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Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Ian Huebert

4 Apr

If you don’t recognize the name Ian Huebert, you probably have, at least, seen his work. Most recently, Huebert designed the cover for Matthew Zapruder’s newest collection of poems Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014). He also created the cover art for Dan Chelott’s X (McSweeney’s, 2013), Jeff Alessandrelli’s Don’t Let Me Forget to Feed the Sharks (Poor Claudia, 2012), and is the primary cover artist for the chapbooks released by Dikembe Press.

In addition to designing covers for collection of contemporary poetry, though, Huebert also is an accomplished cartoonist and minimalist poet. Over the course of the past year or two, he has self-published a limited-run chapbook series of his drawings and poetry, titled Comb. Take a look at the below excerpt from issue one (click for large view):
One of my favorite aspects of the above image is how the text of the poem appears to both rupture the aesthetic surface of the cartoon, while simultaneously integrating itself into the image rather seamlessly. At least as a visual text, its ability to look both coherent and fractured is something that pleases me. (My critical vocabulary for visual art is limited, so my apologies for any idiomatic lack.)

As far as the poem itself, I enjoy how Huebert transforms a rather benign, childhood activity, such as climbing a “cherry tree,” into a “base,” sexual experience. Likewise, the wordplay via repetition and difference (i.e. “said” and “saying) and homonyms (i.e. “right”) adds another dimension of linguistic depth within the rather small space of ten lines.

Moreover, the sexual transformation that occurs in the poem alters our interpretation of the image; a child peeking through a hole in a fence becomes a moment of voyeuristic, sexual gratification instead of an innocent moment of childhood “spying.”

If you’d like to purchase a copy of issues one and two of Comb, or any of the other various woodcuts and prints Huebert has made, check out both his website or his tumblr account. You can also find a handful of Huebert’s poems in this year’s Lovebook by SP CE.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Tyrone Williams

28 Mar

adventures-of-pi-lgYesterday, the poet and critic Tyrone Williams traveled from Cincinnati to Cleveland in order to read and discuss his poems at Case Western Reserve University for the Poets of Ohio reading series. Below is an excerpt from my introduction, along with a video clip from the event:

In late-2002, I began actively exploring the world of contemporary poetry. As a way to discover the names of poets, presses, and different aesthetics that interested me, I started reading pretty much any literary journal I could get my hands on. After a few months of scouring the small press and magazine section at Tattered Cover in downtown Denver, I found myself gravitating toward journals such as The Canary, Denver Quarterly, Fence, jubilat, Open City, and Verse.

In one of these magazines, the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of Fence, an article by Rodeny Phillips appeared that was titled “Exotic flowers, decayed gods, and the fall of paganism: The 2003 Poets House Poetry Showcase, an exhibit of poetry books published in 2002.” In addition to providing a comprehensive overview of the showcase, several sidebars located in the article’s margins offered “Best Of” lists: “Best Books of Experimental Poetry” and “Best Debut Collections,” for example. While each list contained a series of names and titles with which I was unfamiliar—but, subsequently, over the years would become intimately familiar—one name caught my attention due to the fact that it found its way onto no less than three of these lists (if my memory serves me correctly): Tyrone Williams and his first book c.c., published by Krupskaya Press.

Given that the Phillips article championed this poet and collection to such a high degree, I went online and ordered a copy. When the book finally arrived and I read through it, I was confronted with a style of poetry that was theretofore unknown to me. The writing in Williams’ first book employed radical notions of form, citation, appropriation, and marginalia, all the while remaining socially, politically, and culturally engaged. This, indeed, was not the type of poetry I had previously encountered (even with exposure to the High Modernists); no, this was something more daring, complex, and exciting. The poems of c.c., such as “Cold Calls,” “I am not Proud to be Black,” and “TAG” were avant-tour de forces that acted as catalysts for my own interest, involvement, and dedication to poetry over the course of the next twelve years.

