A Departure from the Midwest Sojourn: James Reiss on BH Fairchild’s Usher


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Usher, B. H. Fairchild, W. W. Norton & Company

A few years ago in an Introduction to Poetry course I taught at Miami University in Ohio I assigned a dozen-or-so ballads and narrative poems, including the anonymous “Bonny Barbara Allen,” Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and X. J. Kennedy’s “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day.” The last question in my pop quiz asked my 45 undergraduates which poem they liked best. More than half of them wrote that they preferred B. H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul.” I was taken aback by their responses. At 110 lines “Body and Soul” was the longest poem assigned. It was probably the most difficult and complex poem in the group. As anyone who has read Fairchild’s free-verse narrative about a 1946 baseball game in Commerce, Oklahoma, with its ragtag team of post–Depression/WWII players—to whom a fifteen-year-old offers himself as a rookie—“Body and Soul” is as ponderable as it is riveting. The fifteen-year old, who happens to be the Hall-of-Fame slugger Mickey Mantle, bats five home runs and embarrasses the gang of down-and-out townies. In his final line Fairchild describes “the blonde and blue-eyed” Mantle as one “who will not easily be forgiven.” Lesser poets commemorating an event of local lore might have ended this line with the word “forgotten,” thereby sentimentalizing the occasion and placing Mantle on a predictable pedestal—or mantelpiece! In describing his poem’s hero as “not easily. . .forgiven,” Fairchild tossed my undergraduates a curved ball, as if to say, “The winner does not take all but, rather, takes on lots of Bronx cheers, a ballpark of hard feelings.” Despite its dilemmas—or perhaps because of them—my students voted for “Body and Soul” and spoke up about it one day in a class that I recall was unusually animated.

“The Art of the Lathe” came out about 10 years ago and walked off with a hefty armful of awards due to the power of poems like “Body and Soul.” In 2002, having signed on with a large commercial press, Fairchild won what is arguably our third most prestigious book prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, for his dauntingly titled “Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest.” If the phrase, “memory systems,” sounds like scientific jargon, bear in mind that “the art of the lathe” could just as well be seen as a science. At any rate, Fairchild has never harbored a Romantic poet’s distaste for science. As the son of a lathe operator, he would never, like Poe, have referred to science as a “Vulture, whose wings are dull realities.” Neither would Fairchild have ever embraced Wordsworth’s distrust of “our meddling intellect.”

On the contrary, in his new fifth full-length book Fairchild’s love for the intellect is as ardent as his passion for the oil fields of Texas and the sand hills of Kansas. His latest poems are peopled with philosophers—Gödel, Hume, Wittgenstein—as well as theologians—Niebuhr, Tillich—who, though they most certainly are not depicted as spitting wads of the Red Man chewing tobacco Fairchild festishizes, seem to sprout out of urban sidewalks as if out of winter wheat fields. Fairchild’s eggheaded obsession with the “ontic” appears insatiable. No poet I know in his generation is as preoccupied as Fairchild with the nature of being. Even the author of “Ideas of Order,” Wallace Stevens, slouches alongside of Fairchild when it comes to dealing with the history of philosophy.

To be sure, Fairchild’s epigraph-laden book teems with wrecked tractors and rusted pickups. With small family farms having gone bankrupt thanks to gigantic agribusinesses that have commandeered the land; with hog and chicken “factories” whose animals never see the light of day—something is rotten in mid-America. Fairchild may not be one of those “Socialists” John McCain and Sarah Palin recently whined about. But in thinking about abandoned towns in our nation’s heartland, the poet remembers that “Eugene Debs set up The People’s College in Fort Scott,” Kansas. At one point Fairchild is so riled, his grassroots agenda so clear, that he refers to the legendary Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency as “Comrade Debs.”

More important, as far as I’m concerned, is the way this book goes beyond social realism and regionalism, breaking ground that may not be wholly “new,” but that marks the most significant departure from Fairchild’s Midwest Sojourn I’ve seen thus far. This book’s title poem is at least as masterly as any of Frank Bidart’s best persona poems. Paul Mariani may be right, on the basis of its title poem, to call this collection “an American classic.”

