≡ Menu

Copper Canyon Press

James Galvin – Everything We Always Knew Was True
Copper Canyon 2016
Page Length: 75
Retail: $16


How is it possible for the work of James Galvin, the face of the most famous poetry program in the world, to be so wildly underappreciated? One could spend a lot of time trying to understand this: is it because of his association with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that critics have largely ignored his work, especially over the last twenty or so years? Or is it because his style walks so boldly in the footsteps of the many celebrated American poets who have taken as their central subject the natural world, and have done so with a language we can loosely call “plainspoken”?

A combination of these theories would view Galvin as the inheritor of a tradition of Iowa faculty poets (Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, not to mention recurring faculty members like Galway Kinnell and Robert Hass) who represent some “old guard” of American Poetry. But if this is Galvin’s inheritance, where are his deserved awards? Of the four just mentioned, three won the Pulitzer Prize, and between them all four have won many of the most distinguished awards in American letters. This is not to downplay his CV, which includes a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellowship, but Galvin is one of America’s most important living poets, and his oeuvre is as impressive as anyone in his generation, yet critics continue to leave him on the periphery as though he hasn’t published anything of note since 1997’s Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. He has.

In fact, Galvin’s work has since blossomed in a manner that none of the aforementioned poets’ has. But the evolution didn’t come without struggle. 2001’s X was a clear departure from Galvin’s previous work, retaining his singular mastery of the Western landscape, but filtering it through a decidedly broken subjectivity demonstrably ravaged by a crushing divorce. X is wildly uneven. It is the work of a poet struggling to find a new frequency. It includes some of Galvin’s greatest poems—“Fire Season,” “Promises Are for Liars,” “Heat Waves in Winter Distance,” “Depending on the Wind,” and the collection’s finale: a Dantesque sequence that culminates with a Paradiso of parental love.

None of these poems could have appeared in Galvin’s earlier work, for they demonstrate a speaker who is as unsettled by life’s ruthlessness as he is certain of its beauty. This ambivalence is certainly present in Galvin’s earlier work, but in X we find a poet whose faith has been radically shaken: a self-effacing quiver begins to trouble the line; existential anguish seems the book’s undertow. On the whole, X is one of Galvin’s best collections, but its unevenness is evident in a poem like “Ought,” which foregrounds wordplay and wit, anticipating Galvin’s evolution over his next two collections to relatively underwhelming effect.

In 2009, Galvin published As Is, his weakest book. To be fair: Galvin at his worst is better than most at their best, but As Is will stand in Galvin’s oeuvre as a document of transition between what he perfected in his early work—a brutally beautiful naturalism with remarkable metaphysicality—and a new, decidedly postmodern idiom that balances his faith in the image with a disarming tonal looseness marked by charming self-deprecation. In early Galvin: either everything matters or nothing matters. In the new Galvin: everything matters and nothing matters, and the causal relationship between these facts is perfectly circular.

The growing pains of As Is can be found in poems like “The Music” and “The Red Telephone,” where Galvin’s courageous departure from the natural world is awkwardly met with a kind of un-tethered wit. What is clever in a poem must be rooted in something outside its own self-satisfaction. And Galvin’s cleverness, though clear, seemed forced: like he was trying to squeeze into hand-me-down shoes. This was troubling to see in a world-class dancer.

But whatever aesthetic hiccups were introduced in As Is have paid off handsomely in Galvin’s new collection, which is, remarkably and decidedly, his best. Everything We Always Knew Was True is a miraculous, self-performed open-heart surgery in which everything we always loved about James Galvin is exposed and made new by self-deprecating charm and dead black humor. Never has an American poet so seamlessly fused the superficially opposite impulses of the deep image and the talky self-awareness of a particular strain of the Western avant-garde. We certainly see the fingerprints of Robert Frost and W.S. Merwin, but not without the whimsy of Apollinaire and John Ashbery.

The few critics who have written on Galvin can only think of one thing to say: that he has a firm grasp on the American West. He certainly does: he is the single greatest writer about horses in American literature. But what makes Galvin great is the subterranean intensity beneath the scenes he paints. Consider the following poem from the new book, included here in its entirety:

A Ceremony

My father coughed up a few bats
And that was that.
With a smithy’s hammer,
I broke and flattened his gold heraldic ring.
“Hit it again,” my sister said,
And I did.
There were three of us.
We stashed the ashes with the ring
In a cairn of black rocks.
My niece piped up,
“Isn’t anybody going to say something?”
I looked at my sister,
Who shook her head.
“Nope,” I said,
And the three of us walked away. (65)

Galvin’s signature here is not the hammer or the “cairn of black rocks,” but rather the blunt force of the final five lines, when the human milieu is laid bare in an exposure equal parts revealing and concealed. The genius of the poem lies in what its silence says and the cleanliness of its annunciation.

Or consider the following pair of ekphrastic poems, a genre Galvin has certainly mastered. The first reads in Galvin’s oldest style: tonally demotic; image-driven; remarkably restrained.

