Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Review of Sawako Nakayasu

Texture Notes by Sawako Nakayasu. Letter Machine Editions, $14.

Reviewed by Amani Morrison

Sawako Nakayasu’s collection of prose poems, Texture Notes, is “too buoyant to lay low” (“9.12.2003”), as her narrator optimistically traverses through and pontificates about a dismal existence filled with endless lists of objects (especially eyeballs) and concepts, where one suffers from “a breath of fresh air that arrives too late” (“5.26.2003”) or can “end up on the ground as a result of someone else’s good or bad intentions” (“8.12.2003”). Throughout the work, the narrator explains her experiences through references to thickness, layers, and texture, ranging from the “texture of a field of fried umbrellas” to the “thickness of the anti-tropism,” from “[l]ayers of loss” to “danger as a texture.” Drenching reality with waves of whimsy, Nakayasu constructs a world with scientific precision, in which it seems only natural for the narrator “[t]o provide a physical, chemical, psychoanalytical, or textural analysis of it. To assign it values of beauty” (“8.22.2003”).

A portion of Chris Martin’s abstract Glitter Painting appears on the front cover of Texture Notes, serving as a gatekeeper that provides as much information about the internal content as the title does. The reader cannot fully appreciate the unlikely masterpiece of “acrylic medium, spray paint, and glitter on wood” and “assign it values of beauty” before reading Nakayasu’s first entry, entitled “6.2.2003”:
Bicycle texture.

Take five radically different groups of people. The groups may radically differ in the usual categories (such as size, shape, color) or others (such as surface area, scent, hair texture, politics, emotional predicament). Lead them by the hand, and then let go and give them a choice: field of flowers, field of gold, field of dreams, field of vision, field of applicants, field of corn, field of bicycles, field of bicycles.

Martin’s painting along with the “five radically different groups of people” provide a precursor to the conglomerate pieces in the collection: they “may radically differ in the usual categories. . . or others. . . .”

Using numerically-formatted dates as titles, Nakayasu draws attention exclusively to her poetic conflagrations, persuasively inviting the reader to “relax and get fuzzy” in a seamless existence of “Needing Yellow,” “girls, women, all ages and sizes, who have. . . diarrhea like a motherfucker,” and “a four-year-old tree attaining twice its current height thanks to the tears of a widow.” Despite the informal tone and disturbing hilarity of the content, Nakayasu organizes her notes in a fashion resembling a formal paper—the first isolated line of each poem serves as a thesis statement, and the lines/paragraphs following justify the initial claim with examples and further explication, convoluted though they might be.

The self-conscious narrator (there seems to be only one) exists in a state of oxymoronic harmony—she is amused and horrified, judgmental and meek, sober and fantastical. Consider the speaker’s recount of a “nightmare about hamburgers” in this excerpt of “9.2.2003”:
I think I see a light in the distance.

Though it might very easily be a lump of fat.

But worse yet, clearer yet, I begin to smell smoke, a gas-fired barbecue. I call out, distressed and damselled to the hilt:


For lack of a better way to describe the situation—and I am quoting some long-lost love poem, and so I am.

Immediately following this poem is the equally revealing “6.3.2003”:
What do you miss about America?

A woman, a very very fat woman, I trace her and to what extent she gives, and what of her takes as I dive into her rolls, loll around and find a press, a fold, fresh laundry out of the dryer and keep tracing her, linger on the inside of her elbow, insider of her armpit, fall into her heated neck I keep tracing her with my finger her tracing her and she bites me and I go back.

As the narrator explores the textures of the world around her, she resorts to science, math, and inference to make meaning of what she finds. At times, the speaker is child-like, reverting to elementary practices and thought practices (although not necessarily language) to deduce her findings—such is the case in “6.3.2003” as the inquisitive narrator relates, “. . .I keep tracing her with my finger her tracing her and she bites me and I go back.” She guiltily confesses her unconventional behavior later in the collection, stating, “Whenever I meet new people I want to touch them first and find out their texture” (“9.19.2004”). At other instances, however, the speaker grapples with seemingly more complex subject matters, for which she employs equally complex, even impossible theories and equations, as in “10.6.2003”:
Combined sum of the texture of one word at each moment everywhere, thicker than it is true. The true number, when taking into account the combined sum, which amounts to how many false answers.

The narrator’s hyper-awareness of the eccentric and the mundane paired with her curious, exploratory nature push the reader beyond the bounds of the ordinary, stimulating contemplation of “ant-sized objects,” “Tokyo advantages,” and “the pressure of a speeding vehicle or even that of an angry nation.” However, Nakayasu does not present the reader with a narrator who is simply exploring to make mischief. On the contrary, Nakayasu’s narrator arduously seeks “layers of clarity,” to find answers to her questions and offer solutions to problems she encounters in a world where it is possible for something to be “true and false.” Consider the following excerpt from “5.28.2003,” which is also printed on the back cover of the book:
When the compression finally comes forth, allow for the bodies to settle, before measuring the resulting thickness. Measure the authenticity. Measure the artifice. Remove the artifice.

The giant shall not be held responsible for the removal of the artifice.

In Texture Notes, Sawako Nakayasu becomes a master artist as she creates a congruous cacophony of images, perceptions, problems, and word play. Nakayasu deftly ensures that “a distance, a thickness, a slightly twitching texture is created between the first and last layers, a measurable distance that surfaces out of nowhere but an internal and external longing for a presence or good word” (“11.16.2003”).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review of Franz Wright

Wheeling Motel by Franz Wright. Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95.

Reviewed by Adam Palumbo

To dismiss Franz Wright’s latest collection as melancholic or cheap (as some have done in the past) would be a tremendous disservice to American poetry. In his tenth solo collection, Wheeling Motel, Wright’s visionary aphorisms and short-lined lyrics show a weighty confidence. He has distilled issues of personal anguish, spiritual longing, and regret, which prove to be impressively robust when presented through his sparse style. But Wright does not allow these themes to constitute the heart of his work; beneath the dark wit is an astute and humble voice. He clings to faith in times of trouble and has no misgivings discoursing in a tone both self-deprecating and eerily comforting.

Wright has always been noted as a frank poet, and this characteristic does not cease in Wheeling Motel. His brutally honest appraisal of the condition of the human soul begins in quite a foreseeable place—with the poet himself. In “Out of Delusion,” he starts by considering his oeuvre spanning nearly thirty years, but confesses, “a book one wrote decades ago seems stranger than somebody else’s.” This unfamiliarity extends into the rest of the poem when he leads the reader into a quandary of perspective, admitting, “I speak in the mask of the first person not as myself.” But Wright’s poetry does not isolate itself by focusing on the constant “I”. The poet has crafted this lyric, but he doesn’t have to be the main character. The speaker spies himself walking alone, riding the subway, and, lastly, appearing at the gates of heaven, until Wright ends the poem with the most anticlimactic line of the book: “And that is a beginning.”

Wright’s preoccupation with despair and evil is not a new development for the poet. He has confronted psychological terrors in many of his earlier volumes. He has also been chased by despair for much of his lifetime, a sentiment he categorizes as universal when he bids the reader to “Call no man unhappy until he has passed, / beyond pain, / the boundary of this life.” In “Baudelaire,” the poet decrees, “Evil isn’t hard to comprehend, it is nothing / but unhappiness / in its most successful disguise.” The logic behind these statements is not revolutionary, but Wright can express these universal fears in such a heartfelt and succinct manner, and it is this kind of assertion that makes Wright so authentic and accessible. Wright would not assert that his suffering is unique, but common to all men. His honesty about drug use is striking, too. In “Kyrie” (a transliteration of the Greek Κύριε, an exclamation meaning ‘O Lord’), he begins by popping an oxycodone and ends with a prayer—quite a progression in just six couplets, but typical of the power in this collection.

Wright’s style may seem spartan, but that only serves to make his poetry more powerful. In “Will,” he shows a defiance that becomes commonplace by the end of the collection:
I would be ready,
by a rage to prove them wrong,
prove they picked the wrong child to torment

and that I too was worthy of love.

