Thursday, December 31, 2009

2 poems by Laura Wetherington

Laura Wetherington

In the day I dream in future tense: past sedative plus perfect

the present is a pasture:
a funny joke about pointers. it points to itself.
my vagina is a closed circuit television.
but how can one question with a period.

there is no narrator, no barrier.
I know how to see with my cells.
oscillate does not mean vacillate. both could mean masturbate:
my vagina is an electrical engineer.

Quiet people are crazy in bed

All orgasm is just me clapping for myself on the inside.
We are sound waves reverberating in the chambers of our skin.
We are sound whales crooning the universe in.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

NEW! Poem by David O’Connell

David O’Connell


We come to when he says raise
all shades, when he says snipers
will take high ground, will be
our eyes, and when it starts,
he says, stay down, says
all hands on heads and single
file when you exit; it’s
standard op, he says, too many
backpacks and experience has taught us
they’re innocent until the bullet’s
in your chest. Here’s the word
that means lock down. Here’s the room
where you’ll huddle. Here’s the only knock
that means it’s safe. Anticipate.
Drill. You think you won’t,
but every study shows
you’ll lose your head. I don’t mean
to alarm, he says, but
three hours plus a day right now
those kids are playing games
that train a boy to squeeze off rounds
like this, this, this. And this is how
it happened in Moses Lake, and this
is what they did in Jonesboro, and this
is all you didn’t want to know
of Littleton—the homemade fractals,
the detailed schematics. And you,
he says, are our best defense.
Paunch and bald patch, sag
and bad dye, we’re cataloging long
coats and sullen stares, running
the percentages, calculating second-story
drops and the density of fire doors.
Our minds are buzzing television.
We can almost hear the story
spinning off the perpetual machine.

Monday, December 28, 2009

NEW! Poem by Ben Mazer

Ben Mazer

He saw the birdwatcher in the distance
raised the gun to his head, the woman yelled
"oh lord" the animals scattered and he fired.
A sameness of birds flew off in his direction.
A smart sheep learned to see a human dying.

Then he was headlines, a bullet's report.
Quotes of friends who'd seen his rise to fame.
A few appearances and a private library,
only the chief librarian never answered.

His poems stirred the old feeling underground
where love still made its signal word for love
and silent with their truth they passed around
declaratives like cheaper currency,

the coiling of the wind in groves of autumn,
an old vagrant fogging wiping and looking in.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

RIP, Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009)

The world lost a rare light when Vic Chesnutt passed away yesterday. He has left behind some of the most incisive, poignant, and mordant songs of our time. It's no wonder why so many people who love language and the possibilities of language were drawn to his songs. He was also an incredibly sweet and gentle person, but could be fiery as well, especially when talking about politics, which he followed closely. He gave innumerable outstanding performances, including one singular event with Forrest Gander in The Chapel at UGA.

Unfortunately, he also left behind $70,000 in medical bills, despite having health insurance. Please consider following the above link to help his family. Hospitals and debt collectors don't simply walk away from unpaid bills; they'll go after his estate, his house, etc. until they get their money.

NEW! Poem by Ben Mazer

Ben Mazer

Cookies and Lamictal

The undershirt of my imagination stinks
with always persuading sheerly by tone
the remembered dipsticks of our latter winter
when to atone for me you went alone
to veering vetters of the current cutter.
I want to see, want to see Tyrone
Power play Philip Marlowe.
Cut straight to the bone
I am not write. Won't be this winter.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Two poems by Don Share

Don Share

DED (Dutch Elm Disease)

The town came round and said
Our tree must come down--
Like a bell without a clapper,
This yard without its elm.


Good luck, to find a feather,
Less so, the whole bird.
So why read about "nesting"
When you don't love me anymore?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

NEW! Interview with Forrest Gander

Forrest Gander
Forrest Gander is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, including Eye Against Eye (New Directions, 2005), Torn Awake (New Directions, 2001), Science and Steepleflower (New Directions, 1998), Deeds of Utmost Kindness (Wesleyan, 1994), Lynchburg (Pitt Poetry Series, 1993), and Rush to the Lake (Alice James, 1988). He is also the author of a novel, As a Friend (New Directions, 2008), and a book of essays, A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, & Transcendence (Counterpoint, 2005), as well as several volumes of translation, most recently Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Coral Bracho (New Directions, 2008). The recipient of many awards, including fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim, Whiting, and Howard Foundations, Gander serves as Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Brown University. Andy Frazee conducted this interview over e-mail, from October 2008 through February 2009.

From your first book of poetry, Rush to the Lake, to your most recent, Eye Against Eye, there has been a movement from what we might call discrete lyrics to longer sequences or series. In A Faithful Existence you write that "if we approach [human experience] with a different model, we will ask different questions." Although in that essay you are discussing scientific methodology, if we assume that the discrete lyric and the sequence are two different models, two different poetic methodologies for approaching experience, what do you see as the differences in the questions asked?

Maybe it’s something like marriage, the sequence. The wham-bam impact of the discrete poem has endless variations of course, and I like them. But there’s something compelling about a commitment over time to a singular development, a signal promise that the serial or long poem draws from writer and reader. And then subtle connections—rhythmical, thematic, syntactic, imagistic, sonic—deployed across wider intervals. There’s both a faithfulness and an erotics in the sequence which appeals to me. Prolongation and delay, the extended play.

