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At a recent Poet’s House reading, Demosthenes Agrafiotis had some harsh things to say about haiku written in English. They fail not only because English can’t possibly pack as much information into a syllable as Japanese does, but the form itself is tied to a cultural imperative, a way of thought that one learns for so long that to even ponder how it works unravels the meaning.

That said, Brian Kalkbrenner’s Foul Feelings is the closest thing in English, spiritually, to haiku that I can possibly think of.  Sure, the poems are pithy and zazen, which is an easy link to the Japanese form. But these often tiny poems are ponderously gargantuan. Brian is a modern western ronin, wandering the new nature of urban living (as urbanized development has taken the majority of the Earth’s surface, it might as well be the modern rendering of nature) and living the poet’s path, sharpening his pen and honing his skills.

Such a road is not easily traveled, and to compound his difficulties, Brian has chosen to commit poetry seppuku by self-publishing Foul Feelings. How is self-publishing like slicing open one’s belly in disgrace? Samurai committed ritual sacrifice for many reasons large and small, but I believe that Brian has chosen to publish this book himself and therefore alienate the work from a large segment of the larger (read: academic) poetry world because that world has gone from focusing on art to focusing on the numbers, specifically the number of dollars given as prizes, scholarships, fellowships, etc.

You might as well save your Stegner application fee and invest in some Mega-Millions tickets because you have about the same chances of winning either. And even if you do make it, what guarantee is there that you will be a better writer, let alone a “successful” one? Brian bypasses the lottery of modern poetic politics, instead choosing to release these poems of their own volition. One would realistically consider this a grave mistake, given the stigma against self-publishing, if not for two things: the poems are sharp enough to parse atoms, and no journal would ever accept them. Brian had no choice but to climb the mountain and meditate on his craft.

It’s hard to talk about these lines without giving anything away, though there isn’t really much to give away. They are mostly small, ranging from seven words to paragraph-length prose poems. Not all of them are philosophical but neither are they simple narratives. They’re surreal in the way that you are given two things that don’t exactly connect logically but don’t exactly disconnect either; they are reflections from a broken mirror. Any meaning pulled from the lines are refracted through the reader.

Not that Brian is only writing about the big pictures here. In fact, that’s what makes these poems so haiku-like in the first place: modern life is explicated through the small moments, images, and thoughts of everyday life and everyday language. That same daily word choice, the common words we all utilize hourly, transformed like sand into glass by Brian’s capable hands. That’s the strength behind Foul Feelings and poetry at large, the way it can take something we thought we new and twist it into new meaning. Any publisher would be honored to have Brian in their ranks, but perhaps it would be best for us if he continued to walk the way of the warrior-poet.

We’ve all justified seeing a particular movie or following a TV show by saying “It’s terrible, but it’s just entertainment/pop/etc.”–I know I have. There’s that niggling feeling that we should not have enjoyed that film/show as much as we did. But this justification is an easy-out, something that is surprisingly accepted among even the most erudite and critically astute circles. Indeed, it seems acceptable even in modern critical discourse about film. For Armond White, this is an indefensible critical blasphemy. And as difficult as the line is to hold (and exhausting, to be honest), I find I must agree with him.

I’ll get into that in a few paragraphs, but first I want to look at White’s incredible self-published collection of essays on Michael Jackson–Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles–which I hope to will serve as the foundation for a general exploration of White’s idea of criticism and argument for why I think White is an important critic.

While reading through Keep Moving, readers can watch White evolve as a critic. The essays themselves are various pieces that White wrote concerning Michael Jackson from the mid-80s onward. While the insights about Jackson are impressive, what is more interesting to me (for the moment) is how these essays give context and depth to what is too often dismissed as a troll-like, curmudgeonly attitude by critics of the critic. White explains his own evolution:

In reviewing my Jackson pieces [for the book]…I was forced to recall my own relationship to Jackson. It had changed from my customary critical skepticism to sincere awe. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Thriller when it first appeared in 1982; it didn’t fit in with my rockist criteria for album art. But Thriller won the world for its superlatively crafted program of single tracks; it was an album in music culture’s original sense–a collation–while I was infatuated with the cohesive impudence of Prince’s 1999….I was not prepared for the subtle revolution of Thriller.

To read White discuss what makes Michael Jackson significant is an honest pleasure. Moreover, it’s fascinating to watch White navigate the racial and social issues of the day (and today) in his criticism. Armond White’s ability to cut through the bullshit and say something lasting and worthwhile is on display. Take, for example, White’s meditation on Jackson’s line “if…you’re thinking about being my baby / It don’t matter if you’re black or white”:

That phrase, coming from anyone else…would be highly offensive. But the sentiment has to be taken more seriously coming from Jackson, who literally has inscribed that belief in his flesh.

Michael’s physical transformation isn’t a game of truth or dare like the costumes put on and cast off by Madonna or David Bowie. Consider that the one identity Madonna and Bowie never flirted with is as a racial Other. But their “probity” is more shrewd than judicious; they know the identity from which expressive freedom customarily is withheld. Silence is their ultimate taboo. But silence unleashes the part of Jackson that always was suppressed in song. He dances free of the personal, social, racial constraints that are inseparable from Jackson’s Black and human experience in ways that empowered whites may never understand.

It’s important that Black folks understand Jackson’s physical appearance isn’t anything so superficially pathetic as wanting to be white. His greatest desire–which he sang passionately about in “Man in the Mirror”–is to “lift yourself” above the common, petty fetters and divisions that affect most people’s lives.

White’s ability to connect the dots between Jackson’s music and his publicly private life is part of what makes him a great critic (and, perhaps, problematizes our cultural distinctions between “public” and “private”). White is always attempting to outline the shape of the person in his criticism. I believe this is why the auteur film critic Andrew Sarris is so important to White, because he must always be able to trace a piece of art back to its human element. And this ability to find the human is what convinces me that White’s criticism is fundamentally a humanist criticism. It’s what lends weight to White’s ability to “speak truth to power.” I find that so many who are concerned with “speaking truth to power” are really just concerned with their own power and semiotics. But this focus on the human person allows White to cut right to the heart of cultural issues without getting lost or tossed around in the media firestorms that accompany cultural events.

Because of that, White’s primary concern in this book is understanding Michael Jackson through his art. This focus yields amazing insights. See White’s commentary on the perennial (or at least what was perennial) controversy over Jackson’s skin color:

Most artists submit to [the Black performer’s understood contract with the white-controlled world of show business] to some degree. Jackson’s only gone the Jewish entertainer’s nose-job ritual–known as the “Hollywood circumcision”–several organs better.

Almost a hundred years after minstrel shows, Jackson has engineered the ultimate critique/reversal of the blackface tradition. His plastic surgery answers the exploitation and humiliation that have always loomed ambiguously before Black performers who were ready to give the marketplace the hairstyle it demanded….

His new face is just a manifestation of the compromises he’s forced into as a private and public person, as a naive young man in an industry of predatory cunning, as a powerful Black cultural presence skeptically admitted into a largely white hierarchy….

Michael Jackson has become the social and ethnic anomaly he was raised to be….Jackson has fashioned himself into what the Western world has ordained: an androgynous, uniracial creature of presumably limitless appeal.

While the media has focused on how strange Jackson had made himself (and let’s admit it–most of us gawked along with them), White’s insight shifts the burden of guilt where it rightfully belongs: our desire, channeled through the media, to be at once fascinated and disgusted.

There’s much more to say about White’s book on Jackson. In many ways, it’s a beautiful book, and it almost brought me to the verge of tears at points. While reading, I was filled with regret about what Jackson went through as an artist; how I was (and still am) implicated in that. It made me wish that I could go back and appreciate the man more while he was still alive.

But now I want to speak more broadly about White as a critic (I plan on coming back to the Jackson book later). I mentioned White’s humanism. I really do believe that White’s is one of the great practitioners of a critical humanism. You may totally disagree with his analyses of films (which, at points, can be admittedly bizarre); you can find his tone and j’accused sloppiness frustrating, but that a true humanism at the basis of his criticism, I believe, is above reproach. At times, White may fail to live up to his own humanist standard, but who doesn’t? That’s not a glib dismissal of White’s failures as a critic. It’s only to say that White’s failures to live up to a standard don’t negate that standard.

One thing that confirms White’s humanism, in my mind, is his deep and abiding belief in democracy. That White believes in democracy might seem counter intuitive, given some of the statements he’s made about bloggers (which we generally believe to be the ultimate democratic medium):

The Internetters who stepped in to fill print publications’ void seize a technological opportunity and then confuse it with “democratization”—almost fascistically turning discourse into babble. They don’t necessarily bother to learn or think—that’s the privilege of graffito-critique. Their proud non-professionalism presumes that other moviegoers want to—or need to—match opinions with other amateurs….The journalistic buzzword for this water-cooler discourse is “conversation” (as when The Times saluted Ebert’s return to newspaper writing as “a chance to pick up on an interrupted conversation”). But today’s criticism isn’t real conversation; on the Internet it’s too solipsistic and autodidactic to be called a heart-to-heart. (Viral criticism isn’t real; it’s mostly half-baked, overlong term-paper essays by fans who like to think they think.)

And in print, “conversation” is regrettably one-sided. Power-sided. This is where the elitist tendency sours everything. The social fragmentation that fed the 1980s indie movement, decentralizing film production away from Los Angeles, had its correlative in film journalism. Critics everywhere flailed about for a center, for authority, for knowledge; they championed all sorts of unworked-out, poorly made films (The Blair Witch Project, Gummo, Dogville, Southland Tales) proposing an indie-is-better/indie-is-new aesthetic. The sophomoric urge to oppose Hollywood fell into the clutches of Hollywood (i.e., Sundance). Similarly, the decentralized practice of criticism now scoffs at former New York Times potentate Bosley Crowther, while crowning a network of bizarro authorities—pompous critics who replace Crowther’s classical-humanist canon with a hipster/avant-garde pack mentality (from The Village Voice to Time Out New York to IndieWire).

This quote might seem to confirm that White is just a poor, confused man: he attacks centers of power, while at the same time favoring a “canon”? I don’t believe White is confused, however. Let me explain by way of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton explained what he felt the basic principles of democracy to be–and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any better explanation:

This is the first principle of democracy:  that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.  And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common….It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on.  For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.  It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose.  These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.  I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses.  I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them.  In short, the democratic faith is this:  that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.  This is democracy….

This definition is so useful because it brings into relief the belief opposite to democracy: that the things that humans hold in common should be ruled by those “who know better.” According to White’s jeremiads, you have an unfortunate convergence of power-interests and a supposedly democratic groundswell of bloggers. Hence the reason why White likes to quote Molly Haskell so much: “The internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.” White is not a know-nothing populist. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a democrat.

White, like Chesterton, believes genuinely that people should deal with their own business, not be forced to submit or be coerced by the will of corporate interests (every bit of White’s criticism that I’ve read confirms this). But that doesn’t mean that anything goes either, that the “mob” knows best. For White, the critic is there to help the masses. But he does so not as a gatekeeper of “artistic greatness.” The critic may be the defender of a canon but does so as an advocate.