Sporting approximately 160 lines, halfway between the length of “Prufrock” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Usher” is an epistolary dramatic monologue spoken in hexameters—a relaxed version of Homer’s dactylic hexameter—by a young Jewish theology student, Nathan Gold. The setting is the Upper West Side of New York City, where Gold works part-time in a movie theater during the 1950s. Like Fairchild lamenting the desecration of our hinterland, Gold condemns the “goddamned Cross Bronx Expressway” masterminded by the Big Wormy Apple’s kingpin city planner, Robert Moses, who razed whole neighborhoods to build it. Much as I appreciate the vigor of Gold—and Fairchild’s—critique, what I consider to be a matter of greater concern in this poem is the way it uses Loew’s 83rd Street Theater as a metaphor. In ushering “drunks, bums, lovers, priests, housewives,/ cops, street punks shooting up, whores giving blowjobs / in the balcony,” Gold resembles Dante’s guide, Virgil. For that matter, Gold assumes the role of someone leading masses of Athenians to sit in Plato’s cave and view shadows. For all their lack of substance, these images represent mid–twentieth century pop culture: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, as well as Hubert’s Dime Museum and Al Flosso’s magic shop—New York City mired in what Robert Lowell called “the tranquilized Fifties.” Fairchild is starstruck by freak shows featuring “lovely Olga / and her beard, Sealo the Seal Boy, The Armless Wonder, / Albert-Alberta”; another monologue, the 80-plus-line “Frieda Pushnik,” is spoken by an armless, legless girl. But the most poignant, bizarre character to emerge in the title poem, “Usher”—and, for me, in the entire book—is Gold’s sister, Sivan. In the Dear-Sollie letter written to his brother, Gold says their sister is dying from “glioblastoma multiforme,” brain cancer. Because her doctors won’t prescribe enough Dilaudid to relieve her pain, Gold must cruise the streets for narcotics.

Still, lowlife characters and a dying sister are a sideshow. Gold’s ontological ruminations give way to the poem’s climactic lollapalooza. When you recall that Sivan’s cancer involves a “fat tumor / feeding on the brain, burning from the center / out,” you pay closer attention to the excruciating final lines that replicate Sivan’s medical condition in their description of what happens inside the movie theater after the projectionist falls asleep during a Grace Kelly movie, with

film
sticking, flap, flap, then stuck, no one to turn the lamp off ,
small ghosts of smoke, a black hole starting at the center
of the frame (the Big Bang must have looked like that),
flame eating outward at the curling edges, spreading,
Grace swallowed slowly by the widening fire, then gone,
the film snaps, bringing down an avalanche of light,
the sun’s flood a billion years from now, earth sucked
into the flames, lurid, omnivorous, the whole room
stunned and silvered with it, shadows peeled away,
each gray scarf, each shawl of darkness lifted, the audience
revealed in all their nakedness, their uncoveredness
and soiled humanity, among the candy wrappers,
condoms, butts, crushed Dixie cups, as we wait for Grace
to reappear. . .and for Sivan.

Tense shifts abound in this slow-motion moment that lasts from Genesis to the Apocalypse. Grace Kelly’s given name acquires mythic significance, as does that of Sivan—which means “spring season,” the Hebrew equivalent of our “May” or “June,” girls’ given names.

As the saying goes, “Even Homer nodded.” Certain poems here, most notably “Hart Crane in Havana,” strike me as not entirely successful experiments. And in places Fairchild can be lachrymose, melodramatic, sanctimonious. But “Hume,” “The Deer,” “Madonna and Child, Perryton, Texas, 1967,” “Moth” and the hilarious “Final Exam” would be faves in any Introduction to Poetry course—along with “Frieda Pushkin” and the über-magnificent title poem. I like to think of this book as striving to rebuild Hart Crane’s “The Bridge.” Insofar as the way it handles the Gold family during the 1950s and after 9/11, I think of it as somehow Salingeresque. “The Cottonwood Lounge” and “What He Said” are amazing syntactic tours de force. As Fairchild himself might exclaim, “I mean, for God’s sake”!

Regarding the book’s cover art, a detail from Edward Hopper’s moody masterpiece, “New York Movie”: Many poets in Fairchild’s generation had fallen in love with Hopper’s paintings even before Lloyd Goodrich came out with his mega-book in connection with a Hopper exhibition at the Whitney Museum in the early 1970s. Up until now I’ve associated Fairchild’s work with paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield and Thomas Eakins—though never Grant Wood. Well, Hopper’s “New York Movie” is a thing of beauty and a joy to see, as ever. It’s a perfect fit for “Usher.”

