Kevin Goodan, Winter Tenor, Alice James Books
In a series of untitled, haiku-spare poems, Kevin Goodan’s second collection Winter Tenor reads like an ode to nature. Not the beauty of flower and birdsong alone, but the landscape and reality of suffering on, presumably, a New England farm. Goodan lived on a farm in western Massachusetts at the publication of his first book. This is Frost’s New England, skewed, and with an intense light focused on the harsher elements of “Pigeon blood drying on the shit-spreader” and “crushed/ heads of kittens found mewling in the spaces between bales.” Readers unfamiliar with the violence of a working farm where animals are raised for meat and profit and are often slaughtered on site by the hand that births, doctors and feeds them, will have to reconcile this recurrent image with Goodan’s love letter to his flawed yet beautiful livelihood.
Unencumbered by titles, Goodan engages in a book-length examination of his subject as if he were studying a glass paperweight with a flower pressed between the layers, tilting it this way and that, considering the appearance, the experience, from different angles.
The juxtaposition of what compels yet disturbs the poet is a friction at work within each poem and between the poems. The Whitmanesque anaphora on page six celebrates the human as classifier, the farmer as Lord of his domain, while recognizing the burden inherent in both positions:
To crave what the light does crave
to shelter, to flee
to gain desire of every splayed leaf
to calm cattle, to heat the mare
to coax dead flies back from slumber
to turn the gaze of each opened bud
to ripe the fruit to rot the fruit
and drive down under the earth
to lord a gentle dust
to lend a glancing grace to llamas
to gather dampness from fields
and divide birds
and divide the ewes from slaughter
and raise the corn and bend the wheat
and drive tractors to ruin
burnish the fox, brother the hawk
shed the snake, bloom the weed
and drive all wind diurnal
to blanch the fire and clot the cloud
to husk, to harvest,
sheave and chaff
to choose the bird
and voice the bird
to sing us, veery, into darkness
Goodan’s choice to eliminate punctuation at the end of some poems, contributes to the interconnectedness between the pieces. This litany of the human’s, and more specifically the farmer’s, breakdown of chores: “to ripe the fruit and rot the fruit/ to husk, to harvest” ends with a slight torque of the poet’s use of the word “To”. We begin reading the line “to choose the bird” imagining a literal task as in “to calm cattle” but Goodan continues, qualifying the line with: “and voice the bird”. And here we see him choosing “to sing us, veery, into darkness”, choosing lyricism to soften the darkness as does the haunting and beautiful song of the veery.
Birds flit in and out of the poems and there is a sinister echo of “to choose the bird” midway through the book. Interestingly, it is also at this point that the poet begins to be seen as complicit with the violence around him:
In the burn-barrel wings
and breasts of many birds were glazed and dotted with the crushed
heads of kittens found mewling in the spaces between bales
The poet stands at a remove. The kittens were “found” between the bales and were heaped by some hand into the barrel with the “breasts of many birds”, but the reader is getting wise to the speaker’s role: “to choose the bird.” The sense of being wearied yet compelled by the dark beauty of farm life is revisited throughout the book. Later, the poet writes: “There are things I remember that brought me here, things I wanted to learn”.
Midway through the book, the speaker becomes fully complicit with a god that is not “calmness/ but a stand of birch catching flame”. Notice in the following line and many instances throughout the collection, the way in which birds witness the scene and give voice by singing or chanting. The poet’s relationship with the birds that populate his trees and fields is complicated; he identifies with them, he recognizes their witnessing presence, he silences them by rounding up and burning them. Where “Vesper sparrows flock and chant/ around the ewe kicked to death by mares”, the speaker moves from observing to lifting the body, its blood soaking through his pants and staining his skin, to a confession of sorts:
I hold the Cheviot lamb
that will not feed against my thigh
scratch its neck so it lifts its head
saying random words in a soft voice
until it closes its eyes and I pass
the blade across the neck quick
systolic arcs surge from the kerf
callnotes to the soil I’m not saying
Most readers will pause a beat or two before turning the page. It’s a challenge to remain in Goodan’s camp after this scene. One may think, as I did, who coincidentally live in New England and have experienced the harsh realities of farm life, including burning dead livestock on a bonfire: “Did he have to kill the lamb himself? You can hire people to do that kind of thing” “Is this gratuitous, or for show?” But, I’d suggest that the speaker’s complicity is necessary for the credibility and movement of this collection. There’s really no other direction it can go in. In order for the poet to “sing us, veery, into darkness” he must also enter the darkness. When the page is turned, the reader finds: “The shrike that impales none/ by some obscure faith”. And the rift between what the speaker has done and how he feels about what he has done begins to widen, culminating in the heartbreaking last poem, which places the speaker both inside and outside of the scene, bringing the collection full circle and achieving a sense of culmination:
Who will angel what remains?
winter birds sing in every copse.
Canebrake, unknown star—
old leaves burn
as if maple knew nothing more
than rain. Such fleshly ardour
the dark urge we beatify—
A farmer turns his collar to the flame.
The sun idles down,
a storm makes dark in the east,
I whisper brother,
come near my fire, we who saw
and sought, who bodied
and birded and lit
in the darkness. The corn
and windchill lend parity
to the clay. Llamas tarry the silage.
Will you go as gently to the knives?
The mares maintaining distance from the hedge-ditch.
And if I could sing. Every branch a branch of fire.
This last poem is fittingly set in winter. The speaker takes his place among the mares, the sheep and the kittens as beasts who suffer the vagaries of a violent world and an unpredictable god. “Who will angel what remains?” he asks, recognizing his own impermanence. The poet becomes both the farmer who turns his collar to the flame and the one who whispers “brother,/ come near my fire.” and thus when he asks “Will you go as gently to the knives?” the question is asked of his fellow farmer, of himself and of us all.
Sarah Sousa is a poet living in western Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. She received an MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her poems have appeared in literary journals including: Smartish Pace, Spire Press, White Pelican Review, and Amoskeag: The Journal of Southern New Hampshire University, as well as the Maine anthology A Sense of Place.Her poetry manuscript To Stave Off Disaster was a semi-finalist for the 2009 University of Akron Book prize and a finalist for both the 2010 Astrophil Press book prize and 2010 John Ciardi Prize. Her poem “Leaving Maine” was chosen for inclusion in Meridian’s 50 Best New Poets 2010. She has poems in the current issues of Weave, Inertia and Eudaimonia and a poem forthcoming in Clare Magazine of Cardinal Stritch University.
