≡ Menu






Gillian Conoley’s new book of poetry (Omnidawn, 2014) is appropriately entitled Peace because it seems to aim at a kind of reconciliation: with the self, with family, with lovers, with the digital world, and with larger abstractions such as death and the occasional “God” or Christ which she infrequently refers to—but which seems to harbor in the vast undercurrents of the text. Her book is contingent upon a very austere subjectivism, but not without a very oblique, if not unintentional sense of humor. The subjectivism threads through the trajectory of the book in a very meaningful way, and yet the manner in which the subject relates herself to the situations she narrates seems as if through an opaque lens. And the opacity that prevails in its surrealistic bent could make the reader feel like he or she is sleepwalking through a very interesting and memorable dream. It is this which binds the momentum of the book and allows ample room for the reader to imagine, and to perhaps free-associate the given text with numerous other stories, most especially if he or she is of a writerly audience.

I don’t know if Conoley is influenced by Gertrude Stein, but there are certainly echoes of Stein in her work. For instance, in her poem A Healing for Little Walter she succeeds in telling the story with brief, syntactically awkward and obscure sentences: “A blue peal bent so far back it’s red./ Little Walter, beasts looking solemn at you/from the other side./Tina still rising./Turn and run./Gold fill,/Gold leaf fill./Fishbone thereby shall we see the light.” Stein, of course inherited a subjectivism which was obscured and hidden beneath the trail of her glottal-stop disordering of sentences, and yet the reader must conjecture who the speaker is and what she might be aiming at. Later in Conoley’s poem: “Gold leaf, gold leaf fill./Crying and wailing with our toy harmonicas/in a space gone unbolt into/a blueness sucking in the sun…” Throughout the poem she repeats the line: “Gold leaf, gold leaf fill…” which if the reader meant to construe this she or he might consider the gold leaf and its fullness in autumn, both in relation to the world and the consciousness of the self.

One of the most beautiful poems in the book is Experiments in Patience II. It reads almost like a haiku: “Family more/than genetics/and laundry/sweep the earth/in your/cemetery slippers/one foot slipping out…” In other words, and if I were to translate this literally and fill in the blank space:

My family is more than simply the genetics I inherit.

Defined by more than the loads of laundry I do each Sunday,

The routine of it like the years I’ve spent growing up

And spinning stories for the sundry experiences.

Family, like laundry, is also the routine of death,

Softly walking upon the graves of relatives,

And never quite letting go…

The incomparable phrase, “sweep the earth in your cemetery slippers” is what allows the poem a very celestial, if not other-worldly sensibility. It is also as I said the essence of the book’s slow and euphoric sleep-walk. Of course, there is a sentiment here, as there is throughout the book, which is not tear-jerking, but rather skin-tingling and evocative of a yearning for a higher spiritual plane.

And Conoley’s book is certainly not without its spiritual element, if not defiantly Christian. For instance, in her poem I Am Writing an Article (Johnny Cash) she asserts “Christ newly staked and writhing/in the heart/in the door-wide chest/in the overall black tower of you…” Here, Christ is a conflicted image of torture, altruistic love, and within his own antithesis.

Conoley’s speaker travels through spiritual planes which exist and yet clash with the digital world she inhabits, such as in the poem “an oh a sky a fabric an undertow:” “The GPS navigational finding device/enhance search/the overly/Google mapped,/severe lack of frontier in the world…” And here, “in mass human’s estranging light” (The Patient) it is evident that the world she sees does not quite reconcile with the world she must envision. Technology has led a mass of humans to begin “exploring the sewers,/recording/sounds of manhole covers as cars…” (an oh a sky a fabric an undertow), perhaps attempting to excavate the inevitable deaths that come with the human condition. It is without doubt that the speaker in Conoley’s poems sees herself as wholly a part of the human condition, and yet the book attempts to reconcile the conflicts which are attached to this.