*

James Reiss, whose surname rhymes with “peace,” has had poems in such places as The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, Slate and Virginia Quarterly Review. His most recent book is “Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems.” His personal Web site is http://www.jamesreiss.com/

Gently Curved Roads: Aleathia Drehmer on Shaindel Beers’ A Brief History of Time


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A Brief History of Time, Shaindel Beers, Salt Publishing

A Brief History of Time by Shaindel Beers reveals her tensions at the duplicity of her life which finds her sometimes stuck back on the Midwestern farm of her childhood, still struggling to shed the air of baled hay and sweat from her existence, to the cold and calculated marks left by the city she always longed to be in. The temptation and memories of home, no matter how bittersweet, are never fully released by Shaindel.

This is Shaindel Beers’ first full length collection of poetry and Salt Publishing could not have done a better job in its presentation. The high gloss cover depicts the essence of the prairie with fields and a windmill all encased by barbed wire. There is blue sky for miles and the edges of the book are faintly branded with a repeated Art Nouveau design. The title is done in a beautiful script that invokes the feeling that a feather quill was used. All of these visual cues set the tone for the reader before they even open the book that their journey will lead them to distant, but familiar lands with surprises tucked into the periphery.

Shaindel has several recurring themes in A Brief History of Time and they are masterfully intertwined to take you on an adventure through her childhood and her impressionable years living in the Midwest which are laced with quiet longing to be somewhere else, to really see if the grass is greener on the other side.

This theme becomes evident in the poem “Elegy for a Past Life” where Shaindel speaks of the curse of every young person stuck in a small town, let alone rural America where you know more livestock than you do people. This poem is rich in capturing the idea of escapism both figuratively and literally. There is something sad about it that tastes of unrealized hope:

“Back then at sixteen
I thought we’d make it out together,
And become writers, the only job we could imagine
Where we wouldn’t smell like shit or hay or cows

But too many months passed when I didn’t bleed
And when we were safe, the test negative
And burned in the rubbish heap behind the barn,
You left, too afraid of being trapped
In a cornfield town
To wait for me.”

and in the poem “Why Gold-digging Fails” we find young girls wanting above and beyond what they have, desiring fancy, well-to-do boyfriends, because a good and honest man never seems to do when they are in the thick of the moment:

“and there was that odd moment of recognition
and fumbling for words
when quantum theory hit me and I realized
if we’d tried harder instead of merely flirting
in parking lots at the beach and the Dairy Queen
and the drive-in that sold gallons of homemade root beer
either of us could be that chubby blonde woman
with the fat baby”

Along this gently curved road through her life, Shaindel explores very touching episodes of love and loss. She looks acutely at her own misgivings as a wife and girlfriend, and all the while staying true to the fact that she wishes she could erase these blemishes of character. In the poem that captures the book’s title, “A Brief History of Time”, we see prime example of this idea:

“I’m no good at this love thing

nonetheless, I keep trying, like the benchwarmer
who begs to be sent in and is carried out crushed every time.
I wish just once someone would
cry out from the stands, Quit putting her in there.”

In the poem “First Love”, there is a tenderness that is wrapped in aloofness about love. It is as if she cannot allow herself to connect with him personally, to show how vulnerable her love is, so she focuses on things that can be mended, on things that give results:

“I’d fold his hands in mine
Like folding sugar into butter
And lead him past my disapproving parents
To my makeshift triage
Under the fluorescent buzz of bathroom lights.”

Shaindel’s piece “Rebuttal Evidence” shows how distant from love she has to stay in order to maintain emotional survival. It feels like she tries to save the rest of us from her inability to materialize love, to let us off the hook for possibly feeling this way as well:

“Maybe this is my abstract way of loving,
Which I didn’t ask for, but which seems to have always been my way—
That existential struggle between the self and other—
the way I never see where I end and begin in relation to the world,
which somehow always seems to puzzle or offend.”

Perhaps her greatest achievements come in her keen observation of the interaction of people and how the human condition is lost on many. In my favorite poem in this collection, “Triptych….The Light, The End, The Light”, the title suggests that there will be three defined sections to this piece, but the lines of separation are thin and one must read carefully to find them. The poem starts out surreal and gives us the first light:

“I slide into the soil.
The metallic taste of dirt fills me—
nose, mouth, and lungs. Days pass.
A sharp stab of light wakes me
when a shovel breaks ground, just missing
my head. It is little Jimmy Millican,
from next door, attempting again,
to dig to China.”

and “the end” is something quite moving, but no less tragic than if a bomb went off in the center of town. The character’s misery steady and shouldered the best it can be:

“Stop fucking around Jimmy—It’s not
funny! That astounding sound of loneliness
when the first shovelful of dirt
hit your mother’s coffin—“ but he trails off,
train of thought lost in a cloud of numbness.
Jimmy reaches down, pulls me out—
his father’s gone again.”

