Word the World: A.T. Grant on 10 Mississippi by Steve Healey


10 Mississippi, Steve Healey, Coffee House Press, 2011

In 10 Mississippi Steve Healey sets out to build a city on the Mississippi (“Lifeboat, Wingspan”) from the detritus of contemporary culture. And there’s plenty of detritus drifting through this river world; birds, dead bodies, hamburger/meat (in several forms), text sampling, and the color red (also in several forms, including ketchup) are recurring motifs throughout the book.

Many poems relate eating and capitalism to the violence in our world. This is especially true in “Ketchup over the Park,” in which the troops become hamburger meat and we become “the eaters of grilled beef patties.” I get the sense that a passively violent backyard or community cookout is an appropriate backdrop in other poems as well (including “Animals among Us,” “Green Afternoon,” and “Slow Emergency”).

But my favorite poems work with repetition and variation in several different forms. Sometimes the repetition of a phrase or structure propels the reader forward at an alarming pace (see the twisting clauses of “Against Violence”—a 39-line sentence with several bends in its river). At other times a repeated image seeks to bring a stillness (the skipping record needle in “While I Held My Breath Underwater”). These poems let images and sounds accumulate. The river gathers this detritus and builds a world around itself.

Repetition and variation is most important in the title poem, the book’s ten-section centerpiece. The base image of “10 Mississippi” is a dead body being pulled from the river. But the image returns; it comes back changed, bloated or leaking. The body becomes many bodies, but we never get a fix on exactly who they are (or were) before they fell into the river. The faces of the bodies shift—notice the pronouns in the tenth section: “…he was about to enter / the water but was then pushed / into the water by the other man, / her body was pulled from the water.”

In part seven of the poem, Healey ties this image of a body pulled from the river to a childhood game of hide-and-seek. But we know that seeking the bodies that hide in the river is not fun. That the game has become a harsh reality. By the eighth section the river is eating bodies, and by the tenth a coroner reports that “the river is a monster.” Which relates back to the “violence of eating” in other poems. We built a world, but that world became a voracious monster. Worse, each body in the monster’s mouth has lost its “self,” and is faceless. But even though we have created and inhabit this violent world, Healey sees a possible redemption in children and words.

Again, Healey uses repeated images and phrases. This time the returning phrases remind us of how children free associate and play; how they notice something new in their world, then keep noticing it (and pointing it out to any animate or inanimate being in proximity). They must sense the power that words have. This power of words is an important idea in “The Invention of the Alphabet, or The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog.” Healey’s child narrator tells us: “Yesterday Mrs. Berger taught us a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. She said, don’t repeat this sentence or else something awful may happen.”

And something awful has happened in the poem already: the narrator’s school bus has hit and killed a fox.

We never read that the narrator used that dangerous sentence (or what it is). However, we know he likes to tinker with words and images (his teacher’s name “is a food that [he] likes to eat with ketchup. Her lips have a lot of red on them.”). We imagine the temptation to play with that dangerous sentence must have been immense for such a child. Finally he admits, “I know it’s my fault that the fox is dead.” Another game has become reality.

However, the experience does not destroy the narrator—it transforms him (and also, I would argue, the violence done to the fox). In the last line, he becomes the quick brown fox of the poem’s title: “On the sidewalk there’s a lazy dog curled up like baby Jesus. I jump over him.”

This is a narrator who wants to put words into the world because he knows words make ideas real. He even tells us, “The fox and the dog are more real than us because they know every word.”

This narrator believes that his words can bring a good world into existence; that they can transform reality. With narrators like this, Healey does more than build his city on the Mississippi. He encourages us to build our own.

 

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A.T. Grant is an MFA student at the University of Minnesota. He makes poems and songs. His band is called New South Bear. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Scrambler and Forklift, OH. He lives in Minneapolis.

