Poetry that Jingles, a Good Value: Zinta Aistars on Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf


heaven-sent-leaf

The Heaven-Sent Leaf, Katy Lederer, BOA Editions

What do poets know of money? What do poets know of capital? Katy Lederer asks and answers such questions in A Nietzschean Revival and throughout her new collection of poetry, The Heaven-Sent Leaf. And why not the poet, perhaps the best stockbroker of all in tendering the crumpled and transparent leaves of the spirit, exhibited here as expert in capital. Life is, after all, all about transaction, barter, the give and take between human beings, or between oneself and oneself—the hardest bargain of all. Katy Lederer, poet and author, is also Brainworker,
To learn to keep distance.
To learn to keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal mind.
Along the dark edge of this reason. Along the dark edge of this mind’s little prison,
inside of its bars now a silky white cat.
Howling.
Crawling in its little cage.
Inside of its cage is the bright light of morning.
Inside of its cage is the light of disease.
To learn to be an animal. To learn to be that primal.
To know who will slip you the fresh dish of milk.
To long for your manager’s written approval.
So soon am I up for my year-end review?
The moon above settles into its shadow.
I am howling at you.
Lederer titles more than one poem, Brainworker. There are four of them, in fact. And so you begin to sense the spinning we do in our every day routines, work work work, and then home, and then work work work, and all of it about transaction, some profitable, some not. This collection is money (transaction) put into poetry, and if at first glance that seems an odd fit, Lederer proves the fit is very near like that of a glove.

To know something of Lederer’s background explains this fascination. She is also author of several books, notably a memoir, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003), included on Publishers Weekly list of Best Nonfiction Books of 2003, which tells of her family ties to some of the best known names and faces around Las Vegas poker tables. For the poet, it could just as well have gone the other way, to becoming a card shark, but instead, her pull is toward poetry, even while working as a “brainworker” at a hedge fund in New York City.

I can’t speak for her poker-playing skills, no doubt remarkable, but Lederer’s poetry chinks into place, has the solid feel of coin on a green felt table, and slips easily into a rich bank of poetic capital. There are plenty of lines such as, “In the wallet of his soul he files the crisp new bills of morning,” (from The Tender Wish to Buy This World) to keep the analogy flowing. And they work, mostly. Although it doesn’t take many pages in to already sense the Lederer style: a naming of observations, almost a grocery list at times (“To avoid the whole mendacious thing./To sign yet another financial release.”); fragmented sentences and phrases (“Orange-red eyes like small, derogatory suns.” “Not wanting to do.” “Systemic and assembles with great calm.”); questions without answers (“We can’t let go? Why are we laughing now?”). This is not an entirely bad thing, not at all. A writer, a poet, seeks to find one’s own recognizable voice. A reader can find in it an agreeable echo, a mirror to one’s own, and so become a fan. The line to toe here is to not become overly predictable, still leaving room for the occasional surprise.

Lederer’s use of the analogy of money as capital to be traded in for pieces and parts of life does not narrow her range. With this premise, she explores the topics all poets adore: love, sex (what more profound transaction!), the daily aspects of a life well or less well lived, and, finally, death. She sets her stage against the backdrop of the big city, but the big city clamor still reverberates against any landscape where people meet. Money is a great symbol and so is not limiting, no more than she who possesses it imbues it with meaning and power. The exchange of value for value, or value for lack of it, resounds through every line, and with it, the echo of a void inside the self, “the lobotomized wishes—/Where brains once were …/Hear the awful racket of their want.”

This is a collection of poetry that jingles in the mind like loose coins in a deep pocket long after it’s read. You’ll pardon the analogy stretched here, but it is accurate. If on first reading, the poems seem simple enough, almost predictable in style (list-fragment-question), you can’t help but find your fingers wandering the linings of that pocket and playing with the coins, testing their value, enjoying the jingle, rubbing them one against the other, until they are warm in the palm and ready for trade. Lederer’s poetry is a good value.

Tangible Poetic Gold: Suzanne Ondrus on Aracelis Girmay’s Teeth


teeth

Teeth, Aracelis Girmay, Curbstone Press

Teeth is a stellar book filled with energy that is certain to leave readers impatiently waiting if not begging for more poems from Girmay. Aracelis Girmay is no stranger to the poetry world having published widely and appeared on the radio in New York City. Surprisingly, however, this is her first book, which leads one to the common sense belief that some things take time and some things are worth the wait. Girmay charges minute details such as cooking oil that “buckles” seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, “snow falling/like rice flung from the giants’ wedding.” Girmay is a poet that takes her keen perception of the ordinary and focuses it into the international political realm.

Girmay’s work has an international focus that is not touristy. She goes beyond her own Eritrean, Puerto Rican, and African-American origins to explore deep issues on a human level. Her poems are set in Palestine, Chad, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Belarus, Ghana, and the U.S. addressing war, politics, working conditions, culture, atrocities, and her own family. Girmay makes American political complaint and retaliation simple, but very moving. The book’s opening poem Arroz Poetica she shares news from a friend who tells “that all people against the war should/send a bag of rice to George Bush,/& on the bag we should write,/’If your enemies are hungry, feed them.’” Girmay continues to excavate the atrocities of this war and realizes that her enemies “are not hungry” but “ride jets to parties” and “talk of war in neat & folded languages/that will not stain their formal dinner clothes/or tousle their hair.”

