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Lyric Poetry

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.

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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.

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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.

A Review of The Pistol Tree Poems by Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
– Karl Marx

You must be the change you want to see in the world.
– Mahatma Gandhi

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Experimental writers can perform no more politically effective feat toward that noble Marxian goal of changing the world than imaginative collaboration. To the central tenet of the old Left that one must change the world, Gandhi adds that one must be the change one wants to see in the world. By collaborating to create The Pistol Tree Poems (Shearsman, 2011), Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh have intervened in the lyric poetry tradition to our benefit.

Whether or not Marx, Gandhi, and Shelley’s wisdom resonates with us, today’s philosophers (read readers) do not absorb such wisdom by osmosis. Such wisdom needs a shape and language shapes wisdom. Therefore, since language mediates wisdom, a philosophy, in effect, means a love of language. This way, philosophers love wisdom only to the extent to which they love language. A hermit, for instance, knows he is a hermit because of the echolalia of the word hermit which goes bounding inside his head. Along these lines, poets Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh use language for its aesthetic and evocative qualities to make poetry. However, these poems enact the change Hughes and Marsh want to see in the world because the poems are constructed and presented as collaborative. Whatever the medium, collaborative work tempts new subjectivities into being.

Poetic collaboration keeps the selves we think we know in motion.

Such grand framing may be all well and good, but how do poets manage not only to change the world but to be the change they want to see in the world? The process of imaginative collaboration can change the world by changing how we think we know ourselves. We know ourselves, like the hermit in his cave, by how we use language. Writers who use language as a fluid artifact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves: Hughes and Marsh make the possible more possible.

Two basic formal constraints score Hughes and Marsh’s The Pistol Tree Poems, full of that selfsame swirling that goes in and out of egos, places, and senses of craft: Hughes writes the odd poems in the UK, Marsh responds via email from Italy with the even poems. The second constraining factor has each poem end with one line less than the prior poem, thus the collection of 106 poems tapers into silence with the formal whisper of one line from each poet.

just time to pull on the feathered leggings (Hughes 105)

& swap love for light (Marsh 106)

Hughes has a gift for the telling chop of idiom while Marsh is an accomplished handler of the heft of figuration. Hughes’ boisterous humor is tempered by Marsh’s Latinate vocabulary and concrete poetry layouts. Thus split, the author-function twains the reader’s expectations and the actual reading experience of how she should know the author. Always the twain shall meet.

The following poems show how Hughes and Marsh become the change they wish to see in the world. To be clear, I certainly to not presume to know the writers’ political or aesthetical intentions: my claims are those of a reader discussing a text and the function of collaborative writing. Nonetheless, watch and listen to how they perform a shuffling together like a deck of odd and even subject positions, perceptions, local names and concerns:

what to you now are eyes
in nights to come will be stars

__________now the pickled onions are fantastic
___a first bite twists the spine 20 degrees
__anti-clockwise with left shoulder dipping
_so folks developed language & language
developed people which helped us knock through
but also dumped too much weight in the boot
_thus fucking up most front-wheel drives & those
__who squat in the backs of caves wondering
_______what star-light might be like in ideal worlds
______instead of smacking fat pigs with ping-pong
_____bats from which the rubber mat flaps free or
_______licking Swindon nymphs in the fairy-light
____________lit gloom of St Cecilia’s Day where
_______Purcell no it’s Mahler is humming you
___mustn’t enclose the night inside you you
_you must flood it in eternal light

Norfolk    St. Cecilia’s Day 2009 (Hughes 75)

 And below I include Marsh’s poem sent via email (our contemporary letter-writing medium) in response to Hughes’ poem above. These two poems show the call-and-response nature of the collaborative process. Converse to Chevy Chase notions of the lone genius working in his study in a cabin in the woods unmolested by society, these poems suggest the social nature of the creative writing process. After all, being hip means what more than being social? In collaborating to make special objects, Hughes and Marsh perform up to the potential of man as a social animal:

Happy birthday, John Abercrombie

Chipset notes
_Mahler’s beamless
__loft of sky
__quietly hewn
___from torrential rain
____& anchored slipshod
______to Earth’s off-centred girth
__________it’s my turn so
_________I stare as far as we can
________beyond where the jazz is
_______to warm tucks of
______magnetic heat
_____coiled round
___hollowed out melodies
daylight flickers
-and is gone

Varzi    December 2009 (Marsh 76)

Readers will note the place and year of where and when the poem was written left justified under each poem. This information brands each passage with the mortality suggested by the passing of time and space during travel. Some readers may read such branding gestures as claims, however false or true, constructed upon the authority of the local or of the locale. Obviously, this kind of biographical information does situate the word-play in a specific place and time and such placing does invest the poems with that certain auratic glow of having been there. However, essentialism is not a weakness in art: capturing essence is the goal of aesthetics. The essence of places is alluded to throughout the collection with the names of local beaches like Old Hunstanton and local lunch specials like Norfolk Pork & Haddock Chowder.

