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.