Girmay personalizes death in Arroz Poetica through naming the Iraqi victims and giving their ages. She goes on to addresses these victims one by one, as if pointing, telling them individually that she will not forget “because your name is the name of my own brother,/because your name is the Tigrinya word for ‘tomorrow,’/…because my students are 12, & because I remember/when my sisters were 12.” Sadly at the end she realizes that “a bag of rice will not bring you back./A poem cannot bring you. & although it is my promise here/to try to open every one of my windows, I cannot/imagine the intimacy with which/a life leaves its body.” Girmay is sincere and really ponders this subject. These deaths are permanently ingrained so that “when I say ‘night,’/it is your name I am calling,/when I say ‘field,’/your thousand, thousand names,/your million names.” The weight of the numbers killed is felt in the expanse of the night and field. The words “night” and “field” become a simple but powerful prayer.

Girmay’s simple but striking political observations continue in Ode to the Watermelon, set in Palestine, where it is illegal to wave the Palestinian flag. Instead of waving their flag, Palestinians put watermelon halves on knives and hold them up “against Israeli troops/for the red, black, white, green/of Palestine. Forever.” And like a flag, this fruit’s ”Black seeds star red immense/as poppy fields.” Girmay works with a seemingly simple tourist observation, but renders it as politically significant. Girmay also turns to labor problems and segregation. In In the Cane Fields she addresses workers’ risk-taking for love. Her unnamed characters’ courage is expressed by their self definitions: “I am a steel-blade woman./You are a steel-blade man.” They are ready to die for their love, should the “Boss Men follow/down the dirt red road,” and “accuse us of blackness & of love.” The strong characters demand that should the Boss Men pursue them, “let us live again, sweet,” and “haunt these fields.” It is a bit uncertain if this is a contemporary situation or if it is the echoes of slavery, but this is nonetheless a moving poem suitable for either interpretation. In What Brang Me Here a revenant narrator, explains that he was lynched for drinking water from a white fountain. He simply explains that “God said, “Drink the water.”/& I just drink the water.”

Girmay takes some surprising subjects like a student’s misspelled card or the letter B and goes crazy with them, taking us along on this roll of thought that creates meaning from the sure joy of language poetry. In For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card she takes an enigmatic word ‘Loisfoeriari’ that her student wrote and meditates on how it could be Latin for hibiscus, a mode of transportation or a drink by implementing it humorously in sentences. For example, “How are we getting to Pittsburgh?/Should we drive or take the Loisfoeribari?” Finally, this roll of ideas leads her to realize that the phrase the student means to write, is really “love is for everybody” and readers see the wisdom of a child’s confused expression.

In Ode to the Letter B Girmay moves from clever imagery of the B as a “Half butterfly, two teeth,/sideways: a bird meet[ing] the horizon” to a witty analysis of how with B “Blouses would be louses,/& Blow would be low.” This reader finds few points of critique. Perhaps Girmay’s use of the period followed by the ampersand is questionable because it seems to work against her long flowing lines. Her use of the period and ampersand is jarring; it is like having a stop and go sign at the same time, making readers back track instead of continuing forward.

Aracelis Girmay in this reader’s mind is definitely a poet to keep an eye on. She is clearly a young poet who is not only filled with much promise, but also one who has clearly delivered much tangible poetic gold “of a jar filled with/the sweet of stinging bees.”

The Word is the Thing: Laurie Junkins on Sally Van Doren’s Sex At Noon Taxes


Van Doren comp.indd

Sex At Noon Taxes, Sally Van Doren, Louisiana State University Press

“A linguaphile’s dream” is the description that comes to mind when reading Sally Van Doren’s first book of poetry, which won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets in 2007. Beginning with the palindromic title Sex At Noon Taxes, this collection is all about words and the myriad grammatical devices within the English language. Van Doren’s remarkable ear for rhythm and sound is immediately apparent, and the reader cannot help but be pulled into her obvious sense of joy in language. The strength of this book is the way she fits words together in often surprising ways to create new and delightful effects of sound, rhythm, and syntax. She does not shy away from lowbrow references, either, if they contribute to the fun, as in “Pasture”:
Categorize a cough.
Catch a calf, laugh,
fart. Forget the phonics
of the focal/fecal. Phrase

fashion and effuse. Frigid
sapphirine captures the
fragment.
In this example, as in many of the other poems, the sound and rhythm of each word is depended upon heavily for effect. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, even parts of speech – no trick of language and poetry is left unused. These are tools available to any writer who has been to middle school, but Van Doren uses them in a way that is truly special.

The emphasis on word play and sound combination is a strategy akin to l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e=p=o=e=t=r=y, to which Van Doren refers – with an arguably appropriate lack of clarity of meaning – in the poem “Story”:
Once you forgot
syncopation and
an enemy stomped
on your bigamist

poetics. Convert
to anomaly. Purge
l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e,
purse and narrate.
Several of the poems in the collection not only make use of the grammatical tools of the English language, but also attempt to define the very devices they use. Poems such as “Preposition,” “Conjunction,” and “Pronoun/Preposition” are obvious examples. From “Pronoun/Punctuation”:
He who parsed us left us with a floating
colon, an ellipsis enjambed by a full-stop.