In 2008, Omnidawn Publishing released Williams’ second book of poetry On Spec, which I would later use for my comprehensive exams as I pursued my doctorate. In a citation of his book that I wrote in 2010, I argued that the collection “explores the confluence of post-Language poetry and African-American poetic tradition” by entwining “diverse aesthetic and ideological lineages” through the use of “different idioms and whose contents are often thought to be at odds with one another.” Moreover, I noted the book’s “conflation of genres,” wherein the poems sought to “question the relationship between theory and poetry,” as well as drama; in doing so, Williams created a “transitional and often nebulous zone.” These “boundary-defying techniques” were further highlighted in his “use of check-boxes, errata and footnotes…mathematical equations, cross-outs, quotation, and liberal use of white space.”

Most recently, his 2011 collection Howell (Atelos Press), which is a reference to Howell, Michigan and conceived in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, is an epic “writing through” of history that extends to nearly 400 pages in length.

For our course this semester, though, we read Williams’ Adventures of Pi: Poems 1980-1990. The collection takes a backward glance at the poet’s work, thus functioning as an interesting prequel in the development of a contemporary, poetic innovator. And although it does serve to flesh out his career trajectory, Adventures of Pi also offers readers engaging moments wherein the poet confronts the racial fissures in then-contemporary America in a straightforward but aesthetically compelling manner. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from his poem “White Noise (Fighting to Wake Up)”:

of a body dreaming two dreams,
only one of which is called
a black man in America,

the other, America
itself (18)

The notion that two dreams and two Americas exist within the speaker echoes, at least to me, the concept of double-consciousness as proposed by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, in which he famously wrote:

One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Furthermore, the form of Williams’ poem suggests an intensification of this “two-ness” through a strategic use of a stanza break between the two instances of “America” within the single, syntactical unit. In this sense, the poem fuses form and content in order to heighten its underlying conceptual framework.

Similarly, racial and cultural issues are addressed and challenged throughout the collection in poems such as “A Black Man Who Wants to be a White Woman” and “How Do I Cross Out the X Malcom.” Within these poems, Williams creates linguistic spaces wherein he’s “Scribabbling” his words into an “estranged language” (34) of neologism and wordplay in order to write a:

       story we make up about the other stories
[Which] Itself is made up of other stories:
Thus the three dimensions of history—plus history,
Remarkable violence (34)

Yes, stories made up of stories compound by other stories, all constructing an American narrative that resonates with the “Remarkable violence” inherent to the history of a country fraught with civil rights’ tensions and complex racial relations. But far from simply being a collection of didactic poems, Williams employs his heightened intellect, aesthetic sensibilities, and ear for the musical phrase in order to compose poems that address the political and social worlds while simultaneously providing aesthetic pleasures. In doing so, the poems challenge both our understanding of contemporary poetry and our concept of race in America today.

Here’s a video clip of Williams reading his poem “Mayhem” from The Hero Project of the Century:

The final event of the semester for the Poets of Ohio reading series will take place on Thursday, 10 April when the poet Larissa Szporluk will visit Case Western Reserve University from Bowling Green, OH.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Heather Christle

14 Feb

christle_trees-500x699Yesterday evening, the poet Heather Christle drove to Cleveland from Yellow Spring, OH to read and discuss her poems at Case Western Reserve University for the Poets of Ohio reading series. Below is an excerpt of the introduction I gave for the event.

In “That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring,” the opening poem of The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books, 2011), Christle writes: “I want to show you something       I don’t care what       I want you to look where I say” (3). While thinking about how to access her book and the poems therein, I read this passage as a directive.

And where does Christle want us to look? Well, she tells us twice in the title: to the trees, of course.

In looking toward the trees, then, I first revisited some of my favorite tree poems in order to remind myself of what they can offer us as readers. For instance, in “Some Trees,” the poet John Ashbery informs us that:

                      you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

Yes, the trees can function as an analog for ideal human relationships, wherein “their merely being there” teaches us how to “touch” and “love.”

Conversely, in Philip Larkin’s poem “The Trees,” our arboreal counterparts remind us of our own mortality, such that “Their greenness is a kind of grief” when we realize that, unlike the trees in spring, our bodies do not regenerate with the seasons; rather, they simply decay.

