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An encounter it would have been gripping to see: the 1875 reunion, in Stuttgart, of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, at the conclusion of the older poet’s two-year imprisonment in Belgium. (He had been convicted for firing on his lover and giving him a flesh wound in the wrist.)  Verlaine told his friends that, as soon as he was released, he made his way to Germany, hoping he would be able to persuade the younger poet to resume their travels and adventures together. When they stood face to face again, did they cry, did they jump up and down, cackling with laughter? Or, if there were bitter reproaches, did those come more from Verlaine or from Rimbaud?  Until time-travel is invented we won’t have answers because neither poet left a detailed record of the meeting, nor were there any witnesses. So much about relationships that crash and burn must always remain undiscoverable, even when the breakup happens in our own time. Fact in these cases abdicates, replaced by gossip, rumor, and, often enough, malice.  This universally acknowledged truth doesn’t seem to prevent us from assuming we’ve got the lowdown on what really happened, even when we’re not close to those involved.

Assuming Verlaine’s account is accurate, it seems that the 1875 meeting was the moment when Rimbaud entrusted the manuscript of Illuminations to him, with the request that it be sent to a friend of his in Brussels, who might be able to arrange for its publication. If Rimbaud didn’t trouble to send it himself, does that mean he wanted Verlaine to read it first and perhaps regard the work as some sort of compensation for the disaster their relationship had been?  Should we see in this book another literary transformation of their shared experience, the follow-up to A Season in Hell?  Or was Rimbaud seeking helpful critiques of the poems, still unaware that he had already outdistanced his poetic master? Did Rimbaud put the poems in the order assigned to them when eventually published, or did Verlaine and later editors who handled the ms. change that order?  Few books have been as persistently dogged by enigmas as Illuminations, a fact that puts it in a paradoxical relationship to its title.

If it’s true that Verlaine kept his promise and sent the poems to Rimbaud’s friend Germain Nouveau in Brussels (a letter of Verlaine’s complains about the postage costs), then at some point he must have retrieved them. We know that they eventually turned up in the hands of his brother-in-law in Paris.  Not Verlaine nor Germain Nouveau nor the brother-in-law, but instead editors who weren’t intimates of Rimbaud a decade later arranged for their publication in the Symbolist magazine La Vogue. Because the loose pages of the ms. weren’t numbered, these editors admitted to an uncertainty as to the order of the poems, except for a few that Rimbaud had transcribed on the same page.

Also, we have to take Verlaine’s word for it that the title his friend  wanted was Illuminations because the sheaf of poems Verlaine forwarded to others lacked a title page.  The book has sometimes been published under the title Les Illuminations, the standard form for a French-language title. However, Verlaine said that Rimbaud was using the English, not the French word, as he did in several individual poem titles (“Bottom” and “Fairy,” for example).  The older poet explained that “illuminations” in English referred to printed, hand-colored engravings, which were common at the period. Of course the term in both languages carries the more general sense of light and even mystical enlightenment, one version thereof being the occult belief and practice known as “Illuminism.”  In English “illuminations” can also refer to the hand-painted pictures and decorations found in medieval manuscripts, but whether Verlaine or Rimbaud was aware of this extra meaning, who can say? (The French term for these is enluminures.) Considering Rimbaud’s ironic and challenging temperament, it’s possible he wanted to make both senses of the English term available, as a way to suggest that his mysterious and even quasi-religious texts could also be compared to cheap popular prints.  The strategy of the young and not yet established poet is often to “have it both ways,” defending his most exalted thoughts with an electric fence of high-voltage irony.  Since we’re on the topic of electrical equipment, consider this interesting coincidence: the first incandescent light-bulb was made in 1874, and commercial distribution of the new invention began in 1886, the year when La Vogue first brought Illuminations to the French reading public. If it seems fanciful to conflate the two phenomena, recall that the most widely distributed light-bulbs in twentieth-century Europe were called Mazda bulbs, after the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda.

The central conflict in Zoroastrianism is figured as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light.  It seems fair to class Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell as a book about the forces of darkness, and so perhaps we can understand Illuminations as the poet’s effort to evoke—at least for poetry—the forces of light.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t flashes of beauty in the earlier book or that all is serenity and effortless ascension in the later one.  That would be too neat and monotonous, and besides, as Stevens put it, “No man of imagination is prim.”  The prose poems in Illuminations are rather short and the sequence develops no discernible narrative; instead, a series of dreamlike vignettes or meditations whose context is never provided.  More than half are descriptive, surveys of landscapes or cityscapes too imaginary and protean to exist in actuality, though they often include the equivalent of Marianne Moore’s “real toads.” The tone is generally exalted and hyperbolic, a cornucopia of images and words tumbling out rapidly in sentences with loosened syntax.  Apostrophes introduced by the exclamation “O” are frequent, yet the mosquito whine of irony is found in almost every poem, provoked in part by hyperbole and acting in part to neutralize it.  Thoroughly enigmatic as they are, the poems are the last to be aware of the fact, judging by the prevailing tone of confidential assurance and the absence of any fumbling efforts at explanation.  We may not understand them, but it’s clear that these poems understand themselves, giving meanwhile the curious impression that they can survive and even thrive without our assistance.

Rimbaud is an often-translated poet and many distinguished hands have made versions of Illuminations, Louise Varèse and Paul Schmidt among them.  Ashbery’s versions are strikingly better than his predecessors, which isn’t surprising when you consider that he resided for a decade in Paris and that he has also successfully translated the poetry of Reverdy and of his friend Pierre Martory.  Add to that Ashbery’s own unconventional literary mastery, and he would seem to be the ideal author to negotiate the difficulties of a poet who inspired a century of poetic experiments, continuing up to the present.  Ideal for us; but you have to wonder why a poet so eminent, so thickly swathed in laurel (he has won every important poetry prize except for the Nobel) should want to take time away from his own work to provide us with this topnotch version of Illuminations. The brief introduction Ashbery provides for this book offers no explanation apart from his thorough admiration for Rimbaud. Still, admirers can admire profoundly without bothering to translate.  I’m guessing that he undertook the task as a way of reminding readers hostile to his own poetry that experimental (or dreamlike, difficult, fragmented, disjunctive, enigmatic—whatever term seems applicable) poetry has been around for a century and a half. If you want to dismiss Ashbery, you also have to dismiss Rimbaud and the Surrealists, plus all the Modernists in various molds who were influenced by him.  It no longer makes any sense to call this kind of poetry the “avant-garde” or the “poetry of the future,” at least no more so than the poetry based on narrative, spoken language, prosody, and sequential reason. Both approaches will be used in the future, as they have been during the past. Some readers will prefer experimental, and another part, mainstream approaches, so there’s no point in trying to legislate an aesthetic Prohibition against either.

It goes without saying that some practitioners of mainstream poetry are better than others, just as it’s reasonable to assume that experimental poetry is sometimes good and sometimes not. Yet critics of experimental work don’t seem to have arrived at a practical criticism capable of sifting the large amount of experimental writing now being produced in order to put aside what’s not worth reading and to make a case for the part of it that’s good. All the alternative critics seem to be able to do at present is repeat any number of times that traditional approaches to poetry are old and therefore irrelevant or inferior. When it comes to the experimental aesthetic, they don’t offer a set of evaluative principles as familiar and dependable as the criteria used to analyze and assess mainstream work.  Given the antinomian and deconstructive nature of experimental writing, its resolute effort to undermine orthodoxy and consensus perception, we can question whether any individual or critical school could ever develop an agreed-on set of yardsticks applicable to it.  However, if adequate critical tools aren’t devised, then criticism will simply amount to “I like this” and “I don’t like that.” A purely personal criterion might be acceptable if we weren’t faced with the real-world problem of public rewards. Which poets should be published, and, among those, which should receive prizes and artist fellowships, including grants based on state funding?  Perhaps most experimental poets write without conscious concerns like these; but critics who ignore them aren’t acting responsibly.

 

Almost all of the Illuminations are prose poems, a form first tried by the French poet Aloysius Bertrand, then taken up with notable success by Baudelaire and Mallarmé.  That the poems are short and don’t rely on traditional French prosody lightens the burden of translation, with the result that a lot of time can be spent on finding the aptest word choices and pleasing sentence rhythms.  Ashbery handles both with cool but remarkable skill. A sample:

In an attic where I was shut up at the age of twelve I got to know the world. I illustrated the human comedy. In a cellar I learned history. At some nighttime carnival in a Northern city, I met all the wives of the master painters. In an arcade in Paris I was taught the classic sciences. In a magnificent abode surrounded by the entire Orient I accomplished my immense opus and spent my illustrious retirement. I churned my blood. My homework has been handed back to me. One must not even think of that now. I’m really beyond the grave, and no more assignments, please.

(part III of “Lives”)

Without arguing that this is the strongest passage in Illuminations, I can still see in it many of the work’s preoccupations, not to say obsessions: singular and perhaps visionary experience recalled from childhood; the mind’s susceptibility to rapid scene changes in space and time; a chest-thumping celebration of self that is nevertheless undercut by sly mockery; and the sense that the poem’s speaker has gone beyond the normal confines of human experience into something beyond reason and civility.

To translate is to interpret, and the reader who knows French will see that Ashbery’s “My homework has been handed back to me” (his reading of “Mon devoir m’est remis,”) could also be rendered as “My duty has been restored to me.”  In the poem’s final sentence, “pas de commissions” becomes “no more assignments, please.” But it could also be rendered as “no errands/messages/shopping lists.” Ashbery has added “more” and “please,” for sense, rhythm, and tone, but those words aren’t found in the original.  I cite this not as a fault but as evidence that he has tried throughout to make versions that are plausible as poems in English.  I was struck again and again how he passed over a reflexively dull equivalent to the French word in favor of something more idiomatic and non-routine.  That said, I also noticed several instances where non-cognates were translated as though they were cognates. Non-cognates are what the French call “faux amis,” “false friends,” words that look as though they meant the same in English and French, but actually don’t; for example, “actuellement,” which doesn’t mean “actually” but instead, “at present.”  Here are a few translations I had doubts about in this version: désert isn’t usually “desert,” but instead “wilderness”; pourpre isn’t so much “purple” as “crimson”; honnêteté isn’t merely “honesty” but rather “probity” or “integrity”; sciences need not be limited to “sciences” but can also mean “studies” or “disciplines”; cellier isn’t strictly “cellar,” but more properly “wine-cellar” or “storeroom.”  Apart from the “false friends,” there are a couple of other misleading translations. For example, faubourg and banlieue are both rendered by Ashbery as “suburbs,” but the right sense for the first is “district,” (as in “Garden District”) or “quarter” (as in “French Quarter”); and for the second, “outskirts of town” or “periphery.” Also, the word jour, when translated as “day” isn’t necessarily wrong; but in many contexts it means “dawn,” “daylight” or simply “light.” As the last word of Illuminations (at least, in the editorial order for the poems that Ashbery has adopted here) it seems probable that Rimbaud meant “dawn” or “light” when he wrote of the emblematic and redemptive figure that he calls “Genie”:

He has known us all and loved us all. Let us, on this winter night, from cape to cape, from the tumultuous pole to the castle, from the crowd to the beach, from glance to glance, our strengths and feelings numb, learn to hail him and see him, and send him back, and under the tides and at the summit of snowy deserts, follow his seeing, his breathing, his body, his day.

Translations of poetry are always in one way or another inaccurate. The reviewer with a sense of responsibility to the author being reconceived in English has the uncomfortable duty (homework?) of pointing out instances where the translation isn’t perfectly congruent with the original. This is done not in order to show superiority but to suggest that real interest, real love for a poet must inevitably inspire readers to learn the original language. When people tell me they don’t care for Dante, I ask them if they know Italian; none of the translations conveys all that can be found in his own idiom. By the same token, any reader astonished and moved to tears by Rimbaud will, I hazard, want to acquire a knowledge of the language and culture thatproduced the strength and beauty they’ve glimpsed through a door that translation has partially opened.  It goes without saying that the project demands a large commitment of time and energy that few can spare.  Meanwhile, those who haven’t had the luck to acquire a true working knowledge of the language and the thematic preoccupations of French literature can even so get a very good sense of Rimbaud’s Illuminations from Ashbery’s version, which is the best we have in English so far.

