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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.
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.

Gregory Orr is famous and has won major awards. John Smith is a retired high school teacher from New Jersey who is a poet, well respected locally but unknown otherwise. Orr has blurbs from such luminaries as Albert Goldbarth, Ilya Kaminsky, and Naomi Shihab Nyef. John has blurbs from poets who have won grants and are well thought of, but not exactly headliners. I was asked to review Orr. I chose to review Smith. So why am I putting them together?

First, both inhabit the same generational orbit: Nam, eastern spirituality mixed with a dose of overcoming the dark spots through mindfulness, meditation, a sometimes didactic sense of wisdom that would not be out of place at a weekend retreat on Rumi. They do not draw their powers from decorative displays of language, and tend to have some of the traits inherent to the deep imagists, to Bly and James Wright and Galway Kinnell, but Orr is more sparse, less likely to let his lines breathe in an expansive form of pontification. Smith is more likely to experiment—even with shaped poems. He does not have a reputation to live up to and can be less confined in the competing poem of his name. Orr is confined to Orr. To his credit, he is trying to break free and I see this book as being the awkward manifestation of a voice change. But to the poems:

The River Inside the River: Gregory Orr

The River Inside the River is divided into three parts, the first being a sequence of meditative poems on Adam and Eve in the garden,(and, to an extent on exile as a form of growth and the superiority of becoming over mere being). The second part is a meditation on the “city of poetry” (sort of Orr’s gloss on the Kingdom of God, and Williams’ the city as poem) and the third section is a sort of culmination of the two previous sections. The title of the book should be a tip off that mystification and simplicity, the simplicity of mystification, and the mystification of simplicity are going to be a huge factor. Forget reading previous Orr. If we judge this book by itself, there is much in it that is part of the didactic-self-empowering- pocket wisdom market. Someone who fell in love with Gibran or with the messages in Rumi, or with the spiritual transports over nature in Mary Oliver might not be at all troubled by this book, except that Orr—the part of Orr that is a good poet—knows better. Inside his comfort zone (and this is definitely a comfort zone poetics for intelligent white middle class baby boomers who want to congratulate themselves on their evolved selves) there lurks a book-saving sense of affliction. This would make those who traffic in spiritual uplift fault the book. For me it is the one thing that saves The River Inside the River from bombast and the self-help section of the supermarket.

Orr’s comfort zones never succeed in being wholly comfortable. They fall apart. There is a shrillness, a shrike among the wild geese as to who is impaling the butterflies to a thorn. This is not negativity. This is the real truth teller in Orr. There is also a false “truth” teller who is a more artful version of Kung Fu .The real truth teller broaches trouble that cannot be tied up in a neat spiritual bow of epiphany and put out with the recyclables. Poets who traffic in either positive or negative energies are not often worth reading: rather, Orr, at his best, offers the sort of trouble Stephen Dunn, another wise poet, suggests we should always keep on our road to being too pleased with ourselves. But before I get to that saving grace let me quote a little from a poem in each section and tell you why it annoys the bejesus out of me:.

From the first section:

With their embrace
They chose
Each other
Which is
to choose death.

This is bad Gibran and it is faux mystical. Adam and Eve now inhabit a “choice” culture” but this choice that is death will, by the laws of yuppie epiphany, be superior to eternal life because after all, becoming is always better than being; and, in addition to choice, our culture is a sort of whore for endless flux– Faust’s striving, but with a dose of eastern equivocation to keep it from being ferocious. I’m giving these lines too much credit here. What really annoys me are the enjambments which cause a sort of stage whispery feeling, an unnecessary pause between “they chose,” and “each other”. This is language reduced to summing up, language which seeks to have no flourish except in the spaces, the caesuras of the white space which, for me, happens to often in such poetry to be effective any longer. This contrivance gives everything a falsely hollowed hush. Written out as a sentence, one can see it as a fairly plain statement:

With their embrace they chose each other which is to choose death.