Or, apropos of the weather this winter, Wallace Stevens considers the “pine-trees crusted with snow” and the “junipers shagged with ice” in his poem “The Snow Man,” so as to arrive at a zen-like “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Armed with these mediations on trees, I returned to Chirstle’s book with one basic question: “How does the poet show us trees and their mere being?” What I gathered is that showing us trees is a bit of a conjuring act, in that, yes, there are “trees…all around us,” but they “move themselves across the planet in wide invisible lines” (46); to see them, then, is to see something that is invisible, ethereal: the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” It is the poet’s duty, perhaps, to show us that nothing; to feel that nothing; to experience that nothing; to be that nothing.

Luckily for us, the invisible nothing of trees finds fertile ground “to in live” in each little “rectangle” (18), which are the prose poems of Christle’s book. And as the trees grow within these rectangles, the speakers of the poems “hang upside down” (56) from them, “fall back up into” (51) them, and are the “noisy” singers who remind us that, yes, the trees do indeed love us (59); because, without the voice of the poet telling us otherwise, we might not know this to be true.

Christle’s collection of poems welcomes us into “a tree-based society” where “women and…men all live in trees” (42), appreciating the “greenness” not as grief, but as a place to “Begin,” as Larkin wrote, “afresh, afresh, afresh.” And although Larkin was correct in acknowledging that we cannot repair our bodies, Christle comforts us in the knowledge that, in this freshness, we can repair our “ruined” souls (57) as we “move faster” through our lives “toward that tree which does not care” (55) because it simply exists in its mere being.

Here is a video clip of Christle reading her poem “Je M’Appelle Ivan” from The Trees The Trees during the event:

The next Poets of Ohio event will take place on Tuesday, 18 March with Dave Lucas, followed by a 27 March event with Tyrone Williams. This semester’s series will conclude with a 10 April reading and discussion by Larissa Szpourluk.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Matt Hart

7 Feb

debacle_partialYesterday, Matt Hart traveled from Cincinnati to Cleveland in order to read and discuss his poems for the second installment of the Poets of Ohio reading series at Case Western Reserve University. In my introduction to the event, I wrote the following with regard to his fifth full-length collection of poetry, Debacle Debacle (H_NGM_N Books, 2013):

In a review I wrote of Matt Hart’s book Debacle Debacle at the beginning of last June, I noted how the poems both mediate and meditate upon the “complex emotional circumstances of our daily lives,” ratcheting up the tension between “excitement” and “irritation” in order to generate productive forces that harness a certain poetic energy formed at the confluence of these competing emotional and psychic states. Or, as the speaker of the book’s title poem says:

                          Essential it is to struggle, but struggle’s

merely tension, and tension can be a thing of balance
or irritation, confusion or song. I’m singing in tension
with the not singing. I’m living in tension with the forces

out to kill me. We’re living in tension because we’re
different human beings, and living in excitement
that we’re so much the same. (15)

While I still believe this “tension” is a central concern of Debacle Debacle, my re-reading of the collection during the past two weeks has offered me a new conceptual framework through which to think about these poems.

As a side note—before I explain the new framework further—poetry’s ability to provide multiple interpretations and experiences when our contexts shift happens to be one of it’s many characteristics of which I am enamored. While, certainly, this trait is not exclusive to poetry, the genre seems to thrive on the potential of its texts to open up to an assortment of readings, interpretations, and possibilities.

And what is this new understanding of Hart’s collection that I experienced of late? Well, when re-engaging the book, I was keenly aware of the manner in which the poems name their historic and aesthetic communities. Beginning with the collection’s opening epigraph—which is Breton’s admonition that “A poem must be a debacle of the intellect”—as well as a slew of touchstones throughout the book that reference Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Berrigan, Pound, and Whitman; and, finally, to the concluding poem’s Wallace Stevens’ epigraph, Hart creates and names a lineage of influence that shapes the contours of these poems.

Debacle Debacle, though, does more than just outline Hart’s aesthetic and historic communities; it also sings the praise of his contemporary communities, by which I mean his friends, family, and poetry peers. For instance, he thanks “the sky for [the contemporary poet] Adam Fell” (39), he reminisces about his friend “Jane” who recently became “entrenched / in Brooklyn” (49), he references his friend, poet, and publisher Nate Pritts who drives “his auto on automatic pilot feeling ebullient” (63), and he composes a poem to his then four year old daughter in order to “tell [her] some things” while he’s “in perfect alignment” (72).