 

Neither a memoir nor a novel, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton UP, 2010) by Andrei Codrescu measures the speed of our psycho-poetic times. It seems we are moving faster and faster knowing less and less where. On the sheen of it, the book runs through the first day of an Intro to Poetry Writing class wherein Codrescu narrates his process of assigning “Ghost-Companion” poets to students according to the first letter of their last names. Underneath the glaze of this conceit, however, the book prods for lessons about the American Academy’s marketing of the imagination through creative writing classes.

I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions. While I was peeing I didn’t think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can’t. I’d have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that’s exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. (98)

Codrescu, with his trademark humor and eye for the ladies, unleashes a number of schemes to shock his poetry students into making it new (here “it” also means their lives and not just their texts). Musing on our mania for the new, Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) A bit later, he expounds explicitly on the role of the poet in society: “The poets’ job was to cast a weary second glance on the world and to look fondly into eternal sentiments with a musical insistence that made them new.” (109) Upon critical reflection on Codrescu’s observations that we are addicts of the new, a question might arise: how can a poet ever be more than a hipster, a fashionista, or a mere bodysurfer of the new? Turning Walter Benjamin on his head, one might ask: what is freedom without fashion?

College students need the kinds of Humanistic insights that Codrescu offers throughout his diaristic recounting of the first session of his last class. For instance, Codrescu brings up linearity, that crutch of old-man positivism:  “I like to start at the beginning, I adore chronology even though I know only too well (and explain to my advanced classes) that chronology is arbitrary and that you can get to or at anything starting at any point, because all things touch on every other thing with at least one point of their thingness. Or maybe all things are round.” (116) I like to think that such an image (of how all things are really connected) lounging in the heads of young people might make it difficult for them to conspire to profit off of their neighbor. Eternal sentiments like the interconnectedness of all things or the sensuality of life or the transitory nature of all things are the functional purview of a Liberal education.

Though the form of Codrescu’s pedagogy seems based on a set of labyrinthine rules and draconian discipline; the content, represented through deft summary and talky quotation, suggests his abiding interest in learning what it means to be a poet from his students. Reflecting on his poetry-life, Codrescu writes:

If anything consoles me now it is that attached to these poets and their publishers and my friends and their work were stories. I had thousands of stories to tell about these people and their products because this was my life, a life spent hanging out, talking, writing poetry, alone or with others, seeing twisted shapes in the night and crisp aphorism at dawn. (103)

The book rambles through delightful scenes of perky soldier-students and feral cats that have laid siege to the LSU campus where Codrescu is teaching his last class before retiring. “Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.” (108)

Like the Romanian-born literary critic and professor Matei Calinescu, Andrei Codrescu, synthesizes the histories of European Avant-garde and American Modernism with calm lucidity. He chucks around terms like ideology, postmodernism, and kitsch with the cock-soreness of a smithy. Really? Take his word for it. Here Codrescu describes the perennial distrust between generations: “It had always been thus, but it was worse, I think, now, when every proof for one thing or another was intellectually available, but tips and hints on how to really live are rarer than asparagus stalks in Eskimo cuisine.” (57)

So, what is the poetry lesson? The poetry lesson is that poetry is a practice. What kind of practice? Poetry is the kind of practice that afflicts you with the microbe of identity crisis. If you don’t have an identity crisis, you have been rendered spiritually destitute by the readymade suggestions of capital. Seek the guidance of spirits.

 

Vladimir Sorokin stands atop a list of Russian novelists, along with Tatyana Tolstaya, Victor Pelevin, and Victor Erofeyev, who have married an old-school sci-fi sensibility with American cyberpunk hipness to constitute the vanguard of literary social criticism in Moscow.  Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy not only established him as a progenitor of the form but garnered for him a reputation as Russia’s bad boy literary star, whose brazen challenges to authority and occasional pornographic content compelled the Putin Youth to dump his works into a giant makeshift toilet. His latest work, Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) imagines a Moscow of 2028. The Red Troubles (presumably the Soviet era) are over, as are the White Troubles (whatever those might have been) that followed them, and the czarship has been restored. It is The Russian Revival, or, as characters refer to it, “Nowadays.” The oprichniki are the defenders of the oprichnina, literally “the place apart,” the moral core of the Motherland. This was an actual group, comprised of brutal enforcers during the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the 16th century. You can see where this is going.

When you enter a world like this, where an alternate history shapes an unexpected and probably fucked up future, when you have to piece together strange events and align them with those from your own world, you have to ask yourself two questions: what’s different, and how did it get this way? From the first scene we are thrust into an autocratic, nationalistic, Orthodox, and downright brutal government. All the old icons and superstitions have returned. The czar (who has repainted the Kremlin its old white) is hailed continuously, and God is impulsively and perpetually thanked for this unnamed leader’s political guidance and moral clarity. Technologically, people get their news from “bubbles,” speak on mobilovs, and drive Mercedovs (oprichniks fasten the severed heads of vicious dogs as grill ornaments, who snarl and bark in lieu of sirens). The news and the entertainment industry are monitored closely by representatives from the slew of government departments such as The Culture Chamber, The Literary Chamber, The Inner Circle, The Mind Department, the All-Russian Equine Society, The Association to Promote Air Flight, The Society of Russian Fisticuffs, The Malachite Chamber, and, of course, the Good Fellows.  Dissenters are punished, severely and thoroughly.

I love these genres because of the level of detail an author can engage. For me, this is the test of quality, and it operates down to the sentence and word level. It’s a writerly genre that can stimulate without too much attention even to its political elements. Sorokin subtly slips in bits of technology, film, radio, law and references to that alternate history  with a phrase here, clause there, that serve as a textured backdrop to the political commentary and plot. Here, that political and economic causality is engaged in interesting ways. It becomes very clear early on why Russia has reverted to its old paranoia. The oprichniks joke, “We drive Chinese Mercedovs, we fly on Chinese Boeings, His majesty likes to shoot ducks with Chinese guns…We make children on Chinese beds! We do our business on Chinese toilets!” In short China (much like in Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel Super Sad True Love Story) has reached the global economic hegemony that seems more and more inevitable. But the czar is able to sustain some autonomy via the Far Eastern Pipeline, which runs natural gas from East Asia to Europe (through the nicely renamed St. Petrograd). It is protected by The Road, a.k.a. The Guangzhou-Paris Highway, the nexus of the Russian economy, where slippery Chinese industrialists are fended off by the oprichniks, crooked business agreements, and The Great Wall, extending from Eastern Europe, across Siberia, to China.  In vintage totalitarian fashion, the protection of New Rus’ economic interests is framed as duty to God. The oprichnik general Batya explains it, in a nice stylistic flourish from Sorokin, toward the end of the novel:

Now you, my dear Enochs, you’re wondering, why was the Wall built, why are we fenced off, why did we burn our foreign passports, why are there different classes, why were intelligent machines changed to Cyrillic? To increase profits? To maintain order? For entertainment? For home and hearth? To create the big and beautiful? For fancy houses? For Moroccan leather boots, so everyone could tap their heels and clap? For all that’s good, true, and well made, so that there’d be plenty all around? To make the state as mighty as a pole from the heavenly tamarind tree? So that it supports the heavenly vault and the stars, goddamn it, so the stars and moon would shine, you sniveling scarecrow wolves, so that the warm wind would blow-not-stop-blowing on your asses, is that it? So your asses would stay nice and warm in your velvet pants? So your heads would feel cozy under their sable hats? So you sniveling wolves wouldn’t live by lies? So you’d run in herds, fast, straight, close together, most holy, obedient, so you’d harvest the grain on time, feed your brother, love your wives and children, is that it?

Batya pauses, inhales a good snort of white coke and washes it down with vodka.

Now you see, my dearest Enochs, that’s not what it was for. It was so the Christian faith would be preserved like a chaste treasure, you get it? For only we, the Orthodox, have preserved the church as Christ’s body on earth, a single church, sacred, conciliar, apostolic, and infallible, isn’t that right? That’s why His Majesty has built this magnificent Wall, in order to cut us off from stench and unbelievers, from the damned cyberpunks, from sodomites, Catholics, melancholiacs, from Buddhists, sadists, Satanists, and Marxists; from megamasturbators, fascists, pluralists, and atheists! For faith, you sniveling wolves, isn’t a change purse! It’s no brocaded caftan! No oak club! What is faith? Faith, my noisy ones – is a well of spring water, pure, clear, quiet, modest, powerful, and plentiful! You get it? Or should I repeat it to you?

Again, we know where this is going. And this is the sentence Sorokin seems to be muttering to himself as he watches Putin at work. But as readers we are as preoccupied with the rudiments of this other world as we are with the political message behind its depiction. Thus, the story that occurs within this world, a day in the life of oprichnik Andrei Danilovich, need not be overly plotted. We’re dealing with a tableau of events that unveils both the particulars of New Rus and how it came to be. In that sense it reminisces of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and is no less frightening.

It begins with a dream, “always the same dream,” a rude awakening, and a swift hangover cure, as Andrei prepares for another day on the beat, enforcing government policies and punishing the crooked and malcontent. After he cleans up, shaves, dresses, and his butler fastens a wolf head to his Mercedov, he zips off to his first job – the seizure of a nobleman’s home, the beating and hanging of said nobleman in the front yard, the gang rape of his beautiful wife, the shipment of their children to an orphanage, and the firebombing of the property. As a first-person narrator, Andre reminds us of Burgess’ Alex from A Clockwork Orange, reveling in barbarity, justifying it with faux philosophy. But he has the simplicity and regular-guy attitude of a Murakami or Bolano narrator, walking you through his day routinely, providing sparse commentary on the tedium of certain activities. From the opening “purge” he moves on to prayer, then to a bath house where he injects a hallucinogenic goldfish called a golden sterlet into his brain (which induces, a la Alex, fantasies of future rape), to a shady bargain on The Road with Chinese industrialists, to a cultural monitoring session at the opera house, to a fortune-telling session with a clairvoyant who announces that Russia will be “all right,” to a foiled disruption of a dissenters’ rally, to a meeting with the czar’s wife (who rises at sundown and breakfasts for dinner). The day culminates at the oprichnik mess hall with a rompish ritual so grotesque and shocking (mixed with demoniacal justifications like the one quoted above) as to remind us of the true nature of these types of regimes.

This is all obviously about Putin, and what he could do. It reminds me of Brian McHale, who heralded science fiction as “the ontological genre par excellence.” But allegory aside, these types of genres are a narratologist’s dream, because one can spend an inordinate amount of time (even in a 190 page book like this one) teasing out the tiniest components of this unfamiliar world.  Sorokin manages this deftly here, and combined with his urgent social message and twisted scenes of brutality, this would make for a chilling film. The opening and closing scenes alone solidify this belief. A lot is at stake with this novel, and Sorokin pulls no punches. But for us on the outside, it has the simple pleasure of just being so cool.

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam. The first part, by poet and theater historian M G Stevens, appeared previously.

***

Staring out at the audience of the Pentameters Theatre, David Manson as the poet Robert Lowell distrustfully remarks ‘This is a two-way mirror, isn’t it?’  While in Alfred Corn’s play the Bostonian is informed he is looking at a window, part of the work’s triumph is that we obtain a sense throughout that the events we are seeing have been transfigured by a spectator who is both Lowell the artist and Lowell the man, tormented by his past.  Observation, here, is everything.

The ostensible setting of Lowell’s Bedlam is Pitney Akins Hospital, New York in 1949 where the writer is being treated for bipolar disorder.  The director Daniel Ricken, himself a New Yorker, reveals Lowell’s unconscious largely through offstage noises—muffled thumps, groans and sighs—and the insistent repetition of phrases.  Corn’s play has teasing references to his subject’s work too, to ‘very polite’ murderers in a Federal Detention Centre in Greenwich Village, one of whom is documented in Lowell’s poem ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’;  Czar Lepke was a gang murderer Lowell made into a dignified version of himself by giving him ‘a ribbon of Easter palm’.  In Corn’s searing drama, Lowell views himself as having ended someone’s life, too, through having been at the wheel in a car crash that left his first wife Jean Stafford disfigured and in considerable ongoing pain.

