≡ Menu

book review

 

Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body

By Tim J. Myers

ISBN 978-1609641238

BlazeVOX

Reviewed by Grace Stansbery

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

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

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

Oh the wonderment

of her fundament.

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

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

Uterus

Oh pagan organ,

how far our sons and daughters have gone,

pale Christians that they

no longer adore you

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

Tupelo Press.

2013.

60 pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of all those who remembered the plate, I still remembered

Women are for homes and opened graves

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

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

 

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

If you remember a house that arose from fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISBN978-0520259263

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

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

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

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

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

emily-vogel-2

Poems are “instruments for thinking” (Allen Grossman). The object of a poet’s thought, however, is often unstated–especially in lyric poetry. Lyric poetry never speaks to an audience, and so–as it is when we are alone–the speaker does not feel compelled to explicitly state the object of thought but only the thoughts themselves. In this review, I want to try and discern these objects of thought in the works of two poets whose work seem directed at resolving particularly spiritual problems.

***

diatomhero

diatomhero: religious poems

The primary question about Lisa A Flowers’ work is this: What spiritual universe does her poetry inhabit? What are its rules and how do those govern the assumptions and hence possibilities/ambitions of her work?

It seems to be a world in which incarnation is the rule, and yet there is also a kind of Heaven and Hell–locations that suggest some kind of finality. The figure of Justice speaks in one poem:

“…the Lord just takes all those who have died that day and consumes them.

The good ones are absorbed into His system,

And the bad ones pass right through it

And drop out into Hell,

Which is situated conveniently beneath Him as a toilet.

Some think they’re getting away because they’ve existed

Inside the camera of the body for so long.”

Heaven, here, I can understand as the escape of Nirvana, but not Hell–unless Hell is the earth, which I suspect is the case. What is the nature of this incarnation then? The images of the poems are constantly morphing, yet the syntax suggests stasis: it’s possible to go many lines without encountering an independent clause. Even flesh itself undergoes a kind of reincarnation.

But more importantly, I suspect that reincarnation is itself a kind of metaphor for dualism: mind-body, but also the dualism of one’s inner spiritual conflict. Reincarnation seems to be an image of the trauma of thwarted spiritual aspirations. The most compelling image of this metaphor is the “Rorschach” (from a poem of that title):

I was two places at once:

One side of my body bleeding indistinguishably into

Oneness, like an inkblot,

The other sketching the actual picture,

Past and present lives

Back to back, in a Star Wars trash compactor.

After awhile I opened my napkin and recognized myselves:

Two Versailles rivals turning fans to each other’s disdain,

A flattened hydra peeling itself off a window,

“Beast turning human,” like Nora Flood’s lover.

I think trauma is the right word. Reincarnation, though natural, seems to be a constant tearing, disorientation–a surprisingly appropriate metaphor for the self of modern poetics.

This raises some more questions for me about Lisa’s work: What is the relationship between trauma and time, between trauma and eternity? If trauma can stretch across eternity, then it is a fundamental aspect of the self. It seems to me that this is the question Flowers’ writing attempts to answer; it is this conflict that she aspires to resolve.

***

AC_Digressions

Digressions on God

The title of Emily’s chapbook is utterly perfect for these poems. “Digression” is almost a sustained method. One line in particular captures this movement:

Today I will have a conference with God,

And then I will boil a potato.

Many (not all) of the poems begin in an abstract thought on God or theology and eventually unwinds into an indiscernible particularity of Vogel’s everyday life. For instance, Vogel often addresses a “you” without any qualification–a figure made poetically inscrutable by the particularity of reference.

As readers, we are quite used to the opposite model–the upward aim–its firm entrenchment in Romantic poetry, especially. Vogel’s poetry is deliberately “downward aimed”; in this sense, the chapbook’s dedication–”In honor of the Holy Spirit”–is entirely appropriate as the Holy Spirit is God’s outpouring upon the world. This chapbook is not about man’s ascent to God, but God’s descent upon, His digression on man.

So what are the spiritual aspirations of Vogel’s poems? I think Vogel states it fairly directly in her poem “Exile” when she says

One must find the most reasonable solution

to the problem of despair.

One must come to some conclusion about God

without upsetting

the order of ordinary miracles.

What is the spiritual universe of Vogel? In her poems, this problem of despair is the abstract, where the idea of good can overwhelm the good, yet it is enmeshed and arises in daily-ness:

I am not, like a Poet, walking alone on the street,

reovering lost memories in the stench

of fih markets, finding hidden meaning

in a city train.

I am consoling your busted heart

in a desperate attempt to dispel the terrible Pride

which plagues my spirit. I am mad

with the desire to go mad with desire.

Yet final line contains a conundrum, and I believe it is aspiration of these poems to resolve this conundrum: “desire” is used in both its senses here–both abstract (“the desire to go mad”) and particular (“with desire” for the particular “you”). Vogel attempts to rectify both these senses of language by means of her digressions.

Alfred Corn’s recently published tenth book of poems Tables is charming, confident, polished, ambitious, learned, elegiac, plus playful too, which makes the slim volume very seductive, poignant, intelligent, self-conscious, deeply-nerved and rooted; succinctly: humane. Tables brims over with both the visual and aural surprises we ought to expect from any and all great poetry, except here these serve Art and Humanity, not preachily, but indirectly, for the poet seems to be processing and re-processing both lived and creative experience for himself and us. A quick, direct listening in to this theme of re-processing can be found, for example, in these lines from his “Letter to Pinsky”: “…sheer chance/Which governs half of what turns out to happen/Can feel in retrospect like Destiny.”

