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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.

 

Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body

By Tim J. Myers

ISBN 978-1609641238

BlazeVOX

Reviewed by Grace Stansbery

In Dear Beast Loveliness, Tim J. Myers explores the physical and spiritual existences pertaining to the body.  “The most profound of all human experiences is simply having a body,” he writes, and “of all our universal realities, it’s certainly the most fundamental.

Myers’ poetry rejects the preconceived notion, propagated by religious extremism, that the body is “essentially foul”, along with more modern conceptions of it as “pure machinery producing the illusion of self.”  Riding the gray area (in typical 2013 fashion), Dear Beast Loveliness’s poems waver back and forth between wet dream and in-body-etherealism.  In one representative poem, Myers utilizes concepts like Voyager’s robot sensors in conjunction with the tiny heartbeat from a fetal monitor to ask the question: “Which [is] more mysterious, and which came from further away?”

The book is written from its author’s perspective, though. That is to say: at sea level, with the rest of us. Conceived by a straight white Christian male, Beast Loveliness resembles its author’s identity through these categories. Many of the poems revolve around Myers’ wife, illustrating their “numberless acts of love” together. Trying to be lovely, the poems can be lovely. When Myers ventures outside traditional bodily ode codes, something else happens.  See: In Praise, a couplet that devotes an entire page to itself.

Oh the wonderment

of her fundament.

For the most part, the book is heavily stacked in its first half. Myers’ subject matter becomes less varied and less creative as the pagination increases. He begins one poem with “We are the mouths that eat the world”, then ends with “We are the mouths,” in a hopeless conceptual drum beat, designed, faultingly, to leave a reader speechless.

Though, like any multiplicitous poet/human being, Myers has his serious redemptive moments. He writes very tenderly about his sister’s body taken by anorexia, about a miscarried sibling, and a few surprisingly progressive subjects, which he fills with adoration and appreciation.

Uterus

Oh pagan organ,

how far our sons and daughters have gone,

pale Christians that they

no longer adore you

I must add, though, that my largest contention with Myers is his yet narrow world view. The introduction includes a suspicious disclaimer, which kept me sensitive throughout the whole book. He says, “I write… as a male heterosexual, but I consider all forms of gender and sexual orientation sacred.” On this topic, some of his poetry features queer and disabled bodies, but Myers only scrapes the surface with one or two poems (which he writes with little to no authority). It seems, if one were writing a book about bodies, there would be some realistic variance in the appearances and abilities of these bodies. Though, for Myers, a monogamous lifestyle lends itself, for the most part, to a monogamous book of poetry. Which is something notable in itself.

 

Blitzkreig
By John Gosslee
Rain Mountain Press
2013
ISBN-13: 978-0989705110
70 pages

The tree lay down
on the garage roof
and stretched. You
have your heaven,
it said, go to it.

–William Carlos Williams, The Hurricane

Maybe World War II ends earlier if white lab-coated William Carlos Williams scrawls “The Hurricane” longhand on the back of each issued prescription drug ticket?  Mrs. Myrtle, patiently waiting in queue for Penicillin, flips her note to discover what I consider the philosophical equivalent of the sentiment “All Dogs Go to Heaven”.  I assert Mrs. Myrtle would feel more alive, even for a minute.  She might show the pharmacist or a child behind her recovering from whooping cough.  She might read it to Mr. Myrtle while he sleeps fully-dressed, pretending to listen to The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald’s chart-topping hit I’m Making Believe on the radio.  Eventually everyone in Rutherford, New Jersey might begin faking joint discomfort simply to visit Dr. Williams, have him perform that nifty knee mallet reflex test.

Though he doesn’t practice medicine (yet) John Gosslee is a poet and the editor of Fjords Review.  His second collection, Blitzkrieg, is a fascinating hybrid of new locale poems and an impressive supplemental memoir.  Most of the book traces his obsession with one particularly Williams-esque poem (Portrait of an Inner Life) from state code examples VA, TN, AR, OK, TX, NM, AZ, CA to multiple No Trespassing properties in between.  Other noted editors–Rattle’s Tim Green, for instance–publish and praise the minimalist piece.  Gosslee’s preoccupation with this one poem manages to avoid solipsism because Gosslee decides to enact what all writers probably want to do going back to Sappho: roll up good work, bottle, cork, fling the recyclable object into different water outlets (rivers, oceans, bays, streams, cricks, sewer systems), and hope somebody who needs it receives it.