From Imaginary People: Grace Onorato on Sam Savage’s The Cry of the Sloth


The Cry of the Sloth, Sam Savage, Coffee House Press

It is rare to find a work of contemporary fiction that defies standard elements of fiction such as plot and paragraph, but that is exactly what you will find in Sam Savage’s sophomore novel The Cry of the Sloth. The story is told in letters, grocery lists, classified ads, and rough drafts written during a four month period by Andrew Whittaker; a never published author, derelict landlord of decrepit properties housing trashy tenants, and editor and sole employee of the literary magazine Soap.

The use of Andrew’s correspondence to tell his story, rather than using a more conventional point of view and prose structure of paragraphs and dialogue, allows Savage to showcase the complexity and contradictory aspects of Andrew Whittaker’s personality. Each correspondent: his ex-wife Jolie, his college roommate, a bevy of bill collectors, his tenants who refuse to pay rent or use garbage cans, writer friends from college who are successful and published authors, and aspiring writers submitting material for publication, each see a different side of Andrew. This is true to life; we all have many different ‘faces’ and which one we reveal depends on what and how much of ourselves we are willing to show to a particular person at a particular time. Andrew Whittaker takes this concept to a whole new level as he spirals downward into severe depression and begins weaving an intricately detailed web of lies to the recipients of his letters.

In his correspondence with Jolie, Andrew’s serial cheating ex-wife who left him to pursue an acting career in New York City only to end up involved with his writing nemesis, he is quick to point out just how bad life is for him. On the first page of the book, Andrew tells Jolie,

Even at the time of your departure at least half of them (rental properties) were white elephants or worse, and they are now so heavily mortgaged, so deteriorated, they barely suffice to keep my small raft afloat while it is being tossed about on an ocean of shit, meager as it is and weighted with the barest of necessities. (I mean to say the raft is meager; the ocean of shit is, of course, boundless.)

It is evident early on in the book that this interpretation of Andrew’s life is fairly accurate. He argues with tenants to pay rent and with one tenant in particular to pay a damage bill for a collapsed ceiling. Andrew blames the tenant’s overweight wife’s bathing habits for the collapse and suggests that the tenant design a pulley system to gently ease his wife into the bath water or to not fill the tub as much. He argues with his bill collectors, urging them to not shut off his telephone because it would cause them to not get their money if Andrew doesn’t have a phone to conduct business.

However, when corresponding with Fern, a young and ambitious girl who submits poems and photographs to Soap hoping for publication, he writes to her about receiving her latest photographs:

I am, as you have probably guessed, a single man, practically the archetypical “confirmed bachelor,” and the abrupt appearance on my desk of a large photograph showing an attractive young lady on a sofa, in an attitude that can only be described as languid, provoked a spate of good-natured teasing from some of the staff, the older women especially.

The only other person who worked on the magazine besides Andrew was Jolie, and she set off for something new, something better, some time ago. From Andrew’s letters to Fern, it is that he has developed a crush on the girl from her provocative photographs and good natured correspondence. The jealousy rages across the page when Andrew castigates Fern for recruiting her English teacher to take the photos. In Andrew’s mind, it is only natural to write of himself as a successful literary editor with aspirations of something bigger, if only the magazine would allow him the time. If Fern really knew the truth, she wouldn’t be interested in keeping up the correspondence.

The multiple personalities Andrew exhibits throughout his correspondence paired with the often rude and inappropriate things he writes show that he isn’t the most socially graceful man. He writes to his college roommate Harold and tells him about how he used to make fun of him and his “ineptness and bucolic ignorance, and your comical mispronunciations of unusual words.” Andrew just doesn’t realize that this type of behavior will repel friends, not attract them.

Another bad habit, so to speak, is Andrew’s ability to ramble on about the most trivial or strange topics in such a way that it is easy to get drawn into reading several pages before realizing that you are reading something that isn’t going anywhere. For example, a page and a half after telling his college roommate how he used to poke fun at him, Andrew writes, “I wonder if you are still reading this…Maybe this letter is now at the bottom of your wastepaper basket, a tiny trivial voice in the depths of a tin well, rattling on and on. Is your wastepaper basket made of tin?”