Yes, this is a social book, at least to the extent that the poems therein declare to and for whom they belong. But if Hart does not name you or me or someone else for that matter, this does not mean that we are not welcome to participate in the poems. In fact, Debacle Debacle can be read as an invitation to those who share like-minded poetics and sensibilities. Yes, “everybody’s on fire beside” (5) him, not just his close confidantes; indeed, Hart sings in a “common language” (80) where “Every single one / of us [is] a hymn” to the weird, to the wired, to anyone willing to “open our books” (74) and join in this “marvelous” human “predicament” (75).

Below is a video of Hart reading his poem “Upon Seeing Again the Thriving” from the event:

The next event for the Poets of Ohio reading series will take place on Thursday, 13 February when the Yellow Springs, OH poet Heather Christle will join us for an evening of poetry and discussion. For more details, please visit the Poets of Ohio website.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Catherine Wing

31 Jan
wingenter winggin

Catherine Wing kicked-off the second season of the Poets of Ohio reading series at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH last night, performing selections from her books Enter Invisible (2005) and Gin & Bleach (2012), both of which were published by Sarabande Books. In my introduction to the event, I wrote the following about Wing’s most recent collection of poetry:

In “How It All Fell Out,” the final poem of Gin & Bleach—Catherine Wing’s second full-length collection of poetry—the speaker observes how the “mouths” of an unspecified “they”: “stretched as if to say open, they were outspoken, they let the light pour through, and the air pour through, and that which was neither light nor air they were open to” (57).

This passage, I think, provides a productive way to conceptualize Wing’s poems: open mouths that consume the world around them, whether it be in the form of “light” or “air” or that which is “neither,” in order to, later, articulate that aforementioned world in an “outspoken” fashion. In other words, the poems function similar to breath, wherein the speaker inhales her surroundings so as to exhale them. The exhalations find their form, most notably, in song. Yes, everywhere there is song: the “song of oyster-shell,” the “song of sifted flour,” the “song of meadowlark” (47), the “Song sung of a splash” (26) by a tadpole, the “Cobbled Song,” the “Death” song, the “Night Song,” and any number of the “Counting Songs” found throughout Gin & Bleach.

The songs that we hear “swinging on a string of sound” (23) within Gin & Bleach are more than just pleasant music—though they are that as well; but, indeed, they also search or strive for something more, which is ineffable, ethereal, and protean. Stated differently, these poems are “searching the lexicon // for a soul” (28): something to guide and direct us, however vague or amorphous that concept may be.

This, of course, is no easy task, because “Language,” as Wing writes, “is, at best, a guessing game” (15) wherein we can only really know “somewhat what” (14) we think we mean to write. Which, I take to mean, we never really know what we mean to write, even if we mean something that we think we mean; which, yes, could mean that we mean nothing at all.

Similar to when “birds unlace their songs” (4) into the atmosphere around us, we think less about what their songs mean, and, rather, simply enjoy the beauty of their music. To this extent, what I enjoy most about Wing’s collection is the ability of the poems therein to straddle that line between meaning and non-meaning, sense and nonsense, all in service of the song.

Below, watch Wing read her poem “The Evil Hypnotist Plans His Next Session” from the event:

Upcoming events for the Poets of Ohio reading series include Matt Hart (02.06), Heather Christle (02.13), Dave Lucas (03.18), Tyrone Williams (03.27), and Larissa Szporluk (04.10) For more information on these events, check out the following Internet Web-Page.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: No Object

22 Jan

During August of last summer, I watched a robustly pregnant Natalie Shapero read from her first book, No Object (Saturnalia Books, 2013), under strands of Christmas-tree lights hung off the fire escape of poet/artists Mel and Pete Burkeet’s  apartment. Though I know it’s not true, I remember Shapero dressed in a kind of Hugh Hefnerish get up, but with perfectly circular glasses instead of 80’s Ray-Bans. In particular, I remember her wearing a white captain’s hat with a black plastic brim. I’ve added this detail in hindsight, most likely as a result of having read No Object so many times, a book where Shapero captains more than writes her poems.