Also, facing the same poem every day—rather than starting a new one—is another kind of challenge for the imagination, like high monogamy. You prod yourself to keep it, as Miles Davis would say, on the one. It demands all your resources to keep it going, to keep it transformative, surprising. The first sequence I wrote was “Life of Johnson Upside Your Head” in Lynchburg, my second book. After researching unreleased recordings of Delta blues musicians at the Library of Congress, I spent a summer in Hog Jaw, Arkansas, near Lead Hill, in a cabin miles from paved road. I paid visits to communities where many Delta musicians had passed—Memphis, Three Forks, Robinsonville. On those rural dirt roads, you often find yourself walking up one tire rut and talking across a low mound of rock and weed to someone in the parallel rut. You’re always a car’s width apart and so conscious of conversation as a kind of call and response. On foot in the country, your perception is more telescopic than it is in other places; there are multiple levels of borrowed scenery. You see the person you are talking to and the scrim of trees on the other side of her and the field through the trees and hills beyond the field. All of this is to say I’m interested in perceptual rhythms and how they change in different situations. And I’ve felt I could best explore the complex of those rhythms in sequences. In “Mission Thief” from Eye Against Eye, it’s the Mission District of San Francisco. In “Carried Across” from Torn Awake, it’s Mexico City. Taking on place as event requires some room.

You've described your recently published first novel, As a Friend, as a work "that may escape genre description—a melding of poetry and prose, incantation and narrative." How did the book come about, and in what ways may it be (or not be) an extension of your poetic work? What does this melding of genres achieve that couldn't be achieved through any one genre?
From the late 70’s on, the lyric has been under sustained, healthful critique. These days, the focus on line break seems to have been eclipsed by a focus on juxtaposition. Many poets are as suspicious of conspicuous musical prosody as of any equation between truth and beauty. While notable poets are writing beyond conventional genre boundaries, some influential prose writers—David Markson, Carole Maso, and John Wideman come to mind—veer toward poetry. I’m more interested in writing, period, than in genre. For most of my writing life as a poet, I’ve been keen on the line, on how perceptual and emotional registrations might be sharpened by line break or by the staging of line across page. In my books from Deeds of Utmost Kindness to Torn Awake, I was particularly absorbed with developing emotional and intellectual depth through polyrhythms, stacked clauses, and multiple voices. I drew from a wide range of lexicons, from my background in geology to my obsession with photography, from the rollercoaster experience of fatherhood to the erotic life of adults. For all its limitations, expansive lyric prosody can unleash a deep and complex realm of feeling, one that often seems to characterize my actual experience of being awake in the world. But I’m interested in other strategies and in other inquiries. I worked on that slim novel, As a Friend, for nineteen years. It was hundreds of pages long, I stripped it down, I built it up again, I flailed through I don’t know how many versions. It took me nineteen years to figure out how stop trying to write like “a novelist” for one thing, and to figure a way for myself.
In A Faithful Existence you discuss the Mayan belief that "the final apocalypse, the one they predicted for our time, would be brought about by … hubbub, commotion," which I relate to the inundation of information we receive through the media and the quasi-art of advertising. What do you conceive as poetry's role in such an environment?
Nietzsche called himself a teacher of slow reading. I think poetry itself is a teacher of slow reading and that in our age of spectacle, poetry is often that anti-spectacle summoning us to insight. I’ve always felt that in the silences within poetry, a transformative inquiry opens.
In a 2007 interview conducted in Sarajevo, you responded to the question "How is it to be an American nowadays" in this way: "As I was assembling the anthology [Ten Significant American Poets]I noted that the last sentence in Ben Lerner's biographical note reads: 'He is currently ashamed to be a citizen of the United States.' I think he speaks for many of us."

As I think through and write this question on the morning of Tuesday, November 4, 2008—Election Day—I wonder what relation you see between poetry and political life. Your poetry doesn't seem as overtly "political" as, say, Adrienne Rich's often is—or, as another example, Juliana Spahr's. What do you see as the political role of poetry? Is it primarily one of being "the anti-spectacle," the source of "transformative inquiry"? How may your political views come into play in your writing—or, to re-phrase the question, how do you see them expressed in your work?

Ben Lerner’s work seems to me exemplary in this respect and others. As for my own, I think the politics are intrinsic if not overt. “Life of Johnson Upside Your Head” is a paean to the delta blues musicians of the 1930’s, but it’s likewise a depiction of a racist and segregated south. I’d say its politics are implicit in the angle of attention. In “The History of Manifest Destiny” in my book Science & Steepleflower, I reference language and scenario from Archibald Menzie’s Journal of Vancouver’s Voyage in 1792 to highlight the astonishing presumptions of the Europeans who, with unremitting brutality, aimed to render a new world of plants, animals, and human beings into commodities. In Torn Awake’s “The Hugeness of That Which is Missing,” a dehiscent narrative of flickering faith takes place in the radioactive desert near the Pahute Mesa Test Site. And in another poem from that book, “Carried Across,” I braid Spanish phrases into a meditation on “national, ethnic, linguistic affiliation” in the construction of the word “we,” that designation that every cultural group uses to distinguish itself from “them.” To me, all these poems are political even as my choice to explore material through inquiry and implication is itself a choice with political dimensions.
More recently, the first long poem in Eye Against Eye, “Burning Towers, Standing Wall,” links historical violence to America’s 9/11, drawing into encounter the way the past and others, even the dead whose marks we can still read, fill out our experience of now and self. An anonymous reviewer for Publishers Weekly, not always noted for the depth of its analysis, read “Burning Towers, Standing Wall” as a poem that “examines Mayan architecture in Mexico, turning the visible stones, their ‘mutilated stelae’ and ‘rubbed out glyphs,’ into a plea for patience in the face of violence….” I’d agree and say I consider that my work is generally political, and that the intensive way I reference the so-called natural world is political, and that my focus on the domestic is political, and that my choice to translate Mexican and Latin American writers is political. There are sundry valid approaches. Not every poet needs to pound a gavel to convene the light.

