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Evan Hansen

Mayakovsky’s Revolver
By Matthew Dickman
WW Norton
Forthcoming October 2012
ISBN 978-0-393-08119-0
112 pages

Matthew Dickman received the second fan letter I’ve ever written. The first was written in 1989, when I was ten years old, and it was addressed to Howard Johnson, an infielder for the New York Mets. Johnson—or “HoJo,” to baseball cognoscenti—wore a mustache, was a streaky but potentially game-changing offensive player, and served as a modest liability in the field. He received zero votes in his lone appearance on a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2001.

In 2008, after I’d all but forgotten my letter to HoJo, I came across Matthew Dickman’s first book, All-American Poem, at Portland’s great independent bookstore, Powell’s. I learned from a shelf display that Dickman was just a couple years older than I, and that we’d both grown up in Southeast Portland. I bought the book and wrote to him at an email address I found online. He wrote back promptly and warmly—it turns out he’s a really nice guy, in addition to being a fine young poet.

The latter characteristic in mind, I very much admired Dickman’s debut collection. It was refreshing to read poetry so largely disinterested in lyrical artifice, and to find poems where movement trumped shape and form. And what I’m referring to when I say “lyrical artifice” are poets’ mechanisms for making the familiar strange, reifying everyday cognition into compressed, independent language-objects. Un-All-American Poem-esque poems carry us away from everyday language use in their very shaping—they feature musical and lineation patterns, disjunction, and collage, among other meaning-related strategies. In doing so, they highlight language practices we take for granted, or reveal new linguistic possibilities. To me, contemporary lyric can be thrillingly challenging at its best and annoyingly esoteric at its worst; Dickman’s twin brother, Michael, is a fine poet who writes with what I’d describe as a kind of careful, vatic lyricism, in fact. But Matthew’s first book feels liberated from self-consciousness about form, devoid of desire to play with syntax or to deviate from conventional speech rhythms. The voice in All-American Poem feels earnest, occasionally a bit lonesome, often kind, and charmingly funny.

Now, as I reread this characterization of that book’s poetics—“liberated from self-consciousness about form”—I realize that others, especially poets I know who are partial to exacting lyric, may be turned off by this description. I’m making Dickman’s work sound too straight and prosy, I think. The truth is, there are poetic preoccupations beyond the shape of the work worth paying attention to in Mayakovsky’s Revolver. These preoccupations are evident in the writing of Dickman’s contemporaries, as well: Ben Lerner, Ariana Reines, Tao Lin, and a host of others are writing in different forms with one commonality—they offer a new take on confessional poetics. Dickman’s poetics are largely unmoored from the trappings of the identity politics that in part guided previous generations’ work. Consciously or subconsciously, like the poets mentioned above, Dickman is influenced by reality TV (because aren’t we all, really?) and he shares the banal, sweet, ugly, and idiosyncratic details of his life with his readers, curating and modulating them with a conflicted internal monologue. This dance between an ostensibly unfiltered revelation of Self with a not-so-behind-the-scenes, self-conscious Poet/Director makes for interesting drama about what it means to be human.

The underlying question of these poems as artistic products is: Why should one make these details public? At times, Dickman himself almost seems on the verge of wrestling explicitly with this question in Mayakovsky’s Revolver, further dramatizing something about our particular moment of ubiquitous information, the total-life-disclosure aspects of contemporary media, and what all this means to us as people.

Opening Mayakovsky to any given page and turning the book on its side, one finds unruly, short and long lines staring back like a yard grown feral, or a silhouette of a city skyline with no regard for zoning. The poet deploys All-American Poem’s laissez-faire, unruly stichic form again in his second collection. Occasionally, however, his work is more formally daring than feels familiar, while always the narrative feels intriguingly like a kind of memoir with no clear plot sequence or payoff. We need only look at the opening of the poem The Madness of King George to see Dickman’s breezy-feeling but cumulatively sophisticated confessional poetics at work in this larger structure:

It’s time for me to go. I drink
a beer and whiskey, although I should be sipping
Italian sodas, should be home
watching an old movie
or reading a crime novel but I decided to feed my limitations
instead…

We note that the lines are random lengths, meander with the music of plain speech, and are enjambed with effective intuition vis-à-vis dynamic ambiguities in meaning. Additionally, we find the narrative convention of setting, and that the setting here is generic—a bar. We also find some tension created with another narrative convention that works well for authors and/or characters to share information with their auditors—internal monologue, i.e., “…I decided to feed my limitations…” Yet Dickman is merely easing us in by staging the scene familiarly: the trope of the guilty bar experience. His speaker continues:

The woman sitting next to me
calls herself Summer and keeps touching her lips
and scratching her thigh
and ordering a martini
and talking about history. George Washington
and the madness of King George. He would walk around
the palace garden wearing nothing
but his crown, crying, holding his gaudy scepter in his hands
like an infant….

Reading thoughtfully, we see Dickman lace this seemingly straight narrative poem with allegorical and allusive meanings. The woman next to the speaker is conflated with our hot season—which for a lot of youngish people who live basically Everywhere-in-the-World is booze-filled and at least a little erotic. Summer is notably separated from the speaker, however, although she’s close. Further, she isn’t offering up cliché bar banter. Her performance—because that’s what it is, Dickman suggests in the dramatic, paratactic litany of blocking that precedes her dialogue—includes holding forth about historically contemporary Georges: Washington, an emblem of American independence, and King George III of the United Kingdom, who is remembered for his mental illness as well as for being the “King who lost America.” Dickman doesn’t miss a beat in this seamless-feeling narrative lyric poem (to borrow a phrase from his friend, Major Jackson); however, he begins to complicate things further by investing more agency in his narrator. Upon witnessing this quotidian yet strange performance, the narrator shifts position from passive auditor to conflicted actor in both physical and internal confessional space:

…I am like him, I thought,
and ask for my bill
while this other person, this other
life puts her hand on my knee. Do you ever think
what would have happened if Germany won the war?
she says….

