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Review: Rag by Julie Carr

16 Feb


Julie Carr’s fifth book, Rag, is a book characterized more by the way that it looks than what it looks at. Rag is more about the process of contextualization itself than staging a context for the meditations or anecdotes of a cohesive “I” “behind” or “outside of” the text. Carr wants a poetry that is atmospheric—not the dictation of an imaginary I, but rather a glimpse of the network of exchanges that I participates in. As Carr writes in the opening poem, “One’s body is in response” (11). Rag is a book of self-abandon, but not in the terms we usually think. Carr forfeits a cohesive self to see the larger strictures—such as gender, race, narrative, and memory—inside which a self is structured.

In Rag, this self-abandon as abandoning the self is a desire to diffuse back into the larger law from which the self first demarcated. For a speaker to exist, she must be defined as “other than.” This difference is what makes her subject to the law (which guarantees intersubjectivity) but simultaneously makes her blind to it (since “she” is a product of—not a participant in—these exchanges). In Rag, the speaker becomes negative space, a kind of absence the text can fill. Car writes:

 To my own face with its endless changes endless sameness its eyes

I said no. I wanted to be a hole. In the road, the garden

Dust across my keys, sugar in my teeth, to the jaw of the bus driver as I boarded the bus

I said no. Today I will not remove the isolated hair from my basin. Not figure

Some cleaner end (83)

By relinquishing subjective cohesion, the speaker in Rag becomes extra-narrative. Causality becomes less clear as everything moves from order to contiguity. The poems themselves are mimetic of this entropy as well. Rag moves between pages of fragments, frequently bookended by dashes, to long blocks of prose broken only by the margins.

And so Rag is a book of continual disruptions. A “thing” represents a closure as its “use” becomes solidified in the symbolic order. A new thing only becomes possible at sites of disjunction. Carr is not interested in “product” in the form of narrative, anecdote, ect… Rather, Carr wants the static of thought before it reaches a symbolic channel. Carr writes:

And we with eye averted sat by the crying woman. Resting elbows on our knees in a posture of care/disregard. Just as on a plane a woman three rows back, seated between two suited men, suddenly began to sob—loud and unabashed, not othering to wipe her tears, not covering her face, just sitting staring forward, wailing like a baby. No one said anything. Not the men—one gazed out the window, the other continued to read his screen as if nothing—not the attendants, who did not come. Now in heavy spring snow, a tree loses a limb. And we are glad—an opening where was a thing. Then she stops crying and her face clears to resemble the sidewalk beside the DMV. Without anything to create shade, anything at all, the people come and go— (18)

For Carr, the page is a pane of glass. She writes: “Between the law and the living being—the unnamable being with no nation—/ is a point of imbalance, steadied by no home/ Hanging from clouds, intricate environments I will come to miss/ You cannot stop time. Seeking paradise, invent glass” (46). The poems in Rag are a way into, gestures of looking and not things made.

The paradoxical goal of the self-abandon Carr’s speaker performs is that by removing herself from the symbolic equation and instead providing us with the hidden productive forces of individual conscious, she regains some measure of ownership of herself. Or, as Car more succinctly writes, “Whose theatre is it now?” (34). Car’s speaker exists in a kind of conscious-unconscious, an inverse of unconscious-conscious of an unexamined “I.” Unfortunately, the forfeit in both cases is a humanist version of a self-determined “I.” Car writes:

In the passivity of belonging to an order

she was the first disappearing term

The more others are heard the more she is lost

And drivers consider their destinations

consider their destination to be worthy (115)

The speaker of these poems exists in suspension, moving without destination between the ego and the larger symbolic network that both allows for and forecloses the possibility of its existence.

While all this may make the text seem laborious, Rag isn’t forced. Car keeps her philosophical investments while still creating moments of real lyric beauty. There’s something about Rag that feels as if the whole text is something overhead. Rag manages to be haunted by itself. Reading it feels like listening to it on a tape recorder, locked in room with no key.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Sprezzatura

10 Sep


Mike Young
Publishing Genius 
132 pp // $14.95


Mike Young doesn’t fuck around – but does he? This collection will make you pause and think things like “Wow, it’s great to be alive” but also it will make you think, “I wonder what the weather’s like in Switzerland right now?” What I’m saying is that you’ve got to follow the thread, follow Mike Young. The thread is a colorful thing that’s all tangled and strung in odd, unexpected ways. If it gets dark – don’t worry! – it’ll lighten up soon. If it’s too bright just shade your eyes and squint a little. It’ll all even out soon enough.




Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Everyday Genius

13 Aug

Michael Seidlinger is at the helm of Everyday Genius this month and he’s been posting excerpts from works-in-progress by some really fantastic folks. Below are a few of clips from my favorites so far:

An excerpt from What Have You Lost? by Cari Luna

It would be pretty, wouldn’t it, to say I walked along the river, but I-5 cuts the east side of Portland off from the Willamette and so I would find myself walking parallel to the highway. But the highway had its own appeal, and then there was also the hard rusted beauty of the train yards and the cargo trains gone still and cold, waiting, and the occasional train in motion, wending its slow robot-driven way through town, its mournful whistle cutting through the air, the gray heaviness of Portland morning even heavier with the weight of that train song.

An excerpt from Jim’s Daughter by Alexandra Naughton

We send letters back and forth for two years, each letter revealing more than the last, with promises to see each other soon repeated unfulfilled, except for one time when your friend had to be in Philly for a family reunion and you tagged along, but after three months and no response, no letters and no emails, I feel defeated, sending one last letter. Your mother writes back, a short note and newspaper clipping with your wedding announcement.