I paint my own front yard. The big pole gate
Left open so the subject can become
The narrow two-track road, which turns away,
And vanishes. It could be coming home
Or going. I’m not telling. The open gate
Means someone left, and I am waiting for them

To come home. You have to tell the truth. (“Five Paintings by Clara Van Waning,” 22)

Much of the poem would fit nicely into Galvin’s first four books, but the explosive presence of “I’m not telling,” is something Galvin had to earn post-Resurrection Update. It takes an otherwise lovely poem and sets it ablaze with the complicated strike of a withholding, self-aware speaker, which then flickers against the surface of the haunted, “You have to tell the truth,” which, when it lands, feels inevitable.

One of the collection’s most dynamic poems, “The Newlywed Acrobats,” written after Marc Chagall, manages to capture an astounding amount of Chagall’s romantic abandon and dreamy hover.

He sports gold-sequined tights and
The bride is decked out in a gold bikini.
Her breasts are
two miracles.
Her smile is, well, blinding.

On the steps,
an avalanche of confetti.
Clowns are shot from cannons to the
right and to the left.

They spring each other higher and
higher and scarily higher until he vaults into a fourth-floor window
and she follows like a comet’s tail.

They look deeply into each other’s eyes, his bleary, hers
fierce with determination.
She says, “You’re not gonna believe this
part.” (13-4)

The weightlessness here is astounding for its palpable joy. In it we find an exuberance missing almost entirely from Galvin’s early work, and here, combined with his singular grip on the image, we are taken into a slipstream of what feels like true love.

When considering twentieth-century comparisons, one must mention Frost, Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, and Charles Wright (as well as the “Iowa Poets” mentioned above). What none of these masters was able to do, however, was to successfully and truly transform, over time, their aesthetic. Galvin has done that. The exception may be James Wright, whose early formalism is nothing to sneeze at, but whose later deep imagism transformed a generation.

The closest comparison, I would argue, is James Merrill: perhaps the twentieth-century’s single greatest poet. Like Galvin, Merrill is inexplicably underappreciated, and he is very highly appreciated. Like Merrill, Galvin combines a deceptively smooth formalism with a postmodern playfulness that refuses to take itself too seriously, which is, of course, perfectly serious. Like Merrill, Galvin exudes a hopelessly charming, dead-serious romantic streak, a brutal self-awareness, and a potent metaphysics in which the visible and invisible exert upon each other enormous counter-pressure.

The critics who are content to call Galvin a “nature poet” fail to grasp how utterly metaphysical his nature is. Galvin’s natural world is not unlike Melville’s white whale: elusive; beautiful; deadly; metonymic. It is the closest thing to the divine that its author can hope to approach, and even trying to see it involves significant risk.

One of the collection’s highlights, and one of its most contemporary features, is a nonconsecutive series of short poems titled, “What It’s Like,” which refuse to identify the “it” of the simile, leaving it appropriately open for nothing less than just about anything. The following are presented in their entirety:

What It’s Like

Horseback in an old burn.
Deadfall everywhere.
No way forward.
No way to turn around. (25)

What It’s Like

A freight elevator in free fall.
A grand piano in it. (37)

The series is reminiscent of the opening sequence of Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press 2011). The openness is haunting; the vision unflinching.


It is a rare enough thing for a poet to write a breathtaking body of work. James Galvin had accomplished this by the mid-nineties, and were he a lesser artist, he’d have continued to write in that style forever. Of the poets who manage to cultivate a discernible voice, the ones who try to modify it often do so awkwardly and, too often, into courageous disaster. When considering Galvin’s oeuvre, there is a distinct new frequency that enters with X and then wobbles uncomfortably through As Is. The new voice, though, has blossomed fully in Everything We Always Knew Was True, which marks Galvin’s greatest collection to date and may one day stand as the defining book of his career. More importantly, it demonstrates that sometimes—although rarely, and never without struggle—a great poet can somehow become even greater.

Malachi Black – Storm Toward Morning

Copper Canyon 2014

Page Length: 75

Retail: $15


Like the greatest formal poets, Malachi Black writes in shapes. Received forms sculpt the shape of a poem by the measure of their recursiveness: the manner in which the poem moves forward and back simultaneously. In a traditional sonnet, for example, as the speaker develops an idea, a scene, or a narrative (an argument), she also, at the end of each line, creates sonic consonance with that which precedes and/or follows. The result is the sensation of forward movement through recurring patterns and the modulation of poetic effects (in this example the effect in question is end-rhyme, though the same argument can be made for poetic features like anaphora, syntactic parallelism, and other features that can echo through a poem). This recursiveness of the sonnet is heightened and dramatized when the poem looks back on itself in its volta: the previous content is artfully repeated and thereby modified, and the result is something like epiphany. The extent to which a poem establishes and then resists its form can be understood as its poetic “shape.”


Malachi Black’s poetic shapes are both elegantly discursive and dizzyingly circular: spiritual yearning in swirling eddies of sonic clusters. Storm Toward Morning, Black’s first full-length collection, relies heavily on received forms (most notably the sonnet) to present an aesthetic argument that is equal parts familiar and strange, and the result is palpably beautiful tension: between the traditional and contemporary; between first-book energy and technical virtuosity; and, most importantly, between faith and doubt: a spiritual disquiet masterfully imbued into content and form.