We had paced with a question
taped to our backs; in post-op

it slimmed to an exclamation point.
Commas shadow us; brackets enclose

our parentheses.

Van Doren’s nod to the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e=p=o=e=t=r=y aesthetic seems appropriate given the way she tends to use words as objects separate from their meanings, but even such accomplished word play can’t carry an entire collection. By the point at which we reach the three poems on parts of speech, the reader begins to feel as if he or she has picked up an eccentrically-written grammar book. Too, when the trope makes up all the content of the poem, the poet’s self-consciousness is glaring, as is a certain lack of depth – an absence of emotional connection, tension, or transition. At first the reader may be so taken with the skillful use of language that she would overlook the lack of substance, but when there are dozens of one-dimensional poems in a row, the shallow nature of them becomes readily apparent.

Toward the end of the collection, Van Doren depends less on linguistic devices and more on image with a dash of the narrative that, in particular, deals with matters of women and girls. Here, Van Doren’s use of figurative language is well-wrought and interesting, and her lyricism is well-crafted, but these poems also lack emotional resonance or charge. Van Doren sets up a scene, situation, or question in each poem, but then tends to stop or trail off too early, failing to surprise, transform, or emotionally engage the reader.

Despite these shortcomings, Van Doren has a command of language and an ear for musicality that few contemporary poets can claim to possess, and this is no small accomplishment. It should be remembered, as well, that this is her first collection. When her work develops the substance to match her use of language, it will be a knockout.

The Past Still Remains: J. Michael Wahlgren on Idra Novey’s The Next Country


the-next-country

The Next Country, Idra Novey, Alice James Books

There is a certain jadedness implied from one time to another, from one place to another in Idra Novey’s debut poetry collection, The Next Country. With a simple lexicon and the introduction of objects, people and places, Novey paints a bittersweet situation which rides upon the past. The rhymes are punctual and apropos, one of which carries from the poem Property,
From his bedroom,
Neruda saw a painted board

Wash ashore, chipped
And blue, soggy from the sea.
to the poem Trans,
To speak of origins requires mastery
Of the verb to be. I used to be, for example
A little unwieldy. What an organ,
People said. To play me well
Demanded both hands & feet.

With a constant method of hiding & revealing, similar to Neruda’s desk from the sea, this book almost whispers the words to the reader. The process of revealing within The Next Country is a method used by Novey to lure the reader into a hopeful “next“: whether a broken automobile will run, whether or not a man will become successful, whether an octopus’ seventh arm will refasten.
Within the book, there remains an unseen.

So much grows on the unseen face.
(from From the Small Book of Returns)

…we’d missed into the unseen.
(from Maddox Road)
A bittersweet-like situation of leaving one’s origin to find another place is present. It doesn’t specify whether this place, traveled to by automobile, or by foot, is a better place, just that it remains another place. Hands and fingers, mouths and hallucinogenic berries are all objects handled by Novey. Though at an arm’s length, the taste of berries (“we lick at our fingers”) and a burning book (“the smell still in her hair) are prevalent images which hint at the importance of the past. Is there a sense of hope in the book‘s future?

What Novey is hinting at is that, no, there isn’t a sense of hope until one experiences it oneself. The moment that someone lives in (“My everything as symbol, though probably of nothing new”) and one’s surroundings define the reality of the situation. The reality of the situation begins as strange. The symbol here and an important image in the book is the slipping of one’s hand into another father’s palm,
Where you slipped your hand
Once
Into the palm
Of somebody else’s father.
If there is an elixir in this book, there’s someone else waiting for it, not you. The father here is symbolic. It is representative of a new country. When Novey tackles the fields, this sense of hope becomes alive. The past and present unite in Novey’s words (“For a second, you are everywhere / you have ever been”). A sense of strangeness remains.

Though we end with an image of roaming the fields, the past still remains. There is no burying, doing away with, burning, etc. the past. It is as tangible as a girl’s hair, or as potent as a hallucinogenic berry. As The Next Country whispers its words (“We’ve started now to whisper, strangers still. To settle on meanings, to speak again”) in one of the later poems in the book, At Some Point After We Sealed the Windows, the “speaking again” remains undefined; but it does not remain unseen. There are strange words that have come about and meanings which imply a bitter past. Novey tells it as it is: a history of brokenness and a hope of becoming complete.

The Adaptation/Adoption of Form: Nici Lee on Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn


narrow-road

Narrow Road to the Interior, Kimiko Hahn, WW Norton

Although reading Kimiko Hahn’s intimate and revealing collection of poems, Narrow Road to the Interior, can give a small shock of voyeurism, the inward view she provides is no quick, easy glance. The constant speaker of Hahn’s poems presents to the reader a reflection of a woman faceted by more than gender and performance roles; she is an outsider bounded by more than race, language, or choice. The forms she chooses, often appropriated from the Japanese tanka or zuihitsu, parallel her blurrily outlined identity—with the tanka she can morph natural images into memories (as she seamlessly does in Cranberry Island, Late Summer), with the zuihitsu she can slide between scenes and topics.