But not all of Wright’s poems dwell on dysfunction. The most outstanding moments in Wheeling Motel come when he oscillates from experiencing deep anguish to basking in the most ordinary occurrence. After bumming a cigarette from a young woman in “Günther Eich Apocrypha,” the poet forces himself into reverie, with interesting results:
Think about it.
I do. And am
for a moment
the happiest man
that I have ever known—

Wright’s language transforms the quotidian into the sublime, blatantly proclaiming the beauty in the most everyday of occurrences. His meager rhetoric is not used out of carelessness, but a desire to make each word more exposed, more influential. His short, aphoristic stanzas may employ nontraditional rhythmic modes, but they burst with experience, wisdom, and unexpected optimism.

Wheeling Motel also exudes a powerful feeling of nostalgia for family connections. In this collection he addresses nearly his whole family. Wright’s childhood was turbulent, particularly after his parents’ divorce. In “Abuse: To My Brother” he describes his childhood in terms both terrifying and magnificent:
(No one is born sad.)

There’s a gladness in everything
When it’s first breathing, a
bright naïveté
and a will to be well—
They’ll kill it and then go have breakfast.

The collection finds Wright struggling with a yearning for connection and a realization of the impossibility of being all things to all people. As longing as his voice may be, Wright does not often suggest solutions for the problems he elucidates. Thus, the absence of major figures in his life draws out of the poet an unapologetic impudence. Wright addresses “The Call” to his mother, acknowledging his failings as a son but without shying away from explaining that the mere sound of her voice irks him. Wright continues, lost in the complicated array of feelings that exist in the void between him and his mother. Ultimately, though, the void remains unexplored because the poet lets “The Call” end unanswered.

The book’s representation of the author’s late father, fellow Pulitzer-Prize winning poet James Wright, is even more complicated. In “Wheeling Motel,” the book’s title poem, the ghost of the elder Wright becomes a corporeal presence. Franz speaks directly to his father, saying, “There’s this line in an unpublished poem of yours. / The river is like that, / a blind familiar.” Wright is no doubt mournful of his father’s absence, but also continually haunted by his legacy. The disenfranchisement of the elder Wright’s poetry is reticent in his son’s, but manifests itself physically in the troubled childhood Franz experienced. Despite their problematic relationship, in the end, the poet seems appreciative of his father’s posthumous presence in the book.

Wright’s genius in Wheeling Motel lies in his ability to turn moments of fear and dread into unexpected optimisms. Throughout the collection, he yearns for happiness amidst the evil all around him. It is this satisfaction with the dichotomies of the human soul that makes Wright’s book so enrapturing. As the poet himself asserted, “We are free, in some strange way, because of our hopelessness.”

Monday, November 01, 2010

Review of Philip Fried

Cohort by Philip Fried. Salmon/Dufour, $21.95

Reviewed by Adam Palumbo

Philip Fried’s latest collection, Cohort, consists of three poems arranged as a short introduction, and then launches into a longer sequence consisting of 33 sonnets. The book operates on the understanding that the modern and the archaic converge every day on a sublime, often unconscious, level. Melding the classic form of the sonnet with rich illustrations of modern-day America’s technologic quotidian, his poetry seeks out this sublime and brings it unapologetically to the reader’s attention. His poems exude a sonic energy; he does not abuse the old form, but cracks it open to examine its past—and in doing so, signals its bright future.

Fried is both engrossed in and at odds with the modern world he observes around him. His poems cannot help but be extremely referential, aimed at a techno-savvy, specifically modern audience. But by employing both poetic language and cyber-speak, Fried creates a hybrid that speaks in emphatic, fourteen-line bursts against, as D. Nurske puts it, “the toxic side of the Information Age as it veers out of control.”

But not all of Fried’s experiences with technology and modern appliance put him on his guard. In “Reversible Swirl,” the last and title poem of the introduction, the speaker fondly reminisces on his childhood while listening to the radio, an old Zenith Tombstone. He finds himself amongst family, “grandpa, grandma, mom, dad, arrayed / behind me, the ceramic family / whose chatter cooled to the overglaze.” He fixates on the device itself, remembering the swirl pattern of the cloth covering the speaker that pulsed with noise while he pulsed with boyish excitement. This attachment to the apparatus resonates into the final lines of the poem, where the speaker realizes, “At night, the bedsprings picked up transmissions / that were bending around the edge of the future.” This end line vaults the reader from the past into the present and fuels all of Fried’s reflection on the technology-driven colloquialisms of the modern age.

Despite his nostalgic opening, the speaker subverts the reader’s expectations in his more robust sonnet sequence, aptly named “The Oral Tradition.” The book’s title poem, “Cohort,” begins this section. The speaker says:
first i was only an ignorant dot
iota in the countless cohort
unique and yet only a part

oh how many eyes devoured ignored
me but i returned the gaze

The speaker identifies himself as a piece of the collective but is oddly unsatisfied with it. Throughout these poems, the reader begins to discern the speaker’s discontent with the way the world has changed, little by little, until the speaker admits:
Our least wish is a whole other

life—who can make a meal of the incremental?
So, brother, sister, give your hands over to bric-
a-brac repairs of the possible…

Despite the multitudinous opportunities open in this new century, the speaker still feels insecure in this reality and longs for something different or more imaginative. His tone is world-weary, and he passes this attitude along to “brother, sister” who have no other options than a repair of what could be. This dissatisfaction with the modern world is presented elsewhere, too. In “Advice to the Gods,” the speaker laments the way technology has shrunk the world into a sphere that is becoming too small and too smelly. He speaks of modern transportation in a palpably negative tone, emphasizing its potential for “reducing / all that it passes to less of a place, too close / more and more local.” He also reflects on his own ineffectiveness in changing this wave of progress when he says, “I am consigliere to the gods / of travel, but they rarely consult me.” His battle with technology is one-sided, and the speaker has resigned himself, along with the rest of his cohort, to relying upon it.

However pessimistic Fried may be about the preeminence that techno-dependence has assumed in the Digital Age, his poetry is well equipped to deconstruct it. Using ancient inspiration and structuring it within the classic Western form of the sonnet, Fried infuses resonances of criticism in his “By Babylon’s flow-charts.” Coupling ambitious internal rhyming and wordplay, Fried creates his own version of Psalm 137 and echoes the Biblical poetry’s tone of condemnation, unsatisfied with “appeasing / data-gods with the ragtime of input, clicks / and bits.” Furthermore, Fried’s poetry is full of a keen sense of historical retrospective, and several of his poems reflect upon the last World War. In “Sealed Warrant,” he memorializes those that endured the Holocaust. Beginning with Kristallnacht, he summarizes the pogroms enacted against the Jews in Nazi Germany while still showing a proper respect for their experiences. As a sort of posthumous vindication, the speaker capitulates with an oxymoronic envoi: “I hereby name you, who shall go nameless, / and detain you in a limbo of secrecy.” Elsewhere, the speaker muses on memory’s morphous tendencies, proclaiming, “history is a fitful foam that bursts at your heels.”

Fried’s Cohort exercises a rich cacophony of themes and a deft use of language. But sometimes his syllabic construction falls apart into a sea of caesura and tends towards a Dickinson-esque discourse. In “Illumined Century” he includes the turn-of-phrase, “Edwina’s chaise: ‘[Lightning, blackout, eloquence] / Don’t let father die in the dark!’ The rest / is silence.” This is an example of Fried’s inclination to produce jam-packed lines; luckily this does not occur often enough to sidetrack the reader. The originality of Fried’s sonnet sequence undercuts the disconnect that the speaker feels toward his subject, but he is not trying to condemn the modern. Instead, he has reimagined the sonnet for a new century so that we as readers might “sort out our too many selves.”

Friday, October 01, 2010

NEW! Review of James Belflower

Commuter by James Belflower. Instance Press, $15.