I understand that, according to Harold Bloom, this is a new spiritual age in which wisdom literature is waging a comeback, but where’s the rhetorical majesty, the eloquence, the form rather than the mere information of wisdom? How do we keep a poetics of spirituality from being a fucking fortune cookie on steroids?

Anyway, that’s in section one. In section two, there is more memoir-like narrative, more Wordsworthian prelude and confession about Orr’s catastrophic origins (he accidentally shot his brother and killed him as a child). Here, one might expect the poet to fully be conscious of his era: on how we are hung up on self because we no longer really have any confidence in it. We lust for serenity because we are detached from our violence by drones, and video games, and the fact that there are always immigrants, poor whites and blacks to fight our police actions while we buy new yoga mats. Occasionally someone shoots up a school and we never tie it to ourselves. How could it be us? Unlike our parents, we don’t scream or shout. We are protected by our violence, our casual viciousness by the cult of the cool, the mellow, the politically correct the suburban disaffection. When all that fails, we go camping, and re-connect to the earth. How nice.

I have admired much of Orr’s work in the past, and I expect him to get at that fly in the soup not to spoil the soup, but to make it honest. All soups, even the soup of eternal truth contain a certain percentage of insect parts. Here, in the second section, he writes:

In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost.

Thanks, Mr. Divine comedy. What he says in this poem is: “you can’t count on any guides. You have to risk discoveries you can’t predict. Otherwise, you’re only half alive”.

OK…risk, choice, self, uncertainty, these are the basic wisdom tropes of the baby boomer .Generation. Generation X answers them with a sort of knowing nihilism. Generation Y embraces a sort of sociopathic code of bon homie (one of the traits of true sociopaths is a kind of easy, breezy charm and a sense of nothing personal, dude). Of course, I’m nut shelling generations, and I don’t think any of this is wholly accurate, but neither are these too easily uttered forms of wisdom. Right after this poem, Orr has a beautiful section, more ecstatic, less self consciously wise, and more surrendered to a high level of lyricism (and the image of the white flag brings that home)::

White flag
of the city–

No ensign
of surrender.

I love this. This little and perfect moment is too rare. This is cryptic and lyrical and resists the sound of the fortune cookie. As a kid, we would add “in bed” to all fortune cookie statements. Let’s apply this to my previous quotes from Orr:

In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost (in bed)

With their embrace
they chose
each other
which is
to choose death… (in bed)

.

I am not trying to trash Gregory Orr. I think he has written a superb body of work, and has influenced two generations of poets for the better, but this is a comforting of the already too comfortable. It has none of the ferocity, and embattled engagement with the spirit found in the best mystical and devotional traditions. The River Inside the River, while well-crafted and engaging in parts, does not have the wicked sense of humor one finds in the great midrash poems of the late and ought to be better known Enid Dame (her book Lilith and Her Demons is decidedly not preachy, though it is wonderfully wise). I am pissed off because, for a culture that says “it’s complicated” about everything (thereby dismissing all further discussion) the comfort zones of easy wisdom poetry seem as simplistic as self-help books, and the hypertrophy of telling our truths seems to have precluded the eloquence and decorative might with which we tell them. But this stuff sells, and I would not be shocked if this won some major awards. Here’s my problem with the intentional lack of eloquence: “Death be not proud, nor honor long,” has the weight of rhetorical eloquence behind it. My grandmother saying: “never marry a short man; they’re a bag full of cats,” has imagination and colorful speech behind it. If she changes that to: “It might be a mistake to marry a short man with many insecurities,” then is this really the same message? Does it have the same flavor, or sinew, or the sheer joy of the figurative behind it? Hell no. It is neutral and devoid of figures and decoration, and this might be my biggest qualm with this sort of spiritual schtick: not that its truths are too easy, but that their utterance has no spice and is as bland as a fortune cookie.

From the last section:

The beloved came,
then vanished.
Nothing beautiful stays.

