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Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Collateral Light

3 Dec

Julia-Jules-Cohen-Collateral-LightSure, it’s easy to read Julia Cohen’s second full-length collection of poetry, Collateral Light (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013), and get lost in the odd, little worlds that it creates in and with language.

If one was so inclined, this would be a relatively easy way to approach the book: as a text that builds itself, its surroundings, and the parameters of those surroundings through bizarre imagery, abrupt non sequiturs, and meta-linguistic statements. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from the title poem:

Pour your wicked
cornstalks over my what

Everyone likes to look
at the moon

Show me mine

Chew a page

Here comes something


Play with
the biggest face

Do you get a bee?

Blue is a very
good color

You happen


I am watching bees
traverse your jeans

I bit the point
of the strawberry

Off to the left
I’m seeding

The light peels back
a ringing splint (29-30)

Outside of a few images that one can easily visualize (e.g. “I bit the point / of the strawberry”), one finds little within this poem that connects directly to the outside world; rather, the poem is very much in and of the world it creates for itself. In fact, the poem self-reflexively announces this hermetic state of being when the speaker declares: “You happen // Here.” Yes, you, reader, occur, exist, and experience the poem only within the poem: in other words, “Here.”

To this extent, reading Cohen’s poems as self-contained objects dedicated to world construction through linguistic play and a poetics of the absurd would seem all well and good. The following excerpts from the poem “We Clamor We Like The Sound Of It,” and their insistence on inventive language use, reinforce this view:

I took
the word for fireworks
Found my mouth
in the knuckle rhyme (76)

It turns
out language
is the other people

Is another person’s
language (77)

The image is a mortal thing
To dwell, to leaves traces (78)

Are your sounds inside
the paper asylum? (81)

                     We broke

the clasp of the orange
dress acquired through language (82)

Whether conflating words with fireworks, redistributing sound throughout the body, exploring the ontology of images, confusing the speaker of a poem, interrogating the origin of sound, or debunking language myths (i.e. “nothing (half) rhymes with orange”), Cohen’s poems call attention to the manner in which her texts use language poetically.

But, to my mind, a more productive way (or, at least, a more interesting way) to read Collateral Light is through the lens of how the poems challenge their own (and our) emotional formations and registers.

To explain this statement a bit further, take the second section of “Practice By Fire & Doubt.” In this poem, the speaker defines a “poetics of doubt” as follows: “You see something, you feel / something, doubt” (87). Her poetics of doubt, then, requires that we complicate both how we feel–and how a poem induces us to feel–strangely.

Of course, the impetus for this poetics of doubt stems from the speaker’s desire to do something with her feelings, such that she is not simply a passive receptor of them. Indeed, she even mentions that to do nothing with her feelings is untenable: “I can’t just sit here with feelings” (34).

And what does the speaker of these poems do with (her) feelings? Well, sometimes she toys with an unnamed you for the sake, it appears, of spirited play:

But I want to give you a new feeling               one you can’t
get rid of right away
but in the end            it’s just a white bottle
I don’t believe in either (37)

Infusing “you” with a “new feeling” that he/she “can’t / get rid of,” the speaker finally concedes that this feeling was nothing more than a “white bottle” she doesn’t even “believe in.” To this end, the feeling shifts from a persistent or inescapable emotional state to a banal object that cannot be trust: a trick of perception wherein an internal condition mutates into an external form.

At other times, though, the speaker simply acknowledges the fatigue that often corresponds to the need/desire to name and perform our feelings: “It’s exhausting everyone asking to feel alive” (40).

Finally, while categorizing feelings too rigidly would undercut the uncertainty of her poetics of doubt, the speaker comes close to articulating her, our, and the poems’ feelings during the poem “Fill Me With Poison!” In the second section, she works programmatically through negation so as to vaguely define feeling through the process of subtraction:

nobility is not a feeling
cunning is not a feeling
decency is not a feeling

A feeling no an empty space

Here a localized wanting, a text (19)

Of course, she preserves the uncertainty attendant to doubt in that she doesn’t provide us with a conclusive definition or strict parameters for feeling. Instead, we’re informed that it is a “localized wanting” confined to a “text.” In other words, feelings are contextual: shifting responses by/for/of an individual within the limits of a poem and predicated upon what we desire at the moment of encounter. Yes, even the description of feelings remains elusive.

And this, I think, is what makes Cohen’s collection exciting. Instead of reading Collateral Light as book of poems invested in language play and bizarre images (Yawn. What book of poems worth its salt doesn’t?), Cohen asks us to enter into each poem as we would an emotional field wherein our feelings alter and shift from word to word, line to line, and stanza to stanza, recalibrating our psychological and emotional responses as needed.