Most strikingly of all Corn’s summonings of Lowell’s poems, there is the avowal ‘I myself am Hell’, a phrase from Milton’s Satan famously adapted in ‘Skunk Hour’ with the addition ‘nobody’s here’.  That poem of Lowell’s describes a panorama of decay, finishing with the disturbing animals of the title, their  ‘moonstruck eyes’ red fire’ contrasting with ‘the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church’.  In Lowell’s Bedlam, the antagonist is very much the Catholic Church he tried and failed to get away from through divorcing Stafford after the accident; his new wife, the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (played by Lowri Lewis), is able to offer scant defence against the onslaught through her tender Southern tones.  The hellish eyes of those skunks loom large in the red light that suddenly floods the sterile bareness of the set when Clair Elsmore as the nurse transforms into Stafford to berate him for abandoning a ‘disgusting patient’ who became ‘too unattractive for a poet to love’.

Nevertheless, the balance of Lowell’s Bedlam shifts markedly with the arrival of Elizabeth Bishop in Act Two.  Bishop—whose quiet cheerfulness and wit are brilliantly captured by Hannah Mercer—provides the model for an alternative approach to both living and writing.  Red becomes simultaneously the colour of not only hell but of the absurdly huge scarlet nose of a Rudolf toy she gives him.  It is both and neither.  Palm leaves are exciting for her not as religious symbols but as part of the secular, tropical flora she includes in poems that reveal the workings of the mind through the observations it makes.  For all her own guilt about her institutionalized mother, she laughs freely about the way she repeatedly contradicts herself, being content to reside in flux.

Perhaps Corn’s boldest move is to explore this idea in ‘Mate’, a Bishop poem centred around chess that is actually the playwright’s invention.  Reciting the poem to Lowell, Bishop tells him that ‘If he found no white pieces, the black couldn’t see / To maneuvre, becalmed in ambiguous fog / With a chessboard and pawns who’ve turned aimless and gray.’  The risk pays off because not only is the poem immediately accessible and relevant to the audience but it is true to the metaphysical cleanness and playfulness of early Bishop poems like ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’ and ‘The Gentleman of Shalott’.  The galloping anapaestic metre is perfectly suited to both the poem’s depiction of a knight’s three-square move in chess and the alleviation of a great deal of the play’s tension once Lowell is in conversation with his great friend who may be, it hints, deeper in his affections than either of the women he has married.

Tennyson’s own writing is used to explain Bishop’s different way of looking through her remark that she is ‘immune’ to his physical charms like ‘”Mariana in her moated grange”’—a misquotation that is also a subtle reference to her lesbianism (in 1948, Lowell had told friends of his plans to propose to her).  To Lowell’s objection ‘That’s not the best Tennyson’, she counters ‘I’m not taking on responsibility for the whole poem, just the “moated grange” part’.  The individual phrase and the moment of saying it aloud take precedence over any grander schemes as so often happens in Bishop’s poetry with its love of details and focus on what occurs in the instant of perception.  All acts of observation are partial and reveal as much about the observer as the observed.  It is a portrait Corn renders with great affection, and the play is almost as much about Bishop as it is about Lowell.

Interspersed throughout is the loquacious narrator Dick Jaffee played by Roger Sansom, an unemployed story editor for film who looks back on his time as a fellow patient.  Far from being a simple comic counterweight, Jaffee as a stranger is a clever device for teasing out those parts of himself Lowell is still keen to present to society (he cannot resist the mention of his Pulitzer Prize) and situating the play within a broader dramatic and political context.  There is Bedlam not only in Pitney Akins but outside it in Hollywood’s blacklisting of Communist writers.  Their dialogue also enables Lowell to make a spirited defence of poetic drama—with his Marxist interlocutor adeptly puncturing, for all his dizziness, the Bostonian’s characteristically elevated notion that every writer should exist away from the realm of paying the bills.

Lowell’s Bedlam is an arresting play that brings to life the psychological nuances of two of America’s most celebrated twentieth-century poets with fire and insight.  To its very last, offstage word, it refuses to leave the audience with easy choices to make about what they themselves have observed; how hopefully or pessimistically we view the play’s conclusion says as much about us as it does about Lowell or even Corn.  It urges us instead merely to remain open to Bishop’s idea ‘that you have to live with both light and darkness in your experience, that they’re somehow … reciprocal’.

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam, which had it’s world premiere on April 7, 2011 in London. The second part, by poet John McCullough, appeared afterward.

***

The poet Alfred Corn has written a marvelous, sharply observed, and brilliantly imagined play about Robert Lowell’s stay in a mental hospital for his bipolar disorder. Corn includes the poet Elizabeth Bishop and the prose writer Elizabeth Hardwick in his dramatic tale, which is told from the point-of-view of one of the hospital’s denizens, a fellow who befriends Lowell over a card game. Pentameters is one of the oldest fringe theatres in London, famous for its relationships with poets, including Robert Lowell, so it was an equally apt venue to present the world premiere production of this work. Leonie Scott-Matthews, the artistic director at Pentameters for the past forty years, introduced the evening by giving the audience a thumbnail portrait of the theatre’s long history, including Lowell’s visit in 1974.

Robert Lowell, besides being a pre-eminent poet of the postwar years in America, also wrote well-received plays, as well as having a long association with Britain. (He taught for many years at the University of Essex in Colchester, England.) A so-called confessional poet, his mental disorders were handsomely chronicled in his poems. That being the case, what purpose a play about this one aspect of his life? Well, Alfred Corn makes eminently clear that when a life is dramatized, often very different things are revealed than in the poems or in a biography. For one thing, the life unfolds before our eyes—not the poet’s exterior world, but the turmoil of his inner life. We experience Lowell at the moment he reveals himself to us on the stage, and because Lowell is such a complex person, it takes an equally deft poet to evoke him. That is what Alfred Corn succeeds in doing so dramatically.

This is not just any bipolar patient in a hospital—the play is set in September 1949 in the recreation room for patients at the Pitney Akins mental hospital in New York City—it is the blueblood Robert Lowell. As he tells his newly met friend on the ward, he has just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Of course, the other patient thinks that Lowell is being delusional. After all, this other patient has literary illusions, too, and all he’s wound up doing is story editing in film. This Nick Carraway-like character, whom Corn calls Dick Jaffee, is as talkative as Lowell, and perhaps that is where the two make a human connection. The two Elizabeths, Lowell, and Jaffee are all thirty-somethings.

The stage is a great place for unfolding events, the slow revelation of a characters inner life. Invariably characters reveal themselves by what they say about themselves, about others, and what they do. Bipolar patients are famously verbal, but also physically animated during mania. I have heard psychiatrists and therapists describe the manic cycle as one of verbal brilliance, though usually followed by a crash. Lowell was not at Pitney Akins for being verbally brilliant, though, but rather for being mentally ill. He was famously not on the planet when he entered such bouts in his life. Alfred Corn is a poet of considerable verbal skills, too, so that he is able to portray these effects on stage, sculpting them into dramatic moments that reveal so much about Lowell’s inner state. Lowell is guilty and full of shame for leaving his first wife after a car accident that nearly kills her. Then he takes up with Elizabeth Hardwick, his soul mate. Or is Elizabeth Bishop his soulmate?

Bishop is the character with the most to hide, and thus is one of the most revealing characters as a result of that dramatic tension. She clearly loves Robert Lowell—but not that way. He is smitten as well. But she needs to make clear that she is not interested in romance. They are fellow poets. She loves his poetry, and she appreciates his attention to her poems. They are not so much soulmates—that role remains in Hardwick’s orbit—they are kindred spirits. They both love words, are made drunk on their effects. There is a wonderful scene, not dramatized in Alfred Corn’s play, but in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, in which a line from Racine’s Phedre which Lowell has translated actually comes out to mean the opposite from what the French dramatist intended. Lowell keeps it anyhow because he feels it is a better line of poetry now. That willful, confident poet is in evidence on the stage, but so is the wreck of a person, a man hearing voices, possessed by demons, wracked with guilt and shame, two corrosive emotions that seem to chip away at Lowell’s ironclad New England temperament.

Finally, here is why Alfred Corn’s play is such an important work. It gives us an inner portrait of Robert Lowell that is not found in either the biography or the poetry itself. Robert Lowell the poet is a persona, while Robert Lowell the man is a suffering human being, one ridden with an emotional wound that seems to rend him into two or more personalities. The Ian Hamilton biography, good as it is, gives us details of a life, its comings and goings, the surface narrative. The poems present us with Robert Lowell’s literary obsessions, his lineage with more formal poets like Robert Frost and his 20th century obsessions which align him more with a poet like William Carlos Williams. Towards the end of his life, Lowell once told Allen Ginsberg that both of them were the children of WCW.

If I have a criticism to make about contemporary American playwrights—I am thinking of writers like David Mamet and Sam Shepard—it is how one-dimensional and weak their women characters seem to be. Conversely, I have found so many women playwrights create the most stereotypical male characters. Yet being able to create full-blown characters of the opposite sex is almost a hallmark of great playwriting. Certainly Brecht, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov created women characters that dominated their stages with their complexity and humanity. Alfred Corn’s women are witty, verbal, real, and daring. Towards the end of this wonderful play, Elizabeth Bishop reads one of her poems aloud to Robert Lowell. But, almost like a play within a play, she reads a poem by Alfred Corn. The moment is luscious, and it reveals the character of Bishop to us, while also suggesting why a poet in the theatre is such a dynamic possibility for drama. This stage tableau becomes even more complex and fabulous, a truly dramatic fete.

 

First things, first. Full disclosure: Tom Sleigh was my teacher and thesis advisor at Hunter College.

* * *

Tom Sleigh’s method is art, but his end is anthropological. His vision is fully humane, an attempt to catalogue people, events, and his own place among them. Because of this, one might be surprised that this collection begins with a three part series of poems that picture a lively army scene populated by  cats. In this opening poem, readers find the sheer pleasure of reading Sleigh’s poetry. His idiom is musical, yet speechly:

Over by the cemetery next to the CP
you could see them in wild catmint going crazy:
I watched them roll and wriggle, paw it, lick it,
chew it, leap about, pink tongues stuck out, drooling.

Cats in the tanks’ squat shadows lounging
Or sleeping curled up under gun turrets.
Hundreds of them sniffing or licking
long hind legs stuck in the air…

The sounds ring back and forth along these lines, resonating with one another in a way that feels formal yet unrestricted: the various ringing sounds in these two stanzas are the closest poetry come to creating to a musical chord–the EEs, the EDs/ETs/ITs, the INGs–all rising and falling go back and forth like a metronome. There’s even some subtle bits of chiasmus (“cURled Up under gUn tURrets”). All this in the first two stanzas of the book.

I’m tempted to reproduce the whole poem, if only because its self-evident mastery could complete this review (If you want, you can find the rest of the poem here).

There is one question, however, that I have about this poem: why the cats? Does Sleigh betray his “calling” as a poetic anthropologist? Let me answer this question by means of another discussion: formality.

Sleigh’s poetry is often noted for its “classical” nature. I take this in two ways: first, Sleigh’s poems are drenched in classical allusion; second–and I think this is more interesting–there is a formality that extends beyond formalism in Sleigh’s writing. I am not totally sure how to express what I mean, but I think Allen Grossman gets at it when he says “all speaking is action which has a history” (from The Sighted Singer). What we call “formal” is an awareness of that history transferred by various ways in the writing: sometimes this comes as a poetic form, sometimes as an awareness of meter and sound a sort of imitation of forebearers (while, nonetheless, giving it a particular, perhaps unique, voicing). To me, this quality provides a very loose scale by which I can classify writers. There are some writers whose writing is more aware of this “formality” and there are some writers whose poetry seems to have very little concern for it, though I think we all participate in it, whether we like it or not.

