Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Thomas Lux’s poem “Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy.”
Symptoms of Island
Sometimes in the morning your hand
finds the dip in my side. For the moment
we’ll call it happiness. This does not
account for weeks spent cursing
the apple trees, their sticky bloom.
The man on the bus gaping
at my slack lip knew. Plump dumb
stone in my mouth. I’m sure of it.
That afternoon you were a brisk,
starched thing. We slipped out
the back way, screen door banging
cruel on my slim-boned grim. Today,
like most days, my mind arrives
an island, tongue-numb, child wishes
ivied onto me. God takes away,
it’s said. Call it what you will.
Camille Rankine is the author of Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, she is featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet. Her poetry has appeared in American Poet, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM and POOL: A Journal of Poetry. She is Program and Communications Coordinator at Cave Canem Foundation and lives in New York City.
The history of my reading life (and I consider it a life, somewhat independent of my so-called “real” life) has been littered with strange and utterly intuitive encounters with what now seem, in retrospect, the very things I needed. And so, when I had just turned fourteen, and was well-built and morose, and spent long hours staring in moody silence at nothing in particular (perhaps a pimple), I came upon a poem by a dead French man (or maybe he was Polish, or a gypsy, or an alien come down from the stars) named Apollinaire. A cousin had left it on our kitchen table. She was “in college” and planning to be a nurse. She came back for it only at exam time– such was her disdain. By then, I had cached it away in my underwear drawer, and the pain of giving it back to this nurse pending was palpable. The book contained Apollinaire, and George Trakl and Rilke, and I think it was an anthology of 20th century European poetry, but that detail is lost. What caught me first, and last, and has stayed with me for 38 years is a poem by Apollinaire called Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge):
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
Our loves flow too
Must it recall them so
Joy came to us always after pain
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
Facing each other hand in hand
Thus we will stand
While under our arms’ bridge
Our longing looks pass in a weary band
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
Love leaves us like this flowing stream
Love flows away
How slow life is and mild
And oh how hope can suddenly run wild
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
May the long days and the weeks go by
neither the past
Nor former loves return
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
I must describe the physical sensation this poem had on me. It was a hot and humid day, and the house was full of fans whirring, and flies buzzing, and no one was home. My mother and father were out shopping. My sister was with them. My brother was off somewhere putting hickies on the neck of his girlfriend. I lay on my bed, trying to find the cool spot on the pillow, sun burned, a little feverish, and goose bumps rose on my skin because I knew this poem was true. I did not know what the particular truth was, but there it was–in all its sad and whimsical, and undeniable glory–light, and yet heavy as a stone you have just plucked from the bottom of a river. What grabbed me was the way that, each time the refrain returned, everything had somehow changed, as if the laws of repetition led not to regularity, but had, instead, provided the pulse, the throb of what can never be fixed, made stable, made “whole.” I read it again, and on the second reading, I was even more excited. As is my habit, I just kept reading it until my mother yelled up the stairs for me to come down and help bring in the groceries. It was now as if I had a mistress upstairs, and everything in the universe was interfering with my hidden love. I knew I must behave myself, and the attempt to “behave” myself, triggered my mother’s intuition: “What’s wrong, Joseph? Are you sick?”
I guess I had that startled look, as if I had been caught at something (masturbation, grand theft auto, making moody faces in the mirror), I said: “I feel a little weird.” She said: “Lay down for a few hours. Don’t go in the pool. Rest up, Joseph.”
And so I had more time with the poem, all the time I wanted. I memorized it. I took it with me on my bike. I brought it with me down to the deserted train tracks glutted with chicory weed and Queen Ann’s lace, and old shoes, and used condoms. It seemed at home there. I waited for the Angelus to ring at six o’clock, from all the churches of Elizabeth, and I said the poem aloud. Poetic truth can not be pinned down, and I already knew that. It is a pulse under things– not the things themselves. Years later, when I spoke to my students about the use of refrain, I said it was all about “circular transformatives”– circling back to see how everything has changed, how the repetition gives a pulse to movement– not a stop, but a pulse. This is the power of song, and music. The return, if justified, creates rather than impedes suspense. I used this poem as an example, and I also used a song I first heard done by Johnny Cash called Long Black Veil:
Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light.
I wasn’t there, but they all agreed that the slayer who ran
Looked a lot like me.
And she walks these hills in a long dark veil,
She visits my grave when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.
The judge said son, what’s your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life.
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife,
This morning, after waking up earlier than usual and drinking the gas station coffee that my husband bought for me (I love gas station coffee), I settled into the enormous chair at my desk in front of my computer. Suddenly, I had no idea what I meant to do. It occurred to me that if a poet or writer is to develop discipline, he or she must have some sense of assignment. And so bereft of direction or purpose, I called downstairs to my husband and asked him to provide me with an assignment. He said, “Write an essay on Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight,’ and enter the poem in a new way.” It sounded interesting to me, but ultimately too huge of a project to suddenly launch into at 6:30 in the morning.
The truth is that as writers and poets, we all discover what it is that we want to write about by what presents itself to us as a deviation from an assignment, or a method of getting around an assignment in order to actually fulfill the assignment. I needed my husband to provide me with an assignment, not because I wanted the confinement of specificity or structure, but because I needed the inspiration to begin from somewhere, even if where I began was completely unrelated to the assignment. From where does a poem arise? I think for each of us, our poems are born by way of our own mysterious processes. And yet when we attempt to intentionally enter into mystery, we often don’t know where to begin, nor do we even understand the mystery.
When I am without a formal assignment or prompt, it’s like attempting to trespass on something where there is no territory to trespass. I’ll stare out the window at the evergreen tree in our backyard and hope that the first line will somehow be infiltrated into my consciousness simply by sitting still. This is a peculiar device which is contingent upon the premise of “waiting for something to happen.” I’ll watch the sun spread itself on the snow, and then slip again into the shadows. Once in awhile, our neighbor will wander through the backyard with her dog. Yesterday, I heard two rifle shots. And then sometimes there are divine moments when a flock of geese will fly over the river and honk out a cacophonous sound.
