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.

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

Drinking, Drugs, Love, Boredom: Nathan Logan on east central indiana by Daniel Bailey


Muncie, Indiana. Population: 65,287. Home of Ball State University and former home of the Ball Corporation (the people who make ball jars). East central Indiana. With the declining economy in the United States, small towns like Muncie, once hubs for manufacturing and industry, have experienced a shift in population. Instead of a base of blue collar workers, Muncie’s population has become supplemented by college students, creating a tension in once what was called “Middletown.” What do those who graduate from such places think about after four years? If twenty-somethings become “stuck” in these towns, how do their lives become defined? Drinking/Drugs. Love. Boredom.

These are things that Daniel Bailey is thinking about in east central indiana, his first e-book forthcoming from bearcreekfeed. The first three poems in the collection all have drug references: i want to smoke meth with you, meth is the mid-western drug, and i want to get drunk with you. Drinking is the cliché for poets, but Bailey is after more than self-indulgence. He doesn’t want to be alone; “i want to raise dinosaurs / from birth to death with you.” His speakers try to seduce others to share in the misery/apathy that he experiences: “you are good weather / you are rain in late august” and “i cannot possibly tell you everything i feel / and that is an amazing feeling.” The “You” is hope; “You” is so close.

Of course, if seduction doesn’t work, escape with another is the next best option in meth is a mid-western drug. Bailey tells us that “what we’ve been looking for is a hole / in which to bury these gators we call our lives.” Starting over, escaping the heaviness of a town that doesn’t have a name. But sometimes escape cannot happen, and boredom takes over, like in the poem “all my good deeds”:
for i am about to eat chuck berry’s heart
and halle berry’s heart
and dave berry’s heart
and burn up like a viking funeral
on a river of ducks

if i could shrink to the size of a pea
i would paint myself green
and write air bud screenplays
The heaviness of being in a small town drives Bailey’s speakers to strangeness, and from that boredom rises sadness: “the flames that touch my face will touch my sadness very soon / and my sadness will grow up with all ten fingers in its mouth.”

Despite these feelings of melancholy, Bailey’s speakers do, by accident or not, find beauty and humor in the situations they find themselves in. In poem for the trying, the speaker notes that, “[his/her] teeth are always little moons orbiting [his/her] tongue.” And in the next poem, we went downtown, that speaker notes that, “we were like a buttgrab at a funeral.” The strangeness of small town life doesn’t end alone in an apartment drinking or doing drugs, but it follows Bailey’s speakers everywhere they go.

east central indiana isn’t just Muncie. It’s Moorhead. It’s Fargo. Miles from the big cities where there’s always something fun to. Bailey’s speakers find solace in temporary escape – getting drunk and thinking about the unanswerable questions in life. Revelation does some for some of these people, as well as a sense of strangeness that can never be quite shaken off. Small towners only need to ask themselves one question to be east central indiana: “what is the cornfield singing tonight?”

*

Nathan Logan is a MFA candidate at Minnesota State University Moorhead and the editor of the online poetry magazine Spooky Boyfriend. Some of his work has appeared in: Literary Tonic, No Posit, Robot Melon, The Scrambler, The Subterranean Quarterly, and Superficial Flesh.

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.

Modest Poems that Pack a Punch: Anne Whitehouse on Rochelle Ratner’s Ben Casey Days


Ben Casey Days, Rochelle Ratner, Marsh Hawk Press

ben-casey-days 

 

The presiding genius of Ben Casey Days, Rochelle Ratner’s collection of prose poems published posthumously by Marsh Hawk Press, is the eponymous hero of the 1960s television series, an heroic doctor with leonine good looks, played by Vince Edwards, who saved the lives of desperate people with regularity. In Ratner’s blackly humorous reformulations, Ben Casey is reduced to a fetish-like Ken doll dressed as the television character, whom the author wins at auction on eBay, and who becomes conflated in her mind with her husband and tender caregiver, whose actual name is Ken and to whom the book is dedicated.

She also bids on a Ken doll in a Ben Casey doctor suit (made in Hong Kong and still shrink-wrapped). Four days, seven hours left before she wins. She increases her bid. She needs Ken not Ben tonight. And he’ll stay home with her tomorrow. Ken. Ben. Ken. Ben. Then.

That final “then,” with heartbreaking sadness, speaks to us beyond the grave. There is no hope for this patient.