I would highly recommend reading Gillian Conoley’s book, especially if you’re concerned with the irreconcilable elements of the status quo, with the larger more universal concerns about family and the self, and with the instabilities with which we are faced in the world as it stands. Conoley’s book has the transcendent qualities that future generations will be reading and considering, even after this generation has “[swept] the earth in [its] cemetery slippers.” A must read, for this world, and beyond.



Pool: 5 Choruses
By Endi Bogue Hartigan
Omnidawn, 2014
ISBN 978-1890650926

It troubles me when readers and writers of poetry insist that “postmodernist” poetry doesn’t make any sense, inherits no concept of consequence, and ultimately leaves all sense of meaning uncertain and equivocated. The fact is that good postmodernist poetry simply succeeds at depicting certain ideas in a way that demands the reader to twist (as the phrases do) his or her own imagination so that they might only skirt the meaning enough to get a hint of the overarching intent. And no, the reader may never succeed in harnessing exactly what the poet meant. But good postmodernist poetry at least allows the reader more agency in determining the meaning. As Derrida insists, it allows the reader “free-play.”

Endi Bogue Hartigan’s latest collection “Pool: 5 Choruses” is not only what I would refer to as an opportunity for free-play, it also presents a complexity of motifs which weave together obscure yet compelling ideas. Her poetry does not demand a singular meaning that everyone can extrapolate and then calmly feel at peace with the incontrovertible ending. For some readers of poetry, this would be a source of discomfort. Some of my introductory students insist “I don’t get poetry.” This is likely because they are anticipating a text which requires less intellectual participation and simply presents an image or concept with very little debate or pliability. Hartigan’s collection succeeds in allowing its readers a commodious room to in which to play and explore, and moves through its five choruses as if like movements in a symphony. The subjects she employs (poppies, cherries, swans, windows, and certain anonymous characters) inherit actual lives of their own—which as Dickinson would say “dwell in possibility.”

The word which recurs throughout the choruses is “slippage”—which perhaps implies that nothing is for certain, and “slips” like the meaning that is aimed at, but never insists that the reader make any determination where it is going. Like Yeats said “the center cannot hold…things fall apart.” And the “slippage” of Hartigan’s text makes for a slow and beautiful dismantling, as if a flower that dies and slowly drops off its petals. It moves like a dance, where the immediate proposals for beauty are the only aspect that matters. Hartigan’s book is an actual story—but an obdurate reader may miss it because the narrative is fragmental, and drifts like movements which possess their own immediate merits. The symphonic quality is evident. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is not a piece which moves in a deft pattern, and neither is Hartigan’s collection.

A poem which clearly presents the idea of slippage is “Discontinued Chorus:” Do you remember Gumby?/Where did it come from?/Do you remember yourself?/Do you remember the chorus?…/who is erased? This passage suggests slippage even insofar as the human identity, such that no identity is for certain, such that the human mind and understanding of itself is not easily explained, such that we are “bendable” like the Gumby doll and vehicles which do not remain upright and easily determined. We are subjects of free-play. Even the self and its meaning are not closed off to numerous possibilities and interpretations.

“Experiment With Seven Hearts” also begins with invitation to play: Try your heaven in the attic/your taxidermic static cloud/Let in starlings, let in publics/see what they do…and in “Lola, America:” Lola imagines non-Lola by the lake/over herself, over herself/skipping reflection or/some kind of ant that doesn’t care/other ants or soil. Here, not only does she present the problem of Lola’s existential verisimilitude, but she also presents the problem of the ant’s existence.

Everything in Hartigan’s collection is weaving of questions which she insists that the reader ask him or herself, and she doesn’t necessarily insist that an answer be arrived at. In the first poem in the book, “Slippage and the Red Poppies” she asserts We have to begin at the slippage of alertness into fear. And in that sense she is suggesting that we must be a little bit afraid of determining or ascertaining an incontrovertible meaning. We must be made slightly uncomfortable by endless possibilities before we can begin to discover them and accept the invitation to play, among the poppies and the slippage, where meanings are found, erased, revised, disintegrated, and elucidated once again not in their layering, but rather between the layers. Hartigan’s collection is a must read, if not only for its portrayals of beauty, then for its success in satisfying the thirst of the intellect.