In No Object “common sense,” one liners, advice, aphorisms, literature, memory, history, hearsay, puns, slang, and imagination all collapse into each other forming a kind of sea of language for Shapero to navigate. Take “Kidding, Kidding” for example:

Ordinance says

Three coin-ops and no more.
Is this my fault? I’ve taken things too far.
Hard to believe I’ve been described as a nun

On her day off.

Listen to me.

You simply cannot change
the entire country to the metric system
by calling up a frog jump in La Jolla

and pleading

they see to print

the win in centimeters.
The frog ramp was absurdly cantilevered.

No kind of peep show parlor can survive

on fewer than

four machines.

With all the kinds of screens,
hard to believe they okayed the astronaut
who asked the tester DON’T YOU HAVE THAT INKBLOT

Perhaps an ever better metaphor than calling Shapero a captain would be to compare her to a drunk driver, careening across a dozen lanes of epistemology yet never getting injured in the accidents she causes.

The real estate these poems traverse is immense. In them, thought moves below language like in some diagram by Saussure. The two may intersect at moments but always stay separate. For instance, in one section of her long poem “HOT (NORMAL)” she writes:

I haven’t been a child in a long time.
At most, I’ve been a cat. The world has left

something on for me while it’s at work.
Cats can’t see TV. Or is it mirrors? I’ve seen a lot
of both. I’ve tacked toward shame.
I’ve read the sham obscenity

trial of Howl, publishers in holding cells,
something in the food so they couldn’t get hard.

We’re lucky, our freedom. Recall
when the condom tore. I accused you
of wishing it, trying to make me settle down.

You responded SETTLE DOWN. (54)

Reading these poems is like trailing a string through a labyrinth with no entrances or exists, like channel surfing on a TV on which each day of your life is broadcast as a separate station, like putting the newspaper through a shredder and trying to read it.

And this is what I saw the message of No Object to be. The spaces between fragments is where “we” are. Our selves are located not in language, but in its interstices. And yet, the only way to bring out those gaps is to speak. In “Implausible Travel Plans” she writes:

He said, the water down there, it’s so clear

you can’t see jellyfish. That indicates

nothing, I said, and he said, I don’t care

is the hardest line to deliver in all of acting,

as though he knew of an acting laboratory

where researchers developed hardness scales

and spattered across them devastating fragments.


I liked to rehearse my Ophelia during blackouts,

the traditional time to make the worst mistakes

and, later, soften the story. Nothing working

but the gas stove. God, I felt so bad

that time we used the crock instead of the kettle

and watched it smoke and shatter. I was the one.

I was the one who wanted stupid tea. (18)

What I see as the driving idea behind No Object is the notion that every means of reaching the self are the very same things which prevent one from doing so. What we are left with, then, is language, a body with no object.

If this sounds fatalistic, I don’t mean it to and neither does Shapero. Even if the self is unknowable, Shapero reminds us that the only thing worth kneeling for is what we don’t know. In “Stars” she writes:

[…] I didn’t know anything better, I thought execution-style was a sex position, I thought the love line was the biggest organ in the body, I though you said cock

 for one you wanted to see and dick for one you didn’t, as in he had a dick like a bad word I learned early, didn’t comprehend the meaning, and I don’t want to live so fully, aging actress who must embody herself dying again and again of unspecified illness, there are few good parts for women, count your blessings, count the while like stars now shooting

through my friend’s black hair, she says not that’s blonde, I’m a little bit blonde, souvenir from the Hun invasion if you get my drift, yes where were the stars while our elders were raping each other, they failed as watchmen and now they’ve gone, thanks a lot, Swan, thanks a lot, Southern Cross, I don’t know why it happens, but the body is a holy

war, can’t reason our way out of it, best now just to kneel. (4)

Shapero’s poems circle around an absent self. And though there is no object at the center, there is the purest kind of sublimity is walking as close to the void as you can.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Beyond the Chainlink

7 Jan

BeyondTheChainlinkIn the supporting author’s statement for Rusty Morrison’s most recent collection of poems, Beyond the Chainlink (Ahsahta Press, 2014), the poet mentions that her new book attempts:

to be honest about my dishonesties—the unreality in my truths and the truth of my unreality. I want to trust the useful disarray of dis-believing what I am sure of—to examine the ways I’m in two places at once.