And this is the problem with the “it’s just a movie” defense. When we allow movies (or any art for that matter) to fall into that cheap dichotomy, we actually subject ourselves to the gatekeepers of “greatness.” We cut off our critical legs and have to wait until the right people say it’s OK to take something seriously (note how White is excoriated for taking a film like Norbit seriously). Who else but the elites will determine whether a piece of art is to be considered “actual art” or “just pop”? Pop must be treated with utmost seriousness because otherwise we leave ourselves at the mercy of the same gatekeepers we thought we just escaped. I ask you: who decided we must take Lady Gaga more seriously than Brittany Spears? Beats me, but somewhere along the line it was obviously decided, though both are selling records just fine. Of course, White says it best (and more pithily):

To discuss movies as if they were irrelevant to individual experience—just bread-and-circus rabble-rousers—breeds indifference. And that’s only one of the two worst tendencies of contemporary criticism. The other is elitism.

White believes desperately in the role of the critic as a guard against both an anti-human indifference and the elitism that capitalizes (literally) on indifference to enslave us.

This brings me full-circle to White’s book about Jackson and White’s deep-seated critical humanism. If Chesterton is right, then the democratic ideal comes from a fundamentally humanist impulse, one that should guarantee the dignity (and equality) of individual persons. Now, compare Chesterton’s explanation of democracy to White’s final denunciation of the power structures that are incapable (or unwilling) to recognize the actual greatness of Jackson:

When the current President of the United States grudgingly admitted to “have all his stuff on my iPod,” it seemed either disrespectful or just further submission to the will of the media elite. What POTUS didn’t say was that even a relative “ditty” like the imperishable “P.Y.T.” was more than “stuff.” Listen to the way Jackson took R&B’s romantic entreaty and sang it as more than booty-begging or nut-busting but as the epitome of goodness. It is the kind of manifold richness that many people underestimate in Black pop (even when made apparent by a white postmodern brainiac like Green Gartside who deconstructed Jackson’s aesthetic into Scritti Politti). MJ’s “Wooooo’s” and “repeat after me” were sensual and rhetorical confirmations of personal and communal loving. He solicited call-and-response from the world–and got it. “P.Y.T.” makes the joy of life and art into one–it’s just an added blessing that you can also dance to it. If that doesn’t justify our democracy, then trade MJ’s Civil Rights moonwalk for a goosestep.

“Civil Rights moonwalk” (aside from being a brilliant turn of phrase) is the perfect example of how deadly serious White is about pop art. Pop isn’t “just pop.” The very principles of democracy can be at stake in a song. And while MJ is certainly an “elite” in a sense, White spends most of his book on Jackson explaining how the real core of Jackson’s songs are, in fact, personal expressions of the democratic ideals (see, especially, the essays “The Gloved One Is Not A Chump” and “Screaming To Be Heard, Book I”).