Sleigh’s relationship to formality is not that of a purist who exalts the “tradition” as the benchmark of perfection. I would argue that Sleigh’s formality plays two roles in his poetry. First, it lets him put down one of the balls a poet juggles in the act of writing (and editing). For example, a poet who is translating is free from concern about the content of the poem–that is, the images, ideas, etc. already exist within the original poem, and content-wise, the poet is not concerned with generating “new” content. Put simply: the question of “what do I say next” is already answered while translating. Sleigh’s formality is often musical: in this sense, he does not have to ask himself, “what sound comes next” because the dictates of formality can answer that question for him. Now–Sleigh plays with this, of course, as is evident from the above selection: some lines have end-rhyme, some don’t; some lines are rhymed couplets, others are an ABAC scheme. Sleigh’s formal play is made possible by the form, in that we might not recognize his poetic choice otherwise. Inasmuch as we note Tom Sleigh’s writing to be “classical” (i.e., to openly have a relationship with formality), we come more to see Tom’s artistic ego/daimon at work.

The second way that Sleigh uses formality is as a way to interrogate his writing. When writing with formal intentions, one makes a choice: do I sacrifice this word/line/idea for the sake of the form? Inevitably there comes the choice to follow, break, or bend the demands of formality. This connects with the first point. Sleigh’s play with formality creates a rich musical texture, and it also is capable of revealing the actions of a poet in creating the work. Thus we see that Sleigh’s anthropology cuts both ways. Not only is he “documenting” others, he is documenting himself. Formality, in this case, allows Sleigh to achieve a reflexivity and self-awareness without the cloying injections that deliberately remind the reader of the existence of the poet. A dramatic mask need not be about the falseness of an actor; indeed, its presence can create a duality that highlights the actor.

So we can say that Sleigh’s role as an anthropologist is still in effect because he is documenting his own place as a writer among his poetic subjects.

But still, cats? It seems perhaps that Sleigh abandons his anthropological post with this one…let’s see.

After introducing an orgiastic, “big pregnant / female” cat who vamps in front of the horny (“cat fuck yowl” is one of the most memorable lines from the whole book) army cats, Sleigh instructs us to

Picture her with gold hoop earrings
and punked-out nose ring like the cat goddess Bast,
bronze kittens at her feet, the crowd drinking wildly,

women lifting up their skirts as she floats down
the Nile, a sistrum jangling in her paw.
Then come back out of it and sniff
her ointments, Lady of Flame, Eye of Ra.

It’s one of the many clever leaps in this poem series; we become part of the undeniably enjoyable act of gawking at the exotic (oriental?). It’s a bit like T.S. Eliot directing a scene from Indiana Jones (or Lucas/Spielberg directing Cats). The poem also sets the stage for the rest of the book. We remember that the Middle East has its own history of empire, a classical age before Islam, before Christianity, when the division between East and West was more porous.

Follow the poem to its end. As the series continues, the poems become decidedly less cat-oriented. By the end of Part III, the cats are no longer anthropomorphized; the “I” (a decidedly different one) re-enters the poem after a long absence:

And then I remember the ancient archers
frozen between reverence and necessity–

who stare down the enemy, barbarians
as it’s told, who nailed sacred cats to their shields,
knowing their foes outraged in their piety
would throw down their bows and wail like kittens.

Readers of Tom Sleigh’s essay “Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry” should recognize in Sleigh’s Protean subjects something he spoke about in that essay:

Dissonance of feeling, the disrelation of “I” to any settled viewpoint, which is a way of being that seems foreclosed to the “mind at rest,” is a quality in poetry that over the years I’ve come to prize more and more….the difficulty of pinning down Ashbery in his poems as anything other than the medium of language is one reason why he is such a bad model for other poets interested in the slippery relations of “I” to “the tale of the tribe.” The positing of a unitary identity is crucial to a process of questioning that identity. Ashbery’s associative movement is too strictly linear in what it is obliged to leave out: the sense that we are getting “the real John Ashbery,” illusory and as much an effect of language as that may be, is simply not one of the formal burdens that Ashbery’s poems are willing to take up.

And the winner [of who disrelates most to a stable subject] is: Robert Lowell. Robert Lowell again?….What is [Life Studies] but a gallery of family portraits in which the faces, at first highly defined, by degrees begin to blend together into the composite face of a crucial cultural and historical moment in Cold War American Life?

I apologize for chopping that passage up so badly (I highly recommend reading it–if only to read one of the most interesting justifications of Anne Bradstreet as a great modern poet you’ll ever see). The picture of Lowell in Ashbery’s relief is fundamental to seeing how Sleigh sees selves, subjects, characters, I’s, You’s, etc. working in poetry. The self-not-as-self in Ashbery can become gimmicky at times because it’s what you expect. The self-not-as-self in Lowell, however, is almost unnoticeable at first. The more you sit with the poem, however, the more the disconnects and fractures begin to show. Lowell’s depiction is more prized to Sleigh because it exists as part of a deeper texture, and is thus more capable of exploring the problematic aspects of self-hood.

I’ve said all that to say this: Sleigh’s poem “Army Cats” displays the same shifting: first we are only readers, then we are gawkers; first the cats are human-like, now the cats have become cats. Most noticeably, the I which established perspective among the army cats in the beginning has been drawn out and now ponders them, almost as objects in a history book. Commands come out of nowhere, completely new voices enter and leave the poem–yet it all flows unnoticed in the being of the poem. You only pin it down when you go back and objectify the poem, pick it apart and analyze it.

Combine the formality I spoke about earlier with the shifting self and one can see that Tom Sleigh is writing, fundamentally, about the same unstable self as Ashbery and others. Yet he does them one better, I believe: Sleigh uses formality to interrogate itself. Rather than creating new ways to enter the poem in order to critique the old ways, Sleigh expands the use of the “old ways,” showing that such formality is actually robust enough to transcend itself in a way.

If it is true that the highest art hides its artifice, then Sleigh is clearly a master; yet he even does not let us as readers fall prey to this dictum. Careful readers see that he never hides his artifice, but carefully documents it. Thus, we see that in using these cats, Sleigh is still in the business of anthropology: it’s an anthropology of himself and of us as readers.

There’s also a connection between these shifting selves and the way that Sleigh weaves allusion and history into his poetry. “Beirut Tank”–a poem that matches Bishop for craftedness–creates a textured, multi-layered subject, which is the result of other voices and histories blending together:

Staring up into the tank’s belly
lit by a bare bulb hanging down
off the exhaust, a mechanic’s hands are up
inside the dark metallic innards doing something
that looks personal, private. The tank is nothing
like the ones the ones the Americans deploy.
Those have uranium piercing shells that could melt
right through this tank’s armor and set off
the ammo box: nothing can withstand the American tanks.

What begins as the voice of an observer, slowly becomes the voice of the mechanic. Perhaps the speaker is just repeating what they’ve heard. Or perhaps they are actually becoming the mechanic in a way. This shift happens more noticeably in these lines:

The mechanic on his back in the dirt,
cursing in Arabic, sounds like he’s cursing
in a good-natured way: who was the fucking moron
who did the maintenance on this thing?
This tank, this tank, he should push it off
a cliff into the sea to bob for
half an hour before sinking under the Pigeon Rocks
where all the lovers gather in the shadows
near that little bar, lit by a generator, that serves Arak

and warm beer to soldiers hanging out on the Corniche:
mainly conscripts from down south, whose orange groves
rot because nobody can pick the oranges: try to pick
an orange and a cluster bomb lodged in leaves
comes tumbling into your basket. What weight
did this cocksucker use, anyway? And this engine,
it’s gonna blow.

Who knows how many possible voices are blending together to create the speaker of this poem? Here the speaker is really a series of selves who are speaking in a semi-narrative arc.

I’ve spent a great deal of time on the first two poems of this collection. There are, of course, many things to say about the rest, but the first two poems–for me–set the tone, ambitions, and goals for the rest of the work. In “Army Cats” we must confront our own selves and ask what is the meaning of the way we are drawn in; the answer is not always comfortable. In “Beirut Tank,” Sleigh’s careful attention to stories and details and his ability to weave in narratives testifies to his effort and observational powers.

Other poems to pay attention to on your own reading are “The Games,” “The Spell,” “The Chosen One,” “Money,” “On First Avenue and Sixth Street,” and “Mingus Reborn as Mingus.”

The two loves of Kalamaras’s life: Surrealism and Hindu mysticism (with a touch of rhetorical theory!). A serious look at his work would address how his poetry investigates the intriguing parallels between surrealism and Eastern mysticism, a relationship already hinted at in the origins of Pound’s ideogrammic method, which became the basis of the modernist image.  Kalamaras blurs the line between the poetic and mystic: “Central to my work as a poet is the exploration of language as a way to conjure ‘silence,’ or moments of discursive interruption and dissolve, in which all seeming oppositions are complementary rather than contradictory.”

Kalamaras’s thin volume from UDP offers two dozen poems, all in the same form: couplet stanzas where each line is a (usually) complete sentence. Part of a larger project called The Bone Sutras, these poems resemble Robert Bly’s recent ghazals. The poems are stoic, even, one might feel, mechanical. The method is pretty clear: self-contained sentences/lines that center on a contradictory or surreal image are placed almost at random into an anti-narrative, illogical sequence. The subject matter “emerges” through the images and linguistic gestures, relying heavily on symbolism and archetypes in a style reminiscent of Deep Image poetry. Formally speaking, it’s pretty formulaic stuff, which is probably why I feel guilty for loving it so much.

By writing each poem exactly the same way, Kalamaras creates remarkably even-handed and meditative thought “progressions.” Some images have little effect, but often he “hits it” for several lines, and it’s just “whoa!”:

And so, it came to pass that I discerned eels in my spine.
Memories of a previous birth night after night between the thighs of strangers in Tokyo’s
Shimbashi district.

Aristotle proclaimed the eel a sexless creature.
Before the 1920s no one knew how baby eels were even born.

Saddened, the hands of drawn space floated backwards flower to flower.
The most heart-rending bee blurred through wind, through Saturn’s fluid ribs.

And so, their ascetic monk mouths must have fractured me.
And so, the world is unsolved like a beautiful table.

Perhaps a more contemporary move, Kalamaras mixes in the occasional verbal gesture, pastiche, or otherwise “flat” sentence to vary his register. This is a good idea, in my opinion, as it juxtaposes various linguistic modalities, extending the disparity to language and not just imagery. It’s also pleasant aesthetically for reasons I don’t feel awake enough to articulate:

For a long time, we lived as a thief.

Not this rib, but that.

Okay, the domino theory was wrong.

Far too many people died far too young for his or her sins, or something like that.

I think the future of surrealism is in Language poetry, whereby surrealism’s psychological and metaphysical starting points merge with the theoretical and rhetorical modality of Language poetry. This would imply a move away from the Romantic ego as the author of the text, a position reflected in Kalamars’s non-egoistic voice, as he withdraws himself from the lyrical surface of his work. The mechanical, almost inhuman speaker of these poems, nevertheless, “chances” upon the occasional magic. So, while Bly and Deep Imagism is a fair comparison on many levels, Kalamaras forgoes self-consciousness, pretending not to know his phrases (such as the book’s title) are just as delicious as the butterflies on the cover.

And one can only hope to get a blurb like this: “The name Kalamaras means, as everyone knows, He Who Channels the Throat Songs of the Inflamed Detectives of Southern Surreality.” (Forest Gander)

I had a few reasons to pick up Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing. First, it’s a new book by a semi-important author, which has received mostly good reviews in major newspapers. Second, it takes place at Harvard, and I thought it would be a good read for my trip there for a conference. But most importantly, I have just begun a dissertation on contemporary novels that take place in the colonial period. So, Caleb’s Crossing, the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, seemed to fit the bill.