On the one hand, a collaborative poetry sequence like The Pistol Tree Poems implicates readers in the flux of two writers becoming one writer. Moreover, this back and forth between political worldviews and aesthetic sensibilities offers an extended example for the reader of how two poets can work together to become one poet. On the other hand, more conventional lyric poetry with its tacit narrative realism accepts as established fact that market-driven illusion of the subject as a stable and knowable noun. Here, I define more conventional lyric poetry as the poetry of those who own the means of production who, because it would lessen their comforts, do not trouble the category of the “I.” But what can it mean to punch the Marxian ringtone of “the means of production” in present times, when every desktop PC is a publishing house? How must discussing “the means of production” shift when a playful epistolary dialogue transpires via email between two buddies across Europe? How does an epistolary conversation become a pistol tree conversation? And exactly how much “Jameson’s in jam jars” must have been consumed? (Hughes 103)

In The Pistol Tree Poems the word “soul” comes up 15 times (on pages 2, 15, 17, 18, and twice on 23, 25, 35, 40, 43, 50, 54, 58, 72, and 78). I bring it up not because I mind the soul metaphor: Emily Dickinson uses it to booming effect. I point to the word “soul” because I want to use it to illustrate how collaborative writing can destabilize the propaganda undergirding a certain kind of subject position.

Can one own the self, mind, or soul (like so many other nouns on the commodity market)? If one can in fact own these social constructions, it follows logically that one can also own the other, the foreigner, or the absent author as part of the free-market of human resources. What if I’ve been duped into believing that I am I? In other words, what if the I-function is an instance-location in the social fabric of time and space scored into being by the architecture of our habits? With the help of the work of writers like Hughes and Marsh who play with words and with the function of authorship, readers too can be the change they wish to see in the world. For instance, what changes if one thinks of the self, mind, and soul as attributes or qualities pivoting along the continuum of social conventions rather than as commodities to be possessed?

Am I my own property or do I have properties? Am I a piece of property with properties? Simply owning a self, mind, or soul requires no active engagement with the wisdom I receive about these objects or traits. However, weighing the attributes and qualities of a self, mind, or soul demands both critical and creative thinking. If the pre-Socratics, Immanuel Kant, and Jiddu Krishnamurti teach us anything, they teach us that it is bad to think of people as objects. Fine, but what do ethics have to do with two people writing poetry together?

Through its conceptual structure and effects, collaborative poetry inveigles us to consider the shattered and displaced condition of our subjectivities. Through the pleasures and surprises directed by the effects of cutup and syntactic enjambment of units of sound and sense, Hughes and Marsh show readers the aesthetic value that can come from relaxing the ego muscle. Many twentieth-century writers have used the jarring effects of parataxis from Ezra Pound’s adaptation of Chinese and Japanese poetry, to Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso’s work together, to the canon of experimenters represented in collections such as Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry.

To collaborate well as a creative writer, one has to give up the 500 year old idea of the Humanist self as a unique consumer of “the real” as defined by the commodity market from the beginning of European colonial aggression in 1492 up to the email age. This review does nothing new by pointing to the transitory properties of identity. Such a gesture has deep roots all over the world from Greece to Ireland to India as illustrated by the documents of Heraclitian paradox, Socratic doubt, and Romantic poetries. Sometimes these gnarled old roots sprout questions and suggestions as I’ve tried to outline by discussing the political implications of writing and reading collaborative poetry.

As formal innovation, Hughes and Marsh’s collaboration in the form of The Pistol Tree Poems entices and challenges readers of contemporary poetry to consider how they themselves could collaborate in order to face their own crises of form in the age of internet, easy travel, and increasing global hardships. How do we readers of the English language, all hermits in the caves of capital, face the freight of our received wisdom?

I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe blink by blink…

“The world resists me and I resist the world,” I said. “That’s all there is. The mountains are what I define them as.” Ah, monstrous stupidity of childhood, unreasonable hope!

-John Gardner’s Grendel, “the Beowulf legend retold from the monster’s point of view”