What is most important to White, however, what confirms MJ’s greatness is the fact that, despite all the media “kicking dirt in [MJ’s] eye,” despite Jackson’s confused and troubled response to the perverse demands of fame (which the media creates then capitalizes on later), despite the attempts of cultural gatekeepers to keep Jackson relegated within preordained modes of entertainment, Jackson’s art cannot be “reduced to pop,” because it speaks on a deep, visceral level. The level on which Jackson was operating is demonstrated by the outpouring of grief for Jackson by the “victorious plebiscite” (which AOL explained was a “seminal moment in internet history. We’ve never seen anything like it in scope or depth.”), whose “resistance to media fiat” White says “is proof of democratic goodwill in action.”

~~~

While I hope this post stands independently as a commentary on White and his book, it’s also a bit of a continuation of some of my thoughts on the relationship between art and democracy, which I hope to continue with later in order to answer some of the excellent questions that were asked in my original post.

The week before last, Salman Rushdie visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue to read from and talk about his new novel Luka and the Fire of Life.  It is a sequel to the popular Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written, as its predecessor was for his first son, at the request of his second son.  Its hero is Haroun’s younger brother Luka, the second son of the famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa, who must endeavor a similar journey into the Magic World to once again help his father. These books walk and talk like children’s stories, but we should believe Rushdie when he asserts that “we are all children,” and that the appeal of these books, he hopes, is broad.

He carried himself with his usual joviality: he congratulated one overzealous fan for her question, telling her that she should publish it; on another occasion, when asked about his process, he replied, already laughing as if he couldn’t help himself, “I write left-to-right, all the way across the page, and then all the way down the page until I’m finished”; when I asked him at the signing if he could convince Thomas Pynchon to visit the Synagogue, he replied, and this was after 200-odd signatures, “You know, if I only had his phone number.” But his explanations of this book were insightful.  “It looks like it was easy,” but he assures us that “re-writing one of the oldest stories ever told–the story of man gaining fire from the gods” is arduous.

This intention is a good place to begin, analysis-wise.  Haroun appealed to young audiences because of its protagonist’s fanciful and action-packed adventure to save the Sea of Stories from pollution, in turn restoring his father’s lost yarning mojo.  It appealed to me because it was essentially a metafictionalist’s manifesto.  Nearly all the tricks were on display (to recount them would taint them; they are best encountered in their surprising and entertaining form).  Storytelling itself thus becomes the central theme of Haroun, a defense of its imaginative and restorative power.  Young audiences will similarly delight in Luka’s adventure into the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life and help the ailing Rashid.  But while the theme of Haroun was storytelling, here we deal with philosophy.  Life and death (or, as it is overtly put here, Being and un-Being) as well as issues of time (characters who literally represent the past, present and future play prominent roles in Luka’s journey) are central throughout the narrative. Again, to say more would spoil its richness.

Each book’s themes figure at times heavily and delicately, but narratively they are each driven by a paradigmatic plot structure. In each case, the young hero finds that the Magic World somehow resembles his own imagination, and the solutions to many of the problems he faces arise from his memory of these imaginings.  So, for example, Haroun becomes a character in a princess-rescue, employing tools from the stories his father had told him.   But it is the narrative paradigm that drives Luka I find extremely interesting.

We learn early on that Luka

lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisted bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog, and a streetfighter and a rockstar, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red-and-black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.

Just as Haroun’s adventure is driven by his memories of Rashid’s stories, Luka’s journey resembles his beloved video games, replete with save points, bosses, accumulated lives, and increasingly vexing levels (not to mention the fantastic nature of the Magic World to begin with).  This fits the philosophical themes of time and death very nicely.  Many times Luka debates whether he actually controls the outcome of his adventure, or if it’s all been pre-programmed. Toward the end he accuses his nemesis of treating this ordeal like a game, only to be refuted with “No. It is a matter of life and death.”

Kudos to Rushdie for not shying away from video game imagery; I agree with the L.A. Times’ Jon Fasman when asserts, “Rushdie, almost alone among modern fiction writers, gives these games their narrative due.”  It’s extremely risky, but if you’re going to talk about such things as parallel universes, multiple lives, determinism and free will–in stories, let alone in life–is not the video game a reputable analog?  So, in many ways, Luka and the Fire of Life is in fact about storytelling after all.  Is it a case for the value of video games as a storytelling device for children and adolescents?  Probably not, but the video game motif–something I have not come across, at least to this extent, in fiction–nonetheless works here both as a model for plot and as a meta-commentary on the tension between determined structures and the always present freedom of an author to create the incredible.  Rushdie manages both quite nicely here.

In a word, Jason Schneiderman is a poet of the helix. In his new book, Striking Surface, he turns and returns a fine Merino wool finer. By refrains; bits of anaphora; tonally and topically, he returns to his concerns in cycle after cycle, rending or revising earlier understandings, and leading new ones up new twists. Scattered throughout the book’s three sections are cycles that include “The Children’s Crusade,” “Stalinism,” “Ars Poetica,” “Physics,” “Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha,” and “Hyacinthus.”

The middle section of the book is entirely a cycle: an unforgettable family of elegies that address his mother’s death with tenderness and probity, in a casual voice talking through grief without flinching and without sentimentality. From “Elegy I (Work)”: “Whatever dead is, you are, and how you must hate that, / busy fixer of problems, busy stitcher of crafts.” Soon we learn the role crafts played before death—how they were a kind of tacit conversation between father, mother, and son—and the roles they assume, still unfinished, in the afterdeath. Here, in “Elegy IV (Tallis)”:

I don’t tell Dad that you never finished cross-stitching
the tallis piece because you were punishing him.
You wouldn’t tell him, so why should I? I finished
the curtains you were planning, though I didn’t line them.

Picking up the thread, in the next elegy:

I wish I could see the dead as completed instead
of stopped, that some monument in my head
would be erected to you, instead of these scraps
of uncatalogued memory.

And again, in “Elegy VI (Metaphors for Grief)”:

____________________________I’d think,
why finish this if Mom won’t see it, or why
go to work if my mother is dead? She had never
been the axis my world turned on, but suddenly
everything seemed to revolve around her. No.
Not an axis. A skewer. A spit.

Throughout the book, we encounter a philosophical version of transubstantiation that an object or subject undergoes when it has been taken from us or is otherwise no longer in reach. In “Elegy V (The Community of Mourners),” Schneiderman calls it “a trap”: “Mourning’s a trap, / isn’t it? A way to pretend that what you lost / was better than what you had,” a delicious riddle that obviates our thinking those two things (people) are the same, with the bereft feeling that they are not. It’s a trap revisited in the last section of “Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life),” which begins, “Death tricks you twice. First about yourself, / and then about others,” and ends:

Does Sarah Jane owe her dead mother
more than she owed her live mother?

Of course not—but she can’t deny her dead
mother what she denied her live one.

Having gathered impressions of her sense of humor, her quietly persistent love, and her humiliating, de facto last rites before the surgery that would be her death, we feel we know this woman—this arch, in its stone and filigree—just in time for the keystone eighth elegy, which—in its omnivorousness (including a nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who returns from being buried in an earlier elegy); in its valences and ambivalence through which an earnest love reflects—seems to accomplish something of Shakespearian ambition (“That in black ink my love may still shine bright”), even as a stand-alone poem:

Elegy VIII (Missing You)

I thought I’d find you here, that I’d finish these poems
and you would stand out as clear as the day. As bright
as the moon. I hate those poets who tell you that
they love, but never make clear whom they love.
My mother’s eyes are nothing like the sun. How do I
miss my mother? Let me count the ways. So where
are you? I couldn’t believe you let yourself
be filmed for the video they showed at your tribute,
and I wanted to tell everyone, That’s only her voice
when she’s nervous. That’s only her face when she
has to be on display and she doesn’t like it. But at least
you were there. Everyone knows you can’t write
your way out of grief. Everyone knows that grief
never turns into anything but grief, and OK, I can grieve
you forever. But I wanted you here, in the middle
of my book. Not a complaint about what I lost
or what it feels like to lose it. But you. Your smile.
Your denim dress.

Schneiderman addresses another, closer-to-literal kind of transubstantiation in “Adorable Wounds.” An epigraph from Hopkins invites us to “approach Christ in a new way” and cast ourselves “into His sacred broken Heart and his five adorable Wounds” (a fitting bit of pronoun play between a man and his apotheosis). Longinus of Caesarea already having stuck his spear into the body of the crucified Christ, pre-poem, the poem’s speaker asks:

Is it blasphemy
to be the nail,
the spear? To want
to be the nail,
the spear?

These fives lines—in their deceptively simple revision and reiteration of that deceptively simple question—ask as much of us as any nineteen syllables I know. “A simple truth miscall’d simplicity,” as Shakespeare might have said and did, in Sonnet 66. Substituting “question” for “truth,” we have a working description of Schneiderman’s quest to understand.

In all three sections of Striking Surface, understanding is key and a key to the poems. From “Ars Poetica II”:

I’m trying to say:
Forgiving is the end of love.

The end of hate.
The end of strong emotion.

A poem should be
an understanding.

A forgiving.
But not the end of love or hate.

The poem comes to doubt itself directly (“Maybe this / isn’t a poem”), before ending up at a new understanding:

If understanding
was the wrong thing,

I asked
for the wrong thing.

It was what I wanted
when I asked.

Besides the candor of these lines, what makes them feel natural and accessible is their role in a dialogue into which the poem is structured. The poem’s speaker addresses the world-as-poem and world-as-parted-intimate simultaneously, a parted intimate who responds:

Look at all the sense you keep

trying to make.

You should know better.

That’s why I did what you think

I need to be forgiven for.

Another theme these poems thread and rethread is the nature of identity—in theology and philosophy, called the problem of haecceity (essential “thisness”). Schneiderman pinpoints the requisite subtleties with a weaver’s needle. In his death-by-flower poems (“Hyacinthus I” and “II”), he turns a wry eye upon the notion that Apollo had preserved anything of Hyacinthus in his eponymous flower, ending the first poem with, “Who are we fooling? // I’m just plain dead,” and the second with:

Who wants
to be a flower?

Better that weeds
should mark my grave

than the stars
should hold my face.

This frames the issue in a smart(ing?) little star-rimmed face. In “Echo (Narcissus)”—a sort of third wheel or three-way for the “death by flower” pair—the Narcissus myth is restored to its context of male-male love, and (as always in these poems, with a twist) it speaks for an Echo who learns to say “No.”

In “Probability,” the problem of haecceity comes more clearly into relief:

________The statistical probability of being a dinosaur
at the moment that the meteor hit is impossible to calculate,
because you would have to know whether any given dinosaur
was as likely to be any other given dinosaur, or whether
any living thing is as likely to be any other living thing—
but no matter what, the chance was tiny. No matter how you do
the math, every single dinosaur was statistically safe from
meteors. But then again, here we are, you and me, as human
and furless as we might have hoped, tiny teeth, opposable
thumbs, and all the birds locked out of our safe, insured
houses.

Here we see another large-looming theme, really a component of the problem of haecceity. If something is essentially ‘this’—an exact and unique something—then it can’t be exchanged for something very much similar, or even something identical in all its properties (Leibniz argued: if two things are identical in all their properties, those two things are really one thing). But look!—Schneiderman’s poems ask between (and within) the lines—at how exchangeable and reversible we and our circumstances are. By a fluke, we’re the ones insured, for the moment. The oscine dinosaur descendents are in the garden singing… for the moment.

In “Sailor at Nostrand and Bedford,” the non-uniqueness of exchangeable things is again brushed against. Here, from the poem’s second section:

There was a sailor, once.

What we wanted

was the same,

and each other

was the last place

we’d looked.

And in “The Book of the Boy,” the issue is fully foregrounded, pleading loudly:

____________“Why was I made?”
and the answer comes: “Because we
wanted you,” which puzzles the boy.

“But there was no me to want,” the boy
protests, and the answer comes: “Well,
we wanted something like you.” And the boy asks

“Would any small person have done?”
and the answer comes: “Any small person
we made. It was critical that we be the ones

who made it.” The boy hesitates.
The answers are getting angry. At last:
“So I was interchangeable? Then?

Before I was made?”

The poem ends exasperated and without resolution. Hiding in dreams, “maybe / by morning, he’ll be someone / specific and loved and necessary.”