William Reichard, Sin Eater, Midlist Press
William Reichard’s fourth book of poetry, Sin Eater, published by Midlist Press, completes a pairing started with This Brightness on the theme of lightness and darkness. Organized in four sections, Sin Eater descends from paradise to limbo into purgatory and finally hell, but each level of existence is permeable and uncertain. Goodness can be evil: Reichard’s angels in the poem “God’s Monkeys” resemble the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, and fables end in loss, murder, or unbearable pain in “Three Fairy Tales.”
Reichard outlines from the first poem there is no true paradise in his cosmology. The book opens with a menacing poem about childhood: “The whole house shook with anger some days./ I felt myself dwindling…/ I wanted to escape, but lacked a plan.” Happiness is fleeting and occurs in small moments, such as washing dishes and anticipating the evening return of one’s partner (“Three Gifts”). Threatened by the possibility of separation and dissolution, the dreaming speaker in “A Constellation” chooses to be unhappy–“I thought it was better to stay,/discontent as I was”– rather than to risk loss. In “Clara’s Vision,” the speaker, searching for inner peace, states,
…Since I met you,
I’d only wondered, more and more,
how one can come to be saved,
I mean truly saved, not the
to-be-forgiven saved, but the kind
where we come to know ourselves
–radiance and repulsion aside–
just simply knowing ourselves.
I thought you’d found that
and I wanted it too.
The poem concludes with the line “I didn’t know then what heaven was, but I wanted to believe you did.” There is no indication, however, that the lover returning home will bring happiness, or the friend knows heaven. The search for salvation, for paradise, in the self and others, is never fruitful.
In these poems, true happiness, or at least contentedness, comes not from God, love, or self, but nature. In “Motion (Slow),” the untamed garden the place of redemption: “There’s nothing I’d trade for this dappled light/ scent of lilac/curve of crimson.” But even in paradise “everything is equal, but nothing is fair” (“Soul in Paradise”), the garden is filled with hurt and misfit plants, “seedlings that may not survive” (“A Kind of Heaven”). Death is always lurking at the edges of even the most common domestic idyl.
Reichard does not razzle-dazzle the reader with obscure language or unnecessary word play, nor does he weigh the reader down copious footnotes and research. His is a sure-footed Midwestern voice, almost always quiet, contemplative, building the book slowly to its crescendo.
In the final segment, the reader is greeted by the mawing sin eater, a character from Welsh mythology who eats the sins of the dead:
The dead one goes to heaven
and the sin eater goes mad,
filled as he is with
someone else’s sorrows.
This motif of consumption turns sexual in the book’s most aggressive, muscular and Whitmanesque poem “Soul in Hell (1)”:
I want a hundred soldiers in my bed.
I want to stop the world as it spins.
To stretch my hungry lips up to kiss
the drowsy face of God.
The descent ironically becomes an ascent with “Soul in Hell (2),” where hell is pictured as an airplane ride, heavenly hosts hogging the good seats up front, the speaker buckled in near the toilets contemplating eternity:
Such a strange word: forever.
Like a gift or a curse. A promise made to
a frightened child when he asks his mother,
How long will I live?
In the end, the book does not answer that eternal question, but instead speculates on the absence of affirmation in “Quick Psalm”:
These poems are often spare, but not thin; the voice is consistent, clear, and strong. Form and rhyme are quietly and carefully employed. The devil here is not a flashy blues guitarist or red-horned garish cartoon; he is the uncertainty we hold within our questioning hearts, the sins we consume and cannot purge, the innate fragility of our delicately constructed lives.
Kathryn Kysar is the author of Dark Lake and editor of Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers. Her new book, Pretend the World, will be published by Holy Cow! Press in 2011. Kysar serves on the board of directors for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and teaches at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and the Loft Literary Center. http://www.kysar.com.
The Captain of the Butterflies, Cees Nooteboom, translated by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr, Sun & Moon Classics, 1997
Some poems are unreadable. Others, one reads out of a sense of duty, and therefore with some effort. But some are irresistible. They compel you to stop whatever else you are doing, and pay attention. This is the case with The Captain of the Butterflies, the first collection of poetry by Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom, translated into English by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr. Though published more than a decade ago, the book is worth revisiting, as any fine book of poetry is. Re-reading it is a lesson on how good poetry never ages.
A clear-eyed surrealist, Nooteboom sees the everyday physical world with one eye and the hidden, mysterious, abstract world with the other. This double-vision serves him well in poem after poem, reminding us of how divided consciousness really is, or may become. The firm, sparkling, manifest world of order and quotidian ritual floats perilously on an ocean of impenetrable depths, an abyss the human mind cannot possibly fathom. Nooteboom peers through the surface-sparkle of phenomena, again and again, to apprehend the movements of this indistinct, shadowy world, a world both threatening and beautiful where intuition and hunch are better guides—and more reliable guardians—than reason. The ancient role of poetry has always been just this: to glimpse the sacred through the profane and bring news of that other existence back to us in oracle and song.
One of the first poems in the book, The Poem of Death, demonstrates this admirably. It is a poem many poets might aspire to write, but few succeed with such eerie and evocative precision, and in such short order:
Along the cold thought of the moon
the light drifts
the wings of the birds are brilliantly painted
this is the poem of death
which begs and tumbles
in the long drawn arches of the evening,
nobody hears it.
nobody hears it, such winged sounds
fly right by the saints
silent, and stuck in the sand,
they are immobile in the drought.
on the hollow path
the painted birds.
in the carved white night
the enchanted voice.
among the swaying trumpets of the angels
those in masks whisper
a house is no house
a thing is no thing
life does not exist.