Tell me why stating the obvious in incremental bits of information with the drum rolls of white space, and the caesuras of conjunctions and parataxis, makes such statements poetry? Nothing gold can stay has the glamor and eloquence of invention: nothing beautiful stays is mere statement. This third section is the best in the book because in it, Orr is most unsure of his epiphanies, and his summing up manages not to be a cozy summing up, but there is still much of this nutshelling wisdom and it creates a strange effect, the effect of a haiku master who thinks himself profound. The poems seem brief and spare, yet long winded and preachy; they seem too close to the Dali Lama’s ghostwritten self- help books, and the self-esteem movement, and forms of 12 step. If these spiritual traditions do not find themselves a meter making ground in some language tested by full aesthetic rigor and doubt beyond the obvious , then to what art do they aspire? If they aspire to the artless, they are certainly getting there.

Putting these qualms aside (and I am willing to admit that it may just be my discomfort with aphorism and my own generations love affair with its self-satisfied “seeking’) there are moments in The River Inside the River where Orr’s gentle and sad humor and his sincerity and simplicity win out. He can be wry and self-effacing, like Stephen Dunn. He can be dark when it is necessary. He can, in his love poems, give up the wise man for the ecstatic. At such moments his language seems neither derivative nor simplistic. If he did not believe his own mottos too readily, or if he arrived at them honestly (writing toward the truths, rather than the poems being excuses for the truths) I might feel better about being told “nothing lasts.” It might not bother me to be clobbered over the head with truisms along the lines “of change is the only constant”. (Orr never literally says this, but it’s one of themes of the book). I don’t mind when Whitman expounds the obvious to me. Whitman has the whole of the biblical and oratorical tradition behind him. Orr’s imaging tradition eschewed rhetoric and literary conceits over a hundred years ago– before Orr was born. It is stripped of eloquence and literary devices and often comes off as mere statement or image. If I had not read Rilke, and, yes Gibran when I was 12, and if I did not have the sonorities of the King James Bible and an entire literature of proverbs, koans, Emerson, and, on the more equivocal side, Jabez and Celan and Kafka, I might be more well-disposed to these poems. But, to me, (and I will probably get called bad names for this) the overall effect of Orr’s book is to send us back to those greater works and to anger me that the devotional poem in terms of contemporary poetics is perilously close to new age positive thinking. Telling people how to live and be at peace is a multi-billion dollar industry. Do poets have to do it?

Finally, to be fair to Orr, I grew up loving MR Cogito and the far from always wise predicaments of Paul Zimmer’s poems. I believe Orr’s tradition rules out slight-of- hand verbal tricks as being somehow phony and dishonest. Also, Orr is not a poet of rhythms. He believes in flat out telling as a test of sincerity, I take my cue from the imaginary philosopher Carlos Stir: “you can’t fake sincerity; it’s already fake.” What saves this book is the young child still at the scene of the shooting, the one who has not “learned” and for whom becoming is the only hope of escape from being. When Orr comes anywhere near this sort of “unknowing” he is a wonderful poet. Otherwise, he’s a guru, and I shoot paper clips at gurus from my desk (when they aren’t looking).

 

Even That Indigo by John Smith

John Smith has long been a poet whose work I was glad to see in some of the local New Jersey magazines, or here and there in an anthology or two. He is a narrative poet. He is far more likely to stick to the particulars of a moment and let them imply a truth or realization rather than springing a truth on you. He is less a wisdom poet in the way of Rilke and more appreciative of the minute and the perfectly observed detail in the way of Robert Francis (though he does not have Francis’ sense of form). Like Orr, he is in his sixties. Like Orr, he has some of the tendencies toward epiphany, meditative nature lyric, sex as mystery, and a touch of the new age peculiar to baby boomers. His book is not a high concept of interconnected poems. It is a collection held together by recurrent interests: his past, his family, the experience of Nam, the possibilities of finding peace within the small detailed encounters with nature. Consider his meeting up with a possum in the poem, Stumbling Around In The Light:

Something wasn’t right.
I could tell by the way it wobbled
across the lawn, midafternoon.