Black possesses an astounding command of prosody, and like a world-class athlete, he moves through his lines without wasted motion.


“Rocking in my midnight robe, I am

alive and in an eye again beside


my kind insomniac, my phantom

glass, companion and my only bride:


this little window giving little shine

to something. What I see I keep


alive. I name the species, I define

the lurch and glimmer, sweep and pry


of eyes against the faint-reflecting glass

by what they can and what I can’t


quite grasp…” (Against the Glass)


While this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, Black opens with a procession of trochees that accentuates the quietly desperate state of the speaker. Notably, the opening line ends with a kind of existential release: “I am,” which both posits a stability of self and shifts the poem into its natural meter, which wraps itself around the line in a series of enjambments that create a cascade effect as we progress down the page: “I am / alive”; “my phantom / glass”; “What I see I keep // alive.” But as we course through the couplets, we are returned to previously introduced sounds. At times this consonance is semantically pleasing: “I am / alive;” “my only bride;” “I keep / alive.” However, at other times the effect is something more unnerved: a kind of haunting: “phantom” and “companion;” “faint” and “can’t.”


Black’s formal recursiveness is a microcosm of his poems’ engagement with poetic tradition: there is something undeniably traditional in Black’s prosody, yet that quality is cantilevered by Black’s associative ingenuity and contemporary diction, concerns, and general aesthetic orientation. In this regard, there are echoes of James Merrill, Robert Pinsky, Frederick Seidel, Thom Gunn, and the very best of Philip Larkin. And yet: the heart of Black’s formalism, which is, in the end, utterly Psalmic, seems to be in the spirit of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century: John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell, to name a few. These poets sought in their verse an ascent into the mysteries of the divine—mysteries rarely resolved but left open like metaphysical wounds that are simultaneously fatal and freeing. It was this quality, their articulation of spiritual brokenness in formal precision, that T.S. Eliot found utterly compelling, which led him to not only champion these once-derided poets into their still-standing critical favor, but eventually state that devotional poetry is actually poetry in its highest form.


Black’s poems are devotional in this regard: rather than proclaim “truths” about the divine, they are poems written toward the possibility of God. This postmodern faith is most prominently displayed in the second section of Storm Toward Morning, a crown of sonnets that testifies to both the undeniable reality of the sacred and its impossible position within the profanity of human living.


“There is no end: what has come will come again

will come again: and then distend: and then

and then: and then again: there is no end


to origin and and: there is again

and born again: there is the forming and:

the midnight curling into morning and


the glory and again: there is no end:” (Vigils)


Rarely are form and content so seamlessly transposed: as in Heaven so on Earth; so too in the poem. “There is no end” is both a joyful declaration and an ominous lament: to be “born again” in poetic rapture is to see the infinitude of experience within the finite moment. Or, as Blake famously wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” And yet: to be born is to be subjected to death. Incessant birth yields incessant death, and this fact yields profound ambivalence in Black’s poetry, which hiccups its rebirths and stutters its praise. In this, we are reminded inseparability of beauty and death, a tension that cannot (and must not) be resolved.


This resistance to resolution is Black’s most unique aesthetic move. While it has become a hallmark of postmodern poetics to parade this resistance, Black’s angle is fresh because of the shape of his formalism. Received forms convey implicit order: they are teleologically determined from the outset. Black’s sonnets are both elegant and desperate—their formal ruptures proceed out of existential doubt.


“Once more the bright blade of a morning breeze

glides almost too easily through me,


and from the scuffle I’ve been sutured to

some flap of me is freed: I am severed


like a simile: an honest tenor

trembling toward the vehicle I mean


to be: a blackbird licking half-notes

from the muscled, sap-damp branches


of the sugar maple tree… though I am still

a part of any part of every particle


of me, though I’ll be softly reconstructed

by the white gloves of metonymy,


I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut

that doesn’t heal a bit too much.” (This Gentle Surgery)


Black oscillates between formal precision and something like an artful wobble: by embracing imperfection in the presence of technical virtuosity, he dramatizes spiritual poverty and celebrates the fallibility that constitutes the essential distinction between the human and the divine.



Seattle likes to pride itself on being one of America’s Most Literate Cities. I pay attention to these annual pronouncements for about 2 minutes when they inevitably make the news, or are posted on Facebook, and Seattle’s usually up there with Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. The thinking is that, what else are you going to do when it’s cloudy for the 99th day in a row? That’s also the excuse for the coffee consumption and suicide rate in Seattle, so locals can have their evening planned right off.