But sometimes, nothing happens. I bite at my cuticles and wallow about being blocked for the rest of my life. So here’s a trick: I’ll pick up somebody’s book of poems and read something they’ve written. I’ll find two compelling words, or perhaps just one. And then I’ll begin the poem with those one or two words and see if it inspires me. After all, words implicate ideas, and if you begin sorting through all the words that pass through your mind, you’re bound to eventually come up with a phrase. Once you have a phrase, the trick is in contextualizing it into story, concept and form. But the other trick is, it’s probably not a good idea to write poems deliberately. Some of the best lines and images are often not deliberate. We arrive at them completely by accident, and that it what makes them resonant, entertaining, and unique.
Even mechanisms like enjambment and rhyme are better when they aren’t deliberate. Once I wrote a poem all in slant rhyme and wasn’t even conscious that I was doing it. The fantastic thing about having a husband who is both a poet and a critic is that after he reads a poem that I wrote, he exposes it as conceptually complex, as if I had determined the concept before I began to write it. He has an uncanny knack for seeing the poet’s intentions even as the poet is unaware of them. He sees the consciousness of the poem. I am never conscious of the poem’s concept until someone has the insight to see it as a whole and complete entity, operating in terms of oppositions, disparities, and reconciliations. This is why I think it is the poet’s advantage not to outline or premeditate a concept before the poem actually conceptualizes itself.
So what is my assignment this morning? Oh, right “Frost at Midnight.” So the first line (which is one of my favorites in the annals of all poetry) “The frost performs its secret ministry,/Unhelped by any wind” is Coleridge’s very perspicacious manner of identifying something in nature and personifying it so that it retains its ethereality. The irony is that the very idea of something “performing” almost implies that there would be something auditory involved—something perhaps loud and showy, and yet the frost performs in silence. In fact, as the whole poem is somewhat of a performance of nature, all of this is performed without sound, except in two places. First, “the film that fluttered on the grate,” (“the sole unquiet thing”). What Coleridge achieves by emphasizing the only thing in this performance which makes any sound is the reinforcing of just how quiet everything else is. The second place in the poem which references noise is only in the memory of the church tower, “Whose bells [are] the poor man’s only music.” What this does is juxtapose the quiet of the present with the memory of a great influx of music, thus also reinforcing the calm and soundless moments of the poem. The last line of the poem, “Quietly shining to the quiet moon” allows us to actually “hear” the quiet moon shining, along with contrast of the fading echo of those church bells and the almost indecipherable fluttering of film on the grate.
So, was Coleridge thinking consciously that he would juxtapose quiet with sound in order to reinforce these mysterious performances of nature? I doubt it. A poet never writes a poem with the intention of predetermining how any given reader will interpret it. A poet should never say, “this is how my poem should be interpreted.” The poem is simply an extension of the poet’s arbitrariness, and often, if the poem is good, it doesn’t even make sense to the poet. After that, it is up for grabs and out of the poet’s hands. No one will ever know what the poet was thinking. But, they can conjecture and twist it into the meaning which suits the poem as a whole, whether by imposition or simply innocuous speculation.
The way I would harness this poem as inspiration for my own poem would not be to say, “I think I’ll write a poem about the way nature performs,” or “I want to juxtapose quietness and sound.”
I would take the word “ministry” and the idea of the slumbering infant, ascribe it to a present situation and begin like this:
For the time being, we will exist in separate rooms
lest we should be inattentive to the literature.
The hidden ministries of our holy languages
spin their separate webs–
allow our imaginary child to sleep without babble or fuss–
allow the morning to call itself into its order.
There is no trumpeting or wail–
no storm or fallen branch–
no love that desires itself more
than the awareness
that I can hear you drop a coin by accident
in the other room.
So for now, I think I have more or less completed a part of my husband’s assignment, and that assignment has provided me with a sense of orientation. And it was exactly that orientation I needed in order to disorient myself. And yet, by way of that disorientation, I still managed to address the Coleridge poem.
Since I began writing this, not a thing has occurred in the backyard, except that the sun slipped into a winter shadow. But I did hear my husband’s coin drop. I don’t know what that really means in the context of the poem, and yet I have a vague idea that it means I can be assured with the certainty that he is there. I didn’t say that explicitly in the poem because I was hoping that this might be implied. But the poem is out of my hands now. It spoke for an occasion, and the occasion has been documented. So now I must wait for the next occasion. After I make my husband breakfast. :-)
“Whatever it was I had to say,” Charles Wright writes on the first page of Littlefoot (FSG 2007), “I’ve said it.” Two years later, in 2009, Sestets, his most recent book, came out.
“Instead of going over poems today,” Charles said one day a few years ago as our small, always-awestruck-in-the-presence-of-Charles-Wright class gathered around a seminar table at the University of Virginia, “I’m gonna read you some John Cage.” He then began to read John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”
“I am here,” he said, “and there is nothing to say. If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking.”
Thank god he does. If he had nothing to say at the beginning of Littlefoot, a beautiful book-length poem, then he certainly had much more nothing to say in Sestets. For, in Sestets, we find the God-hunger and dark humor from Wright’s other works—“What’s up, grand architect of the universe?” he writes in “Terrestrial Music”—but in a new form for him, and an interesting contrast to Littlefoot’s length. Sestets is a book of brief poems, each just six lines long, the brevity of which harkens back to his much earlier work, which is similarly condensed. However, the poems that compose Sestets retain Wright’s signature long and long-winded lines that often split and drop down midway through.
