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Surrealist Tourist: Alessandra Bava Honors Each Exquisite Corpse
By Jennifer MacBains-Stephens

In They Talk About Death, Alessandra Bava’s first chapbook published in the United States (her third, internationally), Bava represents the voices of the dead through thirteen poems about Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Patti Smith, Henry Miller, Amedeo Modigliani, and Arthur Rimbaud, among others. Lives cut short by drugs, suicide, illness, and murder – these artists and writers inspire Bava’s work. In this chapbook, assembled and handmade by editor and publisher Juliet Cook, ghosts requite and haunt red-walled Parisian cafes, New York street corners, and dark, succulent gardens.

It is no wonder that Bava would be able to channel many voices: she is an active participant in the World Poetry Movement, which uses poetic action to promote multinational communities that work towards social, ecological, environmental, and mental health, revering cultural diversity and social transformation. She is also a member of The 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a group that brings artists and poets together to work and perform, encouraging a sense of community. Both groups honor the qualities of cultural and philosophical diversity that are present in Bava’s own writing. Bava’s muses struggled throughout life to find their place and, whether through confessional poetry or offending critics, Bava portrays this glorious, marginalized group (some of them only achieving prominence postmortem,) in all of their eccentric and damaged glory.

In the titular, opening poem, the scene of a salon is staged. Writers talk and sip absinthe; as “Sylvia talks of her first attempt. Anne [Sexton] listens attentively…” the scene becomes almost like a portrayal of two school girls discussing a crush – words such as “sweet,” “infectious laugh,” and “loving,” convey an innocent intimacy; discussing death feels like looking for the shape of a friend in the dark at a sleepover. As readers, we witness this casual, everyday conversation about death, and the subjects’ preoccupation with ending life itself, capturing our attention, luring us closer to the grave. Experience the following:

“…the sweet

terrible act dissected
with loving details
as on a morgue
table,”

where a “morgue table” is dropped in almost like patio furniture, followed closely by a mention of sipping wine. The casualness of this chat between Plath and Sexton about life’s ending grabs hold of our daily routine as well; we cannot be squeamish, but are forced to encounter the transparent relationship between breathing and not breathing.

When read aloud, these quatrains almost measure out the time it takes to sip a glass of wine or cup of tea. Throughout the chapbook, there is sense of participating in the dead writer’s routines, bridging our closeness with the dead, and with death. The reader shamelessly eavesdrops on these subjects, taking pleasure in their sometimes-imagined conversations, which are interspersed with actual dialogue spoken by the subjects, taken from their body of work or historical records. The words of the dead hold power over us.

Is there any poet alive who doesn’t know that Sylvia Plath left this world by committing suicide, leaving her two children food, a note, and an open window so they would not be asphyxiated by her gas oven? Despite the fact that Plath has been characterized as abandoning her children through this final act, the heart-wrenching poem, Milk and Bread, illustrates Bava’s gentleness with the tortured Plath. Even as she narrates Plath’s suicide, Bava’s language emphasizes motherly, nurturing qualities, with lines like, “I left you in the arms of February winds…” In this chapbook, the inevitable event of that morning portrays Plath in pain, not heartless, as Bava writes lines like,

“I gave birth…
and to you with distant eyes –
in order not to love too much,”

focusing the reader on Plath’s alienation and displacement in the world, her own life foreign to the idea of “comfort.”

The cover art, by Erin Wells, is eerily reminiscent of Sylvia’s famous blond curls. These curls, however, fall over a horse skull, such an apropos illustration for this collection – the whimsical carousel ride of childhood juxtaposed with the ominous horse skull, to somewhat terrifying effect. We are reminded that, though childhood ends eventually, these beasts continue to gallop in a circle forever, reaching up towards heaven and down towards hell, keeping all riders in a state of limbo. Perhaps the resurrected ghosts of these artists and writers find themselves locked into similar patterns: Sylvia, for example, so gregarious and lovely, almost child-like herself in so many photos, gave life and conformist roles a shot, but in the end, her own darkness was the an all-consuming role. She, like many of these authors, now lives out repeatedly in our minds the deaths for which they are (at least in part) so well known. Perhaps the carousel horse reminds us from the cover that we, too, might have to plunge into the depths to come back up. Bava’s exploration of the lives of these creative icons displays the balancing act at knife point. Cut too deep and it’s all over.

The theme of motherhood is perhaps paralleled by a theme of lost father figures. Bava captures the robust, punctual words of Henry Miller when he meets up with the author herself in a café. The poem Exquisite Corpse reminds us of partaking in life lessons and meaningful conversation. Bava writes of Miller in groups of three lines – the words are shorter and come faster, there is a rawness of Henry Miller. Who wouldn’t want to meet Henry Miller in a café and write a poem with him? Having escaped to Paris, Miller befriended the Surrealists. Inspiration from these meetings brought Miller his first famous works: Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. The Surrealists repeated the same mantra at every meeting:

“Le cadaver exquis boira le vin nouveau.”
(The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.)

The Exquisite Corpse was, of course, a Surrealist game in which each person present contributed one line at a time to a collaborative poem, without being allowed to see most of the lines written by the others. In Bava’s poem, she and Henry play this game together:

“The morning ritual starts
as Henry walks into the
café and sits close to me”

Henry “demanding the pen…”

We feel the heat of him next to us and on the page. Miller writes a line and then Bava writes a line. They create a poem together as people (and Bava’s readers) watch.

Miller, one of the early figures of the “Beat Generation,” turned realism on its head: his books banned in the United States for a time due to their graphic sexual content. Miller could be the long-lost son of Rimbaud, whose sadness and magic hit a nerve but often remain obtuse. Miller slaps us across the face with life. Bava captures Rimbaud’s romantic slow passion, though even in Bava’s world, Rimbaud is tortured:

“I stare at his . . .
Provincial clothes,

At his holsters
Full of satisfied

Flesh, Christian
Mothers’ morals…

I pause, I pant, I shoot, I write.