Among other things the poem restores an imbalance between the two primary realities we actually know: life and death. As far as death is concerned, life hardly exists; it is so tentative and short. How can life—with its frail houses and hallucinatory things—make any claim towards ontological value or importance? On the contrary: viewed from the perspective of death, life is illusory, fleeting, utterly negligible. A thing of little substance and staying power flickering across the dying mind. Death, on the other hand, is eternal. Life withers to a “cold thought” drifting across the face of the moon. The poem of death, the “enchanted voice,” cannot be heard by human beings, not even by those entrusted with our spiritual welfare. Religion is a human “thing.” The saints are “silent, and stuck in the sand” of limited human perception. “they are immobile in the drought” of human ignorance and error. And even when we get to see the angels, those who really know, they are wearing masks—so we can’t see them completely either. The poem both reveals and discreetly obscures final knowledge, which after all can never be apprehended.
The poems in The Captain of the Butterflies are haunted by the reality of death and night and our impotence in the face of them. Another poem, “In Memoriam Leo L.,” opens with a startling image of Nooteboom’s friend, to whom this elegy is addressed, curled up in a hospital bed awaiting his end:
Only a week ago
like a fetus in bed.
Real eyes. Real nails…
The smile of this dying invalid is “a lock,” something which cannot be accessed or deciphered. When the dying turn fully towards death, the living may no longer communicate with them. Whatever expressions their faces wear are enigmatic to those who stand around their beds, mourning. Again, the ineffectuality of religion for Nooteboom is stressed in no uncertain terms:
Tomorrow the dance
of the odd priest
Once the forms and rituals that console those left behind have been accomplished, the dying may truly leave this world of houses and things, saints and ghostly insubstantial moons:
only then the fire
of inaudible voices,
the eternal tracks
Again and again, we are reminded of the failure of religion in dealing effectively with absolute reality—or perhaps, a plurality of realities. In another poem, the gods simply sleep “in their gold-lacquered beds…wild and useless in their loneliness.” These are the old gods, the gods of the Greeks and the Romans, the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia. But they represent any gods, really, from any civilization at any epoch. The poem ends, “…a thousand years the gods sleep and then, another thousand / dreaming the merciful salt of death.”
For Noteboom’s Captain of the Butterflies, “Reality is the greatest contagion.” The self is “…established in its solitude / like a shipwreck cast in bronze.” “There is nothing pretty about these poems” Noteboom asserts, and we understand he is referring to their otherworldy, non-human character. No sentiment. No easy consolation. Only the self-alienation of human consciousness without its customary mask, without the protective layer of myths, rituals and fond dreams with which we surround ourselves in order to survive. It’s as though the blanket of ozone around our planet was burned away, once and for all, and we stood naked in a deadly stream of solar rays: the final illumination.
All religions prohibit looking directly at the gods. Rilke knows that he couldn’t survive even in the presence of an angel, he would “shrivel…next to [its] greater existence.” Even everyday reality, if we could truly apprehend it, would probably drive us mad. Nooteboom describes the shattered self in clear, unsettling terms: “someone, somebody scattered, / the uncollected persona / in converse with himself, dreaming and thinking / present, invisible.” In many ways, then, these are troubling poems. At least those in the first section, “Self and Others,” that depict the dissolution of identity, the very core of the individuated personality: “Midday of glittering hours / that will not fit together, / and himself cut up by himself / sitting in various chairs / with almost everywhere a soul or body.” Nooteboom observes that “no hand…controls all this,” emphasizing the chaotic nature of such an existence, akin to the harrowing pathology of schizophrenia.
The poems in section II, “Travels and Visions,” extend Nooteboom’s method of intense penetration to cities, sites and landscapes around the world. Nooteboom sees, not what the tourist sees, but the inner reality of a place, the ethos of a landscape, its hidden character compacted of history, culture, nature and geography. So in Arcadia, Greece he senses “the shepherds of noon” and hears “crickets argue for death / urns of annihilation.” In Bogotá, “the rooster is beaten a third time / because in the dark he saw the light.” At Mt. Fuji, Nooteboom observes that “all of Japan hangs on it like a gondola full of dreams / which it lifts and cherishes and carries along / through the sky / beyond the tract of time.” The least successful poems in this section are anthropomorphic persona poems in which the speaker is a rock, a plant, the sun, the sea. Perhaps this is because personification is too familiar a poetic technique to draw the reader in easily.
Section III comprises a number of poems that meditate on the nature of poetry and the poet’s art. In a poem entitled “The Page on the Lily,” the poet
…sits there posturing on the edge of his grave
and listens to the gulping of time
in the poem across from him,
In “Golden Fiction,” Nootebom refers to the poet as a “traitor,” ostensibly because he doesn’t live life, but merely sits apart in his study to record it:
The traitor sits in his room and writes it down.
Out of which lives does he write? Which time?
Will the real life ever come to him
and take him with it?
No it will never take him with it.
The traitor sits in his room and writes
what the voices tell him to write.
In “Homer on Ithaca, ” the essential poet is described—separate, dreaming alone, eyes blind to anything but the inward drama of Imagination. The poet is steward of memory, time’s amanuensis, slave to the Muse which bids him “Sing!”
Section IV of the book, the final section, includes poems about the mind’s ability, or non-ability, to grasp ultimate truth. Throughout the book, Nooteboom’s poems are seeded with references to locks, seals, distances, space, blindness and invisibility, all terms that indicate our inadequacy for discovering what is hidden or secret, what cannot be easily revealed—or revealed at all. The attempt to illuminate even a tiny fraction of reality requires Herculean imaginative and intellectual effort over years, often centuries, and by the most perspicacious minds available. This is best presented in Nooteboom’s poem, “Grail,” which is worth quoting in its entirety:
Remember the time
that we were searching for something,
something quite precise,
a concept, paraphrase, definition,
a summa of what we did not know,
something we wished
to assume or measure or tally
between all things obscure?
You know, don’t you know
how we always wandered off, dividing
the concept and the quest,
Augustine the brothels, Albert the Numbers,
Jorge the mirrors, Immanuel home, Pablo the forms,
Wolfgang the colors,
Teresa, Blaise, Friedrich, Leonardo, Augustus,
always tallying and measuring between words and notes,
among nuns, soldiers and poets,
breaking, looking, splitting,
till the bones, the shadow,
a glimmer, a narrowing down
in senses or images,
until in a glass or a number
but always so briefly
a hiccup of a thought, of a way,
so endlessly vague became visible.