The most interesting of Andrew’s rambling is his obsession with the sloth. Periodically throughout the novel, Andrew writes to people about the encyclopedia of animals that he keeps on his kitchen table so he has something to look at while he drinks his coffee. From this encyclopedia, Andrew becomes an expert on the sloth; he sees parallels between the sloth and his own life: “I have learned to imitate the sloth’s cry almost exactly. I am able to do this, I think, because I have been upside down for so long.” He feels a kinship to the sloth, as it is the only other animal on Earth besides human beings that can go insane. He empathizes with their life of slowness and boredom that eventually gives way to the animal’s death as “it forgets to hold on and plunges to its death on the forest floor.”

By the end of the novel, Andrew Whittaker is a completely different man than he was at the beginning. We, the readers, see him spiral downward into depression and then out of control as he pens letters to the editor from imaginary people touting his admirable qualities and practices making the cry of the sloth. The depth and breadth of Andrew’s character is as deep and strong as it is because of the novel’s format as a book of his letters to others. Readers would not want to read a book about this sometimes wholly unlikable character if he was presented in a standard paragraph and dialogue novel structure.

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Grace Onorato is an avid reader and aspiring novelist. She has a BA in Writing from Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. She lives in Delmar, NY.

Frequently Grim: Daniels Parseliti on Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Abyss of Human Illusion


The Abyss of Human Illusion, Gilbert Sorrentino, Coffee House Press

For a writer of his exceptional talents Gilbert Sorrentino is depressingly under-read and underrepresented. No longer possessing a copy of the flower of mental gore that is “Red the Fiend” and seeking instant gratification in its cruelty, I recently made my way to St. Mark’s Books in NYC’s east village to pick up a copy. If anyone has a copy, I figured, St. Mark’s, their shelves stuffed with Oulipians (though Sorrentino is not an Oulipian, he’s frequently associated with them), would. Not only did they not have a copy of Red, they failed to have a single Gilbert Sorrentino title. I found Sorrentino’s final book, the posthumously published The Abyss of Human Illusion, in a Barnes & Noble, the sole, lonely copy and the only Sorrentino title they had.

The Abyss is not the masterwork of scope that is Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew. Its satiric eviscerations are not as thorough or satisfyingly grisly as those in his Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. And while it employs commentary on each of its chapters as a metafictional tool, it does not do so with the immediacy and robustness of the commentary in his Little Casino. These are not necessarily negative criticisms. After all, Sorrentino was a highly inventive writer who frequently experimented with the form of the novel. Consequently, we need not, and indeed ought not expect him to cleave to prior forms. What then to make of The Abyss of Human Illusion?

The Abyss is composed of 50 short narratives, presented as chapters, from 130 to approximately 1300 words in length, the length of the narratives increasing serially. They range over familiar Sorrentinean topics: the success of mediocre artists/writers (and the ensuing jealously of their friends), cuckolded men, the disintegration and ruin of relationships, ambition curdling to bitterness and despair in the wake of failure.

Each chapter presents small, frequently grim moments pierced by the greater arrow of the character’s (frequently grim) lives. A woman stands in her kitchen, in her underwear, imagining someone watching her through the window, but knowing it’s not the case:

She puts on her robe, wishing, perhaps, that someone would look at her, that someone in the courtyard, in the living room, some nameless phantom were waiting for her, someone to whom she could abandon herself, some beast, some animal, some sex fiend, for whom she could throw herself away, for whom she could recklessly damn herself to pleasure and hell.

But of course no one is coming, and there will be no reckless damning. There is only the grind of age to look forward to, a tepid hell, minus the reckless pleasure. Each of these pieces lays bare bleak lives, leaving the reader with a sense of sadness and futility:

It was, he knew, certain, that had he not known, in any way, all the people he had known, but had, instead, known as many wholly different people, his life, such as it was, would have been the same in its vast panoply of error and carelessness. He had indeed blundered through his life, as he would have blundered through any life given him. Had he been born anywhere at all—he knows this—he’d still be standing at a dark window, alone, wondering who, through the years, precisely he was.