On April 8 we drove down a one way road to an abandoned-dock-turned-arts-district underneath the San Francisco Bridge and I threw two dozen bottles into the mouth of the bay towards the Pacific.  Two people in the area have found bottles.  The other 22 are still unaccounted for, which I like because it allows me to muse on where they might appear or where they are in the ocean.

It’s like Robert Pinksy’s Poem-A-Day Project except it’s the same poem.  Oh, Gosslee also prints 1300 stickers of the poem and affixes those to pretty much any city apparatus you can think of: storefront, light pole, condom dispenser.

With half a box full of stickers in the back seat and a few cases of bottles left, I drive to Albequerque, New Mexico.  Out of my element, I attended the Blackbird’s Poetry & Beer poetry slam after reading at Bookworks early in the evening on April 3rd.  The weather was a little chilly, the audience was receptive and I was glad they let a newcomer doing traditional poetry assert his method.  In return, I gave out seven stickers I had in my pocket, but kept one to stick on the advertisement plaque above the urinal in the bathroom before leaving.

Like Huck Finn, Gosslee nearly gets arrested on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.  I’m not going to print the poem in this review because that would be a bit of a killjoy, now, wouldn’t it?  I’m hoping you more or less find it yourself, perhaps stuck out of the mouth of a brown trout swimming the Pere Marquette river.  As for me, I find mine at Sandals Royal Bahamian Spa Resort.  I order a Red Stripe but I receive Portrait of an Inner Life.  The waiter is sorry and serves me a Red Stripe (on the house) that’s been sitting on dry ice and perhaps dead crabs.  “Two free libations,” I tell my wife while she sleeps half-naked and pretends to listen to Mogwai’s jaw-dropping non-hit “Take Me Somewhere Nice”.

Tupelo Press.

2013.

60 pages.

“Memory remembers matter remembers/ Make make make make” –Lee Sharkey

In The Book of the Dead, Muriel Rukeyser writes, “What three things can never be done?
 Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.” In Calendars of Fire, Lee Sharkey refuses to be that historian or activist, tamed in middle age, no longer pained by injustice. In the title poem, she explains, “It was what I wanted, the sobering fire.” You may wonder how and why fire sobers, but then ask yourself, what do poets do best? They fight forgetting, silence, and isolation by paying attention—really paying attention, so much so that they make others nervous, including themselves. You may remember Tiresias from Greek mythology—the one who hit two mating snakes with a stick and became a woman for seven years. He was not only a blind prophet with a preference for burnt offerings but also a great listener to birds’ wisdom. “Tiresias at last,” a persona poem in six parts, is where Sharkey’s theme is most pronounced: “the will to keep silent that needs to speak” (“With birds on his shoulders”). In “Possession,” we learn Sharkey’s anti-poem is “A quiet in the face of it.”

The whole time I was reading Calendars of Fire, I kept thinking that Sharkey is a better person than I am. She isn’t intimidated by scale, and she doesn’t flinch from difficult reckoning. Her effort is noble, and the only way that noble can work is if it’s humble. Sharkey is humble, as we should all be with fire. When I was an early reader, nearly every book seemed to change my life. I remember that feeling, rather addictive, but I only have it once or twice a year now. What was the last book that changed your life? Calendars of Fire is a collection to heed.

If you believe that learning lasts a lifetime, then you are willing to be schooled by Sharkey.