Near the end of the book, in the four-part poem, “Notes on Detention” (in effect the title poem: in the second part we learn that there are six striking surfaces on the human hand, and the strongest striking surface is the elbow, according to the latest interrogation manual), we once again snag this braided issue of identity. We encounter a mine-detonating robot that has done its work so dutifully that it’s lost all but one of its legs, and is continuing to scrape along on its last before an army colonel “declared the test inhumane and stopped it. / The robot’s inventor was surprised, as this / is what the robot had been designed to do.” Then comes the crux:

________Perhaps the robot stepped
through the same door into humanity
that every victim steps out of. Perhaps
we should find that door.

In the next, the book’s penultimate poem, “The person you cannot love,” we’ve reached the end of probing the issue until, in the final poem, we’re asked to bury it in a bed of flowers that Schneiderman’s husband tends. “I Love You and All You Have Made,” wraps up the triple helix of identity—transubstantiation, exchangeability, haecceity—into a convincing and moving three-line finale: “Some days, I flatter myself to think / that I’m one of your flowers. Some days, / I flatter myself to think I’m not.”

Viewing this book through one (or three related) of its themes, much that recommends it has been passed over: its several senses of humor; its pop-culturings sprinkled handsomely throughout; its rabbinical backstories; its children’s crusades; and its wise and wide-eyed meditation on war—“Billboard Reading: War Is Over / Billboard Reading: (If You Want It)”—that puts Prometheus in dialogue with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the Aztecs, and the 1952 film, High Noon, to name a few. Nor have I mentioned my favorite poem in the book, “The Numbers Wait with God for Humans to Invent Them,” which involves Two’s being kissed, Four’s hair being tussled, imaginary numbers “who screamed at night / the things they knew,” and—almost free of charge, almost subliminally—a parable about the freedom that is division.

Fearless and affectionate, Striking Surface is a book of lyric poems that neither emphasize narrative nor shy away from it. The story, when it comes to a poem, seems to come across a music already being played; an understanding already being groped; an Ariadne’s thread already followed halfway back. Schneiderman’s are exuberances on dark topics, trimmed to their essentials, and plangent (rung up and down turns of thought and feeling) in what remains.

“Not freed / but caught up in what thinking tries to conceal:” that is what spending time with Timothy Donnelly’s poetry feels like, “where to know / is to feel knowledge dissolving. . .” (“Chapter For Breathing Air Among the Waters”).

Essentially metaphysical, the poems of Donnelly’s second book, The Cloud Corporation, are fueled and refueled by self-critical dueling, a curiosity about being, and a skepticism of being’s significance. The speaker’s craft is self-referential but never heavy-handed. The book is also driven by an inexhaustible love for language; many of these poems are expertly wrought love letters to language itself.

It is particularly refreshing to encounter Donnelly’s poems amid the ongoing financial spiral, with politicians posturing at troubleshooting and the generally frustrating vapidity (not to mention downright falseness) flying around like debris in the wind. Though these poems are not overtly political, there is an undercurrent of social and political commentary. Donnelly observes, “the mind that fear and disenchantment fatten / comes to boss the world around it . . . .” Readers may come to different interpretations of what precisely Donnelly is referring to, but I don’t think Donnelly would oppose connections to the current political and financial quagmires.  Unlike most of the ad copy and corporate verbiage, which Donnelly satirically appropriates and alchemizes for reintegration into his own creations, Donnelly’s poetry can be taken to heart. He speaks like a parent who is not afraid to tell a child the hard truths he’s garnered from living: that most things are unstable (especially knowledge), that the significance of our existence is debatable, and that “nothing might feel good for a time” (“The New Hymns”).

These poems shine in the cold light of acknowledgment of things few people openly admit. In the first poem of the collection, “The New Intelligence,” Donnelly acknowledges that practicality does exert an influential hand in what happens, despite our romantic (or naïve) desire for it to be otherwise. The speaker and a loved one

observe an arrangement in rust and gray-green,
a vagueness at the center whose slow, persistent
movements some sentence might explain if we had time

or strength for sentences.

Donnelly acknowledges that if you are involved with living, you are probably weary. But his willingness to admit exhaustion, disenchantment, and uncertainty is coupled with tenderness. He does not merely point out where existence and the world fall short of our expectations; he also exhibits love for other people and the things that make up the world around us. These expressions of love escape preciousness every time because they are unmasked and unabashed. The speaker takes pride in how vulnerable he feels when in the presence of the person he loves:

I love that when I call you on the long drab days practicality

keeps one of us away from the other that I am calling
a person so beautiful to me that she has seen my awkwardness
on the actual sidewalk but she still answers anyway.

Yet for as much as these poems traipse amidst the clouds with an inquisitive and intellectual demeanor, they are also firmly rooted in the adult world, on the ground, anchored there by various responsibilities. I do not think it is an accident that the third poem in a book of forty-nine poems is a cheeky yet serious apostrophe “To His Debt.” Donnelly asks, like an indentured servant out of a Monty Python skit, grimacing through a smile, “What wealth / could ever offer loyalty like yours”? Somehow, perhaps paradoxically, Donnelly manages to depict that endless impediment to freedom with a Stevensian lexicon and aplomb:

My phantom, my crevasse—my emphatically
unfunny hippopotamus, you take my last red cent

and drag it down into the muck of you, my
sassafras, my Timbuktu. . .

Donnelly faces a thing that many people might deny—debt is uncomfortable, it makes it harder to breathe, it prevents us from hamming up our characteristically American idealism. He tells it like it is instead of looking away: “there you are, supernaturally / redoubling over my shoulder like the living / wage I never make, but whose image I will always / cling to. . . .”

Donnelly frequently turns his knack for facing reality on himself. His is a Blake-ian eye that sees outward, and inward too—at times with hyperbolic self-scrutiny, as in “Clair De Lune,” or with poignant projection, as in “To His Own Device.” In the latter poem the speaker addresses a specter, a shadow-self, “an antic of the mind”:

What’s more, I said, you are amiss in this ad hoc quest
for origin and purpose. . . .

—At this, the figure dropped the box from its hands,
turned down a dock I remembered and wept.
I followed it down there, sat beside it and wept.

The speaker acknowledges, while weeping beside a personification of his craft, that “being itself had made things fall apart this way.” Donnelly exhibits a constitution that can stomach such an observation and keep going, despite the fact that our very existence and the course of events mar the world. He sees that “the air nearest earth / …had been ruined by what happens” (“Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow”).

-

These poems do not limit themselves to the abstract. Some poems are lush with things—”sea-thistle, pinecones, a crate of tangerines” (“The New Hymns”). Others meditate explicitly on the production of commodities; “The Rumored Existence of Other People” interweaves litanies of things with the poignancy that comes from investing things with meaning:

A silver line, a souvenir, a sieve of relation
meaning to release something lovingly means always
remaining tied to it. . .

. . .The more I gave it thought the more it seemed to me
obvious. Also touching. Whoever built that warehouse

across the way built it thinking someone would one day
look at it in wonder. Also sorrow. To keep an endless
store of that feeling. To make, to provide it. . .

Occasionally, these poems do settle down for the night into a blissful, if brief, quotidian moment—”a present too lived-in to cherish” (“Chivas Regal”). From the speaker’s location in the bathtub, we hear his humble thought said aloud to the steam-filled room: “In this life I’ll almost certainly / not be acquainted with / much luxury. . .” (“His Theogony”). The speaker indulges in these spare pauses as if exhausted by previous sessions (and resting for future ones) battling a kind of Minotaur amid labyrinthine syntax. Though instead of half-man, half-bull, this hybrid monster is half-self, half-metaphysical conundrum; and the speaker’s sword is his mind. See him winding through maze-like syntax, pursuing a grasp on the idea of knowledge, in part four of the excellent “Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow,”

In the shade of the need to know, to know that what was once
remains, grows the knowledge that what was

was almost certainly not that, not merely,
not once. There is a way through all this—

After the speaker questions everything, including experience itself, he concludes with a reversal of previous perception: “what was / was almost certainly not that.” At times Donnelly plays with reflections of words so successfully (giving off optical and aural illusions) that language seems to unlock just for him. A lesser writer, or a mere dabbler in wordplay might get lost in the maze of language and never find a path to meaning. But Donnelly’s prismatic configurations of words masterfully reveal meaning every time. He writes, “After the first weeks after, I lost myself remembering / the worth of what was lost, the cost of which was nothing.”

The more time I spend with these poems, the greater my impulse is to treat them like impressionist paintings— stepping closer, observing the layered brush strokes, then stepping back and observing the whole, then stepping closer again. . . But, reading these poems aloud and carefully listening to the words seems to reveal even more than just looking. I hear that the words are not illusory, nor is their meaning. The lines, if you listen to them, speak directly to you. Who of us has not swam out farther than we should have, trying to remember “the worth of what was lost”?

Almost every poem in Matthew Zapruder’s third book, Come On All You Ghosts (a statement that is both joke and plea) starts with the word today or implies it with a declaration involving an observation almost generic in sound and meaning:

“Today a ladybug flew through the window.  I was reading”

“Today in El Paso all the planes are asleep on the runway….”

“I woke this morning to the sound of a little voice”

“Sometime around 11 p.m. the you I was thinking of”

“Today I read about the factory”

“This morning I rode my gray metal bike”

“Today I have the feeling that no matter”

“Today I am going to pick you up at the beige airport”

Of course, that recurring intention of today gets predictable after a while, but Zapruder uses it to compose poems that sound like what the love child of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara by way of San Francisco rather than New York might sound like:  surreal, funny, dry, cynical and clever.  Like Ashbery, Zapruder makes maps of language, usually in one stanza, that speak directly to our virtual age in the somewhat disarming way many people have learned to speak to it:  with a quiet awe and a kind of increasing distraction.  Zapruder gives us a world made of incidents and images meant to enlarge living into a kind of sweet cartoon while making it feel close:  that short distance drawn between the experience and the effect of the experience:

This morning I made extra coffee
for the beloved and covered
the cup with a saucer.  Skelton
I thought, and stay

very still, whatever it was
will soon pass by and be gone.

Or a world that outlines the failure of memory:

Everything I know about birds
is I can’t remember plus
two of the four mourning
also known as rain
doves, the young ones
born in my back yard
just this April

The mind is constantly moving here, even when it is trying to be still (sorting out the past, dealing with his grief—exquisitely documented in the title poem—or revealing any saving grace the natural world has to offer).  Life is no bigger than one’s own autobiography and there’s an objectivity when one applies the pressure to its meaning.  Thoughts are things:

I like the word pocket.  It sounds a little safely
dangerous.  Like knowing you once
bought a headlamp in case the lights go out
in a catastrophe

Zapruder reports on life as it is being lived, being chased, being failed at.  His past—in the poems where the past mostly only intersects with the present (though these poems never really follow a strict memory narrative tract)—is something that memory sifts and turns vague and general, even when it’s punctuated with subjects of clarity: children and violence, for example:

… I played
Santa in the Christmas play
which made sense.
One day Luis stabbed
another kid with a pencil
in the throat, he was also fine.
Another day i went to visit
a friendly girl and ran
straight through the plate glass
window in her apartment building
lobby and out the door
and home, my parents
never knew, I was as I would
now say unscathed.

And at the end:

I think once a parent dies
the absence in the mind
where new impressions would
have gone is clear, a kind
of space or vacuum related memories
pour into, which is good

In addition to beginning in today (which runs against Rilke’s dictum that poems should start on the turn), many poems in Come On All You Ghosts follow a speaker who is a reader as much as he is a writer and whose obsession with books is so complete that it makes living in the world seem like an interruption to reading:

Today a ladybug flew through my window.  I was reading
about a snowy plumage of the Willow Ptarmigan
and the song of the Nashville Warbler.  I was reading
the history of weather, how they agreed at last
to disagree on cloud categories.  I was reading a chronicle
of boredom that called itself The Great Loneliness
and caused a war

Perhaps Zapruder is making up the books as a way to document the imaginative mind, and it’s with that sense of invention and desire for having to know what what’s in a book that isn’t in the world that runs under all the poems sub texturally:  a kind of poetry which is a study in fixation, certainly, but also an expression of the willingness to change course, ideas, direction.  One senses Zapruder has only been thinking of his subjects only for as long as it takes him to write the poem: they’re happening, as opposed to happened and naturally they’re almost always in the present tense, beginning small with the speaker reading a book or looking at something move and ending up bigger than they were which is, in its organic way, everything one can hope for in poetry: the great and, in Zapruder’s style, always surprising enlargement of the world so we can see it.