It does and it doesn’t. My work focuses on the novels, which have come to be called “historiographic metafictions,” that fall under the umbrella of postmodernism, novels like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Vollmann’s Argall.  Through the depiction of historical events and figures in an ironic light, they foreground the fluidity and downright unknowability of the past. Brooks is not so interested in that here. Like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (and I find it very difficult to make this comparison in good conscience, but bear with me) Brooks has taken an obscure historical event and extrapolated it into a fleshy, dramatic narrative. But while Jones’ novel is a veritable masterpiece, Brooks’ premise is problematic, and sometimes disingenuous.

It is told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield (a completely fictional invention), a pre-adolescent girl growing up on Martha’s Vineyard. Stifled by her puritanical father and brother, she sets out frequently on her own to explore the coastline. She eventually befriends a Wopanoak of similar age named Cheeshahteamauk. They discuss their mutual frustrations with their respective communities, in turn engaging in debates over religion. These are convincing, in that they exhibit the types of attitudes characteristic of people that age (“But aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” Etc.).  Throughout her narrative, Bethia evaluates her experiences, no matter how extreme or trying, under the auspices of her Puritanism, which too is convincing. She is a precocious storyteller like Jane Eyre (while the entirety of Jane’s story is told in retrospect, Bethia’s keeps hers like a journal, writing sometimes only hours after the events she’s addressing), and her impetus to self-expression and feminine identity is reminiscent. But the way Brooks has her stop short and remain within her value system, out of fear mostly, is key to capturing the ethos of the period.

But this is where things do become troublesome. Bethia continually refers to her adventures and conversations as sins, deviations from the obedience she only pretends to foster. But so too does she label as sins her questioning of her faith, and her keen interest in the all too stereotypical worship of nature on the part of Cheeshahteamauk. She wavers between her fascination (often verging on subtle eroticization) and a more typical condemnation of his religion as witchcraft. Again, we can chalk this up to accuracy, but things become blurrier after Cheeshahteamauk is slighted by his family, and debates assimilating with the Puritan community. In an early scene the friends decide to re-name each other, he acquiring the Caleb that he would be referred to as throughout the novel, she becoming Storm Eyes, “since my eyes were the color of a thunderhead.” She eventually sheds this title as Caleb becomes more indoctrinated in the Puritan way of life and religious education, but Caleb only becomes more Caleb-like. That is, his assimilation is celebrated, even by him, as an abandonment of his culture’s pact with Satan, and thus “Storm Eyes” must be discarded as child’s stuff, if not heresy.

The novel from there is relatively plotless. (And Brooks’ attempt at stylistic accuracy is commendable, but compared to the virtuosity of Pynchon and Barth’s achievements in this territory, she falls disappointingly flat. Consider “I suddenly felt so light that I thought I might lift off the ground and float away like the seeds of a blowball,” or “This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet.” A lot of the time you feel like Brooks is digging for excuses to use archaic terms like “sennight” just to prove she’s done her homework.) Happily, Bethia and Caleb don’t engage in a romantic relationship (thus avoiding the utterly stereotypical and unrealistic), and this allows for a significant chunk of the later plot to be devoted to Bethia’s dilemma over her choice of husband. In the meantime, as Caleb matriculates into secondary school and eventually into Harvard, the plot centers on death and its aftermath, another nice accuracy on the part of Brooks. You see how daily life, and the Puritan attitude, is refined by the imminence of plague, famine, or, on Martha’s Vineyard, shipwreck.  Many important people die throughout the story, and this is not a device to sustain emotional virility–it’s the norm of the day. That said, there is not much beyond this to indicate a plot trajectory per se, and elements of desire and controversy are introduced haphazardly. We meet new characters, such as potential suitors for Bethia, at the last minute, and we have to drag ourselves up to believe that these people are actual human beings, and not devices. There is a core mystery in the Harvard scenes that involves the impregnation of a Wopanoak servant at the school, but this potentially most interesting issue is dismissed almost as rapidly as it develops. This is very clearly not a novel about the issues of colonization, assimilation, miscegenation, etc. but about Caleb’s so-called triumph.

And triumph he does. The climax of the novel is so mawkish that its downright dismissal of the fraught implications of his “achievement” are extremely troubling. At the commencement ceremony, Bethia asides, “Well, I thought. You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, and your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man may say that the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable. Here, in this hall, you stand, the incontestible argument, the negat respondens.” This type of proclamation is only convincing if we are made privy to Bethia as a naive observer of Wopanoak relations, but we are clearly encouraged to trust her wisdom, as a mouthpiece for Brooks herself. Toward the end, she again proclaims, “Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer’s courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs. He won the respect of those who had been swiftest to dismiss him.” Nowhere amid this unabashed celebration of the “modernization” of the natives is there an indictment or at least a challenge to the cultural assumptions of the Puritans (“an explorer’s courage” is a particularly bold phrase, considering certain famous explorers’ treatment of their conquered. Again, this is not posed ironically). Sure, the discipline and the repression thing is addressed, but nowhere is the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible as proof of one’s intellectual capacity called into question. It’s taken as a given, so Caleb’s mastery of his subjects at Harvard becomes the categorical evidence that he isn’t a savage. I don’t need to tell you how problematic this type of assumption is, and how anesthetized the pain and tension underlying all this becomes. King Phillip’s War is glossed over toward the end, and any discussion of the social and political aftermath of Caleb’s graduation (there were other native people in his class, including the valedictorian) is buried under the continuation of the death-and-grief trajectory of the plot. It is not until the very end, when Caleb himself is on his deathbed (only a month after his graduation), that the real issue is called into question. I hinted at adolescent notions of the afterlife earlier in this review, but it does become central here as the ultimate stakes of any belief system. As Caleb is dying, Bethia can’t help but wonder to what home he’s being called back, and her consultation with his people’s de facto witch doctor for a remedy for his consumption throws into doubt her devotion to her own set of values. This type of ideological inquiry, I think, needs to be central to a novel that’s going to address the history of native peoples. It’s largely missing here, even though Brooks handles it nicely in their childhood, toward the beginning. In a novel that attempts to address the “crossing” of cultural barriers, a more accurate title probably would have been Caleb’s Passing, because that’s more to the point here. Assimilation is heroic in Brooks’ imagination, and this attitude ultimately dooms her novel.

When charm works, the connection established between individuals is palpable. Flow becomes effortless and meaning is instantaneous. Hearing LaGrone read his poems out loud can deliver this, in a way. Such fluid links are also temporary, made all the more constrained by the instant in which they exist. Having this chance to really interact with Oyster Perpetual as a whole rather than through workshops with LaGrone extends the charming band-leader qualities of his poetry, but also elucidates the temporal nature of these poems.

He leads his parade of broken but non-pitiable scoundrels around urban, natural, and temporal topographies, usually branching off between lines. He has no qualms about naming the people, bars, drinks, smokables, poets, car parts, and more that populate his worlds.

Charisma can be a liability, though. LaGrone is aware of this. Throughout the book he casts wide for characters of all permutations but uses them as a foil for the “self” of the writer. This is the narrator’s world, and he understands his own limitations. Take the end of “Bonding”:

There was almost no wiggle room
around the dropper loops. Laid well,
there was enough temporary whipping
to hold me—so I fashioned a josephine
across my neck for a little flash.
When you got scared, running
into the shed for a Swiss Army,
I knew you’d never learn.

It’s due to the author’s earnestness that we, the reader (and the you of the poem) trust him, despite the fact that he’s volunteering for every conceivably uncomfortable position available in this sex dungeon. “Love is a gimp” is the kind of clever theme that wears itself out quickly, but this poem delves deeper into a position where one becomes non-charismatic, that the narrator’s very desire for shared pain when every partner acts to free him with a “Swiss Army”, showing that they will “never learn” his desires. Even LaGrone’s sweet talk has its limits, and it’s in those limits that this book becomes revelatory.

Part of good chemistry comes from balance, and LaGrone balances his sentimental conclusions with the grit that many of his influences touch on. Levis, Gilbert, Levine, and so forth, are all old men to whom the words of “common” men mattered greatly. LaGrone cracks the nut wider though, allowing not just the questionable decisions and epiphanies of flawed men but also women, oftentimes in juxtaposition. Charm and codependency blur throughout “Tableau with Rockets Redglare”:

… My ex-wife
sleeps with the television on,
says the flickering light
scares away the roaches.
We make love on Thursdays
as though we are still married.
It is comforting and effortless,
and afterwards we play ‘Deluxe’ Othello
and watch Down By Law with the volume
down. The Newton’s Roach and Flea Powder
I sprinkle on the floor makes little difference;
week after week they return
to an understanding.

That LaGrone can give us a tender catalog of bondage knots in one poem and a despair-soaked game night in another speaks to his versatility, not only in terms of setting and vocabulary, but breadth of emotional experience. The roaches return, “as though we are still married.” So too do we return to these verbose, complicated poems that swim in their syntax, though LaGrone never leaves us hanging. Believe the whistles and the winks, because though these lines may only love you for a moment, he makes that moment worthwhile.

Read Sarah V. Schweig on Oyster Perpetual here.

Michael Montlack’s new poem collection Cool Limbo, for starters, looks really cool before it’s even opened. The collection establishes a definite and intentional first impression: with its sassy cover illustrating a bygone scene (addressed in the title poem): a certain sort of girl, luxuriating in her aloofness, sunning on a deck chair near some backyard pool–face wrapped up in her shades, brow kissed by big hair, lost in her radio songs, Marlboro dangling between painted nails; in the water a curious little boy floats in the pool, buoyed by giant inflated wings, gazing at this girl in his semi-lassitude with what might be the kind of fear, envy, and worship a kid can have for an older sister. Cool Limbo traces the emotional development of an awkward boy, adrift in a suburban childhood, into a gay man and a poet who, perhaps, now bobs reflective in the deep end of memory’s swimming pool. It’s pleasing to report this exercise dodges around the narcissistic, sentimental missteps it’s easy to make with this kind of delicate work–and, rather, hits upon a poetry entirely alive with wit, charm, and an unselfconscious voice; his attention is fastidious and oft focused toward the rendering of a sturdy confessional lens through which our everyday relations are decoded. What’s most obvious about this collection is that it is fun. That’s not an insult–fun poetry isn’t quite oxymoronic, but it’s damn hard to accomplish. There is a road that runs between the borders of silliness and the overwrought, and the humor of Cool Limbo cruises down it, ever onward, like a champ. Next, it also manages to carry a ton of weight–this creeps in unobtrusively but is fully evident by the end. The book is deeply touching in its ingenuous sensitivity, enabling the poet’s heavier verse-tales, along with even some of the funkier experiments, to pry apart the functions of remembrance, shine a light in those spaces. Montlack’s work is beguilingly comprehensive in its steadfast intention present through his diverse approaches. The heart of the book is always beating; we can hear it alike behind the cartoonish, the personal, the resolute and pensive techniques (and on).

At its most superfluous, the book offers us wry musings about what would happen if Hello Kitty had a mouth (“Maybe she’s just meow. / Or maybe …”), a prayer for the Golden Girls, or an apologia for Vanity Smurf; but the lightest pieces keep the whole buoyant and, moreover, prove a tonal gamut that runs from camp all the way to the end of love. The poems are divided into two sections: “GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS” and “BOYS, BOYS, BOYS.” The girl parts are full of dedications and percipient character studies of females famous and quotidian–a gay man’s poetic exegesis of his relationship to women and femininity (what he sees in them and what he sees of himself through them).

Montlack has an aptitude for flushing out an emotional condition through hazy lyrics about place, as in “At Tamika’s”:

In the tight kitchenette, petite like her mother,
whose wide face was heavy with frown lines,
rice and beans simmered but never boiled
on the back burner 24/7–a beacon, the house’s pulse.

And perfect details, like this snippet from “Running with the She-Wolf”:

She powdered her cheeks, suburban gothic:
Fully bedecked just to smoke in her yard.
Was this a duty as the town hot chick?
Her spikey galaxy: I the co-star.