Lesson #1: If you listen, then you’ll remember. It is never just the wind. That’s a lie for people to tell themselves when they have the shakes. Whether “the air already faltering, the wind’s petition,/ I had not heard the ones who whisper yet” (“The voice is the last we forget to remember”) or “Now the wind blows through me/ I tremble to face you” (“Ash pit under snow”), you can’t forget when you are willing to hear. What you hear is likened to a force—of nature, courage, and plea. However, being willing doesn’t make it easier. “Listening” opens, “Skin flours with ruin’s dust/ It wants us to close our eyes,/ it wants us to stitch our lips. . . Time rose and fell/ with the currents of my listening.” Today’s demands and expectations seem to be speeding up, but listening and remembering still can’t be rushed. We have not been able to find a time substitute for those. The best teachers make you want to act right, and that means due diligence and finding the time. A book like Calendars of Fire makes you crave more courage for yourself, others, and this shared life:

When I held the plate, I held the ones who remembered the plate

Of all those who remembered the plate, I still remembered

Women are for homes and opened graves

I listen softly, softly, to the ant beat of his heart. (“Possession”)

What is held is a connection that crosses borders and decades. So, too, there is violence and work in that heartbeat.

 

Lesson #2: Say what you see. History doesn’t go anywhere. Plenty have been denied, their humanity rejected. If you look, they will meet you:

If you remember a house that arose from fire

In Death’s walled face, the lids blink up
Eyes meet my gaze as if from a black backdrop

You, the eyes say, well, the eyes say, pull, the eyes say
Say, they say, I’ve got no time don’t skirt around
I want what you know. The whole past rushes forward
Folded flat as a kerchief, opening to flower. (“Calendars of fire”)

No more looking away. No more illusions of safety. Sharkey’s repeated imagery of the apricot flowers remind us of the beauty, hunger, and vitality of fire. If you begin to know, and if you take history seriously, then what’s the reward for speech? She answers in the ending of “Its roundness curving to a cleft”: “When someone in the future makes an offering to the heart/ its ever-moment passes, hand to hand// Reticence the shell, joy the nutmeat/ The skin reluctance, joy the open mouth.” Here is another new joy and another hand to ours.

You can’t miss the literature concerning today’s paradox of connection, incriminating or defending social networks, high speed this-and-that, and the choice of wires instead of the physical. What if thinking about fire can change our assumptions of how connection can be sustained? We often forget that fire stimulates growth. With the sheer abundance of it all—videos and blogs abound at the ready, where a café can’t make it without free wi-fi—what is the relationship between our agency and attentiveness? What of war, of genocide, of lasting failure? Click something else, think about something for less than a minute. That onslaught of I-Can’t-Do-Anything fatigue is like no other. Too often we simultaneously whine and apologize with a parenthetical about our First World problems. In contrast, Sharkey offers political poems that don’t preach, divide, nor become leaden under exposition, never once coming across as more enlightened-than-thou. How many successful political poems stand the test? I can’t tell you how many poets have told me that they won’t feel like real poets until they can write a decent political poem. This inadequacy looms large. Look to Sharkey, not only as a reader and writer, but as a fellow fortunate, thinking person, forever fumbling, too. She takes on the task to reckon with explanations and accounts of personal loss and the war tragedies of ancient Greece, the Spanish Inquisition, Thran’s Evin prison, the Nazi Holocaust, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. She teaches us about forging a togetherness: “They shiver from the we in tenderness. It is inexplicable” (coda of “Atonement”).

Lesson #3: Whatever you do, it will never feel like enough. “Ash pit under snow” opens, “Is that all you can do for me?/ This is all I can do for you/ You with your hands gessoed in the material/surely you can braid a rope to guide me/through this blindness that surrounds you. . .” Genocide’s loss can’t be grasped by one person reading a book, and your effort won’t bring anyone back or prevent more death, but you still have to try. You can pay attention and hopefully connect. A poet can be that maker of connection; language can be that maker of connection. The connection can also be false, another propaganda, as history has proved time over. We know those who write can be fellow enforcers of oppression: “Where is the maker now that we are branded/ with what we call his voice// and whose the shadow voice beneath his, if it is his,/ breath that underlooms the listening?” (“The voice is the last we forget to remember”). What does language make? Who gets the power to tell a story? Sharkey is careful, as always, not to oversimplify or ignore difficulty and complexity. To pay attention is to labor “to gather stones from the speechless/ Tongues in the rock” (“By your intolerable acts of grace”). There will always be more stones, more rocks.