Therefore, when the speaker of “Fill Me With Poision!” inquires of us “What’s your capacity of mutation,” we can read this interrogative as a veiled imperative that those who wish not to immerse themselves within the poetics of doubt—with its protean emotional registers and ambiguous affective responses—should move on. Yet, if we are prepared for the task at hand, then we can we bath in the glow of an “uncertain moon” (22) and “destabilize / the center of the center” (36) of our feelings.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Debts & Lessons

30 Oct

Lynn Xu’s debut collection of poems, Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn Publishing, 2013), which is comprised of seven poetic sequences, opens with the lines:

The rustling of form is a sign of voice
though voice is formless, we are overheard
by a liminal chorus and spoken to
as a voice cf. hymn.
When the soul is heard, it can only be spoke of
as the decline of the soul. Profound sadness. (12)

According to the speaker of the book’s first poem, “Say You Will Die For Me,” the “rustling of form,” or the muffled sounds made by its quiet breaking, is a “sign of voice.” These lines, to some extent, speak to particular aesthetic effects that resulted from the of book’s long gestation period.

In a promotional interview for Debts & Lessons, Xu mentions that “a lot of what remain[s]” in the collection “used to be sonnets,” but like all things “sonnets will decay and tear open with time and listening.” Later in the same interview, she states:

Because the book was written over many years, the most exciting parts were met with changes in the measure of my natural breath. The metabolism of one’s body transforms over time, so too the rhythm that one carries and, in some sense, learns to endure.

If, for the purposes of this review, we take “voice” to indicate some poetic manifestation of the writer’s “natural breath” and the “rhythm” that one’s body “carries” into the poem, then the transformation of her voice (i.e. the “changes” in its “measure”) over time necessarily induced the “decay” and “tear[ing] open” of her sonnet forms. In some sense, then, these transformations demonstrate in a rather overt manner that “form is a sign of voice” [my italics].

Whereas the poet finds these alterations to be, in retrospect, the “most exciting parts” of the collection, the speaker of “Say You Will Die For Me” views these changes and the “liminal chorus” they produce with a “Profound sadness.” The difference between poet and speaker, it would seem, is a matter of how one perceives. Stated differently, the poet filters the process of corporeal transformation and its subsequent alterations of voice through a survivor’s need “to endure”; conversely, the speaker of these poems explores these shifts as emblematic of a sorrowful “decline of the soul.”

The recurring invocation of “darkness” that suffuses the collection signals, to my mind, a preoccupation with this “decline” and “sorrow.” For instance, in “Earth Light,” the second sequence in Debts & Lessons, the speaker announces our arrival at a “place where nothing shines” and whose “interiors” are “warm with the nightmare of guests and poetry / And you. Everything darkly.” (23) Whether this “darkly” place is the speaker’s psyche or an external space, we cannot be sure. What we do know, though, is that it is filled with “Decay” (26), “death” (28), and “Terror” (32).

Yet the speaker’s fixation on darkness does not cease with this passage; instead, it proliferates throughout the entirety of the collection, as one can read in the following excerpts:

                         Darkness hush
Of words be beggarly, be master and native
                 To the gleaming glade. (37)

The darkness I wipe now

From my nose (48)

                       The darkness in your pocket
Is catching up to me (51)

Darkness spread from person to person. Black hills outstretch the rugged profile of the soil. (59)

Darkness does not come to sing (77)

          summer brings
Lacerations in the brain a shrapnel
Of the dark (79)

The eyes of death did move
the ruffled edges of a dress
The flint and bone-
Silk of its face
Silver and dark (86)

While common sense might urge us to flee this place, the speaker suggests a different approach: “To the west lay darkness. / Speak into it” (25). Yes, instead of flight, she implores us to stay and communicate with it. But why stay in this place? What could communicating with (or immersing oneself in) “darkness” offer beside “sadness” and “decline”?

Indeed, these are pertinent questions for any writer or reader of poetry. One could argue, I suppose, for an affirmation of light as a counterpoise to these “night-effect[s]” (74); but championing unabashed affirmation (and, subsequently, a simple binary) seems to mitigate the opportunity to develop a more complex emotional milieu. Toward the book’s conclusion, the speaker of the Miguel Hernández “Lullaby” articulates these concerns when she says:

                    we are uneasy
Because of the light that bread emits
In your country it seems darkness
Cut away (69)

Yes, an “uneasy” feeling pervades because “light” cuts away at the “darkness.” Rather than seeking the negation of darkness with an affirmation of light, Xu and the speakers of her poems champion a quality within “darkness” as a means to produce a more nuanced psychological, emotional, and poetic register.