Tables proves a raw, every-which-way roaming collection, an enterprise in full creative recall and exposure. Not only do we meet historical people here (Anthony of the Desert, Hadrian, Audubon, Brodsky), but also some related to the poet (Corn’s father, mother, grandmother, Pinsky, Hacker, Fenton, etc.), as well as some convincing shades of people affected by both personal and broader circumstances, like the imagined “senior chef” prepping bread in one of the towers on 9/11 in “Window On the World” and the “Unknown Soldier” who trails off by saying, “From nil and dark the self I knew calls out/For the small tag love once attached me to” in “From the Prompter’s Box.” The endeavor in Tables and its accomplishment/s are truly Dantean.

Corn’s latest poems consequently say there is no way through both the real and imagined life than living through them, which entails the facing and/or voicing of ugly or exalted extremes within families, relationships, friendships, the historical/spiritual, even such out-of-immediate-control externals as national or international conflagrations. Still, and this is what touched me most about the poems taken together, about the poet’s possible nature, if it may be deduced via the energy that made them and their sentiments be, Tables/Corn does not depress, does not sink into self-pity, sanctimoniousness, or misanthropy. Nor do the poems set the poet as above or better than the rest, though the poet is cognizant and communicative of his education, erudition, discipline, striving to grow, succeed, even please as an artist in our tragi-comical, rapidly changing world.

This is not a poetry/poet of self-indulgent escapism either. A poem like Corn’s “Window On the World,” which dares to offer critiques of and possible revisions for the way the 9/11 event has been told, its artifacts valued, proves it; just as do his more personal lyrics like “Resources” and “Series Finale,” where we only need an actual name or names to be dropped that we may have the personal drama/s more true-to-life. Alas, the poet errs on the side of manners/gentility here or perhaps what Aristotle termed “the universal.” Tables has its delicious moments of mirth, too, which lend a needed sweetness, for example, in the wistful, almost Disney/Downton Abbey-worthy poem “Dinner Theater,” where “Sharp Knife starts bantering with Mrs. Fork—/Quips and metallic whispers re Parsnip,/The fossil he’s been trying to butter up.” And more of this table-ready whimsy is at hand while deciding upon a dessert in “Fig”: “What’s to put forward but the sleek green fellow,/The veiny, five-lobed leaf your wineskin swelled/Beside?—like the one Vatican marbles wear/To spare shy gazers a betraying blush.”

So what exactly does Alfred Corn give to those who attempt an ambitious read, a daring to be moved by what is pondered over in Tables? Not only a voice that says life must be lived despite failures, gruesomeness, confusions, deaths, or residual/accrued pain, but a voice that says it is best done when we pause to reflect, consider, reconsider, talk, gaze, read, play, love, pray, eat, drink, fashion art; to pick, smell, consider not just the thorns on the rose bush of life, for they are there, but to acknowledge and celebrate the roses they protect! In effect, Tables shows how we can try and leverage as well as apprehend meaning in a rough and tumble, sometimes painful, sometimes misunderstood world of relations and situations with roots bitter and sweet and in-between. The collection insists upon a world and life that can be enjoyed, lived, examined, leveraged—personally or in community, over a meal, say, whilst at table, reminiscing, joking, or just breaking bread.

Poems from Tables that explore the above and ask for loving rereading: “What the Thunder Said,” “Resources,” “Series Finale,” “Window On the World,” “Coals,” “Dinner Theater,” “Corn, Alfred, D. Jr.,” “St. Anthony in the Desert,” “Priority,” “Vines,” “Upbringing,” “Audubon,” “La Luz Azul,” “Poem Found….,” “Futbol,” “Fig,” “Bond Street Station Underground,” “Letter to Grace Shulman,” “Letter to James Fenton,” “Domus Caerulea,” “New England/China,” “Antarctic,” & “Lighthouse.”

Trick Vessels, by Andre Bagoo
Shearsman Books, 2012
ISBN 978-184861-203-7

Reading Andre Bagoo’s Trick Vessels incites a strange and rather silly first thought: “the imperative sentence wages a huge comeback!” Dumb thought? Being kind to myself (a favorite past time of mine) I begin to scratch this first thought for its complexity:

A. There is no greater or more compressed ordering device in the grammar of English than the imperative sentence.
B. It is the God sentence, and thus noun may be swallowed up in verb, and understood through action: Go! Leave! Look! Let!
C. There is much authority in the imperative. Eliot, knowing this, blasphemed against that authority, and gave it an ironic twist in Prufrock, that prime example of modern urban equivocation and enervation: “Let us go then, you and I.”
D. This much authority in a post-structural age, used without irony, is a huge gamble. After all, are we all not relativists, masters of the “but, perhaps not”, whores of the non-authoritative. After all, are we not men- kinda, sorta, well… really not? Isn’t our language always correct, and non-committal? Aren’t we sensitive and caring, and “Aware” and “grocking” even as we aim our drones at lil children, and assorted other enemy combatants?

Damn, straight! (well, maybe…). The first poem in Bagoo’s Trick Vessels doesn’t only use imperatives. It uses God’s imperative: Let. Unlike Prufrock, it is not immediately undercut and sabotaged by equivocation. This is the precise, intense, unequivocal imperative of ancient poesis: the poet conjuring the world, making it up as he/she goes along, taking on the authority of a lower case god:

Let the daughter of the Hibiscus say: “His love has no end.”