He grabs my hand
And cries, “Wake up!

I’m just a ghost
Selling false promises… “

This ode to Rimbaud is at the end of the collection, almost feeling like the reader has time traveled and come back full circle to the café. It is only in the café that we shake off the grime of the New York streets. It is our respite after touring the Bowery with Patti Smith, Rimbaud’s
dark, hungry, crow-like daughter-figure. Bava describes Smith using stark apostrophe: “Your dress is scanty and no black train follows it, your lips are smeared with poison…” conveying the sexy rebellion of Madame Bowery. Smith shunned the glittery big hair/loud make up of this decade, choosing to wear men’s clothes and live in the un-glamourous Alphabet City. Smith, having shoplifted Rimbaud’s book Iluminations when she was young, said Rimbaud was like her boyfriend, that she connected with his words immediately. The godmother of punk, Smith’s song fused rock with poetic verse, belting out explicit heartfelt lyrics and embracing the darkness in life. It is in embracing the dark, that the light becomes more apparent.

A favorite aspect of this collection was the feeling of these people co-mingling on the page. Even though they existed in different countries, in different time periods, they fit together so well in They Talk About Death, almost familial. The reader re-befriends them through Bava’s poems and as is one purpose of creating or writing anything at all – there is immortality in these pages: they are not dead. But we live in the world of the living, and hence, we do experience loss. The author’s own vulnerability and connection to these lost souls is palpable. In Vision, (for Sylvia Plath,) Bava writes: “As I carve my own poem, I hear the apse rustle./ The vivid stained glass windows on my bark shake…/ I am left to contemplate the Apocalypse of the Word.” The reader’s brain wants nothing more than to replace “word” with “world.” Why is anyone on the path they are on? How do we alter life with casual or concrete choices made in a milli-second?
And the reader, who has doubtlessly been inspired by at least one of the dead in this chapbook, happily goes along for the ride, conjuring spirits through Bava’s poems. Our own mortality is a post-it note. We go to the ledge, but we don’t have to step off. It feels good just to stand there, playing tourist to these ghosts wandering around in dark mental caverns. We are here to “stare at our beautiful corpse of a poem,” and Bava generously allows us to dip a toe in the afterlife. If we are lucky, we can grab for a stronghold in the cliff and hold on.

They Talk About Death, Alessandra Bava
Blood Pudding Press, 2014
20 pages
$7.00

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Jennifer MacBain-Stephens attended NYU, and has spent a large part of her life moving up and down I-95 and I-80 in the Midwest; she recently moved to the DC area. She is the author of the chapbooks Clotheshorse (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming, 2014) and Every Her Dies (ELJ Publications). She has written four YA non-fiction books (Rosen Publishing). Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, and can soon or recently be found in Dressing Room Poetry Journal, The Blue Hour, Vector Press, The Golden Walkman, Split Rock Review, Toad Suck Review, and Hobart.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

The Dog in the Garage

The dog in the garage,
The hound that wanders around
Snapping at flies, with an infected ear —

Suddenly starts to run
Across the street at an angle.
He must have remembered something

Mixed with the odors of dust
And car-grease — a delirious
Fragrance of sexual life.

I just started reading Kayak—the poetry magazine George Hitchcock ran almost single-handedly from 1964-84. It’s a wonderful zine brought to life with Hitchcock’s visual collages. The magazine serves as a portal into the surrealist and deep image poetry of the period. Andrew Joron cites it as “the most sustained, and most visible, interact between deep-image and surrealist poetry.” This is good and bad, however, since deep imagism, for many, is a tamed, domesticated pseudo-surrealism—surrealism without teeth. A pertinent quote from Joron:

Such notions [of the deep image], in spite of their superficial affinities with Surrealism, fall short Surrealism’s radical demand for the dialectical Aufhebung of dream and reality. The deep imagists tended to rely on “intensification of intuition” (citing Jung) rather than on the intensification of contradiction; theirs was essentially an affirmative art, devoid of the surrealist appetite for negation and otherness (as exemplified by Breton’s phrase “Existence is elsewhere”).

Joron’s evocation of Hegel’s term, aufhebung, is very interesting. The contradictory meanings of the word (“lift,” “abolish,” “sublate”) make it an intriguing choice for surrealism (which is, to a great extent, Hegelian). The word suggests more than synthesis, as thesis and antithesis are “preserved and changed” simultaneously. In aufhebung, objects remains open and distinct while, simultaneously, merging with the other.

I wonder if a useful dividing line can be drawn between epiphany-centered poems (those written in the spirit of Bly and James Wright) and the “non-epiphanic” deep image poems that gesture, much less conspicuously, toward sublation. There are many poems in Kayak modeled closely on Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock.” Take this poem by David P. Etter:

HOLLYHOCKS

Hollyhocks are swaying gently
under the blue branches of an elm.

I watch 82 freight cars
sink into the corn leaves
and over the rim of the prairie.

On my back now, I watch the sky
make wool pictures of mothers.

Two blackbirds fly toward the river:
the muddy river of endless regret.

I could lie here forever
and look up at these hollyhocks.

I will never get on in the world.

The same pattern of the meditative, nature-conscious Wordsworthian speaker builds up to an implied epiphany, which is expressed through a “gap” or “leap” into a profound thought, usually in the final line. This is a wonderful way to express the powers of intuition and deep interconnection of man and nature. It is “affirmative,” finding resonance and basic goodness in nature and consciousness.

Such a vision and expression is successful in many ways, but it is different, as Joron notes, from one of the more important characteristics of surrealism. And it’s not that the surrealists are dour pessimists who take the same experience and draw opposite, nihilistic, conclusions. Rather, the difference is one of discursion. The “Lying in a Hammock” poem draws a final statement from the experience, whether good or bad (usually good). Their experience of the world is epiphanic, even mystical. The surrealists are more skeptical epistemologically. Epiphanies, by their nature, are conclusive.