Reviewed by Jordan Windholz

James Belflower’s debut collection, Commuter, is a difficult book. As a reader, I have a hard time making sense of the various fragments, fractures and silences that run through its sections. But this is as it should be, for Commuter does not seek to make sense of the world with which it interacts. Rather it seeks to bring the senselessness of the world—in particular, the senselessness of violence—to bear upon our quotidian routines. That is, Commuter is difficult in that it brings into focus the difficulty of reconciling a text with a self, a self with a place, and a place with other communities. Nothing in this book is stable—not even the pronoun “it”—and the power of the book is its ability to demonstrate how language “commutes” the very real violence occurring all around us into banal and less threatening systems of representation, be they metaphoric, graphic, or both.

The word “commuter,” of course, contains multiple valences. Its verbal root, commute, derives from the Latin, commuta, which is itself a merging of “com”—altogether—and “mutare”—to change. It is a word that intimates the permanence of mutability, and commuter, its particularized noun form, grafts selfhood onto, indeed positions it upon, unstable and unpredictable actions. These etymologies roil beneath the word’s most mundane denotation: a person who travels from one community to another, often for work, on a daily schedule. Ours is a world full of commuters, constantly moving, exiting and entering the communities and lives of other people, and Belflower’s Commuter recognizes this fact. It also decides not to ignore that in such a world explosions and conflict are also no longer localized, if they ever were, but that they too commute—through the news, through subways, through airplanes, and, inevitably, through language—to where any of us might be.

Commuter’s first page foregrounds the reality of violence’s proximity and possibility. The “prologue” of the book features a network of variously colored intersecting and diverging lines. This map of a generic public transportation system rests unsteadily above a news report, generalized and divorced from context:
“People combed a city’s major hospitals in search of family members who they thought were aboard the trains. “Oh please God! This can’t be happening,” said C—, 47, sobbing as she studied a patient list in vain at G— M— Hospital, seven hours after a terrorist attack. “How could a human being do this?”

Before a reader even turns the page to a matter-of-fact explanation which begins “Like / this,” the map above this quote already indicates “how” anyone could “do” anything to almost anybody; it’s simply a matter of getting on a subway line or a bus and pushing a button.

Belflower, of course, is only calling attention to something we all already know, and if Commuter stopped there, it wouldn’t be much of an achievement. The achievement of this book is its ability to resist easy associations. That is, Commuter does not attempt to synthesize conflict into digestible metaphors or narratives, and instead asks “may one […] chant metaphor into compassion”? Belflower suggests the answer is no, though this does not mean there is no room for compassion in Commuter. Belflower finds alternatives for relation, relying on the gaps between experience and events, between one person and another, to exist as sites themselves.

Rather than attempt to bridge the divide between one experience and another, Belflower calls attention to difference. Throughout Commuter, white space is a definite and locatable place, and the silence it signifies often carries as equal a weight as the words that surround it. Sometimes Belflower emphasizes white space in entirely directed ways. At one point early in Part I, the “performer” (i.e. reader) is commanded to “Wait 5 seconds on this page, then turn to the next and continue reading.” There is nothing on the page, and this first command serves as a wake-up call for the rest of the book, for on the page following this command, the “reading” that we do includes and accounts for the large strip of white space (cordoned off from text by black horizontal lines) that divides images and accounts. For instance, the simple action of “rice, rice, rice from white / mesh satchets… / / …arcs…” cannot be related to or occupy the same intellectual space as the violence that surrounds such simple, even beautiful, movement. After this simple image and across the white gulf of silence, we then read:
“So we decided to go up a side street, Ha-Rav Kook. On our way up the street, a car bomb exploded from a parking space off the side. I was struck in the leg—not by shrapnel, but some other flying object—and in my left eye. My hair was also quite singed, though I only noticed this later. Everything was hot, hot.”

How do we reconcile the two accounts? Can we? Commuter begs these questions again and again, and often pressures a reader to consider that synthesis can efface, that comparison does not necessarily mediate so much as it obstructs.

Yet Commuter does occlude violence in particular ways, or, rather, it calls attention to the way our words distance us from the violence purport to talk about. Belflower emphasizes the word “it” throughout Commuter, which can seem odd. “It” is, after all, a small word, a one syllable neuter pronoun. One section, however, maps the constantly shifting use of the word as “it” comes to signify the representation of a violent act—suggested, but never detailed—and the violent act itself. After a brief quote of an image, or video, from a digital camera, a speaker states,
doesn’t terrify me

it’s grainy, B&W, and the figures don’t scatter
as fast as I would in that schema

so it
is easier to think
they are stupid and deserve


The lines are over-wrought, even over-aestheticized, but not in a manner that indicates contrivance. Rather, the constant breaks on the small pronoun call attention to that words shifting signification, and the careful, unconscious ways anyone makes acts of violence less of a human loss. From the use of the word “figures” for “bodies” or “people,” to the grainy photograph or video that contains these “figures,” this small snippet of speech demonstrates the way even our most benign acts of representation obscure the reality of our world, and Belflower puts the simple word “it” at the center of this cover-up. Once the passage opens to these revelations about how language itself can efface lives lost or violence done, one has a hard time not reading the passage as a meta-commentary. In lines like these, Belflower shows a reader how “it’s grainy,” even as “it” poses as a “B&W” pronoun.

How can one write poetry in this environment, when even language ignores harm? Belflower never answers this question, at least not entirely. He is aware, however, of his predicament, acknowledging “this book // may be incompletely / confused // by reposing // pornography.” Like pornography, Commuter does contain explicit depictions, albeit these depictions do not eroticize violence or portray violent eroticism. Unlike pornography, however, Belflower’s documentations of violence seem to defy easy objectification. Almost in defiance of an age that saturates voyeurs with images, videos, and newsclips, Belflower gives us voices. We do not so much see as we do hear humanity in these pages.

Yet Commuter is not just about violence, and the humanity we hear in it is not just the humanity of voices recounting violence done. Throughout Commuter, we encounter what are ostensibly confessional accounts of a honeymoon; we see bodies in landscapes, “scaffolds / near the hairline // her white scarf cinched androgynously.” We hear the forthright confession, “J. and I / will probably not birth // someone,” even as we see and hear about domestic scenes:
our plates
never clean

scrub in shifts. Air
them and soak the silver-
ware in warm

Of course, running beneath these quite pictures (often literally, at the bottom of the page) are newsreel accounts of violence, near pure documentation of individual voices recounting stories of blasts and balls of fire. And this is the wonder of Commuter; it is a book about war, but it avoids the cliché or the easy politicization of war poetry. It provides the tragedy (and the comedy) of the world without burdening it with sentimentality, and it demonstrates that the comedic—the marital—and the tragic—the fatal—coincide though never in an analogous fashion.

Rarely do the intimacies of the book forthrightly interact with the violence that constitutes the landscapes of travel and quotidian experience. At one point, however, Belflower does forthrightly insists that the possibility of great violence can easily enter our domestic worlds, our honeymoons, our vacations. After a first hand account of what seems to be a terrorist attack, a litany of names runs down the page. Here, the reader is asked to “strikeout and write in names of immediate family, relatives and close friends,” and Belflower states that he reads the names of audience members when he reads this text in a public setting. It is a simple technique; but it reminds the reader that the exploded bodies seen in newspapers, on cable news, in this very book, had names, families, and relationships of their own.