All that vast effort to arrive finally at the mere “hiccup of a thought,” something so small and frail that—once again—human effort is portrayed as negligible, the entire history of ideas as insubstantial as a flicker of light. All things remain, essentially, obscure. The human mind is continually defeated in its effort to grasp even the edges of ultimate truth.
Throughout this review I have used phrases like “absolute reality,” “the sacred and the profane,” “ultimate truth,” and so forth. I have referred to “the hidden, mysterious, abstract world” as if such a thing were to be taken for granted. But many will find such ideas merely romantic, a naïve throwback to obsolete theories about poets and the poetic art. In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the editors describe the poet, in part, in the following way:
Some cultures make a formal distinction between the
sacred and the profane; others do not. In those that
do, the poet has a public and sacral status as the conveyor
of wisdom and knowledge of a very high order. In those
that do not, however—which includes all modern Western
industrial societies—the poet can present only knowledge
that is personal and private, appealing to his or her readers,
in essence, to judge for themselves whether or not the
knowledge and experience described is not also their own.
Not many people, at least those who wish to be taken seriously, would argue with such an assessment of poetry and poets in contemporary society. That there has been a diminishment of value, a contraction of cultural caché and influence with regard to the poet, is hardly deniable. Confessionalism, with all its limitations, is the result of a thoroughly discredited Romanticism. Yet, a poet like Nooteboom gives us pause: is it possible that, regardless of how the contemporary world views them, poets of real vision and insight, poets who can speak with ancient, oracular authority, continue to exist and do their work uninhibited by an almost universal disregard? This idea in itself may seem romantic, a kind of Harry Potter idea of poets operating secretly within the stifling milieu of suburban, bourgeuois society.
Yet here, at the opening of the 21st century, it is not so clear that the sacred has been so easily defeated, so completely relegated and cast side during the 19th and 20th centuries. Seemingly endless, festering religious conflicts—with more and bigger ones on the horizon—make us question whether the sacred might not be staging a comeback, whether the ascendancy of the profane in a scientific and rational age may not ultimately prove a chimera, something which seemed undeniable for a time until time reversed itself. No one would welcome back an age of superstition. But the poet’s otherworldliness is not religious, so much as intuitive, imaginative, psychological. What has been “sacred” to the poet of the modern era is not the received doctrine of organized religions, but the realm of the subconscious, and even deeper—the unconscious—where important human truths and realities may lie. More than personal, but less than absolute, such truth involves the very meaning of human consciousness and being. It all depends on how you define the sacred, and what we can possibly know—or guess at—with the limited instrument of the human mind.
Poets like Nooteboom operate within this area, within the territory of the mythic and archetypal. It is almost impossible to read Nooteboom and feel that he is presenting “only knowledge that is personal and private.” The images cast up and examined feel more universal than that, more unsettling but familiar, more like our own shadowy imaginings and doubts, our own fears and dreams. It has been said “A myth is a public dream, while a dream is a private myth.” Nooteboom, it would seem, is someone with a powerful enough imagination to dream for us all. To confine the substance and meaning of his poems to personal and private knowledge would feel not only like a misjudgment of his real achievement, but a betrayal of his gift—the gift of these penetrating, revelatory poems.
Waste, Thierry Brunet, BlazeVOX [books]
Is it Real, or is it Hyperreal? might well be the idée fixe, the recurring che vuoi?, in Thierry Brunet’s first full-length volume of poetry, Waste. In the postmodern, Baudrillardian hyperscape of Brunet’s collection, the constructedness of language, art, and identity is melismatically unraveled in a “deconstruction fugue” all the way down to the level of the virtual grapheme: the 0’s and 1’s of binary code. From these building blocks of Binhex configurations—a DNA code for the hyperreal, if you will—bits of found text, fractured signs, and other cultural detritus washed upon the cyber-shore of the virtual tideland are reappropriated, reconstituted, and collaged into a phantasmagoric double-helix of cryptically unnerving poems that are full of strange glitter, verve, and wit.
These poems are cyborgian in composition, and—as is often the case with cyborgs—they aspire toward, or evince an oddly poignant nostalgia for, the real and/or the human. In “Nucleus,” for example:
Each time I chicane
to frisk the regosol
of her nucleus
I should confront another day in the world.
Or, similarly, in the ending lines of “Voyage”: “My doppelganger / a guMMY bear / who gave me the sensation of being touched.” And, in “Infoglut”:
what’s left of my heart after your
a muted mechanism that knows no pardon
the s.p.i.d.e.r of the infoglut
Throughout Waste, the reader is held captive, but also captivated, in a constantly recycling vortex of disembodied signs at play that both parody and reify the hysterical reproduction of simulated stimuli. Saturated and enmeshed, the reader recognizes the exchange of familiar bits of simulacra—thus making the poems teasingly hint at the possibility of a sort of postmodern cultural representation as well as simulation. At the same time, the reader is constantly reminded that if the postmodern cultural condition is all simulation, then the former dialectic of representation and real is no longer valid/in place, and that, as per Baudrillard, the real is dead—or, at best, no longer real.
In this place of cracked semiotics, code is broken open but there is no meaningful answer, solution, or key. Discourses of desire in consumer commodity fetish culture replace reality, and mourning for the real ensues, as well as nostalgia for myth. Numbed by a barrage of simulated stimuli recited in a hypnotically anaphoric list, Jack ultimately pines for the Batsignal, for example, in the concluding lines of “Batsignal”:
All sentimental lures
and traded privacy
made Jack a dull boy
All 36G juggs in Truecolor
and fortunate lovers
made Jack a dull boy
All heavy dollops of providence
and unforeseen consequences
made Jack a dull boy
and soggy hearts
made Jack a dull boy
All supermarket blissfulness
and breast-feeding disclosure
made Jack a dull boy
All Zoloft gourmets
and dopamine pushers
made Jack a dull boy
All museum loneliness despite DSL connections
and Boolean moans
made Jack a dull boy
All automatic delusional disorder
and euphoric entities in mutual relation
made Jack a dull boy
All blue-blooded guillotines
and mnemonic devices for ayatollahs
made Jack a dull boy
All Cordilleran rifting west of Chino Valley
and negligible masses
made Jack a dull boy
All latex dementia
and Munchausen syndrome by proxy
made Jack a dull boy
Modern deco sofa
Single origin mocha
La-la land condo
A larger life is lethal
in the conglomerate evening
Jack pines for the Batsignal
The prevalence of scientific and mathematical metaphors throughout the poems invite us to consider Brunet’s virtual world as both scientifically/mathematically constructed from binary code, but also paradoxically organic in its evolutionary developmental processes: cellular, genetic, viral, etc. In other words, distinction between constructed simulacra and the real are blurred, clearly evoking Baudrillard’s definition of the hyperreal.