To this end, a particular kind of beauty manifests itself within these poems, wherein each “line…passes through a point…in the dark” (13) in order to echo its song of “sublime” and “stirred melodies” (18). While the songs that resonant throughout Debts & Lessons might be songs of darkness and death, they are beautiful because of (not in spite of) this fact. For example, in the third section of the poem “Enemy of the Absolute” reads as follows:

The Mexico we are still young from
Faking our own deaths
As children, shaking our futures
Before your eyes—
How warm the night is
With these feelings you’ve been avoiding.
The summer we spent in Oaxaca
Is at the same time inconceivable
And without eternity. (39)

A pleasant memory of a time passed dies, in that it is “inconceivable / And without eternity”; and this ephemeral quality of a long passed happiness, no doubt, may induce pain in that we no longer have access to a distant moment of joy. But this pain produces a gorgeous song that “warm[s] the night,” and the darkness which envelops us, leaves us in state of ambiguity that is wholly beautiful and poetic. The debt the speaker pays might lacerate her soul, but the lesson learned stirs her with song.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Dana Ward

22 Oct

CrisisThe Crisis of Infinite Worlds (Futurepoem, 2013) finds Dana Ward once again working through his unique mode of discursive poetics, shifting from one object of inquiry to the next—several times over—within the space of a given piece. But unlike his first book, This Can’t Be Life (Edge Books, 2011), which occupied itself with an “an interrogation of and an affront to poems and poetic sensibilities,” as well as problematizing “what it means to be poet,” Ward explores a new set of complications in order to ratchet up the conceptual tension within his book.

One such tension that recurs throughout the entirety of Crisis is the one that develops between the poet (i.e. the subjective self) and constraint. To explain, I want to briefly reference Jackson Mac Low’s essay “Poetry and Pleasure,” which acts as an introduction to Things of Beauty (University of California Press, 2008). In his essay, Mac Low mentions that some poets and readers of poetry dislike constraint-based poems (whether bound by deterministic operations or chance procedures) because they “fear that the ‘self’—the ‘subject’—is being intrinsically denigrated.” And what, to their mind, could be cause for more “despair” than to evacuate poetry of the poet? Regardless of what one thinks about Mac Low’s poetry and poetics, he does provide us with an adequate straw man through which to think about constraints and, thus, formalism.

Returning to Crisis, then, Ward writes in “Things the Baby Likes (A-Z)” that: “I’ve taken to employing formal constraints in my writing with more frequency” (56). This intensification of constraint-based processes was an extension of the material conditions and production of the book itself. To further explain, he states:

The book you’re now reading was written with the temporal constraint of a deadline, & because such a benchmark for me represents a relatively inorganic frame of composition, I decided one way to explore such a condition was to productively aggravate myself by interaction with more & more constraints (56)

To this end, most (if not all?) of the poems in Crisis predicate themselves upon some type of constraint that limits the composing subject and sends him in a direction he most likely would not have traveled otherwise. While Ward’s constraints and formal procedures might not be of the same degree as the poems of Mac Low, for instance, they certainly are of the same kind. For example, Ward composes “Things the Baby Likes (A-Z)” in “abecedarian tercets which are then expanded into quasi-encyclopedic entries themselves consisting of three…sentences” (57). For a poet who typically constructs texts whose forms “suggest their own limits” through more organic methods, such as “ear” and “feel” (56), the self-imposed constraints and formal structures, no doubt, are a marked change of pace.

But far from writing texts devoid of a poet and “intrinsically denigrating” the self, Crisis is a book distinctly of and by Dana Ward. To this end, he emulates Félix Gonzáles-Torres—who, in Ward’s estimation, is “quite simply one of the greatest poets that ever lived”—by creating a poetry suffused in “tragic sympathy” (i.e. emotionally resonance) counterpoised with a predetermined “intelligence” (i.e. formal structure) (58). While I’m unfamiliar with the work of Torres, Ward’s ability to balance a more traditionally conceived subjectivity with rigid, external constraints does remind me of, perhaps, a more familiar poetic touchstone: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Hejinian’s autobiography, to my mind, succeeds because it creates an emotionally evocative text within a strict, predetermined form; Ward’s book produces similar results.

The wonderful aspect of Ward’s writing, and Crisis in particular, is that he does not settle simply for yoking the tension between the binary of subject and constraint. Instead, he investigates each term further, undermining our basic presumptions about both and, thus, turning them on their heads. In “Zoning Out in Front of the Computer,” the final entry of “Things the Baby Likes (A-Z),” the poet writes of “producing myself in the factory in front of this screen” (76); in other words, subjectivity is a product, a computer is a factory, and the writing process is the assembly-line down which the subject/product travels. Conceptualizing the self as a manufactured product of consumerism hardly aligns with the Romantic notion of subjectivity; in fact, Ward’s later claim that he is “just the object of impoverished, desperate writing…dying because form is real” seems to be the exact opposite of an individuate self who expresses his inner most thoughts and feelings through verse.