Fat head the cat knew it too
and kept back, pretending to lick a paw
each time the Possum stumbled.

The uncertainty is fearful uncertainty. The detail of the cat “pretending” to lick its paw is a perfect projection of the speaker’s own diffidence onto the cat. The poem moves from fearful uncertainty to conjecture (kids might come. Perhaps the speaker can kill the possum with a shovel) to a gentle and empathetic realization that, perhaps (an important word) the Possum is no more close to dying or dangerous than the speaker (the wonderful thing here is that the speaker had just considered bashing in the possum’s skull with a shovel). Stumbling Around in The Light has the close detail, and particularity, I admire in reading Carolyn Kizer’s great poem about her encounter with a bat, or

her great blue heron poem. It is working out from observation to epiphany, but the epiphany is not certain; it could be erased in the next moment. Rather than stating that everything is tentative and transient, Smith puts us in the place of the tentative and the transient.

In speaking of minor and major poets, one can either mean lesser or greater in terms of craft or make a distinction between a poet who lives for each individual poem and a poet who must be read and judged at his full scope. Smith is a minor poet in the best sense. Orr is a major poet who has some of the faults of the major: he has given up keenness for scope, and when he is not at his best, the scope is distorted for want of clarity and the keenly observed. Smith does not have to imitate Smith as Orr has to compete with Orr, and so he can screw around with different palettes, dabble at being present in different ways. John Smith is not a competing poem with John Smith’s poetry. There are thin lined, and long lined poems in Even That Indigo. There are poems that undulate and alternate between short and long lines. Smith does not have a “look.” He is not branded. The least arbitrary aspect of Smith’s line is that he either writes stichic (no stanza breaks) in the narrative style of Bishop and Levine, or he writes in stanzas of varying lengths (what Milton called Aleostrophic stanzas), and so his poems do not have a spatial identity– a fixed look. He does try a shaped poem (no title) which refers to a painting of geese by Escher. It’s not bad except it is somewhat gimmicky (I am growing cranky in my old age and have a hard time not finding almost all shaped poems gimmicky), but it is still a decent poem. This brings me to the flaws if any of this book:

Smith isn’t taking many risks beyond the well-wrought and well-crafted poem. While in depth, the poems do not go outside safe water, and stay clear from any risky currents. The crafted detail, the economical observation that implies rather than states is easier to pull off than a grand statement or a series of “wisdom” poems. For when the grand gesture fails and the mystic moments are all clichés of shadow and dark and stone and ash, then nothing is worse—nothing more worthy of contempt; but when these grand gestures are pulled off, when the mystification and rhapsody work (as with the best of Whitman, as with Neruda), then I gladly trade in my Robert Francis’ Cedar Waxwings for Whitman’s Sixth part of Song of Myself (though I may miss the waxwings). Smith’s poems in Even That Indigo are from a school closer to Waxwings than Song of Myself. It is a poetics that does not trust any major claims, that believes God is in the well wrought details. In most of his poems, Smith is a splendid successor to a long and honorable tradition of truly observing nature, an unsentimental narrative poet: Not as florid as Dickey, not as controlled and thereby heartbreaking as Bishop, not as intensely singular in his seeing as Schuyler, not as wounded or in need of embracing the wound as Orr, but with his own virtues of humility, intelligence, and singular wonder. The final poem in the book, Cicada, might give an indication as to why I would recommend Even That Indigo over Orr’s latest work (though not over Orr). I do not think Smith the greater poet, but, at this point, he does not have the weight of his oeuvre to contend with, and is thus at greater liberty to play. In this final poem in the book, Smith is saying essentially the same thing as Orr, making the same case for the eternal within the transient, for intensity, for becoming rather than being, for the joy and passion of becoming. But I believe Smith earns the epiphany. I leave you with the poem:

Even if we could live forever,
what if we still grew old and gray
as the dusk? What if we shrank
into the top soil of the night
and woke whining for the sun
with voices so shrill and small
only termites could hear them?