Another sequence in Eye Against Eye, “Late Summer Entry,” is based on the landscapes of photographer Sally Mann, and you’ve discussed elsewhere how you observed Mann at work, both on shoots and in the darkroom. Considering your poetry’s attention to the natural world, how may have working, not only from another artist’s landscapes, but also from her process of making, have complicated the kind of attention or perceptual rhythms your work seeks to embody?

I’m on a plane from Arkansas as I write this. This morning, sitting under a hammered tin and wooden cross in a Christian bakery, the only place I could find with internet in my wife’s hometown, I read a review of As a Friend in which the reviewer quotes the phrase “dark as a hedge.” I remember scribbling that phrase in my notebook in Sweet Briar, Virginia, while Sally Mann was making a very long exposure of a hedge that she suspected would transform, as it did in the last gasp of Shenandoah Valley light, into totemic blackness. In my sequence of poems on her photographs in Eye Against Eye, there are lines derived from observations that her husband, Larry, made while Sally was working, and rhythms, images, and insights elicited from our mutuality. And in all my writing, I find fragments of those arousals to which I was privileged by invitation to share others’ visions along with their sensitivities for experiencing those visions. I’ve written work for books with a number of artists including the photographers Raymond Meeks and Dan Borris and the Frisian painter Tjibbe Hooghiemstra. And recently I’ve been working with Lucas Foglia, a photographer documenting utopian communities across the United States. Lucas not only photographs the people of those communities, but he lives with them and tapes conversations with them. I wrote “Moving Around for the Light: a Madrigal” after studying Lucas’s photographs and listening to hours of tapes he recorded. I’ve always loved that sketch in Conversation on a Country Path when Heidegger talks about the significance of actually, literally, sharing a vision with someone.

It seems like this idea of mutuality relates to what, at the Symposium on Literary Translation held at the University of Georgia, you called translation’s “fruitful contamination.” How does this notion of shared vision inform your translation work?

It may be interesting to think about both those terms—mutuality and contamination—in terms of biology and evolution. One angle in recent evolutionary studies stresses the importance of cooperation and mutuality, not just competition, in the development of innovations. Although I just referenced Heidegger in response to your last question, I am completely suspicious of Heidegger’s search for “purity” and “origin.” I remember reading KKK literature when I lived in Arkansas and seeing how their arguments about racial purity are couched in misconceptions about “pure bloodedness.” The fact that DNA from former parasites, early in human history, has become integrated into our own DNA makes clear that not only is there no such thing as racial purity, but there is no such thing as species purity. We are mongrels one and all. In translation, two languages infect each other in such ways that the product, as the philosopher Ortega y Gasset once noted, might be another genre altogether. The promise for literature is that something worthwhile might be created through that contamination, something vital that didn’t exist before in either language.

Along with writing about singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, you’ve also written liner notes for his album Is the Actor Happy?, as well as performed with him. How did that friendship develop, and how may each of you have influenced or “contaminated” the other?

A musician friend of mine, Brady Earnhart, turned me on to Vic’s first cd, Little. I don’t remember the sequence, but over the years, I wrote to Vic, I went to see him in concert, and once, following Peter Gizzi to the front of the stage, I got in a fist fight with two people who were rightly mad that we had wormed our way in front of them, and I ended up backstage with my tongue bitten almost in half. Vic would stay at our place when he came to Providence and I have sweet memories of listening to him and his scuffle band practice in our so-called dining room. I was happy to write the liner notes for Is the Actor Happy? when the record company asked me. Like the music of John Martyn, who just died last week, Vic’s has became a part of my life. Last time I was in Athens, Vic was working on a soundtrack that he’s doing for a film by the German director Sebastian Schipper. And he was head over heels about a Willa Cather novel that, for some reason, had provoked him to write all his songs in the “I” voice, as he called it. When he showed me the text of the lyrics of a new song on his computer, I wasn’t surprised to see that his desktop image was that poem by Wallace Stevens that begins “Clear water in a brilliant bowl,/ Pink and white carnations. The light…”

What are you working on currently?

I’ve just finished up a couple translations. One is a short book of fiction, Diary of Hepatitis, by the Argentine writer César Aira. He’s an astonishing guy, a recluse—although he agreed to meet me once at the tiniest bookstore in Buenos Aires—and the author of more than 70 novels despite that he must be about my age. He gives his books to small literary presses in Argentina because he makes a living on foreign editions of his work. New Directions has published several of his books in great translations by Chris Andrews. I’m not sure where I’m going to send Diary of Hepatitis. It’s more novella than novel. And it could pass as prose poetry.

I’ve also finished up a book by Pura López Colomé, the Mexican poet whose collection Santo y Seña, which I translate as Watchword, won Mexico’s biggest poetry award, The Villaurrutia Prize, in 2007. It’s a complex, powerful, sometimes almost hermetic book written at a traumatic moment in the poet’s life. I feel her being at stake in every poem.

I think I’ve also brought to term a manuscript of my own poems and haibun that includes photographs by Raymond Meeks, Lucas Foglia, and the great Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. My concern, in this book, is with internationalism, borders, dialogue, perception, and the rhythms of experiences as they are registered in different topographies. It’s also an inquiry into the concept of “foreign.” It’s a book that won’t fit into any genre category, which is what I wanted. One of my models is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. 