A tension between specificity and uncertainty marks most of her poems—Hahn’s speaker seems to be earnestly searching for some, one genuine truth. Her drive for precision is evident in the second poem of the book, Utica Station. As the poem carries us forward in meandering thought like a train moving forward through various images, the speaker keeps returning to an analysis of her own heart. In trying to find the right metaphor for her heart, Hahn refines the ways it could be viewed: “My heart is swollen, large as newborn”; “My heart is swollen. As if a gland not a muscle”; “My heart is swollen, as if—a hot water bottle”; “As if a party balloon.” The end of the poem concludes the search: “That’s what the heart was—swollen—like a mother weeping for something.”

Aware of language’s nebulous lines of definition, Hahn denies isolated words the ability to capture specific truth. She calls attention to the dubious relationship between the construction of words and their sound—in Cuts from the Zuihitsu on My Daughter she gives “the steam” and “the esteem” sole places on consecutive lines. In Opening Her Text, the appearance of words contrasts with their meaning as in one line where she distinguishes between “sacred” and “scared.” This device, born from an attention that refuses to repose on one level, blurs the subject that little bit more.

In her approach to meaning and image, Hahn becomes expansive—if truth cannot be found in the singular, then perhaps it exists in the overlap of pluralities. Perhaps this is why in Sparrow she writes, “I always wonder about translations but can never recall enough Japanese to measure a text for myself…Now I rely on translators and have collected five versions.” In the first poem of her book, Compass, Hahn not only explains why she chose the zuihitsu as a form—it “feels encompassing”—but also expresses dissatisfaction with how it has been defined—no definitions “offered the sense of disorder that feels so integral.” In Compass, Hahn intimates the inadequacy of ordered images and words to capture a reality that exists outside the lines.

Nature in its Raw: R.L. Greenfield on Charles Wright’s Littlefoot


littlefoot

Littlefoot, Charles Wright, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

This book-length poem is stunning;  I read it all the way through beginning in the evening and concluding the next morning. Then I decided to re-read, to find out why and how it is so wise and rich of a book. But I couldn’t. Littlefoot is not paraphraseable, and I was thinking of obtaining a neat answer which is exactly what this book does not afford. As if there is a plain English that can better state the meaning of a pure poem. No, there is no explanation of Poetry and Art or Beauty and Love. And I do not like to re-read a book immediately, especially a thrilling and deep book like this one. Let it sit for a year and then read it again. Its revelations are always like the inscrutability of Nature. And how words always are about something other than we think.

Wright’s book is a lifetime of experience–Charles Wright who was born in 1935 and who loves to dwell in the natural world of Virginia, Appalachia, North Carolina, Italy to name just a few of the places he has called home. The natural world washes over him day and night wherever he dwells. It speaks to him. He merely translates the language of the cosmos into these songs and brief tales, episodes, and epiphanies. When you read this book you will fathom that most books that purport to be books of poetry do not compare favorably with this one in the realm of truth, beauty and the good. This is a liberating book.

Everywhere one reads in Littlefoot one is freed from the constraints of the commercial order and its false worship of phony means and ends that cling like leeches to individual citizens and would-be persons. However, this book does not sermonize or issue propaganda. It feels the world about it with its fingers and eyes and with its ears and its nose and mouth. It is amazed at what it feels or senses while imagining and transforming what it is sensing. And it disappears as it were before our eyes and ears–we who are watching, listening, thinking, remembering, and forgetting. This book disturbs our habitual methods of experiencing life breaking up our neat little monologues and our false epistemologies.

It is clear as we read that we really do not know what we thought we knew. Words themselves have no attachment to nature;  nature is alone and independent of words. Nature is wise, possibly, but then again Nature doesn’t give a damn for the word or this discussion being perfectly content to be itself or not itself. Nature doesn’t need man the artist in order to exist or to be happy or sad or guilty or proud. Charles Wright sings of the inestimable power and detailed beauty of Nature in its raw, sprawling representation and of his own privileged position as observer/poet with respect to this vast world of evolving forms.

Three New Poets I Met at Bread Loaf by Steve Wingate


The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti, BOA Editions

boatloads

Mission Work, Aaron Baker, Houghton Mifflin

mission-work

Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone, Janice N. Harrington, BOA Editions

even-the-hollow1

A decade ago, I didn’t think twice about taking a day off and hunkering down with a novel. Diaper changes and pre-school pickups have temporarily obliterated such big bouts of reading, but lately poetry has been coming to my rescue. While novels demand large swaths of time, poetry asks for an opposite kind of attention that is perfectly suited to shorter sittings. This August at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference I had the pleasure to meet three poets whose prize-winning debut collections—two received the Poulin Prize from BOA Editions, one the Bakeless Prize from Bread Loaf—have saved my reading bacon and created worlds as rich as those I find in novels.