And streams of meaningful but simple anecdotes, which especially fortify the character of a twin sister, Michelle, as in “My Twin Sister the Drag Queen”:

When the neighbor’s Dobermans
snarl through the chain-link
as Kimmie hoop-sifts the garden,
my sister automatically growls back,
silencing them as she did bullies
who were dying to shout faggot
whenever she let me bead necklaces
with her and the other “gals” at recess.

All of which is tempered with a sharp critical voice that drifts in and out to ground a thought, like here in this stanza of “The Break Up”:

But still, how scary it is–to find love
now when we have only ourselves
to blame for annihilating it.

The boy parts continue to develop upon the thematic work of the first section, switching the gender concentration, which introduces a milieu of figures including Peter Berlin, adult friends (straight, dead, aging, remembered), the poet’s father, some denizens of Fire Island, old hooks-up and past boyfriends–of predominant interest is Chris, the subject of several of these poems (generally, reflections in the wake of a rough separation), including “The Break Up” itself, which is atypically joyless. The poem employs a killer angle by ambiguously addressing a recently terminated relationship between two men through an unfamiliarly wide frame of reference. The end of a contemporary love sends the lovers’ narrative hurtling through possible contexts, different social and political climates where the love could have sparked and played out. What would their lives have meant to each other during the early days of the AIDS crisis (maybe they would be “watching each other waste away / faster than civilized countries / could give our disease a name”), or during the Holocaust, or during the worst of it in a dark age that our country is newly crawling painfully and glacially out of, where their love would suffocate under its required, permanent disguise?

In this remarkably enjoyable collection, is the poet really that kid we see bobbing in the pool, staring out at the enormous world–or is it more likely that the beautiful pool is empty and he’s projecting this collage of personal history into a blue container–between the pages of a book–filling up the pool again, feeding the ever-draining cavity of what’s happened to our families, our friends, our lovers, our lives? Cool Limbo concludes with a meditation on turning 40–Montlack, for sure, isn’t as old as those who saw the most of a whole gay century–through the furtive pathologizing and criminalization between wars, the stirrings of liberation and a new movement, the social destruction and death wrought by AIDS, the reemergence of a culture in the form of a mainstream marketing demographic, and onward. Older gay writers like Larry Kramer think the youths now are disassembling the homo subculture, turning their backs on history, in favor of the conformist line of being an individual exactly like everybody else. I can see Montlack’s take on identity and sexuality managing a tricky space between the historical narrative of gay men and the ahistorical post-everything world of queer kids. The backyard pool from childhood is empty, there is no swimming allowed, the beautiful pool is empty and still the poet makes a wonderful effort to remember what he has seen best, and felt most, onto the space of today.

The second line of Ben Fama’s chapbook New Waves, (Minutes Books 2011), is  “All I want is my life/ to matter somehow.” And it seems that this book sets out to execute that statement despite the line’s futility. I say this with sincerity since it’s an important aspect of the human condition (especially for writers) but remains an ungraspable, continuous pursuit. In short, this is a book composed with clear-minded longing. The cultural awareness is unpretentious, the feeling is real, and the structures are solid.

There’s been a post about Ben Fama’s poetry brooding in me since his last chapbook, Aquarius Rising, came out from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2010, and that’s because his poetry sticks with me. The word “hipster” has been thrown around a bit in reviews, but I find the term superfluous and dismissing. The difference between Ben Fama’s poems and many of his so-called hipster contemporaries is palpably clear. Some think it taboo to talk about things like texting and internet in poetry, but this calls to mind Ezra Pound who wrote “The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a ‘finder,’ one who discovers.” Using off-limit terminology indicates the poet bending expectations, respecting the readers’ ability to move forward in thought. It is authentic ventures unto the brink of expectation I find most engaging in new poetry. Most importantly, the poet remains unequivocally loyal to the poem that wants to be written. Certainly that is the case with Ben Fama. How can we live in a culture so deeply entrenched in electronics and digital communication without interacting with it emotionally? Being “timeless” isn’t about removing the contemporary but about writing a good poem. Period. In this new collection, the poems feel they are exactly as they should be, even with their flaws. But flaws are imperative, essential to development, and are what make the poems here stunning.

Deeply entrenched in the occult, Fama explores known and unknown realms of human life. The speaker is concerned with prophecy, but in his impatience or frustration, he himself begins prophesying. He’s looking into a crystal ball, asking why the hell things happen this way, then taking on the roll of soothsayer himself: “Ivan the Inconsolable, / don’t forget how good things are. / You know you can always / sleep in the grass.” With all his questioning and yearning the speaker is still thwarted—with love (lots with love) with family, even with divination itself. But this yearning is what drives the poetry. To pause for a moment over the ending of [This world repeats a soft etc.]

Once I was a teen king
thundering over the peasants.
I was born in the image of Steve.
Once I was a farm boy
on the level of clouds.
Float me back to those heights.
I remember yellow heat
in my yellow clothes and
an idea like a campfire
telling me it wasn’t sure
I’ve ever done the right thing.
Now when it asks for cures
I retrieve an amulet from a secret
altar of things that make me calm
to look upon, and when it asks
Fama, where is your love now?
I think about eating poutine
from the small of her back.

In his interview with Ben Pease on Scattered Rhymes, I learned Poutine is a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown gravy or sauce and sometimes additional ingredients. What’s so arresting in this poem is the speaker’s concern with the enigmatic “idea,” something carried over from childhood maybe—something organic—perhaps even those first moments of real self-doubt. Indeed, the speaker is deeply concerned with the self (more universal than egotistical) exploring complex, layers of self-identity and self-assessment. The “idea” tells the speaker “it wasn’t sure / I’ve ever done the right thing.” The “idea” is purposefully vague, but seems as if it is the voice of the universe or the mystical, shrouded in the speaker’s consciousness. The voice of the universe is in some ways, indifferent, even cruel in this poem. I feel that the poem teeters on a concern with mortality. The occult, the “altar” of items that calm the speak down from these thoughts, again drive him to another question: “where is your love now?” To counteract the gravity of that epiphanic statement, the speaker reverts to a kind of ridiculous eroticism. In a way it’s a defense mechanism that appears (lightly) throughout the book—but somehow Fama manages to make the line both beautiful and absurd, just like poutine.

None of the poems have titles, and while the chapbook is a mere fourteen pages, it’s probably best. There’s a sense of long operatic movement in which each line functions for the whole pulse of a song. The first line of the book situates you in its realm: “The only colors in this world / are yellow and orange.” He doesn’t see things in black and white, but rather two vivid colors—as if this is a new perspective on old traditions. With all their contemporary airs, the poems have a classic feel. This hybridism is a strength Fama wields with finesse, and one I hope he sticks to. Adding to this traditional feel, the settings are, at times, deeply pastoral. It’s another element of yearning, as is his obsession with the mystical (a motif also explored by such poets as W.B. Yeats). However binary the world in Fama’s poems is, everything is turned backward, questioned yet paced at such a speed that we’re lulled out of absolutism. We’re in a place of melancholy, but it’s lit-up like a sun, and the wisdom in the voice helps the reader find it more relatable: “I wake heavy, I don’t know why.” The musical calm is perhaps one of the most striking elements; calm that resists the sometimes overt anxiety (“People want / me to do certain things but I won’t if it’s boring”). The book is wrought with a tone that adds fluidity to the dualistic system, keeping it interesting. The opening poems pull you in and carry you weightlessly throughout, the first lines burning in your mind until the last moment. New Waves is elegant, quietly devastating, but with an aura of hopefulness and clarity. He’s talking about gchats while wrapping the reader into the earnest futility of desire. The speaker seems young, but not naïve.  He’s lost, he’s looking, he’s examining.

The poems are intimate, but there are gaps of information. They aren’t necessarily confessional, as they give much space for the reader to do work. Delicate if not obscure references to the speaker’s past (“I was born in the image of Steve”) are mixed with flourishes of the surreal, and again there’re vague illusions to the speaker’s concern with mortality (“If I leave / leave a lock on my tomb.”) The poems are concrete, and still there is always a question of reality:

My therapist says
I use writing as
a perceptive model
that allows me to
interpret reality—

This passage seems almost a wry reference to the confessional poets, but we are quickly brought back into Fama’s unique landscape: “though my paradigm / remains immature and / I bring toxic energy / to new relations.” The humor and intimacy in the language allows for the reader to enter in completely, but without the feeling that we’re being told what to feel or how, nor does it employ the opposite effect of leaving us cold.

Ultimately, when I leave Fama’s chapbook, I think what is most important is that there’s passion. It seems such a simple thing, but it’s so often an elusive asset. In New Waves, healing and destruction are simultaneously experienced; ecstasy and pain are the same beast, yet the work is never overwrought. New Waves is a homage to love lost, to the mystical, to immaturity stained with experience.

The last lines of William Shakespeare’s King Lear have just come to mind. This collection feels like the wisdom realized after a long, insane escapade of emotional thwarting and general human grievances. Somehow, comingled within youth and folly and agedness, is the need to be (in its many forms) passionate and open. I don’t mean open as in confessional, nor do I mean that one has to write like Ben Fama does—rather the opposite: that what is sometimes lacking in new poetry is a patience and honesty with one’s inner workings. What is happening is Fama is interacting with his own surroundings and experiences with an astounding clarity. He doesn’t shut out what he experiences intellectually and casually. What is important to him becomes important to us. He doesn’t care about what he “ought to say” in pleasing an audience, he says what he feels. As writers, we needn’t stifle that unique element of how we each interpret reality. We can bring forth, with all its faults and strangeness, how we exclusively relate with the world. And this is the direction Ben Fama is going in with stunning, mottled vigor. As Albany says:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, not live so long
King Lear Act V, Scene III

Okay! Fine. Tea Obreht is a veritable prodigy, and The Tiger’s Wife is uncannily good. Most (no, all) reviewers, as well as the likes of Colum McCann, TC Boyle, and Ann Patchett, say no less. But this novel is not just good for a twenty-five year old. Most of us would kill to kill it like she does.

It’s a story told by a young doctor named Natalia, who travels through an unnamed Balkan nation, having been, about to be, and, maybe, perpetually always, war-ravaged, inoculating children, deriding (but perhaps eventually acquiescing to) local superstition, and, most importantly, seeking out the facts of her grandfather’s last days before his death by cancer. But the reader quickly comes to realize that the collection of a plastic bag full of Natalia’s grandfather’s personal effects fails to explain the man she loved. Rather, his stories, which she re-tells with elaborate and emotional texture, bring her real closure, in turn sending this novel brilliantly toward the borders of fantasy.

Here’s what some critics have said about these legends:

David Ulin: “What these stories represent is mystery, the unanswered questions that, even in a rational universe, exist at the center of the world.”

Michiko Kakutani: This novel “explores the very essence of storytelling and the role it plays in people’s lives…It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making in the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs, or supernatural legends) reveal – and reflect back – the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies, and hatreds.”

Liesl Schillinger: “Ingeniously, Obreht juxtaposes Natalia’s matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling, and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen…Arrestingly, Obreht shows that you don’t have to go back centuries to find history transformed into myth; the process can occur within a lifetime if a gifted observer is on hand to record it…The Tiger’s Wife is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination.”

Ron Charles: “That The Tiger’s Wife never slips entirely into magical realism is part of its magic – its agile play with tragic material and with us – because, despite Natalia and her grandfather’s devotion to science and rationality, this is a story that bleeds into fable with the slightest scratch.”

This unabashed praise shares a collective awe at how Obreht subtly imagines the thin border between reality and legend that pervades not only her stories, but, more importantly, the lives of the people whom these stories are about. So how does she pull it off? In short, the subtle mysteries of these stories are managed via even subtler narrative moves that generate this mythic atmosphere. Natalia simply sets up the structure of her story near the very beginning of it:

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life…One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.