Lesson #4: Form is no afterthought. Calendars of Fire is an exemplary use of form to complement subject. The movement of the book through three sections is masterful: from sequencing, length variety, poems in series talking to the singletons, to the elegiac settings. Polyvocality is central in all fifteen poems, mixing dialogue and narrator, past and present, fact and lyric, victim and oppressor, chorus and individual, and Tiresias—seeing what is not meant to be seen—and of those who look away from suffering because it is not overtly their own. Look to these accomplished lines from “Sequestered”:

It prison’s name is almost a perfume
It flowers with apricot blossoms, enfolded in vaginal hills
Knives are sharpened. . .
I did it. I did it all. Tell me, so I can confess it. . .
Each cot has a bedskirt of slit-tongued questions. . .
Where is my daughter?. . .
Scarlet remnants, a plain gold rind. A bowl for kneading. . .

Each poem in Calendars of Fire is a “mouth cross-hatched with vowels” (“The voice is the last we forget to remember”). Each poem is open, giving and receiving. Sharkey knows a maker is active, sober. A maker seeks what she can learn from fire, and most of all, what she can remember to share with the rest of us.

Easy Math: Poems, Lauren Shapiro, Sarabande Books (Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry), pp. 65, $14.95, February 2013.

Reading Easy Math by Lauren Shapiro is like being invited to an outrageous party where “the only escape/is realizing you’re already there.” It’s a come-as-you-are party, so readers are encouraged to show up with tousled hair, wearing their flip-flops and shower towels, or pajamas and ratty cardigans with tissues spilling from their pockets. Pink curlers optional.

The guest list will surprise you. There’s you, of course, even though you won’t remember being invited once the speaker throws open the door, a little breathless, and says, “I have been away for some time./ I don’t speak this language anymore. / Please teach me.” The speaker, you soon realize, is the alter ego of your host, Lauren Shapiro, who has written the kind of breakout first book that any poet, emerging or otherwise, should be ecstatic to have written. Her speaker, however, is more preoccupied with stuffed animals, among other things, including but not limited to the beautiful absurdity of the universe.

The speaker tells you straightaway, “A hundred stuffed animals/ the size of a fist and I can’t make the claw catch.” You nod. You like her already. Later, she says, “Saturday I’m at the carnival, which means/ I’ll have another stupid chance/ to win that giant panda I couldn’t win/ in fifth grade for Stephanie St. Clare.” You relate to this impulse—the desire we all have to rectify the clumsy shortcomings of the past. But later, when you hear her refer to “The stuffed panda with the bikini/ [she] didn’t win at the fair last weekend,” you’ll wonder exactly how long exactly you’ve been at this party, and then you’ll realize you don’t care. The important thing is that you have no intention of leaving.

Things start to get truly surreal when you discover who else is in attendance. For starters, there’s the Australian painter Dale Hickey, with whom the speaker purports to spend a lot of time hanging out at bowling alleys.

There’s Martha Stewart, but when you get a little closer, you realize it’s not the actual Martha Stewart, but her namesake rose. Now what you overheard in the garden makes more sense:

________Martha Stewart opens up her petals
like a cup of tea in the jungle. The delicate dog takes

a delicate piss. The quadriplegic smells Martha Stewart.
I smell her. A line starts. Even the infant wants a go.

Nostradamus is there, of course, because what’s a party without Nostradamus? His mind grew cloudy with the weight of his perceptions in a manner with which he was all too familiar.”

You take some other inventory of this enigmatic scene: “all the posters/ [a]re of Homer Simpson smoking dope.” Curious. “I’m not that innocent, sings Britney. / Baby, Baby, Baby, sings R. Kelly.” And who let in that know-it-all, “little orphan Annie on a soapbox”?

The speaker’s grandmother “walks into the room/with a bowl of sucker candies. / Isaac Newton is on the lam again, she says.” And because this is the kind of fine-tuned, madcap, neosurrealist writing that it is, you know once Isaac Newton has been mentioned, he’s sure to show up. When he does, you never take your eyes off him. You listen intently: “I can’t be found out, he says. / He is very hypochondriacal.” You like the word “hypochondriacal” and appreciate especially that it appears in a poem with other words you like, including but not limited to “bereft,” “fairytale,” “pineapple,” and the mouth-watering phrase, “sucker candies.”