While I’m unsure of what the poet means by being “honest,” the quote does act as a incitement for working through binary thought in such a manner that it dissolves partitioned concepts by employing chiasmic modes of engagement.

To this end, the title’s invocation of both the words “Beyond” and “Chainlink” is important. As she notes in the aforementioned author’s statement, the word “beyond” highlights or brings attention to “both here and not here,” while “chainlink”–which most frequently appears as a modifier for the word “fence”–signals a limit or a divide separating two areas or states. In this sense, the title engages the idea or desire to disassemble reductive, either/or (i.e. binary) patterns in service of something more complex.

Not coincidentally, then, the incipient poem of Beyond the Chainlink, “History of Sleep,” opens and closes with the following stanzas:

The ivy across our back fence tangles gray
into a green evening light. (3)

Years later, the spine of our backyard
appears to have always been crooked. (4)

The delimiting fence that separates the speaker’s backyard from what lies beyond it, paradoxically, is by its very nature uncertain and permeable: it “tangles” the colors “gray” and “green” into a strange light that permeates the evening. This initial image eventually leads the speaker to an understanding that her fence, “the spine of our backyard,” has “always been crooked.” In other words, the fence never cleanly or clearly demarcated; instead, it always confused and blended boundaries, whether the speaker noticed or not.

A recurring trope throughout the book that functions as a site of boundary confusion and crossing is the body. The second permutation of the poem “Sensework” reads in its entirety:

I lean

on my body, hard enough to feel its resins crack.

I court the cracks.

Squeeze every breach.

What leaks is, at its end, stifling and sweet. Patience, patience. The dead-animal

smell will be the last trailing hem

of outbreath. The body is a cosmos

of hidden atmospheres—each with its own ravage

to erupt. Every loss

is my accomplice. (15)

Why does the speaker “court the cracks”? Because when she does, out “leaks” something of her that is both “stifling and sweet.” This, of course, is not just a moment of loss of the self or something internal; with a little “patience,” she realizes that while she might lose something of herself, she’ll also gain something from the world outside of her to replace what has escaped. Yes, it could be the “dead-animal / smell,” which is the “outbreath” of road-kill; but it could also be something more glorious. Good or bad, we can’t be sure; but it is through the grand permeation of the self into the world that we become one with the world.

The body communing with the world and the world communing with the body, no doubt, sounds vaguely Whitmanian; and, moments later, the speaker offers a more telling gesture that acknowledges the egalitarian poetics of the gray-bearded poet when she says: “The body is a cosmos.” Indeed, this claim echoes Whitman’s own statement in the preface to the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass that “the attributes of the poets of the kosmos concentre in the real body and soul.” Yes, the cosmos concentrates itself within the “real body” of the poet; when the body cracks, the cosmos leaks into the world around it.

Toward the conclusion of the book, the final permutation of the poem “Backward Rowing” corroborates the idea of transubstantiation with our surroundings all the more:

Words are such thickness.

Stranding us between too much and too much.

I want to hear our body
of silence, not my speaking voice,

not read form the book we’ve built,

which obscures the inner story—
its continuous firmament


As a listener, I won’t retain
by absorbing, but by being absorbed.


sucked through. (71-72)

The body transforms from the corporeal vessel of a singular subject to a universal entity through the plural-possessive modifier “our,” highlighting the interconnectedness of all beings. And it is this interconnectedness that “obscures the inner story” of the individual, championing instead a “continuous… // displacement” of the self through absorption of our surroundings. Yes, the inside becomes the outside and the outside becomes the inside, tying these concepts—traditionally conceived of as binary opposites—into a tight chiasmic knot formed, at least in Beyond the Chainlink, in a “thickness” of “Words.”