An excerpt from Wichita Stories by Troy Weaver

I go into my best friend’s bedroom and lay down on his bed. I close my eyes. I wait. I start counting sheep to alleviate the boredom—not really sheep, just aloud to myself in the dark. I open my eyes, I close them, I open them, and I wait. I count. I wonder what could possibly be taking so long. I count some more. I think about Claudia Schiffer’s perfect boobs, stop thinking about them, start again, stop again, decide to lay on my stomach so I don’t start jacking off on instinct in my best friend’s bed.

An excerpt from Seeing Other People by Megan Lent

If I ever get a tattoo, it will be of a rose, in white ink, on my left shoulder. Except if you have a tattoo you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Which doesn’t really affect me, because I will never die.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Abide

3 Mar

YorkFrom 2004-2005, I was a graduate student of Jake Adam York’s at University of Colorado-Denver; I also worked as a poetry editor with him on some early issues of Copper Nickel. Having known Jake personally and being familiar with his dedication to and enthusiasm for all-things poetry, it was heartbreaking to hear of his untimely death just over one year ago.

After recently receiving a copy of his posthumously released Abide (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) in the mail, I was thankful for the opportunity to read new work by him; but that thankfulness was tempered by the sadness of knowing that he is no longer with us.

Abide serves to reinforce these conflicted feelings. On the one hand, the poems demonstrate York’s deft musicality, attention to craft, and adherence to an ethical imperative that originates in the historicity and spirit of the Civil Rights movement. On the other hand, the elegies therein resonant with sadly, prophetic echoes that often times seem to prefigure his own passing.

The poem “Mayflower,” for instance, is an elegy composed for John Earl Reese, who the poem’s dedication mentions was a “sixteen-year-old, shot by Klansmen through the window of a café” on “October 22, 1955.” The opening lines read:

Before the bird’s song
you hear its quiet

which becomes part of the song
and lives on after,

struck notes bright
in silence (17)

While, certainly, one can read the passage on the surface level as a lament for Reese’s passing, it is not difficult—at least for this reader—to read these lines as premonitory: “Before the bird’s song,” or the release of the poems in Abide, all we can “hear” from York is the “quiet” or “silence” following his death. Upon publication, the effects of his death become “part of the song,” at least to the extent that the poet’s absence can be keenly felt (or read) in all of these poems.

As the poem proceeds, the speaker eventually levels an awful truth:

and a young man’s voice

becomes a young man’s
silence, all

he did not say (18)

Yes, in the poems of Abide we hear the “young man’s voice” singing for us once more; but inherent to this music is the realization that the collection will be followed by the “young’s man’s / silence” and “all // he [will] not say.”

And one can only assume that York had much more to say. In the book’s concluding “Foreword to a Subsequent Reading,” Jake writes that his project of creating poetic monuments to the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement was, indeed:

always too big for one book. It is more complicated than a simple serial form, like a trilogy. It is the work of a life, both countless and one; one cannot predict how long it will take, but it will take as long as it will take. Abide continues, advances, event as it contains, as it remains. (79)

While the completion of his project might not have reached full fruition, the four books York released do serve to “elegize” at least some of the “men, women, and children who were martyred between 1954 and 1968 as part of the freedom to struggle” (79) in a beautiful and earnest manner. Such elegies, it would appear, stem from both explicit and implicit prohibitions against articulating and celebrating these victims. Or, as the poem “Letter to be Wrapped around a 12-Inch Disc” states:

                                   We had so much
behind us, the history

               we were told we shouldn’t
name, stir up, remember,
                              so much silence

we needed to break (11)

York’s poems, specifically the elegies, seek to rupture the “silence” by stirring up and remembering those names that others wanted to be left behind and forgotten in the forward march of history.

To this end, York understood the necessary connection between memory and naming bound within breath: “We visit memory sites…but if memory lives on there, it isn’t memory anymore. Memory lives in the breath we breathe, in the air we make together” (80). We should, then, take this to declaration of breath to heart in order to keep both the memory of Civil Rights’ martyrs and York alive.

To do so, though, requires more than a visit to the physical site of a memorial or purchasing a book artifact. Rather, we must sing the names of the deceased through the silences. We must voice the names and recite aloud the poems, such that we begin “reaching / for the sound of some beyond” in order to create a “vibration” (8) that awakens the spirits and brings them to life through the audible word. Doing so will, in the end, reactivate the “Last breaths of the disappeared” (36) at and in the site of the poem. Or, as Jake himself wrote:

Maybe we keep saying
their silences between our words,

the shape of their voices
in ours, in ours

the warmth that haunts
their absent lungs. (34)

And, indeed, by reciting the poems of Abide aloud while reading, the reader shapes York’s voice within their own voice, such that the poet’s memory haunts the lungs of another, imbuing the breath and body with the spirit of the deceased.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Young Tambling

4 Jan


I bought a copy of Kate Greenstreet’s latest, Young Tambling, after hearing her read at the excellent Paging Columbus series run by Hannah Stephenson. On the recto side of the title page is a tracing of Greenstreet’s left hand (I’m assuming). In lieu of signing the book, she traced my hand on the facing title page. The gesture is mimetic of what I see as the Greenstreet’s primary concerns in the text repetition/ doubling, tracing, and the ability/ inability of reifying events as memory.
Young Tambling is comprised of six long poems, each starting with a short prose section. The preoccupation with doubling is established in the first poem, “Narrative.” Early in the poem we get the hint of story that Greenstreet will spend the rest of the poem deconstructing. She writes:

I was outside and inside at the same time. We were all sitting at a table, in  a way, but we were also out on the street and there was a dead deer in the street. I went over to it and sat down on the curb. The deer lifted himself then, his bloody head and all, into my lap. I didn’t know what to do. He seemed to be talking to me, in a language I couldn’t understand. (12)

In this short space, there exists a kind fractal where what is conveyed in the poem echoes itself. Here there is event doubled with imagination, event doubled with the potentialities of that event, event doubled as memory, event doubled as language, etc… My use of words like “doubling” and “repetition” are a bit ham-fisted however. While Greenstreet is interested in the way experience can multiply seemingly indefinitely, she is also interested in how these doubles are never identical to the original. There is always a kind of parallax shift in repetition. This malignancy, however, continues without our volition until any notion of the original event becomes indistinguishable from its distorted echoes.  Later in the same poem she writes:

The picture should be looked at. In the dream it’s you and me and a lot of other people. We’re performing a long and complicated vocal piece and I love you in the dream.

I think it lasts about…twenty minutes. Then they have to use the hack saws. to get it off. Can we recognize a pattern?

You seemed to need me but—when you put those big hooves in my lap? How can I recognize the real thing? Sometimes the tiniest breeze will set it off. People don’t get over it. Women, never. This is the devil’s work, this mirror. (26)

In “Narrative” we see the speaker’s growing inability to distinguish between memory and dream and between both of them and language.

Another theme of Young Tambling is traces or impressions. We see this most explicitly in the second poem, “Act.” “Act,” is divided into seven “Plates” as Greenstreet calls them. The trope works well for the section. Plate signifies something which will transfer via contact, leaving a trace. We see this well in “Plate 3: Clumps of Earth, Like Starfish on a Beach” (n.b.—for the sake of brevity I’ve altered some of Greenstreet’s original spacing):

No ties, no great need.

But, as a life can be shaped by rumor, often there’s a brother.

Who went away, who is told now: stay out of it.

This was the case that night. I knew the door he meant.

Help me get out of here. And we’ll go back to being ourselves.

He turns off the music.

As if it were music

in the room.

I don’t remember.

Who I was waiting for.

I think my parents should’ve spoken to each other more

openly, but it’s hard to do.

People devote their lives—the start on a course…

Now that I’m here, I could be anyone.

I don’t remember what I was wearing.

I was always driving someone somewhere. (52-53)

As we can see, this transfer is imperfect. Something transferred via impression, like experience is transferred into memory, will never be perfect. It will always be characterized by its anomalies and omissions. Later, in “Memory,” Greenstreet writes:

I shook hands with the men.

I’m disappearing.


in me

is disappearing.

So. Is that a yes?

Some of us have taken off our wigs.

The immense, the colossal weight

of our hope […] (79)

Perhaps what is most important characteristic about memory is not what it retains, but rather what has been lost in transfer. Perhaps the creation of self isn’t an inscription, but rather an erasure.

Like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Young Tambling is less an autobiography of the author and more an ontological exploration of biography (this is not much of an insight on my part—Greenstreet closes the text with a handwritten note that ends with the phrase “not biography but ABOUT biography.”) A good way to think of the text comes in a stanza from “Forbidden”: “A piece of thinking.//And this is where she hears herself” (119). Greenstreet is interested in the act of memory, in memory as a process of making significance, a process of interpretation.

Interspersed throughout Young Tambling are a series of black and white paintings by Greenstreet (or at least they are reproduced in the book as black and white). They look slurred, not blurry, but asymmetrical, perhaps decayed—like old film left too long in a basement. The paintings are often composed of amorphous shapes, almost like a Rorschach blot, but sharper edged. If I had to distill Young Tambling down to one statement it would be this—memory is not a photograph, but rather a Rorschach test.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Meetze and Lee

30 Dec
DArt Pmoth

Recently, I stumbled upon two amazing, little books: James Meetze’s Dark Art I-XII (Manor House, 2013) and Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s A Primary Mother (Least Weasel, 2012). Both contain strong writing predicated upon extended meditations of subject matter simultaneously extraordinary and mundane; yet, each collection does so in its own unique manner.

Meetze’s monograph is the inaugural release for Manor House, which is an extension of the journal Manor House Quarterly. No “purchase page” exists for this collection as of yet, but I would encourage you to buy it as soon as one goes live. While Dark Art explores several themes and concepts, these poems foreground a meta-critical examination of poetry, which is “the darkest art” (14). Take, for instance, the following excerpts:

The story grows darker with the forest,
the poem in the space between trees. (11)

A realer cold gathering in the touch
of dreams of real people
as ghosts, saying words that won’t ever return.
The words have not unfinished business.
They are magicked into being
in our throats, our mouths, in air, to say
“where language fails, poetry begins.” (12)

I wanted to say without distortion:
language is just a tool.
Warped, it becomes a poem.
The order of the poem is arbitrary
like constellations are; the recipient
of it draws a line from here to here.
So we see a line.
Anyone can make a god out of it. (15)

These three passages provide a fairly accurate representation of the content of Dark Art, and, I think, offer some terrific insights into the nature of poetry.