The paradoxical relationships of language, art, and identity to the real are likewise interrogated. The constructed nature of language is underscored through disrupting words with periods between letters or unexpected capitalizations, and popping them out of context through the use of italics or boldface. Art, too, emerges as a process of recycling empty signs without referents. “Napalm,” for example, opens with the lines: “Based on digital bypass / the poem is / absent / hidden in full circle / alphabet /to fill the void and / take the shine / off their bliss / bin100101 / 1010 / 1010 / 101 / 01 / 0”. Similarly, identity as a performed construction, a collage, is a theme in numerous poems, perhaps most explicitly in a poem titled “Identikit”—a title that may allude to, in part, facial recognition software that creates a face through layering and assembling various features:
Soon all places will be cleared out squares
unfair riots versus hacks of regression
[if you fancy something a little different I discovered
this fantastic creation in my freezer
is this a m.y.t.h]
Guardians of the compatible ethics
paying no respects to my encrypted ego
[more than 15 000 rounds have been fired there is another boom
on the r.i.s.e
do you sleep badly because you worry about things
is it a spoiled s.e.c.r.e.t or a retrieval exclusion]
Disembodied voices giggling on demand
identikit disaster exposed by generative strife
[to sum up my experience what Jia Li had in her brochure
was correct if you put in the effort you will have fantastic results
Thank you Jia Li
is it a SMS from the attic or the latest bukkake theme song]
Part 2 of Waste consists of an extended poem sequence that makes these ideas further manifest, as a “Gordion worm” rises, Phoenix-like, from the Binhex ashes of culture and history. Or perhaps it evolves organically from the genetic protoplasm of 0’s and 1’s? Or perhaps it is a ghost in the machine? A minotaur in the labyrinth? A cyborgian Frankenstein? A postmodern ouroboros? The same intriguing complexities and paradoxes prevail in this second section, and are underscored by the visual tension created by seemingly hand-drawn/human-made letters embedded within and rising from extended strings of code. Is the “Gordion worm” a parasite or virus that disrupts and transgresses? Or is it something that has itself been parasitized and is now trapped in the matrix? Is it a melancholically-echoed myth or a misunderstood monster? Is it Pygmalion or sculpture? The writer or the text? Spiraling into a labyrinth of increasingly-long strings of alphanumeric code, the poem sequence concludes: “keen struggle for / existence / or neo-dust / burst? . . . / no more geography / in my bones / only / transgression”.
Even while tangling with semiotic and philosophical complexities, these crisp blips of poems sizzle with quick-witted electricity. A trickster or rascal sensibility is felt to be at play here as the surreal trades fours with the hyperreal. As in “Ambition,” Brunet’s poems do somersaults in Mobius configurations, and deliriously and pleasurably careen between déjà vu and déjà mort, between jouissance and vertigo . . . and ultimately back to jouissance again:
I never had
the day I died
a tiny bomb
Sometimes the only thing more boring than a conference is someone trying to explain a conference to you second hand. But—golly gee whiz—Miami University’s second Post Moot conference, held this past April in Oxford, Ohio, impacted me so positively that I feel nearly obligated to share what I experienced there. It’s not that the conference was devoid of boring moments or that it was its content was so extraordinary in terms of conference fare, but there were at least a few subtle distinctions between Post Moot and the other convention experiences I’ve had that seem really worth noting and celebrating.
First, some throat-clearing: the conference model most readers of this review will probably be familiar with is from going to AWP—a big, fat dragon of a get together that swallows its participants and craps them out 3 or 4 days later, exhausted, overwhelmed, overstimulated, with pockets full of business cards from people they don’t remember meeting. I don’t mean to represent AWP as exclusively negative; I’ve only gotten to go once, but it was a very good experience for me. It’s great to be around a sea of other people who have a big investment in the word; one will likely have the chance to meet at least a few writers they’d been admiring from a distance; and, in general, you have a chance to meet new people. And how often do adults bother to meet new people?
But all of these attractions aside, AWP’s most prominent quality, to me, is how mechanically it operates. It’s like a huge machine that processes writing and people who write like they’re cheese. For one reason or another, it feels bureaucratic, sterile and so huge that everyone seems to express feeling lonely or lost at the end of it, even amidst the throngs of other writers.
One reason Post Moot was striking to me is because, in this way, it was practically antithetical. It had that luxury because it operated on a much smaller scale (I would guess there was less than 300 consistent participants at most?). So, first, there was this more manageable group. Second, only one main presentation took place at any one time so there was not any anxiety over which presentations to attend and which to miss; everyone basically had the chance to see anything they wanted to. And third, whereas a model like AWP never breaks for meals—or for anything really—Post Moot not only had built in meal times, but they were extravagant, healthy and all around fantastic meals consistently. What’s more, they were provided by the conference organizers themselves! Almost anytime one could spot William Howe during the conference, he was donning a chef’s coat and wielding a ladle. Which brings me to this point—the visibility and sheer work ethic of the conference organizers. Howe commandeered the food end of things—and deliciously, I might add—Chris Cheek announced every single presentation, I believe, and Catherine Wagner managed all things odds and ends, whether it was last minute transportation for presenters, taking in the money and registration info or some other miscellany. These details may seem weird or insignificant, but they established a tone for the conference that I found ideal for anyone really wanting to give the presentations their full attention.