I’d rather crawl from the earth blindfolded
and drag my grimy shell up the side
of the whitest tree I can find,
rather scream like a match head on fire
than smolder and never die.
I would split open my spine
just to fly for one season.

In Caroline Knox’s nimble new collection Flemish, a poem entitled simply “They” begins: “They live in a mobile home/made of Adobe Caslon.” The elided antecedent here could very well be Knox’s poems; while maintaining a healthy awareness of themselves as constructed objects (“black and white graphic art,” Knox has called them), they simultaneously feel in constant, and deliriously unpredictable, motion. Vehicles, metaphoric, historical, or embroidered on pillows, abound in these poems. In “Harley Lyric”, Knox has somehow managed, with her characteristic wit, to conflate a medieval manuscript of miscellanea and the eponymous “chopper”—and with a tonal palette at once brassy and arcane. There is something playful, almost giddy, in these poems—they create the sense of setting out on a road trip, purposeless and hopeful.

Flemish is Caroline Knox’s 8th poetry collection, her third from the excellent Wave Books. This year, six of her poems were included in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry edited by Paul Hoover, the occasion of whose publication was recently celebrated by an epic reading by Knox and twenty three other of the most exciting poets in American letters at the New School in New York City. Although a span of continent kept me from being able to attend, the wonders of electronic mail and Caroline Knox’s generosity of spirit allowed me the privilege of a vivacious dialogue with the poet, the transcript of which follows.

SE: I want to mention first of all that Flemish is a physically beautiful object. I am fairly sure you didn’t design it, but whoever did seems to have gotten something of the spirit of the poems into the physicality of the book itself. The idea of the book, or the text, as an object, does this make sense to you in the way you think about and make poems?


photoCK
: Wave Books is adamant that their books be beautiful, and I’m so glad they are. Wave’s are all done by Quemadura, who is one poet named Jeff Clark, from Ypsilanti. The speckled white cover is recycled material, and the focus is modernistic typography. I was invited to choose end papers for Flemish (strawberry). (But I do like very much Wave’s emphasis on doing a great deal of its work online, on its website and in social media, even though it publishes hold-in-your-hand books, not ebooks. This is in tune with the excellent goal of parity between print and online works.)

My great aunt was a college librarian, and I spent a lot of time with her when I was in school. She was connected with the Arts and Crafts movement, with book designers and typographers, so I got a good look at all that thinking and making. And a respect for it.

 

SE: I was excited to come upon Francis Ponge’s cameo in “Stove Seasoning”–you call him, aptly, “an advocate for things”. He is one of my favorite poets, and rarely does he get much mention. I would guess that you are also an “advocate for things”, but the relationship you engender to the “objectified” is much more complex, I think, more nuanced. I think of Ponge as something like a lepidopterist, pinning the objects down with words.; whereas, in your poems, the words seems to hover about the objects, or the other way around. It’s like a dance. So can you talk a little about how objects make their way into your poems, and what you do with them there?

 

CK: Ponge’s thing poems seem like short art history essays defining the thing. He is like a lepidopterist. Maybe I’d try to approach the thing from a lot of angles, trying to obey Stevens: Constantly see the world in a new way, and It Must Change. (So style is what changes it, if you can get the right style.) I’d like not to be bound by any diction level or syntax while I wrote about the object, so that my poems about objects or about anything else, could try to have a changing and changeable kind of beauty, changeant.

In “He Paves the Road with Iron Bars,” (Verse Press) I was trying to do something like this. We think of Emerson as singlehandedly inventing a new philosophy rising above the material. But he loved stuff, and was enchanted by the railroad. (It has such great shop talk.) I love Emerson, who changed the language with the marmoreal paragraphs, but also, oh, the material world! And I think the language of jobs is so interesting as a lexical source for poems. Maybe especially if you don’t know the mysteries of other people’s jobs.