In the first excerpt, the speaker understands the “poem” to be the “space between the trees”; in other words, we discover poetry in the negative space around an object, not within the object itself. To some extent, invoking the notion of negative space echoes Keats’ concept of negative capability, which is the ability of an artist to reside within “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The second passage conflates the world of “real people” and their “dreams” in such a manner that poetry becomes an extension or product of the necessary (and, therefore, paradoxically affirmative) failure of language to accurately reflect this in-between space. To this end, the excerpt resonates with Wallace Stevens’ admonition in his “Adagia” that: “In poetry at the least the imagination must not detach itself from reality.” Such a melding of the real and imagined provides both the writer and reader of poetry with a glorious failure that enables us to access otherwise unattainable emotional and intellectual spaces with the aid of poetry.

The final passage offers two separate but equally compelling ideas about poetry. First, the speaker of this poems appears to engage—in a round-about manner—the purpose of poetry. Often times, critics (cultural, poetic, or otherwise) bemoan the fact that contemporary poetry is too insular and affects a flaccid l’art pour l’art stance; on the other side of the spectrum, there are complaints about utilitarian or “accessible” poetry succumbing to market demands and the lowest common denominators of nostalgia and sentimentality. Dark Art suggests that, instead, that we think of poetry as a “Warped” tool that creates a bent, melted, and distorted utilitarianism, such that it produces an ethics of happiness and suffering wherein the resulting outcomes are too convoluted to comprehend (but there are outcomes nonetheless): in effect, splitting the difference between the reductive binary. The second idea this passage forwards is that of the poem as constellation: an open text predicated upon both arbitrary and constructivist modes of reading.

If Meetze’s Dark Art explores the concept of poetry and the manner in which it avoids reification through protean definitions and explanations, then Lee’s A Primary Mother accomplishes a similar task with the idea of light. In fact, the poet prefaces the second half of her chapbook with an epigraph from Book III of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which asks: “May I express thee unblam’d?”

For this reader, though, the Milton quote acts as a provocation for a series of questions more central to this collection, such as: Are we even able to express light through language? And, if so, can we do so directly? To my mind, A Primary Mother answers both of these questions: Yes, we can express light through language, but only in the indirect, warped, and failed manner in which poetry affords; or, as Lee writes, “the sound that fails” (5).

The first half of Lee’s chapbook, which is a series of seven, semi-related prose poems, opens with the declaration that:

Sunblindedness is no longer an epiphenomenon, an attendant attitude of danger buried under mounds of quiet. As a roving brilliance, those caught in it truly reckon how the meanest light defends you. (4)

This passages suggests that “Sunblindedness is no longer” just an effect of starring into the sun; rather, it allows for one not only to stare into the sun, but functions as the cause for doing so. To this end, the poem posits a reorientation of cause-and-effect relationships, and, to some extent, the relationship between language and the world.

And everywhere throughout the first section, the poems beg the question: Does light create the language we use to describe it, or does language itself create light as we know it? The poems, seemingly, never answer the question; but it is the process of continual linguistic displacement and re-orientation of light that, in fact, propels these poems forward:

If brightness is a quantity while oceans writhe and heave around it (4)

It is beautiful to remember pastels after sunsets (5)

This romanticism is a voracious shape between us, reminding us to stare upwards into the negative space that once stood for light. (7)

The inconclusiveness of feelings that arise move with a heat and dynamism analogous to the surface of the sun. (10)

Like Meetze’s poems, which address the negative space between the trees, Lee’s poems call attention to the “negative space that once stood for light” by measuring the ocean through “brightness,” or the remembrance of a beautiful sunset. By using language to provide secondhand definitions of light, these poems generate a sense of “inconclusiveness” about their subject matter because of its “dynamism” and ever-shifting nature.

Lee brings this elusiveness into greater focus during the chapbook’s second half, titled “On Light.” The opening section reads in its entirety:

Add light to light and you have darkness.
Add light to light and you have expanse.
Add light to light and you have memory.
Add light to light and you have light. (13)

Employing the synactical structure of mathematics, the poem is at once contradictory, tautological, noetic, inscrutable, and absurd. How can “light” become “darkness” through addition? How can one add more light to light? Can light be augmented, or is it simply a static state of being? What is the relationship between light and spatial (i.e. “expanse”) and temporal (i.e. “memory”) constraints?

The strength, I believe, of Lee’s poems is that they do not answer these question out-right or in a definitive manner; instead, they continually alter our understanding of light until we realize that it “is more complicated” (18) than we heretofore expected or thought. We might never crack the “cipher” of light’s “myriad message” (22), but in this there is no shame. It is simply enough to “Announce” and “Speak” (22) of light through the warped language of poetry.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Chapbooks

18 Nov

chap3chap2chap1chap4During overly hectic periods in my life, it’s sometimes difficult to find the time to invest in a full-length collection of poetry with an intensity that gives due diligence to the aesthetic, emotional, and poetic content of the poems therein. For this reason (among others), I enjoy reading chapbooks. Engaging a poet’s work within the confines of 15-30 pages enables me, as a reader, to spend more time with individual poems, to think about the conceptual framework of the entire collection in a more concentrated manner, and to do so in a relatively truncated time frame.

The past few weeks, for me, have been rather busy and, thus, I’ve not been able to dedicate my time to reading any full-length collections. Luckily for me, though, a stack of recently acquired chapbooks have gathered in my apartment; this was the perfect opportunity to read these little books.