But what about Simpson’s poem? Epiphanies seem to be a matter of subjective judgment. His poem doesn’t seem to contain an epiphany. If there is one, it is so minor that it is almost inconsequential. The speaker interprets the dog: “He must have remembered something.” This could be an epiphany (or become one), but the statement is speculative (“he must have”), whereas Etter’s and Wright’s interpretive statements are declarative: “I have wasted my life” and “I will neverget on in the world.” What the dog remembered might be epiphanic—for the dog—or, the fact that the speaker sees this in the dog might be epiphanic for the speaker. But since what the dog must have remembered isn’t stated. Behind the statement is a potential epiphany, but it is gestured toward from a distance and remains hidden. This lends the poem a sense of openness.

Surrealist aufhebung required openness. The surrealists achieve this by eschewing conclusions (and hence, epiphanies). The simplest way to do this is to stick to images and juxtapositions. The implicative nature of juxtaposition seems to do most of the dialectical work automatically for the surrealist. Yet, only when sublation goes unstated can the paradoxical nature of aufhebung be fully realized.

Simpson’s poem walks the line between surrealist openness and deep-imagist closure. This poem is affirmative—of animal life and the power of the unconscious—and the resonance of “delirious fragrance” pushes the poem toward closure. On the other hand, the poem’s basic maneuver (and its success) comes through contradiction and contrast (infection/virility, memory/delirium, industrialism/sexuality).

Most importantly, the sublation is hidden within the world itself and is not a product of the speaker’s consciousness—the dog itself is aufhebung. It (gender unknown) is a living animal that bundles together energies of disparity, disorder, and disjunction. Yet that bundle of attributes achieves a tenuous cohesion—it is a thing capable of following scents (and sense), and of crossing the street successfully (albeit without efficiency or grace). That awkward hodgepodge, the dog, is the paradox of sublation. Simpson both does and does not suggest that miracle for the reader. Undoubtedly he perceives the mystery, and yet, he’s “just reporting” the dog’s actions and psychology. The poem is surreal because the dog in itself is surreal. The poem is deep image because our experience of the dog carries resonance and (potentially) closure. The line between closed/open, epiphany/non-epiphany, intuition/contradiction, or sublation/deposition can be quite elusive. More importantly, Simpson reveals the surreality, theaufhebung, lying hidden within experience itself. (In that sense, the poem points to something I am growing increasingly aware of: surrealism is fundamentally mimetic.)

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Pete Winslow is a very minor Beat surrealist poet who died young and only published a few books, including Monster Cookie, which contains this short poem, “The Dada Scarecrow”:

Two crossed sticks in a field
This is the dada scarecrow
The crows gather around to wonder at it
No straw no old clothes
No floppy hat like scarecrows wear
Just two crossed sticks in a field
And a real man suspended naked
From its arms.

When reading poems, it’s always good to ask yourself how your expectations and assumptions about the poem changed throughout. This is essential with a poem that has a “shocker” ending like this one. Once the sticks become a Roman cross, it’s impossible to see the first six lines without Christ’s crucifixion in mind, which almost irreparably cuts you off from your initial reactions and thoughts.

Before I got to these last two lines my thought process went something like this: Two sticks in a field is quite Dadaist—it is a humorous and effective appropriation of an iconic America object into an “art object,” and, like Dada, it is the “act” of art that creates social and ideological implications without breeching political contexts topically. operates totally in the realm of symbolism.

And I saw the scarecrows. The crows can be taken literally, suggesting, intriguingly, that other animal species can, to however slight a degree, encounter Dada art like we do. Why not? Animals are aware of changes to their environment; they can sense when something an object is alien to its context and demands observation; and they might even be confronted with the inability to interpret such phenomenon. We go beyond this, of course, to conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, like these gawking crows, successful Dada art initially makes us ask, “What is it?” before we realize it is “art.”

These aspects of the poem, though, become background noise after Winslow blows up the poem with the final image. Suddenly, the harmless, funny dada scarecrow (which I took as being merely two sticks—without a doll or a body) becomes a horrific, perverse encounter. The metaphor creates all sort of implications that critics explore, but what is most interesting to me, though, is how the metaphor doubles back on itself and becomes a commentary on Dadaism. Christ is here “the Dada scarecrow,” a Dada artist who confronts his society directly and viscerally. And there is sense in which the crucifixion was a conceptual frame-breaking event dramatically changing human consciousness. In the religious iconographic sense, the crucifixion must be seen in a variety of incompatible ways. It is both art and not art, both something that must be gazed at and something that resists and delimits aesthetic distance. Similarly, Dadaism is re-seen as having unique and expansive metaphysical meaning, as affecting a paradigmatic shift in reality (in opposition to the popular view of Dadaism as “throw-away” art). Like the crucifixion, Dadaism, the poem suggests, transgresses and transforms through radical action that is simultaneously “art” and ideology.

If the Dadaist is a Christ figure and Christ is a Dada figure, they share the status of the cultural martyr. This might be seen as an aspect of Winslow’s Beat identity since the Beats’ premier metaphor for self-representation was the victimized prophet figure who willing subjects his body (and mind) to violence for the sake of humanity.

Finally, it’s important to appreciate the basic act of “re-seeing” at the heart of the poem. The conceit is simple: Winslow surveys the American landscape and changes utilitarian objects into symbols of the collective unconscious. The operation of framing “found” objects into aesthetic space may be one of the oldest techniques in recent history, but it’s one of the basic premises of modern poetry and surrealism.