What interests me, however, is despite how literate it’s supposed to be here, Seattle got stuck in Modernism. Oh, we’re already way past the postmodern era in some ways, like when NPR interviewers with straight faces talk about how we’ll have a better quality of life in the future when we alter our genetics through some kind of bio-technology expertise. (Though I think that’s an extension of a modernist point of view. But a lot of people here buy that shit.) But when it comes to poetry, until recently, Seattle might as well have been in 1911. What’s interesting about this is that you might try to write that off as the West Coast of North America being a younger “civilization” than the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, Montreal, etc. But that leaves out San Francisco, with it’s Beat poets (a bridge from the modern to the postmodern) the Berkeley Renaissance (the first flowering of the postmodern on the West Coast) and the strong Language Poetry tradition. Not my cup of verse, but they (LangPoets) were trying for something different and many succeeded, though only time will sort out the wheat from the chaff there.

The notion of the West Coast as younger and less developed also leaves out Vancouver, which ate up postmodernism as soon as it started showing up there in the late 50s and early 60s with TISH and later the Kootenay School of Writing. Hell, Vancouver poet George Bowering half-jokes that Canada skipped right over modernism!

Portland had its Reed College innovators Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Leslie Scalapino. In the past decade the Spare Room series has given that town something exciting and Emily Kendall Frey’s new “occasional salon” The New Privacy promises to be open and innovative. Powell’s Books is, of course, a legendary indy bookstore and there are many interesting Portland magazines and presses, including the self-proclaimed maker and destroyer of books, Matt Stadler’s Publication Studios.

Seattle has had the UW, Theodore Roethke, Caroline Kizer, Richard Hugo, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds, Sherman Alexie and a good many modernist poets who must be respected for their contribution, for their time in the vineyard, as it were, if not for their innovation. The UW has always been disconnected from the community outside the Blue Moon Tavern and some readings at the Hugo House, but that’s about it. Even Denise Levertov, who wrote some beautiful poems about Mount Rainier in her late life when she lived in Seattle, reverted to more of a modernist aesthetic when she lived here. Maybe it’s the water, or the legendary “Seattle Nice.” Google that, scroll past the inevitable airline ads and see what I mean by that phrase. It’s a veil for repressed anger, mostly and anger is often confused with passion and intensity, essential ingredients in innovative art. Lord, let’s not have any of that here! they (the locals) must think.

But what we lack in innovation (& there’s some of that here now, more later in this piece) we make up for in our connection to the East. There is a higher Asian population in Seattle than in East Coast cities. Two great quotes say it better than I can about this dynamic:

If I open a magazine of contemporary poetry I rarely hear John Dryden, but almost always Li Po.

– Andrew Schelling

… the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically…

– Kenneth Rexroth

We know the Western cosmology of competition and domination has failed and is dying in a large way, perhaps taking humans (and many other species) with it. So it is only in this in this neck of the woods that we’d find someone like Sam Hamill, who has done much translation of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry, including what’s perhaps the quintessential translation of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. It is a book which resonates with Seattle in so many ways. Sam’s never lived in Seattle, per se, but has been a presence here for 30+ years because he founded Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend. His latest, Habitations shows a deep sense of place, a deep Zen aesthetic and may be the best thing he’s ever done. And his work is rich with duende, content-wise, and seems to be just this side of the line that separates modernism and post-mod.

As for readings in Seattle, you have mostly the modernist-type affairs. The city’s writing center The Richard Hugo House, mostly follows a mainstream path, and has been turning toward a slam aesthetic to court younger attendees. Their Cheap Wine and Poetry Series packs their cafe every session and a spin-off, Cheap Beer and Prose has a similar popularity and in-your-face New York attitude, thanks to transplant Brian McGuigan. How cool is it that they’re sponsored by PBR? (Sing with me: What’ll ya have Pabst Blue Ribbon.) But it’s rarely made new there, but tends to be poetry as entertainment. Elliott Bay Books has been re-born in a new neighborhood, Capitol Hill, but the new reading room suffers from the footsteps of book browsers on the floor above. Still the offerings have a wide range as long as there is a book to sell.

Open Books, Seattle’s all poetry bookstore, one of only three in the U.S., has a wide variety of poetics represented and the proprietors are fine poets who know their stuff. A little narrow, room-wise, but that helps create an intimate environment, so turn off your god damned cellphone before you go in there or you’ll set the sprinklers off, or so I’m told.

Seattle Arts & Lectures is the big show in town and they had Robert Creeley once, many years ago, but now gets about as innovative as Gary Snyder, Patti Smith and Martin Espada, modernists all, and quite mainstream. Of course they have to fill bigger halls, but if Seattle were as literate as it claims to be, you think there would be more daring, more of a desire to help lead the masses to something more open and challenging. Here, we claim to love diversity, so grant programs seek out the bland middle of every ethnicity, and these programs tend to turn into EEO affairs and do not push the art forward. In fact one could make a case for the opposite.