It is difficult not to feel from these formal moves, to not recognize that feeling can be aroused and that sympathy can be gained for another without necessarily diverting to a metaphor, to let events and people be closer to their names. Even as Belflower’s Commuter demonstrates that words never mean what we want them to mean, it also exhibits a profound faith in language’s ability to help us navigate our world to hear and see those who inhabit it with us. It is perhaps wrong to call it a beautiful book, though it is beautiful: in its hard looks, in its sympathies, and in the pressures it places on the reader to look, and to look again. It is beautiful in that it attempts to see the humanity in another without reconstituting that other in terms that negate their difference. And in doing this, Belflower forces us to wrestle with all the ways we are the same.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Review of Sueyeun Juliette Lee

Underground National by Sueyeun Juliette Lee. Factory School, $15.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

Underground National, Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s second book, consists of six sizeable poems, the two shortest of which each span six pages. The book’s dedication casts what follows in a political frame: “For all who’ve suffered the multi-generational consequences of nation-building. May the shapes of the future arise from a renewed imagination.” Specifically referring to the two postcolonial Koreas, their diaspora, and the dream of reunification, the poet probes facets of this suffering and its complex causes, harbingers of renewal, and questions about how “shapes of” a better “future” are thwarted or cultivated.

The opening poem, “Korea, What Is,” spans 34 pages, each one featuring a unit or two of prose blocks, verse, or computer photo. Lee’s “Notes to the Text” speaks of a “density of materials” that found their way into this poem and documents source texts ranging from the CIA’s World Factbook, news articles in The New York Times and Time, global affairs experts’ editorial texts, blogs and other websites, and postcolonial scholarship. Frequently, “texts” have been “altered. . . through erasure, lineation, or rewrites of short phrases.” Lee’s collage method sometimes presents various attempts in the source texts to say “What” “Korea” “Is,” and sometimes pulverizes them beyond ready contextualization. Further, the juxtaposition of disparate points of view undermines the ability of premature, rigid, narrow, or ahistorical definitions of a people or a political structure to gain authority.

Regarding the movement toward a desired collapse of the current North Korean regime and possible reunification, the poet cites a prediction involving seven phases, with three of them missing:
Phase one: resource depletion.
Phase two: infrastructural failure.
Phase three:
Phase four:
Phase five: active resistance.
Phase six:
Phase seven: the formation of a new national leadership.

These omissions suggest the poet’s resistance to any U.S. pundits’ smug graphing of precisely how the fate of both Koreas and possibilities of reunification will “play out.” While an end to the military dictatorship of Kim Jong-Il and his family is surely a desirable outcome, there is no guarantee that “a new national leadership” would be a distinct improvement.

South Korea’s vulnerability, of course, is not confined to the North, but also involves its position on the world stage. At various points in the poem, there are allusions to South Koreans’ mistrust of U.S. military presence in their nation: “’whose armored vehicle crushed two schoolgirls to death.” One passage actually comes from a New York Times article about incidents early in the Korean War: “who won a warm spot in the hearts of the populace when he entered this capital as a liberator nearly three months ago, now is regarded with suspicion by many.” For 60 years, doubts about U.S. intervention in Korean affairs have surfaced, and this must be particularly unsettling for a poet of Korean descent who was born and has always lived in the U.S. A noted Korean farmer-activist and martyr, Lee Kyung Hae, is quoted as declaring that “human beings are in an endangered situation” because “a small number of big WTO members are leading an undesirable globalization. . .”

It is arguable, perhaps, that Lee presents multinational corporate platforms enabling Korean youths to fashion a semblance of identity and a tacit sharing of national pride on the basis of culture: “Kim Tae Yeon is “Single” Again Girls’/ Generation leader and I got konglish lyrics. . ./ about to take a drastic change as a viable option/ for Kangin Come Party with Se7en in Atlanta/ featuring Lil Kim/ through a fancam at the Gimpo Airport. . . ./ Kim Yoo Jin Joins After School + Diva Teaser.” However, such collages can also underscore the triviality and ephemeral quality of pop cultural topoi fostered by Web 2.0’s blinding speed, as well as the implication of a widening generation gap—hardly conducive to national unity.

Various references to the suicides of pop stars, a former South Korean President, and “’the suicide capital of Asia’” indicate that social and economic pressures—and perhaps the very problems of national identity and nation-building—are troubling the mental health of the more prosperous Korea’s citizens: “Lee Seo Hyun left a note saying sorry to his parents as well as to his fellow church-mates. The reason for his suicide: failed stock investments, a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of borrowed money”; “’But Teacher! What if you have so many money in debt and not good job? Then maybe making suicide is best choice’.” The false plural “many” in the borrowed language of world commerce underscores a threatening destabilization of currency’s unitary flow.

One might be buoyed by “a ‘united Korean anthem’ created by blending the melodies of the nations’ anthems seamlessly. . . to promote Korean re-unification.” However, any idealism risks corruption, as Lee indicates on a page near the end of the poem by interspersing snippets of Kim Jong-Il’s Juche (self-reliance) philosophy about “man’s” “position and role as dominator and transformer of the world,” the narrative of a young woman’s abduction by an older man, and a theorization of “the spread of a political order,” colonialism, as inscribing “in the social world a new conception of space, new forms of personhood, and a new means of manufacturing the experience of the real.” Though homegrown, Kim Jong Il’s “manufacture” of “the experience of the real” for his citizens might be as masculinist and coercive as that of the colonial powers that preceded him, and indeed, he probably learned strategies of control from the occupiers.

Perhaps to signal aspirations, there are images floating through different parts of the poem (and returning twice in a later poem) of kites, which were used by the Korean hero Admiral Yi to relay information that helped turn back a Japanese naval assault in the late 16th century. Lee makes the kite a trope for the longing for a liminal experience:
A cross-kite. My link to the sky, pinned up into wafting blueness there. Grafted together, folded like a paper coat, a hidden oath like a never worn golden ring. Wait—I thought this was the beginning of my skin. ‘[T]hat may be an indication of what lies ahead.”

Kites: between two impossible states. A tug and pull enforced by sky’s restless dreaming, contrary wakefulness of earth, nerve-like. Flicker feeling in the flesh, cast free but held.

In these passages, among the most lyrical in a poem incorporating disparate kinds of discourse, the “link to the sky” seems a desire for access to a space that affords the imaginative reconstruction of a homeland for diasporic subjects. This includes finding an opportunity to pledge fealty to a nation, to wear a precious token of fidelity, but this is difficult if the terms of the “oath” or “vow” are unknown. These subjects exist in the “impossible state” of disjunction between their own lived experience and that of their ancestors’ existence in a nation-“state” that is “impossible” to re-enter, as postcolonial history has changed it so extensively. To relinquish tense “wakefulness” on earth and to surrender to the kite’s “dream” of travel to origins may seem available in the “flicker feeling in the flesh,” captured by alliterative frissons. However, the phrase, “cast free but held,” reminds us that the kite will not transport the body; the individual will either limit the kite’s trajectory or will let it go and see what happens. “Korea, What Is” does not anchor “Korea” to any definition. Various scraps of definition and processes of de-definition are held aloft to catch divergent “winds.”

Another potent poem of nation-probing is “(the underground national didn’t blow up) for want of love.” In this text, short and medium-sized paragraphs tend to be the norm, with lines of verse used more infrequently. The title foregrounds ambiguity. If parentheses are seen to separate the title’s two units, it suggests two divergent themes of a near-explosion and something occurring due to lack of love. And perhaps the reversal of where parentheses usually go—around a second phrase or clause—emphasizes this doubleness. However, if we read a continuity into the two parts of the title, then we may assume that a blow-up has occurred despite the existence of love. Further, “underground national,” the book’s title, seems to signify Kim Jong Il’s “nation-building” gesture of staging “an underground nuclear explosion near P’unggye on October 9, 2006,” as the Korean Central News Agency reported, and yet “underground” also suggests a covert resistance to Kim’s regime.

The poem supports this ambiguity by interspersing images that might relate to the problems of love relationships with fragments hinting at numerous aspects of the explosion and contexts surrounding it:
A plenary approach between two foreign bodies, what the sky dreamed as we all fell still. Confluence of isolations, most certain. I am confused, dumbstruck ((deadly pale))—it tickles when I touch you there, there. “I am not quite comfortable.”

“was born into this system and is in a sense a prisoner of it himself”

A tectonic pulse, another way to imagine a breach, or what else stands against the DMZ.