In The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti focuses on rendering moments when his characters become intensely aware of human vulnerability—physical, psychic, and spiritual. A boy watches a squirrel die; a fish gets carried off by a raptor. In Albergotti’s lines, which tend toward the vernacular, there is an implicit questioning of language itself as a tool of human comprehension and expression. “I do not believe a special providence / makes this world say anything,” (24) he writes. And people never seem to be able to get their words out right, as in Bad Language:
We fear to speak, and silence coats the night air.
So we are dumb, as quiet as the kitchen pans
hanging on their cabinet hooks. What words
do we even have? (25)
Such lines bespeak a muteness in the face of our desire to know, and since the desire to know gets so tied up with the Big Questions of Being, it’s no surprise that The Boatloads hovers close to religion. God makes several appearances, and both Jesus and Abraham make cameos; but it is the non-appearance of the divine as in Poem in Which God Does Not Appear that most occupies Albergotti. This non-appearance, often represented as of silence, aligns closely to human difficulties of language and communication.
The music of the spheres may be a great symphony
of unbroken silence: void, more void, a crescendo
of void. (41)

The last song of the one true god
is silent because the one true god
sings in a vacuum behind the thick,
black wall. (73)
One can never accuse Albergotti, with his weaving together of human and divine muteness, of shirking his poetic duty to dig toward the core of life.

The people of Aaron Baker’s Mission Work, meanwhile, find themselves in a far more primordial predicament. The collection is set in the remote Chimbu highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the author spent part of his childhood with missionary parents. In it, language takes a back seat as a tool for understanding life to the objects and movements of the physical world. In Chimbu Wedding, we are thrown into a world where the narrator, too young to make intellectual sense of his world, must rely on what he can sense and imagine:
When the pigs scream
and buckle with their skulls caved in
remember that not one thing in this world
will be spared. (3)
For Baker’s characters, understanding the world through the senses is a fundamental condition of life, just as muteness is for Albergotti’s. But this state is not limited to the young man we witness growing up in a place he does not know; the Kuman tribespeople we meet dwell in the same situation as they come to terms with the foreignness that has entered their community. One example of the interplay between cultures comes in Zero in the Branches, which describes a Japanese plane stuck in a tree.
Look: high in the canopy, forty years
since it fell almost to earth, the fuselage
hangs, its Rising Sun a circle of rust. ( 28 )

In a sense, the entire world of Mission Work becomes foreign, since anything its characters see is either alien in its essence or made alien by the presence of another culture. Baker’s use of variety of voices shifts attention away from autobiographical elements and toward his theme: the deep self-questioning that occurs on both sides of the fence whenever cultures interact. Mission Work includes poems in the voice of the Kuman natives, as well as observational poems with more abstracted narrators. Throughout the collection Baker shows people attempting to bride the gap between cultures, though he knows that some bridges cannot be crossed. In Second Genesis, for example, he writes:
We’ll be a single son of this country
when each has killed half of the other. ( 18 )

Janice N. Harrington’s Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone also dwells in place, and it creates its world with an authorial I even more effaced than Baker’s. The place is the American south in the mid-20th century, and before we meet its people we learn, from Harrington’s intense, cadence-driven lines, that we will be reading a poetry that calls out and sings to the world. The propulsive Alexandrine opening couplet of The Thief’s Tabernacle, which begins the collection, marks Harrington as the most rhythmically driven of these three poets:
If I steal the wan light from these penitent clouds
and take from their pewter cups dull coins full of rain (15)
So enmeshed are Harrington’s poems in the voice that we may not immediately realize we are reading a family narrative. We meet people and follow them around for a quarter of the collection before an I tentatively begins to assert itself. Only as we sink into her character do we recognize that we are reading a family history—as well as a social history—which began before her birth. We see “a school bus, / the one they used to carry colored kids / from biscuit to book and back again” (39). In The Warning Comes Down, we learn that:
France is where daddies go,
overseas, in silver-bellied planes, and maybe
they’ll come home again, tomorrow, tomorrow. (57)

The poems grow in scope and depth as the I comes of age, encountering the world and and embracing the forces that shaped her. Things become less innocent, less nurtured by the history of her family and more thrown into the history of her society as we meet “A Negro family going north, one of thousands leaving…” (70), then in Benham’s Disk:
My niece calls and exclaims, Guess what.
Yesterday I was white but now I’m black. (79)
Harrington’s intimate approach to social history—working first and foremost with the things and sounds of her characters’ world—gives Hollow a certain kinship with Mission Work. Toward the end she reminds us, in lines that might have found a home in Baker’s collection, that:
Vision is born of violence. All your memories
are mulattoes. (77)

*

Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at http://www.stevenwingate.com

The Ordinary into the Fantastic: Suzanne Ordus on Larissa Szporluk’s Embryos & Idiots


Embryos & Idiots, Larissa Szporluk, Tupelo Press

embryos-and-idiots 

 

Embryos & Idiots, Larissa Szporluk’s fourth book in ten years, creates a myth about the fall of a mythic creature, Anoton. The book’s title comes from Paradise Lost, Book III and refers to those who are immature or without intelligence. Remember, Paradise Lost, Book III deals with the fall of Satan. Here, though, Szporluk seems to be addressing the fall of demons. Her themes are destruction, atonement, evil nature, and relying on others.  Though the book’s title and section markers come from Milton, the work stands on its own making the story readily accessible. Landscape apparently sparked Szporluk’s story more than Milton, when asked in an interview about the story’s inspiration she cited a small mountain, Monte Circeo in Sabaudia, Italy, that according to her “looks like a gigantic head staring up at the sky.” In fact, this gigantic head becomes the main character, Anoton. Anoton falls from grace by betraying his mother. He tells the king his Mother is harboring plant and animal life, a grave offense in the strictly mineral Kingdom of Od, and as a result, his mother is killed. In revenge, Anoton’s Father beheads him and from his severed head an island is formed. 