Once upon a time there was Subtext. It lasted 15 years and once graced the old Speakeasy Cafe, which is still missed. A tiff with Hugo House, their later stomping grounds, turned them to a venue that was cavernous and off the beaten path and the joy was sucked out of that series. While it lasted it did present the most innovative locals with an out-of-towner. From their blog, gathering digital dust over the last two years, here are but a few of the features:

David Abel, Will Alexander, Charles Alexander Charles Altieri, Rae Armantrout Eric Baus, Dodie Bellamy, Anselm Berrigan, blackhumour, Robin Blaser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jaap Blonk, Christian Bok, Curtis Bonney, Charles Borkhuis, George Bowering, Jules Boykoff, Joseph Bradshaw, Jonathan Brannen, David Bromige, Rebecca Brown, Lee Ann Brown, Laynie Browne, Mary Burger, Clint Burnham, Gerald Burns, Avery Burns, David Buuck, Brian Carpenter, Tyler Carter, Maxine Chernoff, Don Mee Choi, Susan Clark, Allison Cobb, Alicia Cohen, Norma Cole, Jen Coleman, Steve Collis, Daniel Comiskey, Lucy Corin, Martin Corless-Smith, Steve Creson, Michael Cross, Peter Culley, Crystal Curry, KT Cutler, Beverly Dahlen, Jean Day, Christine Deavel.

And this only gets us into the “D’s” so you get the idea. That list looks better with time.

There still is no answer to Red Sky Poetry Theater, a legendary open mic which died in 2005 after a 25 year run, the longest on the West Coast in that time. One person said: “There are a lot of open mics in Seattle, but Red Sky’s a poetry reading.” It was a workshop for many poets, myself included, and regulars included Marion Kimes, Charlie Burks, Paul Hunter, Judith Roche, Willie Smith, Carletta Wilson, Steve Potter, Jesse Minkert, Roberto Valenza, Phoebe Bosche (of Raven Chronicles fame),  Robin Schultz, Belle Randall, Denis Mair (a prodigious translator of Chinese poets), Margareta Waterman (& her own Oregon-based press,Nine Muses), David Whited and others.

Our own SPLAB is a venue that seeks to build community through shared experience of the spoken and written word. We have a weekly writer’s critique circle (Living Room) and the visiting poets we’ve had since re-launching in Seattle’s diverse Columbia City neighborhood include Michael McClure, Nate Mackey, C.A. Conrad, Cedar Sigo and Brenda Hillman, so I guess you can stick us in the Black Mountain meets The Salish Sea poetic territory.

The latest glimmers of hope come from three sources. The first is a brand new reading that, according to organizers happens: “in conventionally too-small spaces, occurring around Western Washington. Basements. Attics. Vans. Coffee stands. The head of a pin. Lovingly curated by Graham Isaac and Rachel Hug.” It is called, oddly enough, Claustrophobia. They’ve had only one session, but it is promising. Second is a new indy publishing house called, perfectly, Dark Coast Press, which has threatened to make a splash in the poetry world, but whose soul is that of a poet, Editor Jarret Middleton. Expect them to do big things in poetry. The second glimmer comes from a reading series created by three guys who met at SPLAB and are, would you guess, recent transplants from “back East” as we say. New York, Philly and Virginia by way of Utah, exactly. These guys have collaborated to create The Breadline. (They chose the name months before the Occupy movement created its new Hoovervilles, or Obama-villes we might call them.) Mixing Slam, LangPo, music, Oulipo, Butoh and even the occasional Appalachian story-teller or molecular biologist, this monthly series is wildly popular and is just figuring out how to sustain  itself. An off-shoot of that reading was an homage to John Cage called Communications Silence, which was well-attended and very well-regarded in the local press. It demonstrated that there is a base here for something more real, more daring and more satisfying. Maybe now we’re growing up.

The way I see it, history as a subject reads best when it is both documented and re-imagined (In Cold Blood, Ragtime, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men come immediately to mind); when a literary revelation emerges as a result of source material from the scene and from the bigger world get all mixed up.  Artistic freedom applied to the narrative of seeing the world gives historical events a kind of literary sense beyond the mere recording of something that happened in time.

By nature, history is haphazard and at its core, personal.  And I can’t think of any American poet who knows that fact as deeply and successfully as C.D. Wright who has, in a number of books, combined poetry with other kinds of writing to make a history about prisoners in Louisiana (One Big Self:  An Investigation a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster), or America’s relationship with itself and the rest of the world (Rising, Falling, Hovering) or, in her most recent book, One With Others,  her own, even more familiar smalltown Arkansas and the civil rights movement in the late sixties.

_____It smells like home.  She said, dying.  And I, What’s that you smell, V.  And V, dying:  The faint cut of walnuts in the grass.  My husband’s work shirt on the railing.  The pulled-barbecued evening.  The turned dirt.  Even in this pitch I can see the vapor-lit pole, the crape myrtle not in shadow…

So begins this brilliant book of poems, prose, oral history, collection of historical records and eyewitness accounts about a group of blacks living in rural Arkansas and their ‘walk against fear’ in 1969 (most strongly felt as a response to King’s assassination the year before).  This account of second class citizenship (culminating at one point in a round up of the town’s black students into an emptied public swimming pool) is told from different points of view – most luminously revealed in the life of a woman known as “V” (Wright’s mentor and guide):

_____They drove her out of the town.  They drove her out of the state.  Until they burned up her car, she drove herself.  Burned her car right next to the police station.  She had just begun to drive, I mean she had just learned to drive and she had many miles to go.  Then, whoa, Gentle Reader, no more car.  The white man burned that MF to the struts.

