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Reviews & Interviews

 

Maria, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by discussing your book Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, particularly the idea of “personal poetry.” Could you start by explaining what your vision of that is?

My vision of poetry is that it should be based on some essential truth about what it means to be human and I think narrative poetry gets at those truths more directly and effectively than many other types of poetry. I want to give people permission to tell their own stories and to look at the world unflinchingly through the their own eyes rather than worrying about what critics or literary theorists say about writing. Like Faulkner, I believe literature is about the truths of the human heart and not about intellectual analysis. I trust the old lady who lives in my belly more than I trust intellect when writing a poem, and I encourage my students to go to that deep place inside themselves that I call the cave. I want them to get rid of the crow who sits on their shoulders and tells them everything that is wrong with them because that’s the critic that will keep them from writing. I believe in poetry that tells a story. I want poetry to make me cry or laugh; I want it to make the hair on my arms stand up. I want to remember it. I want to carry it with me for years after I’ve read it or heard it. For me, writing narrative poetry was very liberating. I started by imitating the work of other poets, but I realized, finally, that I was not an English Romantic poet, but rather that I could look around me and be a poet of the things I know. I know my father; I know 17th street in Paterson, NJ; I know Public School No. 18; I know what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a child of immigrants who did not speak English until she went to school. I know about grief and loss, the grief over the loss of  individual people in my family but also grief for war, grief for what we’re doing to the environment. If you can’t get rid of the crow who sits on your shoulders, you’re not going to write anything that will touch another person. One of the things I see in Allen Ginsberg’s work is his willingness to fight his own demons—his mother’s madness, his own fears, accusations against him for this poem Howl. He talks about that in the film Howl. He said he had to learn about everything. He ends up saying that everything is holy. If you are willing to go to all the places that maybe you’re ashamed of, and really look at them, you can make them blessed, you can raise them up, you can give courage to others just as Allen did. Literature provides window in someone else’s life and give us the connection between the writer and the reader. It forms a bridge between reader and writer. In writing narrative poetry, I think we learn about our own humanity. The writers I admire are ones who are afraid but go ahead anyway—Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Joe Weil, Jan Beatty, to name just a few of the great writers creating memorable work today.

Maria, what you say reminds me of something I heard the Canadian actor RH Thompson say once. He said that all theater training is essentially designed to get actors to return to their natural baby voice. Pointing out that babies can scream for days but never go hoarse, Thompson explained that humans have a natural knowledge of how to use their voice, how to speak loudly and clearly; at some point, though, he said someone turns to us and says “shut up” and we begin to feel our voice is a kind of vulnerability: we tighten our jaws and begin to speak from ‘the wrong place,’ to use our “inside voices” as we were so often instructed to as children. Actors must go backwards, Thompson said, and recover a place where their voice was actually them and not simply their voice. Would you say that this example is analogous to what you’re saying?

Yes, very much so. I think it is unfortunate that so much of our education trains us to subdue all that is wild and primitive and honest inside ourselves and in our writing. I think that we have to be willing to let go, to ignore our intellect and allow instinct to take over. In revision, we can use our intellects, but in writing the poem we need to believe that this instinctive voice knows what we need to write and as soon as we look that very middle-class,suburban inside voice, we lose the energy and vitality in our work. Even in revision, we have to be careful, to prune the work with delicate hands. We have to believe that our voices and stories are important and need to be heard. Did Whitman play it safe? Ginsberg? Anne Sexton? Adrienne Rich? No, they didn’t and that’s why people remember their work. Playing it safe is for accountants and not poets. Poetry needs the energy that only specificity and truth can provide.

While reading the book, I was struck by your focus on encouraging everyone to write. It’s a very democratic vision in that sense. That’s what I meant by radical because, as you’ve observed, many regard poetry as something for the academically minded. The book was very much like a portable version of the classic Maria Gillan workshop. I’m sad to say that I never had a chance to take a full class with you, but I did sit in on some of your weekend workshops, which were unlike most I’ve been involved in. I always felt that writing in that environment almost involved an act of faith. I have always been moved by how much faith you put in the very process of writing. In fact, you explicitly state that your book is about ‘process’ and not ‘craft.’

I think I did not make myself clear. Maybe an example will help. I was raised in a lower-class immigrant household where there were a lot of voices raised in argument and laughter. No one spoke of an inside voice. It would have seemed strange and unnatural to us. But when I was raising my children in a middle-class suburban environment, my own children pointed out that I often did not use my “inside” voice, indicating that I was too loud and boisterous and embarrassing. When I was growing up, I used to think that I would be truly happy if I could live in a middle-class community and raise my children there. My life was safer, more comfortable, but I felt that I lost some of the energy that was in my childhood home and that I had not been able to give my children the feeling of what that was like. I don’t want to play it safe anymore. I don’t want people to be lulled or put to sleep by my poems or any poems. I don’t expect contemporary poets to be bards, but in a way, I think they have to be able to communicate to people, not just to academics or other poets, and they should be able to read a poem so their reading helps to put the poem across. there are many writers and academics who will disagree with me and who will be angry with me. I don’t call my poetry confessional because it isn’t and because I think it’s a way that the academy has found of putting narrative poets, particularly women poets, down for not writing poetry that is so obscure that only an academic poet would understand it. That/s not a radical idea or a new one. I edit a journal, and have done so for 33 years. I am the only editor and I choose poems and stories and memoir based on my ideas about writing. I’ve organized a reading series for 33 years also, and again I choose the poets who are capable of reaching people of all types and classes. I am not interested in work that uses language as a screen and I don’t feature that kind of poet. I think my audience likes my poetic taste and they return month after month, year after year, to celebrate poetry that is rooted to the ground, poetry that celebrates ordinary life. I think that there is resurgence of narrative poetry because in this mechanistic world , people need and want meaning. I think of Shakespeare whose plays have survived because he wrote for both the elite and the people in the pit. I think that’s why we are still drawn to his plays even today so many years since they were written and performed.

This was another thing that struck me about your book: you insist that poetry is the work of the inner life, and your focus on everyone’s ability to engage in the process of poetry (or other art) as a result of the inner life. You affirm that everyone’s inner life matters and that it is their right–perhaps even their duty!–to cultivate their inner life. I respond to that because I did not come to poetry as an elite art that I aspired to in a class sense, but as something that broke through to my inner being in spite of these distractions. I guess I’m really interested, biographically speaking, in hearing about what led to this breakthrough. You spoke about wanting–for a time–to raise your kids in that  middle class safety, and later rejecting that safety in order to speak in a “clear and direct and specific” way. What was happening in your life that led to this?

Micah, I hope the book is like carrying Maria in your pocket. I truly believe in the writing process and I believe that people become better writers if they believe in themselves and the value of their own lives and stories. For me, poetry is a way of saving myself and others, so I guess I’m like a preacher, only I’m preaching poetry and not religion. (Of course, religion and poetry are not mutually exclusive, but poetry has been so important to me and I love it so much that I can’t imagine living without it, and so I want to share it the way a preacher wants to share loving God. I also am very opposed to the idea that poetry is an elite art written by upper class people for other upper class people. I want my poetry to be clear and direct and specific; I want to be able to reach anyone who reads or hears it. I remember once reading an article in the NY Times Magazine many years ago, and in it, the person who was then the President of the Academy of American Poets was quoted as saying something like “Poetry has always been an elite art; it will never have a large audience and it shouldn’t.” I went apoplectic when I read that statement (I’ve paraphrased it, but that was the gist of it, I think I want to be like the wandering minstrels who went from town to town reciting their poems and stories). I try to encourage my students to believe in themselves and to think of the audience for their poems, to think of that audience as much larger than the audience of 5 white guys from Harvard.

You have defined “personal poetry” over and against “confessional” poetry, which you feel has been used dismissively by critics, so I think it’s interesting that you bring class into this discussion. Generally, we think of the poetry community as a very progressive community, but you seem to want a more radical vision: creating a nation of writers, of bards. Was this always your vision or did you come to it over time?

I started publishing poems when I was thirteen, but it wasn’t until I was 40 that my first book of poems was published. I had gone to graduate school when my children were in high school, and one of my graduate school professors said to me, It”s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell. He gave me courage, made me feel that someone might be interested in reading poems by a working-class woman who did not speak English when she went to school, poems by a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, an Italian American so my poems became more rooted in place,memory, and narrative. This was 1980; my first book publication coincided with my starting the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ in 1980. I also was and still am the editor of the Paterson Literary Review. As my own work began to gain critical attention, my own self-confidence grew and I was willing to take bigger and bigger risks in my writing. There’s something about shutting the crow up that is very freeing. At this point, I believe that what I’m doing in my work is what I need to be doing; and I want my students to believe in themselves and their work in the same way. Prior to my 40th birthday, I was teaching as adjunct in various colleges and trying to be supermom. The more I went out into the world, the more I read my poetry in public, the more students I taught, a big change came over me. Somewhere along the way I stopped being that introverted, bookish, shy little girl I had always been, and I discovered that I could make things happen both in my work and in creating programs. Everything we do ends up feeding our courage.

Speaking of risks, allow me to risk a characterization of your new book of poems The Place I Call Home. I have read a number of your books, and yet this book seemed different to my sense. While still being rooted in your life, these poems seemed more expansive in their scope, their claims. Would you agree?

Yes, I do agree. My grief over my husband’s long illness and subsequent death, led me to a wider examination of grief to include my grief for the way we have managed to destroy so much of the natural world and even the world of human connection. My book The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ books) deals with these issues even more specifically. I have another book called Ancestor’s Song (Bordighera, CUNY) which ties together many of the themes of my earlier books with the new direction that my work is taking. What I advise my students to do is to let go. I do believe that a force wiser than we are guides our writing. It’s fun to be exploring new territory even after all these years, and I’m happy to find that my production of work has not slowed down; if anything, I feel more prolific than ever.

Maria-Pic-1-color-681x1024

 

THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE

BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN

 NYQ BOOKS, 2013

ISBN 978-1935520-89-4

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All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.

Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision.  In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.

In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.

Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:

My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small

Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper

with orange vases, bright yellow flowers

and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,

especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.

The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop.  Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place.  Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.

The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.

Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a  more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:

 Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing

at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her

that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice

it has no right to require.

This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”

Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’  The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:

 How grateful I must

remember to be, to hold

so much in my hands.

so much in my hands.

grapes-of-wrath

 

ALL THAT REMAINS

BY BRIAN FANELLI

ISBN: 978-1936373468

OCTOBER 2013

UNBOUND CONTENT

all-that-remains-front-cover

Here’s a challenge for all of you poets out there. Get a copy of Brian Fanelli’s All That Remains and try to write like him. At first blush it does not seem an insurmountable challenge. Fanelli’s work is approachable. He does not brandish his technical prowess with intimidating sestinas. There is no pandering to theory, nor does he flaunt his erudition by quoting obscure thinkers or having his characters speak in Latin. (Though there are some well-placed references to Bob Dylan and horror movies.) What we do find are rusting towns and their hard-working denizens, whose horizons are limited through no fault of their own. We also catch moments of tenderness and regret and glimpses of youth with chances seized or lost.