The two loves of Kalamaras’s life: Surrealism and Hindu mysticism (with a touch of rhetorical theory!). A serious look at his work would address how his poetry investigates the intriguing parallels between surrealism and Eastern mysticism, a relationship already hinted at in the origins of Pound’s ideogrammic method, which became the basis of the modernist image.  Kalamaras blurs the line between the poetic and mystic: “Central to my work as a poet is the exploration of language as a way to conjure ‘silence,’ or moments of discursive interruption and dissolve, in which all seeming oppositions are complementary rather than contradictory.”

Kalamaras’s thin volume from UDP offers two dozen poems, all in the same form: couplet stanzas where each line is a (usually) complete sentence. Part of a larger project called The Bone Sutras, these poems resemble Robert Bly’s recent ghazals. The poems are stoic, even, one might feel, mechanical. The method is pretty clear: self-contained sentences/lines that center on a contradictory or surreal image are placed almost at random into an anti-narrative, illogical sequence. The subject matter “emerges” through the images and linguistic gestures, relying heavily on symbolism and archetypes in a style reminiscent of Deep Image poetry. Formally speaking, it’s pretty formulaic stuff, which is probably why I feel guilty for loving it so much.

By writing each poem exactly the same way, Kalamaras creates remarkably even-handed and meditative thought “progressions.” Some images have little effect, but often he “hits it” for several lines, and it’s just “whoa!”:

And so, it came to pass that I discerned eels in my spine.
Memories of a previous birth night after night between the thighs of strangers in Tokyo’s
Shimbashi district.

Aristotle proclaimed the eel a sexless creature.
Before the 1920s no one knew how baby eels were even born.

Saddened, the hands of drawn space floated backwards flower to flower.
The most heart-rending bee blurred through wind, through Saturn’s fluid ribs.

And so, their ascetic monk mouths must have fractured me.
And so, the world is unsolved like a beautiful table.

Perhaps a more contemporary move, Kalamaras mixes in the occasional verbal gesture, pastiche, or otherwise “flat” sentence to vary his register. This is a good idea, in my opinion, as it juxtaposes various linguistic modalities, extending the disparity to language and not just imagery. It’s also pleasant aesthetically for reasons I don’t feel awake enough to articulate:

For a long time, we lived as a thief.

Not this rib, but that.

Okay, the domino theory was wrong.

Far too many people died far too young for his or her sins, or something like that.

I think the future of surrealism is in Language poetry, whereby surrealism’s psychological and metaphysical starting points merge with the theoretical and rhetorical modality of Language poetry. This would imply a move away from the Romantic ego as the author of the text, a position reflected in Kalamars’s non-egoistic voice, as he withdraws himself from the lyrical surface of his work. The mechanical, almost inhuman speaker of these poems, nevertheless, “chances” upon the occasional magic. So, while Bly and Deep Imagism is a fair comparison on many levels, Kalamaras forgoes self-consciousness, pretending not to know his phrases (such as the book’s title) are just as delicious as the butterflies on the cover.

And one can only hope to get a blurb like this: “The name Kalamaras means, as everyone knows, He Who Channels the Throat Songs of the Inflamed Detectives of Southern Surreality.” (Forest Gander)

Oranges and Snow is a selection of Milan Djordjevic’s poems, translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic and published by Princeton University Press as part of the Facing Pages series. I was grateful to Simic’s pithy yet thorough introduction to Djordjevic as a writer and, just as importantly, as a person. Simic explains that Djordjevic grew up under a restrictive Communist government, saw his homeland ravaged by ethnic warfare, wrote for publications that opposed Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, and in 2007 sustained a personal tragedy that has confined him to his house—he was hit by a car while walking in a designated crosswalk in Belgrade. If Simic assesses that “The poet’s mission is not to save the world, but to save some human experience from oblivion,” I see Simic’s translation of Djordjevic’s work as an accomplishment of a similar gesture. Djordjevic’s house-bound eye and voice accentuate how much of a gift Simic’s translation and selection is for us who, otherwise, might never have met the voice of this fellow human survivor.

The history of war and personal tragedy that coalesce into a backdrop for Djodjevic’s poetry is relevant to any reading of his work. However, his poems rarely relate a distinct narrative of the past. I had to hold myself back from trying to read an autobiography into the poems because they did not offer themselves to me as such, and I decided after spending time in Djodjevic’s world that it was not fair to his imaginative dexterity nor to the strangeness of his vision to be disappointed that the poems did not meet my expectations. Djordjevic’s history of survival through political unrest and cruel accident made an impression on me before I read his work. But I had to learn to stand in each poem as if I were on an island.

Simic’s selection of Djordjevic’s poems spans a strikingly vast range from surreal pieces that alienate the reader (perhaps intentionally) to intimate, moving, and prophetic meditations on pain, mortality, and questions of fate.

A division among the poems became apparent to me as I spent time with Oranges and Snow—the surreal poems obscured an encounter with the speaker and the present moment by employing a kind of fan (embellished with garish, sexual, and at times even sadistic designs). But on the other side of the division I was moved and grateful to find intimate, personal poems that speak of what is at our fingertips and what is inevitable.

This is the range of his work—perhaps it would misrepresent Djordjevic’s work if Simic had filtered the poems that compare a potato to “a dark-hued pharaoh resting in peace” (“Spud”) from the poems that face the inevitability of our own death with an eerie simplicity (though not to the point of resignation), as in “The Dream”: “I know that all my dreams will die the day / death takes me to a place where streets / have no names. . .” However, I cannot hold back that at times I wished I was reading the filtered version. Give me the poet staring into the face of death, of utter human vulnerability.

I won’t deny that much comes down to taste. I admit my preferences usually dwell on the side of writing that vigilantly attends to capturing things as they are. Something Eliot Weinberger writes in his preface to George Oppen’s New Collected Poems seemed to sum up the kind of resistance I felt to some of Djordjevic’s poems. Weinberger writes that Oppen nurses “an obstinate blindness to all forms of surrealism, which he saw as an escape from, and not a way into, current realities.” But that intolerance for surrealism, Weinberger understands, came from “Oppen’s standard, his obsession, [which] was ‘honesty’ in the poem. . .”