While this is a book about memory (and how it mixes with politics to form a kind of seam against oppression) it is also a reminder of how the story of civil rights continually evolves with differing sets of explosive situations to set the next call to action in motion:

To act, just to act.  That was the glorious thing.


Walking we are just walking
Dead doe on the median
Whoever rides into the scene changes it
Pass a hickory dying on the inside
A black car that has not moved for years
Forever forward/backwards never

One With Others with it’s look back at the history of a march is also interlaced with looks into the future.  V, for instance, ends up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York – the place one senses, that names a location as much as a state of mind:

_____IN HELL’S KITCHEN:  Her apartment is smaller by half than the shotgun shacks that used to stubble the fields outside of Big Tree.  Stained from decades of nonstop smoking.  The world according to V was full of smoke and void of mirrors.

_____She was not an eccentric.  She was an original.  She was congenitally incapable of conforming.  She was resolutely resistant.

_____Her low-hanging fears no match for her contumacy

_____Grappling books in the mud leaf out in the mind

What gives this book it’s great heart and beauty is how it follows not only the force and fragmentary transcription of history and civil rights on a local level, but that it follows thinking itself:  a fixation on a memory, the confusion over time of who is who and the indelible way activism and art documents a time.  (Aside from the march and outcries, there is also a continuing devotion to literature, painting and music).

This feeling of the mind working in time is also drawn literally, typographically, with continuous placements of wide white spaces between lines and paragraphs and list items.  By the end, the book takes on the form of a list undulating into a paragraph followed by lines breaking away: the way, as if the past is a dream, we make ourselves remember it and piece it together:

_____Not the sound but the shape of the sound
_____Not the clouds rucked up over the clothesline
_____The copperhead in the coleus
_____Not the air hung with malathion
_____Not the boomerang of bad feelings
_____Not the stacks of poetry, long-playing albums, the visions of Goya and friends
_____Not to be resuscitated
_____and absolutely no priests, up on her elbows, the priests confound you and then they confound you again.  They only come clear when you’re on you deathbed.  We must speak by the card of equivocation will undo us.

_____Look in to the dark heart and you will see what the dark eats other than your heart.

One With Others is a masterpiece.


from Welcome to the Future


so it came time and
no day like that is ever
good in the coming
the bleeding like satin
the river flowing down
and heavy and to the east
dark with soot
crossing the night bridge
the river flowing down
and heavy and to the east
there were roads into bitter
heads between knees
the diminishing systems
bleached and diagonal
the river flowing down
down and no sound
all night the breathing
all night the breathing continued
in lieu of


welcome to the future welcome to the new
no instructions

I have come into the aware
where the gilt edges are

look all the men
and the distance sitting in the roar
with knotted blue glass

we are aware
as if all is tunnel and paper

there are bodies and
bills in these flattened villa

one waves as we pass him

and home isn’t here
and home isn’t there

and randomly we plead with the officers
to get down from their cophorses and help us


worry the river over its banks
the train into flames

worry the black rain into the city
the troops into times square

worry the windows cracked acidblack
and the children feverblistered

worry never another summer
never again to live here gentle
with the other inhabitants

then leave too quickly
leave the pills and band-aids
the bathroom scale the Christmas lights the dog

go walking on our legs
dense and bare and useless

worry our throats and lungs
into taking the air

leave books on the shelves
leave keys dustpan

telephones don’t work where you were
in the chaos

desolate oblivion face me along the bar
nothing will rest tonight in the high empty room

the nothing closes forever
in a shop-window
and forever opens the heads wide again

the streets bob up incessantly
height is felled wire rises

the glass is laced together with tunnels

the fathers are all glass
all air and windows


Drinking with Richard

Richard propped up the bottles
like bowling pins

I had fallen into despair
did this bother him

when Richard left I broke
my throat I bit my tongue

cracked teeth my mouth split my lip
smashed chairs in the bar trashed

poems I was writing
all this breaking was very expensive

there is no Richard but I think it was Richard
who had the idea of pouring libations

because of the stumbling thirst
because our lives are like that

I am writing this to do as right as possible by Richard
think back to the bed look out at the bar

the fragrant medicinal flasks
I don’t care to drink anymore because when I drink

it makes me hopeless
Richard, are you going to come back

to the bar where you belong
or just leave me here

here is a flask
I am tired of being metaphysical

our bar is a winter bar
at night we need the dream

of all the objects lined up in a row


from Dear Someone

my emptiness has a lake in it deep and watery
with several temperaments milk cola beer

at night the selves are made of water
all the openings flooded streaming with rain

my emptiness has an aqueduct in it
selves rushing through channels

dissolving washing away in streaks

my emptiness has a fish in it
a piece of seaweed liferaft a rocky strait

all night the selves are breaking themselves
again and again on the sandbar

you can’t get out from the drowning
nightwatery the blacksparkling pools

my emptiness has a nowhere reef an island
at night the immersion comes deep-running and sudden

the selves
it washes us under and sudden


Deborah’s first book Orchidelirium

Larkin’s “Sad Steps”

Emerson and the transparent eyeball

Stevens’ Snow Man

I contain multitudes (of links)

In the interview, I think I am more talking about popular usage turning compound nouns into contractions while Deborah is on the money with elisions which even Catullus liked to use.