But even as Ward dies within the form of each poem, he presents readers with a tangible (and personable) Dana who runs into Lil Wayne at the convenience store while purchasing candy, surfing the Internet, tagging pictures on Facebook, driving from Cincinnati to a poetry reading in Madison, WI with Tyrone Williams, helping his partner Sarah during her pregnancy and the birth of their daughter Vivian, as well as concocting a plan with his friend Paul Coors to stage a séance centered around a group viewing of The Squeakquel. These are just a few of the many events that let readers know that there is a person in the forms/constraints of this book who is not dying, but living well. To this end, it may be helpful to return, again, to Jackson Mac Low’s essay “Poetry and Pleasure.” At one point, he concedes that:

What happened to me in the course of using such methods for several decades was that I realized that these [deterministic and chance] methods, too, and the actions of utilizing them, are products of the ego, that the ego is inescapable.

The subject might die in forms, but the forms live because of the subject. Indeed, the subject and the form (or the self and poetic constraints) are locked in a chiasmus, continually shifting, reversing, and altering one another until one cannot parse the two into distinct or separate entities. They are inextricably linked, perpetuating within these infinite worlds.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: The Next Monsters

17 Sep

Layout 1The second sentence of “Lightning,” the first poem in The Next Monsters (Black Ocean, 2013), reads: “I drag you to a little room to show you 116 photos” (3). To some extent, I think, this is a productive way to conceptualize the prose poems that comprise Julie Doxsee’s third full-length collection of poetry: as “little rooms” a reader can enter so as to view the strange “photos,” images, ideas, and language that reside within them. Like the rooms of a house, each one is a discrete space with its own furnishings; yet, when regarded collectively, they work in conjunction with one another to form a complete residence. Take, for example, the poem “Mountain and Monster”:

A hailstorm comes out of the monster’s mouth and I spill my coffee with a jolt. We laugh and laugh as if we had come together for the only time and place when and where split coffee is funny. You are the only monster I know who wears a pink sweater I say to it as it pretends to offer me some cashews. We are on top of a jagged mountain, fingertips inches from the clouds. (47)

This example, like many throughout the collection, offers readers a rather fantastical image; in this case, it is that of the speaker and a “monster” spewing a “hailstorm” from his mouth while laughing, eating cashews, spilling coffee, and touching clouds on top of a mountain. To this end, it is a bizarre little room with an odd and somewhat surreal painting hanging on its wall. You enter the room, look at the painting, momentarily lose (or escape) yourself in its strangeness, then move on to the next little room.

Of course, not all of these little rooms are furnished with images. Others are more abstract and fill themselves with ideas. To wit, here is the poem “Lion Touch” in its entirety:

Something important is nothing. To be inside people teaches us inwardness, doesn’t it? A certain kind of me falls inside like an assumption. A certain kind of prayer finds a newborn you. Three days of water-only leaves a great pain in your chest without should to cover it.

Something important is wow. Perhaps we are coloring the bravery its takes to make love, to stay anesthetized outside. I think so. I think most people live in our chest without a way to get out. To feel them there is zoo-ish.

I’m glad people stay alive. I’m glad I am naked. (35)

The poem contains, primarily, a series of declarative sentences that focus on subjectivity and the complicated manner in which both internal and external forces work to create it. “To be inside people,” or to extend outside of ourselves, paradoxically, “teaches us inwardness.” Likewise, the Other lives “in our chest” and we “feel” them in this corporeal petting zoo. Yes, this little room is a far cry from the image-based surrealism of the previous example.

But, as mentioned before, these rooms work in conjunction with one another—not in opposition to one another—in order to create a larger, habitable structure. And in this structure, as Doxsee writes in the appropriately titled “Mansion”: “There are 22 rooms here your words inhabit—the twisted serifs I spiral up and corkscrew down and spiral up and corkscrew down every day. Wear my dizzy skin, please” (63). Indeed, as we walk through the mansion that is The Next Monsters, we enter each room so as to “corkscrew” through and around their “twisted” words. In doing so, we become “dizzy” with linguistic vertigo, as the poet designs a strange architecture of poetry.