Though I do not discriminate against surreal poetry to the extent that Oppen apparently did, I stand in awe of surreal work that, in its departure from the commonplace, never forgets that something is still at stake and actually brings me back (perhaps through contrast) into intimate contact with the real and current world around me.

Thus, to any vein of poetry—and to my life—like Oppen, I bring a standard of “honesty.” When I held Djordjevic’s poems to it, some were so honest that they struck me on a physical level (in Dickinson’s measure of poetry), while others seemed to hover in a non-place where honesty was beside the point (out of sight, out of mind). The poems that stand out to me as the strongest in the collection are those in which Djordjevic applies his penchant for surreal images to quotidian, personal, and, ultimately, honest meditations.

Fate is one of the paramount themes running amok like a banshee throughout Djordjevic’s poems. When, in “Two Pigeons,” Djordjevic remarks, “I see the wire is empty, / as if they both suddenly took off flapping their wings, / god knows where or why” (65), he touches on this theme of questionable causality, of inexplicability.  Djordjevic seems to waver, like any thoughtful and sensitive person does, between acceptance of the idea that there is no reason for any of this, and, on the other hand, a wary sense that this is all happening for a reason (however inaccessible that reason may be to us). His poems span a range of understanding. He says at one point, “Long ago the gods left us leaving everything at the mercy / of history and our mortality” (“Clouds,” 47) and suggests a painful change of perspective later in the book when he says in the excellent poem “Regarding Fate,” “There was a time I didn’t believe in fate. / Today I’m drowning in it” (79). Djordjevic is able to address questions of metaphysics and causality, questions of god and of fate, through various focal points. A scene as common as two pigeons flying away, or an event as personally catastrophic as a maiming car accident—both occurrences are joined, Djordjevic seems to suggest, by their inexplicable accidence . . . “god knows where or why.”

Paradoxically, as soon as these poems attribute occurrence to accidence, they beg me to question, are there accidents? They stroke the idea of a predetermined fate. However, as a writer who lived through the ethnic violence in the Balkans and as an outspoken opponent of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, the danger of entertaining the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or “there are no accidents” is not lost on Djordjevic. His poems force us to consider how any god or fate could exist in a world where a large part of the human experience is war and suffering. In “The Game,” Djordjevic depicts a man who used to laugh but is now silenced by what has happened:

Now he plays without words, without laughter or anger,
shocked by human stupidity and cruelty.
He yearns for the ripeness of October afternoons
…at the conclusion of this tired century—our loathsome lair. (53)

I am grateful to any writer whose poems have the guts to bring to the surface the disquieting, unanswerable questions: Why were some people born into a time and place of war while others were born into peace? What tragedy might yet befall us, by accidence or fate? Does anything that happens to us and do our actions make a difference in something beyond our own life?

Djordjevic does not come to any solid answers for his endless questions about existence and fate (nor would I expect him to). Instead, he settles on an articulation of the way things are now; a portrait of what we have done to ourselves, to each other and to the world, and what we will do in the future. Listen to the haunting, dreadfully mournful premonition in his poem “Answers”:

You seek answers to your questions, since you don’t know who you are
where you come from and where you are going?…
…Blind man, the answers are to be found in things you will do!
…Or they are inside you, since in the next war you’ll kill a friend.

And it may be that one night after a lengthy storm
in a solitary house next to the wild Atlantic, you’ll discover
that the world is a story told by someone forgetful.

Someone who never repeats the story, someone who will never,
never come, though they call him, though they wait for him,
the way the parched Gobi desert waits for hot rain. (49)

Another prominent theme in Oranges and Snow is the personal narrative of feeling lost, searching for something that feels right and whole. Djordjevic reminds his readers that being lost is not an experience that only refugees of war feel—instead, we may not know when we started feeling this way, or precisely why we feel this way; it is a condition that we are born with, that some of us carry with us wherever we go.

Djordjevic is forthright in his expressions of loneliness. In the poem “Sea Voyage,” his self-portrayal to the sea wolves (wonderfully strange addressees) is uncomfortably acute and unbuffered. He reveals himself as a wandering orphan who is desperately seeking a new realm in which to exist,

Here I am, wise and experienced sea wolves,
I’m an orphan, no one needs me on land.
Let the choppy ocean adopt me as its own.

Take me, captain, you of the longest voyage,
I’m exchanging the dry boredom of land’s certainties
for the thrill and infinite uncertainty of the sea. . . (19)

The goal of his voyage is not to lose himself, but to find himself. It is a voyage fueled by alienation, hope, and courage. The speaker in these poems displays startling courage and the conviction of someone who is wholly ready for profound change. Here, he is ready to hurl himself toward  “infinite uncertainty.” In my experience, the unknown, the uncertain, is something—no matter how drab, confined and monotonous our daily lives may be—that few people are willing to give themselves over to.

It is with this spirit of readiness for something new that Djordjevic actively sets out on a path, built by his imagination, toward transformation, toward a reality that makes him feel at home—with himself as much as with a place. In the dynamic poem, “A Path,” he mixes lyric and declarative tones when he describes his purpose,

I seek a path or a road between the fields
salted with black frost and fine snow, imprisoned
by barbed wire, I seek a reliable path
or a frozen road that will take me from here. (21)

As the poem develops, we see that what takes the reader away, the path, is the imagination. A delightful departure takes place. The speaker’s imagination leaps into the past, into visceral memories. Sensual, colorful details appear, “I’m thinking about a red orange from Greece. . . . / I’m thinking about a round breast in the dark / which saying goodbye years ago I didn’t kiss.” As soon as the poem lilts with a melancholy timbre, “I’m sad as a rusty cooking pot thrown in a ditch. . . ,” it picks up in tone, in hopefulness:

After much roaming around, I found a dependable path,
I found a road that leads into the center of a small town.
There I will have a beer, and will send you, distant friend
with the speed of a snowball rolling down a hill,
this elegiac message free of covert meanings.