Finally, the subtitle to Post Moot 2KX was “poetry & performance: a convocation.” I feel this was another foundational decision that set a great tone for the conference. “Performance” was an ambiguous enough term to allow for a wide diversity in the presentations. It’s difficult to explain that any further, knowing that I can’t do any real justice to any of the presentations, let alone all of them. But, in an attempt to illustrate the variety, I will provide this list of highlights and memorables from the weekend:
• Mark Wallace reading his poems on the weirdnesses of living in California.
• K. Silem Mohammad’s deadpan delivery of poems with titles like “Squirting Ringworm Taco.”
• K. Lorraine Graham exhibiting pretty darn advanced hoola hoop skills prior to reading from her book Terminal Hum.
• Rick Royer reading work alongside his sleep machine, encouraging audience members to nap during his performance and demanding, also, that they not laugh.
• Mel Nichols reading a series of Facebook superpoke messages.
• ______ making (folding, cutting sowing and binding) a handmade, blank book in some 15 minutes, to hopefully empower the audience to do so later on their own.
• Ryan Downey presenting a paper comparing Kamau Braithwaite to Andre 3000 of Outkast.
• Barrett Watten reading from the several-volume, collaborative project Grand Piano, on compromising radical politics with jobs in academic institutions.
• Jose Luna wandering around a dark auditorium, playing experimental saxophone.
• Dana Ward giving a trademark manic reading, complete with tics and other physical hiccups.
• Tyrone Williams presenting a paper on Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater and drawing links from it to the dubious phenomenon of Colored People Time.
• Hoa Nguyen reading phenomenal work which involved a lot of poop because, according to Hoa, she was changing lots of diapers when she wrote it.
• Chris Mann literally—deliberately—mumbling nonsense for the full length of his presentation.
• Kate Sopko presenting on the unglamorous maintenance that art and its creation require, as well as questioning why those who perform that maintenance don’t receive as much praise as those credited as the artists.
• Mike Basinski’s presentation—a stream of consciousness flood, during which audience members were encouraged to clap at arbitrary moments.
• Lisa Howe reading from her poems for the zombie apocalypse.
• Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetic Theater performance, presented by students of Miami U. who had only practiced it for 2 days.
• AMJ Crawford and Danny Snelson’s sound/image/poetry barrage.
• William Howe reading his English-to-insane-English translations of Dickinson on a mere three hours of sleep.
• Adeena Karasick’s jack-hammer-articulate reading style.
• Rod Smith, at an after party, unable to read his poem about Sarah Palin having sex with a Chihuahua because of debilitating laughter—the audience’s and his own.
• Lara Glenum, Josef Horaçek and Jonathan Skinner’s super-grotesque multimedia installation: Horaçek’s audio/video manipulations of Glenum’s texts, on a screen surrounded by a creepy, rudimentary construction-gut-tunnel assembled (and later destroyed) by Skinner.
• Jen Hofer’s presentation on her brilliant “Escritorio Publico,” project, in which she simply sits in a public space and composes letters for anyone willing to pay a small fee (was it $2 a letter; $3 a love letter; $5 an illicit love letter?)
Maybe these snippets of summation are useless if you don’t know the people they reference. I don’t know. But I guess it’s not even the specifics I want to illustrate here. It’s more just 1) the democracy in what this conference had as presentations and 2) how much more organic and familial this conference felt than those I’ve attended prior.
For me, these two elements really facilitated thinking outside of my usual conventions in terms of artistic creation. The contrasts between each presentation provided a breadth that almost seemed counterintuitive to the idea of conferences as a whole. Since conferences are get togethers of people who like the same things—whether it’s comic books, Civil War reenactments or experimental poetry—they’re usually pretty limited by their very nature. This conference featured poetry readings—with a breadth of different styles—performance art, dance, visual art, video art, sound collages, book making and other craftsmanship for which I don’t know names. But that’s the point…the names stopped mattering. And I’m tempted to say it’s because the presentations were so often hybridized. But that feels inaccurate because, as the conference proceeded, they began feeling less and less like separate entities. Post Moot emphasized the unity of all these expressions I’ve come to think of as separate. This is why the familial tone proved to be so important, since emphasizing the unity of things that are sometimes thought of as separate or even adversarial can turn to a damaging endeavor, if not handled with great sensitivity.
Beyond that: I had come to the conference (and I imagine I wasn’t alone in this) expecting presentations more exclusive to literature. This expectation wasn’t exactly disappointed, it just proved to employ a sort of biased vocabulary. All of the presentations were literary, but they were also visual, performance, dance, etc. K. Silem Mohammad standing there reading poetry became a sort of dance. Carla Harryman formally presenting scholarship became a kind of visual. The environment of acceptance and family which had been established was essential to pulling this all off, though, since all of these potentially different genred presentations could’ve been viewed as irrelevant by many participants otherwise. After attending a short film screening, or a performance piece or a sound experiment, I would consistently leave with a better understanding of how incorporating some of those aspects of creation could help further build the poetry I’ve been writing. In fact, after attending the conference, I feel more conflicted than ever about using all of these terms to segregate these expressions traditionally thought of as different forms (performance piece, film screening, poetry, etc).
Possibly my favorite presentation of the weekend was the Black Took Collective’s performance and this is mainly because they were so successful at incorporating so many aspects of art making into their hour or so of time. Comprised of three members (Duriel E. Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ronaldo V. Wilson), the trio stood, sat, moved, read, sang and lifted their voices in about every other way to incorporate as much into their performance experience as possible. During sections, there was video being projected on more than one screen, as well as projections of script they were sometimes typing during the performance on laptops, part improvisation, part extraction and mash up of other texts. Voice modulation, certain wardrobe transformations, moments of audience call and response—the Black Took Collective struck me as very in tune with the subtle levels of representation or expression that could be tweaked to change the experience and its significance. They were possibly the most inspirational of the presentations, for me, in regard to establishing meaning through different, often unrelated avenues.
This captures the essence of Post Moot in many ways. Not an emphasis on hybridized or collaborative forms, but that all expression entails aspects of hybridity and collaboration, whether intentional or not. The more aware the artist becomes of those aspects, then hopefully the more they will be able to manipulate them in order to create a fuller expression.