Intimately placed “bodies” and nations are “foreign” to and perhaps “’not quite comfortable’” with one another. Love is “explosive,” not only in an orgasmic sense, but in the vulnerability it creates. The pulsing “underground” of each lover’s unconscious encourages one “to imagine a breach” with consciousness and a “DMZ” thwarting mutual recognition of the unconscious impulses of the two. Subterranean communication disrupts the best intentioned efforts of conscious dialogue. Perhaps lovers are “born into [a] system” of signification that may imprison them in a paradoxical “confluence of isolations.”

The most obvious subject of the quoted fragment in the middle of the passage above is Kim Jong-Il, who inherited power from his father and might not have insight about how to transform his “system” into something that would diminish the culture of fear and improve the country’s dire economic situation. Further, he may not know how to communicate with the international community (or with the South) in a less reactive, more nuanced way than flexing nuclear muscles.

By placing in relation numerous sub-contexts within the situation of the underground explosion, Lee suggests that provisional understanding of the historical dynamic comprises a resistance to any conceptual reduction. She gives us indications of the violence of the explosion, its impact on local citizens who “had no idea anything was wrong” and on the environment, the sense in the North of “a slow starvation on a mass scale” yet “no sign of a verging popular revolt,” the North Korean government’s assertion that the explosion constitutes “’a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous powerful socialist nation’” and “an ‘historic event that brought happiness to our military and people’,” and international responses and forecasts of reprisals: “’and the international community will respond’”; “risking even further isolation.” Attention to all these particulars is neither partisan nor disinterested; Lee evinces a distinct love for future realizations of the “national” through “underground” and gradually unearthed speculation and action. To return to the dedication with which I began, brutal power relations involved in colonial and neocolonial “nation-building” is precisely what the movement toward critical articulation of the national intends to overcome.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Review of Ana Bozicevic

Stars of the Night Commute by Ana Bozicevic. Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Mary Austin Speaker

Ana Bozicevic was born in Croatia and emigrated to New York City when she was 19. Although it is dangerous to make presumptions about the way one’s biography inflects their poetry, I think it’s helpful to consider the conditions of Ana Bozicevic’s native country when she left it. Croatia’s is a history of conflict in which voices speak over each other. Stars of the Night Commute, the author’s first collection of poems, suggests that since her emigration she has been learning how to write her own history while rejecting the very idea of writing history. Bozicevic’s poems offer a record of a mind continually working against an understandable past. They are non-narrative yet intimate. They are, at times, scenic, although the rooms she creates are not the actual rooms of the poem, but they may in fact be the rooms that you yourself have waited in. Say the room has a table with a white table cloth. This could be any room, but the way Ana Bozicevic directs our attention to the tablecloth suggests that this room exists for everyone. We are constantly going back to it and yet we never know exactly what we are waiting for. Everyone has one of these rooms. Ana writes, sometimes, from this room.

Fanny Howe has written of bewilderment as both poetics and ethics—a bewilderment born of “an irreconcilable set of imperatives. . . a double bind established in childhood” that results, inevitably, in uncertainty. If Fanny Howe has carved out a space for a poetics that is ultimately unquantifiable, and which offers a practice of living and writing as a way of revering the unexplainable, Ana Bozicevic’s poems certainly participate in this tradition. She achieves bewilderment through abrupt shifts in syntax and tone (this reader’s favorite being the excited address of a nostril, that humblest of body parts), as well as a stubborn refusal of the power of accepted beauty. Light, birds, each of these are teased, off-handedly rejected, just as they are reclaimed—but it is the poet’s attention—not the inherent characteristic of the thing itself— which defines the beautiful— how the thing itself is seen, and Ana Bozicevic’s book understands the fickleness of a bewildered attention.

Bewilderment is not lamented— it is celebrated in all its raw, staccato energy. The poems in Stars of the Night Commute disrupt, they bother, they tease, they nudge and cajole and apostrophe. We are not to be hypnotized (although some poems are inarguably gorgeous). We are not to fall lamely under a sonorous spell (although some poems use sound masterfully to prick our ears). We are supposed to pay attention, and if we don’t recognize what’s been placed in front of us, she’s betting on the fact that we have, regardless, understood a mood, a tone, a something, and that, without the architecture of more linear poetry, is exactly what makes her work an experience unto itself. Her poems laugh at themselves, and they laugh at you. They also weep at themselves and weep at you. And complain and instruct and adore and puzzle.

The poems of Stars of the Night Commute play with our notions of the utterable. How does one convey beauty without commodifying it, betraying it? How does one write about violence, even war, without betraying them? Perhaps one has to obliterate in order to build something new. Or perhaps one simply has to provide enough disruption along the way so as to offer meaning in discrete packages— like chapbooks.

M.L. Rosenthal’s Genius of the Poetic Sequence posited in 1986 that the sequence was ultimately poetry’s most lasting and vital form, and the steady growth in critical attention to the chapbook in recent years might very well confirm Rosenthal’s supposition. Ana Bozicevic’s work seems to grasp this notion implicitly—most of her book was presented first as a series of chapbooks, each with a discrete tone, endeavor, subject, and the poems themselves often operate this way as well. Why not try a poetics that allows for the outcome to be at turns musical, spastic, unpredictable, thrilling? The drama of how a tone offers its subject can be, it would appear, a shield against a subject’s perceived (tired) meaning. Ana Bozicevic’s poems are punctuated by exclamation points in unexpected places, wrinkled with asides from the poem’s recesses, and even deliberately broken up by words that have lost meaning due to overuse and overkill. This dance between the things of the obviously poetic— birds, light, small animals— and the things of the pedestrian life— VHS tapes, has-beens, commuters— serves the poet well to provide enough static for the reader to understand Stars of the Night Commute as a thing very much of the world in which we live. It acts out claim at the book’s outset, that the poem “can no longer be remote.”

So how is intimacy expressed amid this cacophony of things? It springs from the same place we find intimacy in our daily lives. Often over the course of this collection, the poems resemble scraps culled from a conversation between two people, each of whom expects something of the other and in this way the book itself is sort of like an eclogue— one voice perpetually interrogating the other— but the voices switch roles, obliterating a graspable sense of a speaker, yet never evading a sense of expectation— indeed, intimacy does not exist apart from expectation. Reading Stars of the Night Commute offers a paradoxical reading experience—a tone that suggests an uneasy, cajoling vulnerability is coupled with a syntax which at turns holds the reader at bay (like one who has only just approached an ongoing conversation) and invites her in with the sudden slowing of attention that provides the opportunity for a peculiar, personal music that is at once apart from and very much surrounded by the world:
(O traveler. Grey star.

From your hat, when you upend it,
your small family upturn their faces.)

And morningly
nebulae, red-throated
typestrokes of

What is expectation in a book of poems? Ana Bozicevic might deny that she sets up any expectation at all. Or she might view expectation as an opportunity for subversion, a kind of poetic bait-and-switch that diverts the reader’s attention with the spectacle of humor, ridiculousness, jokes, while sneaking in the things that are most difficult to say, or even opening up opportunities for us to discover them ourselves. This sidling up, this inadvertent conveyance of meaning allows us to participate in the author’s bewilderment, to experience the world the way we do when we have just grasped a joke— the moment of recognition, the psychological sense of inclusion, the bubble of laughter making its way to the surface.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review of Michelle Taransky

Barn Burned, Then by Michelle Taransky. Omnidawn Publishing, $14.95.

Review by Lindsay Kathleen Turner

Selected by Marjorie Welish as the winner of the 2008 Omnidawn Poetry Contest, Michelle Taransky’s first collection of poems, Barn Burned, Then, takes its title from a haiku by Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down / now / I can see the moon.” Structured into two sections, “Barn Book” and “Bank Book,” Taransky’s work places us immediately and fully into the space created by loss and its aftermath: lines are spare and usually quite short, images are as bare and fragile as the half-burnt rafters of the half-present barn, and throughout the book a certain repertory of words—drawn from both financial and agricultural registers—repeats and recurs, as if the repository of language itself had, along with its storehouse, gone up in smoke.