This poem’s last light is evident. The whole piece is a small journey of losses and discovery that lead to more losses. It pulls on the heart about how hard it is to be a child and lose one parent to death and one to loneliness.

Shaindel has a firm grasp on history and science and a delicate touch to her language. Her poems are by no means simple and many are written without stanzas leaving the reader to climb each mountain of a poem and hope they are prepared for the descent. She digs into hard subjects like cancer, death, and backhanded prostitution. In this collection, some of the longer pieces tended to drag out and I wondered if less might have equaled more for me. There are touches of her academia in this book as well, as Shaindel entertains several sestinas and a grand work based on mythology called “The Calypso Diaries”.

A Brief History of Time touches so many emotional buttons for me as a woman and as a reader, and I could go on quoting tender lines and well-crafted images for hours. Shaindel’s understanding of human relationships, even the dark edges of them, puts one in the moment hoping and wishing for sunny outcomes for the characters in her poems that never really materialize, leaving the reader slightly disheartened, but feeling alive in the craft of the tale she has spun. Many of her poems linger in the heart and the mind allowing for an easy path to return to her work again and again.

Ample Substance: Maria Espinosa on Pamela Uschuk’s Crazy Love


CrazyLove

Crazy Love, Pamela Uschuk, Wings Press

Pamela Uschuk is the author of four volumes of poetry as well as numerous chapbooks, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Her work has been translated into a dozen languages. She has been featured at international conferences, has spent years traveling, and has taught creative writing to Native American students on reservations in the west. She is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado

Her poems in this 84-page collection are dense and richly textured. The work has an improvisational quality. She may leap from a single image to contemplations far removed, winding through a trajectory of vivid memories, and reflections. Everything is grist for the mill—material that other writers might put into diaries, memoirs, or novels may be compressed into a few lines or a poem.

Nature in its many forms permeates her consciousness, from a single flower, a tomato plant, a trapped bird, to mountains, sky, ocean. This love of nature mingles with love of husband, family, and friends.

In “Saving the Cormorant on Albermarle Sound.” She writes:

Numb and saturated by spray, it is now
I love you most, love your thick purple wrist
Straining to hold the bird above hungry waves,
Love the deft gentleness of your swollen hand
That cuts brutal knots without wounding the bird
Who stares at you resolute as its barbed restraint

When finally, through the last styrene twist,
You fling the huge bird free…
We are stunned….as we paddle back to shore
Above the condemned rows of sea bass and all
Those snared in darkness we’ll never see.

Social and political concerns run throughout her work, as in “Sunday News on the Navajo Rez.”

Stopped at a gas station outside Gallup…
and a white pickup pulls up.
The woman my age, wrapped in a red Pendleton coat…
Oh you hear something about what happened up in Colorado
We trade what we know about the monster avalanche
That closed Highway 40…
We don’t have much time for news here
What with the baby goats and lambs…
her fingers
tapped out the names of her daughters, especially the last
ready to head with her company
to a desert, far across the unknown globe, where villagers
also raise goats and avalanches take the form
of a roadside waiting to explode.

“Flying Through Thunder” presents the overwhelming awareness of nature as at once a reality larger, more durable than human emotions, and at the same time tender, ephemeral as a flower. It progresses through images that stir thoughts and memories, shifting back and forth from the storm through which her plane is actually flying

From expectant sunflowers, mountain bluebirds, western meadowlarks….
the small turbo prop pitches toward glacial peaks…
I remember the way my stomach dropped as a child pumping my swing higher…
my brother dared me to jump
Bombs away. We’re hit. Jump. Jump….
How could I….foresee
that in a few years my brother would be
drafted to paratrooper school
to ruin his young knees
when he landed just off the training mark
preparing for Vietnam?
When the army found out he attended rallies, preached peace. He
was shipped to Da Nang, to dousings
with Agent Orange
to the burning of village peoples, to daily mortar attacks
and sniper fire he still fights…
Now as the plane lunges, engines
steady above the Continental Divide.
I regard razor backed ridges
older than memory
vaster than scars. They comfort me
in their lack of pity…

She is able to condense entire life stories into a few lines, as in “Bell Note” written in memory of her father.