This is also why I feel Post Moot so much deserves attention. Unlike other conferences I’ve been to, Post Moot was not as much about rehashing and scrutinizing the modes of expression I’m already familiar with, but challenging participants to travel beyond the typical, self-applied bounds of our expressions.
Whether there will ever be a third Post Moot is sketchy, at this point. And clearly conferences of this nature aren’t banging down our doors, promoted in the mainstream or ever known by most. Perhaps, however, the influence Post Moot—and get togethers like it— have on their participants will be the catalyst for more celebrations of this nature to emerge. And if that’s the case, I highly suggest to any arts practitioners (or not) interested in a crash course in expanding their modes of expression to give such a conference’s attendance high priority, despite time, travel, financial or any other sacrifices it entails. Until then, Post Moot will loom lone and legendary, at least in the mind of this one participant privileged enough to have been there.
Flic(k)s, Maggie Jaffe, Red Dragonfly Press
American women are famished, craving sensation, even if the sensation is of life’s red blood draining away. Women are nourished by horror, shudder and cling and cry out-and come back for more-because women are predestined to bear the race in bloody agony, their suffering a kind of horror. Blood a kind of horror. It’s a biological thing.
–From “Lugosi on Women”
Early in her critical career, Susan Sontag famously declared that movies should be experienced rather than interpreted, that “direct experience of the language of faces and gestures” amounts to a more immediate version of text, and therefore of our humanity, than print. She just as famously lived to regret the assertion-an anti-intellectual pronouncement by an intellectual at the least a kind of bleak joke-but the underlying premise, albeit dangerously naïve, makes sense at some basic level too.
In her last essay about film nearly 30 years later, Sontag’s thinking regarding film came full circle in her declaration of an “ignominious, irreversible decline” in cinematic productions as represented by the “astonishingly witless” films of the age, including, I assume, the hipster-irony of the 90s (the period that gave rise to her dismay) in the absence of moviegoers’ ability to recognize irony, and films by shock-meisters like Tarantino and Rodriguez in the absence of our ability to be shocked by much of anything. Herein is perhaps both the recognition of her greatest error in that first assertion and also the viable basis for it as well: the relationship of film to both individual reception and public consumption.
Movies, as opposed to, say, poems (which have an almost clichéd negative relationship to capital), are products of the larger market, and as such, are public dreams. That is, as products designed for large-scale consumption (even art-house films must make back the cash invested and so garner a larger audience in one showing than poetry books garner over a long shelf life), the collective latent content of movies is the compendium of our cultural fears and wish fulfillment operative within the historical moment. Movies are part of our collective identity, as it were, a psychological snapshot of our collective cultural being, and Sontag’s valid assumption is that movies are therefore more like lived experience at the moment it is being lifted to the level of trope, which she mistakenly believed cannot be critically unpacked by virtue of its immediate relationship to our current version of the world.
Hence, however, in the absence of critical interpretation, Cold War-era James Bond kept the West safe for capitalism as he fucked his way across the Balkans, destroying (and taming by seducing) the evil forces that would dominate the world and thereby subliminally protecting us from the dreaded domino-fall of nations to communism, and viewers felt safer and somehow satisfied after “experiencing” this character’s cinematic exploits. Hence, the current crop of horror flicks are a subliminal reiteration that the other is dangerous and genocidal mayhem the only remedy in Bush’s version of the world-unequivocal cultural and ethnic sameness a maniacal Christian version of post-rapture Nirvana.
This is the biggest problem with Sontag’s youthful assertion writ large, and its kernel of truth as well: “experience” relative to any text, regardless of how visceral, can be a stand-in for “passive consumption.” In short, the latent imagery in films may well be some proximal version of us at a given point in time, but that version of us is also easily manipulated in the absence of critical exegesis and, in a word, dangerous by virtue of the reach of cinematic productions.
Whereas films are public dreams, the best poems are personal dreams in the broadest sense: the ocean of human experience (the latent content) lurking beneath the surface of personal experience (the manifest content), which of course also includes the historical moment of the poem’s production. Good poems demand critical interpretation so that the reader can understand why she is affected by it, so she can understand that inchoate perception to which the poem gives rise (what we used to say happened at the level of the sub- or unconscious).
Consequently, a poem by a powerful poet is an excellent tool with which to interpret film, but it requires a complex double move: mining the latent content of the movie and interpreting it, but also incorporating that content into this second art form, the personal dream that, at its best, endeavors to transcend the personal to achieve the human. The poem as ekphrasis is not simply exegesis, in other words, but the public cultural, historical dream reenacted to one level or another within the personal, human dream of the poem.
Maggie Jaffe’s film poems cover a wide range of such reenactments, but the most basic exegetical act remains of paramount import at the level of meta-text precisely because movies tend to be passively consumed: bringing historical perspective to images that are nevertheless still resonant in the present (or else the film in question would not be of any interest to the poet). Movies are famously “unreal” in the popular conception, figments cast in light that stand in contradistinction to the “real” (“it is only a movie,” one hears frequently, which interestingly echoes another famous rejoinder: it is only a dream), and Jaffe provides a footnote that points out the notion is illusion about as poignantly as possible:
Berlin, 1940: Frau Stoffe visited me this afternoon. We see the American Disney film Snow White, a magnificent artistic achievement. A fairytale for grownups, thought out into the last detail and made with a great love of humanity and nature. An artistic delight! (quoted in The Secret Annexe: An Anthology of War Diarists, ed. by Irene and Alan Taylor, 2004)
These are Josef Goebbels’ words. Symbolically, the fascist and the “fairytale for grownups” are the poles of the popular conception of movies for Jaffe, her film poems offered as proof that movies are more like capitalist fairytales in the Brothers Grimm sense, the truth at its most enormous, and wearing its most terrifying shoes, jack boots, under its petticoats-images that can range from the banal to the extraordinary.