This is let restored to the full, non-ironic, authority of invocation, and, reading the poem, I wonder if Mr. Bagoo might not be a believer as well as an anti-ironist. But the poem is too tricky to rate a mere Christian wave. According to the poem, this love that has no end is a flower, and that flower is night, and hence the title: The Night Grew Dark Around Us.
I think of that trickster, Bob Dylan, informing us: “it ain’t dark yet, but it’s getting there.” I do not think this is the same dark as Dylan’s sinister version. The Poet’s dark could perhaps be not unlike St John’s “Dark night of the soul.” It could be the dark of his skin, of his ancestor’s skin, the dark ripped from its negative relationship to light, and turned into its own species of light dark as a form of light? This is not at all unusual with poets of a mystic turn, nor is it unusual with poets under historical crisis and duress (consider Miguel Hernandez writing from a dank Franco prison: “I go through the dark lit from within.”).

Perhaps this night which is flower which is love is a wager, a leap into the absurd. A decision to trust darkness itself as the percipient condition out of which light comes and to which it returns. Night in the sense of love is tomb and womb as one, and reading deeper into Trick Vessels we find this sense of dark, of erasure, of trickery to be what the great critic Kenneth Burke called “Equipment for living.”

The trick vessels could be the slave ships, but, being trick vessels, they shape shift and are never one thing, never condemned to an absolute definition. If they must be identified, the trick vessels are the words of the poems themselves, the words of invocation, of magic, of night. Let us consider night first:

IV On Encountering Crapauds at Night (from the poem, Trick Vessels):

I’ve grown to love the backs of Crapauds/That hide in dark spaces between steps/

And bow as though at temple.

And on trickery (Part VI):

The fig tree could be a murderer

A bandit come to ambush.

And later in the same section:

A soft whisper can bite.

A world of murdering fig trees and biting whispers is a world in which things can be counted on to have no loyalty to seeming. It is a word of shape shifting, a tricky world of night and, in such a world, the only true ordering intelligence is invocation—the authority of words as magic, as act—as incarnation. In such a world, “let there be” without irony is still warranted, still efficacious. In such a world where soft whispers bite, language does not resort to irony, to the glib, to the entitled, the privileged, the self referential. It is a matter of life and death, a matter of the right spell at the right time, a ceremony of erasures against erasure. Night may efface night and not be lost. The light of day has no such power, cannot live in erasures, and must resort to Prufrock’s whining equivocate: “that is not it at all.” Protest here is swallowed up in the medicine and strength of words as an act of majesty.

Much magic thinking runs up against rather brutal modern realities (Bagoo is also a journalist in Trinidad), but this is not the magic thinking Eliot would have condemned as Prufrock’s form of “Bovarism.” Instead, these words of night are as vessels, as ships, a ceremony of journeying where the Unnamed Creature Said to Come from Water (Title of the second poem) assures us:

But I have such knowledge, /I ensure these erasures/I follow the stop. I do not leak.

Broken Vessels then moves from certainties to uncertainty in many respects (as erasures tend to do), but out of this shape shifting, this world where soft whispers bite comes a new dynamic. It may be expressed as: I may not exist, and you may not exist, but what exists, and what can be trusted in the ongoing dynamic between the you and I. Sure enough, in the poem, Preface for Seasons the voice of the poem addressed a “you” to which it is in relation. The seasons here as mainly liturgical, seasons of ceremony: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost (ordinary time is, as with most poets, left out). These are Catholic, but Catholicism is here but a form under which deeper orders hide and are enacted:

Some Lines from Advent:

There is a church inside a church/Where a mountain clump breaks off

And then from Incarnation:

Becomes a tree/the tree that breaks free/to become a ceremony

(note how this echoes the opening transubstantiation of love into flower into night. Trick Vessels is full of transformations under the signs of night, ocean, and the ongoing shape shifting of identity and politics).

From the section called Lent:

The values becomes valueless/ The desired is at first rejected/ the reject is later consumed.

This is a trick in theology known as transvaluation of values: the mountains are brought low, and the valley raised, the rich are brought low and the poor exalted, the valued becomes valueless, and the desired is rejected.

From Holy Week:

Thousands of touching hands/covers for secret agents

The praising mob that touches becomes the mob shouting crucify him. Judas betrays with a kiss.

From Easter (the shortest and most cryptic of the sections):

In between dreams/I make sense/In waking life/Chaos is hard to prove.

Chaos is not hard to prove in the night, and in the dark night of the soul, chaos is the only true order—the complex order of what has been lost and what might come to be—percipient order, the chaos of da Vinci’s deluge sketches—not void of order, but order as yet undetermined. We must resist the too easy chaos of contemporary life for it is not chaos but merely the random, the arbitrary, and these poems while shape shifting, call on something more than the arbitrary life. They call on ceremony. The poems of Trick Vessels are not the imposed order and false certainties of neo-conservatism, but an embracing of the power and force of night through the spell casting power of language–the magic that does not destroy uncertainty but which gives it value, and purpose. Because Bagoo’s poems do not traffic in false certainties, they restore the authoritative voice to its poesis—its intimacy with the dark, with the shape shifting upon which the poet’s older right to invoke most firmly rests.