While All that Remains is best consumed end to end, I am going to focus first on a poem that appears in the middle, After Working Hours. The people inhabiting this poem are not poets or artists or academics or urban professionals. The woman works in a grocery store. The man works construction, and the images and sounds of their work day follow them home and further still into their dreams, but they wake to love and consideration as he pours coffee and she touches his hand, “feeling warmth between his calluses and cracked skin.” These are not people with careers. For the couple in this poem, a job has little reward beyond the monetary. The drudgery exacts both a physical and psychological toll, but the simple affection between a man and a woman makes it something that can be borne.

Perhaps the most refreshing attribute of Fanelli’s work, in my opinion, is that he has overcome the temptation to write about oneself. There is always an “I” in his poems, and the “I” is usually the poet (though not always, as in Speaking from a Sick Bed),  but the poet exists not to tell about himself and what he has been through, but to tell the story of the people around him.  Summer at the Press Plant is more about the alcoholic, good-natured horror movie buff Frank, barely holding on, than the poet who is looking back to when he was “19 and home from college.”  How I Remember Her ponders the fate of a female activist who surrenders the barricades because of motherhood and marriage to a man “she loves sometimes, when he’s nice.” While we may be curious about the poet’s true feelings for this woman, who is clearly a friend or more than a friend, the poem is not about unrequited love, but about the forces of life and time that make someone, once passionate and vigorous, quit the battle and surrender. The poet may not approve of his friend’s choice of a mate, but, if there is any judgment, it can barely be discerned.

In fact, there are few judgments rendered in All That Remains. Fanelli opts not to expose the violence, resentment, and ignorance that are often fellow travelers with hopelessness. He is not an ironic writer, not looking to poke fun at or criticize his subjects. His hard-working blue-collar characters are not racists or homophobes, not bullies or reactionaries. In fact, save for a passing reference to “decisions of law makers and kings,”  “some senators and congressmen”  actual villains are hard to come by in All That Remains.  The people in these poems toil in dignity seemingly without residual bitterness, the cause of their fates unmentioned or distant.

I decided to set myself a challenge and write a poem like Brian Fanelli. I tried my best to transcend myself, to write about marriage and fatherhood from the perspective of someone who has a job, but no career (or no job at all), who works with his hands instead of tapping keyboards, who is too exhausted and concerned about how he will pay the heating bill to concern himself with questions metaphysical or mundane. I found it is not easy to capture with wit and humanity lives that are near your own geographically, but further in terms of class or race or gender. Fanelli writes about fates that he himself has escaped, but he is unwilling to turn his back, to say: “I’m out of here. You’re on your own.”

diamond years

 

FOR LACK OF DIAMOND YEARS

BY CAROLINE BEASLEY-BAKER

ISBN 978-1938349096

NOVEMBER 2013

PELEKINESIS 

diamond years

As a literary person who became an art critic, the nexus of visual art and poetry has always been of interest to me. I have known Caroline Beasley-Baker as a painter; now I know her also as a poet. 

In Beasley-Baker’s visual art—in all of its diverse forms—I always saw a perceptually acute link between the visual and myth. In his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer describes how visual feints and impressions, physiognomies (seeing faces in things), fears, animation of the inanimate, and conceptual reversals begin; how nervous ticks comprise the human fight-flight physiology.  He describes how epiphanies were experienced and then clarified over time  as the presence of a god (or “temporary gods”) emerged, places subsequently becoming sacred as shrines.

In secular life, such huhs? are often the result of mishearing something, of making a sudden new connection between two odd things, or having a little insightful eureka. Recent neuroscience has found support for Cassirer’s linking of  sight and myth to the study of how humans figure out the world; to how–from purkinjee trees inside the eye to how we see during reverie to how early dysmetropsic misunderstanding of the world is processed through the eyes of a child–forms the basis of all later perception of the world.

In one statement about her poetry, Beasley-Baker said that in her youth she saw the world as a whole laid out below her, that when when she blinked she thought the world changed. These are classic ur-dysmetropsic events, which, if held onto and cultivated, lead to a distinctly personal culture and mythology which seeks to give voice to that seen reality. A poet like Pound, so responsive to Japanese calligraphy, to the haiku, and to other short forms of poetry, sought out poetry to put a visual sensation into something other than conventional words. He sought to give voice to the passing visual sensation of the world in the form of a kind of nervous gestalt beneath or before words. This line of poetry is grounded in sensation. As a result, it paradoxically, harbors an alexithymic suspicion that once you put a label on something you have gone too far and crushed the moment in its delicate passing (as so much lyrical and more confessional poetry, in my view, does). Indeed, much of such poetry has been written precisely in response to visual moments or visual art with the express purpose of not using denotative or even connotative words…but some other kind of word. 

Beasley-Baker was the only artist I knew who dealt with both the macro and micro dimensions of mythic perception (or, as Cassirer called it, “mythic thought”). Later, the titles of her works of art developed into little poems, and she began to put captions or titles into her meanders of lines too, right there in the painting. Her current poetry digs even deeper; it strikes me as what art historians are now calling sfogo (Italian for “steam”)… the little musings to oneself that accompany the making of a work of art; a kind of nonstop texting-below-texting that the mind in metacognitive itch continues on with as it will. Not the lecturey talkback run-on that keeps one from getting to sleep, but the dream-phrasings that incant over walks in the cold or in the dark—or being in the flow of making art. Beasley-Baker seeks to capture these odd, errant “what-made-me-think-of-that?” thoughts at a very micro level. I have called this voice of nature “nomos”, and find that it often takes form in visual art in words that rise out of the very surfaces of the facture of painting or as broken fragments of words: fractured, surgically transposing adjective, adverb, verb, noun moments into other figures of speech; making use of punctuation as if in a musical score, thus leaving behind a finely etched and lean transcript of a visual-mental response, given overvoice or underbreathvoice by the mind. A mental world of phenomenological ghosts (Husserl’s term) and a world made of metaphor, this is not a nexus that positivist categorical American art and American poetry have had much time for. But in John Donne, in Emily Dickinson, in folk song, and in the late work of the Beatles, even, the hesitant, immediately retracting, spelling it out, taking it all back (it all adding up, after such an emotional outburst, to precisely nothing) has sometimes taken shape.

You can see this worked out perfectly in Beasley-Baker’s For Lack of Diamond Years poems. When she puts a slash in, she is pulling up short, telling herself, maybe, to stop; when she hyphens words into supercompounds, that’s an emotional compression, a sudden transposition, a freezing, a making noun of verb, adjectives into an entity. Then an image will come and immediately bump up against another, then something else will block it, or counter it: all of this mental byplay between talking to oneself and telling oneself to stop doing that, to be silent, is there. Beasley-Baker, as a painter, knows that the best moments are the most fleeting and mythic; in her poetry, she seeks to enlist words against themselves to capture moments prior to words, so fleeting as to almost be an enunciated form of silence. Consider her description of a clock stopping after her father dies: “I found meaning and comfort in that ceasing moment, in that…..what? the breath between living and my imagining”.  There it is, right there. The title of her poems refers to “diamond” years, a reference to age, but also to precision, facets, carats, if you will. Her visual art has always had, in addition to larger scale meanders, and an overall almost maximalist quality, countless dispersals of micro moments too, many of them faceted by gems or things that shine or sparkle. It’s really very rare  for a visual artist to so completely translate or, more precisely, transcribe her visual sense into words. For this reason, for me, Beasley-Baker’s poems are a significant achievement.

 

BEND TO IT
BY KEVIN SIMMONDS
SALMON POETRY
2014
ISBN 978-1908836793

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When the young Miyamoto Usagi (from the pages of the Stan Sakai comic Usagi Yojimbo) won his first tournament, his reward was a pair of swords. The katana was named “Yagi no Eda” (or ‘Willow Branch’); and the short sword was name Aoyagi, or Young Willow. His future lord and master Mifune explained that the willow bends so as not to break, and that strength isn’t just power but, perhaps more importantly, adaptation.

This comic book was essentially my main role, from days at Alta Vista elementary to my present as a semi-professional thirty-something. Pliability over strength and sacrifice are things I learned from Usagi, and thought about way too much as a teenager. I still ponder them almost daily, and clearly so does Kevin Simmonds, as evidenced by his new book Bend to It.

The cover depicts a tree under the kind of weight one might encounter in a hurricane, which Simmonds’s New Orleans is all too familiar with. But he’s no stranger to Japan either, as he splits his time between there and America. This collection of poems is sectioned off by kanji numbers, and often references Simmonds’s faraway home. Between Louisiana and Nippon, the author is drawing from a wide swatch of culture and voice, including but not limited to music and growing up gay.

Not that such things are totally disparate, but between the various subjects, epigrams, shifting title conventions and poetic structures, and sections, this book does begin to bend under a certain weight. Throughout it though, Simmonds balances it all with grace.

Off the bat he gives us wild, there:

wreckage is the lasting thing

||:  so mean its music:|| 

 

whatever vows you’ve made

cello them

 

sink your vowel

into them

An undulating sense of music is well-wrought through the lines in this opening piece, which Simmonds continues to use to great effect throughout the book. His strength lies in communicating the effects of music without getting bogged down in the particulars of it, in utility in the right symbols and references without overuse.

Immediately after this he moves on with longer, more narratively rooted poems, and throughout shuffles through these modes regularly. One doesn’t get the chance to become bored with any style, but neither are they afforded a longer meditation. The poems are for themselves, and as soon as you settle into a section it’s over.

Later we find Exegesis:

There was nothing trivial about the

Thai masseuse who slid his vertical

along my vertical, the power

outage, or those extra minutes

without charge. I cannot say he

wasn’t God. What I felt then, what

I feel with a man’s body on mine, is

holy, holy the way I imagine it is

right & without damage, worth

thanks & remembrance &

justification for.

A more personal, sensual poem, still jetsetting and musical. In the book things are forced into a justified column, giving rigid rules to a subject matter better interpreted loosely and interpersonally.  The alignment of verticals references the narrator’s desire to align with the world at large: spiritual synchronization. But at the same time it’s a self-justification. It is what it is, knowing right but excusing that correct feeling as well. Though all contact is a form of damage, anything else is a wistful request.