Another distinguishing element of Wright’s work is his titles, which often act as little poems in and of themselves. One of my all-time favorite examples of this is the poem “If This Is Where God’s At, Why Is That Fish Dead?” from the previous book A Short History of the Shadow. And here in Sestets, this element continues, as we get similarly brilliantly layered titles, such as, “Like the New Moon, My Mother Drifts Through the Night Sky” and “Autumn is Visionary, Summer’s the Same Old Stuff.” Even “Homage to What’s-His-Name,” wonderfully humorous, opens up to suggest that even the people we most admire we forget when we age and memory falters. “No one’s remembered much longer than a rock / is remembered beside the road / If he’s lucky or / Some tune or harsh word / uttered in childhood or back in the day,” he writes in “It’s Sweet to Be Remembered,” a title inspired by Lester Flatt.
Many of Wright’s poems are inspired or informed by songs and song lyrics, which contributes to the playfulness of Wright’s work, even as it addresses the direst of last things. “Time Is a Dark Clock, but It Still Strikes from Time to Time” begins, “Whump-di-ump-whump-whump, / tweedilee tweedilee tweedilidee, / I’m happy as can be…” and he means it—I heard him read it once and he went ahead and sang the line. The poem goes from this playful beginning to an impulse to remember the details about the song, and who sang it, and then a reflection about the faults of memory in the face of lost time, as then settles, as Wright often does, on a heartbreaking ending image: “Pretty nice, but that was then, / when our hearts were meat on the grill. // And who was it, Etta James or Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker? / The past is so dark, you need a flashlight to find your own shoes. / But what shoes! and always half an inch off the floor, / your feet like the wind inside them.”
The brilliance of these poems lies in the way they at once comment on human existence in a flawed, rough world while also commenting on poems, songs and art itself, on why art exists, and how. “The metaphysics of the quotidian is what he was after,” reads the first line of the book, an ars poetica for this book of poems, rife with thoughts and images that occur everyday and often go unrecorded.
Sometimes, when the formal feeling comes after an encounter with the void, after, as Nietzsche would say, we look into the abyss and the abyss looks back into us, we reach out, then, for something that will console us honestly, something that goes beyond apologies for what’s newly missing, beyond the assertion that the person lost has gone to a better place, or that the relationship ruined was all for the best, the easy crutches tossed off at times of loss that actually perplex and paralyze thought. Wright consoles us for the losses of this world honestly and almost cruelly frank at times—“We live on Orphan Mountain, / each of us, and that’s how it is”—and at other times darkly funny in the language’s colloquial tone. “We haven’t heard from the void lately,” he writes. And it’s implied that it’s just a matter of time until we do hear from it again. And that’s how it is.
And around the workshop table, we listened as Charles went on, reading Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.” “We need not fear these silences,” he read, “—we may love them.” This, for those of us in the workshop who felt that we didn’t deserve to be there and still had to turn in each week mediocre poem after mediocre poem, was incredibly consoling to hear Wright say. And it is something many of us from the workshop, I’m sure, still go back to, just as, I think, Wright must also do during the inevitable silences.
After a loss, there is always a particular kind of silence. I finished 2010 reading and rereading Sestets using sympathy cards, whose consolations always come up short, as bookmarks. “Twilight of the Dogs,” a poem almost dead center of the book, begins, “Death is the mother of nothing. / This is a fact of life, / And exponentially sad. / All these years—a lifetime, really—thinking it might be otherwise.” We get the sense that Wright uses writing as a way of filling the void, of making his way down Via Negativa trying to reconcile his hope of what might be otherwise with what simply is.
John Cage writes, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.” And we get the sense that Wright’s work comes from a place of urgency, a personal need to be consoled by language, even as it is arranged by him. And we too need these poems, because, as Wright tells us early on in Sestets, “If you can’t delight in the everyday, / you have no future here. / And if you can, no future either.” And I’d assert that we need these poems especially in the dead of winter, after what was for many of us a rough year, and at the beginning of a new year whose occurrences remain hidden from where we now stand. We need these poems especially when “Everything is what it seems to be and a little less.”
Sestets is what it seems to be and a lot more: a small book of small poems that resurrect what they can from the nothingness. Sestets is Charles Wright at his best, yet again. Read it with a sympathy card as a bookmark.
Of course, the first guest on the show to grow up in one of the largest wilderness preserves in the United States, Yosemite National Park, provides me with a photo of herself taken indoors. Dawn Marie Knopf’s poetry feeds off a particularly American mythos: old wives’ tales, Farmer’s Almanacs, the revered stories of American pop heroes before they made it big. Playing both sides of the coin, Knopf enjoys both the extension of these fables to a magical extreme and the reduction of them to a sorry tall tale. Does the ball ultimately land in- or out-of-bounds? Listen to the interview to find out.
Dawn Marie Knopf, Part 1
Dawn Marie Knopf, Part 2
Add Clark Coolidge to the list of great American poets that nobody is talking about. He has been writing quietly for over four decades and gained prominence among the Language school poets. This Time We Are Both is another masterful accomplishment that further explores his unique form.
Since the 1980s, he has been composing copious amounts of syntactically-innovative poetry. It might appear, at first, that nothing has changed since his acclaimed works of the 80s, like At Egypt and The Crystal Text, and his current work. The Coolidge poem is easily recognized: at least several pages long, written in medium-length lines, lacking a subject, narrative cohesion and distinct imagistic content, and, most of all, containing a disjointed, fluid syntax that ignores grammatical norms.
Like any Language poet, most readers will, at least at first, find Coolidge’s work to be a garbled mess and devoid of lyricism. Most Language poets, like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews, deliberately abandon traditional grammatical norms and generic convention for political or scientific purposes. Like most (high) Modernist poems were in the early 20th century, contemporary Language poetry is very important and very inaccessible.