This “this other / life” bit is not incidental melodrama as the poet both feeds and seeks to collapse the question that contemporary art (including reality TV) often begs: Are these actors working from a script, with some other, unspoken agenda, or are they earnest people, communicating authentically in order to fulfill a human need? Dickman subtly and successfully dramatizes that concern here—and he seldom spares himself from critical scrutiny in the whole collection, as practically all of the narrators share a common voice, or are clearly Dickman self-consciously emerging from the cutting room with choice bits of friends’ and family members’ dialogue.

Packed economically into the above little scene are a man’s own sense of alienation, or conscious failure to engage directly with reality as it is; the threat of a loss of “America” (in this case, a big messy symbol from which the poem moves on quickly); and the horror of an imaginable past in which the Nazis conquered not only Europe, but the whole world. This isn’t really a straight narrative—it’s a confession of feeling absolute and utter resourcelessness in the face of reality and its possibilities and impossibilities. It shares a present that has the past as its kind of palimpsest—present happenings are written over a history that has been erased, but remembered by the impressions in the medium, and the new result is a document layered with meanings. While all this is happening, the poem is rendered with both conversational fluidity and keen, instinctive poetic intellect. We barely feel it happening, yet we know that whatever is happening is in some sense a big deal.

Speaking of importance, readers will note the first line of the blurb on the back cover: “At the center of Mayakovsky’s Revolver is the suicide of Matthew Dickman’s older brother.” The book’s second section is entitled Notes Passed to my Brother on the Occasion of his Funeral; the prologue is a poem entitled, In Heaven, the epilogue a poem entitled On Earth.

In Heaven begins with a litany of negated details from Dickman’s youth in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood: “No dog chained to a spike in a yard of dying / grass like the dogs… / no milk in the fridge / no more walking through the street / to the little store / that sold butterfly knives, no more knives, no more honey…” Moving through this negation of basic life details (breathlessly paced in its lack of any road signs but commas until the second page), the poem pivots toward a universalizing blank setting and unnamed cast that includes only the first person plural pronoun, “we,” as it closes:

…No more looking toward the west, no east, no north
or south, just us standing here together, asking each other
if we remember anything, what we loved, what loved us, who yelled our names
_____first?

This is a bit of either an obvious or bewildering way to begin the book for a couple of reasons. First, it starts the reader with a section consisting of a single poem—an increasingly common structural device, but one that puts a lot of pressure on the opening piece. Second, the word “Heaven” without any description or discussion or context, comes with a lot of baggage—all Dickman gives us in the way of explanation is a “no more Lord / my God” embedded in his hurried list. Lastly, the gesture of concluding the opening with questions—as if this were an essay and we could hope to find answers somewhere in what follows—seems to promise a lot. It’s a bold move to start this way, really. I will leave it for other readers to decide whether or not it pays off in the end.

The poem that follows, Akhmatova, opens the first major section, which is called Dear Space. The piece begins at Cannon Beach, Oregon’s tide pools. Right away, Dickman takes up the final questions of In Heaven, about ‘what we remember,’ and drops us into scenes from the past in the first line of the poem: “That’s right!…I was on the beach / looking at Haystack Rock, / putting my finger into the mouths of sea anemones…” For the first time in the book (a few pages in), setting and narrator’s activity are established in Dickman’s major mode, and there’s a Dickman-esque vaguely sexual or dangerous suggestion (putting a finger in mouths, plural). There’s a new desire in the work, though, to link one section or episode to the next, to make a big picture of all the smaller fragments. What emerges, however, is a resistance to allow fragments or distinct narratives to resolve into a comprehensive story. In this seemingly jumbled structure, Dickman subtly bares his own ambivalence about the narrative impulse—picking it up and setting it aside time and again.

And in Akhmatova, as he often does, Dickman uses the parallel narratives his own life and family and a deftly edited piece of history—a few pointed morsels from the aforementioned Ukrainian poet’s life. Ultimately, the past-tenseness of the work and the choice of analogy leave an astringent sadness on the palate. And it’s worth saying that throughout this collection Dickman offers up both his loves and griefs in what would describe as a “melancholic” register, which, in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, Giorgio Agamben describes as “the humor whose disorders are most likely to produce the most destructive consequences…one who keeps his or her own desire fixed to the inaccessible.”

The voice in Mayakovsky’s Revolver is that of a nostalgic presence—a voice fixed on a past that is no longer accessible. Dickman’s is a particularly painful nostalgia, because some of the characters and places that made up his past are irrevocably changed or lost (and this is ultimately true for us all, which lends universality to his work). This can be sweet and charming; at the same time, of course, it’s also a little painful. The Greek origins of “nostalgia” are nostos, or ‘return home,’ and algia, ‘pain.’ Another early poem in the collection, Weird Science, is a great example of how absence and nostalgia spur Dickman’s poetic impulse. The conceit of Weird Science is that in a woman’s absence, the narrator makes her shape out of clothes in his room, and the poet apostrophizes to his absent paramour.

In the end, I could go on all day about the multitude of admirable pieces in Mayakovsky’s Revolver. What other readers will discover is a maturing poet, fashioning a poetics that bares his whole life in its making, shifting at times dizzyingly between present and past—as we see in The Madness of King George, if we read closely and pay attention to verb tenses—in a way that underscores how alive the past is within our present; and how lonely and absent it is, paradoxically, at the same time.

If you’d told me that the ultimate line of a wonderful poem could be, simply, “Doctor Wong,” I would’ve looked at you skeptically.  But that’s exactly the case in Matthew Rohrer’s latest collection, Destroyer and Preserver (Wave 2011).  I both laughed and felt outfoxed by Rohrer’s nasty knuckleball wit when I read the last line of, “Marque Nùmero Dos.”  My laughter elicited an is-there-something-wrong-with-you look from the woman next to me on the plane, but I cared about as much as the clouds outside.

And Destroyer and Preserver is more than witty and strange.  These unpretentious lyrics are deft expressions of where the personal meets the political, where the mundane meets the profound—documenting a multivalent poet’s quotidian as his nation wars abroad.