This is the novel in a nutshell. But the language here is important to note. Namely, by indicating how she came across these stories, Natalia is prefacing how she herself is going to deliver them to us. Her journey with her friend Zora, which gets sidetracked by news of her grandfather’s death, serves as the framing narrative, told by Natalia in the first person. Chapters are interspersed that recall memories of her childhood with him, visiting the local zoo, admiring the tigers. But suddenly, mid-story, she will declare, “He thought for a long time while we walked with the elephant. Perhaps under slightly different circumstances, he might have told me about the tiger’s wife. Instead, he told me about the deathless man.” And so, the grandfather assumes the narrative in his own voice, recalled verbatim by Natalia. His recollections stand alone as their own short stories (within stories within stories), and they are utterly compelling as such. His encounter with Gavran Gaile, the deathless man, is the story, Natalia indicates, of how he became a child again, spiritually, with his eyes open to his lost faith and to his own death (and, thus, his life).

The story of the tiger’s wife is, indeed, the story of Natalia’s grandfather’s maturation. But it is told by her alone, having pieced together anecdotes through interviews and research. It is consequently imbued with the fantastic, that is conveyed, again, by embedded stories, subplots about vicious hunters, slighted lovers, and a superstitious village. These chapters stand alone, as interruptions of the framed narrative, but internally they are more complex and digressive than any of the other chapters. Obreht has the pupil’s grasp of detail and metaphor, and her appropriation of magical realist elements is deft and subtle. But her management of these narrative levels across and within chapters, and her ability to render relatively unnoticeable rapid and frequent shifts between them, smoothly moving from one embedded story to another, mid-paragraph sometimes, is her most impressive quality. It is this ability to create authorial distance from your subject matter that renders the embedded story most mythical, even beyond the mysterious events of the stories being told. Obreht pulls it all off swimmingly.

Obreht brings it all together with emotional force by novel’s end. When the tales of the deathless man and the Tiger’s wife are complete, we return to the framing narrative, in which Natalia has learned of her grandfather’s death. A sense of her grief has been somewhat elusive to this point, as the reader is more rapt by her stories than by her own predicament. But as she retrieves her grandfather’s effects and returns to her medical task at hand, we see, through her own eventual encounter with the mysterious and mythical, the origin of her impulse to tell all these stories in the first place. What had so far come off as a meandering weave suddenly takes on the feeling of a completed circle, and Natalia takes on extraordinary depth in just a few climactic scenes. Her subsequent mastery of diverse voices, especially her willingness to take on the very voice of her dead grandfather, is thus a direct outcrop of her grief, which will make re-reading her narrative even more powerful.

This is an achievement for Obreht – we think of really good writers as having gone through some sort of mysterious training period, where their craft is almost magically honed by fire in some far unreachable realm. Obreht is too young for that, and, thus, she feels more real. The Tiger’s Wife is sticking with me, and I suspect it will for a while. This alone is a testament to what I hope will blossom into the career that it already promises to be.

Cursivism, Will Hubbard’s slim, debut volume of prose poems published by Ugly Duckling Presse, begins with a simple piece of advice that may be one of the most challenging charges facing anyone who is trying to figure out how to live, “just let it happen.” Though the mother’s instruction refers to how to tend an orchid the speaker has wooed into blossom mid-winter, it also applies to everything and anything our lives might encompass. To live by that advice requires difficult virtues: restraint, patience, and faith. Hubbard’s poems exhibit all three.

The poems that comprise Cursivism humbly speak at the same time as personal anecdotes, somber and revelatory reflections on the past, whimsical tales, and truths. These poems are modestly anthemic for members of Generation Y— those of us waking up to the fact that we’ve inherited a fraught world of questions that don’t have answers, and where many days feel like a tightrope walk that demands an unattainable balance between making something happen and letting it happen.

However, Hubbard’s poems never lecture or preach, nor are they pessimistic. For every mention of panic and longing, there is also mention of a miracle. And even at their most historical or questionably fictitious, the poems are grounded in daily life and voiced by a steady speaker who we want to trust. The diction comes from a careful vernacular; these poems don’t flaunt their economy of language, but they do owe some of their mystery to that economy. At times it feels like the author dares us to fill in the unnamed subject of a sentence, paint a context, imagine the untold parts of a story— and if you heed Hubbard’s imaginative challenge, the poems will not disappoint.

Before I go any further, I want to briefly consider whether these pieces are poems or whether they are something else. My answer is, both. I address this question in part because on the back cover of the book, poet Matthew Rohrer refers to Hubbard’s writing as “discrete little blocks of prose that move like poems;” and at a recent reading, Hubbard himself introduced some new work by saying, “these actually aren’t poems, and neither are those,” referring to what he had just read from Cursivism.

Perhaps classifying Hubbard’s work is beside the point— whether it is considered poetry, prose, prose poems, extended aphorisms or simply a little book of great writing, may not matter to some readers. These might as well be inscriptions; or etchings on the face of a rock that you are lucky enough to notice during a walk through the woods; or maybe they are bits of talk you overhear someone saying as you pass him in the street, which stay with you and draw up forgotten or neglected or denied or new ideas in you. My impression is that the words that come together in Cursivism do what poems do. They teach me about the world and even about myself. They call to be read again and again, and with each reading they reinvent themselves and stir new thoughts.

Despite my open interpretation of the form of Hubbard’s work, I don’t think for a second that they were constructed haphazardly or arbitrarily. Their form is inseparable from how they function. The absence of line breaks focuses our attention on the relationship of the sentences to each other; where line breaks would affect the pace and tone in a stanzaic poem, sentences affect the pace and tone here. One affect of the lack of line breaks is to somehow subdue drama, or rather, control it, when it might call more attention to itself if the poem was lineated or broken into stanzas. In the poem on page forty-five, the speaker recounts a shocking experience from childhood, but the shock is executed with matter-of-fact directness. Hubbard tells us,

. . . . Aware of my burgeoning creativity,
my grandmother gave me a set of razor-sharp whittling
knives for my tenth birthday. I promptly made the scar
that extends across four fingers of my left hand and
stared at the curiosity until it shook. The family was
awed that blood could so variously paint four walls of
a bedroom. (45)

The energy of this memory is locked in the curiosity that fixated the boy “until it shook.” The sentences direct us to follow the scene along until it explodes, as if without sound, when the boy stares at the cut he has made across his own fingertips. Even his family’s reaction— awe— appears visually, not sonically. The poems in this collection maintain a kind of diminuendo, a ruminative soft-spoken quality, even when they depict blood-painted walls or the soreness that comes from longing for someone absent.

The poems are quiet as the “soundless dark” (28) of a mysterious destination where some brew of sacred communication takes place. Encoded in the quietness of these poems are unassuming, almost deceptively simple love notes, as when the speaker says, “There is a limit to how tangled two things can get. But it might feel good to fall and get caught by you” (31). However, the book is not without its reticent mention of a wound, a love unreturned or expired, as the speaker reveals with the subtlety of a ventriloquist, “I read that you are to be married. The calligrapher wrote my apartment number wrong, but the postman is a friend of mine. He slipped it under the door while I was shaving” (46). Hubbard is able to tell an entire story, allude to a chapter, or many chapters, of a person’s life, through his juxtaposition of the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ in a brief sentence. There is so much unsaid, but the space that comes after the poem shakes with tremors from the magnitude of the past slipping under the door, into the present.

Another formal aspect is what I see as a kind of fracture line; which in biology is the natural line along which a cell will split, into uneven parts, when it is frozen. After the second or third sentence in many, though not all, of these poems, I felt this fracture— whereat the poem takes an imaginative leap and brings us along with it. The leaps do not seem formulaic to me; they are organic and thrilling. The poems that do this attain strangeness and give rise to a sense of displacement, which makes us pay attention to every word, circle back to the beginning and consider what has been born out of the pairing of seemingly incongruous parts.

In the poem I just discussed, Hubbard leaps from ancient Greek writing techniques (“Until the sixth century B.C., the Greeks wrote from left to right on the first line, then back from right to left on the next, and so on” (46)) to a marble traveling “in a grade-school friction experiment,” and finally to a wedding invitation that shouldn’t have come but did, interrupting a man while he’s shaving. Thus, Hubbard’s poems bring the world together by joining what it has been, what it is, and what it might be, in an original, unexpected, and worthwhile way.

The content of the poems is rewardingly dynamic. But we can credit the speaker’s steady voice with stewarding the readers through Cursivism‘s impressive imaginative range— from memories of acute childhood alienation to Egyptian mummification techniques to “(e)vidence that longing remains, even in eternal things” (4). The speaker’s voice does more than regulate tone; it becomes a persona, something like a silhouette, a suggestion of a person who prefers to stay partially concealed from view. Hubbard’s assertion that “Reading in silence looks like nothing. It feels good because effortless concealment has electric potential” (59) might well characterize the speaker himself and what at least appears to be his “effortless concealment.” Other poems suggest that practicing privacy, cultivating a penchant to withhold, is attractive and rewarding. “In fact, there is undeniable appeal in her withholding. It has nothing to do with sex. She simply stays free of everyone” (38), Hubbard observes. And, “A good device. . . .Has something to hide from everyone” (61).

Even when these poems are shifting between showing and obscuring, or pausing to set flowers on a grave, or letting the mind settle on an old scar, or surveying the gaps that separate us from each other, usually they are also talking about language itself. With his signature tone of telling a riddle, Hubbard describes a place where

. . . .Members
of the Irish bardic orders went regularly to prove the
sincerity of their desire to communicate. . . .In other
times it was simply an island that could not be reached
easily or at all. To go there was an acknowledgment that
curiosity was stronger than habit, itself stronger than fear. (28)

Even if Hubbard is referring to a place that exists somewhere on a map of the world, by refraining from naming it, he invites us to dream of and define the “there” for ourselves; it will probably be different for each of us. I think of it as a realm of inspiration, perhaps, a place where words come from, a place where communication between people is possible if we have enough courage and determination to go.

The cover art, Hubbard’s own illustration, says something of the book’s fascination with and commitment to words strung together— even when the words and their meanings are indecipherable. The cover is all but consumed by a formidable tangle of squiggles, which from some angles appear to be the title word, “cursivism,” overlaid more than a thousand-fold. But maybe the cover is some kind of representation of what it would look like to see all the words we have ever spoken or written joined together; or maybe it is everything as Yeats saw it, “a series of concentric, downward winding spirals. The sort of unified outlook that leaps in the heart” as Hubbard recalls on page thirty-one, or the “string of blasphemies” that “feel like they are keeping you alive” (54). Hubbard’s design, like his writing, presents indefinite interpretations and requires of the reader much of what life requires: patience, an open mind, and the willingness to be surprised. Like I was when I read this poem, one of my favorites of the collection:

IF THE FEELING overwhelms, your lover is being
unfaithful. Poets of the Japanese Edo court knew this,
and weaved yearning easily into cherry blossoms or
hearty autumn grass. For them, moving clouds were
messengers enough. Granted, staring out a window
at wet asphalt is hardly like listening to a bamboo
thicket fill with snow. The feeling of sickness in the
morning eases with a day of activity. Returning at
night it can transform into a pleasant, vital dream.
Only then is the lover listening, hoping against all odds
that you will send some sign of conviction through the
fickle wind.

I love the ingenuity, and evocative natural landscape in the phrase, “weaved yearning easily into cherry blossoms or hearty autumn grass,” which unexpectedly follows a nod to a vulnerable experience of panic and suspicion. And I don’t want to say one analytical word to disturb that bamboo thicket filling with snow. The poem owns every movement it makes, from the view of wet asphalt to waning sickness to the fickle wind, all the while balancing the uneasiness of dread with the beauty afforded us when we imagine. In a few places in this book, Hubbard suggests he is waiting for the thing that will change him, that will break though. “Something about you will be different,” he writes in a poem about watching a delivery truck back in and out of a garage all day, “A sunburn, maybe” (5). His work is a testament to the fact that what we imagine has the power to change us, though maybe not in a way that can be measured in sunburns or lengths of days. Hubbard’s poems impart the knowledge that despite the struggle it can be to navigate day in and day out, change is as unpredictable as the “fickle wind,” and our best bet is to let go, and “let it happen.”