Coolidge fits in this paradigm, but with a huge exception—he is, in my opinion, immensely rewarding to read. If John Ashbery functions on the level of the sentence, Coolidge makes his living with the phrase. Like an Ashbery poem, the Coolidge poem has no discernable subject, symbolic clarity or transparent meaning. Unlike an Ashbery poem, the reader does not feel manipulated by elaborate rhetorical constructions and shifts in narrative or discursive content. Rather, a Coolidge poem is all texture. Here is a stanza chosen almost at random:
But the neighborhood where the people, smoke
where the pole wires, a fist of needles and says
we extend farther than you do and will get you
no doubt of those poles wires in a fist
and I have the urge to shake you
flats of sun fill blind vitamins simply
share the urge to seize stars violet like soup from
that rail, pretend flat out those vistas are alarming
trolley pack, and spring, flat bait, wait and we wave
broken gum, a flat frock of sugar
The most prominent feature of this language is the syntax, and several remarkable things seem to be happening. First, the connections between phrases seem to be basically arbitrary. Why does “smoke / where the pole wires” follow “[b]ut the neighborhood where the people…”? Second, Coolidge is bending the bounds of the phrase—the syntactic units themselves are ungrammatical and innovative. Finally, in spite of these conditions, the language has “fluidity,” though it is hard to specify exactly how. Phrases fuse into each other with the points of juncture disguised, and at times double or triple syntactic breaks are compressed into fragmented, almost stream-of-conscious word strings. In sum, every five to ten words or so, the reader finds herself in a very different kind of syntactic structure but can’t explain how she got there. Unrelenting anacoluthon yields continuous metamorphosis. It would be like channel surfing, except there are no clean distinctions or noise between channels. There’s just a river with partially-dissolved pieces.
Coolidge impresses me with the way he reworks imagery and description. Most of the phrases do not last long enough to sustain complete images and metaphors. Instead, there are imagistic gestures or “half-images,” or some such thing, like
when all the world does its thinking, mysterious
crayon stream in which world prong, the eating club put out
by word metallic raised the point, if that was an author (21)
A distinct image begins to form, “mysterious / crayon stream,” but deteriorates at “world prong” which has no or minimal meaningful content. Coolidge’s phrases tease—giving us the beginning of images, actions, and declarations that never fully form or find a correlative. This technique might seem to render the semantic content irrelevant—as with other Language poetry, which, crudely put, is just a study in linguistics. But good Language poetry, of which this is a fine example, does not surrender semantics. This partially-dissolved imagistic language in part creates the texture, counter-pointing the syntactic disruption. The disjunction between these two levels of operation in the text—the syntax and the content—harmonize by pulling against each other. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other.
It is both a musical score and a lyric landscape: It is musical because the sounds of phrases burst forth, denuded from their grammatical hideouts; it is lyric because there is a discursive, image-generating mind at the root of these word strings. This hint of lyricism comes out sometimes in fragmented glimpses of a lyric “I,”
I go by as ever on pencils
underneath of every leaving sun reveals
twigs in bottles in threes, elsewhere an etching erasing
grease for the eyes, that they take away nothing (19)
and is eluded to in the pronoun of the poem’s title. Coolidge’s poems are filled with human voice and personal feeling. To me, this voice is very clear and almost overwhelming. It is a paradox of language—perhaps the paradox that Coolidge’s career dares to explore—that something personal and compelling can persist in language deprived of normal syntax, rhetorical markers, subject matter, narrative and imagery. Like the rest of his oeuvre, This Time We Are Both shows that, while Language poetry doesn’t care about lyricism and aesthetics, it can sometimes still give pleasure. It a strange, wonderful achievement, even if too few are paying attention. Though, perhaps Coolidge is reconciled with this outcome, knowing that he is digging in a lonesome mine for disregarded stones, as he writes:
at the flat rock of syntax
huge factory knock lines all stub night long
and trouble to smear all the oils that swells, abatement
crosshatch in memory with sums of all railings by jewels
but only have I come to the marble gates
everyone stop at these walls
You do what you want,
I’ll do what I want,
and we’ll see which one of us
gets to the twenty-dollar window
in time for the fourth race at Del Mar.
On the goddamn radio
that’s always playing
in my bitch’s kitchen,
I heard some East Coast big-shot author
say he needs to jerk off before he can write.
All is I can say is fuck that shit.
I hate poets who beg you
to like them because you feel sorry for them.
Do not feel sorry for me.
I won on Bitches’ Brew in the fourth
and went home and drank
a fifth of bourbon
and got laid.
David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford American Book of Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He teaches at The New School.
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Late Ripeness.”
When I die, I want to be buried under the ground under the floor of a library. I want the musty smell of turned-over pages to seep down through the wood floor, through where the wood turns black around the nails. I want to dream of ink, through the stone-scattered earth and a plain pine coffin, of ink pressed as words into the pulp of paper, of the way the afternoon light comes yellow through the high windows sprinkling down on floating flecks of dust. I want to hear the footsteps of a kid looking for the first time for a particular author as the joists creak. I want to feel the shift in the weight as a girl stands on her toes to find the place her books will be on the shelf, when she writes them. I want to see the sigh escaping a man who’s finally found a book he once loved, once lost.
I bought my first book shelf at an estate sale, after they’d sold everything worth something, everything but the clothes and the cat and the press board shelf. My granddad, the girl said, as an answer. He was 74. It had five shelves, the top shelf too small and the bottom one too large so the books had to be arranged by size. I set it by the head of my bed, and stacked my books all there, with only a few left on the floor unshelved. I lined the top shelf in paperbacks, pushing in the penguins and the signets, the bantams and the ballentines, until there wasn’t room for another full book. The last one I pried in, trying to keep the cover from crushing back. At night, trying to see the shelf in the dark light of the alarm clock, I smelled the old owner’s cigar smoke seeping out of the pressed particle wood. For weeks or maybe longer it hung there, in the dark, the soft scent of hours spent smoking and reading, paper turned and leaves burned and a life spent rocking quietly into the night.
The books you read, as a boy, they’re about men of action. Knights and cowboys and heroes and adventurers. Men who went over the horizon, into the next day, and if they die they die gloriously as a testament to things accomplished, to deeds done and victories claimed. You never read, when you read the books of a boy, about men who die wearing a bathrobe and reading until the end finds them half way through a cigar, half way through another book. But you read, when you’re a boy like I was a boy, with glasses and a book shelf and a penchant for words that aren’t usually used, you read and you see things in books like you’re the first one to see. You read and, as word follows word follows page follows cover, you see that specter. You get a glimpse of the outer limit, of your mortality.