Destroyer and Preserver shares many of the concerns of Rohrer’s earlier works.  I was introduced to his poems some years back, when a mentor suggested I read his first collection, A Hummock in the Malookas—which was Mary Oliver’s selection for the National Poetry Series in 1994.  I checked the slim volume out from the library and found myself rereading it weekly for the next six months, only returning the book the way that one who’s been drinking coffee every day for years gives up caffeine—with reluctance and anxiety over his rather pointless act of sacrifice.  So I bought my own copy.  To me, Rohrer’s poetry has been easy to live with, incisive, and sustaining ever since.

In the manners of the sometimes jokey, New York School-y, sometimes cryptic, sometimes surreal poems of prior collections, Destroyer and Preserver offers an assortment of breezily deployed formal variations with thematic interests.  In the first piece, “From Mars,” quick enjambments and an absence of punctuation muss up syntax:

We have some sad news
this morning
from Mars
the imagination thinks
in phrases but the universe
is a long sentence
according to our instruments
the oldest songs
are breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement…

What strikes one immediately as a spoken quality in this diction, familiar in Rohrer’s work, is disrupted in two manners.  First, by the poet’s lineation—invoking his agency to ‘break apart’ the ‘long sentence of the universe,’ thus reshuffling how we see the cosmic order and assign meaning to its individuated components—and second by his refusal to obey prose-y conventions of punctuation, et cetera, which allows for a lot of bait-and-switch play from line to line, from idea to idea.  These strategies are fairly consistently applied in this collection.  Coupled with the statement on the surface of this first poem, we’re at least superficially given a glimpse of Rohrer’s personal cosmos.

Rohrer’s is a cosmos of the mind, of course, in a Stevensian “I am my world” sense.  The surprise synaptic leaps in “From Mars” seem to mirror those of the speaker in the poem.  This happens again and again in Rohrer’s work—rather like surprise hands pushing us forward or spinning us sideways, he subjects us to his own leaping fixations and associations.  The ride is exhilarating, confusing, and thought-provoking at different turns.

In fact, these poems are not so breezily presented, and pay off with a kind of full immersion.  “Marque Nùmero Dos” is a great example.  Employing similar enjambment to “From Mars,” “Marque Nùmero Dos” is less grand in terms of scope.  In this piece, Rohrer documents his own cognitive experience while on the phone with an automated system.  Infusing the banal with the reflection of an interesting poet’s consciousness, we readily accept such statements as:  “a sunny day / is a sufficient cathedral.”  These poems do this again and again—dilating on tedium and infusing it with grander meaning, sharing an experience of our shared world from the point of view of a unique wordsmith’s mental jumble, seemingly effortlessly organized on the page.

The pieces that leap less are no less charming.  “Casualties,” for example, is a meditation in the bathroom that demonstrates how the characters of Rohrer’s domestic life inhabit the perspective of these poems:

My son says
are soldiers good or bad?
I say it’s very complicated.

He brushes his teeth
with a toothbrush
that looks like a whale.

I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together

in the hold of a ship.
He looks just like me.
The rain slows outside.

One cloud turns pink at sunset.
A bomb falls on a house in the desert.
The plane that dropped it

glides through another blue
and returns to us
to be washed and put away.

Some readers of contemporary poetry might bridle at Rohrer’s spartan, utilitarian diction, and the lack of political restraint in reference to U.S. bombing of civilians.  But just as the wonderful poet Bob Hicok writes in a recent piece of his own, “As I was masturbating, more rainforest disappeared” (from “Life,” in Words for Empty and Words for Full, University of Pittsburg, 2010), Rohrer’s poems document how we as individuals move fluidly between domestic and private concerns, with a sometimes-helpless bemusement about the world around us.  Without judgment, and with a seriousness that is either a rendering of reality or an excellent facsimile of Reality, Rohrer’s poems are great examples of such human instants.  Thus Destroyer and Preserver is a subtle and entertaining lens through which to view our moment, and well worth your perusal—especially if you enjoyed Rohrer’s previous, fine collections of poems.

…“This is the world,”
I think, “this is what I came
in search of years ago.”  Now I
can go back to my single room,
I can lie awake in the dark
rehearsing all the trivial events
of the day ahead, a day that begins
when the sun clears the dark spires
of someone’s god, and I waken
in a flood of dust rising from
nowhere and from nowhere comes
the actual voice of someone else.

-from “The Music of Time”

As we have been trained over decades to expect from Philip Levine, his latest book of poems, News of the World, is an unsurprisingly likeable collection of environmental portraits rendered with acute sensitivity to history and class.  Those who know Levine’s work will find much familiar about many of these poems—and happily so, as his strengths as a poet have resisted dulling over time and profuse exercise.

The spoken quality of this master’s voice and the guileless feel of these poems’ shapes are subtle forces in News of the World.  In the above closure of “The Music of Time,” Levine’s loping parataxis, his casually exacting “someone’s god” and “actual voice of someone else,” his flirtation with negative capabilities—above all else his unique narrative space of a kind of American subaltern—are prominent features of these recent works.  Yet for Levine’s fans and the uninitiated alike, News of the World delivers on the promise in its title.  The real force behind the collection is its gentle insistence on dialogue as a source of inspiration—the interplay between Levine’s liminal yet capacious narrative space and other voices in these poems.  Vital statements, questions, and ironies are threaded throughout in exchanges that begin between a “you” and “I” (which occasionally resolves to “we”) in “Our Valley,” the opening piece, to be sustained in the various voices of Levine’s family and intimates, historical and literary figures, writers, songsmiths, and of course the poet himself.  Whereas in so many works the voices of others become foils for or extensions of the author’s own voice, some of the best poems of News of the World suggest the possibility of hearing “the actual voice of someone else”—with a stress on the actual.