Sometimes, Dad, there is no loneliness like an ad for the superbowl
all those coaches blunders you’d cuss out
or the lies of politicians on TV
smiling as they staggered like possums
on the sides of reasons highway…
[…]
Remember driving cross-country year
after year from Michigan to Colorado….
What did you say to Mom, who sat
knitting or reading in the back seat, when
she’d startle like a rock dove, head
jerking up at us with her shriek
“We’re going the wrong way!
That field’s on fire. It’s heading
right for us!” Maybe her delusions knew that
the fire was always heading for us, her heart,
that you’d always keep her from the flames.

With their multiple images and swift traversals of thought, her poems provide ample substance for reflection. They are best savored when read slowly, preferably several times, in order to absorb their full impact.

*

Maria Espinosa is a novelist, poet, and translator. She has also has taught Creative Writing and English as a Second Language. She has published four novels, two chapbooks of poetry, and a critically acclaimed translation of George Sand’s novel, Lélia. Her novel, Longing, received an American Book Award. Dying Unfinished, her most recent novel, just published by Wings Press, deals with the characters in Longing from a different perspective.

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


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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.

*

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.

Powerfully Commendable: David Appelbaum on Katie Cappello’s Perpetual Care


perpetual care

Perpetual Care, Katie Cappello, Elixir Press

Before abstinence come the rituals of excess. There is the indulgence in flesh (carne) before the long Lent. Only after is resurrection from the grave possible. What if the flesh one eats is one’s own body? What if, ‘devouring myself bit by bit,’ as Katie Cappello writes in ‘When We Get to Coachella’ in her graphic collection, ‘[t]here are fingers in my stomach/holding there. I cannot leave.’ [‘Lament for a Blood Clot’] Then the carnival is perpetual and the care becomes a testimony to dance of death. It is a danse macabre.

The special eroticism of death is vivid and arresting, and the multitude of forms a proof of the libido’s power of command. The great researchers into the human soul have found this to be true. Little of the senses escapes its enticing scrutiny. In the text, it is after Hurricane Katrina, a political nadir and a wreck of culture. Abstinence has been brought by an act of God coupled with human incompetence. The city of New Orleans, still in its Lent, looks at its watery grave and begins its business of cleanup. Cappella’s eye is keen for details of the dance, for instance, ‘the mechanized claw of the garbage truck/struggled, leaking dog out into the street.’ [‘How to Drive Through Texas’] The scene calls Heraclitus to mind, where in hell one perceives by smells. The matter of ‘how the dead become smell/settling into membranes’ occupies her mind. [‘A Changing Spell’] Impressions are as fleeting as smoke and she confesses, ‘I can’t find a dream to hold on to.’ [‘Summer Wedding Dream’] The cityscape grows apparitional. Perpetual Care is filled with ghosts, ghost stories, lovers who are ghosts. One can love the dead but who are they? They leave signs, ‘a blue ring in the tub, an empty/toilet paper roll, back mold/misted on old sponges,’ more telling evidence of an absence, and by the time we turn to take a closer look, ‘what is left of me is coming loose.’ [‘A Ghost Abandons the Haunted’]

Perhaps abstinence morphs into apocalypse Old lore returns in the form of strange, unnatural marriages. There is the girl who is wed to a snake and dies for it. Death in fact has become lovely, luscious, trying to outdo itself by seizing the realm of the inanimate—‘this room squirms/a living thing.’ [‘Room 203’] In fact, there is the constant morphing of one thing into another, in excess, suggesting that our usual demarcations—eros, thanatos, presence, absence—have been superceded by the calamitous upsurge. It remains a question that repeats in different voices, or as the voice of one lament of Cappello’s asks: ‘Was I struck, dying, in the new spring night?’ [‘Lament for White Lions’]

In such a time (now?), language too dies and comes alive, like the ‘old drunk [who] says he can change a tire in three minutes.’ [‘Hilary Street Cemetery, New Orleans’] Or come alive and dies, flat, misplaced, overused. Words from the old world, which moves ghost-like behind the yards and porches, the Grateful Dead shirt fluttering on a clothesline, the men drinking Dixie beer, like Cappello’s grandmother’s vickravatz: ‘a word like forearms/trembling on porcelain.’ [‘Inheritance’] The language is beautiful the way it struts across the line, showing itself off, against all odds a survivor. Perhaps that is what it takes to make poetry. It is powerfully commendable, a hammer:

And you are a hammer knocking on the gate, the tongue
swinging joyfully in the cave of a bell. [‘Room 203’]