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already aware that there is no dearth of wonderful chapbook presses across the country releasing limited-run titles. Of these, my favorite presses take an artisan approach to constructing their artifacts, creating books that demonstrate a particular type of craftsmanship, attention to aesthetic detail, and a general love of book-making. While I find presses that release chapbooks that embodied a D.I.Y. and/or zine-style approach to their artifacts interesting as well (but for different reasons), I find a certain pleasure in fetishizing a finely-wrought chapbook.

To this end, I would like to offer brief reviews of four chapbooks that are both well-constructed and filled with well-conceived poetry.

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Brown, Lily. The Haptic Cold. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013.

In “I Tie Down My Fill, Close the Sky,” the opening poem of Brown’s newly released The Haptic Cold, the speaker says:

When I went outside and spoke, metal
was coming out of my skin.
I spoke backwards and others
rotated the phrases back for me.

However strange we need to be to get there.
The skin’s scales speak of failure
to do something. Easy to fail all day,
then use the word to show
a state of non-achievement.

The speaker attempts to articulate herself, but she voices her phrases “backwards” and in a “rotated” manner, thus obfuscating her desired meaning or intent. Moreover, her speech, instead of communicating a message, effects some strange bodily transformation wherein metal comes out of her skin.

To this end, “I Tie Down My Fill,” and The Haptic Cold, in general, address a particular “failure” of language to do “something” which its speaker intends. But this “state of non-achievement” becomes an achievement in and of itself–at least to the extent that these poems disorient their readers, situating them in a linguistic field marked not by utilitarian ends, but by its ability to disrupt understanding through the “violence of artifact” and artifice.

As such, when we encounter strange passages, such the following lines from “Taxonomic”:

I swallowed the doorjamb’s

shine. The threshold
breaks off as I use it.
The water has a breeze

says the dog-eared lady
who owns both.

we need not so much worry about the poem’s discernible logic; but, rather, we should focus on the haptic effects that such linguistic and cognitive dislocations render within and upon our bodies.

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Falck, Noah. Celebrity Dream Poems. Portland, OR: Poor Claudia, 2013.

Falck’s chapbook Celebrity Dream Poems consists of twenty poems, each composed of four couplets that he titled after the name of a famous person.

The poet prefaces his collection an excerpt from Berryman’s “Dream Song 14,” which simply reads: “Peoples bore me.” While, no doubt, the epigraph acknowledges the vacuous nature of celebrity culture, these absurdist poems do not work in service of reinforcing this claim; rather, Falck’s poems enliven the celebrity machine by infusing it with quirky humor through a re-orientation of context. Take, for instance, the poem “Lebron James”:

There is a lake on the moon on fire.
I hold your hand and try to explain

everything as if it were written by
Dr. Seuss. I will not lose anymore

not in the dark, not in the park, Sammy.
Though, I will win seven rings in Miami!

Your tears came out as small green hams. You stood
near a window pointing to the fire on the moon.

Similar to the gossip and entertainment magazines found in the checkout lanes at the grocery store, the poem provides a brief engagement with a celebrity figure. But unlike those magazines—which frame their subject as person who is “Just Like Us” through images and captions of him/her performing banal tasks—Falck’s poem creates a little, surreal world for us to lose ourselves in momentarily.

And that world, populated by burning lakes on the moon, tears composed of miniature green hams, and an impromptu Dr. Seuss adaptation, is decidedly nothing like the one in which we normally find Lebron James. Instead, this world effects a bizarre yet enjoyable milieu, wherein an NBA superstar is a rhyming astronomer who watches the moon burn impossibly.

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Fortin, Jennifer H. Give or Take. Salem, MA: Greying Ghost Press, 2013.

Give or Take is a series of fifteen prose poems that, more often than not, offer reflective meditations on a particular subject matter. For example, the collection’s first poem “Hawaii” begins:

My work is to point out the inescapability of neglect and call for a slower, deeper interaction with it. As we reached the end of our inaugural experience of neglect, our attention returned to skin, the sonic sibling of skim. Neglect just means you don’t pick something up, and you don’t or can’t handle it.

While the poem’s title references the island state of Hawaii, Hawaii is never addressed throughout the course of the poem. Hawaii becomes the neglected object through non-engagement. Rather, the speaker presents us with other subjects, such as skin, skim, apples, doorknobs, and forks. Most importantly, though, she addresses the concept of neglect itself. To this end, the title of the poem is a “cheap kind of attention”: in other words, invoking a term for the explicit sake of non-engagement.

The subject matter of each prose meditation alters quite a bit from piece to piece. One of my favorite reflections occurs during the collection’s title poem:

There’s a “you”—probably now a me—described that morphs from character into concept via the inappropriate. The absolute is all over the place. “You” is all over the place. When it comes to assessing you’s emotions, it gets very serious. And anytime there are big feelings involved, tender complexity is not far away.

In this passage, the speaker of the poem investigates the protean nature of pronouns and the manner in which the second-person pronoun can sometimes refer to the first-person through a morphing of character. Moreover, these alterations in antecedents usually correspond to some “serious” emotional states that tend to involve a “tender complexity.” Just like pronouns and the emotional states affixed to them, Fortin’s prose poems are both tender and complex in concept and delivery.

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Kaminski, Megan. Gemology. Houston, TX: Little Red Leaves, 2012.