The negotiation between contact and damage, yearning for what you love but in so yearning causing harm, threads throughout the book. Maybe it’s more a matter of time than interaction. Bend to It, a little wildly at points, swings to and fro as if buffeted by a hurricane. But Simmonds certainly does not break, and gives us a book of perseverance; and in that survival, between moments of confusion or abuse or damage, an exploration of the joy found in small moments of peace.

 

DEATH CENTOS
BY DIANA ARTERIAN
UGLY DUCKLING PRESSE
2014

death centos

Diana Arterian’s chapbook Death Centos is currently available in a limited edition set ($125) that includes two additional works of art. The first of these is a broadside, designed as a version of the Goose Game, with an inward-spiraling design that depicts a life cycle. The second is a game piece, accoutrement for the board: a small sculpture made of white brass, replica of a 2-franc piece (no longer in circulation), evocative of funerary customs in which the deceased are given money to help aid them in their respective journeys to the afterlife. The center of the letter-pressed broadside holds a statement from Arterian regarding her aesthetic intentions for Death Centos, in which she writes, “I have placed [my subjects, whose words comprise [these centos] on even ground . . . I have bastardized history in order to provide a poetic space in which they are marshaled together, allowing them company in the terror of the unknown.”

Indeed, the form of a cento – a quilt of human thought and experience, couched in the language(s) and perspectives of many – seems ideal for Arterian’s task of simultaneously memorializing and combining the last words of historical figures. These centos seamlessly combine the last words of geniuses such as Emily Dickinson, who described the onset of death with immutable innovation and elegance: “I must go in, for the fog is rising”; venerated historical figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reinforced the importance of beauty, art, and faith: “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord’ tonight – play it real pretty”; religious leaders, such as Jesus of Nazareth, who invoked the value of family, love, and unity among human beings: “Woman, behold your son; behold your mother”; and common criminals, guilty of unspeakable acts of violence, sadism, and evil, e.g., Lavinia Tucker, who revealed a chilling lack of either delusion or remorse to the last: “If any of you got a message for the devil, give it.” These quotes, like all employed in the text, are credited; those who spoke them are listed on the innermost edge of each page, alongside the binding. However, the speakers cited are not listed in an order that corresponds to the placement of their words in each poem. By scrambling the identities of the speakers, these poems successfully render death a truly egalitarian process: not only must we simultaneously confront criminals, admired personalities, and venerated leaders, but we are deliberately deprived of the opportunity distinguish among them. Thus is the reader compelled to acknowledge their common humanity – and, in this way, Arterian’s project seems to become less about providing these souls company among one another in the terror of the unknown, and more about giving them equal real estate in the psychic space of the reader.

For this reason, terror seems neither the most defining nor the most compelling quality with which death is portrayed in this collection that interrogates what it means to die, and how we use those final moments before death – both our own and those of others. In fact, death is associated more immediately with happiness than with fear or suffering: Arterian opens the collection by quoting, via epigraph, the last words of her grandfather: “I’m so happy.” In addition to its direct declaration of joy, the context provided by this epigraph encourages the reader to understand death as a unifier – familial – an occasion that facilitates communication between the individual about to depart and the rest of the living world. Four times in the text, death is referred to as “going home,” and once as “taking refuge,” suggesting that human finitude, rather than merely stimulating fear, may serve as an intensifier for our natural propensities for forging connections, exchanging knowledge, and learning from the experiences of others. This text specifically differentiates, via section titles, between the dying and the condemned; to succumb to our physical finitude, then, is not to be sentenced. We may have to die, but we are not punished by death – a view that suggests a paradoxical sense of agency; readers are encouraged to regard the moments immediately preceding death as an occasion that provides the about-to-die with a reasonable expectation of being not only heard, but remembered – a secular brand of immortality.

And, ultimately, these centos suggest that our participation in the immortalization of others – the post-mortem maintenance of their identities – is a communal project, one that is also egalitarian in that it renders the individual will less important than the collective memory that keeps it alive. “Only you have ever understood me/ and you got it wrong,” Hegel tells his favorite student, and then takes his leave. Even as death erases his identity and sends his ego spiraling through the ether of the unknown, his faithful student transcribes and remembers his final speech. And so our collective attention to another human being’s last conscious moments allows us to help preserve the self that is being effaced, as we choose to integrate their departing wisdom into their own lives via language and memory. However, Hegel’s words – and Arterian’s lovely, haunting centos – also highlight the true terror of death: in being immortalized by the memories of others, how much of your true self, as you’ve defined it, will live on? How much of you is in your own words?

 

 

THE BROTHERS PERDENDO AND PERDENDOSI
BY BRIAN TRIMBOLI
RELEASED BY NO, DEAR MAGAZINE AND SMALL ANCHOR PRESS

Brothers1-copy

This is how terrible of a reader I can be: didn’t even think to look up “perdendo” or “perdendosi” until after I’d read this chapbook at least four times, the first two in quick succession immediately after it arrived. Not that it’s necessary to define every little thing in a book or poem, or so I feel; but the title is that much more fitting knowing that these brothers are named after, if not actually, a manifestation of loss, or at least the musical term for a fade out. The Brothers of Loss, things fading away.

This might have been more accurately titled The Brothers Perdendo and Perdendosi and their Father, as far as the literal ongoings within as the dichotomous distinction between the two halves set them up next to the father as if they were a single entity. We read their experience, and a few soliloquies from the father, and loss operates in tandem, theirs the royal “we” though this automatically connotes their individuality. Their names are so similar, and roots of the same gerund, to fade out in the face of their father. In Rilievo, the musical command is to become louder, to “stand out over the ensemble”.

Really I should have seen it all, though it is late in the chapbook that Trimboli basically spells out his thesis:

 Two different time signatures,

my father in the center talking loudly

 

to himself. Lights all around him.

He is dressed like a seven-year old boy.

He will not take his costume off,

even after he has gone home.

Families are baked in with the potential for discordance, a mess in the making. What are boys to learn from a father who never grew up? They raise themselves, and their father, in the process. Though there are limits.

Ultimately it’s a stressful cacophony to live under. As Trimboli indicates, “Our father was coal at the bottom / of the ocean. We named him In Rilievo, / / his voice a brash horn.” The father didn’t exist until found, and then named as the equivalent of an orchestral drama queen. But they did the naming, knowing coal’s potential for escalation.

The Brothers Perdendo and Perdendosi deals directly loss in the wake of an irreconcilable father. It’s further appropriate when we consider how the poems themselves fade out, as the musical definition of “perdendosi” commands. Which isn’t to say they aren’t gratifying or unfinished, but rather they weave throughout each other with such open expression. These verses thrive in quick structures, usually fewer than ten lines and alternating between two conjoined books stitched together with no other directive in reading. Page by page as if mirroring each other, one after the other, right to left or vice versa, this chapbook is built to be remixed through reading.

It’s the kind of setup that could drag itself into tedium if not done carefully, concisely, and in the frame of this chapbook, necessitated by the disintegrating emotions expressed therein. Multiple readings are subtly encouraged but no one experience gains ground over another. And really each line sings with such vulnerable vigor, title-less, divvied up by page as the only indication of where one fades out and another fades in.

That’s the surface poetics at work, wrapping up these short pieces as sublimely poetic, musical, and layered. But it’s more than an exercise in cross-genre ekphrasis. Trimboli’s well-wrought lines sway, graceful with their weight, are best self-described: “an orchestra of small insanities held together with catgut.”

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
Tables_by_Alfred_Corn_coverAlfred Corn, whose “La Luz Azul”/”The Blue Light” and “St. Anthony in the Desert” from his Tables (Press 53, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform his life and/or craft.

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Alfred Corn: About a decade ago I was staying in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. It was mid-month in August.  I had come down with something and was staying indoors, in bed with a fever.  Walls were painted white.  There seemed, though, to be a sort of blue illumination that gathered in the corners of the room.  Feverish hallucination?  August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, who is associated with the color blue, the color also of the sky.  I had been impressed during my several visits to Mexico by the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who seemed to command more reverence from the people than Christ himself.  In my illness I wanted to be taken into that blue light, to be healed by it.  Those times when you are seriously ill, the thought occurs to you that you might not get well, indeed, you might die. And there is a certain kind of silence that, once heard, never becomes inaudible again. Determined to put all these sensations and feelings in words, I also decided to write the poem in Spanish.  I’d studied the language and had some practice speaking it during visits to Spain and Mexico.  Also, I’d read the major poets in Spanish and knew that hispanic meter counts syllables not accents.  I settled on nine syllables per line, even though that is not a common meter in Spanish poetry.  “La Luz azul” is the result. Though of course hispanophone friends corrected small errors.  I’d first wanted the title to be “Luz azul,” which is a palindrome, but my friends said that it didn’t sound quite right without the definite article. They were also a little doubtful about the word “asunto,” which means “subject,” “undertaking,” “matter to be taken up.”  But I left it as is because its etymological connection with the word “asunción,” “assumption,” and the poem says it was the Feast of the Assumption.  Having arrived at my Spanish text, I then set myself he task of translating it into English.  That was difficult, despite the fact that I was the author. I couldn’t bring across everything that is in the original. But I feel the result is close enough to give a general idea of the poem.

As for “Anthony in the Desert,” it was written about a decade ago when I was teaching in Oklahoma.  Familiar surroundings and friends were far away.  I had been reading a book titled The Desert Fathers, about the early hermits and monk of Egypt, and I recalled Flaubert’s play titled La Tentation de St. Antoine (“the temptation of St. Anthony”). Suddenly the idea of writing about a desert hermit became appealing, partly because you could try to describe some of the apparitions (or “temptations”) he was exposed to.  Once my early drafts began moving in the direction of the sonnet, I decided to avoid perfect rhyme and instead rhyme voiced consonants with their unvoiced counterparts.  The sound “d” is a voiced consonant, as “t” is the unvoiced equivalent. The same for “v” and “f”, and for “z” ad “s”.  I’m not aware that anyone has ever taken this approach to rhyming, and of course poets like to develop new techniques and practices.

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Alfred Corn: I’ve never been certain what the distinction between “voice” (in literary terms) and “style” is.  In our time I suppose the word “voice” is used for style, possibly because it sounds less literary.  The kind of style I try for is one not too far removed from the spoken language.  I admire Milton and Hopkins, but I wouldn’t myself try to write in a special, anti-conversational mode like theirs.

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Alfred Corn: I’m not sure. Many of my poems are meditative, and certainly “La Luz Azul” is.  “Anthony in the Desert” has a minimal narrative, but is essentially meditative as well. Most of my poems present a dilemma (“un asunto”?) of one sort or another and then seek some sort of resolution for it, if only acceptance. Possibly these two do that. I hope I’m answering your question.