In some respects, then, the rooms she constructs while building this house function also as a monument to language that is both poetic and utilitarian. In the poem “The Key to Moving Correctly without Running into Obstacles,” the speaker says:

I like words because they do anything right up front. I am a black cat with engorged nipples. My two babies are bats with goat legs. A third was born with white eyes—totally white—so it never saw my nipple and starved. For example. (55)

In this room, Doxsee manages to fuse what most critics find to be antithetical: functionality and the autotelic drive toward l’art pour l’art. Accordingly, “words” have the capacity to “do anything right up front”; but, at least in this poem, what they “do” is create a self-contained world wherein goats and bats suckle an “engorged” cat. Yes, the content of the poem maybe devoid of utilitarian value, but we can relate the act of creating that world to building a private study or den in which a home-owner can relax, meditate, or simply escape the anxieties stemming our daily quandaries about food, the rent, and bills.

That, to my mind, then, is the beauty of The Next Monsters: each poem is a constructed space in which we enter, so as to take leave of the world around us, and let words “do anything” to us they (and we) want. In the poet’s own words, it is “language that makes an apple an apple,” but it is “up to us to say that it is” (77). In other words, when we enter these rooms, we also enter into a symbiotic relationship with language; and such a relationship, when in assisted by a poet like Doxsee, has the ability to produce wonderful little rooms that contain beautiful furnishings such as: “I can’t shake the image, I can’t shake the full moon. It is the permanent, not the fleeting, that hurts” (41). Yes, the little rooms The Next Monsters offer a permanence that will leave you hurting in all the good ways.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Greta Wrolstad

10 Sep

wrolstad-shadow-01From 2003 through 2007, Joshua Edwards, Anthony Robinson, and Nick Twemlow ran what I consider, heretofore, the strongest journal of this young millennium: The Canary. Over the course of five years, they released five issues (not including the first issue, which they released as Canary River), each one stacked top-to-bottom with some of the most notable names in contemporary poetry.

Every issue, though, contained two or three poems that stood out, for me, among a flood of top-notch writing; for example: selections from Joshua Beckman’s “Your Time Will Come” in issue two, Kent Johnson’s “The New York School” from issue three, Joanna Klink’s “Sea By Flowers” in issue four, Alan Gilbert’s excerpts from “Pretty Words Made a Fool Out of Me” from issue five, and Donna Stonecipher’s “Inlay” poems in issue six. Even to this day, these poems still haunt me.

Another poet whose writing in The Canary, years later, has stayed with me is Greta Wrolstad. Her poems “Metolius” and “Flickers of Light Become the Movement of Thousands” closed out issue five, which was released in 2006. While the latter received a Pushcart Prize later that year, I prefer the former of the two (although both are strong poems), which reads in its entirety:

Reclining in ourselves we were gathered
Under thistles the fieldmice entered a wild earth
Not far from the turning constellations
Our names rose in steam from our bodies
Braiding above us in the cooler air
The mountains succumbed to the carving wind
Delicate gestures opened notches in our chests
From every eye a widening darkness appeared
On the glossy surface of a restless sphere
The night bloomed on our attic window
Loosening seedpods hidden in puffs of dust
Threads of you and I woven in
Among the whorls of my fingertips

It was the time of tenderness
How the world once seemed to adore us. (124)

Metolius, both a city and a river in the state of Oregon (Wrolstad’s birth state), is the setting for this lyric poem where the speaker and her companion’s “names” rise “in stream from [their] bodies / Braiding above [them] in the cooler air.” And even though the wind carves “notches in [their] chests,” the speaker recalls this time as a moment when “the world…seemed to adore” them.

After reading Wrolstad’s poems in 2006, I remember turning to the contributor’s notes in order to find out where I could read more of her work. Instead of a list of publications, I, unfortunately, discovered she “passed away the summer of 2005 from injuries suffered in a car accident” (127). While incomparable to the loss her family and friends, no doubt, felt, I couldn’t help but be overcome sadness that such a beautiful poetic voice was lost at the young age of twenty-four.

So imagine my surprise when I recently discovered (if my mind serves me properly, through SPD’s weekly email blast) that a posthumous collection of Wrolstad’s poems, titled Night Is Simply A Shadow, had been released by Tavern Books. Previously, I had been unaware of Tavern Books, but their stated mission is:

to print, promote, and preserve works of literary vision, to foster a climate of cultural preservation, and to disseminate books in a way that benefits the reading public. In addition to reviving out-of-print books, we publish works in translation from the world’s finest poets.

In a time when a glut of new poetry titles make their way into world every week, it’s nice to know that there is a press willing to look backward at what has been cast aside, forgotten, or lost in contemporary poetry’s fast-paced, disposable culture (when viewed from a distance). In some sense, then, Tavern Books’ mission functions as both an ethical and aesthetic imperative that avoids the novelty of the immediate in favor of that which is a bit more time-worn.