Taut: Gwyn McVay on Lisa Jarnot’s Night Scenes


night scenes

Lisa Jarnot, Night Scenes, Flood Editions

If one word can sum up the poems in Lisa Jarnot’s second collection, Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001), it is “taut.” In two, it would be “tightly wound,” from the terse prose poems in the “Sea Lyrics” section that meditate on dislocation and violence, to the terrifying “The Age of the Velocipede,” an uninterrupted three-page apostrophe telling a “wounded animal” what it is not. So upon opening Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008), and discovering in its night sky (the endpapers beautifully continue the cover’s starry-sky motif) what Hank Lazer, in his review for Ekleksographia, correctly called “an odd iambic joy,” one might well blink and wonder whether this is a completely different Lisa Jarnot. The first poem, “Sinning Skel Misclape,” reads like Susan Howe and Allen Ginsberg dancing together on nitrous oxide:

O sinning skel misclape thy lock
from frenzied felbred feefs
and longitudes of long tongued fuels
unpebble-dashed deceased.

Yet “deceased” escapes its denotative meaning to a great extent, because the other nouns in the stanza are either coinages, or the objects of coined verbs. How does one “misclape” a lock? Is this a mechanical act of burglary, or an Alexander Pope act of hair theft? It’s not a question the reader is encouraged to ponder, because the ballad meter dances us around in a “tradition for the form of those / belingered, cheerful, nigh.” And as cheerfully as the late Ginsberg, the first section of the book takes up rhyme, meter, and image, and breaks them down to a purity of play with phoneme and morpheme that is altogether—what’s the big theoretical word for this?—fun.

In the second section, the speaker of “What I Want to Do” claims her desire is to commit “Normal shit / like a normal person,” but luckily for the reader, any normal shit happening here is not done in a normal manner at all; it is done like Lisa Jarnot playing. Thus, we get “Whole Hog,” a set of 50 numbered couplets combining observation of the phenomena of farming with curious aphorisms, indeed koans, like “A true relation marries its dead” or “One heifer ceases to vanish.” Part three returns to the vocative mode and the curious love poems of the first section, adding a shorter-lined, Creeley-esque voice, as in “Bee Ode” (“Be free, or / something like that”), and the anagram play of “Temerity Lady.”

So in searching for a single word to describe Night Scenes, I happily concur with Lazer and choose “joy”—even visible in the elegy that closes the book. Many of the poems are dedicated to friends, possibly even inspired by party-game writing prompts: who knows? The attention to the texture, what the food industry calls the “mouth-feel,” of the language, succeeds in the poet’s movement toward play and joy; one of the book’s dedicatees is Lee Ann Brown, whom Jarnot credits in an afterword with “releasing me back into the spontaneity and joy that had been so much at the root of my love for Allen Ginsberg’s work.”

Whatever Brown and the other peers and friends mentioned in Night Scenes did for Jarnot, it worked. This is a book about a lot of normal shit, but painted in a lovely, decidedly abnormal, work of careful craft that will keep me reaching for Night Scenes (not to the exclusion of Jarnot’s other books, but because it’s just that cool) over and over.

*

Gwyn McVay is the author of Ordinary Beans (Pecan Grove Press, 2007). Her work appears most recently in Ripple Journal, Salt River Review, and Letters to the World: Poems from the WOM-PO Listserv (Red Hen Press, 2008).

Raw Realism: A Poetry Manifesto, Gary Beck


The nature of poetry has evolved since the innovation of free verse and now should allow vast latitude of expression. Too many self-appointed guardians of the realm of poetry presume to righteously define the boundaries valid for exploration, arbitrarily excluding what may not appeal to their particular sensibilities. When some of the French Symbolist poets, in particular Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Apollonaire and Valery, shattered the forms used for centuries and created free verse, resistance was automatic from the academics who scorned them. Those poets are venerated today as a vital part of literature.

The last major disturbance in the tranquility of poetry was caused by the Beats, who were dismissed as ill-disciplined, ill-mannered, disreputable advocates of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now they occupy a respected niche in the cathedral of poetry, having survived alienation from the mainstream despite excursions in autonomous verse, or unrevised stream of consciousness ramblings. Their contribution exploded some of the restrictions on style and content, but their accomplishments have become stratified, while their disruption of incipient ossification has been forgotten. They are now as tame as Byron, Keats and Shelly, other forbearers who lifted the torch of rebellion against arbitrary constrictions on subject matter.