Passing through to the patio where a barbecue is underway, you hear the speaker whisper to someone you can’t see, or maybe to no one in particular, “She’s pregnant/ again. I could have sworn/ she had her tubes tied.” You laugh because she’s funny like that, candid and incisive as hell. But the speaker turns to you and says, “Just let it go./ Just eat it,/ it tastes like chicken.” She points to a man you noticed earlier, whose name might be Greg: “I shoved his tie in the air vent. / Don’t tell.”

Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton arrive separately but leave together, “holding their skirts up out of the mud.” It tickles you to observe their matter-of-fact flirtations.

St. Augustine makes a brief cameo—just long enough to invent the Just War Theory. Lindsay Lohan is there, but in headline only. General Tso is there, but in chicken only. Hans Christian Andersen inspires the speaker’s striking realization “that there is a tiny world in each pore of the universe/ populated by tiny people who also dream/ of larger realities.”

The TV is on in the background almost the whole time, not as a distraction so much as a running sounding board. The speaker mentions it only in passing: “Television/ reminds me of a math problem/ I got wrong on the SAT.” You relate to this feeling and feel especially implicated when “Kathy says, / can’t you just enjoy it for once?” Who says you aren’t enjoying it? You were just talking with someone in the den about

_____the finale of Weeds in which
another hysterical woman blames herself
for sucking up tragedy through a straw.
It’s a beautiful and intriguing straw,
even psychedelic. Likewise, the commercial
shows a woman escaping with a blindfold
in the back of a minivan, which is like burrowing
into a locker in the gym.

Popular culture under scrutiny of the right mind has been known to result in some killer insights: “Thing is, most of the time no one’s looking, which is both a relief and cause for further paranoia—/ no one can hear you fall like a tree in a forest/ of trees with no ears. What were you doing/ in a forest anyway, bro?” Good question. And it all started with the Weeds finale and that commercial about the mini-van.

Someone sighs, “I don the hard hat/ and the ski mask only to find/ it’s not a costume party after all.”

That’s OK, you say, and you have a tremendous urge to repeat what you’ve heard now, so you slap the stranger on the back and offer, “Thing is, most of the time no one’s looking.”

The party should be winding down by now, you think, but Joan Rivers walks in, flashy and overdone as usual, and the speaker says, “Nothing Is More Beautiful When You Try to Make It that Way, Joan Rivers,” her voice in all capital letters just like a headline or the title of a poem.

Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs and Al Gore all get a mention, and the parakeets sing a Bob Marley song. You realize that a lot of legends, living and dead, are here in spirit.

You should be tired at the end, but instead you feel exhilarated. This party has punch—strong punch, like the stuff of these poems. It packs a wallop. You thank the host for what you can only describe as an experience not unlike a multi-valent, multi-vocal, multi-dimensional game of Words with Friends.

“Who isn’t looking for the intricate equation of the universe/ in CliffsNotes?” the speaker says. She’s being sincere, not snarky. You realize she empathizes with the Cosmic Predicament.

And “as [you] walk home […], the world looks like a Brueghel painting and all the trees/ are sending off beautiful/ little equations into the air.”

Reading Goat In The Snow

emilypetit

Emily Pettit’s lush lines unfold and unfold and unfold. She’s a master of the short line, gorgeously complex in her use of dark themes (strongest being a version of intense human anxiety) and poignantly reveals these themes in an unselfconscious, direct voice. The distinctive “leaping” I find in so much great poetry of our generation (the feeling of non-sequitur logic and negative space between lines), is conquered by Pettit. But what’s so powerful about her poems is that she never loses the initial thread which allows each poem to remain entirely distinctive and unique, rather then forgoing sense. Each individual poem, like a planet in a solar system, orbits; sometimes harkening back to others nearby. Her poems are introverted planets, with extroverted survival skills, in a chaotic universe.

pettitCard

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No one, I think, is quite as masterful at titles as Emily Pettit. In her book Goat in the Snow (Birds, LLC 2012) they’re like poems above poems. Thus, the relationship between the poem and the title on the page is powerful. Take the poem “HOW TO APPEAR NORMAL IN FRONT OF YOUR ENEMY OR COMPETITOR.” The first line is “Damn icebox and my fist, I didn’t hit it.” The humor and seriousness of the juxtaposing lines are brilliant. It’s dramatic irony at its best in poetry. There’s so much authority and wisdom in the voice, mixed with a kind of vulnerability that resists the didactic. Similarly, the clerical precision—or Pettit’s statements—resist any hint of melodrama. But she’s not afraid of beauty:

All over town footprints are flying. When walking
on tiptoes we ignite suspicious minds. Hovering,
hanging out nowhere near the ground.
I’m on my way to the end of the world again.