To this end, Wrolstad’s collection fits in nicely with Tavern Books. Her poems, most often times focused on nature and the speaker’s surroundings, lack the furious velocity of much of today’s work; instead, the poet engages the natural world in a meditative, neo-Romantic (tempered by scientific discovery) voice that relies on extend thought and a dynamic idiom. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from the poem “Geography,” from which the book’s title appears:

            So much is invisible.
            Men have given
            the earth unseen shapes
            and these shapes
            are mapped on paper.

The world lacks edges:
dusk is followed by night,
and night is simply a shadow.
When I cannot sleep,
and toss and toss sweat the dark,

the sphere is lit on the other side,
unimaginably far away.
In the dark-light I know
we are parceled: every body
is bound countless times inside itself
before the final boundary
of the skin, and the physicists
say that nothing truly touches

            but is repelled
            by the approaching
            mass of another,
            on a minute
            of some separate
            If this is true,

everything is undeniably
And it cannot be true,
how terrible if it were true—
everything wants to

drift to safe harbor (21-22)

While men of science argue that “everything is undeniably / divided,” the speaker of Wrolstad’s poem forwards (or, at least, wants to believe) the counter argument: that the “world lacks edges” and everything bleeds into everything else. To intensify her argument, Wrolstad enjambs her syntactic units into her indented stanzas, which, visually, look different from the others on the page. Indeed, the stanzas flush to the left-margin and those indented may appear to be discrete entities, but they are, in all actuality, bound to one another at the sentence-level. In this manner, the poem speaks back to the moment in “Metolius,” when “Threads of you and I [are] woven in / Among the whorls of my fingertips.” Yes, men of science attempt to map our difference and claim everything is alone, but the world of the poem can connect us through what’s “invisible.”

Likewise, Night Is Simply A Shadow connects us to a voice that is, after eight years, in some sense invisible. But these poems manage to dissolve the divided between the living and the dead, reintroducing us to Wrolstad’s vision of the world, which, perhaps, satisfies the desire of the speaker in the closing moments of “Flickers of Light Become the Movement of Thousands”:

                                                                    Some nights
I find myself in an old mill town, sitting beside the train trestle,
watching rustling water flint the light. Across the river
a man weaves along the ties, his mouth gathered as if whistling.
It would be enough for his voice to reach me. (19)

At least for this reviewer, Wrolstad’s voice has certainly reached me.

Best Thing I Read This Week: “How To Be Sincere In Your Poetry” Workshop by Roberto Montes

9 Sep

Over at NAP, now NAP University Online, each day presents a new lesson from Roberto Montes in “How To Be Sincere In Your Poetry” Workshop. And thank goodness, it appears it’ll continue! There’s not much more to say besides check out Day 1 (and all of last week’s lessons), get caught up, and don’t be late again.

Everyone sits around a hat filled with names. The instructor explains that she will select two names from the hat and the first name will have to earnestly hug the second name. The instructor begins selecting names from the hat.

All of the names are the instructor’s name.

The instructor hugs herself again and again and with passion.

The first person to leave the room sobbing gets an A.

The Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Corium Magazine

5 Sep

The Summer issue of always-delightful Corium was released Tuesday, and what a treat to find that Ravi Mangla is guest editor for this issue, what a complement to Lauren Becker’s exquisite collecting skills! Ravi is no stranger to the Vouched website or to our hearts, and he’s put together such a collection of smart and meloncholy bits of literary fireworks that you will read on with a building fever! You will read on with gusto! You’ll hope for more of the same and you’ll delight in not finding it. What’s more, he has arranged the issue in reverse alphabetical order, because Ravi Mangla is endlessly charming.

Inside is a solid set of stories and poetry that will tickle your bones in their most comfortable, knobbiest places, unpeel you like fifty heads of lettuce. They’ll scratch something underneath your bored cartilage, excite that basal ganglia nosegay of memory, make you want to get up and walk around with these words.

Look, for example, at a few lines of James Westoff’s “Dog Farm,” which starts you right out with a funny heartbeat and keeps surprising you along:

At one point, my father estimated we had over six hundred dogs.


We never talked about why. We usually just talked about how we could get more dogs. It was this thing in my family, our mission. Every morning at breakfast each went over his or her plan for that day. Here’s how I’m going to get some dogs.

Then there’s the painted beauty of Ashley Farmer’s stories, which remind me of a lovely Soviet ruin-porn website I’ve been frequenting, minus the social guilt. Just look at “Happy Hour,” printed here in its entirety:

In the city I find more city. Deer vault from parking structure to parking structure. When I jangle my keys they tremble near concrete beams. It is so wild when the building shakes. I use my arms to protect myself. I avoid mirrors, filing cabinets, windows. In an emergency, the carpet beneath my desk becomes desert. I sift it for miles and I sweat through my jacket like an animal. My shoes are crammed with sand.