Monday, December 21, 2009

NEW! 3 poems by David Dodd Lee

David Dodd Lee


The day eats itself then expires

Moths, dirty people

The animals match their blood to the earth and sky in that place

His face was the size of a pin cushion

Old lambs die young in this country



'cause I've got this ukulele in a bucket

star light, star bright

I've got a ukulele in a bucket

and this very small songbook

he's a police officer

riding a horse down old Seville Parkway in the dead of summer

the crab grass blossoms in her hair

the smell of heavy sedation

then I think to myself, self

the wagon sits in its own tropical shadow

does the ground see the wood, the wood look down at the ground?

there are many quarters falling out of the moon

and into the galvanized moat-of-the-lute

that cemetery seems like a dream to me now

but only on the real object

do the spokes fly backwards


Scrape of shovel

Sediments of meaning multiplying in the woods

It's noisy down around our ankles

The land groans and shudders with broken bottles

Every time I look around I sink into this deepening of reclamation

Milk of Magnesia

An animal with its eyes sealed off

Dr. Pepper bottle embossed with an image of a clock

the fluids that drip on one’s skin

A twig dragged along the naked back to where the ass flares and begins to reverberate

Complete irrelevance

Friday, December 18, 2009

3 pieces by Susan Lewis

Susan Lewis


First I’m wading through daisies, nosing your breath, then we’re like this, not one way but its opposite, in ever-more confusing rondo form. That we fail doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to align ourselves, give or take reality’s allowance. Do you hear the crickets yelling at those hungry birds? Do you smell the storm crackling in the hollows? I’ve tossed petals at the lot of them, they are not impressed. You would call me desperate, & I would answer. I would call you Babyface, or Salamander, or Mr. Critical, depending on the stuck market & the relative humility. Now there’s sorrow raining down from the agitated clouds. They, too are underappreciated, they might yearn for a more congenial atmosphere. Who blames the cook for a flip of the wrist? Who, indeed. Meanwhile you’ve aced more mean feats, making me jealous of my former self. Call it sweet-and-sour grapes, call it no-strings-attached, either way she’ll be sorry, & sometimes I am. Other times I tremble for more of the same.


Most knowing goes unlicensed. Most nonsense brings tears to your blinding eyes. Take A is for Effort. Take Practice What You Preach. There are layers here which mediate the difference. Start with the last thing you should ask, or the first. A matter of simple splicing. A matter of profiling, gene pools, & other murky depths. Miss Emily might love this lack. Miss Gertrude, not so much. Don’t scoff at this gaping vacancy. To avoid the bends, sit straight, adopt the branded lifestyle. Lead with your silver spoon. The first kiss & the last should lie beguilingly. Under the arch, posing archly. Snap. Bounce any kind of ball. Have you heard what passes for thought? Does your sympathy resemble contemptuous relief, embellished with identification? Have you thanked the Great Tubercular for his tutor sparrow? Will you open your mind’s cage & let it fly?


always pays attention. It reveals faces which look like mountains which look like faces. Also steel & glass, tits & ass. Its colors remind you of chocolate & loss. You feel wistful for the future you imagined you would enter, like a room. Instead, you have the room inside this wavering frame, to examine with someone you thought you knew, or afterward. It’s no use trying to be literal. It’s no use trying to force what happens next, which is up to the auteur, who wants you much as you want him, dead or alive.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

NEW! Poem by A.K. Scipioni

A.K. Scipioni


For the curious horseman, it was a separate counterpart
concerned with weightless, small things, under-
Junes. The bulwark of recognizable, mortal
suspension is a few stones, a place
in the middle of an element making itself
an element. Petrous gravel. In the stables
the horses arrange themselves to the east, all
refusing water. For a long time now, the eschatological
artifact had remained hidden. An eighty-year-old
Peloponnesian is decapitated on a trellis.
The whole of Crete, flattened by a long rock.
A Korean martyr is asked to spit on the forehead
of Christ, and a scholar cannot read the Aramaic
on a poorly glued bowl. Like the thief in the night,
it was the glue we should have concerned ourselves with.
Because the last horse buckles under the weight
of its broken legs, likewise, the continents unwind
with the first children raveling the legs of spiders into
mobiles above their beds. After all this time, it will
not be the thief in the night, it will be that there was
nothing left that had not already been stolen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

NEW! 2 poems by Michael Rutherglen

Michael Rutherglen


A smalt-clotted, sedgeless depth.
Slap through the surface to surface

tinted by something other
than steady, adusting daylight:

calm beyond storms:

a cold prehensile
as a nymph’s blue limbs.

Flail in to wade out
as you would out of dream,

silted with, grafted to a shade at strata
you had not known you had,

head cloudless, body
tremoring with balm.


A fistful of tinder,
a shot glass of sugar
light-sic’d at the center
of a shorn plain.

Or my hands come to flicker
like raw birds before me
in an all-anulling noon,

the day blazed to one
void, the constellation come
down to weld the hours.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

NEW! Review of Johannes Göransson

Dear Ra: A Story in Flinches by Johannes Göransson. Starcherone Books, $16.

Reviewed by Katie Toussaint

Johannes Göransson’s Dear Ra: A Story in Flinches tears open the epistolary crypt of conscious outpouring belonging to a man who holds modern society in utter contempt. His willing descent into a disordered existence apart from the organized world is carved out in three chapters throughout which he asserts that “[t]his language doesn’t mean anything” to him. With the touch of an ultra-modern Romantic, he warps the conventional presentation of language, spinning the reader into the fast-paced confusion that becomes the cognitive whirlpool.