The 50 iterations with their gradual lengthening seem to echo this futility. In each we are given different characters, with different lives and (often, but not always) different problems. But more characters, more mini-narratives, and more textual space (though we’re never granted very much), all lead to similar outcomes in each case: anger, sadness, despair, frustration. Expansion along the line of the story, Sorrentino seems to be saying, won’t help us. In that direction there is just more of the same.

If you can’t go horizontal for a little relief, go vertical. Appended to the 50 chapters, at the end of the book, is a section of “Commentaries” on each of the chapters that have come before. These commentaries are often quite funny, written from an authorial high ground, poking fun at the constructions and clichés of the main text, speculating on the text’s meaning and various confusions, and adding ironic detail.

The work takes on a much different feel after the inclusion of the commentary. Sorrentino has been dishing out small emotional punishments with his chapters, his masterful capacities of compression accomplishing in one or two pages what most authors are unable to achieve in ten to twenty times the length. Towards the end of the main text the repeated exposure to these punishments builds a sense of futility and tension in the mind of the reader. The arrival of the commentary offers welcome ironic insulation from the main text, and in this offers a sense of relief. The placement of the commentary at the end of the main text is integral to this relief. The delay of commentary in The Abyss allows for a build-up of the sense of futility and bleakness, and a sense of gratefulness in that there is a metafictional reveal.

It is illuminating to look at the “Commentaries” offered in The Abyss compared with the commentary offered in Sorrentino’s Little Casino, published in 2002. Little Casino also consists of short chapters, though they vary in length and present scenes less complete than those in The Abyss (they are, however, frequently linked through character, not simply through themes). Each chapter is followed by a break, after which commentary (which is to a large degree metafictional) is given. The commentary (it’s not actually labeled as such, as it is in The Abyss) occasionally seems to outdo the preceding chapter, both in length and in the quantity and power of what is expressed therein. Compared with the “Commentaries” in The Abyss, those in Little Casino are both more expansive and feel closer to the preceding text. Along with the more robust commentary, in Little Casino Sorrentino employs irony more liberally within his narratives, resulting in more humor and a fluid sense that the narrator is present.

Reading The Abyss next to Little Casino brings up the urge to speculate as to why Sorrentino gives up this fluidity and robustness in The Abyss. The tension of The Abyss and the relative austerity of the stories and prose make for a “sharper” book, one that functions with a more noticeable mechanistic element (the break between body and commentary the placement of the commentary) than much of his previous work. Sorrentino was a master craftsman in the art of fiction. Consequently, it makes sense to view this exposure of mechanism as deliberate. In exposing this visible seam, in drawing into view the distance between fiction and metafiction, Sorrentino has not simply used metafiction to achieve a goal, but has given the reader (intentionally or not) the opportunity to realize a value of metafiction.

As such we have a three part structure. The primary text which grinds down and generates tension in the reader, the commentary, which offers a measure of relief in the form of ironic/metafictional insulation, and the combination of the two (the form of the book), which, in this case, points to metafictional techniques that can add texture and humor to the bleakness of everyday life as portrayed in fiction.

It’s fair to say that The Abyss of Human Illusion doesn’t rise to the same level as Sorrentino’s best books: its technical mastery just can’t makes up for its extremely limited scope. But then again, Sorrentino never seemed like the kind of writer who aimed at outdoing himself. He was, instead, constantly exploring the form of the novel and revealing to us the results. This book will be of value to those who enjoy such exploration.

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Daniels Parseliti is a writer living in Saint Louis, MO, where he attends the graduate fiction program at Washington University in Saint Louis.  He has published fiction in The Brooklyn Rail and non-fiction in The Subway Chronicles Anthology.

Through Tradition to Bewildering Extremes: Stephan Delbos on Bill Berkson’s New & Selected Poems


bill berkson

Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems, Bill Berkson, Coffee House Press

Portrait and Dream gathers more than fifty years of Bill Berkson’s poetry in all its formed formlessness into one volume. A second generation New York School poet, Berkson was a close friend of Frank O’Hara, and remains an active member of New York’s poetic and artistic community. Reading through Portrait and Dream – no small task due to its size and range – one finds Berkson’s avant-garde agenda struggling to suppress a curt sensitivity which breaks the surface of the poems in rare moments of emotional strength.