 

SE: Something that struck me in many of the poems in Flemish was the juxtaposition of the long-lived, if not to say eternal, and the ephemeral–a Carrara marble font full of construction paper fish, a mobile home made of Adobe Caslon. Your poems often have this quality of being at once solid, etched, and as slippery as one of the sloe-eyed dolphins in “Subjects”. How does time figure into your poems, and into your use of language?

 

CK: I thought in my youth that I would become a medievalist (which didn’t happen), so I was drawn early to languages then taught – French, Latin, Old English – so I keep (fragments of) these in my head. I don’t see why they shouldn’t show up in poems occasionally to give some sense and some beautiful or at least interesting sound.

I feel drawn to switches in diction levels and in syntax, no matter what the poem subject. It feels inclusive. I think I learned this from Auden, and from the New York Poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Stevens and Ashbery often appear to qualify or as some say “cancel” their statements. I think that’s hugely interesting, and the switches can make it happen. Valley Girl talk might be another good lexical source. My son-in-law’s aviation magazines are, too – “docile stall characteristics/ and retrofit fuselage utilizing/ a semi-monocoque construction” (“Who’ll Buy,” Quaker Guns).

SE: Speaking of Auden, in an essay you wrote about how he has influenced your work, you describe his syntax as sounding almost as if it were English in translation. Even better, you described it as “slightly cracked”. This phrase works perfectly with the poems in Flemish, and in your other books as well. The language is recognizable, but, yes, slightly cracked. Is this something that you are consciously pursuing in the act of writing, this feeling of translation?

CK: First, I want to point out that in the section of the essay “2. Syntax” that I’m talking here just about the poem “1929.” I don’t think that Auden did this kind of “crackedness” or distortion often. I think he was experimenting with it, enjoying it probably, in this investigative poem. The crackedness suits the theme of exploration and discovery. The crackedness or translatedness helps deliver the anxiety!

And I definitely feel influenced by Auden’s experiment – to distort the language slightly, making it as you say recognizable but slightly cracked. (No one would want to do this ALL the time – it would be mannered and boring.) Yes, as you say, I do want to make my poems in Flemish as elsewhere sound slightly translated from Eng to Eng – a lot of the time but not all the time.

 

SE: In “He Lives in Bayonne”, “he” emails a blank screen; in response, “she” emails him her trash icon. These lines are very funny, and that is at least partly because they communicate something that we somehow understand, and yet it is in a language in which we are not quite fluent yet. Can you talk about how things like the Internet and texting, which are certainly altering not just our language but even, so they say, our brains, have changed your writing?

CK: I admire so much a book by Janet Holmes called f2f –it is ALL in texting, how charming, what a tour-de-force. Language certainly will gradually absorb the new technology, won’t it? It certainly has begun to.

I guess that collecting fragments – words and phrases – has a whole lot to do with method (I suppose all writers do this). It’s inductive.

One more point about the New York Poets – I think their interaction with abstract painters and painting made me want to situate on the page a lot of elements that don’t necessarily belong together, but might complement or clash with one another – this goes along with picking words and phrases that don’t belong together. The surface of the poem should offer a lot of interesting elements. It has to be done without sounding showoffy or bathetic.

SE: In the Auden essay you liken the speaker in one of your poems to a pilgrim. I loved this idea–because often the poems seem like pilgrimages through the landscape of our shared language. Does the speaker come out of the language for you, or does the language arise out of a certain stance that the speaker has adopted towards the material? Or some of both?

CK: I was talking about a sort of pilgrim narrator in “Souvenir de Roc-Amadour” because pilgrims do go there, and because I was writing a poem – since poets are always pilgrims during the writing process of the poem, wondering whether it’s going to pan out into anything, or into something you can put your name to.

The speaker in any poem has to come out of the language, and also the language comes out of the speaker – both of these, just as you say. Isn’t it a balancing act; you have to do both at once, and remember what you’re doing. It’s dangerous and exciting and you don’t want to wreck something good that’s half done. The speaker has to change all the time! In “Boiled Snow,” the person who says, “A distinctive new gelato” is not the same kid who says “Flavor of the Month for March!”