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Alfred Corn: Among the classic poets, I would mention Dante and Shakespeare.  Dante for his “architectural” skills in building an epic, and for the sense he gives that life choices have an importance that extends beyond the individual’s death. With Shakespeare, the first thing I note is that his people are plausibly individualized, not at all stock characters.  And then the way they have of speaking sublime poetry, if only in short bursts.  He is able to convey considerable knowledge of what the world is like and how people are likely to feel and behave. Many of his lines have become proverbs, quoted by people who never read him.  That in itself is a kind of poetic immortality. As for contemporary poets, there are too many to name. I think we live in a very rich time for poetry, when all sorts of approaches are being tried.  It is a rich compost out of which much that is enduring is sure to arise.

 

La Luz Azul*

San Miguel de Allende
Dia de la Asuncion

Mediodía. Ligeros velos
Transparentes del ancho cielo….

En la estancia una sombra amorfa,
Blanda, no acabada de anunciar
Ese alto silencio que jamás
Ha de callar:

_________Tan comprensiva
Como dulce, recíbeme, luz
azul, que colmas los rincones….

¿Pues, inmóvil? No, mejor fuera
Salir en busca del asunto,
La palabra del mortal piedad
Caída como una flor ardiente
Entre las piedras de la calle.

 

The Blue Light*

San Miguel de Allende
Feast of the Assumption

Twelve noon. The open sky’s transparent
Weightless veils.

In the room, a mild, amorphous
Gloom wouldn’t give up announcing
That exalted silence that will never
Again hold its peace.

_________________As comprehensive
As you are gentle, gather me in, blue
Light, you, filling up the corners….

Immobilized, then? No, better to go out
In search of assumed subject—
The word, embodied, compassionate,
Fallen like a flame-red flower
Among the street’s rough cobblestones.

*Written in Spanish by the author (previous poem) and translated into English by him as well.

 

St. Anthony in the Desert

To be filled with that hallowed emptiness
The hermit sojourns in a desert cave.
Fasting and prayer will make seclusion safe,
His daily bread, each word the Spirit says.

Chimera stirs and rears her dripping head;
A slack-skinned reptile puffs and makes a face;
Vile, harrowing nightmares shimmer through long days;
The sun beats a brass gong and will not set.

Faint shadow on cave walls, you foretell grief
Or joy, not known till whose the profile is:
Love itself may corrupt and then deceive
Its object, hiding venom in a kiss.
Anthony kneels, embraces his fierce lot,
And hears: Be still, and know that I am God.

________________________________________________
Alfred Corn has published eight previous books of poems, the most recent titled Contradictions. He has also published a novel, titled Part of His Story; two collections of essays; and The Poem’s Heartbeat, a study of prosody. Fellowships for his poetry include the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. Poetry magazine awarded him the Levinson, Blumenthal, and Dillon prizes. He has taught writing at Yale, Columbia, Oklahoma State University, and UCLA. Since 2005, he has spent part of every year in the U.K., and Pentameters Theatre in London staged his play Lowell’s Bedlam in the spring of 2011. In 2012, he was a Visiting Fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, preparing a translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. His first ebook, Transatlantic Bridge: A Concise Guide to the Differences between British and American English, was published in 2012. Unions, a new volume of poems, is forthcoming in March of 2014. When in the U.S., he lives in Hopkinton, Rhode Island (alfredcorn.org).

 

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
REPORTS COVER FINAL (1)Kathryn Levy, whose “Wedding” and “Becoming Angels” from her Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform her life and/or craft.

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Kathryn Levy: I begin most of my poems with one or two given phrases and then, in Roethke’s phrase, “learn by going where I have to go.” The first drafts of poems often come quickly, but I tend to revise for a long time, sometimes for years. In the process of revision, I try not to betray the first impulse and the discoveries made through the poem—which is easier said than done!

As for the circumstances leading to these two poems, it’s simpler to describe the evolution of “Wedding” since the composition of that poem surrounded the preparations for my actual wedding. I never thought of myself as someone who would get married and I always had ambivalent feelings about marriage. Yet when the man who became my husband asked me to marry him, I immediately said yes. However, as I was swept up in wedding preparations, I kept wondering: Who am I exactly? What is this about?  It caused me to contemplate these unions, and our celebrations of them, more deeply than I had before. The poem answers some of my questions about the ritual of marriage and points the way to others. Like most of the work I care about, it surprised me. In particular, the phrase “this is for life” took on a powerful resonance in the course of writing the poem.

The origin of “Becoming Angels” is less clear, except that the poem deals with subjects which obsess me—death, isolation, those 3 AM moments, the “dark night of the soul,” when, however secure we feel during the day, the illusion of security and certainty is ripped away. For me, the image in the poem that is most vivid is the children in the snow flapping their arms “becoming angels,” an emblem of what might be happening to us throughout our lives. As for self-pity, the use of that derisive term amuses me, and in revising the poem, I was interested in playing with the unacknowledged value of self-pity.

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Kathryn Levy: That often vaguely defined and elusive term “voice” is a critical element in poetry—it’s one of primary things that animates and defines a poem. I think the voice in these poems is a particularly intimate one, even as it speaks of “we,” and in the case of “Becoming Angels,” to a “you.” Perhaps it’s a voice spoken in secret to an imagined other—perhaps all my poems are that. It’s urgent, born of a desperate need to escape isolation and to answer questions about survival, and it is skeptical, even of the answers it tentatively offers. 

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Kathryn Levy: You could see these poems, as people do much of my work, as dark and death obsessed. But to be obsessed with death is to be obsessed with life—to question what we are living for, and how to make sense of the constructs we create to live and keep sane. And then, how to explode those constructs—to ask new questions.

Both of these poems also play with punctuation—there is unconventional punctuation, or none at all, in the majority of the poems in Reports. While finishing my previous book, Losing the Moon, I became interested in the ambiguity of this approach, in particular the unexpected connections it creates—the way it allows a phrase to pull simultaneously in two different directions. And I think, partly thanks to unconventional punctuation, these poems have a propulsive, edgy rhythm, with some bite to the lines.

As for the impression the work might make, I don’t think very much about that. If the poems are alive, searching for something vital, and if the language and the vision of the world are renewed for me in the process of writing, I hope they will be alive for the reader. There are plenty of poems that don’t meet that standard and I keep those in the drawer. The ones I send out to the world involve moments of discovery or at least real questioning. 

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Kathryn Levy: This is a difficult question, because I read and love so much poetry. In responding to these sorts of questions, I think we tend to refer to poets who are foremost in our minds at the moment—there isn’t an overarching answer. Or if there were one for me, it would be Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare. But aside from Shakespeare, whose plays haunt me, I’ll play the game and pick four poets from my long list.

Dickinson and Frost always stay with me—I rarely go through a day without thinking about or reciting one of their poems to myself. I agree with Wallace Stevens’ notion that that “all poetry is experimental poetry,” but some people engage in more dangerous experiments than others. Certainly Dickinson seems to write from the very edge of being. I often think of the line from one of her letters to T.W. Higginson: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic,’—I am in danger—Sir—.” I love her peculiar “gait,” her deeply charged language, and her profound understanding of the constant experiment of being a human being. She demonstrates how vital it is to “play for mortal stakes.”

That last phrase is from Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Although Frost is on the surface a more conventional poet, he is also playing in very dangerous territory. He explored some of the most complex and disturbing elements of our experience, and through his fluency in poetic form and ability to draw on a wide range of voices, he delved deeply into what can and can’t be said. For me, it’s hard to imagine any poet interested in the human predicament and in the way we use language, “the American idiom,” not drawing strength from these two poets.

Two contemporary poets who have been important to me for many years—Michael Burkard and Robert Pinsky—are seemingly quite dissimilar, and have very different sensibilities, but both have a great lyric gift and a kaleidoscopic vision. However, they both push against the music of their poetry—it is restless, never completely comfortable work.  In their different ways they demonstrate how to keep exploring, searching for those rare moments of truth, the moments when intensely alive language embodies the complexity of our being. And I don’t think either of those poets can be easily categorized, which is certainly what I hope for myself.

Wedding

We sang songs
and danced in circles
and dropped
sticks in the dust

sticks that formed
strange new patterns
we stood
over the patterns
the ground

slipping beneath us
like watching your wake
as the boat presses

into the wind the sails
swell the hand grasps
the powerful tiller—this

could lead us to death—
risking so much
we had to dress
in the palest colors
and place

flowers on our heads
flowers on the tables

flowers flowers
obscuring the stakes
that hold up the house

the minister placed
hands upon hands: This
is for life

—as everything
always was—
and some days you see that

and stop

Becoming Angels

I have felt it too—the blinding
self-pity in the dark
and longed to hold on
to any treasure longed to clutch
my husband’s arm
to scream to the neighbors
What are you feeling?
let’s make a fire and burn
all the fences
let’s sit in a ring feeling the flames
singe our faces—all
made out of flesh all falling
out of our flesh
becoming angels we did it as children
lying in the snow
flapping our wings as the cold crept
toward our bodies—have you
felt it too? I know you have I know you
have fallen awake the darkness crashing
into your face seeing
all at once—no one can help you
no god no lover
not one of the others lying
incredibly close—and they all
pity themselves
so much—as well they should
someone has to

____________________________________________
Kathryn Levy is the author of the poetry collections, Losing the Moon (Canio’s Editions) and Reports (New Rivers Press), as well as The Nutcracker Teacher Resource Guide (New York City Ballet Education Department), a guide to poetry instruction. Her work has appeared in various journals including SlateCimarron ReviewProvincetown ArtsThe Seattle ReviewThe Southampton ReviewDahse MagazineManhattan Poetry ReviewBlink, and Lo Straniero, among others, as well as the anthologies The Light of City and SeaWe Begin Here:Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, and Adventures in the Spirit. In the spring of 2013, a musical setting of her poetry, Only Air, was premiered by the Illinois State University Orchestra.

Levy has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received numerous writing fellowships, including awards from Yaddo, the Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Cummington Community of the Arts. Her many readings include appearances at the Harvard Club of Boston, KGB, Middlebury College, and The Bowery Poetry Club. She was founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Ballet Poetry Project, two poetry-in-the-schools organizations. She has taught poetry to public school students throughout New York and conducted courses in literature, film, theater, and arts education for numerous schools and cultural institutions. She divides her time between Sag Harbor and New York City (www.kathryn-levy.com).

 

BARELY THERE: SHORT POEMS

BY YAHIA LABABIDI

RESOURCE PUBLICATIONS, 2013

ISBN 978-1625642790

When a few fateful re-tweets put me into contact with Egyptian-American poet and ‘seeker’ Yahia Labadidi, I never expected to come across a work with such suave girth. A work of 21st century mysticism grounded in earthly reality, its call directs us not to the transcendental ‘upwards’ but all around and within. The poet’s flow trickles as an ode to sacred silence; stanzas articulate the ubiquitous truth, as his natural simplicity in word choice colors the work organically, like a handpicked selection for an autumn cornucopia. Yet in its sleek simplicity of layout and tender word choice, Barely There whispers Truth with an echoing boom.