Berkson’s poetry has been linguistically inventive from the very beginning. The aesthetic of the New York School often ranked sound and energy before literal sense, and experimentation was considered an end in itself. Many of Berkson’s poems bounce off the mind like radar waves, each phrase forming its own succinct, independent expression while groping toward a nebulous subject, mood or tone. “Sunday Afternoon,” from All You Want, published in 1966, is one example.

What would the new fork bring me? and why
are porticos assuming sulfur? Leave its
cowbells charge is forces on the husks It is
no special translucence we bring to you, Dick and
Scarab, my ring of electric, morning…

The opening question catches the reader’s attention, but the ensuing lines thwart any expectations of continuity or easy comprehension. There are some delightful phrases here, such as “porticos assuming sulfur,” but a casual reader seeking sense or emotional engagement from the poem will be disappointed. Berkson’s more experimental work is as engaging as a Rubik’s cube: some readers will return to his poems again and again, hoping to “figure them out” or gain new insights into their workings. More skeptical readers, however, will be alienated by the poems and frustrated by the suspicion that there is no meaning behind the verbal magic.

Fortunately, Berkson is a consummate craftsman when he wants to be, and his skill with the traditional aspects of prosody stand in stark relief to the sometimes blinding opacity of his forays to lexical limits. Throughout Portrait and Dream one finds individual lines and phrases which delight for their sound, and less often, their sense. Such gems are enough to convince that Berkson isn’t simply slinging words. To provide only two personally pleasing examples: “She lay livid among the party favors,” from “Russian New Year,” and “History itches,” from “History.” Phrases such as these, which are innovative without being incomprehensible, sensually familiar without being traditional, stand out from the difficult poems which surround them.

Berkson’s guiding aesthetic is certainly not sentimentality or emotional lyricism. Instead he favors a cold, at times sterile approach to poetry. Nonetheless, a handful of poems in Portrait and Dream stand out for their emotional acuity. Often these are poems dedicated to friends who have died, or poems that spring out of an equally resonant emotional experience. “Rendition,” from After the Medusa, published in 2008, is one example short enough to quote in its entirety.

The song Willem de Kooning said
He wanted played at his funeralFrank
Sinatra’s “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest
Night of the Week”never happened.

What he got instead was selected
Arias from Verdi’s Aidaa scratchy rendition indeed,
As angelic choirs muttered softly among themselves
In unison: “Aidafucking Aida.”

The poem quietly displays Berkson’s mastery of form in traditional rather than novel ways. The simple narrative utterance is pulled through two quatrains and kept taut by subtle off rhymes: “said/happened/selected/indeed.” Berkson’s linguistic inventiveness, his search for the perfect phrase, is evident in phrases like “a scratchy rendition.” At the same time, Berkson, speaking for his dead friend, is bold enough to make a clear statement on death, music, kitsch, and the wishes of the dying, a statement which gathers strength for its stark succinctness. Berkson seems to have shed his experimental mantle, or at least become more comfortable and trusting of clear emotional statements. Though the final lines of “Rendition” balk at sentimentality, the poem makes clear the narrator’s feelings for his dead friend and his regret that his wishes were not respected. The unspoken fear, of course, is that Berkson’s wishes won’t be respected, either.

Those who have an interest in the New York School or avant-garde American poetics won’t need a book review to convince them to buy Portrait and Dream. It is an essential collection from one of the avant-garde’s most outstanding    and longstanding  representatives. Readers who seek poems which are grounded in emotional resonance and narrative will be disappointed by much of this collection, however. Nonetheless, the scope of the book shows that Berkson is not an innovative upstart to be scoffed at by traditionalists, but a craftsman who for fifty years has pursued his own voice relentlessly through tradition to bewildering extremes.

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Stephan Delbos is a New England-born poet living in Prague, where he teaches at University and edits The Prague Revue. His poetry and essays have been featured most recently or are forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, Zoland Poetry, Rain Taxi and Poetry International.