Perhaps nowhere is Levine’s dialogical bent more evident in News of the World than in its third of four sections, which is comprised entirely of prose poems.  This section opens with an overheard exchange between a doctor and a young patient—a prose poem ironically titled, “Fixing the Foot:  On Rhythm”—which is surely what Levine referred to in a March of 2008 interview as “the first good prose poem I ever wrote,” and closes with the book’s namesake.  Many of these fine poems embody such actual listenings and recastings of speech, effectively assuming postures of tenderness, fractiousness, and play—all with Levine’s signature restraint and regard for humanity.   They treat us to the voices that enlarge and enrich our own individual humanities.  What once might have been seen as Levine’s anger and righteousness is transformed into an impulse to listen and share what he hears—an experience that he creates for his readers rather than telling us, ‘you don’t know what ______ is.’  This is a truly engaging facet of the new Levine collection, and just part of what makes these poems well worth experiencing first-hand.

So, while News of the World certainly offers some typical-feeling moves to those familiar with Levine’s oeuvres, it also contains formal variations and preoccupations that will amuse and surprise both his admirers and those who don’t yet know his work.  And most hopefully, at least possibly, we might find “actual” other voices here—voices that waken in us the best and most thrilling aspects of what it means to live.

Writers in the scattered nation of good poetry are, in general, perfectionists. Many greats have been known to be tight-lipped about their process and to publish only what they deem categorically best. Bob Hicok, on the other hand, doesn’t seem worried about perfection. He publishes so prodigiously that it’s hard to imagine he spends any time revising his work. I remember standing in a bookstore a couple years ago grazing among the poetry publications and discovering that he had poems in approximately half of the literary journals—good ones, too. I remember feeling a mixture of jealously, skepticism of various stripes, and stunned admiration for Hicok’s unique voice.

I’ve read a fair amount of Hicok’s poetry since then—and had many opportunities, as he remains a prolific poet. The unfair comparison that occurs to me is James Patterson. But Hicok is anything but the James Patterson of contemporary poetry (if you feel like posting your “James Patterson of Contemporary Poetry Nominee” below, however, please do). In fact, Hicok’s method is quite fluid and authentic. In each of his poems I feel I’m reading a self-documented Gestalt therapy session, lineated and titled as if it were, well, a poem. And because he’s witty, loves language and play with language, and he’s fearless about publishing any mode of speech or linguistic item that in isolation would seem incredibly stupid or embarrassing, these poems are riveting and thought-provoking. Take, for example, “Call me a lyre, I dare you” which appeared originally, roughly lyre-shaped, in the Believer’s November, 2009 issue, and appears in Hicok’s latest collection Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pittsburg, 2010):

Call me a lyre, I dare you

Last or some night
light, who cares the when of this,
glittered the tree up at the end
as the wash from a car as moved the planet, I’m not
in touch with personally Saturn, in branched fingers
of eerily, I’d say off-the-shelf language, isn’t it
necessary still how life lit into the moment
to say other than the facts of it, see,
whatever the bits are inside that oscillate
or pinwheel, I was moved to internal whirring
cicadish, even though my epiphanic dog-walkings
mean shit to you in the throes of your
epiphanic askings of the moon, for what, afterall
are we in this, some random sense of, fuck
if I know, belonging

Although I once heard a line in a movie, “Puns are the death of wit,” and I generally agree, the above allusive pun really works. Embedded in its snarky standoffishness, its grimace- or smirk-worthy reference to Apollo, lies an engaging and efficiently stated constellation of ideas. And beyond this title, Hicok renders his images and utterances in a syntactically awkward but consistently surprising language, with barbed apostrophizing and care to record his own (I do not believe this is a persona, exactly) feelings, relying on a kind of uncanny luck (skill?) to have it stick together in a personable and uncontrived way. In a few words, it works. (Sorry for all the parentheses.)

In Words for Empty and Words for Full (one, of course, of Hicok’s many poetry collections), there is no one type of poem one can expect. Subject matter and formal decision-making are, metaphorically speaking, all over the map. Interesting thinking and writing, however, are everywhere to be found. Ruminating on an either real or imaginary high school friendship in a long prosy piece called “Backward,” Hicok writes:

“Because he ate twice as much as I did, you’ll find an entry in my journal about the appetite of silence. Is silence a form of hunger, I wrote, and then answered my own question: yes and no. Reading back on this now, I am disappointed in the wishy-washy quality of my thinking. I would like to go back and erase that answer. Yes, I would write, silence is a hunger for the anatomy of a moment, for the inside of things.”

Who cares if this last statement is actually true. The process of the prose, the leaps in thought, the strangeness, the comic, the humble, human admission of error, is all entertaining. Maybe it’s poetic junk-food, but Hicok’s willingness to write, and to air to us practically anything of his life or thinking, charms this reader. This is not be true of every such writer, of course, but for him, it generally works.

I say generally because these poems aren’t all base hits. Hicok’s commitment to write about any- and everything leads him down the problematic paths of discussing contemporary politics, the war, and the Virginia Tech shooting—he was teaching there at the time of this tragedy and claims (in the poems) to have had the student responsible. While documenting these historical events in poetry may be valuable for posterity’s sake, these poems are far less interesting and cutting edge feeling than the more personal, strange poems of most of the collection. Perhaps one poem about the shooting. Perhaps one poem about the war—if you must, if you must. But in general these subjects trump considerations of form and deployment of language—in short, they overdetermine the way one reads them, which for the most part ruins the magic of what Hicok does in his poetry.

Consider, for example, the beginning bit of a poem called “Whimper,” in the second section of the four:

Don’t know why the kid didn’t come after me,
I nearly failed him, fail means differently now,
or some other English prof, also dead
is not in our mouths as it was in the past,
we’d have said dead about the place,
now that the semester’s over and smiled
that we have a few months of grass and air
to ourselves, do know why we tried…

And the final bumper sticker-esque lines:

…lost if you need to find us
is where we are.

It is important for poets to function as witnesses, but the poems to which I’ll return in this collection are not the poems that mention Air Force pilots or mentally ill students responsible for on-campus atrocities. I’ll return to the poems that surprise, that don’t give a fuck about my own aesthetic sensibilities because the next poem will be different. I’ll return to poems of moments that document the need to change form, syntax, voice, tone, and everything in order to exist in their present. And fortunately, if recent history can tell us anything, there will be many such great Bob Hicok poems to admire in the future.