From the moment the eyes glaze the book’s cover, towering, strong trees seemingly fade out amidst swirling clouds of light essence—the mist of forest fog, the calling to the Omnipresent while light beacons. Throughout the work, lines between form and the formless blur, as the title suggests. Like the image of the rising trees, humans too exist on this earth only in passing. We too will be swept away by the white light—or, perhaps, as seekers of Truth such as Lababidi come to realize, the point of life is to get swept away while we’re here and breathing. The path of the mystic or journeyman to enlightenment, then, entails fostering our souls’ desire to ascend and reunite with its source. Maybe as our angelic spirit soars to liven and and lightening our being, it leaves the worldly, animalistic carnal soul crouching in retreat, leaving us barely here.

To realize union, shunyata, mu’arafa, haskalah, jnana, or gnosis, as humans of all religious traditions try to describe the mystic aim in un-encompassing terms, means ultimately to reunite with the divine essence at the core of each self while still firmly embracing the walk of our imminent lives. As the author presents in an aptly titled poem, A metaphor: “Where ocean and shore greet/ a metaphor/ for where Spirit and body meet”. To live with the Spirit, then, is to live that awakened life wherein one accepts reality as constantly shaped by the Divine Ocean’s curling tide whilst maintaining balanced footing on the earth’s ever-sifting shore.

This secret of existence is evident in all things. In his opening song, Breath, Lababidi alludes to this interconnected “tapestry” of reality in each waking breath—“the prayer of all things:/trees, ants, stones, creeks and mountains alike/All giving silent remembrance/each moment, as a tug on a rosary bead/ while we hurry past, heedless of the mysteries.” His stanzas call his readers to heed the Omnipresent’s silent song, to weave its harmony into our existence and let it permeate into our very being. Despite the natural song, all reality submits to the way of the forces, the unraveling string of destiny. The tree, however sturdy, bows to the powerful gusts of a storm. The ant’s intricate foray is squashed by the wandering footstep. The creek’s pleasant hymn falls silent with winter’s cool stare. The rock-solid mountain, in its unyielding call to ascent, is pulverized by the splitting fissures of earth’s quaking shivers. Like nature’s wonders, the human must “Yield,” Lababidi says with respect to reality. “Not by pushing/ does one get ahead,/ but by allowing/ oneself to be pulled/ by the constant/ tug of all things.”

To be consumed by our selves—our egos in this world, humans fail to embrace the divine vibe embedded amongst all things and carrying us through life. Rather than trying to dam the river of destiny with our arrogance, we should allow well-intentioned choices to help us navigate its tide like skilled gondoliers around the river’s sharp rocks and treacherous curves.

Lababidi‘s work is essentially one of pithy truths—aphorisms of the spiritual motif. He points the reader toward certain values and lessons that allow for a more fulfilled life. He stirs hope in the reader by reminding us that, “It’s easier to be fearless/ when we remember/ that we are deathless.” He reminds us that without fear or habit “there would be daily glimpses/ of the indestructible world/ and intimations of immortality,” for the new experiences hindered by the fatal couple may very well be those that make life worth living the most.

The interested reader will find more compilations of the author’s aphorisms around the web. For the refreshing wise tweet, follow his handle @YahiaLababidi; he calls social media the “ballroom of dancing consciousness.” Yahia Lababidi is the Pushcart Prize nominated author of Signposts to ElsewhereTrial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly DancingFever Dreams, and The Artist as Mystic. His works can be found online on Amazon, or AUC Press bookstores.

I end this review with one of my favorite of his lines which I believe speaks to the root of much of the world’s narrow mindedness: “Poor rational mind, it would sooner accept a believable lie than an incredible truth.”

 

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
skywardKazim Ali, whose “Prayer”, “The Fortieth Day” and “Open House” from his Sky Ward (Wesleyan University Press, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform his life and/or craft.

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Kazim Ali: “Prayer” was in a sequence of poems that dreamed of Icarus falling from the sky. He did not regret disobeying his father. He knew it was the only way to live. What could the world be for but to be lived in, what could the body, even queer, even disobedient, be for other than to live?

Each time I publish a book of poetry (there are only three so far, four if you count Bright Felon which I suppose you could, if you insist) a long time after I try to encapsulate the full book in a single poem. There is a poem called “The Far Mosque” in my book THE FORTIETH DAY. The poem “The Fortieth Day” is in my book SKY WARD. There is a poem called “Sky Ward” in my new manuscript in progress. And so I feel myself forward and try not to forget my catechism.

In “Open House,” the roof of the house opened to the sky, the sun, the stars, the empty space. Ovid had it right: sometimes bodies turn into other bodies. What do you do but wonder.

 

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Kazim Ali: I have no voice, only the conditions of my life. Not just the immediately present ones but all the past conditions that constructed and developed them. But ultimately I am no person, no body, only a thought, or a thought of a thought. How is voice to have any agency? Voice is sound in shape. Change the sound, change the shape. Who is I? No body.

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Kazim Ali: I like that you chose brief poems. I am trying to write long poems now. But time is brief, breath is brief, the body is brief. God and planet are brief. Stone some sing sounds who survives sages and ages but for me I’ll not believe it same for leaves same for sun and swarm, who comes together? Naught. Not the night sky that the cosmonauts sail. Not Kazim. Not the same. Kazim not, Kazim knot, not what called to me, naut what I was named.

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Kazim Ali: The old school has to be comprised first of Lalla, the 14th Century Kashmiri wandering poet and saint. She whispered and she wondered in oral couplets. Because they were written down across centuries they disjoin, not in theme but in language– old Kashmiri lies alongside language from four centuries after. Then you know the truth in not the words but the shape of breath to which they are sung. Second I choose Emily Dickinson, weird Emily, bright one, not the one you know who has been selected. The Soul selects her Own society.

And for contemporary poets, I’ve too often told about who I love and who loves me. So I’ll say two poets I have read in the last year for the first time whose work pleases me in its craft and alarms me in its subject so that I should be frightened and pleased. They are Zubair Ahmed and Kiki Petrosino.

 

Prayer

Denuded and abandoned I recite
but what do I want

To rise again from the ocean
or be buried alive in the surge and sleep

To be a fearsome range in a single body
or to wind my unity down into depth

Missing in action, ghost-like
bobbing in the distance

Singing psalms to terrify myself
into deciding:

So long liberation

My time in the world was
only a gesture

My body a lonely
stranger

an ache
I never knew


The Fortieth Day

Seeing your way clear
of endless storm

A raft carries you across
the unstruck sound

You leave off the body
no one’s playing

Every one looking for some thing
newer than death


Open House

Lost in the summer afternoon
The house’s upper floors disappear

What is it for me to be
At the beginning of a new life

When I knew nothing
Of the old

____________________________________________
Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator. His books include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward(Wesleyan University Press, 2013),The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008), and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). He has also published a translation of Water’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri (Omnidawn Press, 2011), and (with Libby Murphy) L’amour by Marguerite Duras (Open Letter Books, 2013). His novels include Quinn’s Passage (blazeVox books), named one of “The Best Books of 2005” by Chronogram magazine and The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and his books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence (University of Michigan Press, 2010),Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011). In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company (University of Michigan Press, 2012), he is a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books. He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College. (kazimali.com)

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.

Unknown-2Megan Burns, whose “River Song” and “Profit/Margin” from her Sound and Basin (Lavender Ink, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform her life and/or craft.

 

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Megan Burns: The poems in this section of the book Sound and Basin called “Gulf” are all from a project I did from March 2011-August 2011, in which I wrote every day about the river and the waters surrounding Louisiana. I wrote about 300 hand written pages of text in those months and particularly wanted to document the one year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. The poems in this section including “Profit/Margin” and “River Song” deal directly with the BP disaster and its lingering effects on the people of the coastal area as well as the environmental factors as a result of the damage. All of the poems in this section about the Gulf and the damage done to our waters as a result of oil drilling and pollution build upon the work I did in my first book concerning disasters. Both books are concerned with how we respond and bear witness to these atrocities in our lives. In comparison to Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans that I address in my first collection, Memorial and Sight Lines, I feel in this book that the disaster of destroying our water is an even more urgent and unfortunately more pervasive form of disaster that threatens the extinction of life on this planet.

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Megan Burns: I think there is a distinct voice of showing up and being aware throughout these poems in this project because I did show up every day and meditate and think on the aspects of water in our lives and specifically in the region that I live in and how it shapes the people of Louisiana. The voice then is aware of a constellation of events in each poem and how all is interconnected.  There is a awareness to the very specific motion of how the oil spill “disaster” seeps into not only the water permanently changing that environment, but also metaphorically into our world order with the ability to permanently alter our relationship to the world in which we live.

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Megan Burns: I think these poems like the poem in my first book attempt to speak from a place of bearing witness to these disasters and being able to give a name to what is occurring, to be able to capture what is happening and to contemplate the effects of these events. I think again the specifics of our personal disasters mirror our interconnectedness to the world around us; it is in facing and recognizing our place in these events that we learn about ourselves but also learn that we are made up of a network that is so interconnected that we cannot simply live in ignorance of this fact. I hope that the language I use jars people, makes them stop and think about the impact that we have in the world. I think language can do that; it can enter our brains and fire certain neurons that set in motion a desire for change, and it is that desire that can have the most fruitful impact on our world.

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Megan Burns: Contemporary poets I often return to and have for years would include Alice Notley and Anne Carson; I think because both tend to tell stories and to include a wide range of allusions and history connecting the dots of how language and poetry is always about this creative force that builds and builds outward. I think they also rely a lot on rhythm to carry their lines and that is something that happens for me as well when writing. Older influences would have to be H.D. and Mina Loy, both poets who really broke with tradition and tried to push what language could do for them. I think they both had a particular vision for how they wanted to express themselves and they altered what they knew and what they were seeing happening in poetry in order to really get at what they needed to say. I think of both Loy and H.D. as poets who wrote for themselves first and foremost, and I feel I am the same way. I have a tendency to do these projects and these experiments mostly because I want to see if I can and the result of it being successful or publishable is less important to me than where I end up in the work and what I learned as a result of doing it.