In fact, one of the poet’s primary claims in this book is that movies not only can’t dodge history but reverberate with the moment in which they were produced, which to varying degrees contains the total psychic product of history for the viewer. The poet tells us so overtly in poems like “Red Rum”: “The Shining [is] a critique of Indian genocide. Listen up. King uses horror as a metaphor for America’s moral bankruptcy [because] horror movies play out our fears as well as our transgressions.” However, the historical moment and our collective psychic selves intersect whether the author/auteur intends a critique or not, whether symbols enter the public dream as intended textual elements or by accident: “A cute mulatto waitress serves Ollie apple pie and Alice Bavarian crème. Dr. Judd has Roquefort cheese and a Winston: symbols proliferate like bunnies” (“Cat People”). The participants in the “fairytale for grownups” can’t escape history either as it continues to operate in defiance of all attempts at illusion, even of “happily ever after”:
The couple will meet again in Curse of the Cat People, the sequel, where they’ll marry. But happiness never lasts. The year is 1942. Tourneur is “gray-listed” as a “nigger lover.” Japanese-Americans are interred in relocation centers. In Auschwitz, crematoriums burn night and day.
Jaffe frequently intersperses these truths, movie images taking on historical significance much like the images in a dream can resonate with meaning that defies more logical correlations: your mother’s hat is somehow also your childhood pet, and a woman who looks like your wife is really someone else entirely, scaring you sufficiently that you wake. Likewise, in “Psycho,”
[Janet Leigh’s] D-cups are like twin
atomic silos, more terrifying than the Cuban Missile
Crisis and worldwide Communist domination.
By the time she changes into black lingerie,
we knew she was history.
They used chocolate syrup for her
O God, Mother, blood, blood!
She just sat there while I dumped it out!
Like most of us, she’d like to buck
the system. Thinking back to her shitty job
and the oilman who slaps down 40 grand
to buy off unhappiness, she knows what
she must do: steal the dough.
The historical references make the public dream of the film more contextually accurate, and thereby an entertainment is revealed to be a complex cultural artifact, but this poem also contains darker dreamlike images of blood and symbolic jism within the larger context of the American capitalist landscape, where men run things and money buys happiness and the only viable dream is to have what rich men have; and we mustn’t forget that female sexuality is dangerous, Leigh’s tits both deeply sensual and scary for precisely that reason. In other words, the poem not only reiterates the historical context for the film but also the psychological context of a woman poet writing more than forty years later.
Certainly Sontag’s concrete starting point when she suggested that films are best experienced was their power to affect us, and Jaffe reminds us that,
After Psycho, nothing was the same.
Not the comfort of showers,
nor mom’s down-home
apple pie. Prophetic.
Within three years America
will eat her young: the skull beneath her smirk
metastasizing into a diminutive
Once again, however, history is never separate from the public dream captured on celluloid, and in this instance, Jaffe tells us that the film’s images were our collective consciousness at play, or rather, the contents thereof being worked out. This stanza is the truth of Sontag’s assertion about experiencing film rather than interpreting it and that statement’s utter contradiction at the same time. Psycho was deeply affecting and an unheeded warning from our shared psychic depths.
Movies as a proximal version of us that is also viscerally affective, powerful sometimes unto being overwhelming, means that watching a film is an act of communion with the other viewers. While watching Equus, for example, the poet is overcome by the central trope of the movie, the blinding of several horses:
Regrettably, pubs are closed at this hour. I head for the loo to compose myself and find a woman clutching the sink. Although we’re strangers, we hug each other, playing out an ancient human need. We’re sister citizens without that requisite second skin. Neither of us says anything, and to this day I don’t know if she could speak English or if she knew that I do…
I think of a meadow and the silent language of horses, the way they’ll stand for hours, barely touching, one facing west, one facing east. (“Two from the Loo”)
The deeper cultural implications as regards the relationship of religious fervor to madness remain implicit in this poem, the tropes neither unwound nor correlated with the poet’s life or our common present. This is a snapshot of the moment, of the image’s effect on these women’s shared human being, and a tacit nod to the power of those tropes beyond the terrible pictures of cruelty to animals. Sontag’s assertion can seem genius at such times.
In fact, in some poems Jaffe merely actively transliterates a film, as if the words were skittering across the page as the poet watches the movie in her mind one more time, but also as if the reiterated scene were a diary entry. The double move is still necessary, but it is the individual’s reception of the movie’s images that are central to the poem. Indeed, the movie images in concert with the speaker’s implied connection to these characters can speak volumes:
Bitches from Hell-that’s us-who’ve had it
up to our asses with unpaid bills, the blues,
with bending over 18-wheeler semis.
Louise turns sharply south, pitching
Thelma & me like we’re Raggedy-Ann dolls.
When the car soars over the Canyon,
we’re awake among the sleepwalkers
and without fear, that unwanted guest
who’s taken up residence in our guts.
Without fear for the first time in our lives.
(“Thelma, Louise, and Me”)
When I saw Thelma and Louise years ago, the ending seemed completely trite, a simplistic way out of the story like the ending to too many undergrad creative writing efforts; but the poem made me shudder precisely because the poet presents this seemingly nihilistic act as a complaint against her own place in the world-as-received. Thus, even in poems where the emphasis is personal, Jaffe is insisting that our consumption of movies must include an active element, that entertainment is never merely so. The viewer’s reaction to a movie may well be deeply experiential, but like these characters response to the facts of their lives and their historical moment, that experience remains utterly passive in the absence of interpretation. The poem is the first step, perhaps, in some larger act of transcendence.
In Fascinating Fascism, Sontag declares that Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will “represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater,” and indeed, Riefenstahl claimed the movie was not propaganda at all but cinema verité. Although it is unlikely that Riefenstahl could not recognize the difference between the truth and her complicity in the interests of the Third Reich, the assertion is nevertheless emblematic. Maggie Jaffe’s film poems remind us that all movies, whether overt propaganda or mass-market schlock or art, contain signs and symbols that we passively consume to our detriment. But the poet is obviously as much a cinephile as a cultural critic, and these poems offer far more than an implied reproach “for our historical amnesia” (“The Shining”), more than an accurate context. These poems are also testament to the power of the medium of film and powerful works of art in their own right, the truth about us, however dark, lovingly rendered.
Michael McIrvin is the author of five poetry collections, including Optimism Blues: Poems Selected and New, two novels including The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time, and an essay collection. He taught writing and literature for several years at the University of Wyoming and now makes his living as a writer and freelance editor. He lives with his wife, Sharon, on the high plains of Wyoming.