Megan Kaminski’s chapbook Gemology works through a troika of tropes: the word, the flesh, and the city. The collection, in many ways, seeks to collapse these three distinctive terms so as to render their differences unintelligible. Take, for instance, the following excerpts:

                                    Name me perception
                                    name me economy
rows of turnstops
lanes of traffic
halls cubicles queues
                 order number and sign
                 away my body
                 one department or another (4)

We implore you exhale city smoke and invite us
within garneted sanctuary damp cavern
architectures making way songs and bodies
rending walls porous to sound silken soiled (5)

Vowels roll drip down thighs
conjunctions across backs

I put on my city

city built line on line body on body
alphabet buried beneath street
cross-sectioned-fluid-fattened (7)

Yes, the poet builds the “city” from “line on line” in the poem, but also of “body on body.” But these bodies themselves are made of language, such that “Vowels roll…down thighs” and one can find “conjunctions across backs.” The city, likewise, becomes a body, at the least to the extent that the speaker claims that she can “put on my city” as if it were a detachable skin. Furthermore, the city is language, wherein one can “exhale” it through articulation, capturing its “architectures” in “song.”

No longer can we tell where one entity begins and another ends. Instead, all three are enwrapped in a tri-folded chiasmus such that they are indistinguishable from one another.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Pop Corpse

14 Oct

popcorpseLara Glenum’s third book of poetry, Pop Corpse (Action Books, 2013) opens with an epigraph from Hans Christian Anderson’s short story “The Little Mermaid.” In Anderson’s story, his mermaid endures a painful transformation into human form in order to pursue a prince with whom she has fallen in love. Unfortunately, her romantic advances go unrequited, and she dies in heartbreak.

With Pop Corpse, though, Glenum retells the mermaid’s tale wherein the protagonist becomes a champion of (and allegory for) sexual and creative freedom in a post-apocalyptic and “post-gender” (48) world. To this end, the book echoes Donna Haraway’s insistence in “A Cyborg Manifesto” that those with non-normative or marginalized identities need to “seize the tools to mark the world that marked them as other” through “stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities.”

In her manifesto, Haraway also recognizes that we are engaged in a “border war,” the stakes of which are “territories of production, reproduction, and imagination.” In order to proceed most ethically, we should take “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for the responsibility in their construction”; ultimately, such confusion and construction will aid in the “imagining of a world without gender.”

And it these very issues of border construction, confusion, imagination, reproduction on which Glenum’s book focuses. Near the beginning of the Pop Corpse, an Undersea Denizen says:

[The mermaids’] gender was chosen for them by their parents. The King and Queen of the Sea. Who have the most to gain by keeping the current power structures in place. And they succeed not by openly oppressing us but by persistently courting/curtailing our lines of sight with spectacle of their Vision Machines. (37)

The Denizen goes on to tell his companion that a Vision Machine is a “culturally-produced spectacle that naturalizes highly specific forms of desire and consumption” (37). In other words, systems of power enforce predetermined gender roles by providing subjects with highly-stylized images in order to produce and reinforce a particular type of want and, thus, thought. Even more troubling, XXX the mermaid informs the reader that:

     I got no holes to fuck with

                    No legs
                    Nothing between (32)

Indeed, XXX has no sex organs; therefore, this “CUNTLESS DUMPLING” (17) cannot experience sexual pleasure. She is both subject to an identity she did not create, and incapable of sexual fulfillment. Or, in XXX’s own words: “The Disaster’s being serially cut off from our own pleasure” (44); and, a bit later, “we can’t fuck. And that sucks seahorse butt” (48). The remainder of the Pop Corpse, then, follows the mermaid on her quest for functioning sex organs, sexual pleasure, and love.

Of course, if XXX’s narrative was simply a conduit for didactic musings on gender, sexuality, and social construction, Pop Corpse would most likely fail (at least to the extent that a theoretical text such as “A Cyborg Manifesto” could convey the ideas more effectively than a poetic text). But Pop Corpse succeeds because it also employs language in an “excessive & slightly off” manner that places “emphasis…on artifice & the unnatural” (23). Take, for instance, the following passages:

My father is a gillygobber &
the King of the Sea

In his freakopolis the liquid children
do not go in for cuzzly wuzzly mooncalves

but I sure as fuck do (24)

#Yr anus heart
gives me

a retard-on (66)

#Eyetwinkle hawt

U have retarded my dayz
in2 a narcoleptic stammer

A labial hiccup (71)

How long will this stellectric meat knot take

In the suckshack

will his face debase me &
          My junk fliching pinkjoy      eggwhite noise spurt (172)

The poems in Pop Corpse make liberal use of Twitter/text short-hand, neologisms and kennings that more often than not refer to some sort of sexual activity/organ, as well as webding-like symbols. Such language play allows for Glenum (and the characters in her book):

                      to speak in a different register
The register of candied decay

The filthy register of the halfbreed
which is
[her] own (10)

By using such language, which most standard-bearers would consider unpoetic, Glenum creates a unique and highly poetic language of a “different register” that aestheticizes the “decay” of what we consider formal or proper English. In doing so, the poet undermines normative conceptions of beauty that the antiseptic echo-chambers of poetry (e.g. Norton Anthologies and Best American Poetry,) try to reinforce. By melding progressive social themes with imaginative use of language, then, Pop Corpse delivers a highly-charged and imaginative poetic experience.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Noah Falck

30 Sep

“Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” wrote Russian critic Victor Shklovsky. In order to prevent this, he asks artists “to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” For Shklovsky, defamiliarization is essential because “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life.” Maybe this explains how Noah Falck’s debut collection, Snowmen Losing Weight, can be simultaneously so surreal and so deeply corporeal.