 

The first section lures readers in by closely following Anoton and his story of the fall. In Boulders, the opening poem, we get a luscious description of the inside of the human body. Anoton knows that his Mother is hiding forbidden insect life:

      He knew she was hiding a bee. He could hear it

      zapping inside her, trapped in the amber

      nook that led to her mineral uterus.

     

      He had been born with that sound,

      the rain of maracas, maraud of a rose, and so lived

      in his mind with a wax city, silver hives

     

      of see-through honey, …

Szporluk’s imagination is vibrant, turning the body into stones and minerals capable of encasing insect life. Her use of the words “zapping” and “trapped” evoke the buzz of a bee in closed quarters snagging readers with her vivid story and ideas. 

 

She steps the mineral aspect up in Pornography, a poem where we truly feel the Mother’s pain summed up brilliantly in one word—pornography—and in one image—her brain in a jar. Here Anoton’s mother’s brain, “in a flask of boric acid,” is on display in the royal courtyard and has “zithered the air/like luciferin, a glowing warning.” In general, titles do not contribute significantly, but here the title is perfect for the poem fully resonating with the Mother’s pain and violation as it perfectly and succinctly describes this act of publicly displaying the brain, an intimate and private organ. The mineral descriptions caustically penetrate both the displayed and the viewer.

 

Anoton’s confession of atonement and remorse to his Mother in Stars and Marrow in a simple and touching way lets readers enter Anoton’s own brain.  He explains to his Mother that:

          There is so much good

          in the worst of us, so much bad

          in the best.  I found succor in the devil

          when the angels cooked my head.

Anoton is acknowledging how unexpected family betrayal is. Surprisingly he tells his Mother that he has suffered like she did. With the poem’s intimate letter style, readers feel privy to Anoton’s confession. While the book’s section one focuses primarily on Anotons story, sections two and three widely crack open Anoton’s myth, so that “everything starts talking,” ranging from the historical to personal. We hear from a mental patient, knight, a seed, God, clowns, Joan of Arc and witches. Szporluk should be applauded for her wide application of Anoton’s story, but it have been nice to have stayed longer in Anoton’s fascinating world and story. In any event, readers will be impressed by how Szporluk accessibly weaves Anoton’s fall through these different characters.   

 

Readers will enjoy traveling to the kingdom of Od and experiencing the wild things that happen there as Szporluk’s language is honed and meaty. Like Anoton’s betrayal, Szporluk also deals with tough moments in life as seen in the last poem, Satan at Length. We glimpse miracles not only in Satan’s mouth, but also in the struggling introspective poet, giving promise of more stellar work to come, when Szporluk says:

          I dream of the seaside,

          of the lone ravine of my own

          dead yawn, like a room

          with nobody else, and I know

          why I’m last in line,

          after the cattle.

This is a poet truly capable of turning the ordinary into the fantastic and carving complete worlds on grains of sand.

After a Certain Point, all I can say is, “You Must Read This”: John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy reviewed by Sumita Chakraborty


divine-comedy

Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography: Three New Works, John Kinsella, WW Norton

 

 

 

A review of John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy could easily consist of four words: you must read this. Or, perhaps two words would suit—words that Kinsella himself uses in a poem in the book, Dream Canto: Cross on the Hill:

Wedged into granite, the cross on Wongborel

is Easter’s singularity—a one-cross Calvary

for ecumenical sublimity, the degrees of observation

 

increased by lessening, quickening trees.

The words I refer to are “ecumenical sublimity”: words that, particularly when joined together in a phrase, describe the volume’s aggregate tone, the way its broad reach and massive goals are realized through Kinsella’s careful attention to detail and painstakingly controlled ecstasies.

 

I have spent the last two months with this book, and have gone through numerous revisions of this review. After the first handful of pages, everything I say with the intent of convincing you to read Divine Comedy becomes a mere reiteration of Kinsella’s own words, for, as a poet-critic, Kinsella has written a book that contains both arts.

 

In argument’s stead, I want to tell you what Kinsella’s volume told me about itself. It is neither a translation nor a rehashing of the Dante: Kinsella calls it “a distraction” on Dante’s texts. Several of Kinsella’s cantos reference Dante’s (not to mention the canticles and the overall project themselves), and while, as the poet writes, his book is not written in terza rima, it is largely comprised of tercets and remains generally faithful to Dante’s structure. But Kinsella’s Divine Comedy is “not necessarily confined” to its namesake: as the poet writes, it is meant to be “paralleled with and read against” the Dante.

 

With, and against. Each canticle is preceded by a preface, in which the poet details the origins, the method, and some of the labor behind his work, including both the theoretical and the nitty-gritty. In the preface to his Purgatorio—which is where we begin, for Kinsella does not travel in Dante’s order—Kinsella writes that he believes we permanently reside in a state of purgatory. In a manner analogous, but far from identical, to the way Dante follows Virgil through hell and purgatory and then follows Beatrice to heaven, we follow Kinsella through Purgatorio, then to Paradiso, and last to Inferno.        