In a larger sense, beyond the book, I see in Bagoo’s poetry a moving away from the equivocations of the best who lack all conviction and beyond the worst who are full of a passionate intensity. The poems in this book represent a movement away from equivocation, from irony, from the parody, the self-referential, towards a more genuine formalism—not the somewhat neo-conservative formalism of Hacker or, more so, the cranky formalism of metricists, but an older sense of poetry as the enacting of a ceremony, a vital and rhythmic invocation, almost liturgical in its use of the imperative, and the invocative. It is the genuine precision and formalism of spells, of prayer, or rhapsodic speech, a ceremony which must be formed out of the utterance itself to “order the sea.”

Bagoo might strike some as too sincere, as too insistent in his intensity. He uses anaphora, the imperative, the list, the rhetorical tricks of mystical oxymoron, and of transvaluation–all the tools of the magic trade—of invocatory speech. He undercuts such tricks at times with news from the world, but the world does not triumph over the verbal will here. These poems, as I said, are very formal in terms of their deliberation and engagement. Unlike the neo-formalists they are not about rhyme, meter, intellectual display or emotional detachment. Bagoo does not impose wit and order upon the landscape. He is not the return of Auden. He is, in a sense, the return of that which “Sang beyond the genius of the sea.” His is an ordering intensity—a ferocity of engagement which is always, by its nature, a thing of ritual. “A ceremony must be found” John Wheeler, the poet, wrote some eighty years ago. Bagoo has found that ceremony in this fine collection of poems.

Review: The Book of Knowledge, by Chad Faries
Vulgar Marsala Press
ISBN 978-0982007792 

My first experience of Chad Faries’ collection of poems, The Book of Knowledge was the cover—a sort of map to the whimsy, conjectures, and elaborations within. We have a blond haired child in the clothes of a page/minstrel/jester (there are pantaloons) holding what appears to be a paintbrush or a stylus (too small for my middle aged eyes to decide). He is in color and has his back turned to us. What he looks at is a night sky full of chalked lilies, a salamander, a motorcycle, two hands wielding a bow string and violin bow (primitive string instrument, fire maker?), an octagon of a zodiac, an outline of the great lakes, and to the left of the boy, the C cleft (the one violas use). There are also numbers 2, 3, 5 (Fibonacci sequence) as well as other mathematical signs, and we may wonder if this black and white universe is the boy’s created knowledge, and the secret, or metaphorical code for the book. The back cover has blurbs and a rather whimsical description of the author: “… the Owls in the wild oaks outside his house in Thunderbolt, Georgia, know him as an alien and call his name quite often. They coo and woo and, with Chad’s heavy sweet breath, they all shift into song. And so is the life of Dr. Chad Faries, famous American writer.”

So, having seen the front cover, and the back, I am assuming certain things: the book will have something to do with mapping, cartography, magic, whimsy, and a play on the name Faries. It will be about knowledge perhaps, and perhaps that knowledge will be random and surreal. It will ape old illustrated books—the sort of books with illustrations throughout. The author will speak of himself in the third person or make up characters to do so, which hints that it will be imaginative and, hopefully, fey and playful like Herbert’s Mr. Cogito poems, Dobbyn’s heart poems, Paul Zimmer’s work in which Zimmer is the main character. I am annoyed at the small print (it is a little book for little people supposedly) but delighted by the cover.

So, thus far, I am both annoyed and delighted all at once, and I have a sneaking suspicion the poet would not mind that I be both annoyed (or irritated/agitated like a clam) and delighted all at once. I am already shaking the book for its possible contents before I have even entered it. Is it meta-poetry? Is it playful like Trout Fishing in America? No less a luminary than Andre Codrescu has blurbed it, and so I am going to think this book is being claimed for the American surreal, and experimental (or what might be better called speculative). Sure enough, Codrescu is claiming the poet as a wonderful exception to the dregs out there. He blurbs: “In the easy narrative mess that many poets are now making out of the mystery of their lives, Chad Fairies keeps the mystery of his intact…” This is Codrescu’s way of saying Chad is not a confessional poet. I think this blurb widely true, but inexact, as good strategic blurbs often are. I translate the blurb as: “There are those terrible narrative poets out there (like Sharon Olds?) making a mess of the mystery of their lives, and then there is Chad Faries who is not committing the sin of the confessional, the straightforward, that which is bereft of mystification.” Perhaps Codrescu is doing a positive version of Anis Shivani? My heart (if you want to call it that) starts to sink because I am thinking that I am about to get the opposite side of the same MFA driven coin: the non-confessional school of MFA: moderately surreal, life tweaking, cute, playful, troping, mass produced competent surreal poem as opposed to the straightforward, utterly clear and as flat as Sharon Olds’ ass fully confessional poem. Oh no! I think: the stupid wars by which mediocrity wins grants! I’m as sick of Codrescu’s camp as I am of so called normative free verse. I think Codrescu is fighting a war that ended in the 80s. Both sides won and poetry lost. Both schools mass produce university magazines and poets. Fucking spare me. I wish to play Mercutio and shout a plague on both their houses.

So I have seen the front cover, read the blurbs, and now I enter the acknowledgements which contain Codrescu’s famous Exquisite Corpse, and the bastion of all that is not I: Barrow Street. I think: this is going to be another tongue-in-cheek,- eternally pop or lit-referencing- tropey- surreal– dada meets -John Ashbery meets comic shtick, and has a baby called Beavis and Butthead collection of poems by a really intelligent white guy who went to grad school and who is a smart ass. I’m kind of sick of those guys. They get on my nerves.