Indeed, the operating principles behind Taransky’s poems seem themselves to be informed by an economy of loss, by the tension of scarcity. Meanings are questioned and revised as line follows line, and in the absence of an abundance of words, many of Taransky’s are called upon to operate in several possible positions at once. Take, for example, the opening of the poem “Barn Burner, If”:
What lies down here
Does not call for
The plan

Its facts of carve
and split something […]

Here—as with the book as a whole—the meaning of the lines shifts dramatically depending on whether or not we read continuously from the title into the poem, as grammatical structure invites us to do, or whether we discard this structure in favor of a standard separation between title and poem—and, thus, a stable statement of “its facts” rather than a situation of if/then contingency. But even the “facts” seem undermined by the sort of anthimeria characteristic of Taransky’s work: the evocative “facts of carve” becomes the destructive action “carve and split,” and we are left with no “fact” at all to fall back on.

But it’s not only the meanings of words that Taransky works to destabilize; on both semantic and grammatical levels, the experience of reading Barn Burned, Then is not unlike the attempt to keep one’s balance on a galloping horse described—or, more accurately, replicated—in another poem in the collection (titled, joltingly as well as perhaps jokingly, “How To Keep / Your Balance / On A”). Returning to “Barn Burner, If”: the poem ends with the conclusion of the conditional construction begun in its title:
If ovate

… Blaze the
Bricks will

I don’t stop for

Then the yearling
Loses touch

Here the conditional is strangely doubled, however: the blaze, already figured by the book’s title as occasioning force, is now what follows an empty space and is contingent upon the “if ovate” as well as the previous “barn burner.” By the end of this spare poem, it is impossible to determine where the if/then construction begins or ends, which “if” follows which “then,” which force affects which entity; the space of the poem is one in which grammatical structures serve to question the ideas of causality and contingency they evoke. In other words, the emptiness opened by the loss of the barn becomes the site of an intense and unresolved investigation of language.

The examination of the space of loss at the core of Barn Burned, Then, however, is not solely a problem of language. If the poems’ structural and linguistic ambiguities function to further their creation, their semantic ones point to something gone awry both inside and outside the book. The fact that certain words are called upon to sustain multiple meanings is not only an act of semantic disturbance; it is also a chilling way to evoke a certain cultural moment: the literal destruction of farms, barns, homes, and lives in the wake of contemporary economic failure.

In the “Great Foundation I Dug Out,” Taransky writes of
a once

dead barn swallow—

now full of change

and falling

it is an anvil

stuffed with wild

weeds I saved to open up

an account

In these eight short but impossibly knotty lines, it seems that both language and economics have collapsed into each other, and collapsed in general: the destroyed barn names its now-dead denizen, the natural “change” from life to death bears both the echo and the weight of the nickels and dimes that could have saved but have in a certain sense destroyed both swallow and barn, the bird itself becomes a kind of repository, a fragile “safe,” and the speaker’s “account” is in the end both a financial and representational problem. Indeed, a partial list of the words that echo, doubled and redoubled in meaning, throughout the book points to the extent to which writing and language are implicated with a destructive economic system: change / exchange, prints / imprints, counts / count / account, tell / teller, bank, safe, note / notes. Elsewhere in the book, in the same way that the verb “to tell” (a story) becomes (bank) “teller,” the verb “to add” (as one would one’s life savings) becomes, terrifyingly, “adders”: the close association of registers is clearly no benign condensation.

Barn Burned, Then is, then, ultimately both a politicized examination of language and a linguistic—and remarkably lyrical—examination of the political. This double action is not ultimately surprising, given that Taransky locates herself clearly and deliberately as drawing on the work of both Language poetry and of Objectivism; the first section of the book begins with epigrams from George Oppen and Charles Bernstein. What is perhaps more surprising is the quietness with which Taransky mounts her critique—remarkable given the scope of her project and especially refreshing in a first book from a younger poet. Even as it multiplies meanings and referents and further pulls apart a world already almost destroyed, the book rarely fails to evoke a certain closeness and smallness of scale that remain accessible through and to the poems: take, for example, the end of “Barn Burner, If” (“Then the yearling / loses touch”) or the delicacy with which the barn swallow cited earlier appears and falls.

It might be possible to trace this intimacy of the concrete back to Williams, or back again to the haiku tradition already mentioned. Barn Burned, Then also brings to mind the work of Lorine Niedecker, a poet deeply and personally impacted by economic depression and loss of home and property; what Rachel Blau DuPlessis wrote in The Kenyon Review (spring 1992) of Niedecker’s work—that in it “the haiku-lyric… may even offer its own barbed commentary on monstrous, overweening cultural ambitions”—seems equally appropriate to Taransky’s. But in any case, Taransky’s book is less an illustration or evocation of other schools or other writers, or even of its moment of political and linguistic crisis, than it is—in the wake of destruction—the construction of a solid and satisfying “statement // to take the barn’s place.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

NEW! Poems by G.C. Waldrep

G.C. Waldrep


Why does everything
have to be
a Native American
burial ground.

I have not set fire
to any visiting poets.

You look through
the kaleidoscope, and
Russia looks back.

Ants the size of
people. Little church

Swine flu on campus
means nothing
much. Wood ducks
fly through it.

The bank clerk
pretends to examine
the watermark.

Flagstone, crisp
as a cathedral apron.

An idea of residence:
we live here.
Lichens drift past us
in the swan boats.

There are no rules
for theater. Toppling
into the eulogy:

Interferon, various
prostheses made of wax.

Darfur is not
a medical experiment.

Visible spectrum.
Your left hand opens
in real time.

Sand dunes, sand
storm. Faint crescent,
puma, cloudy sky.


Try thinking of Jamaica
as a search-&-rescue mission.

The third thing is
the noumenal, by which
we mean advertising
when we aren’t around.

A tentative dislodging.
Man-in-boat, man-in-
cave formation.

Marsh grass. Shallow.

The president announces
new household gods.
I burned myself
trying to light the fire.

There was this weird
noise. And we got there,

the little prayer flags
beating time with capitalism.

No, the book report
is not a lyric form, unless
it’s a book about
constellations, or sand.

The largest unbranched
inflorescence is the titan arum.

Nothing new is hiding
in the trees, you said.

A living dog being better
than a dead lion,
we left the child in peace.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

NEW! Poem by William Pettit

William Pettit

The Opposite of a Dog

The scars of boredom
On this constant heap

Add some white wisdom to her suffrage
If turned around and sent aloft
From dug cube under marked stone to omnipotence
As the white roses on that soil bloom and pass

She stays with me and my songs
What a godly companion
What a furry beating

Monday, May 31, 2010

NEW! Poem by Tomaz Salamun

Tomaz Salamun


What is the sea? The sea is the forehead.
What is the forehead? The forehead is the night.
What is the sand? The sand is the dawn.
What is the dawn? The dawn is the king.
The king is the donned man.
The donned man carries the burden.

What is the sack? The sack is garbage.
What is garbage? Garbage is the wheel?
What is the color? The color is gas.
What is the gas? The gas is the child.
The child hugs the Bible.
Smash his Bible.

What is carrying? Carrying is delight.
What is delight? Delight is Bach.
What is the wisdom? The wisdom is silence.
The silence is number four.
Four, crossed and encircled.