This is a poetry and a poet that seeks to belong and connect. Djordjevic is at his best when he allows the reader to witness him stumbling on that path—because it is a path we all must wrangle with at one point or another in our lives—and the recognition of that common experience enables connection.

Part of Djordjevic’s experience of being lost involves feeling trapped. In the poem “Aquarium,” Djordjevic gives voice to the fish who plea with the boy watching them from the other side of the glass, “‘Save us, boy! Free us all, free us! / Break the walls of our narrow, transparent cage!’” (29). But we know that the plea of the fish could very well be our own human plea against the walls that hold us in. In this poem, however, the boy breaks the aquarium’s wall and the fish “spill on the black asphalt /. . . .Bleed, / . . . . gasp for air in the mild night and die.” Here, reality is not so inescapable by a flair of imagination. The walls are glass, the fish do not survive. Instead, what persists is the reality of “darkness and pale colors of the city.”

Perhaps an antidote to being lost, a salve for feeling wounded and imprisoned has something to do with uniting disparate parts—a thematic wish shining through the most of these poems, the wish to unify, to make whole again or for the first time. In the interesting poem, “Aachen,” the speaker declares with a mix of defiance and hope, “With [the help of German Telekom] I’ll reestablish ties between creatures / of the past and future, all distant and near things, / autumn’s colors of cinnabar, embers from a fire and winter ice” (39).

Despite the dour aspect of many of these poems, hope runs through them like a brook in spring after the snows melt. Hear Djordjevic’s uncomplicated and contagious confidence in “Little Joy,”

Yes, you, too will finally come.
A small, ordinary, daily joy.
You’ll be the slice of rye bread,
or a glass filled with cold milk. (27)

The poem moves toward the marvelously strange, even mythical, image when the speaker surrenders himself to the pleasure of imaginging he will carry that joy to bed, “and sleep the way the earth sleeps next to a spring.”

Thus, Djordjevic’s reality is wide and inclusive. It has room for the “ordinary, daily joy” and the wounded fish sprawled in front of a shattered aquarium; for the pallor of an empty German city on a Sunday and the precious excitement of finding “words the way one finds blackberries in the woods” (“Waking,” 43). In his poem “Reality,” he provides a litany of what might constitute it. The poem has an easy, pleasant tone and flow, like the mind floating from one idea to another, touching briefly on “The reality of a fruit, meat and earth’s dampness. / The reality of metal, concrete, dry and naked meadows, / white phosphorous. . . / the reality of stone, water and sand dunes” (57). This poem delivers to the reader the quiet peacefulness of considering things from afar—but it exhibits an intellectual relationship to reality that leaves me wanting something more raw, something that is real, instead of talking about the real.

Only in Part III of the book are we granted admission to the speaker’s reality as it is (not a distanced discussion of it). In the poem “Solitude,” Djordjevic admits us to his tenuous lair of recovery where desperation and hope replace each other like images coming in and out of focus. We are allowed to experience what it might feel like to live in a “thick midnight that won’t blow over.” We are allowed to see how much it hurts to live even one day in this speaker’s reality:

. . .I’m stripped of my abilities,
normal movement, speech, ability to swallow.
I’m reduced to watching things and other forms of life
around me while what is within me
is as blurred as a cloud of morning mist.
. . . everywhere midnight reigns. . . . (77)

The poem, “Regarding Fate,” also revealed only in Part III, occupies a higher level of consciousness, of honesty, and of writing, than most of the poems in this selection. The poems “Days” also exhibits these qualities. In “Regarding Fate,” Djordjevic accomplishes a spare, beautiful and painfully honest portrayal of where the speaker finds himself in the present moment. We are allowed to inhabit the space beside this fragile, frustrated, broken but surviving and searingly sensitive mind as he gathers twigs in the garden and is

curious about stones, grasses, rains,
snows, woods, fires and sea waves,
and hundreds of other small and large things,
while being chained securely to this wall
by a short iron chain. (79)

We feel the weight of the “hundreds of other small and large things” press on our chests with the limits they imply, all that is out of reach, beyond the speaker’s garden, inaccessible and seemingly infinite. It is an honor to feel that weight—when he lets us—to share, however briefly, the wonderful and terrible burden of being alive.

Thin Kimono is a book of mistaken identities: a hallucinogenic wandering through a cocktail party the night before the invention of the internet.  The party is populated with individuals you may or may not know.  Your wife is a slightly altered version of herself.  There are horses, but even they have become something else. Michael Earl Craig’s acupuncturist is here too.  She tells us her “speakers are hidden in the jade plant” (The Bad Clown)  We get the sense she is struggling not to become evil.  We know there must be separate rooms, separate poem-rooms, but even with titles, often the only sense of demarcation comes from the turning of pages.  This is particularly true in the book’s second and smallest section, which is reminiscent of Matthew Rohrer’s “A Plate of Chicken” in that the section is comprised of short 8-line segments separated by asterisks (“A Plate of Chicken” is divided into 7-line segments).  Also like “A Plate of Chicken,” this section employs an uncanny use of dissociative observation as lens for self-reflection.

The innervated spatula, it
feels things even you don’t.
In 204 a couple humps briskly
like Great Danes, it’s textbook (had heard
what was probably a shoe hit the wall
with some force). We dream of perfecting life
somewhere else.  In space, let’s say.
Wearing Erik Satie stretch pants.

We are invited to enter the rooms of his characters, to observe their strange habits and quiet respect for the divinity in objects, and then we let them pass back into an interaction we can only assume continues to occur after our leaving. “The nitwit danced with the congresswoman/ at the spring picnic,” Craig writes in “Poem.” As a reader I take solace in the knowledge that this dance continues even once I have closed the book and replaced it on my bookshelf.  I’m equally glad to know that couple in 204 will be humping eternally, briskly.