And in this thickness of words and language, Morrison “displace[s] the subject // with objects” (21) by acknowledging the fact that “You” has “always been / I,” as well as its reciprocal: that “I” has “always been you” (75). In doing so, she echoes the age old song of herself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: A Review Of The First Four Books Of Sampson Starkweather by Kelin Loe and Caroline Cabrera

3 Jan

So, here’s a new year confession: I’ve never read The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather as a million of my friends and co-internet poetry travelers have. I have no doubt it’s wonderful–have seen Sampson read a time or two, have read his work on these interwebs, have been enthralled by the talk of others regarding this here book. And that right there is the hold-up I think; removed and ignorant from the book’s total glory, I’m chomping like a hog at the slop at the goodness others offer up about the book.starkweather

Then along comes that stellar combo of Kelin Loe and Caroline Cabrera in the new Octopus Magazine. There they go through the books of the book and inch their fingers at what makes these poems tickle. I don’t think I’ve ever presented a review here. But in the process, they capture what I love about reading, what I believe a good book does: the experience of living with a book inside your life, how it butts against your memories and feelings, your moments and your forests. In their letters, Kelin and Caroline exhume what makes these poems important to them–as Caroline says, “The one-line-to-the-next-ness and how I am always with them and always nodding my head yes yes. But not because they are obvious. Just intimately of our generation. Or our type of brainspeak, too.” But that “to them,” that bleed into the personal, the real, the pulsing “real-time,” is what makes this review vouchable–as Kelin says, “I bought this book for Michael as his AWP present. I’m not in love with Sampson. He’s letting me get more in love with Michael.”

A little bit of Kelin:

I got up early to start The Waters, and I think that’s where the day got off wrong. I was expecting childhood, romance and dark underbelly ha-ha’s, poems that spun magic while I sat on my porch and held the book. Poems that made me feel healthy. Like sessions when you tell your therapist about something brave you did. Instead, like you said, weighty and somber. Like when your therapist points out that most of your thoughts are rooted in anxiety and not in actual thinking and you thought you were just detail-oriented. I feel humbled by these poems. Not the kind of humble like getting a compliment, the kind of humbling that you get losing a rap battle. “RUN, SAM, RUN.” I’ll try to keep up. (I also marked a perfect poem, XXXIX).

A little bit of Caroline:

But now, after reading Self Help Poems, I don’t think it’s a gimmick. I think I’m convinced that this is one book. They certainly benefit by the closeness. If this whole book was CAMP SAMPSON, Self Help Poems was the fire circle on the last night where we tell each other that we know its okay to be who we want to be because our camp friends are all also being that way. (This actually happened to me at the end of a camp. It was a writing camp. We were all eighteen and everyone cried.

P.S. I think it’s time I finally read this damn book, am I right? No chatter about it is gonna be better than this.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Manual of Woody Plants

24 Dec

Manual2 With a title like Manual of Woody Plants (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), one might reasonably expect–before reading the book–that Phil Cordelli’s first full-length collection of poetry might be some sort of verse field guide describing trees and shrubs, etc. Although in some instances true, this would be a reductive manner in which to conceptualize the book as a whole.

For, indeed, Cordelli’s poems move through many modes and styles, creating a multivalent experience that forces the reader to continually alter their interpretative strategies. At times, like in Manual’s opening piece “Larch (Tamarack),” the poem predicates itself primarily upon a brief image:

each winter needles
on the edge of the pond
keep the regular form
by dark swells (11)

At other times, such as in the book’s closing piece “Lonicera hispidula (Pink honeysuckle),” there are fragmented personal narratives:

as I approach, no longer believable
in my suit of sweat and my curdled pompadour
a casualty of the civil war

of dry brick and sullen heaving
and crimped hair of woman, glassy-eyed
outside the bar

My Brother’s Place
Chicopee, MA
May 9 (178)

And, occasionally, the poems forward meta-critical investigations about the nature of language and the purpose of the poems:

Suddenly the country is old, no longer forming
we need to learn strange languages, like math

littering or lining pages with number and letter
connected or separated by line (56)

             Language is a rude ruler
the world is contracting rapidly (118)

                    of the line

set in space, upon the vast page
laid out as in or on
a table (160)


you only words come
you do not create even eat
what you make shit you just sit

at least until the world ends (171)

These, of course, are only three modes that the poems work through; rest assured, Manual of Woody Plants contains many more (for example, there are textual ruptures throughout the collection wherein the poet includes visual images, diagrams, and formally inventive use of text and typography). With the wide range of styles, registers, and rhetorical strategies that these poems employ, one might be curious as to what binds these various poems together.