“Content dictates form.” “Less is more.” “God is in the details.”  These three statements sum up Stephen Sondheim’s artistic credo according to Finishing the Hat, whose title seems to establish a quizzical connection between writing lyrics and millinery. The first two criteria are the standard guidelines for modernist architecture of the twentieth century, so maybe the millinery metaphor is encapsulated in the third. Still, reading this book, I have trouble understanding Sondheim as the musical equivalent to either Mies van der Rohe or Elsa Schiaparelli. Perhaps it will all eventually become clear. Of two scheduled volumes dealing with his work in musical theater, this is the first, tracking his career from an early piece titled Saturday Night (1954) up to Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Highlights include Bernstein’s West Side Story, for which Sondheim supplied the lyrics only, as well as his best-known musicals (Gypsy, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd), which feature both his lyrics and his own musical score. We’re not given the complete book for each of the musicals, only their lyrics, prefaced by a summary of the dramatic context, and a brief narrative recounting the circumstances that led to the creation of the work under discussion. Sondheim has written a preface for the volume, plus a brief essay on rhyming as it is used for song-writing; and he makes dozens of insertions in the body of the text, commenting on the success or failure of particular songs.

He also adds a series of reflections on other lyricists of musical theater, restricting himself, however, to those no longer living. It’s a prudent choice, given that Sondheim isn’t a man to cloud the expression of his judgments with considerations like politeness or collegial complicity. Were his rivals still alive, they might want to take out a contract on him. Solely on the basis of the irony and satire characteristic of his musicals, you could have guessed that he wouldn’t fall all over himself to be kind. But the fact is he’s just as hard on himself, knocking single lines or entire songs of his own if they’ve come to seem pretentious or gawky to him.  A reviewer would have to work hard to give a worse account of Sondheim’s lyrics than their author does. By the same token, we wouldn’t expect any scholar of musical theater to make as many unflattering comments about it as you’ll find in Sondheim’s text.  In an era when “going negative” about any person, place, animal, or inanimate object is regarded as a career no-no, Sondheim’s approach strikes me as fresh and honest, a tactic well worth adopting.  It’s the tone of twentieth century New York, witty, sardonic, deflationary, and only seldom cornered into praising anything that actually exists.

The opening sentences of Sondheim’s preface establishes that he doesn’t consider himself a poet in the usual sense:

This book is a contradiction in terms. Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and to be sung as parts of a larger structure: musical comedy, musical play, revue—“musical” will suffice. Furthermore, almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written not just to be sung but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them life, is a dubious proposition. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort. In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music.

Sondheim’s insistence that his lyrics don’t have enormous interest or point separated from the dramatic context for which he wrote them is fair. On the other hand, how useful are the plot summaries and descriptions of the individual scenes provided in this volume?  The problem with this format is that dramatic plot and its sequence of scenes come to effective life only when performed. The summaries offered are tedious to read and don’t do a lot to animate the lyrics they attempt to contextualize.  That part of the audience already familiar with Sondheim’s musicals won’t need the summaries, of course, and it’s safe to say that the most enthusiastic readers of this book will be his existing fans (myself included), who will welcome the chance to linger over lyrics they’ve heard but not memorized. Precisely because of Sondheim’s preference for song-writing that is rooted in character, and a literary practice that prefers flatness and plainness to what is “poetic,” I doubt this collection by itself will win new converts.  To appreciate Sondheim the lyricist, you have to see (and hear) the musicals themselves, and you can begin get your feet wet by searching for him on YouTube.

Sondheim’s mind is more ad hoc and emotional than analytical and scholarly.  He doesn’t discuss the difference between meter in music and meter in poetry.  He doesn’t tell us that English-language poems after Chaucer were traditionally written in accentual-syllabic meter, whereas song lyrics manage with accentual meter alone, not restricting themselves to a regular syllable count.  How so? Well, because the note value in a given bar of music can divide itself into smaller units to accommodate extra syllables while maintaining the governing beat.  To add or subtract syllables in a metrical line of poetry, however, risks derailing the meter. It’s true that many hymns and songs are quite strictly accentual-syllabic, but popular song usually loosens the syllable count; and lyrics for musicals go still further in that direction.

Making his distinction between poems and lyrics, Sondheim oversimplifies the more general question of the relationship between words and music. A full discussion would require, first, some reflections on the fact that all classical Greek lyrics were sung to musical accompaniment (it’s the Greek lyre that gives us the word “lyric”), as well as Anglo-Saxon poems like Deor and Beowulf. If Sappho’s poems were sung, that should be sufficient refutation of the claim that musical lyrics can’t have all the qualities we expect in poems as such. There are also the wonderful sung poems in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Fear no more the heat o’the sun” and “Full fathom five thy father lies,” not to mention a number of subtle lyrics in Dryden’s dramatic works.  Bach’s Passions are interspersed with poetic arias of some verbal complexity; and if the King James Bible qualifies as poetry, then Handel’s arias and choruses in Messiah amount to great poetry set to music.  A few opera librettists composed arias worth reading without musical accompaniment: Lorenzo da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro), Arrigo Boïto (Otello and Falstaff), and Hugo von Hoffmanstal (Der Rosenkavalier).  Even Sondheim acknowledges the high quality of the arias in Auden’s and Kallman’s The Rake’s Progress. He also has unqualified praise for the lyrics Richard Wilbur wrote for Candide, and in fact Wilbur has collected some of those in his books.  (Digression: why have producers of new Broadway musicals mounted since Candide never again asked a professional poet to provide lyrics for them?)

The problem intensifies when we stop to consider that many poets, Auden among them, have used the title “Song” for some of their poems, even though no tune is provided.  What does it mean to call a poem without musical scoring a “song”?  Short answer: a “song” without musical accompaniment is a poem whose sound qualities hold more interest than the poem’s paraphrasable content.  I don’t know of any poem designated as a “song,” that is composed without meter and rhyme. For that matter, about 99% of all pop music rhymes, the rhyming skillful in varying degrees, with country music lyrics generally the best.  Meanwhile, Sondheim insists that lyrics in musical theater must rhyme, and that the rhymes must be perfect rhymes, not near or slant equivalents.  He doesn’t provide a justification of this requirement, and we assume the stricture is based on nothing more or less substantial than audience expectations and the conventions of the musical genre.  Somehow Sondheim’s not bothered by the contradiction between his insistence that, on one hand, lyrics must reflect the linguistic earmarks of the character singing them and, on the other, the fact that no one speaks in rhyme.  If you aren’t bothered by the non-naturalistic aspect of rhymes in solos, dialogue, and choruses, it’s odd to become incensed as Sondheim does when a character’s lyrics use long words and elaborate metaphors, features that he dismisses as falsely “poetic” and unsuitable for the actual dramatis personae of the work.

The truth is, rhyming belongs to the “entertainment” component in musical theater.  Rhymes entertain even when they don’t perform an important semantic or structural function.  They take us back to the childhood world of “Hickory, dickory dock” and “Row, row, row your boat,” of  “Jabberwocky” and Dr. Seuss.  Let’s acknowledge it in so many words: we like musical theater because it’s entertaining, not because it is profound. Sondheim comes close to saying as much when he comments that Othello is a richer play than Verdi’s Otello and that Shaw’s Pygmalion has more real content than My Fair Lady.  If richness and profundity are your primary goal, then you don’t devote your talents to musicals.  They have their moments of sadness and disappointment, but there is no tragic musical.  All right, but do musical comedies at least have some serious content? As with most artistic phenomena, it’s a question of degree.  Sondheim refers to theater historians who single out Showboat and Oklahoma! as first efforts to move the lightweight, unambitious form of musical theater current in the 1920s and 1930s toward an art with more content, one that could present and fill out characters of complexity and depth. He inscribes himself in this movement and insists that it is the source of his own practice, which should be understood as more serious than what the general run of authors of musicals offer. We can acknowledge the favorable comparison, but that doesn’t establish a magisterial degree of seriousness.  Sondheim is the greatest living auteur in musical theater, and his works certainly have more content than the bits of fluff that kept Broadway box offices busy in 1925. But they don’t have the complexity and depth that we discover in the best of his contemporaries who write for legitimate theater. That isn’t to say that his work is valueless.  No one wants to live seven days a week in the mode of the sublime or of tragic grandeur.  Popular art forms give us a break from tedium and spiritual pinnacles both, and why not?  We need them, but we should know what it is we need, and why.

To get some perspective, I’d like to extend this discussion and comment on the extremely high value that British critic Christopher Ricks assigns to Bob Dylan, whom he has named “the greatest living American poet.”  It’s a ranking that probably influenced the decision of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry’s editors to include Dylan’s lyrics (without musical scoring) in the fifth edition. This was a misguided choice. When we hear Dylan sing the lyrics he writes in his own sui generis voice, with the musical accompaniment he has worked out for them, our attention is fully engaged, and we may also feel that he is saying something important above and beyond the sonic appeal of the song.  But in print the lyrics don’t function as actual poems do, in fact, they often verge on a silliness hard to swallow when combined with Dylan’s default mode of condescension.  When we read them, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what the-devil they really mean, and the answer, my friend, isn’t blowin’ in the wind.   A gold chain is a fairly boring object when not adorning someone’s neck, and the same goes for pop lyrics outside their musical context.

The music theater rival that Sondheim dislikes the most is Noël Coward, whose lyrics he describes as too clever and brittle to inspire confidence and empathy. But what’s the point of applying standards belonging to late 20th-century America to works conceived for the British public of the 1920s and ’30s.  To appreciate works of art from earlier eras always requires a little archeological spadework. No one could enjoy a play by Racine or an opera by Wagner without a lot of preliminary study.  It’s precisely Coward’s overplus of wit and verbal acrobatics that makes his lyrics fun to read on the page, even though they might be distracting or hard to follow word by word when sung.  Coward was forthright enough to say he had “only a talent to amuse,” as though that talent were nothing at all.  Like one of his models, W.S. Gilbert, (whom Sondheim also dislikes intensely), Coward had considerable skill with meter and rhyme, and that’s another reason his lyrics are interesting when we encounter them through print alone.  Though I’m happy to be in the audience of Sondheim’s musicals, only a few of his lyrics repay a cold examination on the page: “I’m Still Here” (from Follies), “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music), some of the choruses from The Frogs, and the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from that work.  These engage us partly because Sondheim sometimes overcomes his resistance to being verbally clever and deploys a Cowardesque wit in the development of the lyrics. As for the other lyrics, though rather drab when shorn of musical accompaniment, they are effective in their dramatic setting, and none ever falls completely flat. They don’t succeed as poems, as Sondheim’s preface states; instead, they have a different ambition and use.

I’ve gone farther than the second mile in the negative direction, but I want to conclude by saying that I found this book compulsive reading.  Sondheim’s commentary on musical theater, as practiced by others and himself, is riveting and often has a relevance that extends to legitimate theater as well.  The narratives of the origin of his concepts for particular works are fascinating, along with the anecdotes he tells about developing them with his collaborators, a roster that includes the most celebrated talents in the musical theater of his time. His discussion of rival lyricists, though unforgiving, even so marks out a very clear artistic profile for each figure, altering in small ways or large our sense of their accomplishment.  The strangest omission in the book is a discussion of his role as composer.  We admire Sondheim not only for his theatrical ideas and his lyrics but also for the music, which is anything but routine or inept.  (He studied composition with Milton Babbit, and is familiar with musical classics of the past two centuries, as well as film scores by the likes of Korngold and Steiner. In fact, one of my favorite film scores is the one he wrote for Stavisky.)  Why doesn’t he discuss the compositional process in its relationship to theater?  How did his work as a lyricist change once he began composing scores for his musicals, and not just the words?  Sondheim never goes into these topics, but that means that he has room to do so in the second volume, which I will certainly want to read if it’s as informative as this one.  He may by then have mustered the courage, too, to weigh in on his living contemporaries, a critique that couldn’t fail to be gripping.  The chance to speak freely about, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works or Les Misérables would be well worth the price of hiring a bodyguard from Pinkerton and wearing a bullet-proof vest.  Assassination attempts would soon peter out, and Sondheim would be left center stage under a pink spot singing the now-classic standard from Follies, the wisecracking, subacid “I’m Still Here,” which begins, “Good times and bum times,/ I’ve seen them all, and, my dear,/ I’m still here.”