 

SE: Something I have noted before about all of your poems, and these new ones perhaps even more, is that they are completely unpredictable–there is simply no telling where a poem will end up from first line to last, and every move in between surprises. You have a startling array of nouns at your disposal, and do wonderfully unexpected things with prepositions, not to mention pronouns. But there are, it turns out, far fewer verbs than one would expect in such dynamic poems. I have often felt that English was a language somewhat deficient in the verb department…can you shed some light on how you create movement in your poems, what propels them forward?

 

CK: I don’t know where the poems are going myself.

As well as the New York Poets, Marianne Moore often does not come back to her beginnings, to a subject or a statement. I always liked that; it’s daring.

Examples from two poems from Flemish: in a poem called “Key,” I wrote, “You can knit direct from a photograph, it’s like an atlas.” The directions are supposed to help, but they didn’t – and then the photo made everything instantly clear! Who could have predicted this?

Comedy rests on unpredictability; we expect x, but we get y. Our expectations are upset, and we burst out laughing; that’s the recipe for comedy, isn’t it? So if you can choose the right x and y, you give delight, or puzzlement, or slight awe. In “Harley Lyric,” I was so stunned by these two facts: 1. BL Harley MS 2253 = a collection of top-drawer love lyrics, 14th-15thc. 2. Harley motorcycle. The ms. ref. sounds like a motorcycle model! The first lines of the poems sound like biker songs! Koch said of his and Ashbery’s and O’Hara’s work, “We didn’t see any reason to avoid humor.”

Another example: it may be funny to put your dogs’ names, “Wuffy” and “Chips,” in double quotes – are the dogs really named Rex and Fido? But sometimes the unpredictable isn’t funny or important – it’s just believable. It doesn’t prove anything or lead to anything, so it must be there for its own sake, and the moment fulfills itself. In my book Nine Worthies, somebody’s little brother tells at some length to a room full of grownups all about shad and shad roe and shadbush. The people sit and listen. That’s all there is to it.

You can also plan the appearance of unpredictability. Right now I’m writing a sestina which tries to obscure the fact that it is one, though a lot of internal rhyme and other distractions.

 

SE: It seems that form allows you to make poetry out of the material of the everyday—not “poeticized” but direct—the language simply lifted directly from the vernacular but “lifted into art” through the form in which it might be re-experienced. Can you say a bit about your use of forms, especially traditional ones, in Flemish?

 

CK: The traditional forms I use in Flemish are (upon reflection) these: tercets, libretto (including a sonnet of sorts), (short) prose poems, song. I don’t obey the forms very strictly. To use a form, with all its expectations, creates a place to upset those expectations, usually only slightly.

Tercets seem comfortable for the writer to ease into; they have a leisurely and even meditative feel and look, I think. In Flemish there turned out to be four poems in tercets: “He Was a Chartist.” “Stove Seasoning,” “They,” and “The Font.” (I’d like to be able to do such a poem that went on for pages.) The small and regular-looking stanzas allow you to put in some surprise material for contrast. The stanzas look like strung beads, and maybe act like them.

Cantata libretto: I adapted the libretto (by Picander) of Bach’s Coffee Cantata very, very loosely. It was a game and a dream at the same time. I wanted it to be too short, and it was. I wanted it to be full of notes of today – the wedding nonsense, the Starbucks nonsense, the poetry reading of opaque work.

Short prose poem: “Key” and “The Scottish Play” seem to be nuggets of wisdom, definitive blocks on their subjects – but they really don’t do the reader any good! They’re probably just an excuse for playing with language, a valuable activity in itself. “The Scottish play” is a nickname for Macbeth, but using it as a title turns out to be thoroughly pretentious, and nothing to do with the poem, really, just a way into it.