The initial chapter sparks into focus with “Seattle,” contemplations addressed to Ra in prose form. Göransson dabbles in varying planes of existence, as Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, presides over the underworld, the earth, and the heavens. Through the narrator’s letters, the three levels are synthesized; the reader follows his appeal as that to a divinity, only to find that what is being unfolded is “a bitter letter to [his] ex-girlfriend, an Egyptian girl named Ra who’s got the head of a hawk.” The narrator sinks to another depth, writing that he “fed hell.” Göransson overturns the traditional view of spirituality as a separation of human and divinity, of human and devil. To Ra he says, “[y]ou plucked me out of a mayhem,” hinting at the idea that an individual has the power to liberate another from chaos, as well as to stir it into being.

Göransson’s connection with the disarray of the human interior is pricked with the Romantic perception that sacrifice is necessary to the discovery of truth by the self. The narrator rips the societal filter from his musings, “revealing things about . . . private life and genitals, . . . making life seem tacky as a ghost in a parking lot.” With his frequent vulgarities, the narrator exposes the raw essences of the human presence, and so lays bare the unhindered mind. Surrounding society opposes his ways, thinks he is “blind like love, but [he is] actually blind as a highway.” The narrator, who has “always belonged to another congregation,” epitomizes the unabashed assertion of individuality, boundless despite the necessity of “hanging with hysteria and . . . not wearing any band-aids.”

Through Göransson’s narrator, the poet figure graced with both humor and insight in the midst of typicality is embodied. The narrator’s “poem” celebrates self-ridicule in a world that works too hard to conform; he admits that “[i]f forced to decipher my handwriting, you might think this was a scientific tract on the migrant patterns of birds. I’m an expert on beaks, not escape routes.” His thread of thought is thus a tangle of impulse and wondering, of questions unanswered yet glorified by the very fact that they were printed onto a page. The poet is the individual transformed into basics, into unfamiliarity, “learning how to bleach . . . hair . . . [h]ow to rain . . . [h]ow to sneak into a thrust . . . [h]ow to blare.” The everyday becomes an experiment in the unknown.

Within the second and third chapters of the book, “Found Poem” and “Spanish Harlem,” the narrator’s self-established sense of purpose streaks into awareness. He manifests the ability to create the self and, in doing so, to redefine the external world through perception. He declares, “I’ve invented a new brand of surgery—I don’t try to keep things together that should fall apart; I pluck them, I shuck them, I ship them to opposite sides of the house. I’m trying to cut the connection between ladies who crouch in my garage, knitting their lives together using nails as needles and a blue thread that looks like a vein.” Göransson reveres disharmony as the nature of things, as that which need not fall prey to the structured interference of society. His stylistic effusion of conscious thought reveals that a life is not meant to be cohesive and fully understood, but simply to be considered and lived. He defines “beauty” as a “brilliant nonsense” founded upon subjectivity. In doing so, the narrator’s torrent of perception becomes a personal triumph, a “self-inflicted mosaic” of past and present, lucidity and confusion; in this way, the internal complexities of the individual existence are conveyed in their purest sense.

The world is “searching for a concept that will rupture.” As the pages of his book flutter past, Göransson unveils the life quivering behind all things. Every letter is a burst, a flinch, an overturning of the senses and of common understanding that progresses towards a quickening state of disorder to ultimately shift and curl into a poetic sequence of introspection. Dear Ra turns madness into clarity, and back again, in a limitless riddle of what has happened, or perhaps what never did. With every flicker of thought, “[l]aughter will sound like books burning in junior high parking lots, but the bang won’t whisper and the world won’t end. It never does.”

Friday, December 11, 2009

NEW! Review of Mark Nowak

Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak. Coffee House Press, $20.

Reviewed by Brittany Taylor

The 2005 explosion at China’s Sunjiawan colliery killed 203 miners and injured nearly two dozen others. But it isn’t with the image of those trapped in the fatal shafts that poet and labor activist Mark Nowak opens his latest book. A woman, widowed at 40, is the first character sketched in Coal Mountain Elementary. She waits calmly in a room just 50 meters away from the mouth of the mine that swallowed her husband. She knew this day would come.

Though snapshots of the men—and, rarely, the women—who disappear in the mines are present and eventually overtake the story, Nowak’s opening focuses on the coal patch communities of families and friends that anxiously await the return of their men at shifts’ end, soot-covered but alive. Reflected and refracted continually, the image of the grieving widow, whether standing silent or ceremonially burning her missing husband’s possessions in fury, inserts the reader into a somber reality. As the pages turn and more lives are discovered lost, we, like the widow, know what is coming when news of yet another explosion is relayed. And we, like the widow, can only wish that there had been more time.

Coal Mountain Elementary isn’t the story of Pennsylvania or Wyoming. The focus is global, with news reports spanning the recent accident-ridden history of China’s coal industry and eyewitness accounts from the survivors of the Sago, WV, mine explosion—perhaps the most poignant tales to be found. The split focus on the two political giants of the modern world, the United States and China, highlights the enormity of the global problem of coal mining, making the reader wonder how, in the most developed country and the most quickly developing country in the world, we can allow such travesties to happen again and again to families that cannot otherwise support themselves.