A Review of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White

What does he write of? The poet searches into his own lonely darkness and parses the secrets buried within it. He gets down, fat and breathless in his small turning, puts his body down in a stale bed, leans into this isolation, closes his eyes and dreams your body there, next to his, and relishes the event of your mutual rest, the transient physicality of your mutual interest, your deliciously losable connections, the time he was with you: he is making you again, not wholly but religiously, snacking on such remembrances, scooping up the fragments of you lingering in the lacunas of your being gone. He builds a reclusive paradise next to the bittersweet ways you have slipped away from him, from life, the way death’s stern promise folds you up in an incomplete absence, and there and thus he almost saves you, unsatisfactorily but earnestly; he mingles his melancholia with your traces, and eats that imaginary paradigm like a meal taken directly after a meal, without guilt (or with a pleasure in guilt), with the indulgence of a body alone to rule his own kingdom of shadows of you. The poet writes through the way of his life, “the ordinary composure of loving, loneliness, and death.” You are not invisible, not totally irretrievable, you are “buried in so many places,” halfway waiting in the unrecognized seduction of the liminal world between the back of the nightstand and its shadow on the wall. His is a poetics of longing, the profundity of desire, and this construction, this tragicomic funhouse populated by what’s indelibly left of the disappeared, is a sorry confirmation that neither you nor he will be, finally, saved. “I’d trade these words on the spot / to see you again.” If this ritual is not really seeing, what then? what does he write of? what is happening?

Maybe the archetypal James L. White poem is a memory of intimacy, the hard-won, precarious sort known by a culture of outsiders, which is uniquely coded, uniquely sentenced to expire, yet still so desired, still utterly precious, if not in its instance than in the recovery of it when the bed is let back to a single body. To capture such intimacy, that which was tinged with unreality and doom even as it happened, is to embrace its fictive capability, to invoke the fantasy of a fantasy, to find the supernatural weight the other’s presence gifted the room, the poem moving around it “the way ships move heavily between moon and sun, not lost / but like a well-piloted dream.” Then, for the real bruise of resonance, to try and carve into the fiction and pull out the emotional injury locked in its marrow. “I pant hard over this poem / wanting to write your body again.” Sometimes this seems like enough, like the verse is really discovering at something that means, but the disappointment of this practice, the masturbatory futility, can also shut down the pleasure and significance of it: “I want more.” In these poems where White performs, reruns, his lovers and friends out of their departure and back into his bed, to a seat next to him at his table, to his touch, sometimes he takes it so far that he breaks the poem, which he candidly acknowledges: “I just have to stop here Jess. / I just have to stop.” Exposition has its limits. In the clutter of angst, though, these poems will suddenly stab directly at something so nakedly honest, it’s impossible to disbelieve White hasn’t reanimated something displaced by circumstance. Through the tenuous panting across the empty space, he captures how it feels to be in love, lines himself inside the feeling. This is how “Skin Movers” concludes:

In this joyous season I know my heart won’t die
as you and the milk pods open their centers
like a first snow in its perfection of light.

Good love is like this.
Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better,
this being out of myself for a while.

James L. White died before I was born. In an autobiographical fragment, he describes himself thus: “I was a half-rate ballet corps dancer, a soldier, a poet of some small merit, and wanderer of the earth, and a self-hater.” He has never found a position in the canon of gay American poets, most everything besides his final, posthumously published, work The Salt Ecstasies is seemingly totally dismissed, but the importance of his writing is not so rarefied that it has gone completely unacknowledged. He is simply relegated to the quiet niche of the outsider artist, the wonderful secret, poet’s poet or whatever, where this book has somewhat languished, though now brought back to a kind of prominence with its inclusion in the Graywolf Poetry Re/View series, which aims to guide “essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print” under the direction of series editor Mark Doty, who handled the reissue this year (which includes a modest sample of previously uncollected material) and also wrote a marvelous introduction.

For me, the closest points of reference, in considering this book, are Leland Hickman and John Rechy. The similarly obscure, though denser, Hickman wrote poems with thematic overlaps; Rechy, of course, conjures a twilit world populated by lonesome, maladjusted denizens lurching around each other’s bodies under what White called the “tit-pink” neon of a bygone age of lurid cruising. As Mark Doty notes, “memory supplies context for this desire, and lust leads to the memory that wounds.” For anybody, especially a queer body, who read any of these three writers’ work around the time of their publications–one gets the sense he felt exposed to a new kind of writing, a display, an accomplishment, hitherto uncharted: the liberation of a gay male psychology across the page. Writes Doty (re: White), “In 1982, I’d never read a poem like this […] The diction of sex is fraught with peril.” But Doty also describes how a much younger poet once received The Salt Ecstasies: “He hated the book. He objected to the speaker’s seemingly intractable loneliness, to his night-realm of bars and baths and bus station […] He hated the shame that informed the book; White’s poems did not affirm him; they did not offer hope.” That perspective is understandable as it is unfortunate. White’s poems are mired in a period, but not stiffly so: they breathe, they surf along the pulse of memory and desire; while they cannot speak to today’s reader in exactly the same manner as a contemporary of Mr. Doty’s, they speak yet, complicatedly, and settle down into your spine all the same. The political climate has changed (maybe less significantly than we would like to think) and yet the base themes threaded through the verse of this collection, so lovingly stitched, trigger our guts and intelligences despite an anachronistic hopelessness (if White’s poems can even be said to articulate a profound lack of hope instead of, say, a lens of opulent solitude). Doty’s greatest insight, in his introduction, offers us a mature way to read the haunting quality of these poems: “further and further from the closet, we come to an increasingly complex understanding of the power and failure of desire, the ways that liberation isn’t a cure for loneliness or soul-ache or despair. Not that we’d trade this hard-won freedom for anything; it’s simply that we’re as free to be as sexually confused, as bowled over by longing, as uncertain as anyone else is.” We are free to believe that the answer to What does he write of? is you.

Last time, we saw that in his critical introduction to Unusual Woods, Gene Tanta wants us to approach his poetry both as immigrant poetry (which means a couple of things) and for its aesthetic value. I postulated that he accomplishes a dialectic between “local” and “universal” through strategies that extend and enrich Deep Image and surrealist poetics. Let’s see how this happens.

First, look at how these thirteen-line “ghost-sonnets,” as he calls them, are built:

The cavalry is always peering down into the ravine
whenever you’re not looking.
Someone is burping.
Someone is shirt-shinning the author’s coffin.
Someone’s nose or finger or toe
is playing in the underwater roots downstream.
Under the lean and starry sky
the fortune-teller
took your money, saying:
You seem far away,
like a cuckoo clock on a sunken ship.
If it consoles you,
you’ll die on an odd breath or an even breath.

Architecturally, this poem comprises fragmented, disjoined images struggling towards coherence. The second person pronouns and the indefinite pronoun “someone” establishes some cohesion of persons. But temporally, there are problems. The three lines beginning with “someone” borrow the surreal technique of the continuous (indefinite) present tense, in which multiple, seemingly disconnected actions are happening simultaneously. “Always” in the first line also suggests a continuous, indistinct present tense—in a sense, it is an eternal present, which is to say, no time at all. If one needs events passing over time to have narrative structure, this poem is putting up a fuss.

Even so, paradoxically, the simultaneity of the events forces a coherent reading. Parataxis aside, normal reading expectations demand that proximity (in the text) implies relationship. But here, at least within the narrative framework of the poem, persons and events are disjoined. Thus, like a collage, these images are simply asserted (placed by the artist) and readers are forced to make what they will of it. Implicitly, these seemingly disconnected things are envisioned as unified, which is the surreal experience of the “marvelous” or the Deep Image experience of the “deep image.”

So Tanta’s poems are built like surrealist collage; in addition, the images themselves are surreal in their catachresis and play. What is the meaning of that cavalry peering into the ravine? And what is to be made of the cuckoo clock on the sunken ship? Throughout Unusual Woods, Tanta freezes the reader with similarly obscure imagery:

Clearly, you are a severed viper head
and not as you claim

and

his eyes flickered (beaten)
in a gold-leaf epic splashed inside his skull

and

Yet another hooligan utopia
awaits its facial hair to grow.

and

My pulsebeat still listens for yours,
a ghost just leafing thru,
the library books of your body.

These images succeed not just because they are surprising and beautiful, but also because they are teasingly suggestive, even while their possible meanings are limited and redirected within the complex structure of the whole. As Tanta says in his essay, structure gives us the means by which we can approach the text aesthetically and thus as something universal (because beauty and structure are universal).

But what of the local? Tanta explores his identity as an immigrant and ESL poet in the courageous (but tasteful) exploitation of puns, idioms and other kinds of word play. In general, ESL poets tend to take things literally, resulting in images that are deeply ironic for readers even though they underscore the speaker’s innocence and naïveté : “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words on his inner thigh….” At times the poet admits to (not insignificant) gaps in comprehension: “It’s so hard to tell few from fewer” (47). Other times deliberate ESL-like misuse of language can create a new, interesting phrase: “A dash sparrows in to sip a little water / from the water-fountain” (85). The poet cannot resist playful manipulation of idioms: “He had an ax to pick / and a bone to grind.” Finally, and most rewardingly, the ESL vantage point exposes metaphoric relationships hidden within the language itself:

At night, lightning flashes its teeth
over the Seine.

Surely, whether consciously or not, the poet discovers the idiom “flashing a smile” to be congruently matched to lightning, which literally “flashes.” Thus, the teeth/lightning relationship was idiomatically implanted in our language without our (or at least my) noticing it; it took the eye of an immigrant to find it.

My final observation is that in spite of the obscure images, anti-narrative structures, and non-transparent language, Tanta’s poems project a clear voice that navigates the reader. While Unusual Woods could be analyzed thematically (there are numerous gypsies, firing squads, and dictators), I found the personality of the speaker to be a more important (perhaps the most important) unifying force in this collection. Whether it concerns love, family or writing, the voice’s sincerity gives the sonnets weight and timbre. Here is one example:

My father did not invent fire and I refuse to vote
the birds in thick alarm.
I am thru with my voice, here it is
like a fire:
About what you cannot sing you weep and sob and cry.
Along these atlases
we alter things all the time with our sexual conduct.
You don’t know me as a broken arrow’s broken diction
but by my desperate Dionysian catapult,
by my Grecian star map,
by my Assyrian aqueduct, by my Brooklyn bridge,
by my Yugoslavian copper, by my Sumerian plow.
Once a termite lived.

Sandwiched between the cryptic first and third sentences is a dazzlingly direct, emotional statement about the writer’s own struggle to speak (as immigrant and as poet). Then there is a catalogue of exotic items by which we will “know” him. Whatever it is these items collectively mean—taking note, meanwhile, that Eastern European and America are represented—their symbolic resonance clearly outweighs the brokenness of self and speech that is the mark of an immigrant (“a broken arrow’s broken diction”). And yet, it is this “broken diction” that is partly to thank for the success of his poems (not that Tanta reads like anything less than a master of the language). And even though the disjunction of the last line deflates the intensity of these personal, direct statements, the sonnet undoubtedly proclaims something vital about the speaker. The core self is at stake.

And this is the coolest thing about Tanta’s work—even though these poems are centered on a persona, the indeterminable and seemingly fragmentary aspects of the world co-exist with the self. That is to say, aspects of the self and aspects of the world are placed in relationship. “Once a termite lived”—in the context of the poem, this statement and what it signifies are appended to the self and become an aspect or extension of it. The self is neither merely “a broken arrow [with] broken diction,” nor even a compilation of architectural structures and tools; rather, and ultimately, these poems are about an introspective, enculturated, embodied soul who must interpret the world in order to make sense of its own existence. It is because the world—whether native or foreign—is such a strange place that one finds oneself looking for meaning within “unusual woods.”

Gene-cov-lg

Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.