(from HOW TO HIDE AN ELEPHANT)

Within the controlled leaping are these moments of lyrical explosions.  “When I blow everything up / I promise I won’t put everything back / together in the old comfortable ways.” Pettit wants the sentiments, the conceits, to be precise. But she also knows that precision is absolute, fixed. So we’re shown one problem and how to fix it, and then why it shouldn’t be fixed but celebrated. Goat in the Snow is, in a sense, is a celebration of art and expression. It invites the reader to embrace a kind of chaos. Emily Pettit is one of the most promising, gifted poets of our generation because she can ask questions without an answer. Because she can fluctuate in humor, as well as complex, important themes. What I find most clandestine about the book is that the speaker is deceptively coy. When she tells us to put an elephant in our pocket so “it can be the elephant in the room / that no one ever talks about” it’s not simply endearing: she’s calling us out. She wants us to pay attention. And that’s just what I’m going to do. Something intense is happening. And Emily Pettit knows it.

Emily Card

No Apocalypse by Monica Wendel
Georgetown Review Press
ISBN 978-0615705989
June 2013
70 pages

I read the majority of these poems on the beach. It was a struggle. Sun, sand, and humanity conspired to constantly deflect my attention from No Apocalypse. That selfsame destruction, denied but still conjured through just naming, crushed the elements around me, and in the wreckage I found courageous poems blooming throughout this book, poems that are self-assured but still eager to wander through the world around them. Monica Wendel’s first collection shows us a poet open to unsure footing and revelations from this fantastic mess around us.

Like A.R. Ammons’ in Garbage, Wendel is looking to craft poetry out of all available input, refusing to shy away from the most personal details or political angles. Her tastes are laid bare and she is free of agenda, crafting with the material of her life, thoughts, dreams, the borders of New York, and beyond. Within her openness, she never reads as vulnerable, exposing raw wounds for the world to bear. Rather, she processes and transmits, as poetry in its finest forms is meant to do.

At a party to raise bail for those incarcerated,
a half-dozen anarchofeminists wore armbands
and patrolled the dance floor for safer-space violations.
One of them got so drunk she ended up on the roof, yelling
to a mostly-silent Manhattan skyline: hands cupped to her mouth,
skinny arms jutting out like wings from her face.
[from For the Birds]

There’s no doubt that this language is charged, but while the lay reader may recoil at such familiar usage of the term “anarchofeminists”, Wendel gives no quarter and expects none. Rather, she is comfortable bringing this language to the fore and demanding the reader step along, to the edge of the roof, to take in the Manhattan skyline, where a conscientious party is still a party, especially when the wings are open wide and we all throw out our voices.

Surely Wendel has a built-in audience, but this book is open to all, allowing context to do the heavy lifting and language to play out as required. As such, the poet often shifts forms, winding lines long and small into poetry that is readable but sparking fires left and right. Wendel refuses to let speech be hemmed in by strict designations such as “poetic” or “political.” She posits that there is no separation between them.

These poems are a form of astral projection, winding around the world we recognize but demanding a confrontation with injustice, arguing that maybe acknowledgement—not just answers—is all we need.

From Liberation Theology:

My friend brings me stolen gifts –
Cookies from Whole Foods,
American Apparel leggings.

No cat or dog growing up,
but he had a rooster rescued
from a fighting ring, a life

of amphetamines and razorblades.
Bloodbeak would scream from the garage,
peck at its own flesh if you

came near. And somewhere outside
activists don black balaclavas
to perform rescue operations

on pit bull puppies, roosters,
sweatshop sewn sneakers. We eat
standing up in the cold kitchen.