In books, the man said, in books rowed up on the shelf you see, for the first time, your own death. You begin to measure the time this way. To come to feel the passing of life in titles. You come to look at a library the way the alchemists kept skulls on their desks, as a time check. Remember death, reads the space of every shelf, remember the limitations. I read 47 books, this last year. And 43, the year before, and 40 the year before that.
If a year of my life means 45 books, then I’ll read 270 by the time I’m 34. A few more than 2,000 when I’m 74. Two thousand titles I’ve yet to choose that will mark my accomplishments. Two thousand titles that could be any titles but whatever titles will pass, will pass shelf by shelf, author by author, passing my time. All of them could be bound together as the book of my days, the record of my lamp-lit nights.
If Martha Stewart had a child who went rogue, moved to New York City, and started writing poetry and making books, that child may have turned out to produce something as crafty-bohemian as Small Anchor Press does. Their carefully assembled chapbooks are often made with hand-marbled paper, complete with twine, stitching, high resolution images, and tiny folded windows and flaps.
The Dory Reader ($21 + $8 shipping / 12 print and audio issues) is a monthly periodical for subscribers, featuring a single established or emerging voice per issue. Each subscriber can feel special since each series is editioned according to the number of subscribers and is “intended to be read or listened to on a morning commute.” Subscribers receive a “kit” which consists of a letterpressed box (beautifully done) to store all the incoming pamphlets.
Issue I, featuring the incredibly innovative artist-poet Jen Bervin, almost self-consciously begins with lines seemingly echoing a creative process: “the best part of the weaving / was the drawing pressed / up against threads so / carefully arranged / to look simple.” The issue caters to Bervin’s love of the look and texture of words, with beautifully rendered close-ups of the lines done on the typewriter, so every blob of white-out and slight bleed of a letter becomes another element of the poem, another aspect of poetic form, a tiny work of art. Small Anchor clearly wants to make an objet de’art, but they are also concerned with lyrical quality in the poetry, which is what I find most enjoyable about Issue I. Lines like “I am waiting for you / I cannot leave until / you answer with a poem” or “glassed over shelves / books wild in their selves / give light back” all seem so wonderfully inviting for the reader and are aware of the space in which they exist. It leaves one looking forward to the next issue with anticipation.
I recently learned how to use spreadsheets, and despite my own self-warnings about abstraction and its dangers, the ability to manipulate vast rows of numbers is beguiling to me.
Using my newfound ability, I have created a rather uncomplicated formula to get this list of the 10 “most popular” posts in 2010. It’s too simple just to use “hits” or pageviews. Lots of people accidentally surf into a website and surf out as fast as they came (Google giveth and Google taketh away). My formula takes unique hits, time spent on a post, as well as bounce and exit rate all into account. All answers, of course, are functions of the question, so…take this list with a grain of salt.
Dorothea Lasky’s POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT made huge waves when debuted at this years AWP. The newest book on UDP‘s Dossier imprint, Lasky lays out, in 19 quick pages, a theory of poetry that reaches back through High Romanticism into a more hermetic time. Illustrated beautiful throughout bySarah Glidden, Lasky’s theory pushes against the limits set out by conceptual writing, striding toward a more cosmic and otherwordly approach to artistic creation. There’s a lineage of deep thought coming from poets back from Blake to Spicer’s ideas of poetic dictaction and Barbara Guest’s short collection of writing on art, Forces of Imagination. I was graced with the wondrous task of editing this book, and I present to you a soundbytey narrated version of the greater text, so you can get a flavor of what’s happening here.
One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.
Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the least thought upon, least looked upon day in the Easter Triduum. But it has in the last few years come to epitomize for me my own life, spiritual and otherwise, where the pomp and majesty of supernatural events ceases; no gods dying, no gods reborn—merely dormancy on all fronts. This is the day when Jesus lay within his tomb; when the great hoax of the messiah was over; when if there was a hell, Christ descended.
I’m don’t consider myself a comfortable elegist (is anyone?), but reading of Alexander McQueen’s death this morning forces me to take up the mantle. I’m not a huge fashion-buff, but I made the walk past the McQueen store on 14th Street a highlight of my daily commute when I worked in Chelsea. His clothes seemed to me wild and well-tailored in the English way. His suits would have fit beautifully in this show at the V&A in London a few years back; he’s one of the only contemporary designers who would have fit, I think; and I mean fit while also doing his own, completely contemporary thing. That show, by the way, was a revelation.
We modern people forget how extraordinary it is for us to have such extravagant colors in our everyday lives. Even a hundred years ago, this was not the case. Common place things like big red barns were not painted that way to exhibit color, but because red paint was the cheapest at the time.
Dorothea Lasky is a poet of petulant grace. The particular way she does is she carves into the alphabet for poetry’s hurtfully buried, metastasized epiphanies of black life. Thence comes the fragments of jagged wonder she strings together to decorate her verse with pretty conflict. Her wonder (love and awe) is heavy and plain, stilted like she’s writing after a concussion, but the generalness of language (many fundamental ideas repeating, put forth directly) is thick—it spills over the edges of its meaning into the scary beyond. She meets herself in conversation with the space outside experience’s edges. That is the damaged holiness brought out: a haze of dirty purity like a cough toward an inaccessible God. It hurts like joy.
Ben Luzzatto’s THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, ABRIDGED (UDP, 2010) is one of those rare artifacts that transfers its own actual magic—and it is real magic—until the possessed begins to lift a bit toward the sky.
8. AN AGREEMENT REQUIRES / AN OFFER AND ACCEPTANCE by Emily Pettit
I came here to get you excited.
We have an accidental stare-down.
No bees, no money. No one says this.
9. “Prepare for Peoplery” by Christie Ann Reynolds
I assemble flapping into a mechanical bird.
To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.