In The New Tourism, Mathews lets the loose cohesion of his poems suggest profundities that seem unlikely coming from often mundane subjects. His poems are cohesive because of formal structure and theme, but it is a deliberately incoherent kind of cohesion. The effect is delicate and oblique, and it is growing on me.

Mathews likes wandering off the topic (or, really, having no real topic, no subject of discourse), a familiar strategy of Ashbery and other New York poets with whom he is associated:

For me the identification of trees has always been a puzzle, one not really made easier by consulting the tree book inside my house, where no trees are. I can certainly remember the caramel color of beech leaves in fall, the cropped silhouettes of plan trees along the highway . . . the purpled boughs of Judas trees where no swallow ever perches.

But do swallows ever perch? It seems that every swallow I’ve seen out of its caked nest is part of an ever-changing, bug-eating swarm—a puzzle too mobile to decipher, tumbling and soaring over the cross of a church in Tuscany or Touraine, with pink evening light inside the bell of the air, an image that saddens me when I return to a highway leading north into the night think and empty as caramel custard.

Gorgeous images without a narrative thread to speak of. The speaker digresses smoothly and almost imperceptibly from trees to birds to cake. It’s pleasant and deceptive.

That is part of a prose poem called “Crème Brûlée,” which is not, despite the title, really about custard. Mathews is only teasing you with references to caramel; he’s also thrown in quite a bit about swallows and wine and modern life and the dark side of the psyche:

There are no demons inside you, just your addiction to any puzzle that will addle your contentment, like salt in caramel. You swallow your last glass of wine and return, not unhappily, to the highway.

All the themes have recurred and been recapitulated, but the poem’s point is elusive. Yet, we can’t very easily write off all these wonderfully suggestive images as meaningless, and there does not seem to be any deliberate (and certainly no malicious) trickery. Something’s going on even in the absence of argument and story.

How do the poems gain their highly suggestive character? It is through a highly developed sensitivity to both the literal sensations of the body and the “sensations” of thought. In The New Tourism, Mathews is a conscientious, intelligent hedonist. He is a wine lover, food connoisseur and lover of picturesque landscapes. (If the ability to write breathtaking description is a sign of a skilled poet, he got skills.)

Mathews the hedonist is especially into gastronomic pleasures. In addition to the wine-centric haiku, Halal lamb, and Genoese lunch, the book’s first section, a single poem called “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem,” is a rather simple litany of about five different ways of making eggs. My favorite part is the scrambled eggs:

When the fat sizzles and smokes
at maximum heat, the skillet withdrawn from the flame,
the eggs are poured into its center and there with a fork or wooden spatula
immediately stirred and turned so that no part of them
stays long in contact wit the scorching surface but the whole
is uninterruptedly mixed and remixed until, attaining a soft solidity,
it can be folded upon itself and promptly flipped onto a plate.

Mathews is just talking about how to cook eggs. He’s paying really close attention to both the delicate things eggs are the delicate process of cooking them. What for? Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Shut up and enjoy the eggs.

And if you don’t appreciate these simple activities, you’ll never appreciate the highly oblique pleasures of Mathews’ complicated, mid-section poems. Whereas in Part I (“Eggs and Butter”) the subject matter itself provided savory delights, in Part II form and structure are the source of titillation. This is evident in “Waiting for Dusk”:

Whoever in the span of his life is confronted by the word “pomegranate”
will experience a mixture of feelings: a longing to see at least once the face
of a Mediterranean god or nymph or faun; the memory of an old silver mirror
decorated with images of varied fruits; a regret at never having known the spell
of a summer picnic ending with the taste of acrid seeds spat over the bridge
parapet . . .

. . .
. . . But here now is Simon, with his smiling silly face
from which he extracts tough seeds from his teeth with one awkward forefinger, a spell
of not unsympathetic bad manners that, if truth be told, is a mirror

of our own, perhaps more furtive acts. Then he puts on his mask, made of mirror-
like chromed metal, and I think, why, he could face an kill Medusa! Any weather
has its charm, even the green tempest surrounding her writing snakes that spell
death to the unwary traveler, snakes like a wreath of leeks in a Dutch still life where a pomegranate
cut in two glows idly near the table edge.

It’s a sestina. And it wanders. But that’s what sestinas are supposed to do. The form brings you back to an elusive center, which extends and builds the theme even while the strictures of the form almost inevitably lead to incoherence. (In other words, sestinas tend naturally toward cohesion without coherence.) In Mathews’ sestina, we are washed into meditation by the long lines, complicated sentence structures, striking details (like an “unvarnished table,” below) and the nostalgic, pastoral atmosphere. Profound philosophical gestures lurk near the surface and leap out suddenly but dissipate in the contingencies of life:

. . . Remember the pomegranate
sliced on the unvarnished table, I tell myself, that’s something sharp and real! But the spell

of the season and the melancholy hour, sweetened and damped with wine, spell
another revolution of my afternoon regrets, far from Mediterranean . . .

Ultimately, there is a kind of coherence to poems like “Crème Brûlée” and “Waiting for Dusk” that is reached through an almost aesthete-like attentiveness to sensation and thought. And this includes not only literal sensations but human thoughts and discourse. The twists and turns of the mind are like the delicate flavors of breakfast.

Michael Klein’s new book of poetry, then, we were still living, is a metaphysical meditation on identity through time and the search for the real amidst ghosts, memories, and illusory images. As in the artful illusions of theatre and movies, to which Klein alludes frequently, lighting can change everything in these poems—here people darken or there is an overwhelming bomb-blast of sunlight.

Love and loss seem to be the fundamental elements from which these poems originate. Klein leaves little, if anything, out of his depictions of the essential facets of a certain kind of writer’s life, the trials of a childhood filled with shame and pain, its fair share of neglect, and the realization, even if only for one ghastly instant, that your parents wished you were different from what you are. There is endless questioning of reality and identity; there is the friend with whom you committed the requisite mistake of sex; there is more sex with a true lover; there are the departed, the being haunted, and, always, the daily task and practice—writing—”where you turn the thing like art back into a gift / after it almost kills you” (“Day and paper”).

Klein’s poems rarely, if ever, embrace the world with a Romantic’s lyricism. Instead they announce themselves with the consonant staccato of a television’s static, the flatlined cadence that could be attributed to a person touched by post-traumatic stress—the speaker analyzes deeply emotional events without emoting, as in his utterly chronological reportage of his brother’s death in the last couplet of his poem “The twin:” “When he was living, we used to dare each other. / I dare you, he said. I dare you. And then, he died.”

It is also a distinctly post-9/11 psyche that admits the attack on the World Trade Center wasn’t like the movies and it wasn’t real (“2001″). The same psyche is wide-awake to the ongoing economic catastrophe; it intertwines childhood neglect with the enduring and ubiquitous financial strain, “The way [my father] loves me is like the way you remember money—owing / it to someone” (“The ranges”). As much as any conscientious, sensitive person prone to guilt can do, the speaker feels around for someone who we can hold in part responsible for the way we are now; he points to the “governments looking past faces into the fire / of maps on the long table” (“Not light’s version”) and to our fathers littering the ground with “false clues” which they used to confuse us and hide behind (“The ranges”).

The matter-of-fact tone and the all-but-absent-lyricism mark this book as of this time—the post-9/11, recession-beaten, warring, and electronically-oversaturated era. Klein speaks for those of us who are trying to decipher between what is real and what is illusion; these poems depict a speaker who is, like many of us today, trying to stay not only alive, but sentient, all the while bearing witness to the current tides of war, financial collapse, and personal loss.

Klein never separates pain from the love that has “made the air visible” (“The movies”). He envisions scenes of his mother’s tortured life (hung out the window by her heels as a girl, beaten by her husbands, writing a book in her mind), and it’s an act of love. Klein attempts to see his mother rather than impose an image of what he wants to see onto the memory of her. In doing so, he acknowledges the variegation of anyone who is real. Klein’s poems open to full bloom when he engages in this act of love, in seeing another person. The poignancy in the poems “The pact” and “My Brother’s Suitcase” is not sentimental. Klein writes in “My brother’s suitcase,”

The suitcase smells like heat and dust and a little bit of the smell that was left in the room
where he died – that horrifyingly real smell of death and alcohol
and something else – left on this suitcase and on the fancy Cole-Haan wallet
he bought himself one Christmas while he had a cab wait.

He used to tell that story to people because I think it meant he discovered
that his loneliness was also something that generated a sort of kindness.

Even if it was kindness towards himself, he glowed in the back seat of the cab from it.

The matter-of-factness that left earlier poems in the book somewhat brittle, even purposefully inaccessible, becomes a masterfully handled tool of illumination, which Klein uses to look fully at the images of those he loved, those who are now dead. This takes unusual strength and love, as well as a commitment to being a realist. Klein is both a realist about America—we are a country at war and mired in debt—as well as his own reality—he is someone who has suffered and survived the immense losses of his twin brother and his mother. If he is particularly cognizant of the screen images we are all subjected to on a constant basis, it’s because he commits himself to seeing what is real amidst those images: war, loss, and changes brought by time.

This is no movie set: there is the “horrifyingly real smell of death.” And only a son, out of every other being in the world, has the insight to say (in Klein’s level yet devastating voice), “my mother wasn’t finished with her life when she let it go, like a hat in the park” (“The nineties”).

Klein’s poems set in motion a deluge of questions: do we change, individually, year to year, afternoon to afternoon? Does humanity change, learn? The answers are never definitive, always dual.

Klein suggests that we as individuals do change through time, as when he ruminates,

My mother’s been dead for so long, that I don’t think she’d remember

who I was even if she did come back – if death lets memory be like
time – or covers the ground with new tracks.
My life’s been moving on the ground of each year she’s been dead

and is different than it was when she was coming over for dinner. . .

(“The nineties”).

He asks in the fourth part of the book, “Was America ever the world / we grew up with? Didn’t it stop being that somewhere in the fifties…?” But the poem that follows that one is titled “What war?” and begins, “Some people look into the television into Afghanistan / and say they can’t see anything.” His poems that address death and war beg the question of whether, in fact, humanity ever changes. Klein will not neatly answer any questions for us, but pulls us into the whirlwind of questions about our history and our present situations.

Klein questions the reality of the people in his life, referring to them as “the living list of characters in the play about my life as it was being lived” (“You”) and proposes that our world is constantly renewing itself, and that we have no choice but to be changed by the reckless tides of time: “The old fear always follows you into the new life. Who will I be?” (“The movies”).

If the waves of time (which may bring death) settle intermittently, they do so when Klein offers brief interludes of ars poetica. In the poem “You,” Klein delivers a comment about a near death experience that is so modest and unadorned it could be overlooked: “I wondered if it was important / to tell people about it.” But the sentence is an articulation of an experience every writer encounters—questioning if anything written down is important enough to share. Such questioning could, if over-indulged, snuff the entire creative gesture; but it is also a necessary editorial voice to listen to, sparingly. If we did not heed that voice in small doses, we would be left with raw heaps of material, which might satisfy some writers, but not Klein. His poems have been pruned, sheared, shaved, and whittled. He has clearly asked himself the question, is this important to tell? This question becomes more important as he considers the relationship between our present situation and the past.

Identities, in Klein’s book, are amorphous, interchangeable, and at times beguiling—he sees his dead twin brother’s distinct swagger in a reflection of himself. However, despite the shapeshifting and misunderstood identities Klein happens upon, there is a steady, consistent speaker throughout these poems who offers his vantage point of the world and of reels of memories. Readers should cling to this consistent ‘I,’ as anyone would cling to a steady form of consciousness in a world that alters or altogether disappears; like money, people and time are “always falling from our hands” (“The pact”). The ‘I’ is the rope Klein throws to us as we walk hesitatingly, jerkily, through his poems; the ‘I’ becomes an eye that lets us “see in the dark,” buoys us as we float on the “the scotch wave of light” (“A saver”).

The experience of reading these poems is not an easy, nor a rapturous one. We experience at times “the depressive’s only language: a dead language / the depressive’s temporary cure: the shine on a wave.” If, however, there is rapture in these poems, it comes from the difficulty of them. Klein’s poetry is, then, in keeping with Rilke’s advice to a young poet when he observes, “Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it….”

Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive

What a desperate trance!—The skyboat resembles a flying vulva; the city, the arc of an abandoned soliloquy.