Where I am not right is where I highly recommend this book: first, it is thick, with verbal impasto (not the usual breezy lines of chit-chat and non-sequitur), with an “I” voice that at times lays it on thick with finger rather than brush paint, and enjoys hearing itself speechifying—sort of a drunken hybrid of Polonius and a character out of Confederacy of Dunces. Slight example of this pontificating shtick (the titles are often long and often mock didactic, and a little like the subtitles in old books which would have: “chapter 7 which treats of Justin’s realization of eternal truth”). This is from, We Must Not Let the Muddle of Words Mislead Us:

Let us move to heat. The simple word is used
For two quite different things though only the very
wisest of those who would study such things have
yet noticed how their word is deceiving
them. Now by coincidence I can speak
of heat slightly metaphorically,
though I didn’t plan to, and would rather
not…

Note how the enjambments aid and abet the breathless rambling preamble of it all. The voice of the poem hems and haws and qualifies, and is breathless. This is one of the pervading styles of the book—a sort of performed “I”, an “I” that would not be out of place in a book by Berryman.

But there is another, lyrical, even beautifully broken voice that reminds me of the Apollinaire of Mirabeau Bridge—a sort of harlequin sadness that encroaches in the midst of all the verbiage, and begins to make The Book of Knowledge far more than verbal trickery. One of my favorites that achieves this effect is the poem Seeing Voice:

I stood on the sky and looked;

A blue toy glider launched, arching
over the peak of a roof. A blond
child with a plastic and rubber band cross-
bow.

An omnipotent mother puffing a cigar-
ette, her breath a braid
of smoke…

This is beautiful and magical scene painting, true surrealism—the moment throbbing with its own unconscious, ephemeral life—utterly plausible, not just clever or tricky. It is in this way that Chad Faries keeps the promise mentioned in Codrescu’s blurb: not removing the mystery of life.

As mentioned, the book has many long poems, poems that leave a trail of strangeness on the page. It is full of illustrations like a 19th century text, and has many interesting cartographical and astronomical instruments drawn throughout. If you remove these, do you remove the effect of the poems? Not at all, but it is a book to rummage in, and for all its high concept, to skip around and enjoy as one might enjoy a book of maps—an almanac.
There are narrative poems here, lyrical narratives that have great emotional force. The poem Steve, if it were about suicide (and we will never know) is a better poem about suicide than Nick Flynn’s more famous Bag of Mice. Just the beginning, to get a sense of it:

On top of the roof he cut open the belly
of the sky with a pair of scissors…

Or these lines:

The fire truck in the distance
was a mourning woman who had lost her son.

There are many such moments in the book, and I do not truly know why the high concept of the illustrations and some of the voices are needed, but these moments are enough to make me not care. I enjoyed it almost as much as I did Peter Markus’ Good, Brother. It has moments that are as sweet-without-being-cloying as the playful love poems of Kenneth Patchen, and these moments make The Book of Knowledge a refreshing change both from straight on confessional narrative free verse, and the too easy surrealism and emotional disconnection that now passes for innovative. It is not a book for lazy readers. Its small print means that at 91 pages, it is really more like 130: a small novel. One can see it as a small novel or a very large miscellany. Either way, it is a book of poems worth struggling into. It has the muscular strength of something beyond sound bites and “projects.” I wish it were in hard cover with gold lettering here and there. For some reason I cannot fathom, The Book of Knowledge reminded me at certain points in its thickness and gnarled whimsy of Browning. If Browning is lurking about the book, then it transcends both the schools of confessional narrative and American speculative verse. And that is all to the good. Condrescu commends Faries for “Standing upright by the light of his torch, and for not assuming that he recognizes anything he sees.” I commend him, but not for not assuming he recognizes what he sees. Being puritanical about never-assuming can be a real bore (I love assumptions and find them amusing. I work in academia where all assumptions are qualified into oblivion). Every once in a while Faries sees something and points with his torch, knowing the fire of his words will distort it. And he does not apologize. Good for him. This is a book that manages to do things none of the prevailing books are doing. It is slow going in the beginning, but picks up. It is a book that insists on patience. In this case, patience is rewarded.

Mayakovsky’s Revolver
By Matthew Dickman
WW Norton
Forthcoming October 2012
ISBN 978-0-393-08119-0
112 pages

Matthew Dickman received the second fan letter I’ve ever written. The first was written in 1989, when I was ten years old, and it was addressed to Howard Johnson, an infielder for the New York Mets. Johnson—or “HoJo,” to baseball cognoscenti—wore a mustache, was a streaky but potentially game-changing offensive player, and served as a modest liability in the field. He received zero votes in his lone appearance on a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2001.

In 2008, after I’d all but forgotten my letter to HoJo, I came across Matthew Dickman’s first book, All-American Poem, at Portland’s great independent bookstore, Powell’s. I learned from a shelf display that Dickman was just a couple years older than I, and that we’d both grown up in Southeast Portland. I bought the book and wrote to him at an email address I found online. He wrote back promptly and warmly—it turns out he’s a really nice guy, in addition to being a fine young poet.