Falck’s poems return the world its strangeness. Even seemingly straightforward descriptions feel weirdly askew. For example, in the poem “Interval between Beating Pulse and Sunrise” Falck writes:

Lastly, the insects grind a kind of static into the night. Lastly, the hair on your back is shaping up to be another Massachusetts. A toy in a cereal box. You’ve lived to tell about it with clean hands. I am all of a sudden. Or the tongue in the mouth saying, the last time was a lake reflection, a windshield wiper held in place by ice.  (44)

There’s a kind of significance created by simplicity in Snowmen. Instead of eliminating ambiguity, Falck’s laconic descriptions somehow make his poems more elliptical. Further, through Falck’s surreal reportage, he creates a kind of unity in tone that troubles the idea of significance. An example is “Inside the Inside Joke.” Falck begins the poem with these lines, “I keep seeing people/ who look exactly like you// and the clouds keep/ running into all the buildings.// I have to think for a minute/ or two” (32). In Falck’s poems, all events are made equal, so the significant and the quotidian collapse into each other, and such distinctions are proven imaginary. This can lead to a sense of arbitrariness, which is heightened by the “crossword” poems that punctuate Snowmen….  The poems, titled things like “5. Across” or “19. Down,” posit an America that is continually expanding out into space. For instance, in “13. Across” Falck writes:

The conversation ends with a sigh.
Enough is enough.

The emptiness of a white room
passes time like solitaire.

Nothing will ever be as it once was,
when we listened to music backwards
and dreamed of making love to the police.

Tonight, the television plugs the World Series—
the elevator is cluttered with cancer patient footprints

and on the fourth floor, grandpa is plugged with pins
on his deathbed. (36)

The evenness of Flack’s language delineates a country where everything is happening at once and simultaneity is a kind of meaning.

Also striking about Snowmen… are the poems that capture the choreography of our lives. For example, in “From a Desk” Falck writes, “Once upon/ a time in a crowded locker room twenty-/ two women waxed lips in unison” (4). These poems could almost be scenes in a musical. In “13. Down” Falck writes:

The night studied our bodies
with its callused hands.
We leaned like kitchen knives
and watched the waitress
two-step around decaffeinated beverages.
Between blinks there was a constant shift,
time kept killing itself in tiny circles.  (7)

In these poems, serendipity is created through simultaneity. In “18. Down,” Falck writes:

The moon marks the rooftops with silver […]
Across town, a radio emits a mess
of static from a fire escape where a woman
takes off her coat like a superhero […]
There’s a black cat with scholarly eyes, parading,
and hiccups channeling from the New Moon Saloon,
where two friends swallow bourbon in unison,
oblivious to the fact that they are sleeping
with the same beautiful woman. (9)

The continual coincidence of the random in Snowmen… is what gives the book cohesion. There’s an omniscience to Snowmen…, but not in any metaphysical sense. These poems’ only transcendence is estrangement, the way they are able to show us our lives as a performance we’ve forgotten we’re in. This omniscient perspective doesn’t mean there’s no “I” in Snowmen… however. Someone has to be there to hold the camcorder, and this I is present as more than just a type of attention. In “The Last Time I Ate a Hamburger It Was Raining,” Falck writes:

The light of the day had given up and fallen behind
the tallest buildings I had ever seen—somewhere
between 24th & 35th, though it could have been between
Liberty & Church. Regardless, you were there with me […]
I rubbed my belly first before pulling your wet
body onto mine, the people around us were the fungal shapes
of a dream, they were the silhouettes of silhouettes
melting into the afternoon and I think I was in love. (11)

Falck is very much in these poems, both as the person seeing and the person seen.

The estrangement in Snowmen.. isn’t mutually exclusive with intimacy. “You” is the most common pronoun in book. Falck is not talking to the abstract reader; he is talking to you, and particularly affecting is the closeness he can create while keeping the reader a stranger. In “Staring Contest,” Falck writes:

In your eyes, a traffic light, a backyard of paperbacks, a Home Depot. In your eyes recycle bins fill with history books, a collection of lightening rods from 1989 […] In your eyes, marching bands. In your eyes the clapping of several simultaneous first kisses in the shade of a Mexican sitcom […] (51)

The need to address this “you” is the engine of Snowmen… If we can lose ourselves in familiarity, we can lose ourselves in strangeness too, and Falck’s speakers find ways of inhabiting what can be, at times, a profoundly alienating life. For example, in “In a Room Doubling as a Hallway,” Falck writes:

I whisper to you a pillow away
that the President is being taken care

of, and then our unscripted dreams
struggling, black hungry

failures of hope, unbuttoned episodes
with the architecture of blindfolded men […]

where the wind is a wingless insect muscling a serenade […]

where our old lovers marry,

breast-feed, and mow crooked lines behind white picket fences […]  (23)

This intimacy is only underscored by the fact that each copy of Snowmen… is handmade and unfolds like a Jacob’s ladder, and this says something about the contract Snowmen… makes with its reader. Snowmen…, however, is also intimate in the other sense of the word as well. Falck’s poetry can be sensual, but manages to do so without feeling cloying or fetishistic.  In “Cincinnati,” Falck writes:

Drink a bottle of Tequila in the dining room. Expand internally. She’ll leave lipstick on the scruffy portion of your check […] Undress her slowly in a room fumbling with public television light where the shadows crowd the curtains; carve a thick mutilated forest on the walls. When morning comes […] [l]et the songs happen. Let the sun slip across the room to paint her lips a water-color orange. (48)

Surrealism then, for Falck, becomes a way of approaching the world, a way of touching it again, like it was still new.