Andrew Joron represents a small, almost indistinguishable enclave of contemporary poets who know (and appreciate that) they have been influenced by surrealism. Versus the rest of the contemporary poets who do not know they have.

Surrealism has been a controversial topic in recent decades, and there have been few poets or scholars willing (or courageous enough?) to acknowledge their indebtedness to the movement. (But not these poets! Thank God.) The biggest problem, supposedly, is one of identification and definition. Suffice it to say, in broad strokes, surrealist poetry demonstrates:

  • Radically disjunctive imagery (usually through mismatching terms from unrelated semantic fields)
  • An analogical vision of reality, wherein irreconcilable things are conceived in relations and thus are (potentially) made reconcilable
  • Undertones of Hegelian dialectic, Marxism, revolution and utopianism

At its heart, surrealism wages a political and ideological battle through language. By creating impossible images through placing disparate objects side-by-side, poetry dismantles and re-formulates our perceptions and conceptions of reality.

[click to continue…]

Writers in the scattered nation of good poetry are, in general, perfectionists. Many greats have been known to be tight-lipped about their process and to publish only what they deem categorically best. Bob Hicok, on the other hand, doesn’t seem worried about perfection. He publishes so prodigiously that it’s hard to imagine he spends any time revising his work. I remember standing in a bookstore a couple years ago grazing among the poetry publications and discovering that he had poems in approximately half of the literary journals—good ones, too. I remember feeling a mixture of jealously, skepticism of various stripes, and stunned admiration for Hicok’s unique voice.

I’ve read a fair amount of Hicok’s poetry since then—and had many opportunities, as he remains a prolific poet. The unfair comparison that occurs to me is James Patterson. But Hicok is anything but the James Patterson of contemporary poetry (if you feel like posting your “James Patterson of Contemporary Poetry Nominee” below, however, please do). In fact, Hicok’s method is quite fluid and authentic. In each of his poems I feel I’m reading a self-documented Gestalt therapy session, lineated and titled as if it were, well, a poem. And because he’s witty, loves language and play with language, and he’s fearless about publishing any mode of speech or linguistic item that in isolation would seem incredibly stupid or embarrassing, these poems are riveting and thought-provoking. Take, for example, “Call me a lyre, I dare you” which appeared originally, roughly lyre-shaped, in the Believer’s November, 2009 issue, and appears in Hicok’s latest collection Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pittsburg, 2010):

Call me a lyre, I dare you

Last or some night
light, who cares the when of this,
glittered the tree up at the end
as the wash from a car as moved the planet, I’m not
in touch with personally Saturn, in branched fingers
of eerily, I’d say off-the-shelf language, isn’t it
necessary still how life lit into the moment
to say other than the facts of it, see,
whatever the bits are inside that oscillate
or pinwheel, I was moved to internal whirring
cicadish, even though my epiphanic dog-walkings
mean shit to you in the throes of your
epiphanic askings of the moon, for what, afterall
are we in this, some random sense of, fuck
if I know, belonging

Although I once heard a line in a movie, “Puns are the death of wit,” and I generally agree, the above allusive pun really works. Embedded in its snarky standoffishness, its grimace- or smirk-worthy reference to Apollo, lies an engaging and efficiently stated constellation of ideas. And beyond this title, Hicok renders his images and utterances in a syntactically awkward but consistently surprising language, with barbed apostrophizing and care to record his own (I do not believe this is a persona, exactly) feelings, relying on a kind of uncanny luck (skill?) to have it stick together in a personable and uncontrived way. In a few words, it works. (Sorry for all the parentheses.)

In Words for Empty and Words for Full (one, of course, of Hicok’s many poetry collections), there is no one type of poem one can expect. Subject matter and formal decision-making are, metaphorically speaking, all over the map. Interesting thinking and writing, however, are everywhere to be found. Ruminating on an either real or imaginary high school friendship in a long prosy piece called “Backward,” Hicok writes:

“Because he ate twice as much as I did, you’ll find an entry in my journal about the appetite of silence. Is silence a form of hunger, I wrote, and then answered my own question: yes and no. Reading back on this now, I am disappointed in the wishy-washy quality of my thinking. I would like to go back and erase that answer. Yes, I would write, silence is a hunger for the anatomy of a moment, for the inside of things.”

Who cares if this last statement is actually true. The process of the prose, the leaps in thought, the strangeness, the comic, the humble, human admission of error, is all entertaining. Maybe it’s poetic junk-food, but Hicok’s willingness to write, and to air to us practically anything of his life or thinking, charms this reader. This is not be true of every such writer, of course, but for him, it generally works.

I say generally because these poems aren’t all base hits. Hicok’s commitment to write about any- and everything leads him down the problematic paths of discussing contemporary politics, the war, and the Virginia Tech shooting—he was teaching there at the time of this tragedy and claims (in the poems) to have had the student responsible. While documenting these historical events in poetry may be valuable for posterity’s sake, these poems are far less interesting and cutting edge feeling than the more personal, strange poems of most of the collection. Perhaps one poem about the shooting. Perhaps one poem about the war—if you must, if you must. But in general these subjects trump considerations of form and deployment of language—in short, they overdetermine the way one reads them, which for the most part ruins the magic of what Hicok does in his poetry.

Consider, for example, the beginning bit of a poem called “Whimper,” in the second section of the four:

Don’t know why the kid didn’t come after me,
I nearly failed him, fail means differently now,
or some other English prof, also dead
is not in our mouths as it was in the past,
we’d have said dead about the place,
now that the semester’s over and smiled
that we have a few months of grass and air
to ourselves, do know why we tried…

And the final bumper sticker-esque lines:

…lost if you need to find us
is where we are.

It is important for poets to function as witnesses, but the poems to which I’ll return in this collection are not the poems that mention Air Force pilots or mentally ill students responsible for on-campus atrocities. I’ll return to the poems that surprise, that don’t give a fuck about my own aesthetic sensibilities because the next poem will be different. I’ll return to poems of moments that document the need to change form, syntax, voice, tone, and everything in order to exist in their present. And fortunately, if recent history can tell us anything, there will be many such great Bob Hicok poems to admire in the future.

In a poem called “Life,” which appears in his most recent collection, Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pitt Poetry, 2010), Bob Hicok writes: “The feeling that mysticism / is the only way to be polite…. / While I was masturbating, / more rainforest / disappeared….” These disclosures feel true—and inevitable, given what at least I believe about climate change and humans continuing to be humans. Also, these tragicomic disclosures reminds me of the “Note on Method” at the opening of Aaron Kunin’s just-released, The Sore Throat & Other Poems (Fence, 2010). Kunin opines: “…I really believe that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.” I don’t know if this belief is always true, but I’m willing to read on because I really admire the poet who’s willing to publicize it (for other testimonials of admiration see, for one, the recent Peter Gizzi blurb and sampler of Aaron Kunin’s poems in the Boston Review).

Thus it is with humble joy that I’m simultaneously reading Hicok’s and Kunin’s new collections. The unruly gestalt-like deployments of Hicok’s pieces bounce wildly yet friendlily off Kunin’s careful, methodical compositions. It is with this joy in my life that I’ll offer reviews of each of these collections in the next two weeks. Check back next Sunday for the first of the two, and feel free to remark if you think Kunin poetic bullpucky or Hicok too undisciplined. I may disagree, but will read your comments with polite, continuing joy.

Dorothea Lasky is a poet of petulant grace. The particular way she does is she carves into the alphabet for poetry’s hurtfully buried, metastasized epiphanies of black life. Thence comes the fragments of jagged wonder she strings together to decorate her verse with pretty conflict. Her wonder (love and awe) is heavy and plain, stilted like she’s writing after a concussion, but the generalness of language (many fundamental ideas repeating, put forth directly) is thick—it spills over the edges of its meaning into the scary beyond. She meets herself in conversation with the space outside experience’s edges. That is the damaged holiness brought out: a haze of dirty purity like a cough toward an inaccessible God. It hurts like joy. I remembered, reading her previous collection Awe, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—an answer in there re how people change: “Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.” Lasky stitches her love and confusion, rent cosmically, together monster-like into her pages—along with shards of fuzzy relationships, tropes, emptiness, fears, wishes, loss, pride, doubt, desire, nature, the supernatural, the growling universe, the black life… and this under the shadow of a ruddy divinity barely glimpsed at for the shriek of its own confusing light.

Lasky does a lot minimally: her language, like Stein’s, is sophisticated in its retardation, pent up in its surface simplicity. Her craft is easy to read things under. Most of what she is doing, technically, is elementary. She doesn’t write, purplish, away from the nerve. The directness brings on resonance. The shapes pulse meaning, the word an animal though it’s read, “every poem full of blood and guts.” She goes mercurial between bruised-up frowning-confessional and witchy-theological/pastoral-abstract modes, of sorts, as she squishes colloquial and antiquarian postures together smoothly in her verse lines, pouring style into a page-shaped receptacle. I cannot read this as an ironic device or postmodern flourish—rather, she wants at what’s squinted at between kinds of language. What she’s reaching for is a way to wash the residue of an insincere poetics away from her truth (I would fain place such an ideal in quotes; not for her). Thence truth would be naked and cherished like an evil toy. She writes, “Maybe we are not so much false children / As we are conduits for the truth.” For Lasky, poetry is not a project and the author is not a function. She warns academic poets their line will knife: “The real life is wild and the animals will bite you.” (Moreover, “Whoever those postmodernists are that say / There is no universal have never spent any time with an animal.”) This essentialism, facing the brutal animal, doesn’t solve her existential upset—her melancholy threads through the fabric of the work, the veins of love and nothingness entwined, the I of the poet piercing her heart: “I am no I.” Like Rimbaud, here hinted, Lasky is a tortured seer. Today she is damaged by an experiential angst and the negative space around it, where lives a lonely God crying: “I am nothing.”

Lasky is after awe; being weird is so significant, like a power; her darkness is a special gift that she holds; she will know love— “That’s Love and Awe. / Say it / That’s Love and Awe. / There is nothing better. / Or if there is / Then I don’t care.” This stubbornness is godlike, her way, and (thus godlike) the fact of her, so put, chafes and grows threadbare in parts. She revels so in herself in Black Life, though it’s tempered with a glorious brand of primal anxiety, the audacity of some poems, when taken honestly because we trust her, assaults that our trust and sensitive transference. She teases, derides, and criticizes scathingly in places. She admits to a manipulative character in the poem “I Am a Politician,” blurting: “I only speak of myself when I smile at you / And when I smile at you / That is the scariest thing of all I could ever do.” Elsewhere, the incongruous tone pinches ugly still: “Do you wonder what I am? You are reading the work of a great poet, possibly one of the greatest ones of your time.” More examples read that bratty. How are we, then, to fully reconcile this poem, titled “The Poetry That Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead,” with another one titled “I Hate Irony” that ends in a statement of ideological contradiction, “I am only being real”? I look for an answer… settle on the concluding lines of the book’s title poem: “This life made me / This thing that I am.” A weird, dreadful loveliness governs her abuses, like the soul-eating monsters in Awe: “This is a world where there are monsters […] And there is nothing but fog out the eyes of monsters.”

Lasky elucidates a position she believes in, as a poet and about poetry, in her chapbook-length essay Poetry Is Not a Project: “Poetry has everything to do with existing in the realm of uncertainty. […] In a poem, the poet makes beautiful this great love affair between the self and the universal.” The grief and worship she achieves this way is, melded, an ambiguous religiosity of the self she intuits in the other’s marring dark. She is spelling out the negative turns of love… that form a word shaped so familiarly as to be unrecognizable. Ibid: “[T]o create something, like a poem, means that the outside world of an artist and the internal drives within her blend and blur. But there is something so human, so instinctual about the drive, that it might be hard to be conscious of it enough to name it.” Furthermore, back out of Black Life, “It just feels like love / It really does / I don’t know / I must have said it all wrong.” With Awe and now Black Life we see a poetry wrought from self experiencing ugly audience with God, where the poet’s tongue is ripped from her head, as blood drips pearling the front of her shirt—before the shameful promise of a universe. Men slip like drink in and out of proximity, becoming inconstant measures of sex and devotion (“Poem to My Ex-Husband”); a father is falling apart, fragmenting the narrative with his quietness and absence (“Some Sort of Truth”); thoughts explore their threats like prophetic amateurs; things are exuberantly appreciated, things are happening together; love hangs as a mocking plume off the corners of perfect despair—let the poems raise up “from the earth into the brain,” let beauty’s revenge be worn like a fancy hat. Black Life is important poetry.