 

The five sections of Ben Casey Days correspond to the headers of the actual television series, once intoned with portentous gravity at the beginning of each episode: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity. In the individual prose poems of each series, Ratner achieves a surrealistic sensibility, in which objects—physical, sexual, material—take on totemic significance. Patients are allowed no modesty. To doctors, patients become their illnesses. Their bodies are objectified in a very real sense. And yet, through it all—as these poems assert—the flicker of self remains. These poems give voice to the damaged and injured in body, mind, and spirit and at the same time take on our political culture and our contemporary policies of waging war and peace. For example, Incentives,

1. Right out of school, can’t get a job, and now the Army’s offering $20,000 just to ship out quickly. Well, it’s working—nearly 4,000 recruits in just three weeks. Except he and his friends go out drinking. His vision’s too blurry for the fine print. First comes basic training, then comes more training, then comes $10,000. The rest is doled out over time. Get killed and it stops right there. Lose an arm or leg and forfeit twenty percent. Fingers and toes barely matter. If the head is lost, the remaining bonus is forfeited. Here is a soldier no longer fit to serve.

2.No one defines what losing your head means. 

 

These poems have a fearful intensity and embrace a span of humanity. Many of their details will ring true to anyone who has ever been a patient, as in this vision of death experienced by Woman Left in CT Scanner for Hours after Clinic Closes:

Don’t move, they told her, weighing her down with a heavy blanket, strapping her arms in, locking the machine. Or maybe just closing it. She loses track of time in the dark. There doesn’t seem to be anyone out there. Twenty-five minutes, they said. Bone cancer. Pain. Metastatic. And those were the last words she remembers hearing. It seems like hours ago now. She’s starting to fear the dark. Nobody told her she could go home. Ever.

These modest poems pack a big punch. They live up to their large themes.

*

Anne Whitehouse’s reviews have appeared in major newspapers throughout the country. Her novel, FALL LOVE, can now be downloaded free of charge from Feedbooks: http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/1900

Her poems have recently appeared in Brink Magazine (www.brinklit.com, Soul Fountain, Amarillo Bay (www.amarillobay.com), Earth’s Daughters, Poems Niederngasse (www.niederngasse.com), and 2 River (www.2river.org).  Please see her website http://www.annewhitehouse.com.

Are You Experienced?: Matthew Lippman on Matthew Dickman’s poetry collection All American Poem


All American Poem, Matthew Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2008

 

When the buzz that Pink Floyd’s new album, The Wall, was to be released in the spring or so of 1980, I couldn’t stand the wait. The anticipation drove me crazy. I was fifteen years old and had hair down to my knees. I waited for what it seemed years, and then, finally, the double album hit the shelves. I ran to Crazy Eddie’s, a record store in Westchester County, and laid down my seven dollars for the double vinyl set. When I got home, I ran upstairs, ripped the plastic wrap off the record, locked my door, and proceeded to drain the life out of the those four sides of vinyl over the next three days. I listened obsessively headphones on, horizontal on my blue rug. I read and re-read every linear note, every lyric, and each piece of language on the inside and out of the record jacket until I was sure I knew everything about the making of the record and every note of the music. I almost didn’t eat.

 

This experience was not new or exclusive to the Pink Floyd opus. I had it with The Rolling Stone’s Some Girls, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True and countless other records of my youth. It was an engagement with art that was like sex before I knew what sex was. This kind of listening, this desire to bond with the music was a desire to be inside it. And in doing so, everyone of those records delivered.

 

Matthew Dickman’s first book of poetry, All-American Poem, delivers the way those LPs delivered. It is a great book of poetry, one of the great first books of poetry to arrive in the last ten years. Dickman’s poetry will be compared to Whitman’s, O’Hara’s, Stern’s and Koch’s. His poetic voice is full of singular magic, Dickman magic. It’s a poetry so good, I can’t stand it. This is the kind of poetry that makes other poets want to write better; it makes me want to write better, be a better poet, and sometimes a trapeze artist.  There is a messy freedom in his language, the kind of mess that you might find if you walked into an art room created exclusively for four year olds. Yet, it all makes sense in the way the Buddha makes sense or a garden full of nightingales and daffodils make sense. That’s what you want in poetry, if you are a reader of verse and you are trying to get in touch with your mind and your body all at once—a beautiful mess. Matthew Dickman’s poetry is such a gift. The work is full of love and strain, tenderness and light, and extraordinary intimacy as can be seen in the first nineteen lines of Slow Dance:

More than putting another man on the moon,

more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,

we need the opportunity to dance

with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance

between the couch and dinning room table, at the end

of the party, while the person we love has gone

to bring the car around

because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart

if any part of us got wet. A slow dance

to bring the evening home, to knock it out of the park. Two people

rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.