In a poem called “Life,” which appears in his most recent collection, Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pitt Poetry, 2010), Bob Hicok writes: “The feeling that mysticism / is the only way to be polite…. / While I was masturbating, / more rainforest / disappeared….” These disclosures feel true—and inevitable, given what at least I believe about climate change and humans continuing to be humans. Also, these tragicomic disclosures reminds me of the “Note on Method” at the opening of Aaron Kunin’s just-released, The Sore Throat & Other Poems (Fence, 2010). Kunin opines: “…I really believe that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.” I don’t know if this belief is always true, but I’m willing to read on because I really admire the poet who’s willing to publicize it (for other testimonials of admiration see, for one, the recent Peter Gizzi blurb and sampler of Aaron Kunin’s poems in the Boston Review).

Thus it is with humble joy that I’m simultaneously reading Hicok’s and Kunin’s new collections. The unruly gestalt-like deployments of Hicok’s pieces bounce wildly yet friendlily off Kunin’s careful, methodical compositions. It is with this joy in my life that I’ll offer reviews of each of these collections in the next two weeks. Check back next Sunday for the first of the two, and feel free to remark if you think Kunin poetic bullpucky or Hicok too undisciplined. I may disagree, but will read your comments with polite, continuing joy.

I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe blink by blink…

“The world resists me and I resist the world,” I said. “That’s all there is. The mountains are what I define them as.” Ah, monstrous stupidity of childhood, unreasonable hope!

-John Gardner’s Grendel, “the Beowulf legend retold from the monster’s point of view”

When I was in my late teens or early 20s, I was at Rich’s Cigar Shop in Portland, Oregon, which had the best magazine selection in the city in those days, and I picked up a copy of a magazine called Adbusters. The magazine had a hole in it, and a card insert with just a black spot on it, both of which were part of that particular issue’s design. I liked it. The subtitle was: “A Journal of the Mental Environment,” or something similarly boldly rhetorically Structuralist. I was surprised. I was excited. The articles were different, advocated for political agency in a way different than any I’d experienced. I felt that naïve vitality that, at 31, seems more and more difficult to kindle.

Today, I find Adbusters kind of stupid. Its lefty academicese smacks of the do-nothing superiority that masquerades as contemporary liberal revolutionary spirit. Honestly, Adbusters and your flock, what revolution has your “culture jamming” actually accomplished, other than inspiring many people to spend their money on your magazine and schwag and to read with a sense that they’re doing enough because they know enough to be in on the dark joke of the present? I enjoyed the snarky Obama-with-a-clown-nose cover, sure, but your magazine is a waste of time.

In any case, I was at Powell’s this week and saw another magazine which transported me back to the original geeky, excited tingle I felt when I saw my first Adbusters. This magazine, The Baffler, is less revolutionary in its rhetoric and sharper in its content than Adbusters. Volume 2: No 01, which I couldn’t help but purchase, contains an essay about what the Internet looks like, a follow-up to No Logo by Naomi Klein, images of “feral houses,” a “motor city elegy” written by a Detroit native, articles on finance, politics, social networking sites—the usual sort of upper middle class political stuff—and poems by Rae Armantrout, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Jack Spicer, and Devin Johnston. Poems!

I leave you with encouragement to check The Baffler out, should you be in need of baffling (or in need reading for the train or plane), and the second section of Armantrout’s fine, “This Is”:

2

This is a five star trance

To have this vantage
from the cliff’s edge,

to get drunk on indifference,

to stare

at a bright succession
of crests

raised from nothing

    and flattened

Ben Lerner is damn smart. In case you aren’t convinced by my saying so, you need only stop and examine one his books the next time you have a chance. Just the titles of The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and most recently, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) suggest that the enclosed works have elaborate scholarly underpinnings. Lerner’s cerebral poetry isn’t chip-on-the-shoulder intellectualism or self-conscious hipsterism, however, and to shy away from his books because of their rigorous erudition would be to miss a difficult, witty, utterly sincere contemporary writer.

Lerner’s latest project is a sensitive exploration of how our inherited war- and commerce-freighted language might be capable of intimate expression. According to the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the book, which is the most succinct explanation I could find of the title: “In physics, the “mean free path” of a particle is the average distance it travels before colliding with another particle.” In adopting this phrase as his title, Lerner appears to be making an analogy to our language: particular words and phrases bear residues of prior use. For example, since “shock” and “awe” were appropriated by 1996 military doctrine and then repeated all over news media in 2003 as the U.S. military bombed Iraq, we may not use these words (and certainly not the phrase “shock and awe”) without the tarnish of the over 6,600 casualties—many of them civilians—of the “invasion phase” of the U.S. campaign. And this is just one example involving rather commonplace words—night vision green, this time with feeling, perfect world, prisoner, and a host of other problematic phrases and words recur throughout Lerner’s book. They do so, however, in the interest of expressing himself to a particular addressee—his wife—in a manner that creates fresh intimacy for the reader. Surprisingly, through fracture, repetition, collision, and repeated recontextualization of particular words and phrases, Lerner’s new poems work to liberate love poetry, elegy, and poetry in general from commercial and military connotation.

This project is full of surprise, including humor. Lerner can’t seem to help but barb his poems with sometimes-desperate, dry wit and knuckleball pop reference. The first poem, a “Dedication” to his wife, whose name lovingly recurs throughout, reads, after its central break:

    For I felt nothing,
        which was cool,
    totally cool with me.
    For my blood was cola.
    For my authority was small,
    involuntary muscles
        in my face.
    For I had had some work done
        on my face.

The idiomatic use of “cool,” the surprising, practically Objectivist (insert your own long sequence of analysis here, à la Zukofsky, whose name appears at the end of the first section) use of “cola,” and the sudden reference to plastic surgery all constitute a deixis to the commercialization of language (not to mention the ominous suggestion of “authority”), in a personalized, loving frame. How can these bits of language belong in a love poem, if not to say, “I care so much about you, let me use my terrible inherited palette self-consciously, athletically, and baring my preoccupations. It’s all I have.”