River Song

a “catch” of time

out of fishing in a bayou of human cares

marrow steeped in fallen soldiers/ toxic waters

how you can never go home

a bit of killing off/ doing that already

in the listings of animals to be protected

humans turn up : the great uncounted

I’m eating solutions for you

I basket the pieces

I strophe/ antistrophe/tear down the walls of your trilogy
sweet adherent____this wheel of war____turning

towards ________the hostage embrace, thunder my waters

our net-work: made to keep us occupied

clustered as stars in a limited heaven

the bee’s dance is not for us

at which point the sky, its vast fingerwork

rivers in its own conversation, a measure of meander

and dip where once I walked these waters

where once and now the cement flows

hell, too, crosses a river to collect its dead
Profit/Margin

one year out__________to begin more drilling

one way of drawing an owl is all feathers

face hidden [mouth sealed up]

permanent solutions____nesting ground

the river bends not once but twice

and there is more than one body

by now hidden

we move delicately from one sphere of tragedy to another

oil to hurricane season: water to water

fishing boats empty along the docks

the casinos never close

panda bears eat all day for nutrients

we feed and call it necessity

to put food on the table/ a job for a father/ to provide now

and save for the later/ a child’s way/ entering the day


___________________________________________________
Megan Burns is the publisher at Trembling Pillow Press and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Jacket Magazine, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, Trickhouse, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. Her poetry and prose reviews have been published in Tarpaulin Sky, Gently Read Lit, Entrepot, and Rain Taxi. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. Recent chapbooks include: irrational knowledge (Fell Swoop, 2012), and a city/ bottle boned (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). She lives in New Orleans where she has helped run the weekly 17 Poets! Literary & Performance Series, (www.17poets.com).

 

les figues

 

OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS, ECHOIC

BY CHRIS TYSH

LES FIGUES PRESS, 2013

 CUNT NORTON

BY DODIE BELLAMY

LES FIGUES PRESS, 2013

chris tysh

1. Pins Ups: Covering the Classics

 “I realized early on that the academy and the literary world alike — and I don’t think there really is a distinction between the two — are always dominated by fools, knaves, charlatans and bureaucrats.’

                          – Harold Bloom in an interview in Criticism in Society (1987), edited by Imre Salusinski

 The literary landscape is a sensitive thing.  One has to be careful, especially if loaded words are used. Originality. Authenticity.  The Western Canon.  Les Figues Press throws a wrench into those hallowed notions with two new poetry collections, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, by Chris Tysh, and Cunt Norton, by Dodie Bellamy.  The first is a poetic re-interpretation of Jean Genet’s erotic classic, Our Lady of the Flowers.  (This reviewer counts Our Lady of the Flowers as one of his three favorite books of all time.)  Cunt Norton is a cut-up of the Western Canon of primarily English and American male writers, interspersed with pornographic prose.

With the rise of fan fiction, strange literary adaptations (Android Karenina, etc.), and posthumous resurrections of abandoned works (The Pale King, The Original of Laura, etc.), literature now seems to lack a certain something. Sacredness? Separateness? Specialness?  More draconian copyright laws?

Why? Who says so? Since when has literature been stuck in amber and impervious to creative subversion?  Ulysses, by James Joyce, and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis jump immediately to mind.  Even the Romans stole the mythology of the Greeks on their way to forging a global empire.  Perhaps the fetishizing of the Creative Work Innate Inalienable Unalterable Specialness (in caps, natch) is rudimentary to the dictatorial mind?  Just look at Samuel Beckett and David Mamet.  The way they control their artistic works leans a bit on the fascist side; dramatic interpretations the envy of every unreconstructed Stalinist.  Want to throw a spork into the Beckett Estate?  Adapt Waiting for Godot using female leads.

Happily, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, and Cunt Norton can both be seen as positive, life-affirming acts of artistic terrorism.

In addition to this fan-fictional democratization of literature, the phenomenon of covering a song isn’t exactly new. But that is music, and this is poetry. It’s one thing for Hendrix to cover Dylan, but for another poet to “cover” Jean Genet?  This is most confounding. Not since Jorge Luis Borges had Pierre Menard write Don Quixote has there been a more perplexing situation for literary connoisseurs. (I’ll delve into the particulars of genre theory in a later section.)

One sees this same debate in law.  Is the American Constitution an ever-changing, ever-evolving document that requires modern interpretations to meet the needs and challenges of a modern, pluralistic, secular democracy?  Or is the Constitution an Eternal Vessel of Truth and Morality that should be guarded by an elite magisterium of prayerful heavenly emissaries charged by God with keeping these Eternal Verities unchanged, unaltered, and unsullied by the poisonous tentacles of modernity?

Let’s put a pin in that.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, by Chris Tysh “covers” Jean Genet’s novel. The surprising thing is that no authorial gloss is overlaid.  No witty commentary or postmodernist machinery.  The Wind Done Gone it ain’t.  The more amazing thing is that Tysh has successfully distilled Genet’s novel, boiling down several hundred pages into 134 pages of crisp seven line stanzas. And Les Figues has formatted it so that there is a close to 50% white space.

What further complicates this creative strategy is that Our Lady of the Flowers is a poetic novel to begin with. It is a monument to gender fluidity, non-linear narrative, and public artifice; gender as performative to cite the oft-cited Judith Butler.  Genet renders the gutter queens, stool pigeons, murderers, and pimps are rendered in haunting prose.  Tones switch like gender, from hard-boiled street tough to gossipy queen, from sexually explicit to poetically lyrical. The artistic challenge seems daunting. Is it a “cover version” of Our Lady of the Flowers?  The answer: sort of.  But covers usually reinterpret the original source material somehow, transpose genre, etc.  Tysh renders the prose of the novel into poetry, although the transposition of prose into poetry involves a lot of distillation, since Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is far shorter than the original novel. So what does Chris Tysh call what she did?  The answer: transcreation.  In Tysh’s words, transcreation is:

“A cross-cultural communication between continents, languages, and temporalities, which prolongs the life of the original like a standard translation does, but at the same time ushers in a gap and a movement away from the generating cell. In ghostly fashion, the new poem is haunted by its French progenitor, while allowing itself to cross over into a totally new temporality and formal structure.”

It is naming this “gap and movement” with a term that seems so perplexing and infuriating to the Stasi of the literary status quo.  Chris Tysh’s transcreation attends to transcend the concepts of adaptation, parody, and the cover song.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is not the first time Tysh has “covered” a classic from the Western Canon. This volume is a sequel (of sorts) to Molloy: the Flip Side. The project’s third volume will involve a work by Marguerite Duras.

2. The Norton Anthology of Poetry (The Pornographic Version)

 Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?

           – Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 1602)

 Teddy Bass: (raising a glass) Gentlemen!  You’re all cunts.

                          -Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)

 cunt norton

Say it with me.  All together now.  Cunt.

Latin for vagina, the c-word still resonates with a thermonuclear power.  While basic cable has become the playground for the occasional “fuck” and “shit” (“damn” and “bitch” are now almost commonplace), “cunt” retains its power to shock.

Cunt Norton’s greatest irony emanates from the how joyous it is to read.  The cut-ups of the Western Canon and the pornographic move beyond its programmatic artifice and become a sort of liberation.  Words, liberated from the castrating idiocracy of speech codes and middlebrow propriety, fly and burn with a beautiful intensity:

Open thy temple gates and fuck my cock.  My poste adorne as doth behove, as thy chest I adorne with come.  Recyve my saynt with honour dew; drive it in any direction thou direction thou want’st til in humble reverence thou commest. (Cunt Spenser)

The delivery is graphic and the situation carnal, not at odds, but in concert with the genuine emotions and intimacy.  Patton Oswalt in his bit, Clean Filth, relates how “creepy, G-rated filth is way more disturbing than regular filth.”  Once cleaned up, it the G-rated filth sounds like something a serial killer would say.

            Cunt Norton also includes authors known for their vulgarity, including Chaucer, Whitman, and Ginsberg, further complicating its critique of literary pedagogy.  There’s an obvious reason I included the Hamlet dialogue where the tortured Dane prince makes a cunt pun.  Hamlet is held as the apogee of the Western Canon.  (Damn rightfully, I might add.)  But sitting alongside the monologues about being, spirituality, and death, the play slathers on the sex and violence.

Cunt is a word that is also geographically contingent.  On American shores, the term is obscene and can cause spontaneous hysteria.  In the United Kingdom both underworld slang and Polari (an English subcultural slang used by the gay community for centuries) use the term a lot.  Sexy Beast and the Cockney clockworks of Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) pepper the dialogue with “cunts.”  In the case of Sexy Beast, the term is an equivalent of “mate,” or for Americans, “dude.”  “Cunt,” like “dude,” has numerous iterations and shades of meaning depending on the tone, context, and nuance of the speaker and the relationship to the listener.

To quote Teddy Bass (played with icy menace by Ian McShane), “Gentlemen, you’re all cunts.”

  3. So what is it then?

 “To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.”

                     –The Thief’s Journal (Jean Genet, 1949)

 What is Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic?

Is it a parody like The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall?  (A reinterpretation of a classic work, in this case, Gone With the Wind.)  The answer: No.

Is it a sequel done in the style of the original like The Odyssey: A Modern sequel, by Nikos Kazantzakis?  The answer: No.

Is it a cut-up of the original source material with other material like Cunt Norton?  The answer: No.

Is it a witty postmodernist take on Our Lady of the Flowers?  The answer: Not exactly.  Tysh takes no narrative liberties with the original story.  No addition of modernist snark or politically correct scolding.

Is it a postmodernist stunt like Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, by Jorge Luis Borges?  The answer: No.  “Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory.  Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely was easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote.”  Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic lies somewhere between another Our Lady and the Our Lady.

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

            – The Hollow Men, (T. S. Eliot, 1925)

4. The Artifice of Authenticity and the Authenticity of Artifice

 Prior: It was tacky.

Belize: It was divine.

            He was one of the Great Glitter Queens. He couldn’t be buried like a civilian. Trailing sequins and incense he came into the world, trailing sequins and incense he departed it. And good for him!

Prior: I thought the twenty professional Sicilian mourners were a bit much.

               –Angels in America: Part Two: Perestroika (1992, Tony Kushner)

 

 It seems paradoxical that authenticity can come across as artificial and artifice can seem authentic.  The notions that authenticity means “true and good,” and artifice means “bad and false” have been so hard-wired into the human consciousness that it remains a challenge to successfully eradicate.  It is strange seeing RuPaul in mufti.  Equally strange seeing ruling class career politicians strap on the proletarian drag of denim shirts and blue jeans to clear brush.  Is that Michael Dukakis riding a tank?  What the actual fuck?

Notre_Dame_des_Fleurs

In Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet tells the life story of Divine.  In the process, he creates one of the greatest figures in twentieth century literature.  Divine, a drag queen, falls in love with a stool pigeon, has affairs with murderers, and dies of tuberculosis.  Genet creates an alchemical admixture for Divine’s life, intermixing Catholic splendor with lowbrow gutter criminality.  Chris Tysh recaptures this alchemy in her short poetic stanzas:

Than a phantom shadow

Tinged with blue while outside

Let’s say under the blue canopy

Of tiny umbrellas, Mimosa I,

Mimosa II, Mimosa half-IV,

First Communion, Angela.  Her

Highness, Castagnette and Régine

 

Await holding sprays of violets

All the queens, boys and girls

Are there knotted together chattering

And tweeting, pearl tiaras on their heads

I let myself sink to my own village grave-

Yard where snails and slugs leave

Trails of slime on what flagstones[.]