The latter characteristic in mind, I very much admired Dickman’s debut collection. It was refreshing to read poetry so largely disinterested in lyrical artifice, and to find poems where movement trumped shape and form. And what I’m referring to when I say “lyrical artifice” are poets’ mechanisms for making the familiar strange, reifying everyday cognition into compressed, independent language-objects. Un-All-American Poem-esque poems carry us away from everyday language use in their very shaping—they feature musical and lineation patterns, disjunction, and collage, among other meaning-related strategies. In doing so, they highlight language practices we take for granted, or reveal new linguistic possibilities. To me, contemporary lyric can be thrillingly challenging at its best and annoyingly esoteric at its worst; Dickman’s twin brother, Michael, is a fine poet who writes with what I’d describe as a kind of careful, vatic lyricism, in fact. But Matthew’s first book feels liberated from self-consciousness about form, devoid of desire to play with syntax or to deviate from conventional speech rhythms. The voice in All-American Poem feels earnest, occasionally a bit lonesome, often kind, and charmingly funny.

Now, as I reread this characterization of that book’s poetics—“liberated from self-consciousness about form”—I realize that others, especially poets I know who are partial to exacting lyric, may be turned off by this description. I’m making Dickman’s work sound too straight and prosy, I think. The truth is, there are poetic preoccupations beyond the shape of the work worth paying attention to in Mayakovsky’s Revolver. These preoccupations are evident in the writing of Dickman’s contemporaries, as well: Ben Lerner, Ariana Reines, Tao Lin, and a host of others are writing in different forms with one commonality—they offer a new take on confessional poetics. Dickman’s poetics are largely unmoored from the trappings of the identity politics that in part guided previous generations’ work. Consciously or subconsciously, like the poets mentioned above, Dickman is influenced by reality TV (because aren’t we all, really?) and he shares the banal, sweet, ugly, and idiosyncratic details of his life with his readers, curating and modulating them with a conflicted internal monologue. This dance between an ostensibly unfiltered revelation of Self with a not-so-behind-the-scenes, self-conscious Poet/Director makes for interesting drama about what it means to be human.

The underlying question of these poems as artistic products is: Why should one make these details public? At times, Dickman himself almost seems on the verge of wrestling explicitly with this question in Mayakovsky’s Revolver, further dramatizing something about our particular moment of ubiquitous information, the total-life-disclosure aspects of contemporary media, and what all this means to us as people.

Opening Mayakovsky to any given page and turning the book on its side, one finds unruly, short and long lines staring back like a yard grown feral, or a silhouette of a city skyline with no regard for zoning. The poet deploys All-American Poem’s laissez-faire, unruly stichic form again in his second collection. Occasionally, however, his work is more formally daring than feels familiar, while always the narrative feels intriguingly like a kind of memoir with no clear plot sequence or payoff. We need only look at the opening of the poem The Madness of King George to see Dickman’s breezy-feeling but cumulatively sophisticated confessional poetics at work in this larger structure:

It’s time for me to go. I drink
a beer and whiskey, although I should be sipping
Italian sodas, should be home
watching an old movie
or reading a crime novel but I decided to feed my limitations
instead…

We note that the lines are random lengths, meander with the music of plain speech, and are enjambed with effective intuition vis-à-vis dynamic ambiguities in meaning. Additionally, we find the narrative convention of setting, and that the setting here is generic—a bar. We also find some tension created with another narrative convention that works well for authors and/or characters to share information with their auditors—internal monologue, i.e., “…I decided to feed my limitations…” Yet Dickman is merely easing us in by staging the scene familiarly: the trope of the guilty bar experience. His speaker continues:

The woman sitting next to me
calls herself Summer and keeps touching her lips
and scratching her thigh
and ordering a martini
and talking about history. George Washington
and the madness of King George. He would walk around
the palace garden wearing nothing
but his crown, crying, holding his gaudy scepter in his hands
like an infant….

Reading thoughtfully, we see Dickman lace this seemingly straight narrative poem with allegorical and allusive meanings. The woman next to the speaker is conflated with our hot season—which for a lot of youngish people who live basically Everywhere-in-the-World is booze-filled and at least a little erotic. Summer is notably separated from the speaker, however, although she’s close. Further, she isn’t offering up cliché bar banter. Her performance—because that’s what it is, Dickman suggests in the dramatic, paratactic litany of blocking that precedes her dialogue—includes holding forth about historically contemporary Georges: Washington, an emblem of American independence, and King George III of the United Kingdom, who is remembered for his mental illness as well as for being the “King who lost America.” Dickman doesn’t miss a beat in this seamless-feeling narrative lyric poem (to borrow a phrase from his friend, Major Jackson); however, he begins to complicate things further by investing more agency in his narrator. Upon witnessing this quotidian yet strange performance, the narrator shifts position from passive auditor to conflicted actor in both physical and internal confessional space:

…I am like him, I thought,
and ask for my bill
while this other person, this other
life puts her hand on my knee. Do you ever think
what would have happened if Germany won the war?
she says….

This “this other / life” bit is not incidental melodrama as the poet both feeds and seeks to collapse the question that contemporary art (including reality TV) often begs: Are these actors working from a script, with some other, unspoken agenda, or are they earnest people, communicating authentically in order to fulfill a human need? Dickman subtly and successfully dramatizes that concern here—and he seldom spares himself from critical scrutiny in the whole collection, as practically all of the narrators share a common voice, or are clearly Dickman self-consciously emerging from the cutting room with choice bits of friends’ and family members’ dialogue.

Packed economically into the above little scene are a man’s own sense of alienation, or conscious failure to engage directly with reality as it is; the threat of a loss of “America” (in this case, a big messy symbol from which the poem moves on quickly); and the horror of an imaginable past in which the Nazis conquered not only Europe, but the whole world. This isn’t really a straight narrative—it’s a confession of feeling absolute and utter resourcelessness in the face of reality and its possibilities and impossibilities. It shares a present that has the past as its kind of palimpsest—present happenings are written over a history that has been erased, but remembered by the impressions in the medium, and the new result is a document layered with meanings. While all this is happening, the poem is rendered with both conversational fluidity and keen, instinctive poetic intellect. We barely feel it happening, yet we know that whatever is happening is in some sense a big deal.