Deborah was not far off when she said I probably wasn’t born when PS122 was a new and exciting thing.

The Last Time I Saw RICHARD.

The Last Time I saw Richard SIKEN.

All poems reprinted with permission from the author. You can, however, see more of Welcome to the Future at TINHOUSE and the excerpt from Dear Someone at THE PARIS REVIEW. Also, one of Deborah’s poems at BEST AMERICAN POETRY BLOG and a blurb and excerpted poem at ANHINGA PRESS.

Ben Lerner is damn smart. In case you aren’t convinced by my saying so, you need only stop and examine one his books the next time you have a chance. Just the titles of The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and most recently, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) suggest that the enclosed works have elaborate scholarly underpinnings. Lerner’s cerebral poetry isn’t chip-on-the-shoulder intellectualism or self-conscious hipsterism, however, and to shy away from his books because of their rigorous erudition would be to miss a difficult, witty, utterly sincere contemporary writer.

Lerner’s latest project is a sensitive exploration of how our inherited war- and commerce-freighted language might be capable of intimate expression. According to the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the book, which is the most succinct explanation I could find of the title: “In physics, the “mean free path” of a particle is the average distance it travels before colliding with another particle.” In adopting this phrase as his title, Lerner appears to be making an analogy to our language: particular words and phrases bear residues of prior use. For example, since “shock” and “awe” were appropriated by 1996 military doctrine and then repeated all over news media in 2003 as the U.S. military bombed Iraq, we may not use these words (and certainly not the phrase “shock and awe”) without the tarnish of the over 6,600 casualties—many of them civilians—of the “invasion phase” of the U.S. campaign. And this is just one example involving rather commonplace words—night vision green, this time with feeling, perfect world, prisoner, and a host of other problematic phrases and words recur throughout Lerner’s book. They do so, however, in the interest of expressing himself to a particular addressee—his wife—in a manner that creates fresh intimacy for the reader. Surprisingly, through fracture, repetition, collision, and repeated recontextualization of particular words and phrases, Lerner’s new poems work to liberate love poetry, elegy, and poetry in general from commercial and military connotation.

This project is full of surprise, including humor. Lerner can’t seem to help but barb his poems with sometimes-desperate, dry wit and knuckleball pop reference. The first poem, a “Dedication” to his wife, whose name lovingly recurs throughout, reads, after its central break:

    For I felt nothing,
        which was cool,
    totally cool with me.
    For my blood was cola.
    For my authority was small,
    involuntary muscles
        in my face.
    For I had had some work done
        on my face.

The idiomatic use of “cool,” the surprising, practically Objectivist (insert your own long sequence of analysis here, à la Zukofsky, whose name appears at the end of the first section) use of “cola,” and the sudden reference to plastic surgery all constitute a deixis to the commercialization of language (not to mention the ominous suggestion of “authority”), in a personalized, loving frame. How can these bits of language belong in a love poem, if not to say, “I care so much about you, let me use my terrible inherited palette self-consciously, athletically, and baring my preoccupations. It’s all I have.”

In the end, however, extrapolated earnestness is not all Lerner offers his wife and reader. These poems are also absorbingly formally innovative. The book is divided into five sections. Following “Dedication” (which is a doubling of the “Doppler Elegy” form)—the second and fourth sections are called “Mean Free Path” and the third and fifth “Doppler Elegies.” Both “Mean Free Path” sections are comprised of sequences of 36 stanzas. It’s hard to call these stanzas individual poems, as none are marked by a title. Each is nine lines of relatively similar length, somewhat akin to Spenserian stanzas, although not patterned by stress or meter. These stanzas are challenging bits of poetry, however. Each line of “Mean Free Path” may or may not enjamb sensibly with the next, and enjambment may break a given phrase off from its expected, idiomatic conclusion. There is never punctuation at the end of a line, and often as we read the meanings of fractured phrases are transformed through Lerner’s collage-like stanzas, which are part of a great mosaic of repetition, fracture, juxtaposition, and ellipsis. The reader must work to make sense of the leaps in subject, tense, grammar, lost predicates, or might read smoothly from one line to the next. This game of making, not making, and changing sense continues over the marked breaks between stanzas. For example, the second section of “Mean Free Path” opens:

    What if I made you hear this as music
    But not how you mean that. The slow beam
    Opened me up. Walls walked through me
    Like resonant waves. I thought that maybe
    If you aren’t too busy, we could spend our lives
    Parting in stations, promising to write
    War and Peace, this time with feeling
    As bullets leave their luminous traces across
    Wait, I wasn’t finished, I was going to say
    Breakwaters echo long lines of cloud


    Rununciation scales. Exhibits shade
    Imperceptibly into gift shops. The death of a friend
    Opens me up. Suddenly the weather
    Is written by Tolstoy, whose hands were giant
    Resonant waves. It’s hard not to take
    When your eye is at the vertex of a cone
    Autumn personally. My past becomes
    Of lines extending to each leaf
    Citable in all its moments: parting, rain