Gestures, grand and diminutive, poetic and otherwise, made with integrity. That integrity, along with strength of line, innate musicality, and willingness to do what’s best for the poem, make No Apocalypse not only a book worth savoring but a testament to the voracious mind of Monica Wendel. You will find no detritus in her lines or thinking, no ashes covering the ground, just a need to write towards what she feels is worth confronting.

Butch Geography
by Stacey Waite
Tupelo Press
ISBN: 978-1-937797-25-7
Paperback, $16.95, 72p

“God made gender a plaything.”—Stacey Waite

Butch Geography is the first full-length book of poetry from Stacey Waite, award-winning author of three chapbooks and assistant professor of gender studies and creative writing at the University of Nebraska. The poems of Butch Geography explore gender as a role and gender as a body. In a voice both lyrical and narrative, they attempt placement and identification, and are both the reflection and the act of locating and understanding the other in our midst. But Waite isn’t trying for the diagnostic or the definitive. We see in these poems the conundrum of the human animal: as others try to place us—figure us out—we are trying to place ourselves, too. And in our efforts are all gradations of grace, error, and exasperation. By looking at the questions of gender Waite is able to ask the questions of self. As the title eludes, we are creatures who need guidance, who depend on our ability to navigate complexity and difficulty by reading maps and its indicators. Translated to the body, both physical and social, our attempts to know ourselves and the other are not so different, and often as problematic.

Several poems appear in Butch Geography entitled “Dear Gender.” This series ignites then sustains the momentum of the book, for these poems—some of the most uninhibited in the collection—grapple with the primary source of being and its relentless, impossible question: who am I? “Gender, I want you to turn me to chain. / I want to bleed you out without dying.” There is desire for constancy, for static nature, despite the contradiction of human fluidity, “bleeding” evocative of this, evocative of one wanting to reject that which gives life. And in another poem in the series: “Gender, rise out, an exorcism, from our too-scared skin. // Let us make the sounds we were never meant to make.” Is this not also a task of the poet, to exorcise with sound? Waite succeeds in the task, by creating a narrative arrangement that aids and allows space for the more concentrated, emotional movements in the book. So many things are done well in Butch Geography, and simultaneously, it’s staggering. And disarming. Waite’s dexterity with line and language, the confident movement between lyric and narrative, invokes faithfulness in the reader. We will follow this voice anywhere. “She knows better / than to cry so spits again. She learns / to live in halves.”

A map is useless, ambiguous, without names, boundaries, intonation, and direction. Despite a map’s simplification of landscapes—and therefore our simplified understanding of those landscapes—they help us navigate the strange and the unfamiliar. They also guide us efficiently through known roads. But we shouldn’t come to understand the map as authoritative. We must honor the landscape, foremost. Otherwise, we risk dogma, the naïve dependence on systems. “The doctor looks mostly at his chart. He wants me to disappear, to put back in order his faith in the system of things. He wants me to react correctly, to be ashamed.” The human animal, its body, and its idea of body are always in flux, “alive and inevitable.” Knowing this maybe doesn’t give us control or power, but better, a sense of empathy. We can see the other as strange and in that strangeness, see ourselves. “I carry this to our bed, / where each night the body / loses its memory, and / for a moment, is able to give.” This is not to be understated. Memory’s influence is startling and often upsetting. How are we to know and care for our own bodies when they are so infused with memories that bring shame and confusion? Is a body not geographical—a map of memory, impulse, and synaptic response? Waite is refreshingly, albeit cautiously, hopeful. “…survival, the anthem / of those places we’ve always been.”

The poems of Butch Geography are subversive, deconstructive of culturally dominant paradigms, but they also challenge our individual response to those paradigms, prodding readers to examine our own constructions as well. Waite moves us beyond one-dimensional stereotypes and pigeonholes. The people populating these poems are intensely human. Through a voice that is at once humorous, poignant, and tragic, we are offered an enriched way to see each other.

Let the poems of Butch Geography be a guide. Waite, with generous hospitality and rare humility, will lead you into intimate and unfamiliar landscapes, and once there will help you see yourself in the strange.