About “Key” – The bold face section of “Key” is one of Poor Richard’s sayings, one of Franklin’s “scriptures,” made into the shape of a key. Quemadura graciously spent a lot of time on typesetting this! The proverb is hidden in plain sight. But there’s no key to “Key.”

Song – “Aragon” seems to be an elegiac piece (a “fragment”?); when I wrote it I remember being very interested in sound, and in putting the French refrain in as a piece of folk poetry that someone else learned from someone else. (You can’t do this too much – it gets too adorably precious.) Maybe the speaker is a pilgrim – to Santiago da Campostela?

So, to sum up, I think one of the reasons to use any traditional form is to introduce surprise material into the form, surprise material that sits comfortably with the form’s other aspects.

To drink boiled snow

To drink boiled snow is good science.
It may affect the water table
to manufacture boiled snow on the rocks
218º Fahrenheit for however many minutes.

To skate on black ice is hard science
looking down through it to a broken and frozen rowboat
six feet under in Davy Jones’s Locker
in black tie in the middle of the night,

walking on thin ice, to skate on the
leading edge of thin ice, as abraded maple
leaves’ patterns trip you up.  To drink
unboiled sap as the deer do, clandestinely

out of sap buckets, starting on Birthington’s Washday;
to discover in frozen sap
a distinctive new gelato!  Flavor
of the Month for March!  To write

most of a poem out of
infinitive clauses, to discover
in brackish tidepools much too early
harbor seals in camouflage on the rocks,

and to marvel at these seals’ poise and grace
as they blunder diffidently into and under the ocean.

ISBN978-0520259263

It’s hard to justify a $50 book nowadays. Unless you’re a scholar looking to pore over every character in an author’s archive, a volume of collected work can easily overwhelm. Is there a non-academic audience for a tome like The Collected Early Poems and Plays by Robert Duncan (University of California Press)? I can’t speak for the market, but as a young poet scrambling through the poems of the past, as well as the growing morass of contemporary offerings, I finished this beast of a volume feeling refreshed.

It’s clear that UC Press has a plan for Duncan’s collected works, which are stylistically in tune with The H.D. Book. While poems often share pages, pages rarely feel overwhelmed. Economy of space is understood. This book feels like a chronological collection of published and uncollected works, so we are given a particularly instructive timeline of Duncan’s growth as a poet.

The breadth of that poetic growth is in itself a fantastic teacher. Duncan burst out of the gates hungry, publishing as an undergrad beginning to engage with the politics and metaphysics he would engage with throughout his career. But his line is inquisitive rather than didactic; he chose not to build a pulpit, but to immerse the reader in his investigations. The Years as Catches then shows, if anything, that all poets must start somewhere, and it’s comforting to see the seeds from which Duncan’s poetic dexterity would grow, while at the same time appreciating that this is the work of a young man with much to learn. In every stanza, his potential glimmers: an inexperienced poet, winding his way through language until his own voice emerges.

It does so quickly, as Heavenly City, Earthly City slips into the picture and Duncan more fully embraces his political opinions. His voice takes shape, as does the melody within his lines, and, along with the poet, we learn the strength of verse as a spoken activity. Melodious, rhythmic, and willing to take risks linguistically and stylistically, the book moves into Medieval Scenes with the assuredness of a man who more fully finds his footing after every line.

Duncan—and by extension this volume—really begins to shine with A Book of Resemblances. The strength of this book, and the argument for the price tag, is not only the accessibility of all of Duncan’s work between two covers, but the process of working along with the poet as he searches for his ultimate expression. He earns the poems in Resemblances, which sing and swell and traverse emotional and metaphysical landscapes. But these poems were not born out of a black hole. Duncan climbs to this height, and ever higher, throughout these pages and those in the next volume. The true joy in reading a poet like this is the journey. Duncan walks with Pound, Williams, and Stein as influences, wearing them proudly on his poetic and fanciful flights through drama and poetry. If ever there was an argument for an oeuvre, this is it.