Translated from the Slovenian by Michael Thomas Taren and the author

Monday, February 15, 2010

NEW! Poems by Ali Lanzetta

Ali Lanzetta

the invention of water

. . . our last page waits with cold wings furled, can't stand a cold angel, shut up like cherry-buds. we relate by smelling cut grass, grass on one side of the path dappled, dappled grass on one side where the morning hasn't turned the water out, we are waterwheels turning with dreams left running, wasting, turning our weeks over like soil, like eroded fields of sweet found red places we hold in memory of ripeness, we hold in our palms like baby birds, write the numbers in our palms with the juice of. afraid with the shame of children, stitching twigs and stems to hold the gaps and gullies together. palming the wet ground to make sure we're not growing dreams we can't pronounce, dream composers who say play soft, play loud, play one, two, three, four again, again. the pained grace painted on our collarbones, stone lips mysteried by ellipses, the infertile seedlings lined up, sprouts lifted up out of the garden to feed birds who hang on reaching branches, old moments reaching the reach of thieves, creeping under closed doors, seeping into wine vats, fluttering in by dusted sunbeams are found floating belly-up in our glasses, sunken in the pulses of peppermint, ginger, thyme, fire-blue flowers that fall. the partial story pressed between pages of us collected, our handwriting fades, our bent letters still laced across the doorways like poppy-pods, the theater of our averted eyes revolving around the past like strung stars, both burning and restrained, filling the distance. rotting plums, stitched to our paper crowns, crown me with your pasteboard pomegranates and turn me under, harvest me, tell me i am here and you are there. let our bones fall back to the ground.

bird-colored glass: an installation

red side of september mom's belly ripening up like the last apple, october scarecrow decorate dead grass pumpkin gut scooped out with a wooden spoon for smoothing, spanking, stirring. splinter-palm grains of pine drying in the sun. wrapped in yarn in blankets november, papery crimson stir of memory november, bare branch witch-finger in needle-rain november, heavy yellow moon harvest the last of the leaves and the wind and a flat glass bird-girl is born. first hard lemon winter light to look through, suspend a winter bird against the storm windows, twist of black sky tilted with the weight of first things, suspending time. birch bark. sharp-tipped. chancy. skinny arms held full to empty. black sky fills with clean stars like april rain in a slatted barrel.

hurricane lamp and emergency candles waiting in the antique icebox with the punchbowl. elaborate raw wooden walls waiting for bird. pictures drawn in knotty pine, ghost-branches lopped off, old wounds make knots to inherit, good topsoil-colored eyes and big brother has nightmares about, red fox chase a boy though the garden, hit over the head with a frying pan, flung over the moon and gone. down the short wooden hallway glass bird sleeps like a puppy, little folded wings limp in dreams of running the yard to flying. unable to sustain taller breaths between dreamgrass and brown belly, pesky inability to maintain little ribcage horizontal to sky, birds float down the edges, undone shoestring walls of, the dream keeps coming but doesn't get there. here, where bird learns almost. learns early. is not afraid of falling.

biography of bird is written in the path through the orchard in apple seeds. biography of bird is spelled wrong, word-combining, letters dyslexic, scratched in the mud with bare toes, hourglass-textured, circus-colored. biography of bird is buried in faded photos of the family couch for nobody to find. ask and mom won't tell. mom whose belly swelled up for autumn, for sunshot maple leaves raked up, for the dying of things, for the branches poking cold nimbly fingers at the skyline like reaching at in sleep, as in a dream, as in a muddle, as moth-eaten map, premonition of tumbling, of things pulling apart, just slightly. biography of bird a swallowed flower, or a muffle for the garden asleep under snow

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

NEW! Review of Maile Meloy

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. Riverhead Books, $25.95.

Reviewed by Katy Einerson

Maile Meloy’s second short story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It seems to hover quietly above the threshold of some immanent yet unnamed private disaster as her characters repeatedly gasp for balance in their tangled lives. The individuals in each of her eleven stories struggle with impossibility—wanting while having, remembering while forgetting, constancy amid change. They are caught on both sides of a widening chasm, knowing that a flutter of movement, any decision, offers only uncertain gain and the irrecoverable loss of possibility.

Meloy takes the title of her collection from a poem by A.R. Ammons, which she also offers as an epigraph:
One can’t
have it

both ways
and both

ways is
the only

way I
want it.

Ammons’ poem seems to insist on collapsing Hamlet’s classic skeptical dilemma, however futilely, and Meloy in turn places it in the sphere of modern American realism. The compact intensity of Ammons’ poetic voice is traceable in Meloy’s own narrative style: she writes with a certain assured concision as she exposes her characters’ inner psyches with illuminating selectivity. Her realism is an emotional one; as an observer she is poised and precise, her narration omniscient and deeply honest. Her stories unfold as though unhindered by artifice—as if they had already existed when she found them.

Meloy’s versatility emerges in this collection as her narrative voice takes on the perspective of a dejected factory worker coping with the death of his best friend, an affluent doctor on a family ski trip, a lonely ranch hand in love with an out-of-town lawyer, a wealthy and aging Argentinean aristocrat, a nine-year-old girl entangled in her mother’s unstable relationship, and the grieving father of a murder victim, among others. The backdrop is largely American and nearly half the stories are set in Montana, Meloy’s home state. Meloy’s Montana has an intensely private quality to it, as if it is hiding from some larger American stage. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It is marked by a fierce, almost reclusive interiority. Her characters appear most frequently in the midst of their domestic lives. We find them at home, in their kitchens, like Alice in “Two Step,” crumbling at the thought of her cheating husband, not once suspecting that the woman who has come to comfort her is her rival. Or they are small families traveling together, like Sam and her father on a summer canoeing trip in “Red from Green,” or Everett and Pam cutting down a Christmas tree with their little daughter in “O Tannenbaum.” Or we simply find them alone, like Chet Moran feeding cows in winter in “Travis, B.” and Steven Kelley in “Lovely Rita,” orphaned and glumly employed at the local power plant.

The collection is consistently more isolating than it is intimate. In “The Girlfriend,” Meloy’s most outwardly troubling story, a man, Leo, confronts a young woman behind the closed curtains of a Montana hotel room. She is the girlfriend of his daughter’s killer, and despite an already guilty verdict, he has pulled her into this dark, enclosed space, still searching for an explanation for his daughter’s death. Leo’s grief boils into imaginary violence as he fantasizes about attacking the murderer in court, hearing “the satisfying pop of the trachea, the sudden flow of blood.” The eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Sasha, is an obstacle he cannot negotiate. She offers him sex, which he first refuses, repulsed. But as the senselessness of his daughter’s death seizes him, he becomes manic, manipulative: “He had the wild thought that if he did fuck her, he could control her. And if he could control one small part of the situation, he might come out the other side a man who could live with himself, a man who could sleep. Or he might destroy what life he had left.” He no longer seeks justice, even revenge, so much as selfish peace of mind, and he is willing to take it at any cost. He hunts it with a leonine energy that at times overshadows his paternal sorrow, thrilled with “the excitement of the chase, of discovery.” The discovery he finally unearths is more crippling than he’d imagined and pins him even more acutely in his grief, leaving him nothing but empty time, “decades . . . for him not to forgive himself.”

Loneliness and abandonment find their echoes in every story. In “Red from Green,” Sam, a young teenage girl, embarks on a canoe trip with her father, uncle, and a witness in one of her uncle’s court cases. The witness, Layton, takes an interest in Sam and develops the beginning of a friendship. One night as Layton, Sam, and her father sit around the campfire, her father abruptly rises and goes to his tent. Alone with Sam, Layton’s attention becomes physical and, to her, frightening. She escapes to her tent and the incident passes without remark. When the trip is over Sam continues to be troubled by her father’s leaving. Had he meant to desert her? Did he know what would happen? In this story Meloy captures the uncertainty of adolescence—the notion that somehow, somewhere, something has been gained and something lost. Sam finds herself sliding along a continuum, between the green of innocence and the red of experience. Her newfound experience is perhaps made more disquieting with the consciousness that it was not one she forged for herself, but one she was abandoned to.