In “The Neighbor,” one of the book’s most defiant and arguably self-aware poems, a dinner roll falls off the dining room table. “It [rolls] across the room and [passes] through the doorway into the bedroom and the door [slams] shut behind it.” Nothing about this act is portrayed as being out of the ordinary. To the contrary, we feel a very natural loss at the roll’s leaving, as though we, the non-participatory readers, have done something to cause it to throw a tantrum.  After all, this particular poem is about us: about Craig’s inability to imagine us as anyone other than exactly himself, and of course about our inability to fulfill that expectation.  Perhaps we feel an affinity to the roll in this poem because Craig has chosen the roll to represent our interests. While reading, there is always a recognition that we cannot enter the poem unless we are written into it, and so, like ghosts, we posses for a moment the body of the dinner roll and storm indignantly out of the room.

As with the proems of Francis Ponge, the objects in Thin Kimono are imbued with a kind of duplicitous consciousness.  However, where Ponge’s objects come across as insecure and terrified of the softness that is contained within them, Craig’s objects appear at times in a state of revolt against the very human hands that created them.  In “In The Road,” Craig tells us of a dream where he is shoeing a horse.

________________…Hitting
the nails was like trying to strike flies
from the air.  My hammer flashed in the sun,
striking the shoe to the left or the right of the nail.
One miss-hit busted my thumb open.
Blood trickled like a wet glove over my hand.

Even the blood here becomes an object capable of acting of its own volition.  And again, similar to the proems of Francis Ponge, there is a moment where the interior comes to the surface, transforms itself, and covers “like a glove” the exterior.  The blood in this instance is no longer an extension of the body but has become more an extension of the hammer that has revolted against the body.  The objects have overtaken consciousness.  Our grasping at them will lead to our own demise.  Here is a very clearly stated desire to turn away from our tendency toward possession of material goods and into a world of endless metaphysical fulfillment, the lucid dreamstate where surrealism and realism and absurdism all coexist.

These poems occur in the space between the stirring of consciousness and the awakening of reason, when our unconscious perceptions of the objects and characters that embody our lives are still dripping in the semiotic fluid of dreams and of language. In short, it’s a very fun book to read, and one that leaves you feeling more inquisitive and excited about the earth’s occupants (both sentient and non-sentient) than when you opened it.  Craig’s poems are as layered and thick as a well-made baklava.  They are equally accessible, rich, and nutty.  “THE READER CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY AND STILL GET [THEM].”(Bluebirds) Also like baklava, they taste more of the Country Marm’s kitchen than of the Hostess factory, more of the earth than of the machines we have created to destroy it.  As with so many of the books put out by Wave, this one is quirky, intelligent, and entertaining, with leaps that sometimes require a great effort in the suspension of disbelief.  I for one am glad to go there, glad to learn of the disparities that can be stitched together by consciousness, and particularly glad to again crack the form I have built around cognition.  I hope this book does the same for you.

My research currently has me looking into the surrealist-Beats, and I recently read Bob Kaufman’s Solitude Crowded With Loneliness. This was Kaufman’s first book, published in 1965, which brought together work from the late fifties that had made him famous, including The Abomunist Manifesto and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?

I am in awe of how completely Kaufman was able to embody a multitude of traditions. His work is absolutely Beat, absolutely jazz/blues and absolutely surreal. He is thinking, living and writing with all three in mind—indeed, all of these “philosophies” were in the very core of his being—and he made them perfectly harmonious, crafting poetry that enacts revolt and social critique at the same time as it heals the primitive, hard-knocked soul. The reader familiar with the Beats will probably sense intuitively that jazz and Surrealism are highly compatible with the Beat ethos and that it makes perfect sense for the Beats to draw on them, but these poets still had to transmute these influences into a singular, shamanic, “howling” voice.

One of the most powerful tools the Beats employed was the catalog or anaphora. This is prominent in almost every famous Beat poem, including “Howl.” When surrealist-Beats infuse images of dissonance into their catalogues, the effect becomes one of controlled (but threatening) hysteria. Call it the hysterical catalog. Here’s one from Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I Am Not”:

No, I am not death wishes of sacred rapists, singing on candy gallows.
No, I am not spoor of Creole murderers hiding in crepe-paper bayous.
No, I am not yells of some assassinated inventor, locked in his burning machine.
No, I am not forced breathing of Cairo’s senile burglar, in lead shoes.
No, I am not Indian-summer fruit of Negro piano tuners, with muslin gloves.
No, I am not noise of two-gun senators, in hallowed peppermint halls.
No, I am not pipe-smoke hopes of cynical chiropractors, traffickers in illegal bone.

As with “Howl,” the catalog slowly overwhelms the reader with its unrelenting monotony.

Playing against the monotony is the energy and bursts of thought in the images themselves, each one packed with jarring disjunction, political parody, social criticism and humor. As I read Solitudes, I began to wonder how the Beats consistently discovered images to contain all these elements simultaneously (not to say that their poems do not vary in quality). With Kaufman, the images are enhanced by courageous comparisons, yet remain firmly fixed in the mode of socio-political critique:

Hawkeyed baggy-pants businessmen,
Building earthquake-proof, aluminum whorehouses,
Guaranteeing satisfaction to pinstriped murderers,
Or your money back to West Heaven,
Full of glorious, Caesarean-section politicians,
Giving kisses to round half-lipped babies,
Eating metal jazz, from cavities, in father’s chest,
Purchased in flagpole war, to leave balloon-chested
Unfreaked Reader’s Digest women grinning at Coit Tower.

Kaufman and other surrealist-Beats transposed Surrealism’s “chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table” into more direct images of social dissent and protest. To do so, they moved away from automatism toward images that float around the semantic fields of recognizable political and social concerns. Their parodic statements, most of the time, are actually quite vague, but the poetry has a distinct political subtext.