To this end, the poems contain a superficial resonance with regard to their titles: each is the Latin name for a particular woody plant (with common names in parenthesis), nominally demonstrating how “families are based on generic names” (33). But these titles do not intend, necessarily, to identify; instead, these names are a “doubled language, like metaphor” (33) through which the writer attends to the subject matter of a poem indirectly. In this sense, the “antecedent” of each poem’s title (i.e. the woody plant) “will have long / since ceased” (44) to be the sole focus of the poem. These titles, rather, are evasions that, through their indirection, recognize how “Difficult [it is] to look at anything directly” (74) and, thus, allow for us to “forget / the title” (107) in order to access something else entirely.

And what is its that these poems enable us to access? Cordelli best explains in the poem “P. acerifolia (London plane)” when he writes:

I had intended to get out of the planted bed
lose discretion but this wide and searching tree drew me
much as this drawing may be actual or factual to some
sense of likeness or form it does not interest me any longer
much as it is beautiful in its way its language or marks
which closed upon the bound pulp will enter a sort
of sleep and begin another objection upon the folds
and wires in more or less stable form
until both body and impression are disarranged
there is not a dome but more or less knit elements
of finite variety of which will live on and recombine
having perhaps an impression of their once combination
into tree or pulp of tree which carried an inked impression
or hand which impressed thus or eye which saw or mind
which intervening guided thus the hand
and thought for a moment could form (82)

This excerpt would seem to indicate that what these poems offer will exceed mere description of the perennials’ “planted bed.” Instead, Cordelli disarranges the world around him, then knits the disparate elements back together into strange little poems. By recombining elements of the aesthetic, intellectual, and natural worlds, he creates new and compelling combinations “inked” upon the page into verse “form.” Yes, despite their best efforts to escape the “planted bed,” these poems end up entwined within the foliage, thriving within a symbiotic relationship wherein all the elements flourish.

Echoing these sentiments in the acknowledgments section, Cordelli mentions that he wanted his poems:

to be fixed, to stop growing
and have cut them back accordingly,
but these here present have returned

perennially. I’ve twined them ‘round myself,
I’ve grown into them, into relative pulp, into slices of the same. (180)

The urge to create resolute poems of a “fixed” nature that have ceased to grow—at least in the creative sense—gives way to an understanding that the writing included therein, in fact, returns like a perennial: dying with each winter, only to return once again during the spring to renew itself. Yes, these poems might have temporarily ceased to grow after their moment of conception, but they return once more with their publication in book form. Moreover, the poet himself has “grown into them,” signaling a double flourishing wherein word and flesh are “twined” together as one.

Best Things I’ve Read This Week: Three New Issues of Rad Magazines

9 Dec

Got all unsituated for a sec but here, I am back. Missed this Vouching raft. A few good mags popped open their newest caps for us recently. ENJOY:

The real as hell Vinyl displayed this big huff thing “Aaahhh” by Steven D. Schroeder, like it too “exhaled jet fuel and ozone holes.” With bottom gut oomph like this issue in general does, this poem brings the noise with the knob turned up two or three spots. And that end squishes the breath outta me.

Here starts the burn:

No, not smell that honeysuckle!
or what a refreshing Coke!
or you solved the equation for oxygen!
As the only plants that manufactured
air outsourced to Singapore,
our breath burst, swarmed, burned,
turned every vowel plosive,
laughed a feral mongrel’s cough.
When it vented verbs skyward,
we exhaled jet fuel and ozone holes.
When it ran low at grocery stores,
the choice was paper or plastic bags
for our faces.

“My Own Dead American” by Matthew Harrison in the new issue of Sixth Finch is its own sort of devil, swaying between truths, singing your name (well, Diana), eating and fucking and losing. I’m awed by this poem’s allure. I am the I and Diana and “the Jacuzzi at the spa where you left/the final body of your message.” I’m broken at the end as we find out America is what we feared all along: “long and lonesome.”

And then there was Laurel Hunt with her own brand of splattering in the 2nd anniversary issue of Smoking Glue Gun. These speakers press a thumb out and down, remain wildly optimistic and charitable. Addicting is what they are, beginning to end.