One day a train parked in the lobby, an accidental renovation of smoke and glass and crushed black granite. My neighbor stepped from the train. He stepped through shards of his reflection then through mine, his face alive and tan. Happy hour began happening at the nearest outdoor assembly points, but who was smiling? Then the girders and skylights assembled again. They began their slow repair, just like us. Then neared repair. Nearer and nearer. Repairing.

Or maybe read these lines taken from Jim Ruland’s very short fiction “[Not] [So] [Long] [Ago]”

The forest is so beautiful.

It is old and the trees soar and the soil ticks with blood.

There are birds and then… something else.

It starts as a whine and grows louder and louder until the barely audible complaint transforms into a thunderous howl that shatters the silence.

[A] [      ] [      ] [     ] [train.]

In a quiet forest, you can hear them coming from a long way away.

Those who were killed here came in trains.

The poetry section too will tickle your enamel and your armhairs, will make you want to bend with the poets, bend into letters. Read “If I Were a Jackknife,” by San Francisco local Laura E. Davis, and you’ll see what I mean:

I’d have a slipjoint.
Put just the right pressure
on my back & I’d bend. The world
would be less circular, less filled
with old hymns. People could look through
the space my head took up in front of them
in the movie theater. But you wouldn’t
pin me against the back wall
credits rolling, hands on my ribs.
No ribs left. Just that slipjoint. My blade
would always be big enough
to fit back into my own handle.
I wouldn’t say this. I’d have
an awl or a can opener & I’d bend
half-wise, away from other sharp things.
That much would stay the same.

Don’t stop here, by any means. Wander around this issue, try it on like an endless set of footie pajamas that doubles as a fifty-person tent, that triples as an overgrown amusement park, painted all around with strange faces.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Russell Atkins

4 Sep

atkins (1)Earlier in the year, I wrote a profile on Russell Atkins’ 1976 release Here In The (Cleveland State University Press) in anticipation of the forthcoming Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master (Pleiades Press, 2013) through the Unsung Masters Series. In that review, I noted how the poet “creates a singular, Cleveland-based beauty in his language and the sounds it produces,” all the while maintaining a focus on the “decay of a once great city.”

The Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis edited anthology certainly reinforces this version/vision of the poet; but it also expands the critical framework of Atkins, positioning him as a philosopher, musician, editor, and, well, enigma.

The enigmatic quality of Atkins has, in many respects, contributed a great deal to his relative absence in broader conversations about modern and postmodern poetry. As Prufer and Dumanis write in their introduction:

Ultimately, Atkins’ strange concrete poetry, his flights of audio-visual intensity, his idiosyncratic word-play would bring him some measurable success, a little withering criticism, and, generally, increasing obscurity. (16)

In this regard, then, the very traits that make Atkins’ poetry worth revisiting are those that alienated him from a wider audience in the first place. Toward the middle of the book, the poet himself addresses this paradox in his “Manifesto”; repeatedly, Atkins expresses little concern for the “casual reader” who “goes straight for the ‘sense,’ or the ‘meaning’ behind his poems” (72), believing the poet “should not risk” his or her artistic vision “for what is called ‘communication’.” (71). Instead, poetry and art “should be immersed in the bringing-into-existence-as-creativity process” (71) and “beauty” should be something “defined ONLY by the artist” (73).

Further compounding his problem of exposure, Atkins’ poetry did not adhere to then-contemporary notions of what it meant to be a “black poet” writing in the United States; he was “unwilling to bend to the style of the day—and seeming a little hostile to the Black Arts Movement’s single-mindnedness” (17). Whereas Atkins championed his own single-minded aesthetic predicated upon his unique theories of psychovisual musicality, the Black Arts Movement called for an aesthetic that rooted itself in (and placed at the forefront) concepts and problems of race. This is not to say that Atkins’ poetry does not engage race relations and racism; rather, he placed his abiding purchase upon the confluence of music, sound, and objects.

As if that were not enough, Atkins “would rarely leave Cleveland” (15); and, as Leatrice W. Emeruwa suggested in an 1973 issue of Black World, “Clevelanders who remain in Cleveland…are usually omitted when it comes to national recognition in the arts” (18). Yes, it would appear much easier, for some, to reduce the city to the pithy moniker “The Mistake on the Lake” and ignore its resident artists, rather than to engage them in any meaningful way.

But why harp on Atkins’ obscurity? Because, in many respects, the Prufer and Dumanis curated collection serves not only as a reintroduction of the Cleveland poet to the contemporary conversation, but also functions as a proposal, perhaps even a plea, for a more comprehensive collection of his writing. The anthology concludes with essays by poet-critics Tyrone Williams, Evie Shockley, Sean Singer, Tom Orange, and scholar Aldon Lynn Nielsen, all acting as de facto advocates for such a project. In fact, Orange’s essay “The Place of Atkins and Future Scholarship” outlines the skeletal framework for such an archival project.

