths of The Heaven-Sent Leaf. The phrase “The legs are mimetic of the mind’s locomotion” is a particularly effective instance of such cohesion between style and content. The aural similarity between “legs” and “mimetic,” as well as the alliteration established by the words “mimetic” and “mind,” suggest the repetition and circularity involved in the act of imitation. Moreover, the gradual widening exemplified by the transition of sound (‘eh’—‘eye’—‘oh’) mimics the regulated motion that characterizes the functioning of machinery. Together, these linguistic factors both aurally and mentally enhance the motion and circularity inherent in the concept of moving legs, cycling machinery, and imitation. The fusion of the technical and conceptual aspects of writing amplifies the impact and intricacy of Lederer’s poems by generating an alternate layer of complexity and cohesion.

With panoramic scope and fluidity, The Heaven-Sent Leaf depicts contemporary society in a way that at once criticizes and embraces its materialistic impulses, artfully balancing the conflicting extremes of art and office life. The title itself effectively embodies the core tension of Lederer’s poetry: a symbol of nature as well as materialism, of temptation as well as salvation, the heaven-sent leaf can take the shape of either a leaf from a tree or a paper money to be used for barter. The perpetual flux of its tone mimics the natural rhythm of human thought, and the conceptual variation of the collection as a whole masterfully articulates the dual nature of reality.

* The sarcasm inherent in the lines, “Is she angry? Is she edified? / Does the moon crawl into bed at night, drunk and restless as any kept woman…?” suggests the outrageousness of the moon acting in such a way, thus intimating, by reverse logic, that the moon is normally associated with calmness and serenity.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

NEW! Review of L.S. Klatt

Interloper by L.S. Klatt. University of Massachusetts Press, $15.

Reviewed by Daniel Shoemaker

Interloper begins with the inscription (attributed to Walt Whitman) “The day wore on, and the sun went down in the west; still the interloper, gloomy and taciturn, made no signs of departing.” Klatt, like his hero Whitman, is the interloper, the poet. He is the unsolicited prompter of questions. His voice is deliberate and wise, making no dogmatic claims, preferring to elicit meditations on the “indefinite. Infinite,” though rarely succumbing to it, as his poem “The Ominous Cross” suggests.

“Provincetown,” the book’s opening poem, establishes many of the motifs and stylistic trademarks that Klatt returns to throughout Interloper. It is a characteristically brief poem (none is more than a page long) about a model glider. In it, the innocence and ignorance of a child is undermined by the implicit violence of his war fantasies:
Yokefellow, how steep our swoop,
what coastline what distance?

As if we travel well,
as if potentate

The hinge of the engine-less rudder

It sing-songs

A plane alone does not know what to do, or towards what shore to fly. It, like Klatt’s poetry, needs a helmsman, someone to interpret the scenes and posit advice.

“What can be salvaged?” “How then do we prophesy?” If Klatt asks, it is because he does not know. His poetry is steeped with humility before the vastness of space and the harshness of reality. Klatt invokes Jesus, Darwin and the purple of the cosmos to situate civilization as near a microscopic molecule in some greater eternal body. All his questions do not speak to such sanctuaries of thought. Klatt also asks, “when do these canned meats expire?” His subtle humor carries the book from beginning to end in one sitting, and linguistic cocktails like “forlornographic” make palatable the self-pleasure of misery.

As in “Provincetown,” the relationship between innocence and violence is explored in great depth throughout Interloper. Children’s toys and games often become vehicles of dominance and contention. In “I Swallowed a Deck of Cards” spades and clubs act out racial tensions, despite their common origins, culminating in a reenactment of the horrific 1998 lynching of James Byrd. “International Orange” describes a model F16, destined for “moonlight immolation” and piloted by a stick figure who plays “Aces & pick-up sticks.” The poem “Fetus in Orbit” entertains imagery from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s indictment of technology and man’s penchant for violence. The movie’s final image of a human fetus floating through space becomes that of an unborn cow, a playmate and a wonder for the narrator, who later unwillingly encounters the violence innate and pervasive in the pursuit of survival,
I was told I would eat a thousand cows,

I lay there, disbeliever, like a figure 8 in milk

As much as Klatt may seek direction, he concedes to the futility of intention: he “[has] no more use for a steering wheel than an 8 ball.” Klatt’s questions spin back upon and bisect themselves, his imagery does “loop-the-loops & figure-8s.” The recurrent use of this reoriented infinity is a mathematic and pictorial tool. Klatt employs both throughout Interloper, balancing his existential inquiries with data and numbers, graphs and graphics. Symbols and charts become non-verbal poetry. A head without a body swings from an un-played game of hangman. The circle that sways from the minimally rendered gallows may also be metronome mid-beat or a hypnotist’s tool or perhaps some lever in the machine the narrator is forced to kiss.

As much as some of the poems in Interloper are verbally irreproducible, many are driven by their percussive cadence. Music is used as a second native language. Its symbols become words and ideas that scope beyond written language. There are “musical rules for the apocalypse” and a “siss-boom skitter beat” for love. Words tumble together into a symphony of images, often correlated only by their context. Together the sounds and their meanings paint a large sonic canvas peppered with explosions of life and stasis, an image to be read over ages.

The poems in Interloper belong to no one time. They contain pork that expired in March 2009 and domestic relics like a washboard. There is a strain of post-industrial mistrust that loosely situates, and runs parallel through, most of these poems. They often chart the evolution of humans away from humanity and leave foreboding hints towards their mutual demise. In a collection of poetry so kinetic and transitory, using literal vehicles as metaphorical vehicles, scenes of atom bombs and the apocalypse offer possible limits to the telescoping path of humanity. In “Body: Rhapsody” a smashed car is a crumpled Coca-Cola can. U.S. recklessness and consumerism collide. There is a distinctly American tone to Klatt’s work: from paranoia to pride, the American ethos is called into constant question.

Interloper is a cohesive body, indicative of many years honing. Its vibrant images of memory and doubt, despite their ambiguous cohesion, foster a common ground between author and reader. Existence is portrayed as equally uninviting and inevitable.