It’s an almost-transcription of Genet’s prose.  Divine, acquiring the clothes and mannerisms of women, becomes a monument of artifice.  An alias that transcends her biological formatting.  But in this artifice  Divine becomes her true self.

Ironically, attempts at authenticity can ring false.  Nothing smacks of intellectual bankruptcy more than those attempting to be authentic, then failing with the transparency they allegedly seek.  When one’s authenticity is outed as false, one is left being nothing more than a poseur.  It is posture without any underlying meaning.  The grassroots acoustic guitar playing crunchy granola activist is simply another pose.  No more artificial or ill-intentioned than a drag queen.  But what are the intentions?  Is Mr. Crunchy Granola really mean it, or is he donning the raiment of leftist activism to get laid?  One also sees virulent homophobes donning drag to ridicule gays.  The challenge remains to see below the surface and have the courage to call bullshit on the fakers.

The best artifice is effortless, done with ease and grace.  Does the argot of queens ring false to public ears because the heteronormative pose has become so ingrained and so omnipresent society barely notices it?  And is the hyper-feminized speech and gestures of queens any less ridiculous than, say, the macho posturing one sees in all-male environments like man caves, locker rooms, and Promise Keeper gatherings?  (Insert joke about Republican gay sex scandals here.)

The artifice sets queens apart.  Belize nails it when she says that the queen “couldn’t be buried like a civilian.”  The queen is like a soldier, another group set apart from civilian life by the uniform.  The soldier has camouflage and medals for valor.  The queen has glitter and sequins.  Artifice is the source of Divine’s transcendent power as a literary figure:

Each stolen object: liquor, perfume,

Fake jewelry, give the room its

Mysterious allure like flashing

Lights on a distant ship.  Parked car

Or friend’s pocket, Mignon will boost

Anything anywhere and D will simply

Say, I feel like praying on his bare chest

On Sundays they go to mass, gold

Clasp missal in D’s hand, clickety-

Clack they kneel on plush pews

And let a mean-looking priest

Cram the host into their mouths

“Our Mother Who Art in Heaven,”

They pour out in unison, bow down

To the splendor of the pious world

At home.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, artifice reflects against the artifice of Genet’s original.  It is a postmodern refraction of an early postmodern novel.  Chris Tysh has transcreated an artifice that rings true and will stand up against the faux-authenticity that became so popular after 9/11.  The New Sincerity, like “reality shows” and literalist Bible interpretations, reek of falseness, disingenuousness, and intellectual bankruptcy.  Nothing is more fake than announcing how authentic you are?  You can’t boast about your humility either.

Despite appearances of poetical stenography, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is much more than a “cover” version of an original.

   5The Future of Poetry

 “Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed.  Let the dead poets make way for others.  Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created, however beautiful and valid it may be, that petrifies us.”

                     –The Theater and Its Double (Antonin Artaud, 1938)

 Les Figues Press has given the reading public two fascinating examples of experimental poetry.  Despite the postmodernist approaches both have, each goes beyond mere stunt or artifice.  One creates originality from imitation and the other uses cut-ups to affirm the very source material it cuts.  All literature is there for the taking.  Literature can be imitated, parodied, subverted, and perverted.  Because the Western Canon is such a valuable reliquary of human achievement, that’s the reason to manipulate it and warp it, depending on the whim of the artist.  Literature isn’t something that should be paralyzed by stasis or by worshipful fans.  Android Karenina really isn’t my thing.  I will probably never buy it or read it, but calls of “literary grave-robbing” and “shameless cash grabs” seem a bit too bombastic.

Then there are the Chapman Brothers drawing clown faces on Goya’s Disasters of War.  As one who loves the Chapman Brothers and Francisco Goya, I’m still conflicted.  They defaced Goya’s originals for their artistic project.  Although that is hardly the same as the museum attendee who attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta with a sledgehammer.  His insanity is beside the point, since his act of artistic vandalism was no different than the Taliban destroying the twin Buddhas of Bamiyan.  But artistic defacement and destruction goes back to the dawn of mankind.  Muslims painting over the mosaics of Hagia Sophia; prudes lopping off genitalia of Greco-Roman sculptures; iconoclasm (the movement, not the pose); and so on.  The examples are limitless.  And yet, and yet!  Is defacement different when an artist does it to further their artistic project than some narrow-gauge fanatic doing the same to further their political, ideological, or religious ideals?  (Calling the act “defacement” also loads  the deck and biases the answers.)  We are mutable and we are mortal.  When art shows us our limitations and the boundaries of this too, too solid flesh, some have taken it as a cue to go all “Hulk smash!” on things.  If a museum fire destroyed numerous Thomas Kinkade originals, would we care?  Should we care?

Taste is a fickle beast.  And arguments about the merits or demerits is warranted and should be encouraged.  Hysterical outbursts, generalized statements, and overly dramatic hang-wringing seems to me, at least, as declassé.  Android Karenina as literary necrophilia?  Girlfriend, please!  How, pray tell, do you describe actual disasters, like the Rwandan genocide, Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, and Abu Ghraib?  Before one opens one’s yap on a discussion thread, how about putting things in perspective first?  Using language like that degrades language and defangs the power of language to describe horrific events.  Using the same language to describe Android Karenina and, say, NSA domestic wire-tapping, is crass and obscene.

Luckily there is Les Figues, ready to throw a wrench into the hallowed pretensions of cautious middlebrow culture warriors.  The world is a better place with this press in it.

 

When reading poetry I often have difficulty distinguishing signal from noise. Much of what’s going around now is different variations on this confrontation. There are golden proportions, where poetic signal is accentuated by the noise, shaped by it in ways that clear reception cannot anticipate. Unlike with cooking, these ratios are individual rather than universal. One poet may thrive with higher signal, while another may better divine meaning from the noise they mine.

This is hardly a newsflash: Poets have differing styles, film at eleven. Some poets work the chaos down to the letter, the phoneme and allophone even. Others do better to keep court with general syntax, but break down associations between sentences, lines, stanzas, so on and so forth. Writers flourish under various circumstances, and that’s only half of the equation. There is no accounting for what the reader may glean, to a point. The poet can only hope they’ve cast some new meaning into the world.

Erica Bernheim’s The Mimic Sea splits the difference between signal and noise. It can be equal parts maddening and illuminating, not unlike searching for a radio station between towns on interstates out west; half of one song comes in like crystal, but the next is a chorus of snow. The question then is, for each reader, how much scratched aquarium glass are you willing to stare out of for a hint of something that you connect with.

The Mimic Sea offers no easy out, quite platitudes, or distinct advantages towards survival. Each line is a piece of a puzzle, but who knows how many puzzles there are and how many pieces of each? The pieces still illuminate in their own way. It’s not strictly surreal, things are quite firmly grounded here, but the poems will not define themselves for you. Of the few that come near to proclamation, Car Rolls Off Clay Wade Bailey Bridge  opens with:

And what of the driver, trapped between metal

and more metal, metal and water, water and time?

A concrete island, a wish for loosening,

a confrontation with his mother nineteen

years ago, too close to tell anybody, now

bored by tears in this condition of you.

Pulled in straight from the title we associate with the driver of the car plummeting off this bridge, or having plummeted, slowing down into the trap between fundamental elements like metal, water, and time. On stage in near-death, the parade of family members, the past as the future (which opens the book), the boredom of finality all emerge. As a car crash/accident poem there is much to parse but it’s not unpleasant to wind through, as the poem commands, to “imagine yourself”.

Where Bernheim’s sentences and lines are scrutable, the poems as a whole are less so. This is where the breakdown between signal and noise occurs for The Mimic Sea. Don’t mistake this breakdown for failure, as the book flows, surprises, and delights. But platitudes would defeat this book, where elements flash and synapses between words are continuously firing. Though, very often it props the reader at an edge.

The pit of the world

is something you think

you have seen. After learning

 

to read, we rarely look around

when walking. We are visually

 

illiterate. Unraveled, unravished,

we will come loose in that air.

 

from Dinner—March

The Mimic Sea is primarily constructed of things you think you have seen, shades, echoes, etc. You are left at the pit of the world, a gaping expanse at one side and the whole of the earth on the other. Insight follows befuddlement, learning one skill surpasses the other, picking up shades of life outside the aquarium but at the loss of everything within. It’s a book that itself comes loose, unravelled, but not through the poems. Rather the scope, at once myopic and focused on infinity, confronts the void with the earth. Bernheim strikes up the band between stations, and the melodies may be buried, but the poems are about the search and the discovery, and you’ll be rewarded through both.

 

A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON

WAVE BOOKS, 2012

ISBN 978-1933517599

REVIEWED BY LISA A. FLOWERS  

 

coco

Last year, CAConrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon—a book that encompassed a perfect blend of street insolence and elegiac tribute—was published. Raunchy and tantrumy, insightful and spiritually reverent, Rumpelstilskin-stampingly angry, and uproariously hilarious, it was a kind of hash oil distilled from its author’s originality and strangeness, and an unforgettable hymn of praise to the work of others.

Over a year later, each re-reading is not merely a return to something puissant and relevant, but a trip to a landscape that, like certain atramentous or transcendental places in the heart, turn out to be knowable only when you come to them. Marsupial is a work of pretty much unlimited generosity that is is there for you when you need it, and it has a portal and a therapy for every condition: love, loss, ecstasy, rage.

The (soma)tic exercises in Marsupial’s title are derived from Soma, a sacred Vedic drink and the Greek word meaning “body”, and the flesh—and the sacred memory of the flesh of the dead—are ingeniously preserved and remembered in Conrad’s hands as they are in no one else’s. Some of the muses that preside over his passion for the corporeal are not unlike the talismanic ‘good luck’ rituals behind dance, or extreme sports: highly superstitious, forged of an immediacy residing not so much out in space, toward a theoretical (and always encroaching) theological ecstasy or doom, but into those forces concentrated into immediate physicality and its sustenance and performance.  There is something of the time-fear of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson here—a punk rock Quentin, too marvelously and electrifyingly angry to die, as the dead keep falling through the book rapidly, like a meteor shower, almost too frequently to be eulogized. As such, the most moving crux of Marsupial is perhaps best summed up by Conrad’s contemporary, the poet Ariana Reines, who wrote, in another context, “What is exhumed not from the earth but from a body itself is an addictive kind of beauty you can’t easily get over” and “Earth, I will have to miss you; I miss you already./and yet when I touch myself whom I should not trust/It is still the heaviest and most jealous feelings that bind me to you, like blood”.