Traditionally, the self-anointed custodians of verse attempt to regulate the form, style and content of poetry and deny the validity of differing efforts. Many of the janissaries of poetry, sheltered by universities, grants, or private support, reject the adventurous spirits who seek other directions. The issues of our times are at least as consequential as effusive celebrations of the seasons, laudatory odes on public occasions, or indulgence in self-absorbed introspection.

The ancient Greeks raised poetry to the acme of public attention, with presentations of poetic drama at annual major festivals that were socio-religious-political-artistic competitions, with a laurel wreath for the winner. Today the most energetic presentations are poetry “slams”, crude performances of diverse material in rapid transit deliveries that contradict the fundamental needs of poetry; careful attention, time to consider the meaning and an atmosphere conducive to understanding, rather than raucous burlesque.

The only way to sustain poetry in the Information Age and maintain its relevance is to make it meaningful to audiences conditioned to the internet, ipod, Blackberry and text messaging. The dictum: “Form follows function” is still pertinent. If the duties of the poet can be conceived to include chronicling our times, protesting the abuses of government, raising a voice against injustice, speaking out about the increasing dangers that threaten human existence, it is critical to allow substance not to be shackled by style, content not to be constricted by form.

Rhyme and meter were once the only practiced format of poetic expression. Now they are increasingly marginalized. Perhaps metaphor and simile are not more sacred. We must aspire to emotionally engage new audiences, involve them in the illumination that poetry can transmit, preserve the existence of a vital form of human expression that is being overwhelmed by a saturation of easily accessible, diverting entertainment. We must also develop new voices that may achieve a dynamic readership by offering an alternative to brilliant wordsmiths. We need poets who will offer meaningful and significant truths to a public saturated by confusing information and nearly jaded by ongoing visual assaults on their sensibilities.

*

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn’t earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His chapbook ‘Remembrance’ was published by Origami Condom Press and ‘The Conquest of Somalia’ was published by Cervena Barva Press. A collection of his poetry ‘Days of Destruction’ has been published in 2009 by Skive Press. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway and toured colleges and outdoor performance venues. He currently lives in New York City , where he’s busy writing.  His poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines.

Self-Fiction: Gary Charles Wilkens on the anthology American Hybrid


american hybrid

American Hybrid, ed. Cole Swensen and David St. John, WW Norton

Poets have always been fiction writers. I don’t mean those of us who are also novelists. I mean the stories that poets have told themselves about their art itself, at least since Plato, to allow them to get a handle on its slipperiness and make it their own. With entries from Philip Sidney and William Wordsworth, the process of course kicked into high gear in the early twentieth century with Modernism’s open attempt to redefine what “poetry” meant, and all the counter-redefinitions in the hundred years since. Like music, poetry saw a flourishing of styles in the just-finished century, such that it made sense to ask someone what “type” they liked. Formal or free? Raw or cooked? New Formal or Language? A thousand forks were introduced to the pie, a process that Cole Swensen and David St.John try to stuff into a new poetic self-fiction in the latest anthology from Norton, American Hybrid.

In the first of two introductions, one by each editor, Swensen presents the rationale for yet another anthology of contemporary poetry thusly: the two-camp model of American poetry, whether the camps are presented as formal vs. free, traditional vs. Modern, Mainstream vs. Radical, New Formal vs. Language, is no longer valid, because “the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of pervious ‘camps’”. American poetry today is a “thriving center of alterity,” and today’s poets “often take aspects from two or more (traditions) to create poetry that is truly post-modern in that it’s unpredictable and unprecedented mix.” This is anthology introduction speak meaning that contemporary poets pick and choose from the smorgasbord of styles history gives them, and by and large do whatever they want, with little allegiance to ideologies or schools. A poet might combine a narrative thread with verbal experimentation. Or she could mix fragmentation with the rules of a villanelle. Or insert rhyme into open form. Hybrid poems blend the expressive potential of language-as-language with the potential of language to express recognizable human emotion. According to St. John’s introduction, we “are at a time in our poetry when the notion of the ‘poetic school’ is an anachronism, an archaic critical artifact of times long gone by.” Thus, with a boom and a crash worthy of any Modernist manifesto, the editors announce the birth of a healthy, squalling Third Way in American poetry.