A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.

It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting

on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.

Your hands along her spine. Her hips

unfolding like a cotton napkin

and you begin to think about how all the stars in the sky

are dead. The my body

is talking to your body slow dance.

 

Dickman has the beautiful ability to make me feel like I am in my body while I am reading his words. The poetry makes me feel like there is a body that is my own, a body that is my own but ultimately belongs to the world. In one moment you are reading about his body, his love and whiskey and neighborhood, and the next minute he’s talking about Jack Gilbert or Valentin Silvestrov or Peter Parker. This poetry slips between membranes of experience and always at the center is a big, beating heart that won’t stop, that won’t shut up it’s so beautiful. What’s beautiful is this:

Marilyn Monroe took all her sleeping pills

to bed when she was thirty-six, and Marlon Brando’s daughter

hung in the Tahitian bedroom

of her mother’s house,

while Stanley Adams shot himself in the head. Sometimes

you can look at the clouds or the trees

and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground.

The performance artist Kathy Change

set herself on fire while Bing Crosby’s sons shot themselves

out of the music industry forever.

I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears. The French

philosopher Gilles Deleuze jumped

from an apartment window into the world

and then out of it. Peg Entwistle, an actress with no lead

roles, leaped off the “H” in the HOLLYWOOD sign

when everything looked black and white

and David O. Selznick was king, circa 1932. Ernest Hemingway

put a shotgun to his head in Ketchum, Idaho

while his granddaughter, a model and actress, climbed the family tree

and overdosed on phenobarbital. My brother opened

thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body

until it wasn’t his body anymore. I like

the way geese sound above the river. I like

the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they’re beautiful. (Trouble)

I give you these long quotes, because Dickman’s poetry is about breadth. His cadence is as much a part of his form as his formlessness as there is a kind of capricious chaos neither capricious nor chaotic. The language is a music, and one has to understand that when you jump into the poems they will take you places you could have never imagined but which feel altogether familiar.

 

I will say it again—Dickman’s language is music: parts rock, pop, soul, classical and jazz.  It’s the best of America. And I tell you this, I could not believe that he was able to sustain it, the voice and music, in the nine pages of the title poem; he does. The poem is a tour de force that had me, partly out of jealousy, envy, desire and love, comparing it to Ginsberg, Hughes, Whitman, Hoagland and, then, back to Ginsberg. But it is none of these poets; this is all Dickman surprising and somersaulting and making love with and to every piece of language at his disposable. All American Poem is fierce, here is what you are in for:

I want to peel off a hundred dollar bill

and slap it down on the counter.

You can pick out a dress.  I’ll pick out a tie: polka dots

spinning like disco balls.  Darling let’s go

two-stepping in the sawdust at the Broken Spoke.

Let’s live downtown and go clubbing.

God save hip-hop and famous mixed drinks.

Let’s live in a cardboard box.  Let’s live

in a loft above Chelsea, barely human, talking about

the newest collection of Elizabeth Peyton,

her brilliant strokes, the wine and cheese.

You can go from one state to another and never

paint the same thing twice.  In New Mexico

we could live by a creek and hang our laundry

on the line.  Let’s get naked in the cold waters of Michigan.

Let’s get hitched in Nevada.  Just you, me and Elvis.

This is beginning just keeps on burning the pages up. You turn one page, it burns up, and leads you to next. And again and again and again. Fire.

 

I have read the poems in All-American Poem three, four, maybe five times. I have read this book like I listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, 27 years ago. I have read these poems and the linear notes and blurbs and acknowledgements and notes on type over and over again so I could become as close to this text as humanly possible. I have spent hours with All-American Poem and I have destroyed it to the point where it is now part of my being.  All-American Poem is not a book that you read the way Exile On Main Street is not an album that you merely listen to. You have an experience with it—with this voice, with these poems, with Matthew Dickman’s music and spirit—and then you run like hell, away from it, so you can tell the rest of the world as quickly as possible.