In the end, however, extrapolated earnestness is not all Lerner offers his wife and reader. These poems are also absorbingly formally innovative. The book is divided into five sections. Following “Dedication” (which is a doubling of the “Doppler Elegy” form)—the second and fourth sections are called “Mean Free Path” and the third and fifth “Doppler Elegies.” Both “Mean Free Path” sections are comprised of sequences of 36 stanzas. It’s hard to call these stanzas individual poems, as none are marked by a title. Each is nine lines of relatively similar length, somewhat akin to Spenserian stanzas, although not patterned by stress or meter. These stanzas are challenging bits of poetry, however. Each line of “Mean Free Path” may or may not enjamb sensibly with the next, and enjambment may break a given phrase off from its expected, idiomatic conclusion. There is never punctuation at the end of a line, and often as we read the meanings of fractured phrases are transformed through Lerner’s collage-like stanzas, which are part of a great mosaic of repetition, fracture, juxtaposition, and ellipsis. The reader must work to make sense of the leaps in subject, tense, grammar, lost predicates, or might read smoothly from one line to the next. This game of making, not making, and changing sense continues over the marked breaks between stanzas. For example, the second section of “Mean Free Path” opens:

    What if I made you hear this as music
    But not how you mean that. The slow beam
    Opened me up. Walls walked through me
    Like resonant waves. I thought that maybe
    If you aren’t too busy, we could spend our lives
    Parting in stations, promising to write
    War and Peace, this time with feeling
    As bullets leave their luminous traces across
    Wait, I wasn’t finished, I was going to say
    Breakwaters echo long lines of cloud

    µ

    Rununciation scales. Exhibits shade
    Imperceptibly into gift shops. The death of a friend
    Opens me up. Suddenly the weather
    Is written by Tolstoy, whose hands were giant
    Resonant waves. It’s hard not to take
    When your eye is at the vertex of a cone
    Autumn personally. My past becomes
    Of lines extending to each leaf
    Citable in all its moments: parting, rain

A similar game of meaning-making and -breaking is afoot in Lerner’s “Doppler Elegies,” which formally attempt to mimic the “shifts” that Christian Doppler described in terms of the frequency of waves for an observer moving relative the source of the wave—the source, of course, may be the mover, too, and the effect may also be created by a change in medium through which waves travel. In addition to this scientific framing, Lerner’s “Doppler Elegy” form is comprised of three nine-line stanzas, the second, seventh, and ninth lines indented and shortened to create a sense of shift. The shorter lines of these pieces—some of which are very short—create an even more dramatic effect on readability as one proceeds through each piece. The difficulty of making sense in these poems by amplified in Lerner’s process of fracture and juxtaposition—essentially collage. Self-reference is even more insistent and intense, as well. The penultimate “Doppler Elegy” of the book’s third section reads:

    µ

    Somewhere in this book I broke
        There is a passage
    with a friend. I regret it now
    lifted verbatim from
    Then began again, my focus on
    moving the lips, failures in
        The fuselage glows red against
    rinsed skies. Rehearsing sleep
        I think of him from time

    in a competitive field
        facedown, a familiar scene
    composed entirely of stills
    to time. It’s hard to believe
    When he calls, I pretend
    he’s gone. He was letting himself go
        I’m on the other line
    in a cluster of eight poems
    all winter. The tenses disagreed

    for Ari. Sorry if I’ve seemed
        distant, it’s been a difficult
    period, striking as many keys
    with the flat of the hand
    as possible, then leaning the head
    against the window, unable to recall
        April, like overheard speech
    at the time of writing
        soaked into its length

And the poem continues into another challenging section. I would love to keep going with such fascinating (to me) examples, but I believe this is a book worth owning and spending a fair amount of time with. Novel, exciting, sometimes funny and always strangely intimate, Mean Free Path is constantly and repeatedly intriguing. Lerner’s deep well of scholarship and charming wit are marshaled toward a sincere, personal mission (military connotations inescapable) here, and the result is a difficult, winning book of poems that, rather like Nabokov’s best work—although nothing like Nabokov’s best work—are endlessly rich with discovery. If you aren’t familiar with this astonishing 31 year-old poet, it’s in your interest to become so, as his past and future work will be with us for a long time.

How does one choose which poem should be first in a manuscript? Ben Lerner’s new book, Mean Free Path, begins with something resembling a love poem. Joshua Beckman’s latest book, Take It, which I’ve been enjoying lately (click here to see the Believer’s review), uses a kind of apostrophe:

Dear Angry Mob,

Oak Wood Trail is closed to you. We
feel it unnecessary to defend our position,
for we have always thought of ourselves
(and rightly, I venture) as a haven for
those seeking a quiet and solitary
contemplation. We are truly sorry
for the inconvenience….

This is fairly witty–simply to put a short little charmer of a poem out front to ease the reader in–but it also overdetermines my reading of the first few pieces that follow. Then again, where else could such a poem go but at the beginning? I’m at a loss.

Today’s question: How should books begin?

This is not my first year of teaching high school English, but it is my first year teaching at one of Portland, Oregon’s lowest-achieving high schools. There is much to say about my students’ backgrounds that might explain their sub-standard reading and writing: they come from a variety of places, including the mountains of Southeast Asia, refugee camps in Africa, former Soviet republics, Pacific Islands, etc; the neighborhood culture is, in general, one of generational poverty, which means that many students lack good role models and education-minded guardians at home (or they transfer to other schools in the district, as more than half of the neighborhood’s students have done based on their No Child Left Behind right to attend successful schools); a lack of steady educational funding and organizational constitution has created tremendous instability in this particular school in recent years; and this list of could go on forever.

But I’m not writing to regale you about the challenges of public education in North Portland. What I’m interested in today is how writers think about and cash in on unintended slips in language. For example, my ninth grade students recently wrote essays about a novel in which a character wakes up from a coma. In every third paper, however, I found this character waking up from a “comma,” and immediately wondered if I myself could capitalize on their typo by using it in a poem. This reminded me of hearing Matthew Zapruder talk to a gathering of graduate poetry students last year (myself among them) about his process in writing one of his books.