Noah Falck’s world is both the world I live in, and the world I wished I lived in. And maybe, that’s what’s most beautiful about the text, that it brings those two a little closer together while still recognizing the essential difference between them.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Lisa Jarnot

21 Aug

JarnotBeginning with Norma Cole’s 2009 Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1998-2008, City Lights Books has been releasing contemporary poetry titles under the auspices of their Spotlight Series. According to their website, the series “shines a light on the wealth of innovative American poetry being written today” in an attempt to provide cultural visibility to poets and the small presses on which they normally publish. With strong releases by writers such as Anselm Berrigan, Cedar Sigo, and Cathy Wagner (I’ve previously reviewed her City Lights book Nervous Device), the series has been, to my mind, an unqualified success.

Earlier this year, City Lights Books published the tenth installment of their Spotlight Series: Lisa Jarnot’s Joie De Vivre: Selected Poems 1992-2012. While it might seem odd for a poet with only four full-length collections to release a “Selected Poems,” this volume offers readers new to the poet’s work a wonderful introduction.

Jarnot, born in Buffalo, NY in 1967, studied with Robert Creeley at SUNY-Buffalo and earned her MFA at Brown University. In addition to her books on Burning Deck, Zoland/Salt, and Flood Editions, she is the author of the biography Robert Duncan: The Ambassador of Venus, which the University of California Press published last year. Currently, she lives in New York City, where she’s resided since the mid-90s.

As for her writing, Jarnot has, for the better part of her publishing career, trafficked in the poetics of difference and repetition, recalling, to some extent, a Steinian aesthetic. By employing a finite lexicon in conjunction with an ever-complex re-ordering of those words and their syntax, Jarnot’s poems produce an interesting and, thus, productive tension between the familiar and the strange. Take, for instance, the opening sentences from the prose poem “blood in my eyes,” originally from her first book Some Other Kind of Mission:

Blood in my eyes followed by truck in motel. either severely or proper. followed by police activity. followed by truck in. followed by followed by. followed by truck in motel. at the library. at the truck in motel. at the of. today there where they’re taking me. followed by. i dreamt about and followed by a truck in thence motel. followed by properly.(4)

The poem continues on in this fashion for some time, piling sentence fragment upon sentence fragment, all the while echoing the words “followed by” and “trucks” and “motels.”

This technique, though, becomes even more compelling when, during the time period of Ring of Fire, Jarnot replaces the period with the comma. Gone are the staccato rhythms of fragmented sentences; instead, dense and sinuous sentence structures appear. Augment by these comma-driven syntactical digressions and tangents, the poems become beautiful in their unwieldiness. A wonderful example of this shift in punctuation is “Poem Beginning with a Line by Frank Lima.” Her homage to the oft forgotten New York School poet slides through twenty-one lines of enjambment before its one and only moment of terminal punctuation:

And how terrific it is to write a radio poem
and how terrific it is to stand on the roof and
watch the stars go by and how terrific it is to be
misled inside a hallway, and how terrific it is
to be the hallway as it stands inside the house,
and how terrific it is, shaped like a telephone,
to be filled with scotch and stand out on the street,
and how terrific it is to see the stars inside the radios
and cows, and how terrific the cows are, crossing
at night, in their unjaundiced way and moving
through the moonlight, and how terrific the night is,
purveyor of the bells and distant planets, and how
terrific it is to write this poem as I sleep, to sleep
in distant planets in my mind and cross at night the
cows in hallways riding stars to radios at night, and
how terrific night you are, across the bridges, into
tunnels, into bars, and how terrific it is that you are
this too, the fields of planetary pull, terrific, living
on the Hudson, inside the months of spring, an
underwater crossing for the cows in dreams, terrific,
like the radios, the songs, the poem and the stars. (48)

Yes, the poem becomes “terrific” in its many permutations of the radio, the songs, the cows, and the stars populating its lines as they meander within its singular syntax. The poet finds a way to enliven repetition with a refreshing ecstasy due to her adeptness in recombination; in the hands of a lesser poets, such practices can easily bore a reader, making her achievement all the more remarkable.

But Jarnot is not a one-trick pony. In her later books, she works through different ideas and aesthetics; in “Sinning Skel Misclape” from Night Scenes, for instance, she starts to move away from a poetics of difference and repetition to explore rhyme, meter, and antiquated spellings and pronunciations:

O sinning skel miscalpe thy lock
from frenzied felbred feefs
and longitudes of long tongue fuels
unpebble-dash deceased

Unpebble-dashed, unpebble-dashed,
Unpebble-dash unrose,
up from the theme that random flaps
in news flash rancid hose. (73)

While Jarnot does overload the first two stanzas of this poem with the hyphenated “unpebble-dash,” such repetition takes a back seat to the poem’s other characteristics. Likewise, in Selected Poems’ concluding piece, the fifteen-page “Amedillin Cooperative Nosegay,” the poet explores organic, open-field forms composed, primarily, of catalogs and lists in order to create a fluid and impressionistic account of our modern era.

When all is said and done, though, Jarnot’s poetry continues to resonate because–after the experimentation and language play–her poems still burst both with feeling and beauty. Whether penning lines such as “let them row for days beside the / moon and next to other things less brave” (63), or tugging at the heartstrings with lines like:

and at noon I will fall in love
and nothing will have meaning
except for the brownness of
the sky, and tradition, and water (27)

Jarnot finds a way to capture a moment of emotional intensity with and in language, while simultaneously letting that moment retain the mystery and the wonder which it produces.