A similar game of meaning-making and -breaking is afoot in Lerner’s “Doppler Elegies,” which formally attempt to mimic the “shifts” that Christian Doppler described in terms of the frequency of waves for an observer moving relative the source of the wave—the source, of course, may be the mover, too, and the effect may also be created by a change in medium through which waves travel. In addition to this scientific framing, Lerner’s “Doppler Elegy” form is comprised of three nine-line stanzas, the second, seventh, and ninth lines indented and shortened to create a sense of shift. The shorter lines of these pieces—some of which are very short—create an even more dramatic effect on readability as one proceeds through each piece. The difficulty of making sense in these poems by amplified in Lerner’s process of fracture and juxtaposition—essentially collage. Self-reference is even more insistent and intense, as well. The penultimate “Doppler Elegy” of the book’s third section reads:


    Somewhere in this book I broke
        There is a passage
    with a friend. I regret it now
    lifted verbatim from
    Then began again, my focus on
    moving the lips, failures in
        The fuselage glows red against
    rinsed skies. Rehearsing sleep
        I think of him from time

    in a competitive field
        facedown, a familiar scene
    composed entirely of stills
    to time. It’s hard to believe
    When he calls, I pretend
    he’s gone. He was letting himself go
        I’m on the other line
    in a cluster of eight poems
    all winter. The tenses disagreed

    for Ari. Sorry if I’ve seemed
        distant, it’s been a difficult
    period, striking as many keys
    with the flat of the hand
    as possible, then leaning the head
    against the window, unable to recall
        April, like overheard speech
    at the time of writing
        soaked into its length

And the poem continues into another challenging section. I would love to keep going with such fascinating (to me) examples, but I believe this is a book worth owning and spending a fair amount of time with. Novel, exciting, sometimes funny and always strangely intimate, Mean Free Path is constantly and repeatedly intriguing. Lerner’s deep well of scholarship and charming wit are marshaled toward a sincere, personal mission (military connotations inescapable) here, and the result is a difficult, winning book of poems that, rather like Nabokov’s best work—although nothing like Nabokov’s best work—are endlessly rich with discovery. If you aren’t familiar with this astonishing 31 year-old poet, it’s in your interest to become so, as his past and future work will be with us for a long time.

Above is painter Sean McElroy’s “So Just Be It.” I have known Sean a long time, and I admire both his art and intellect. I was reminded of his work yesterday as I settled down with Ben Lerner’s new book of poems, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)—a book I’ve been excited to read since, well, Lerner’s last book of poems. If I tried to say too much about these paintings and poems, I’m sure my reach would exceed my grasp, so to oversimplify I’m trying to tell you that Lerner’s new poems and McElroy’s paintings are interesting because of their appropriations of geopolitics, war, pop culture, the lexica and imagery we take for granted—I’m trying to say they get me really worked up in my thinking about our world.

Below is a Lerner stanza that reminds me of a McElroy painting:

All these flowers look the same to me
Night-vision green. There is nothing to do
In the desert but read Penthouse and lift weights
My blood is negative. That’s all you need to know
Sophisticated weaponry marries the traditional
Pleasures of perspective to the new materiality
Of point-and-click. I’m writing this one
As a woman comfortable with leading
A prisoner on a leash

To offer just a stanza doesn’t do Mean Free Path justice, of course. This is a mere snippet of a sequence of intellectually rigorous, often strange and surprisingly beautiful fragments in a composite formation. But the idea behind the piece reminds me of McElroy’s art. In a world of militarized language and images, how do we say or present our experience in a way that doesn’t slip into a Daily Show-esque mode of ironizing? Or a mode of superirony? Or something else? See McElroy’s “Looking for Fun, Outgoing, Spontaneous” for something else:

"Looking for Fun, Outgoing, Spontaneous"

What I’m trying to say is that these two artists make a great pair, and their work is great individually as well. See this from Lerner (I’m trying to mention his new book favorably, to be clear, and suggest that there’s much more to be gained by experiencing the sequence):

Birds were these little ships that flew and sang
There were some cool pics online. Funny
Strange, not ha-ha funny, how the black
Canvas grows realistic, a bird’s-eye-view
Of their disappearance. Wave after wave
Of déjà lu. After the storm, the sky turns
Night-vision green. The color of murder
I can hear the soldiers marching in my
Pillow. Even in Canada

Even when Lerner is hard to swallow, sometimes even off-putting, he’s at least interesting. See McElroy’s “A Brick is Drawn out of the Great Tomb for Thee” for such masterfully composed disturbance:

"A Brick is Drawn Out of the Great Tomb for Thee"

So what do you think? I’ll try to more coherently explain myself next week, when I attempt to more carefully review Lerner’s new book. In the meantime, I want to know if anyone else has paired a particular contemporary poet and visual artist (apart from Bianca Stone, who is enviably both in one), and I want to know what you’re excited to be reading.

You can see more of Sean McElroy’s work at: http://www.goldensplinter.com/SEAN_MCELROY