City Lights Books just published Compression & Purity, a new poetry book by L.A.-based African-American surrealist, Will Alexander. Alexander writes densely textured “psychedelic” or scientific surrealism with a strong affinity for arcane vocabulary. “On Scorpions & Swallows” begins:

Not claimed
by the accessible as contrast
or as competition by loss
or mathematics by peril

but occlusion as opposable phylums

minus a dark synesthesial as rote
minus the axial smoke of a rotted bonfire hamlet

I mean
oasis as savage dialectic rotation
meaning species as aggressive salt
as curious vertical blazing

in reversed arrayal
I think of interior cobalt swallows
with predacious ignition
a contradictory igniting
beautific with scopolamine

I am struck with Alexander’s careful phrasings, his manipulation of thematic shape and his mastery of extensions. For instance, the poetry quoted above, “On Scorpions & Swallows,” reads like a single, extended sentence creating a sonnet-like problem-and-answer structure to the poem. Alexander favors long, elliptical syntactic units that span several stanzas, increasing the complexity and obscurity of his style.

The dense texture might intimidate the reader, but it does not necessarily ambiguate meaning. Contrarily, he is often clear and exceedingly poignant. Take, for example, how he uses scientific jargon to describe Cesar Vellejo:

calling up vacuums written in vicuna

through fabulous confounding

through anarchical visceral cascade

like unstructured findings

curiously filtered

through a partially constricted gullet

Stanzas like these are astounding to me, perhaps partly because they are foiled by adjacent stanzas that seem obscure. Perhaps the oscillation of each stanza’s “logical” effectiveness is part of Alexander’s trick, as the images that resonate with readers probably vary significantly. On the other hand, even the obscure passages are attractive in a hieratic, rarified, geeky way. A good “Alexandrian” phrase gives the kind of satisfaction scholars get when they lecture at conferences in words that are technical and precise and somehow on the brink of incomprehension. The paradox and inner tension of precision and incomprehension creates an amusing, ironic tension. Carried through by this underlying tension, Alexander’s poetic textures hypnotize and seduce.

What is Alexander doing with language? His work focuses quite obviously on a particular semantic field (science) and employs strained but traditionally lyrical syntax. I, like Joron, see in this as reclaiming or deconstructing language—especially vocabularies that have been hitherto forbidden for the vast majority of literary writing. Certainly postmodern works has blurred generic boundaries, but Alexander seems to be showing, in an almost Pynchon-like way, that even the nuances of specialized language can be conscripted and subsumed into a larger poetic utterance. To a great extent, his project resembles the surrealists’ neo-Romantic mission to subordinate external reality to consciousness through linguistic looting. Furthermore, if we read Alexander as a surrealist, his poetry represents a shift from image-centered to poetry to word-centered surrealism. As Joron states, Alexander “positioned himself within the contingent order of the lexicon, refashioning (and thus reclaiming) language word by word. As a result, Alexander’s writing liberates the imagination from restricted economy of the image.” In the stanzas I quote above, you can see Alexander cutting up and recombining scientific language in this way, creating new contexts and opening up highly controlled language to expansive subjects. His poems are Max Ernst collages constructed from the archives of Scientific American and biology textbooks.

Until now, Alexander has been most known for his 1995 collection Asia & Haiti, as well as his 2005 Exobiology As Goddess. But when I examined the “books by” page of Compression & Purity, I was astonished to see several other titles attributed to Alexander in the two years, several of which I believe are forthcoming:

Impulse & Nothingness (Green Integer, 2011)
Aboriginal Salt: Early Divinations (White Press Inc., 2011)
The Brimstone Boat (Reve a Deux, 2011)
Diary as Sin (Skylight Press, 2011)
Mirach Speaks to his Grammatical Transparents (Oyster Moon Press, 2011)
On the Substance of Disorder (Inset Press, 2011)
Inalienable Recognitions (eohippus labs, 2010)
Inside the Earthquake Palace (Chax Press, 2011)

The sheer number of titles here suggests a prolific burst of energy, almost outnumbering in a matter of months the works he has published before this decade. Suffice it to say, if these titles are all indeed realities, then Alexander may be entering the definitive stage in his career. Even more impressive, many other categories are represented here in addition to poetry: fiction, philosophy, essays and drama.

For more on Will Alexander, check out this video of him reading and this poem.

One can see that David Foster Wallace was thinking about the main problem of what would become his final work when he delivered his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005. Now regarded as a seminal piece on modern compassion, it proposed to reveal, as any small-college commencement address worth its speaker fee is wont to do, the “real purpose” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, it was this:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Wallace elaborates by applying this idea to a regular occurrence – a trip to the grocery store. Rather than lament our vice-tight schedules and the depressing lighting, or loathe the overfed customers in the overlong checkout line, we should look around, and imagine other people’s stories, realizing “the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.” More than a trite dictum on empathy, this idea is first and foremost about storytelling, about filling in for ourselves the unheard narratives that people tell themselves. And Wallace over the years was most interested in narratives of suffering. Boredom (so closely linked to the problem of addiction, which he addressed in Infinite Jest) is one such type, and it takes center stage in his last book, an unfinished project published under the title The Pale King.

Really, any book about the IRS that doesn’t talk at potentially tedious length about boredom would need to have its head checked. But Wallace makes it work in surprising and brilliant ways. Like Infinite Jest, the book establishes a central setting – this time a tax collection and processing center in Illinois – through which a wide variety of zany characters come and go. While the chapters that digress into the backgrounds of many of these characters constitute the type of attention to personal narratives Wallace spoke about in his address, there are other chapters, which go on for pages and pages about tax code, that deliberately test the reader’s ability to stick with it. We watch characters concoct more and more methods to cope with office tedia (the story takes place in the ‘80’s, pre-Internet), but we also watch characters experience supernatural effects of hyper-consciousness (one character floats when he’s really focused). Toward the end of the manuscript, our main protagonist (more on him later) comes to a final realization:

I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy…I discovered the key. The key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for…The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.

This passage comprises nearly the entirety of one short chapter, which I don’t have a problem calling the book’s climax. The remainder of the book (there’s not much left after this chapter) is similarly hopeful. Amid the subplot (any sequence that one wants to label a “plot” in this book would do well to call it a subplot, in that it operates, always, beneath the surface of things. Emily Cooke said it well in The Millions when she affirmed, “events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation”) of the attempts to replace human workers at the IRS with computers, certain characters, as mentioned, discover that they have special abilities to focus, not just on tax-work, but on the lives of others. The penultimate chapter, in which Meredith Rand, a beautiful (and, thus, emotionally isolated) agent, tells the story of her stint in a psych ward to Shane Drinion, the man no one else pays attention to, is the best in the book. It is a story about listening, about paying attention with unmotivated empathy. To see Wallace’s notes in the appendix address some of how this storyline would play out filled me with sadness over the potential this book really had. Namely: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

It’s fairly clear how preoccupied with boredom Wallace actually was in his final years. Jonathan Franzen asserted as much in his recent article in The New Yorker:

That [Wallace] was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil – was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it – is not inconsequential…When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

Franzen spends a good deal of this article hashing out his anger over Wallace’s suicide. But if we put his observations of his dear friend’s decline alongside what Wallace came up with in The Pale King, we see the tragedy. In short, this book is as much about writing as it is about working at the IRS. Tom McCarthy made the right connection between the image of the service agent and of the novelist, hailing the book as “a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward – properly and rigorously forward – in an age of data saturation.” Cooke agrees: “The question is whether, along with the data, [the agents] can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an ‘information society.’”  It’s ultimately up to you to determine whether, like Franzen did, Wallace’s vocation and vision had left him, but, here, that struggle is valiantly dramatized.

Like addiction in Infinite Jest, boredom serves as a centripetal theme. Everything comes back to boredom. But, also like Infinite Jest, the theme is developed piecemeal, in a plotless tableau that is nonetheless filled with the delicious nuggets that we have come to love Wallace so much for. We have characters like the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine, the compulsive and uncontrollable sweater David Cusk, the logorrheic and narratively expansive Chris “Irrelevant” Fogle, and the monastic Shane Drinion, who floats when he concentrates. Not to mention other chapters that tell of menacing infants, terrifying childhood shit stories, and life in the ‘60’s. They are digressive in that wonderful Wallacean way, becoming like legends, the way you can kick back with a friend and say, “Remember that part in Infinite Jest?” In that sense one feels that The Pale King could have been as long, as Rabelaisan, and almost as scriptural as its predecessor.

But the most interesting move Wallace makes is a vexing narrative divergence from the structure of Infinite Jest (by the way, I am happy to talk about Wallace’s shorter fiction, or his first novel The Broom of the System, but there really is no other analog, in a holistic sense). Namely, everything reads along just fine, until you hit Chapter 9, titled “Author’s Foreword.” The first line may evoke that familiar postmodern groan. Oh. This again. It begins:

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, Dave Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:

All of this is true. This book is really true.

The rest of the chapter recounts his suspension from university (rich students paid him to write their papers) and subsequent employment at the IRS. In a later chapter we learn how he was confused for a higher-ranking David Wallace and was thus given a job well above his pay grade. All of this is fictional, of course. Wallace wasn’t even forty in 2005. He was 43. Not to mention the fictional home address and social security number (“Wallace” claims he was issued a new one when he joined the Service). But this is not the point. In short, this whole sequence is a blatant ploy at the idea of fictionality in general. There are other first-person narrators, some identified, some not. Other chapters refer to Wallace only in passing, as merely a tangential character. He is both focalized protagonist and wallflower. But there is more to it than what “Wallace” himself calls “postmodern titty-pinching.” The real point here, broadly, is that Wallace seems to be writing a counterfactual life. If we take Franzen at his word, we might partly read this book as a dramatization of Wallace’s own despair. Many characters share famous Wallacean traits (excessive sweating, precocious “data mysticism,” penchants for storytelling), and we find that their lives in the Service have a Plan-B quality. Sylvanshine wants to become a CPA but can’t; Cusk has unnatural processing abilities but is too paralyzed by his condition to live a public life; Fogle shifts life paths after he stumbled into the wrong review session in college; Lane Dean signs up after he gets his girlfriend pregnant. Across these characters Wallace depicts the tragedy of what could have been, condemning characters to lives of tedium. The saddest thing about it, though, is the hopeful note it ends on, as these seemingly doomed characters become friends and begin to rise to the challenge of remaining relevant in the dawning digital age. At any rate, we see Wallace here searching, an activity that maybe occurs most often when we are bored, for greener pastures.

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that I have refrained to this point from calling The Pale King a novel. This was essentially my way of broaching the rabbit-hole debate over the book’s textual status. A particularly snarky article (and that’s saying something) from Slate’s Tom Scocca took to task Michiko Kakutani’s review. He writes:

Evaluation is beside the point. Kakutani, gamely taking things at face value, wrote that the book was “lumpy but often stirring” – well, why wouldn’t it have lumps? It’s not a finished novel.

And: “this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity.” But why would it be continuous? It’s not a finished novel.

The Pale King is less inventive and exuberantly imagined than Wallace’s previous novels.” But it is not a finished novel.

It is “[t]old in fragmented, strobe-lighted chapters” – but it is not a finished novel!

And so on. Scocca accuses Kakutani of over-harshly mistreating The Pale King as a finished, polished product, when it is really just a draft.  He’s looking for his “Gotcha!” moment, but his qualms, in form and content, are more reductive than Kakutani’s claims by far. She’s doing her job of evaluating what’s there. Scocca drops the ball by assuming that what’s there is somehow worse than what could have been there. In other words, he dodges the idea that a fundamental characteristic of any novel is its unfinishedness. This is an idea as old as Bakhtin and central to deconstruction, as well as to novel theory in general. The Pale King offers a rare glimpse into process in a raw state. As Emily Cooke concluded, “the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive [Wallace’s] questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t…As much sense as it settles into, it will escape us. It escaped him.” If ever a novel was going to be patently unfinished, it should be this one. Wallace has created an open-ended counterfactual existence, where he was free to imagine possibilities bleak and hopeful. That he couldn’t give us a final answer was the great tragedy of his life, but perhaps his most novelistic quality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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