Cum, blood, the body’s voluntary/desired and involuntary/undesired responses to love, passion, trauma. Conrad, one of the most head-on of poets, has rightfully bristled at being called an escapist. “I want my blood, my vomit, my piss and semen IN my poems”, he said in a recent interview. “I will be at war with Death for as long as I can stand it, and I have (Soma)tics prepared for writing poems under the influence of chemotherapy and other horrific ways we survive.” These are poems that do not abandon their subjects, or treat transfiguration and escapism as if they are the same thing, but forge ahead to restore human beings and moments—in their own right—to the organic states of grace they might have been in before they became corrupted by illness, cynicism, tragedy. As in most spiritual and theological rituals, Conrad’s great obsession seems to be bringing the living and the dead into one place—a longing apt to be consummated in lines as lovely as white candles: “Everyone is in two places here/ and in memory holds porches to their light”. Yet, the essential difference between the preservation-value of pending mortality and the preservation-value of pending immortality—aren’t both concentrated toward the same hope?—is always in question, as is the union of both states ideally suited to mimic and keep each other. So it is in Musk, a poem born from the exercise Séance Your Own Way: “Dormancy entered a flayed/ Bond by/Soda fountains of the world it/Seems funny but it is/Exactly funny how/Exceptions cram/into the disappear.”

With its obsession with fluids, food, physicality, Marsupial sometimes has the wild, unhinged glee of a three-year-old Jackson Pollocking their feces across the wall, as in White Helium:

Smear snot or blood or semen or pussy juice or ear wax or piss or vomit or shit or spit or sweat or whatever excretion you have available onto your balloon. Hold onto the string as it floats above you. Relax on your back on the floor. Hold the string by your toes with your legs extended. Look at the balloon with binoculars. What emblem is this? What Jolly Roger?

Ditto, unforgettably, for the book’s politically-loaded title track:

Someone downtown bought a new refrigerator and I carried the large cardboard box upstairs to my apartment. Lined with blankets and pillows it was the perfect marsupial pouch for the new poetry exercise. I punched a hole in the back and inserted a baby bottle filled with soy milk to suck on. Just outside the box DVDs of Pasolini’s films played, first The Decameron, then The Canterbury Tales…My boyfriend came over. We played Pasolini’s SALO OR 120 DAYS OF SODOM. We removed the baby bottle from the back of my cardboard pouch and my boyfriend used it as a glory hole.  Graffiti around his cock and little wigs made of cotton and pillow stuffing. I glued a frame around the hole, asked him to back up and enter slowly, a portrait of a cannon at the castle gates.

salo

Too, wherever it meanders, whatever criticisms its detractors have leveled at it, Marsupial has that quality that always has been and always will be characteristic of original work: completely magical and unpredictable imagery. A quality that, in turn, is summed up by the great Mina Loy, whose manifesto (“If you are very frank with yourself and don’t mind how ridiculous anything that comes to you may seem, you will have a chance of capturing the symbol of your direct reaction”) Conrad gives ample credit to. This, in tandem with “sometimes you have to kill your darlings” and “show, don’t tell”, has always pretty much been the most reliable of literary advice going. However, rules are only as valuable as the message they endeavor to protect, and, thankfully, there is little of the sacrificing of dears in Marsupial: true to the reverence, often expressed in his work, for nearly everything as sentient life, Conrad kills nothing, and all the pretty chickens and their dam run free and pecking at our ankles through the streets of his poems like a brood of unruly children whose parents believe—with Monty Python’s stern Jehovah—that every sperm is sacred. As an instructional-book-by-definition, Marsupial “tells” in wonderful, wacky proselytizing, a blend of radical humanitarianism and fabulously cathartic misanthropy—as in the beginning of this exercise:

Go to a shopping mall parking lot with trees and other landscaping growing between the cars to create this poem. Find a tree you connect with, feel it out, bark, branches, leaves. Sit on its roots to see if it wants you OFF! These trees are SICK WITH converting car exhaust and shopper exhale all fucking day!

There’s Feast of the Seven Colors , a series of exercises ornamented by titles likeDistorted torque of FLORA’S red (written after eating only red foods for a day while under the influence of a red wig, right side in curls, left side straight)” and “Rehab saved his life but drugs saved mine at the blue HOUR (written after eating only blue foods for a day while under the influence of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ played on a continuous loop from 6 a.m. to midnight)”. Yellow’s synesthesia eddies the young, doomed spark of high heeled boys (“glitter anchors an eye underskilled for death”) with a feral tracking-through-the-foliage of missed intimacies (“So many things I’d like to smell/but am not allowed Franz Kafka’s crotch”). Largely, Marsupial is also a passive-aggressive dialogue with a spirituality equally revered and held in contempt. Kick the Flush could just as well be directed at God(s):

HE could if HE

Wanted to develop

An odor to please us take

HIS shirt off

Aid our anticipation

But when HE demanded respect HE

Was surprised to

Find out what HE

Really deserved…

It was HIS need to

Apologize that drove HIM

To uploading

Rude sensations

HIS fracture of listening

Causing whistle blanks

That’s when

We woke the blue

Lights in HIS head

It’s how we earned our freedom

Now I open my gorgeous entrails to

The sun…

But Conrad understands that things of life, the beloved experiences that made and make it worth living, are not to be left behind, “gotten over”, in the sense that such a term is usually used; not to be digested and shat out for a higher continuation. They are, rather, the building blocks of wisdom and spiritual continuation, always aspiring to be the closest possible touching point of the dead to the living. “If you can’t believe you’re going to heaven in your own body and on a first name basis with all the members of your family,” Joan Didion famously said in The White Album, quoting an acquaintance, what’s the point of dying?”. Marsupial espouses the cultivation of an enlightenment that does not involve the surrendering of self to the vaporizing of a superior consciousness, like the maiden in Grimm who cannily turns herself into a lake to escape her pursuer, or the ice hotels of Scandinavia that melt every spring, only to be rebuilt from the solidifying of their own element in spring. Nowhere is the latter analogy more movingly turned around than in the AIDS Snow Family exercise:

In January gather snow. This is intimate, this calling to honor the shock of being alive. I made one tiny snowman named CAConrad and one tiny snowman named Tommy Schneider. For six months they held hands in the privacy of my freezer while I visited the streets and buildings in the Philadelphia of our love. Snow crystals travel miles out of clouds into the light of our city. My snowman read to his snowman the letters I brought home to the freezer. It’s 2010, AIDS is different in this century you didn’t live to see…the day after Summer Solstice I took the snowmen out of the freezer.  90 degrees, we melted quicker than expected, even sooner than I could have imagined.

Sooner than we could have imagined, for, as Conrad reminds us, “another temperature of/human is/another/folded wing missed by/the tailor”. “You have waited/you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers”, wrote Whitman. At its heart, Marsupial, too, is a reassurance to the dead (and the memories and experiences of everyone who has ever–or will ever—live) that they are eternally recognizable in the hope of love’s total recall, through ages of death and transfiguration:

I’m not so

Pretty with

My skin

Removed

No

He said

Prettier.

 

 

“Dear Mark” by Martin Rock
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1936767199

When teaching poetry to middle school students, “ekphrasis” was often our go-to source of instant inspiration. Many kids freeze at open writing, and actively rebel against instructions (rightfully so), but when presented with an image, film, song, or other piece of art to write against, opinions would fly and reflect around the room.

Which isn’t to say that ekphrastic writing is easy. As something to dig from, great lines can be mined, but there’s no guarantee. To really connect with a work, to entwine your contribution as inseparably as possible, is a next-level challenge for the ekphrastic writer. With Dear Mark, a chapbook recently published by the Brooklyn Arts Press, poet Martin Rock opens a dialogue with the work of visual artist Mark Rothko, with engaging results.

One of the barriers of ekphrastic writing can be the need for the reader to have both artistic elements in front of them. A great piece seeks to surpass this boundary, creating something that doesn’t require standing on the shoulders of another work, though the context may still be helpful or at least interesting. Each of Rock’s poems stems from a single Rothko painting, from 1949 through 1968. These paintings are often easily summed up by their titles, like No. 20, Deep Red and Black and are composed of squares and rectangles atop other squares and rectangles, pure shapes distilled into abstraction.

Rock takes the inspired move of providing simple line drawing recreations of the paintings and utilizing their titles as those of his poems as well. The discussion between works is then more accessible for the reader, though of course these aren’t facsimiles of Rothko’s paintings. In fact, they’re further abstracted and simplified, no stand-ins for the real things. But even these shadows of the work that Rock is referencing and engaging can be of immense assistance to the reader of this chapbook.

Rock’s goals are separate from Rothko’s. Hence the title, Dear Mark, indicating that these are correspondences rather than direct interpretations. For each poem, the text confronts the painting, and the reader can flick between them to see how the poem is influenced. Then again, while useful and interesting, Rock’s poems more than stand on their own.

The future has four horizons:
_______________the Gate,
_____the Echo, the Landlord,

&the Mansion.
_______________Open the incinerator
_____that is your mouth

&and we shall enter as bread.

~from Blue, Green, & Brown, 1952

Rock finds horizons, open spaces, structures, mouths, and much more in the boxes Rothko provides. These could be general interpretations, arguably any object could be drawn from such general shapes, but Rock isn’t looking to make 1:1 relationships. His poems aren’t equally abstract as the paintings, but unlimited nonetheless, looking to create their own realities and exist within them. His language jumps from sentence to sentence, creating boxes within them, the threads between tangential at best but of course related by their very juxtaposition.

As Rothko’s paintings are almost all structure, Rock abandons narrative as a framing device and instead alights on imagination:

a segment of the worm
__________that eats through the body.

The ancients painted themselves,
__________their walls: one vanished

into the other. We watch
__________them move through the screen,

each one of the faces
__________tormented to be the sky.

You have disappeared
__________a feral cat into the pain.

~from Ochre & Red on Red, 1954

The conversation may be one sided, but Rock isn’t interested in merely interpreting Rothko’s paintings. He engages with them, contributes his own poetic flair, and takes and gives equally from his source material. He writes of the absurd, the internal, the local, from sources other than Rothko as denoted throughout the book, drawing together a nexus of influence to bring about sharp, multi-faced poems.

The mushroom cloud
is also a clown face
& a skeleton dances
to an invisible marionette

~from Untitled, 1957

The mushroom clown, the skeleton puppet, a morbid circus that expresses the anxiety of contemporary life, we see that Rock isn’t limiting himself to Rothko’s painting. His experience, thoughts, and imagination are weaving with Rothko, creating vivid poetry that’s all his own, even if it would have been impossible without Rothko’s input.