The irony of this is two-fold: immediately after labeling the new poetry uncategorizable, they proceed to categorize it, to define features that, like the features of countless revolutions before it, are sure to set into concrete. You can see it now: pick-and-choose-and-combine as a formal expectation, as critical rubric, as a bludgeon to beat down the new. By recognizing the style, they begin its slow strangulation: think of what had happened to Modernist fragmentation by the 30s. Secondly, and perhaps in keeping with the book’s emphasis on creativity coming from contradiction, this new way is nothing but a seemingly random and idiosyncratic mixing of old ways. To blend schools and ideologies is to recognize those schools and ideologies in the first place. In other words, hybridization is too slip-shod to call a way, or a movement or a style, it is simply the numerical collection of isolated writers plugging away at doing what they want. There is, paradoxically, no style to set. It’s very Zen: the School of No School. It’s very PC: “ It seems therefore antithetical to both the project and spirit of this anthology to suggest that one poet’s way or understanding of hybridization can be judged as ‘better” or ‘more important’ than any other.” If that is the case, have the editors done anything more than collect those poets writing now that they happen to like? Is there any evidence in the poetry here collected that “hybridization” actually mixes styles? Is the result any good?

The answers are sort of, kinda, and it’s hit and miss. Arranged alphabetically and given short and informative bios, the 70-plus poets here collected are indeed a diverse bunch. Perhaps surprisingly, the first poet to stand out as fresh and interesting is Rae Armantrout, usually counted as firmly Langpo in orientation. If you are surprised to learn that a well-established poet like Armantrout is in an anthology about a new wave in verse, you should know that the editors have decided to include only poets with at least three books under their belts. One might think any new way would be the product of the young and fed-up rather than the old and well-fed, but St. John explains that they made this rule in order to “show the historical depth and vitality of the concept of hybridization,” in spite of the fact that earlier Swensen had presented hybridization as a product of the 1990s. And by this line of thinking, in what also seems a commercial move, we get John Ashbery. Historical confusion and big name motives aside, poets like Armantrout are represented by gems like “Generation” (in its entirety):

We know the story.

She turns
her back to find her trail
devoured by birds.

The years; the
undergrowth

Looking for hybridization, we note both the strong central image of the birds, and the highly fragmentary nature of the scene. We don’t know precisely what this is about, but neither are we mystified by Langpo gymnastics. A quiet, subtle think piece. Her poem “Scumble” experiments with the meaning and sound of its titular word, without ever puzzling us: “What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as “scumble,” “pinky,” or “extrapolate?” Armantrout has found a happy medium in these poems between the need for recognizable meaning, sense-making, and the equal need for new meaning, making new senses. Ashbery’s offerings, by contrast, do not seem to drink very deeply from the sense-making well: in his poem “Of Linnets and Dull Time” no more than two lines in a row seem to have anything to so with each other. We go from “I feel sorry for anyone that has to die” to, a few short lines later, “The beautiful shape of the toilet interposed/ a viability as the air-raid drill ended.” I have never understood Ashberry’s poetry or why it is so popular, and trying to trace lines of hybridization within it only gives me a headache.

There is, therefore, hybridization in American poetry, but looking at the verses in this anthology shows that it is not as wide-spread or as radical as the editors fervently wish. There are poets who legitimately mix styles, such as Molly Bendall, who in her poem “Conversation With Eva Hesse” employs limerick-like rhyme and repeated lines, only to break into the plane of the poem with “Is this piece finished?” “It’s too bright and beautiful” is the response, making the poem nicely self-referential and post-modern. Michael Burkhard’s “The Rearranger” combines a narrative about AIDS with several twists on language and form. These poems and several others by other poets identifiably use a mixture of techniques not usually mixed, and are in fact hybrid. Many of the selections in the anthology, however, read as your standard mainstream free-verse or quasi-Langpo. The editors, in attempting to explain the hybridity of these texts, frequently use the word “unravel” to describe what happens to traditional narrative or structure. Some poems never seem raveled to begin with, such as Norma Cole’s head-scratcher “Floating By,” but other times the unraveling is very literal: expect to be turning the book in your hands to be able to read Gillian Conoley’s “from The Plot Genie.” You will notice that so far all of my examples are in alphabetical order. That’s because American Hybrid, like any anthology, contains a lot of varied material and the D’s are about a far as you will get on your first reading. Enjoy Stacy Doris’s football diagrams.

Should there be a second reading? Yes. Ultimately, despite the conceptual and evidential difficulties noted above, American Hybrid is a solid and intelligent effort at doing what for poetry or an individual is the hardest task: looking in the mirror. Swensen and St. John deserve your money for making a smart and honest effort. Swensen’s Introduction should be required reading for all contemporary poets, and this book, warts and all, should be on your shelf. Enough examples exist to demonstrate that American poetry is, slowly, painfully, changing, and American Hybrid is the best self-fiction about it we have so far.

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.”