Paradoxically, the Beats depicted themselves and the society they were rejecting in surreal imagery. America, in their estimation is a surrealist circus, full of absurdities. The Beat, likewise, lives a life of contradictions, dream-reality and contorted madness because of the context in which he finds himself. The Beat incarnates the body politic and becomes a martyr on behalf of humanity. He becomes the landscape of maligned conditions that oppress the Beat virtues of love, life and liberty. This is the premise of the Beat lifestyle, but it is especially poignant in a writer like Kaufman, whose “mongrel” heritage of Creole, African American, Jew, Catholic, sailor, peyote-smoker, poet and jazz enthusiast exposed him to, and makes him the inheritor of, a broad range of cultural prejudices and injustices. Kaufman draws all these forces and beatness into himself with images that are centered on his body:

My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
. . .
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
. . .
The nipples of my breasts are sun-browned cockleburrs [sic];
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.

Like Whitman, Kaufman “contains” America, but this kind of containment does not resolve the contradictions, absurdities, atrocities and madness. So the Beat becomes one who is absurd, atrocious and hysterical—but he is not a hypocrite. He restores himself by embracing the contradictory nature of life (as well as the pleasure-principle and a few other Beat tenants). This allows the Beat to survive and even thrive in a society blinded by moralism and paranoia—a society whose misguided premises preclude it from containing contradiction. Thus, by simply affirming the contradictory nature of reality (in the abundance of surreal configurations of life available to him everywhere he looks), the Beat poet reverses his condition. Thus, Kaufman’s triumphant body is restored to life:

The hairy little hairs
On my head,
Millions of little
Secret trees,
Filled with dead
Birds,
That won’t stay
Dead.

When I die,
I won’t stay
Dead.

On this basis, Beat poets like Kaufman, Corso and, to some extent, Ginsberg, utilize the Surrealist strategy of radical juxtaposition to transform the political landscape. It is in Beat poetry that Surrealism finds its first widely-visible expression—a poetics that embraces poetry’s revolutionary potential.

In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?

I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.

Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.

Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.

Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!

To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.

Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?

I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?

As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?


“Howl” by Gene Tanta


In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?

For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!

I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.

Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?

On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?

To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?

Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.

I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?

As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.

That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.

I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.


“Figure on Yellow” by Gene Tanta

What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.

Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.

As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.

Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.

André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.

Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”

Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.

Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.

When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?

Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.

The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?

Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.

“Flowers” by Gene Tanta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

and

Yet another hooligan utopia
awaits its facial hair to grow.

and

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

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

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

At night, lightning flashes its teeth
over the Seine.

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

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

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

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

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

Gene-cov-lg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was looking at an old copy of the Black Swan Review, which I founded and published many years ago (1989), and came across a poem by the Cuban American poet/novelist, Pablo Medina. It’s short, written a bit in one of the three types of lyricism that were prevalent back then (call it minimalist deep imagism). In deep imagism, you expect certain tag words such as wind, dark, bones, shadow, stones, sky, etc. This is also true of Spanish surrealism, a form of surrealism as influential on deep imagists (and later, Larry Levis) as French surrealism and dada are on the New York school.

At any rate, in this poem, we have wind, darkness, snow, bones, shadow…pretty much all the basic ingredients for minimalist deep imagism ( or Spanish surreal lyricism) with the exception of angels, ashes, and blood. Let’s have a look-see:

Cadwalader Park, Late Fall
Pablo Medina

The strollers hunch
against the wind, call to their children
from lengthening the shadows.

The parents turn to each other.
More lines in the face,
more of the tinge of age.

When the man wants a kiss
his eyes open to his mate’s bones,
slow of speech, eyebrows frail as horizons.

The harvest is done.
The year darkens into snow.

It’s sort of a moody haiku on steroids. It uses some of the mechanisms of haiku: reference to the seasons, above all, short, paratactic sentences. It is neatly packaged in a series of tercet, concluded with a couplet. The trajectory of the poem goes from a long shot of strollers in a park, to a close up of lined faces tinged with age, and then some odd tercet in which a man eye’s open to his mate’s bones, and someone (the mate, or the man, or the bones) is “slow of speech, with eyebrows frail as horizons. It is scene painting, and mood painting. Now here’s the sampling game. First, make a poem in which you use Medina’s three tercet and a concluding couplet structure, but mess with his words, and make the sentences a series of directives, with a concluding couplet of questions:

Hunch against the wind.
Call to the shadows
of lengthening children.

See how they grow
tinged with age in the
day’s last light.

Know they are the bones
of a kiss. Open them slowly,
weather them frail.

Are they the horizons of your eye brows?
Are they the year darkening into snow?

This ransacking is far more surreal. Instead of the shadows lengthening, the children lengthen. To call children the “bones of a kiss” is not so inaccurate if you reduce their life to bones, and the sex that leads to their life to a kiss. In point of fact, it’s far more original—kind of resembles Wordsworth’s contention that “the son is father to the man.” The poem is as gloomy as Medina’s, but it does not so much paint a scene as turn Cadwalader park, late fall into a strange sort of surrealist hymn to mortality, to transience, a theme latent in the initial poem. Here, the children become the main focus. The voice of the poem is issuing orders: Hunch, call, see, know.

I have not used a single line of Pablo’s poem. I have used words, images, re-constructed them. I could call the poem, “A Directive.” Medina never said the children were the bones of a kiss. He never said they were the year darkening into snow. We took the structure, and, in a sense, the mood painted by minimalist words. We took the parataxis, and made it more pronounced, but this is a wholly distinct poem. The lineation is far less regular, with the couplets being far longer lines.

Assignment: Find a poem and do the same. Cop its structure, and even some of its key words, but change the type of sentences, and fool with the images. Good luck.

Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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