And for good measure I’m going to throw in number 11 because I loved this post:
We all have our ways of dealing with the unknown, I guess. Apparently cartographers used to write “Here be dragons” on sections of uncharted territory, especially oceans, where they drew pictures of giant sea serpents. One ancient Roman map cautioned travelers about the presence of dog-headed beings. Another 15th-century map warns of men with horns.
[Do you get any reception here?]
Do you get any reception here?
I think if you face West.
You await silent sadness to filter in.
Or if you shut it off you will be the same.
Cracked open and with a scar.
Light getting in through chinks at night.
Bits of information like a glorious blanket over the sky.
A window box of purple basil.
A dried chili in a bowl of water.
Blossoms exchanging news across the rooftops of the city.
Matthew Rohrer teaches at NYU and is the author of A Plate of Chicken and Destroyer and Preserver (forthcoming), among other books of poetry.
When gaining a foothold among the establishment, it is important the so called “outsiders” or mavericks have a figure fully anchored within the establishment who can be “acceptable” to the degree that he is:
1. Friendly to their cause, or, at the least, suffers their presence gladly.
2. Perceives himself (or herself) as being “forward thinking” (it does not matter if he or she is truly forward thinking as long as he or she considers his or herself as having a nose for future value).
3. Often someone with disposable income or privilege fully willing to dispose of it.
4. A disgruntled, black sheep member or son or daughter of the highest inner circles willing to defect and lend their support and contacts and influence to the “new” order.
In terms of the Black Mountain school let’s fill out that order. William Carlos Williams, especially in his more objectivist, socialist form was perceived as friendly to the cause of poetic innovation, and was enough of an outside/insider to prove acceptable as a substitute for Eliot whose triumphant followers in the form of the post-war formalists, and metaphysical poets had a lock on academic positions and public adoration. As the Agrarians had done twenty years before, the Black mountain school found a camp in the wilderness, but, unlike the agrarians (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, etc, etc) they did not embrace a local, southern aesthetic, but used the isolated camp in the mountains of North Carolina as a meeting ground for international figures of the “new.” The romance of this camp caught the imagination of one of the most “inside” figures in all of poetry: Robert Lowell. Lowell, bi-polar and supremely gifted, and from one of the most powerful and gloried families in New England, was the chief darling, along with Randal Jarrell of the late thirties and early forties elders. In post-war poetry, he was dominant.
His “conversion” to free verse and to writing from life in mid to late fifties put a stamp of approval upon what had been the outsider’s position. I forgot to mention the idea of the “sacrificial lamb” or “innocent victim” around which the outsiders rally, and thereby seize power. In this case, the most comical, and unlikely lamb in literary history: Ezra Pound. Lowell’s championing of Pound, and the defense of Pound, the fight to get Pound out of jail for treason, brought Williams, Pound’s college buddy, and the Black mountain school, as well as Lowell into alliance, putting the final seal of “greatness” on Williams which had begun with Jarell’s introduction to his selected poems, and the rich James Laughlin’s interest in publishing Williams’ work, This rallying around Ezra brought certain poets into prominence much as the Vietnam war protests of the sixties brought Bly, Merwin, and the Deep Imagists to the fore. So that’s the other condition for outsiders becoming the insiders: a proper “victim” or martyr they can rally around. (“Free Mumia” t-shirt anyone?)
We will be studying these mechanisms in detail through both the poems and essays in the following movements:
1. First and second generation romantics.
2. The Imagists.
3. The Black Mountain school
4. The Beats/ San Francisco/Confessional schools
5. New York School/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Surrealists
6. Deep Imagists
7. Multicultural (or the cannon warriors)
8. Gender, queer, and green theory
And their various alliances, misalliances, temporary marriages of convenience, hybrids, and finally:
9. Slam and spoken word, and its mixture of multi-cultural, beat, gender/queer identity and post-Lenny Bruce menology (as well as aspects of the self-acceptance movement).
1. With the possible exception of spoken word and multiculturalism, none of these “mavericks” were truly outside the power structure, and all of them depended on converts within the power structure to gain a foot hold.
2. All movements, once gaining a foothold, take on the characteristics of power against which they rebelled, and the re-affirmation of elitist exclusion/inclusion tactics. All end up being part of the academic and publishing establishment, and are distilled beyond their original definitive traits into what I will call “establishment and normative” sea. All rivers run to the sea, and that sea is both the death of a dynamic, and the force of the power in all dynamics.
We will be studying these power games through certain theories of co-operative evolution, and one thing the evolutionists are never interested in and ought to be: the tendency of movements and isms to create abnormative, non-breeding “heroes”– not unlike priests who function in the realm of what I will call “virtual mate selection” and produce “virtual” progeny. The way this is done bears many common traits with actual mate selection and the bearing/raising of children. So we will study these movements in relation to “courtship.
The distinction between what it is that constitutes the “amateur” poet and what constitutes the “expert” is slippery, yet should be considered in an extensive discussion. To begin, let me address the amateur’s typical testimonies: “I write to express my emotions,” or “No, I would never show my poetry to anyone!” The truth is that all poets want readers. One of the differences between the amateur and the expert is that the amateur feels he is at the risk of exposing something “personal” about himself, and is hesitant because he feels he will either be made to feel vulnerable or will be relegated to the subject of ridicule, while the expert, on the other hand, disguises and crafts his poetry through a language and imagistic lens which allows him to remain distanced from the poem, and what the poem speaks to. If a novice poet wants to be recognized, it is usually not about inventiveness of metaphor or image, but because he wants not feel so alone, because he wants someone to know his pain, and because perhaps, he is masking as someone who resists conformity or is practicing all the semiotics of how he assumes a poet should present himself to the world.
Let me elaborate. When I was a high school student in the tenth grade, I ate my lunch alone in one of the cubicles in the library, wore “goth” clothing, and pierced my own ears with a sterilized safety pin. The trouble with wearing your pain in a semiotic costume is that the person wants to be noticed, and often times saved. Eventually a teacher noticed me and told me that I ought to be writing poetry. So I wrote horrendous poems and prayed to God that someone cared about my inner turmoil. I’ve seen this plenty of times with high school students, and even freshman college writers. Why do poets insist that they are required to write about their own pain? Maybe it is because pain is more intriguing than writing about a Christmas that goes along merrily and just as planned, or because since the punk rock era, pain is “fashionable.”