Even Meloy’s most domestic settings lack familial warmth. The precarious subtexts of marital and sexual relationships figure prominently in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, and it is in the face of adultery that her characters seem to most fully want it both ways. She exposes simultaneously who her characters are and who they’d rather be. In “Two Step,” Alice and Naomi talk over tea in Alice’s kitchen on a wintry Montana evening. Alice is distraught and suspects that her husband is being unfaithful. The dance becomes verbal as Meloy seamlessly establishes dramatic irony: Naomi is her husband’s lover and she is there under the guise of a comforting shoulder, with a slightly perverse desire to discover how much Alice knows. When the husband comes home the kitchen floor seems to fall out and each character is left to grapple for footing in the now unfamiliar space. Alliances are uncertain and disaster seems to be edging in when the husband takes Alice in his arms and twirls her around the kitchen, leaving Naomi to slink out the back door and into his car. Stability is pitted against fulfillment; the desire of one can never fully extinguish the other, and each character is left to wait and hope.

Dialogue plays a provisional role in Meloy’s stories, and the relationships she constructs seem to question the plausibility of honest human communication. Well-founded trust is hard to come by. “The Children” is another story of a husband torn between the comfort of familiarity, the pleasure of fidelity, and the satisfaction of his private desires. The opening epigraph surfaces once again in the context of this story, as the husband lies next to his wife while thinking of his lover. He repeats the poem to himself, which his daughter had brought home from college:
“Both ways is the only way I want it.” The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way? . . . He held his wife and felt himself anchored to everything that was safe and sure, and kept for himself the knowledge of how quickly he could let go and drift free.

In an odd way, Meloy seems to link the pursuit and fulfillment of desire with shame. Her characters hide what they want, and are frequently embarrassed by it. Fielding, the husband in “The Children,” cannot bring himself to disrupt his family with his affair and expose himself to his wife’s and children’s judgment. Similarly, Augustín, a wealthy Argentinean aristocrat, is in love with a maid in his eponymous short story, and goes to propose to her upon finding her after many years. When he was younger he had been “too afraid of his teenage daughters to offer her marriage.” But this time it is she who is unwilling to expose herself to the hatred and ridicule of family and society, preferring the honest work of providing for her son. It is not so much a tone of judgment that Meloy adopts in these stories, but rather an exposure of the sincere difficulty of pursuing personal happiness in the face of public disapproval. This fear of disrupting the status quo seems to be what drives her characters so deeply inward.

This profound inwardness can at times create an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Meloy writes of Fielding, who is thinking of his lover, “All he wanted was to preserve that feeling, of the two of them alone together, and make all obstacles to it go away.” This continued desire to retreat and hide from society becomes oddly stifling, especially in the context of the wide-open Montana horizons. But opening up and self-exposure are dangerous games in Meloy’s fiction. Strangers and outsiders are frequently presented as threats to whatever fragile stability her characters hold on to. Layton in “Red from Green” is one such dangerous outsider. “O Tannenbaum” also clearly identifies outsiders as ominous and menacing. The family stops along the side of the road for two hitchhikers, another couple, who went out cross-country skiing and lost their car. Pam, the wife, wants to drive away and preserve her family’s self-contained security. Everett, her husband, reasons you “can’t leave people in the snow” on Christmas and they take them in to help look for their car. The tension mounts as the two strangers reveal their names as Bonnie and Clyde. But even as the passengers prove themselves to be physically peaceful, another threat arises as Pam notices sexual tension between Bonnie and her husband. Memories of her husband’s previous infidelity come back, and we are again in the milieu of uncertain marital relationships and the ubiquitous threat of instability.

“The Girlfriend” is of course another example of the dangers of outsiders, as Leo’s daughter is killed by a man who breaks into her home and attacks her. But the collection’s subtle agoraphobia goes deeper than a simple fear of strangers. In “The Girlfriend” especially, it is Montana itself that seems dangerous. As Leo thinks back on what he could possibly have done to prevent his daughter’s death, he considers the possibility of having kept her on the East Coast for college and not letting her move to the University of Montana to study forestry:
If they hadn’t sent her at fifteen to the outdoor course in Wyoming that convinced her to want bigness, ruralness, westernness. Leo designed sky-blocking office buildings for a living, and wondered if forestry was a direct challenge to him. . . . He had argued with Emily about her choices, to test her resolve, but her gray eyes would only get solemn and sure, and her chin would lift stubbornly. . . . Even as a child she wanted vast forests, not gardens.

Montana’s bigness and openness translate into vulnerability—its wide open spaces offer no protection and nowhere to hide.

The threat of personal and familial invasion, interplay between fragility and stability, and the precariousness of decisions in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It propel Meloy’s stories forward with fixating energy. Meloy has a gift for vivid, natural storytelling; her creation of suspense is effective and subtle. At about twenty pages each, her stories neither rush nor drag and always manage to mesmerize as they unfold. Meloy’s intense study of her characters remains perhaps the most fascinating aspect of her stories—she seems to pin them like butterflies on a bulletin board for momentary scrutiny before pulling away, leaving them to whatever secluded existence they have carved for themselves, and leaving us with riveting and absorbing fiction.

Monday, January 25, 2010

NEW! Poem by Dawn Marie Knopf

Dawn Marie Knopf


Sits the city centre known as
Poor's House of Cactus the beacon

both the ladies & the queens said so

they met among the saguaros out
back in their purple robes against

the light from the amber & dead

hills beyond Manteca beyond
their season they declared we

are the purveyours of grande culture

we are the narwhals of grande culture
we are the turquoise on the Stetson

hatband of grande culture who

by our headlong battle to save
the sculptures from the Comstock

the flood shining with spun discs

of Pyrite but also the rarest & most
genuine in the California lode

no we would not hold out our hands

Monday, January 11, 2010

NEW! Poem by Stuart Friebert

Stuart Friebert


The donkey-skinned pair God ordered
Moses to remove before treading holy soil.

Did he sit down to do so, or perhaps
lean on his staff, bend over unsteadily

to pull them off, the sun’s rays already
reaching him from below the horizon,

his eyes closing like fists, his hair caked
with mud? Was he dying to know how long

he’d been dying, but afraid to ask? If he’d
laughed to lighten the moment, he’d have

been alone with his laughter, heading toward
a grave full of slush and snow – I read it could

have been snowing! At this time in my own
little life, busy getting older, I’m willing to

accept anything too, and so on and so forth.

Friday, January 08, 2010

NEW! Poem by Günter Eich

Günter Eich


Some knowledge
of damming wild creeks,
familiar with
health insurance measures
for apprentice weavers,
of electric current,
also able to handle animals,
adept at business correspondence,
especially, praise God, Manchurian,
Tocharian and in
the stenography of filthy
eagle-owl calls, an
all-around talent,
to a position of leadership
in the submarine business.

Translated from the German by Stuart Friebert

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

NEW! Poem by Elliot Figman

Elliot Figman


A statement is no match for it. Not when calls again
pleased a little better than Harry knows this much true.
Truth will rear it. Justice will suffice. Slide please slide
the little waiter calls. Caftans submarines adjudicated matters
none this ripe must do. Names may readjust norms.
Skin butchers lie in ruins. Please draw closer closet
turn that corner an unhurried attitude what’s
it for won’t sell. Froth with pleats when all streets have
is clothes. Calves encounter lambs. Just now shook its lawn.

Monday, January 04, 2010

NEW! Poem by Kelli Anne Noftle

Kelli Anne Noftle


You feel listless as underthings
unravel. At the bottom
of an ocean, near her neck
where the collar dips—some of the habits
you acquire are ancient.
On the one hand, you’ve been
cannibal, pausing only
to swallow light and motion. (It happens
so quickly, it’s already over.) In the other hand—
her jaw. Her eyelashes, rhinophores, and that other
sensory sublimation by which you grasp only
through tangled weeds, against the under-
belly of waking, your insides, out.
Your heart, a slipknot of mucus.

And this question: if all the corresponding regions
make her sigh, then how did specializing
in your own desire become
so stereotypical, homo sapien?

Adult sea slugs are all hermaphroditic, though they still require partners to copulate. Some will engage in long elaborate courtships, joined together in intercourse for extended periods of time.