Speaking of importance, readers will note the first line of the blurb on the back cover: “At the center of Mayakovsky’s Revolver is the suicide of Matthew Dickman’s older brother.” The book’s second section is entitled Notes Passed to my Brother on the Occasion of his Funeral; the prologue is a poem entitled, In Heaven, the epilogue a poem entitled On Earth.

In Heaven begins with a litany of negated details from Dickman’s youth in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood: “No dog chained to a spike in a yard of dying / grass like the dogs… / no milk in the fridge / no more walking through the street / to the little store / that sold butterfly knives, no more knives, no more honey…” Moving through this negation of basic life details (breathlessly paced in its lack of any road signs but commas until the second page), the poem pivots toward a universalizing blank setting and unnamed cast that includes only the first person plural pronoun, “we,” as it closes:

…No more looking toward the west, no east, no north
or south, just us standing here together, asking each other
if we remember anything, what we loved, what loved us, who yelled our names
_____first?

This is a bit of either an obvious or bewildering way to begin the book for a couple of reasons. First, it starts the reader with a section consisting of a single poem—an increasingly common structural device, but one that puts a lot of pressure on the opening piece. Second, the word “Heaven” without any description or discussion or context, comes with a lot of baggage—all Dickman gives us in the way of explanation is a “no more Lord / my God” embedded in his hurried list. Lastly, the gesture of concluding the opening with questions—as if this were an essay and we could hope to find answers somewhere in what follows—seems to promise a lot. It’s a bold move to start this way, really. I will leave it for other readers to decide whether or not it pays off in the end.

The poem that follows, Akhmatova, opens the first major section, which is called Dear Space. The piece begins at Cannon Beach, Oregon’s tide pools. Right away, Dickman takes up the final questions of In Heaven, about ‘what we remember,’ and drops us into scenes from the past in the first line of the poem: “That’s right!…I was on the beach / looking at Haystack Rock, / putting my finger into the mouths of sea anemones…” For the first time in the book (a few pages in), setting and narrator’s activity are established in Dickman’s major mode, and there’s a Dickman-esque vaguely sexual or dangerous suggestion (putting a finger in mouths, plural). There’s a new desire in the work, though, to link one section or episode to the next, to make a big picture of all the smaller fragments. What emerges, however, is a resistance to allow fragments or distinct narratives to resolve into a comprehensive story. In this seemingly jumbled structure, Dickman subtly bares his own ambivalence about the narrative impulse—picking it up and setting it aside time and again.

And in Akhmatova, as he often does, Dickman uses the parallel narratives his own life and family and a deftly edited piece of history—a few pointed morsels from the aforementioned Ukrainian poet’s life. Ultimately, the past-tenseness of the work and the choice of analogy leave an astringent sadness on the palate. And it’s worth saying that throughout this collection Dickman offers up both his loves and griefs in what would describe as a “melancholic” register, which, in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, Giorgio Agamben describes as “the humor whose disorders are most likely to produce the most destructive consequences…one who keeps his or her own desire fixed to the inaccessible.”

The voice in Mayakovsky’s Revolver is that of a nostalgic presence—a voice fixed on a past that is no longer accessible. Dickman’s is a particularly painful nostalgia, because some of the characters and places that made up his past are irrevocably changed or lost (and this is ultimately true for us all, which lends universality to his work). This can be sweet and charming; at the same time, of course, it’s also a little painful. The Greek origins of “nostalgia” are nostos, or ‘return home,’ and algia, ‘pain.’ Another early poem in the collection, Weird Science, is a great example of how absence and nostalgia spur Dickman’s poetic impulse. The conceit of Weird Science is that in a woman’s absence, the narrator makes her shape out of clothes in his room, and the poet apostrophizes to his absent paramour.

In the end, I could go on all day about the multitude of admirable pieces in Mayakovsky’s Revolver. What other readers will discover is a maturing poet, fashioning a poetics that bares his whole life in its making, shifting at times dizzyingly between present and past—as we see in The Madness of King George, if we read closely and pay attention to verb tenses—in a way that underscores how alive the past is within our present; and how lonely and absent it is, paradoxically, at the same time.

I see your movement flashing like a knife,
Reeling my senses, drunk upon the hues
Of motion, the eternal rainbow wheel…
–Claude McKay

Claude was referring specifically to the hustling city of Barcelona, mostly because
he’d just abandoned the Harlem Renaissance & his friends wouldn’t talk to him anymore. This is not a problem for Tim Seibles. He manages to keep both ambidextrous hands flexed upon an operating lever that activates & deactivates a bicameral fog-machine. Fast Animal—the poet’s seventh collection—is poetry that accomplishes the following laundry list (plus whatever numbered attributes you choose to affix after purchasing & camping out with the work many times over):

1. Seibles hijacks classic forms to croon Blues.

I’ll let the powerful odes “Ode to My Hands”, “Ode to Sleep”, and “Ode to This for That” speak for themselves—to retain the hoodoo. There are also villanelles aplenty,
one in each of four sections:

I once rode the cosmos in a suit stitched in plaid
The Earth was my space ship and me, the rough crew
The big light was nice; but the nightside was bad
–from “Mad Poets Villanelle”