 

In Purgatorio, Kinsella deals with how tethered and linked we are to the land, and we start to notice the significance of the many birds—creatures that deal in both sky and earth—that appear in the volume. In Paradiso, he presents a driven attempt to achieve some form of sublime ecstasy, while complicating that attempt with a straightforward admission: “Celestial bliss is not an option: we’ve got responsibilities to the land,” he writes. An effort to struggle toward paradise leads Kinsella and his speakers toward hell, a movement that is also complicated by yet another admission when he writes, “I do not like Dante’s Inferno.” He continues:

I do not like his judgments nor punishments. Its grotesqueries are not adequately deconstructive in terms of the self, and Virgil seems too relieved that this, at least, is not his lot. It’s a smug work. For me, hell is what we live with, and each of these grotesqueries, as maybe Dante would agree, lives with us here and now.

 

Kinsella’s book emerges as the embodiment of a struggle to exist on a day-to-day basis, nestled in purgatory along with hell, our minds fixed on paradise. Marjorie Perloff writes that the volume “marks no ascent from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso.” Yet, Kinsella’s book does have a motion. Entrenched in land, it wavers between skies and depths; while not an ascent, it is certainly not still. It is more of a fraught trembling: a poet’s response to string theory.

 

It is no surprise that Kinsella calls upon Derrida. A poem in Inferno names and deals with Derrida and Dante in tandem, and Derrida’s “différance” is mentioned in Purgatorio. Différance emerges in the poem Dream Canto: Torch Bearing:

I am out and about in a clear but dark night,

torch in hand, shining into the tree-tops;

beam weak enough not to alarm

 

roosting birds too much—I am seeking

out the epistemological ambiguity of owls

and tawny frogmouths, as if différance

 

were my own words fragmented as flashes

and twinges of branches, leaves, claws, feathers.

In Divine Comedy, Kinsella’s “own words,” his speakers’ words, actively play with différance, with the verbs to defer and to differ, with “epistemological ambiguity.” More still, Kinsella demonstrates that he is aware, as Derrida was, of the disturbance that words cause: he knows that he will inevitably “alarm” the “roosting birds,” so he tries instead not to rustle them “too much.”

 

One of Divine Comedy’s most astonishing feats is its utter lack of pretension. It is self-conscious in the best sense of the word: it does not gesture frantically at his own theoretical, historical, and canonical foundation. Its verse is graceful. Its poems do not groan under their weight. It does not strain to sound intelligent. The book simply is intelligent. Further, the self-analytical work that the poet performs in the prefaces enhances the volume, adding an additional layer of artistry. And, simultaneously, Kinsella keeps a sharp eye to culture: The Kinks’ song “Lola” makes an appearance, as do Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. Neither of these moves—or the many similar ones, for that matter—feel contrived: Kinsella on Derrida is as matter-of-factly elegant as Kinsella on pop culture. Cantos of “weirdos,” “heebie-jeebies,” “velintroquizing,” and “antipodean emergence ” share equal prominence, with ease.

 

One moment in Divine Comedy strikes me as weak. The poem Canto of Ghosts: The Indolent in Purgatorio begins with the clause, “Ghosts fuck with my head / like clichés,” and I find myself seeking some different opening remark. It is not the expletive that bothers me, for this is not the only time an expletive appears in Divine Comedy—see the Canto of Shit (Eighth circle, second bolgia, 18) in Inferno—but rather its position in this particular poem. The word “fuck” is caustic, a jolt of acid, and I wonder whether it may have been more effective if it were placed later in the poem, where it would have startled the reader out of any possible complacency. Instead, Kinsella warns me that I am about to be jarred, and in doing so, dampens the effect of the word.

 

I am beginning to reach that point in this review where there is very little else to say. Kinsella has not only given us a spectacular book of poetry, but also a solid critical work. I could tell you about how Kinsella inhabited a small sliver of Australia during the creation of Divine Comedy, and about the impact he says this had on his book. I could tell you that Kinsella includes more than one dedication to his wife, who he mentions in several poems as well, and that he seems to contemplate her relationship to Dante’s Beatrice. I could tell you what I think about the fact that while the last word in each of the sections of Dante’s Divine Comedy is “stars,” Kinsella ends his Purgatorio with “stars,” his Paradiso with “future,” and his Inferno with “inseparable.”

 

Instead, having given you a selection of a poem from Kinsella’s Purgatorio, I will leave you now with two selections from two other poems, one from his Paradiso, one from his Inferno, selections that are among my favorite moments in each. From Canto of the Consensus (22: Ascent from Saturn to the Fixed Stars), in Paradiso, beginning in the first stanza:

Recall: light of day, our limelight,

no peace or armistice, just difference.

Branch and hessian fortress,

 

clods of clay thrown

without mercy. No prisoners.

War comics, tales of the Apache

 

in landscape bare as the eye

can make, fearless. Victors. Unread,

they fell at our feet.

And, from of Echoing Canto of the Gleaners (Sixth Circle), in Inferno, beginning in the penultimate stanza:

. . . . Fanning

out, gleaning elsewhere in the stubble, galahs

and corellas protract windrows: they

 

don’t walk paths laid out for harvest, picking

wherever chaos has showered grain, gleaning

against the system, which would pick every ear

clean if it were perfected.