Nowak emphasizes the absolute financial dependence of communities upon coal mines, many operated illegally in China. “They know the danger,” a newspaper article reports, “but still want to be coal miners because they cannot make a living on the land.” Many of the Chinese miners are illiterate peasants who receive little training, we are told. Often, they are taken into the mine the day they are recruited. While reading the excerpts from newspapers, we suddenly comprehend the push for the next generation of Chinese children to achieve higher education in order to escape the lifestyles of their forefathers. A 17-year-old girl who lost her father in a 2001 mine tragedy now fervently studies for her college entrance examinations. “My dad didn’t live a single day of a happy life,” she says, “but I will try hard to earn a happy life for my mother.” Another family has fallen to the same pressures. The father made 400 yuan a month as a security guard—not enough to send his daughter to secondary school, his wife said. As a miner, he could earn 1,000 yuan a month. “Otherwise, who would take such a job?” the woman’s sister said. “It is a job for living people working in hell.” Since undergoing this occupation change, he has been sacrificed to the pits of Sunjiawan.

Treading through woeful and desperate subject matter, Coal Mountain Elementary flows with the suspense of a narrative, each section of prose offering different pieces of information and points of view. We delve through alternating Chinese news reports and American eyewitness accounts, which make up the meat of the text. The framework of the book, however, is lessons derived from the title, a poetically divided series of activities taken from the American Coal Foundation’s curriculum for schoolchildren. By using the curriculum as a framework for the book’s three sections, Nowak transforms us into students, allowing us to learn and grow, to follow along with the students’ texts and come to our own conclusions, as children do, rather than to take on the more apathetic response shared by many adults.

The lesson plan framework also establishes rhythmic repetition, the omnipresent echo of Nowak’s exposé-like intent, notably in the second section, which urges us to consider the “costs associated with coal mining” as we take in the lifeless body of a Mr. Helm at Sago, found feet-first. As a poetic device, the lesson plans underline the images and messages Nowak expresses through the arrangement of articles and accounts. But as poetry, they are not as effective, primarily because of the dull, often technical language in which they were originally composed. The line breaks offer little additional meaning, and while emphasis can and is instilled frequently through enjambment, such emphasis is evident in the context of the news reports and eyewitness accounts.

The juxtaposition of the curriculum activities with these reports and accounts creates a dual sense of an overarching course of action and a profound sense of the unknown. Curriculum discussion questions—“What do you know about crystals? Where have you seen them?”—are bookended by an account of the loss of all communication to the mines at Sago and an article reporting that no one knows whether the 51 men trapped by the underground blast at a Chenge coal mine are alive or not. A continuation of the coal flower experiment’s procedure tempers a harried, confused account from Sago on the facing page:
Well, I do remember the dispatcher saying we had an explosion. He repeated that out loud to himself and his face—his facial expression, he was real nervous and he was trying to figure out what was going on, what we needed to do and who we needed to call and—.

The longest excerpt in Coal Mountain Elementary is an account of a man’s frantic attempts to follow procedure and alert the authorities. He calls number after number, enlisting the assistance of his wife to find outdated contacts. No one answers. Phones are disconnected, answering machines are turned off. The man waits as ring after ring falls upon absent ears. Incompetence becomes Nowak’s buzzword, trotted out when quoted excerpts recount the numerous incidents in which help arrived too late. Paired with this is the assessment section of the first lesson, urging documentation: “Either photograph / the crystals / or have the students / draw them and explain / in their own words / how they made / the flowers. / They should describe / the process / as well as the changes / they noticed over time.” The contrast between the chaotic reality of the timeline of events at Sago and that of the experiment, so measured and neatly ordered, is stark and astounding.

Nowak’s triumph here in creating the affecting and distinct Coal Mountain Elementary is almost exclusively that of the designer. The photography is the only original work present in the book, and Nowak’s own photographs seem lackluster when compared to the vividness of photojournalist Ian Teh’s stills captured in Chinese collieries. The articles quoted are from China Daily, South China Morning Post, and other national papers, and the Sago accounts are verbatim excerpts taken from the over 6,300 pages of transcripts. The material does become repetitive, particularly where the news reports are concerned, as they become more of a tally of accidents and deaths, pulling back from the more individualized focus of the earlier excerpts. But this occurs in tandem with the increase of narrative in the Sago accounts, which hone in on the rescue of one man, Mr. McCloy, told from the perspectives of numerous fellow miners. This trade-off is understandable and well-planned, though the Chinese reports become tiresome as suspense builds at Sago. One of the book’s few flaws is this excess of information and emphasis.

As a labor activist, Nowak’s intentions are clear. He seeks to educate, as the title and framework suggests, but beyond that, he seeks change for these communities for which mining is the only way of life. By weaving a book that focuses not on one individual—the miner, or the widow, alone—but rather on the community—the lost miner, his grieving family, his church, and his comrades—Nowak shouts that this is not an individual’s problem. By using material from the East and the West, he points to the fact that this is an international tragedy that occurs with horrific frequency. It is not isolated and it is not a phenomenon. Though one widow says she has no language for her feelings, that “there’s no way anybody else can understand it,” to the outsider, Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary is a lesson that imparts the somber, shocking reality of coal country.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

NEW! Review of Joanna Howard

On The Winding Stair by Joanna Howard. BOA Editions, $14.

Reviewed by Maria Ribas

Joanna Howard’s short stories flit about like phantoms--just as her characters are ethereal and haunting, her stories are framed by an aura of mystery and romance, with fleeting peaks of action. The 14 stories in On the Winding Stair range from a vignette of an encounter to a “novel in shorts” that encompasses several generations. Howard imbues all her tales with dream-like action and sidelong description, which creates a haze around the narrative that, rather than disorient, lulls the reader into her sometimes euphoric, sometimes tragic world. Her careful and practiced dismissal of the concrete allows the reader release from conventional concerns of plot and conflict, and ultimately celebrates the unknowable. Few of her stories have happy endings and none need them; they offer glimpses into reveries, into intrigue, into rediscovered pasts and unreadable futures that dispel our world and offer another. Unwinding it all is futile, and Howard poses the question in one of her stories: “Is there still the pale hope to unknot the bind? Again, I count out the factors, moving across the horizon, now, with bright allure. Forever vulnerable to the seduction of cool fingers and warning hands which announce, as though inked: Fictitious! This way does not go through to action.”