The teams, the games, the superstars—the happy fans all shout!
I sang inside the Spider’s house pretending to be free
We bumble all around this place and then they take us out
–from “Punching Villanelle for the W, 2005”

2. Seibles trash-talks Maturation,

which is basically like roasting the Grim Reaper. Waking up daily is an attempt to embody & embolden what are essentially the organic shells of our spent beings. It’s no easy task. It’s likely our hardest task. While most of us never acknowledge exactly how weird & difficult this resuscitation is, Fast Animal is filled with such things:

my own life: the bending

of a man into something
else: did I change? Are you

changed?
–from “Familiar”

Let’s stop talking
about God. Try to shut-up
about heaven: some of our friends
who should be alive are no longer alive.
Moment by moment death moves
And memory doesn’t remember,

not for long: even today–even
having said
this, even knowing that
someone is stealing
our lives—I still
had lunch.
–from “Faith”

3. Seibles takes a magnifying glass to Race.

The cufflink pair Racism & Ignorance should disrobe more evidently in the universal coat closet. Fast Animal plays a large role in permanently pressing that tuxedo.

The monsters that murdered
Emmett Till—were they everywhere?
I didn’t know…
Occasionally,

History offers a reprieve, everything
leading up to a particular moment
suddenly declared a mistrial:
so I’m a black boy suddenly

walking the Jenkintown streets
with a white girl—so ridiculously
conspicuous we must’ve been
invisible.
–from “Allison Wolff”

4. Seibles is interested in human beings’ daily miscommunication & uncelebrated resemblance to Animals.

Well, it’s true.

5. Seibles pines for lost, found & as yet undiscovered Love.

In this life, most of us are lucky to encounter the solitary one-who-got-away.
Counting “Allison Wolff” above, tack on “Delores Jepps”, “Donna James”, add a verse about best friend “Terry Moore” then another about big brother, Big Brah, Tom the Bomb. Seibles not only misses everybody he’s ever encountered, he finally gets to say & do everything he meant to at the time. His poems of memory are not unlike finding overalls in an attic, digging in a pocket & pulling out a still-edible candy that’s no longer manufactured.

Easier Than Learning Klingon

Jason Crane reviews John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World

In the realm of wrong answers, someone

always has the radio on.

– “I Will Sing the Monster to Sleep, & He Will Need Me”

~

I’ve been watching the middle seasons of Stargate SG-1 again. If you’ve never seen the show, the premise is that there are Stargates that allow instant travel between planets. You step into one and step out into a completely different landscape.

To get around the problem of having to invent new languages for every race of aliens encountered, the producers cut the knot this way: They explained that a particular race of evil aliens had captured many humans from earth and sprinkled them throughout the galaxy to use as slaves. So most of the folks you encounter are human. And most of them speak English, albeit with some interesting variations in dialect.  And no, that last bit doesn’t make any sense, but it sure is easier than having to learn Klingon.

Which brings me to John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World (University of Akron Press, 2009).  Gallaher has managed to create a language all his own using English words. Reading his poems, I felt like I’d arrived on some other world where the linguistic building blocks were familiar, but the physics of assembling them was completely different, surprising, otherworldly.

Map of the Folded World gathers momentum as it goes, and traveling through it I was quickly swept up into Gallaher’s deft use of language, not really needing to know what something meant so much as to hear how Gallaher had opened up the possibilities of the words by putting them next to one another in surprising ways.

I don’t feel it’s helpful to quote sections of his poems (even though I began this review with my favorite line from the book) because his poems are so dependent on wholeness. To remove any piece for study under the microscope would be to miss the point. Gallaher is sculpting, constructing, imagining, transporting the words. And while I’m sure these poems would be captivating individually, Map of the Folded World is a book; it is held together by the strength of Gallaher’s imagination and by the cascading wash of the language through the volume’s entirety. By the time I reached the end, I felt almost as though I could speak the language, as though I could understand what some of the natives were saying, and maybe even try to carry on a rudimentary conversation of my own.

All of that said, though, it’s worth giving you a chance to experience Gallaher’s linguistic achievements for yourself. Here’s the entire poem from which I quoted above:

~

I Will Sing the Monster to Sleep,
& He Will Need Me

In the realm of wrong answers, someone
always has the radio on.

Someone is eating, and someone
walking about the room, in the dim café
which ends in a distant range of snow-capped mountains.

There are vanishing people
meeting at the diving board off the window sill,
and a cloud pierced by windows.

There are a lot of things you don’t get to decide.

At first, the evenings were filled with stories, music,
or both, with a beige floor
shaded here and there with red.

And then the children are walking across the gravel
in the dark. Always small footsteps
in any manner of realms.

And they quiver like the moon.

Let’s look for them awhile, and see what we find
beside the intimidating tower at the summit
of the gently rising square.

There will be water in this pool soon.
And we’ll know what happiness is.
There’s time, and figures

moving among the arches.

We will take some questions now, they’ll say.
Please raise your hand.

~

I love clear, narrative poetry. For me, this is not that. What it is, instead, is something equally valuable and maybe more rare — a transformative experience that occurs through nothing but the careful placement of word blocks on a landscape of Gallaher’s own devising.

Highly recommended.

—Jason Crane

Jason Crane hosts the online jazz interview show The Jazz Session (http://thejazzsession.com) and writes poems at http://jasoncrane.org. His first book, Unexpected Sunlight, is forthcoming from FootHills Publishing.