 

*

 

Sumita Chakraborty is the assistant poetry editor of AGNI Magazine and a graduate of Wellesley College. She writes poems and critical essays, and has worked with Lucie Brock-Broido, Frank Bidart, and Dan Chiasson. Her poems have recently been published in or are forthcoming from BOXCAR Poetry Review, White Whale Review, and Muddy River Poetry Review.

Kinetic Poetry: Erin Mullikin on Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon


whim-cover

 

Whim Man Mammon, Abraham Smith, Action Books

 

 

Whether you do this before, after, or while reading Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon, I ask you to do one thing: listen. Listen to Smith read his words for the sound is musical (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20366). It simultaneously calls to mind Gillian Welch’s Hell Among the Yearlings (“Carol, remember when,”) and the disjointed lyricism of Tom McRae’s self-titled album (“Every little meth”). Smith’s debut book of poetry is a hymn not to be soon forgotten reverberating with voice, words, rhythms, and feeling. Mostly importantly, the Whim Man Mammon poems are stories, histories, and legends, whose malleability allows them to become so much more. 

 

I finished Smith’s book in one night, pausing only to re-up on cold beer or to smoke a menthol cigarette; I needed cold fuel for the reading.  Whim Man Mammon is a journey where you feel (un)safe in a blanket of sound. I had to listen for Smith’s poems incorporate sound as power:

for rights

to the sweet talker’s scent

me and this hawk knock around

time runs out when I think of

basketball I think of sweat

bong times run

out

 

hawk does not (Honey Hawks Knocks Gin Drinks Against Me)

While Smith does not employ traditional form, he does make use of assonance and alliteration, time-honored sound devices that assist the pace of his work. It is pace that is one of the most crucial aspects of Whim Man Mammon for it is a collection that talks, talks loudly and talks back. Smith creates his own language as Whim Man Mammon overflows with bizarre lines and images, such as, though not limited to, “spanish your vein” (18), “to the hill monster” (21), and “I shall shell-weave you” (47). Within the strange boundaries of these pages, the reader begins to speak in this tongue. It grows and it grows on you. While Smith isn’t breaking any new ground form wise, he is exacerbating those fields already tilled by previous poets. Smith’s absence of conventional form, lack of punctuation, and erratic capitalization echo the strains of e. e. cummings (Xiape), who also bucked the school of formalism. Writers with startling ethos most often employ this rite of passage; however, Smith breaks boundaries well in his debut. 

 

Significance rises up throughout Smith’s collection, but the title of the book holds an essential key in understanding the harmonious reflections as a whole. Having Whim Man Mammon as the title of the collection is quite suggestive. Perhaps the strategic word in the title, ‘mammon,’ will conjure two references, one Biblical and one literary though based on the Biblical. “Mammon” in the New Testament simply means “money” and leads to the more significant allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Milton’s epic, Mammon is the fallen angel who advocates hard work to make Hell more Heaven-like refusing to serve God ever again. Out of all the demons mentioned in Paradise Lost, Mammon seems to be the one most closely related to the common man. It is this connection that speaks most volubly of Smith’s work. Smith’s poems resound with the life of the common man, and they do so without the effort of hesitation.  To read Smith’s work is to transform yourself temporarily into many men: a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s, a farmer, a meth addict. This, too, highlights the malleability of Smith’s poetry. These polarities of the everyday bring life out of the Wisconsin dust in Whim Man Mammon. Milton’s demonology only fuels that resurrection, and while the uprising is beautifully mastered, it is a revival that dodders on the precipice of noise.

 

If Smith’s book lacks anything, it is clarity.  Whim Man Mammon is text art, a combine of postmodern fragments with the symmetry of sound bytes. There are moments where one feels unsure of what is happening within a poem or what is happening to yourself as you read. There is some incoherency in, “Yes the / bless the / train eyeballs designed from / glass might be on them and the socket / is rude if exposed so hurry them man / if you will to / japan by way the second fat fish hollow roll” (Smith 36). While this is only an excerpt of the poem, when read in its entirety, I still feel lost and unable to get my bearings. I can deconstruct the said excerpt, say that I believe Smith is referring to the bright headlights of a train, but that is where understanding and coherency ceases for me. Even without a proper understanding of the meaning behind it all, there is always the sound, and the sound is what propels Smith’s collection. So, with sound that moves as Whim Man Mammon does, who needs clarity anyway? You do not have to comprehend fully each line, each fragment to enjoy the work. Truly to dive into Smith’s symphony, you must hear him read or you must read his works aloud. The sounds that drive this collection are, indeed, raw, surprising, and ultimately unforgettable.

 

It’s appropriate that Action Books published Whim Man Mammon for Smith’s poems are movement. The poems housed in his debut are kinetic:  they are created from energy, and in turn expel energy. To see Abraham Smith read his poetry is to watch a man on fire for the word. His tiny frame shakes and his boots stomp out the rhythm of his past and man’s collective past. When the honey hawks knock him, he’ll knock you by setting words to the natural pulse of beating wings. What Smith provides is a balance, a give and take, and this equilibrium mirrors life on its most fundamental plane: the accuracy of time, the beat of the heart, and the power of breath.