The expert poet might be in pain, but somehow has learned not to indulge in it. He has taken poetry workshops and knows that he must mask this pain behind an exterior that appears normalized, and not sit around the workshop table sulking. He has learned not have a nervous breakdown when someone attacks his poem, because it is neither “professional” nor socially appropriate. He knows how to assume an air of aloofness or arrogance where it is necessary. He knows how to cajole publishers and editors with a subtle charisma. In some respects, he has lost his innocent and bleeding heart to “the business.”
Here is where the amateur exhibits more authenticity. He has not surrendered himself to competition or the battlefield of what he wants to seem like effortless metaphor and allusion. The amateur simply wants to be recognized as human, with something to say, and not necessarily for any other audience other than that mentor (and we have all had those) who will assume the role of therapist, or savior, or suicide prevention official. The problem with this is that the poetry gets lost in the need to feel important.
So the expert is made to feel important by extensive publications, and laudation, not necessarily for the poet himself as person, but for his brilliant rhetorical tactics. The amateur poet might write about the “hissing wind” as opposed to “anorexic women floating away in the wind,” and this might be so important to him that his heart breaks. So does the almost ersatz recognition of twenty editors make the expert feel better for his gratified ego, or does this just leave him feeling empty, in that unrequited manner he can’t expose behind his flashing smile? Does he want to be loved for his humanity or for the name on the page?
The truth is, no one can take a name on a page out for a romantic dinner. A poet CAN be taught to twist his pain into clever metaphor and image, but at the same time, must have healthy relationship to his sanity.
The advantage of being married to another poet who recognizes me for my humanness and also (the horror) loves me more than he loves my poetry is that I know I can break down in a hysterical fit of tears over nothing, while at the same time he can say, “edit the lineation in the poem.” I am by far an expert, though I have been fortunate to attract the literary eye of many editors. Suffice it to say that the recognition of my work can never be a substitute for the love that my husband gives to me. It is certainly fantastic to have your work recognized, but if you don’t have someone to make you less alone, and someone who recognizes your pain as something he wants to save you from, than the idea of real human interaction is obliterated.
My advice to both amateurs and experts: care for yourself first. If the roof caves in and you walk outside your front door some morning to find a dead raccoon, write about it. If you go to a carnival and the balloons look lonely, investigate why. Tell your loved one about the lonely balloons in your sleep, and then sigh when he kisses you and makes the balloons seem less lonely. Tell him that the instrumental version of “C’mon it’s Lovely Weather for a Sleigh Ride Together with You” upsets you because of the sound of the whip against the reindeer’s posterior. But never lose your wanderlust, and be naïve about the world. Do not indulge in the pain of having no one show up for your fortieth birthday celebration in literal terms. Personify the wall or the tea kettle. See yourself as a medium, and speak through objects and images which might implicitly reveal your pain, but not render it the primary focus of the poem. Speak through “things.” Speak through “event,” as a bystander and unassuming observer. Be the corner of the room where the dust gathers. And never underestimate the amateur poet. Cater to his insanity. As an editor, in the words of my husband, “see what the poem wants to say or do.” Regard the poem as an extension of someone whose voice must be crafted in order to be heard. Poetry, as necessity, should never neglect the person behind the poem.
Why do we make lists? I tend to agree with Paul Tankard, who wrote in Prose Studies, “[A list makes] an implicit truth claim that subverts prose…a list in a novel is part of the fiction, a list in a poem is part of the poetry, but in both cases the list introduces a pragmatic element. What a list does in pragmatic circumstances it will seem to do in a literary circumstance. It stops us reading and starts us counting…It moves the reader, for a moment, outside literature.” Or perhaps Umberto Eco’s thesis of his book on literary enumerations is more to the point: “we like lists because we don’t want to die.”
That pretty much accounts for the pragmatic elements. But what about this “stepping outside of literature” business? Every year around this time (especially since the advent of Twitter) we are flooded with Best-of-the-Year-Books lists. This year was the first time I saw a few Best-of-the-Best-of-the-Year-Books-Lists-Lists. Why? Any discerning reader knows that you can’t just rank your favorite books, that nothing stacks up in a neat little row like that. We need individual books to fulfill individual needs, and some do certain things really well that certain others can’t, or don’t intend to. That’s the beauty of literature. But here we are, and here I am, delivering my list. I’ve been doing it independently since ’08, but I am glad to share with you my year in fiction. The reason I (we?) do this is not too far from Eco’s – namely, we can take stock of how much we have read, but in doing so don’t we always become even more morbidly aware of how much we haven’t read, and how many more years like this there are to go? Death would be a rather unfortunate inconvenience in the yearly reading campaign.
In the past, I’ve posted my broad results of yearly reading. The lists included any book that I read that year, young or old. This runs the risk, in the long term, of becoming repetitive. That is, anytime I read Underworld, Infinite Jest, or The Brothers Karamazov (which I hope will occur often), they will automatically make the top five. It’s nice to flaunt, but it’s completely unhelpful to a reader looking for my opinion on the best fiction of a given year (that is why you’re here, right?) Now, I wish I could be like Maureen Corrigan or Ron Charles and have a hundred books delivered to my door every week for review. I wish I could come from a place of having read all the relevant novels of the year. That’s not the case. I missed new ones from Tom McCarthy, Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan, David Grossman, Louise Erdrich, and John Banville, among many others. Still, I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have read five novels that many would agree are “Best Of.” But since I don’t have high authority, I feel unqualified to label this a “Best Of” list. So, like Oprah, I give you my Year-End Favorites.