First, Zapruder told us, he had the romantic notion to write the whole thing on a typewriter. Second, he told us that when he made an error, he let the typo remain in place of the consciously intended word, with the rationale that typos plumb the depths of our consciousness and contemporary word processing suppresses or erases evidence of our subconscious language about the world. Zapruder seemed to feel that his typos weren’t missteps, but expressed what he perhaps truly, if only deep within, was trying to say.

Clearly, this is not what was happening in my students’ papers. The fact is, bless their hearts, some of them do not appear to know that “coma” and “comma” are different words. This suggests that Zapruder’s approach could, in the wrong hands, lead to automatic writing—which of course points to the experiments of Gertrude Stein and a whole host of early 20th Century ideas about the structures of our minds, identities, the occult, and language. I’m dubious about this as a process for writing good poetry, despite the scant mathematical possibility of a hypothetical monkey, given enough time and a typewriter, randomly recreating the works of William Shakespeare, and/or all of the “Chicken Soup for the [insert your typo here] Soul” books, and/or Matthew Zapruder’s poems (which I admire), and so on.

Yet this approach to writing also reminds me of the classical notion of divine-inspired artistry. In a more positive light, Zapruder’s method invites a muse, disguised as Accident, to write his poems. Per my own romantic leanings, I’m far more willing to accept this as an approach to making poetry. The poet, in this schema, is conscious of his or her agency as a conduit for divine creation. Mebdh McGuckian’s wonderful poetry springs to my mind here, as I long ago heard her use the word “vatic” to describe her process. Yet in this same discussion McGuckian was quick to mention that she remains highly conscious about words and their apt usage—she asserted that you only get to use some words once, and then never again. The word “fontanelle” was the example she gave as one that she never will be able to use twice, even if her subconscious or muse might will it. One’s ability thus to revise, to assert his or her consciousness on the muse’s inspiration, is required. The Ancient Greeks themselves were well aware that some people were better “conduits” for poetry than others.

Lastly, as a final thought on accident and inspiration, my students’ coma/comma confusion also reminded me of a poem by Stephen Dunn. “His Town,” which appears in Different Hours (which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), bears the epigraph: “The town was in the mists of chaos. –A student’s typo,” and the first stanza reads:

He wasn’t surprised. What town wasn’t?
Everywhere the mists of property, the mists
of language. Every Main Street he’d known
shrouded in itself. The mist-filled churches
and the mist-filled stores in strange collusion.

For Dunn, accident is supple—a point of possible redirection from we expected or intended to go. In his student’s error he finds not a rueful mistake but a useful “mist.” And perhaps this is a clue about how to think about accident and inspiration. When lucky, our mistakes may become mists. We may credit the divine or the murky depths of ourselves for such slips, or we can acknowledge the great mistiness of where everything comes from, including our mistakes. For in the end, concern for from whence the products of our lives spring might amount to a bit of pedantic frippery—psychology, spirituality, whatever. Yet somewhere, someone will always be waking from or slipping into a “comma,” including the best educated, the most grammatically and syntactically refined of us. We should remember to thank our proverbial gods for this.

Above is painter Sean McElroy’s “So Just Be It.” I have known Sean a long time, and I admire both his art and intellect. I was reminded of his work yesterday as I settled down with Ben Lerner’s new book of poems, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)—a book I’ve been excited to read since, well, Lerner’s last book of poems. If I tried to say too much about these paintings and poems, I’m sure my reach would exceed my grasp, so to oversimplify I’m trying to tell you that Lerner’s new poems and McElroy’s paintings are interesting because of their appropriations of geopolitics, war, pop culture, the lexica and imagery we take for granted—I’m trying to say they get me really worked up in my thinking about our world.

Below is a Lerner stanza that reminds me of a McElroy painting:

All these flowers look the same to me
Night-vision green. There is nothing to do
In the desert but read Penthouse and lift weights
My blood is negative. That’s all you need to know
Sophisticated weaponry marries the traditional
Pleasures of perspective to the new materiality
Of point-and-click. I’m writing this one
As a woman comfortable with leading
A prisoner on a leash

To offer just a stanza doesn’t do Mean Free Path justice, of course. This is a mere snippet of a sequence of intellectually rigorous, often strange and surprisingly beautiful fragments in a composite formation. But the idea behind the piece reminds me of McElroy’s art. In a world of militarized language and images, how do we say or present our experience in a way that doesn’t slip into a Daily Show-esque mode of ironizing? Or a mode of superirony? Or something else? See McElroy’s “Looking for Fun, Outgoing, Spontaneous” for something else:

"Looking for Fun, Outgoing, Spontaneous"

What I’m trying to say is that these two artists make a great pair, and their work is great individually as well. See this from Lerner (I’m trying to mention his new book favorably, to be clear, and suggest that there’s much more to be gained by experiencing the sequence):

Birds were these little ships that flew and sang
There were some cool pics online. Funny
Strange, not ha-ha funny, how the black
Canvas grows realistic, a bird’s-eye-view
Of their disappearance. Wave after wave
Of déjà lu. After the storm, the sky turns
Night-vision green. The color of murder
I can hear the soldiers marching in my
Pillow. Even in Canada

Even when Lerner is hard to swallow, sometimes even off-putting, he’s at least interesting. See McElroy’s “A Brick is Drawn out of the Great Tomb for Thee” for such masterfully composed disturbance:

"A Brick is Drawn Out of the Great Tomb for Thee"

So what do you think? I’ll try to more coherently explain myself next week, when I attempt to more carefully review Lerner’s new book. In the meantime, I want to know if anyone else has paired a particular contemporary poet and visual artist (apart from Bianca Stone, who is enviably both in one), and I want to know what you’re excited to be reading.