The fictions Howard inks often focus on the silvery shadows of the world rather than on the searing realities of existence. The collection opens with “Light Carried on Air Moves Less,” a tale of an unnamed pale beauty, alone in the cross section of a ramshackle farmhouse in the middle of a deserted plain, and her desperate affair with the powerful prairie wind. Watching her is a specter, who pumps a handcart along a dead-end strip of train track and wonders if it is possible “for a ghost to combust to light and ash from sheer will, just for the sake of finally being seen.” There is a scarcity of wind and, desperate to regain her lover, she strips to a chemise made of rainbow scarves and strikes seductive poses in the farmhouse turned stage. Tortured and desirous, the specter pumps his handcart ever harder until he is finally able to create an “elaborate fantastical cyclonic whirl” for the pale beauty.

The romantic, idyllic past in which many of the stories are situated is saved from garishness by a thread of the macabre that winds through the collection. Nieces dig graves for their recently murdered uncles; the body of a man swells in a canal; a Hungarian sailor poisons a gentleman and steals his daughter; the dead are ever abandoning the living, and yet their specters abound. In “Seascape,” a woman settles into the home of a dead sea captain and, even after the love between the woman and the ghost fades, still has the home: “I married the place. This was the more lasting of the two liaisons. Loving so solitary a horizon, when one has been abandoned, proves some compensation for absence.” The relations between the departed and the remaining, the sought and the searching, and the past and the present spur the charm and mystery behind these stories, which explore the intertwining of our world and a parallel mystical world.

Yet not all the stories are overtly cryptic. “In Guffy’s Plum Cricket” reveals the spiraling delirium of the narrator through a stream of consciousness, as he attacks his fellow diner, Marty, for not truly understanding the difference between the movies Guns of Navarone and Spellbound. It becomes an inner battle between Spellbound, “which marks well-reasoned, even-keeledness, understated good taste,” and Guns of Navarone, which is “hysteria and backwardness.” The narrator unwinds into insanity, ending his rant, “I know now I must be quiet if I want to move into Spellbound, a space where the bar is quite white and the floor below me is pitched and I am either scaling or slipping.” Iterations of a clash between normalcy and absurdity overflow in Howard’s prose, as it veers first to realism and simplism, then to florid fantasy.

Howard’s linguistic maneuvers are what primarily account for the vertiginous, sensory deluge of her prose. The words tumble forth, trumpeting their full sound and heralding attention: “Even Loba came down from the porch in sisal-soled slippers each spring to shake the tall branches of the mulberry tree so the dark berries would collect in the yard, so we could scoop them up in handfuls into stone bowls, our bare feet spotted bruise black with ripe mulberries.” Then each successive sentence adds to the onslaught, creating a surge of meaning, with few pauses: “Eyes like a name, her eyelids flicker. The iris capsizes. A murderer is rarely moved. Behind him, the trail of his reflection in shards. The pursuing inventors. Forward, the ruined beach.” Howard’s prose alternately whirls and unwinds, contributing to the overall aura of emotional catharsis and unrestraint.

While her words and sentences thatch together perfectly, her characters often fall to pieces, uncertain and broken. The femme fatale of “She Came From the East” views her own death in mirror shards, as a bullet rips through her body and into a funhouse mirror; the young girl of “Captive Girl for Cobbled Horsemen” wanders endlessly through a threatening wartime landscape, and the gourd farmer’s orphan ward in “The Scent of Apples” is just barely resuscitated by the neighborhood dandy. The girls, women, and phantom women of Howard’s work perpetually mourn a loss, whether it is of a lover, a family, a past, or a future. They are haunted and they haunt, flitting through the sometimes ethereal and sometimes all too real worlds of Howard’s creation. There is no end and no beginning for Howard’s stories, only a perpetual suspension in a gloaming.

Monday, December 07, 2009

NEW! Review of Zachary Schomburg

Scary, No Scary by Zachary Schomburg. Black Ocean, $12.95

Reviewed by Timothy Henry

There is an index at the back of Zachary Schomburg's second book of poetry, Scary, No Scary. Many books of poetry contain an index, usually an alphabetical list of the poems' titles. Schomburg's index, however, lists 84 themes that appear throughout the poems; for instance, “Birthday, or the idea of apologizing for missing one's party” can be found on pages 24 and 62, poems about “Leaving (and never returning)” can be found on 10 different pages, while “Sawing in half, or the idea of division” can be found on 6 pages, though you might want to also look at the poems listed under “Part-species, or hybrid species (see also Sawing in half).” Schomburg's poems, gracefully arranged across 79 pages, are just as strange and unorthodox as the index of themes, but the book's uncanny beauty isn't limited to these numerical games: this is a cohesive and (successfully) daring collection of poems, often reading like the diary of a delusional child-prodigy, with an absurd yet compelling narrative strung throughout.

As the title suggests, Scary, No Scary attempts to find the thin line (if it even exists) between terror and pleasure. What better way to do this than by relying on an adolescent's perspective, albeit a highly intelligent, highly promiscuous youth, living in a seemingly post-apocalyptic universe. The landscape of Scary, No Scary is unchartered literary territory: chandeliers made from broken dishes, nameless men and women transforming into trees, boys becoming hummingbirds, and twins named “Invisible” and “Not Invisible.” As frightening as all this might sound, Schomburg’s tone remains hilarious throughout: “Either way, let’s not just stand here/with our fingers up our butts.”

If Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is this generation’s great somber novel about the post-apocalyptic world, Scary, No Scary makes the end of modern civilization look a bit more fun, and much more psychedelic. Like The Road, Schomburg’s future universe is devoid of personal identity: “Neither of us have names / especially you.” Life is rather abundant as well, especially trees. We can all rest assured that the youth of the post-world will still be afraid of entering the woods late at night, not fearful of wild animals or witches, but fearful of finding what is “half-buried” beneath dead leaves, be it a bodiless woman or one’s own beating heart. Becoming part of the woods, too, is of great concern:
Soon you’ll be
more tree
than person.

You’ll go camping in the woods
and never come back.

Animal life is also abundant, especially insects and hummingbirds, both of which humans can randomly turn into:
How do you tell someone
their family is
tiny insects?

How do you tell someone
their boy is
a hummingbird?

Jaguars, too: “You were becoming more and more jaguar.”

But even with all this anthropomorphic action, the post-apocalyptic teenager still retains teenage desires. Unlike today’s youths, who are really only concerned with accidental pregnancy and unwelcomed transmitted diseases (if they are concerned about anything), the sexually adventurous kids of Schomburg’s future have bigger concerns, such as choosing “between floating eternally in a buoyant cage of hummingbird bones down a river of lava or a river of blood.” Break-ups, too, will take on a different form, as seen in the prose poem “Goodbye Lessons”: “I have to say goodbye . . . I will know that goodbyes are when you eat yourself to death.” In The Road, we had to be concerned with cannibalistic wanderers eating our children; in Scary, No Scary, we need to be concerned about our kids eating themselves. All concerns aside, these kids are still looking for a good place to make out:
I know a place where we can escape the dead hummingbird
problem, a pond no one knows about, cold and clean. It is fed
by a mountain stream. We can take off all our clothes there and
maybe have sex.

Scary, No Scary is organized into four sections. The first is mainly comprised of short, wonderfully sonic lyrics, reminiscent of Robert Creeley (in the midst of a bad LSD trip) or, more recently, Graham Foust (if Foust was an evil clown). These poems introduce the narrator and his views on the scarce world in which he lives. The second section consists mainly of prose poems, surreal yet darkly beautiful, like a horror-core band (comprised of musicians who really know how to play their instruments) interpreting James Tate. The final two sections are sequences, the first being “The Histories” and the second “The Pond.” “The Histories” tells a story of the narrator in his dining room (which doesn’t actually exist) setting a table with dishes beneath a chandelier (none of which exist, either) in a dark, floorless and ceiling-less house. All that exists, it seems, is the narrator, who simply describes this non-existent scene. “The Pond” may be referring to the pond where the narrator takes his lover earlier in the book, but we will never know for sure, since the narrator is unsure of everything:
At the edge of the pond
someone who looks like me
is holding hands
with someone who looks like you.
I begin to wonder who I am
because I don’t look like me.

So what are we to make of Zachary Schomburg’s universe in Scary, No Scary? Should we be fearful of what is to come after the apocalypse? Of course, but instead of being afraid of cannibals and violence, we should be afraid of morphing into hummingbirds and having to apologize for missing a friend’s birthday party. Will the end of the world bring just the “scary” or the “no scary” as well? As far as we can tell, there will be a combination of both. One of the only moments where the narrator actually tells us he is fearful of something comes from “The Black Hole”: “I’m afraid of myself.” Considering this could be said about most people today, things might not be too different. Hopefully, each day that comes after the apocalypse will flow into the next as perfectly as the movements of these poems.

Friday, December 04, 2009

NEW! Poem by Tomaž Šalamun

Tomaž Šalamun

The Birth of the Poet

The warm calf’s belly is on his
forehead. Flies buzz and crawl
into his mouth. He closes
the powerplant. He intercepts

the raft with the oar. He hits
the cherries, prepares the sling. An ox
falls like a bronze, father doesn’t. Rice is
stuck on his neck, behind his forehead.

There are rings in the cement. Their soft
wood drowns into his flame. Muscle
destroys his face. It’s scribbled. It tortures

itself and stares. His entrails are spread
as if he knew where the birds would go.
The warm calf’s belly is ripe for command.

Translated from the Slovenian by the author and Michael Thomas Taren

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Collaborative poems by Kathleen Rooney & Elisa Gabbert

Kathleen Rooney & Elisa Gabbert


A psychic who's right 100% of the time walks into a bar. Rhetorical use of the present tense aside, I should mention this takes place in the past. All the women in the bar start talking at once. For some reason they have British accents. The places looks built to withstand a million earthquakes. "Fear of a million earthquakes" was a common affliction at the turn of the century. "Sweet are the uses of adversity" was a common saying.


My doppelganger walks into a bar. He has a nasty disposition, whereas I am merely having a bad day. Does he enjoy watching forest fires? Do the patrons think we're twins? Only a certain kind of man would identify the color as "cyan." Or announce that "Rippling abs don't just appear on your midsection; you have to sculpt them." A sudden sunshower. Now he is reenacting a classic tourist photo cliché. And now I am surprised to find myself weeping.


Two drunks, evidently drunk, walk into a bar. Fact or fiction? We haven't progressed past Romanticism. The drunks read only professional literature & psychiatric case studies. You have to finesse the jargon. True or false? Would it be weird to say, there's no romance in this. Do you know the end of the story--they died.