The first question most newspapers, magazines, and blogs have asked is, “Will Freedom make it?” The literary event of the year has made mine, perhaps because of its literary-event-of-the-year status. It’s too important to ignore. So, I’ll begin there.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Franzen may not be The Great American Novelist the way Time has set him up to be (only Time will tell if that is true). But he is a great stylist, and his sentences make the book. His characters are deplorable and spend most of the novel engaged in one Girardian mimetic triangle after another, repeating the mistakes of their parents, with potentially ruinous effects. I have friends who hate the novel on the grounds that they believe that Franzen actually likes these people and hates pretty much everyone else. A certain snobbishness does pervade, but it can be overlooked thanks to the same type of page-turning fun that characterized The Corrections and the scathing satire of his near impeccably crafted sentences.
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. So, I cheated. Shields’ portentous rap against the state of fiction in favor of memoir is technically nonfiction, but it’s so artfully produced that I must comment. Namely, he argues that contemporary fiction, forty years after Barth’s “Literature of Exhaustion” is, finally, exhausted. Memoir, in its emotional authenticity and basis in fact, is gaining more steam by the year. While he’s at it, he spends a good deal of time addressing the issue of plagiarism, i.e., if we’re dealing with memoir, how much can be made up, borrowed, stolen, etc.? In his opinion, anything goes. The content of the argument is relatively compelling, but about halfway through the book you have an epiphany. It has to do with the structure. The book consists of twenty-six chapters, each named after a letter of the alphabet and dealing with issues of nonfiction (“overture,” “mimesis,” “reality,” “memory,” and “blur” are just a few of the chapter titles). Each chapter is comprised of a series of aphorisms ranging from a sentence to a paragraph in length. There are 618 such aphorisms. But, halfway through (or earlier, if you’re sharper than me), you realize that Shields didn’t write any of these aphorisms. They are all lifted from somebody else. No quotation marks, no citations. I can’t tell you how much this added to the reading experience. I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it. To Shields’ dismay, he was forced to include a works-cited appendix at the end, slightly undermining his argument for total and credit-less sharing. I was still compelled, if not convinced.
Solar by Ian McEwan. “The Master of the Macabre” surprised me here with an homage to Updike and Rabbit Angstrom in the figure of Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who is charged with the task of solving global warming. He has more than a few problems, though, mostly pertaining to the amount of potato chips (and women) he consumes. This sets the stage for a Rabelaisan romp that, stylistically as well as structurally, provides laughs at nearly every turn. Ultimately, the bureaucracies whose job it is to solve the world’s problems are bitterly satirized here in a refreshing turn from the recent darkness of On Chesil Beach.
Zero History by William Gibson. “The Bigend Trilogy” concludes with a journey into London’s underground fashion trade. At the center of it all is multi-billionaire Hubertus Bigend, whose single goal in life is to fulfill his many curiosities. Here, it is, in an elaboration on the idea of pattern recognition (also the title of the first novel in the series), a fascination with predicting trends in the market. That fascination manifests itself in an attempt to corner mass produced military wear for civilians. This is vintage Gibson, a commentary on the simulacrous state of consumerism, the invisible workings of desire and demand. But can those workings be manipulated? In addition to all this, Gibson is so enjoyable because he brokers in cool. Apple products and Twitter pervade the novel, as well as a good amount of motorcycle courier-ing. His comments at his reading in D.C. this fall tell us the most, however. “For anyone serious about writing,” he asserted, “genre is only useful as a narrative strategy.” This best sums up this recent trilogy. He deftly made the transition from out-and-out SF into what a London writer called, in reference to Spook Country (the second part of the trilogy), “one of the most important books of the decade.” Count that for all three.
And the winner is (but who’s counting?)…
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. I will re-post my review from the summer here:
Until three days ago, I had not read anything by Gary Shteyngart. But, true to form, the YouTube trailer of Super Sad True Love Story (released July 27) intrigued me enough to spend my birthday money on it. I was aware of Shteyngart’s propensity for hilarity, and this novel delivers. But it was layered in unexpected ways. It is the story of Lenny Abramov, an – ahem – middle-aged Russian-American with a taste for books. Only, in Lenny’s America, books have become physically repulsive (they stink), and every citizen is perpetually linked to his or her apparat, a media streamer good for all things data and entertainment. Reading has been replaced by “text scanning for data”; dollars are now “yuan-pegged” due to China’s global economic dominance; Credit Poles are set up in public spaces, which flash people’s credit scores as they walk by; people are subsequently divided into HNWI, and LNWI groups (High/Low Net Worth Individuals), your membership of which determines your social prospects; similarly, women’s “Fuckability” and “Personality,” their apparently only two appealing traits, are broadcast by their apparats; like David Foster Wallace’s near-future, Shteyngart’s is saturated with acronyms and product placement, with the vulgarity turned way up. JK (“just kidding”) is replaced with JBF (“just butt-fucking”), and name brands such as Polo and J. Crew are replaced with AssLuxury and JuicyPussy. Americans get their news from Fox-Liberty Prime and Fox-Liberty Ultra (“the Fox”). This alone indicates the hyper-conservate policies that run Abramov’s America, a nicely woven sub-plot that comes to a surprising head by novel’s end. Citizens are constantly screened for their credit ratings and, if returning from abroad, for how many foreigners they’ve slept with. Almost precisely this happens to Abramov, whose story centers on his love for Eunice Park, a Korean-American he falls for while abroad in Rome for a year. The narrative is told from their alternating perspectives – one chapter will be comprised entirely of his diary entries, the next by her e-mails and online chats. A nice dichotomy between old and young, literate and “post-literate.”
And ultimately, that’s what this book ends up being about. The gaps (emotionally and technologically) between generations (Abramov works for a company that helps people try to live forever), and the (im)possibility of love, romantic or otherwise, between them. Amid his satirical romp that lampoons, cleverly, the future of American political and consumer society, Shteyngart rounds the narrative out to address what Abramov realizes are life’s only two truths: my existence and my demise. This novel shows us that how we get from the former to the latter is, yes, a super sad true love story.