You can see more of Sean McElroy’s work at: http://www.goldensplinter.com/SEAN_MCELROY

I don’t much care for flarfing, spoetry, or any of the pedantic ballyhoo and giggling that attend these “avant-garde” or rather more absurd, “post-avant-garde” little poetry-world eddies, but I am interested in the arrival of a message in my “Spam” folder that does not clearly connect to a commercial aim—text that is literary, in some sense, but displaced from its usual context in a way that makes my thoughts teeter and bend toward sublime confusion for a moment.  For example, on a whim I recently checked an email address I’d abandoned to find an inbox full of Spam messages advertising prescription drugs, West African swindles, on-line casinos, virility aids, etc., yet also the following, without any immediately transparent commercial purpose:

Says that the Russians once anchored here and hunted sea-otter before the first Yankee trader rounded the Horn, or the first Rocky Mountain trapper thirsted across the “Great American Desert” and trickled down the snowy Sierras to the sun-kissed land. No; we are not resting our horses here on Humboldt Bay. We are writing this article, gorging on abalones and mussels, digging clams, and catching record-breaking sea-trout and rock-cod in the intervals in which we are not sailing, motor-boating, and swimming in the most temperately equable climate we have ever experienced. These comfortably large counties! They are veritable empires. Take Humboldt, for instance. It is three times as large as Rhode Island, one and a half times as large as Delaware, almost as large as Connecticut, and half as large as Massachusetts. The pioneer has done his work in this north of the bay region, the foundations are laid, and all is ready for the inevitable inrush of population and adequate development of resources which so far have been no more than skimmed, and casually and carelessly skimmed at that. This region of the six counties alone will some day support a population of millions. In the meanwhile, O you home- seekers, you wealth-seekers, and, above all, you climate-seekers, now is the time to get in on the ground floor. Robert Ingersoll once said that the genial climate of California would in a fairly brief time evolve a race resembling the Mexicans, and that in two or three generations the Californians would be seen of a Sunday morning on their way to a cockfight with a rooster under each arm. Never was made a rasher generalisation, based on so absolute an ignorance of facts. It is to laugh. Here is a climate that breeds vi

This message’s subject was “, who has started to g,” and it was sent by “Allcock” <leveraging@streetguide.com>.  A quick Googling of the first line suggests it was culled from Jack London’s story “The Human Drift,” available in ebook form at Project Gutenberg.  The attached file, which I have not opened, is probably a virally infected advertisement for something related to the moniker, “Allcock,” but we will never know, as it has been permanently deleted.

In this same scan of spam missives, I noticed that “Jerome Alford” sent me the following message, attached to an ad to get Cialis on-line without a prescription:

He had heard that before. This is a dream bridge. The orders on this are very clear. Pilar has got in trouble there. There is bound to be much firing. He put his hand on her shoulder.
But why should they bring planes? You couldn’t do it. Maria is with thy material. El Sordo did not hear them. That is for a doctor to say. No one should ask him anything. No matter what. But you can’t take them both. I’m very proud of your family.
Much more than likely. There is where the true evil lies. It irritated him a good deal. It is very simple. Daughter of the great whore of whores. Their reward was at hand. Who is ready now? Have you heard aught of this? It is not true?
Open at All Hours. That it should start. That is _really_ nonsense. Take care not to vomit. Is not this manifest? The _civiles_ looked at one another. Gredos is safer country than this. Floyd do next? Pablo for that. That is all. We go when he comes. He is very smart.

It appears to be chopped up bits of text readily available on the Internet, a collage of verb tenses, registers of diction, and so on.  Now, I’m no flarfer, no spoet, certainly not a part of any ridiculously dubbed “post-avant” or “post-avant-garde” or “avant-post” movement, but I’m fascinated by the mind’s process when facing such unconventional texts in unconventional contexts.  As opposed to the new best-selling novel, the predictable, measured sentences of a fine memoir, the easy pleasures of most poems in the New Yorker, sometimes the textual composition without commercial aim is just what I need to revive me from the narcotic effect of conventional language.  Really, is it possible that there is joy in the struggle to make meaning of language that perhaps has practically no meaning at all?  I can’t wait to check my Spam folder again in a month in order to ask myself this question again.

Friends, please post any good Spam you’ve received below, and please resist flarfing.

Wandering the shadowless aisles of the supermarket a couple of days ago, I passed a colorful phalanx of plastic-shielded, heart-shaped cakes.  Realizing that Valentine’s Day was nigh, that other people would be putting forkfuls of these hearts into their mouths in the hours that followed, and that a good many of these displayed hearts would be thrown into the dumpster out behind the store, naturally, I thought of love poetry.

My partner of the past three years recently introduced me to a volume of poems entitled This is My Beloved.  I have no idea where she got it, but four minutes of first-rate Internet research informed me that Knopf first published this little tome in 1943, that the author, Walter Benton, was an Austrian-born Russian immigrant who worked a variety of blue-collar jobs, and that Benton published two books of poems in the 1940s.

This history aside, in my beloved’s copy of This is My Beloved, a 1963 edition of this first book, which is presented in diary form, there is an inscription:  “In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and the sharing of pleaseures (sic).  For in the dew of little things the beast finds its morning and is refreshed.  Happy Valentine’s Day – 1963.”

The writer’s rather cliché, poetical diction is spiced up with the tragicomedy of the misspelling, the strangeness of the phrase “in the dew of little things,” and the fact that the word “beast,” in rushed cursive, is quite probably meant to be read as the word “heart.”  This inscription alone is a marvelous artifact, and the book itself seems somewhat complicated as a Valentine’s Day gift because it traces a relationship gone bad—the narrator of the poems falls in love with a woman who ultimately does not love him back, leaving him to declare at the narrative’s close, on “November 25”:  “I am lost on an island somewhere between two rivers. / Blind buildings are all around me— / and the earth is covered with flat stones.  And over me, the low / dark roof—the harbor’s lifted morass and the belchings of many chimneys.”

“Lifted morass” and “belchings” in mind, let us declare:  this Valentine’s Day we agree not to give each other heart-shaped agents of indigestion, but instead, strange, complicated originalities of utterance and legitimate attempts at sharing our, um, truest feelings.  What does Jack Gilbert say in “The Great Fires”?  “Love allows us to walk / in the sweet music of our particular heart”?  Now, that sounds very nice.  Let’s get to it.