While a stamp of approval from these writers is, no doubt, helpful (and well-deserved), it is the writing of Atkins that will act as its own best advocate. To this end, the collection contains thirty-six poems, one poetic drama, a manifesto, and his essay “A Psychovisual Perspective for ‘Musical’ Composition”; this relatively scant offering left, at least this reader, desiring more of the poet’s strange beauty, exemplified in the following passages:

On one side’s a gloom of dreadful harsh,
much in the sound of coughing
upbroken of pieces, not organization—
in a sudden of a laugh to a cough
a whizz’d of ski, flying snow filaments
the back hotels                   fear them
                  there, men age to coughs,
shifting alone in drears of beds
and in the soiled underwear:
a kind of truth about themselves hacking (30)

A moment violently stark
it fled—with it
                          I (36)

snow hates the body
and fashion (37)

The breaks flash lights up sheer.
There is much huge about. I suppose
          those no’s are people
      between that suffering of— (39)

someplace in a disaster of grass
a minefield made audible

                    a singular clicking
miniature in the backyard
like the tick a minute before
               whole of its night (45)

In these excerpts, Atkins employs disruptive syntax, agrammatic constructions, and fragmentation in order to create an impression of the city and its residents’ hardships through an offbeat musicality, rather than a slavish adherence to representation or meaning. To this end, a reader invested too much in meaning will no doubt experience a certain amount of frustration in reading these poems. But a reader prepared to immerse themselves in the poems’ rhythms, as well as a language “upbroken of pieces,” will no doubt find great pleasure in the work.

Atkins prose elicits a similar response. While his “Psychovisual” essay can challenge a reader (especially if not familiar with music theory), passages throughout the text provided glimmers of clarity and insight to anyone willing to invest themselves in the trajectory of Atkins’ thought. Take, for instance, the following examples:

Psychovisualism does not try to frame new concepts. It is chiefly preoccupied with adjustments: adjustments that might make a composer several times surer of effectuality. (88)

It is more obvious today than ever that the power of ‘music’s’ impressive communication lies outside of the very element that transmits it, and has far less to do with objectivity in the combinations of that medium than presumed seemingly behind ‘musical’ practices. (88)

To a psychovisualist, the only intentionally organized sound on the part of a composer is Composition, which is not a binaural art but a VISUAL ART. In short, so-called ‘musical composition’ is a VISUAL ART” (91).


The ear is not a conceiving organ. It knows nothing of depth or height, organization, or geometrical relationships visually. It merely differentiates between intensities and fast rates and slow rates of frequency. Musical practice, however, has not been anxious to dissociate pitch from ‘high’ and ‘low’. (93)

Atkins, then, argues for a veritable displacement of the senses; or, perhaps better stated, he asks us to re-conceive standard notions of perception, language, and designation in an effort to access (or think about) music, composition, objects, and Forms in theretofore new ways

To conclude, Aldon Lynn Nielson writes that Atkins “has indeed been omitted from almost all histories of American literature in general and American experimentalism in particular,” and, unfortunately:

the published histories of the movements from Modernism to Postmodernism have not yet found reason to mention Atkins, and despite his early associations with Langston Hughes [and Marianne Moore], the critical efforts to recover important black writers who have been overlooked have yet to renew the reputation of Russell Atkins (120).

With any luck, then, Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master will be the first of many steps that will correct this neglect and bring this writer, musician, thinker, and Clevelander to a more extensive audience.

Best Things I’ve Read This Week: Proving Nothing To Anyone by Matt Cook and Tina by Peter Davis

19 Aug

Proving Nothing To Anyone by Matt Cook
Publishing Genius Press, 86 pages, $14.95

Tina by Peter Davis
Bloof Books, 92 pages, $16.00

If I asked you to make a list of things you find funny—shows and comedians, writers and songs, photographs and everyday situations—what would be on it? Where would you even start?


Let’s start with “Interesting Things,” a little back-and-forth tongue-in-cheek grumble between two pals about, hmm, ‘interesting things.’ After the non-speaker fella brings a load of unspecified such things over, Matt Cook writes,

I had no idea there were so many interesting things, I said.
When something compares favorably to something else, he said,
That makes it an interesting thing, but it’s also interesting
When something compares unfavorably to something else, he said.

And this is how Cook’s book solicits itself as a worthwhile object, a collection of things, interesting and humorous and full of life. He consistently backdrops the normal everyday with the weird everyday or the awkward everyday or the ambiguous everyday or the absurd everyday. He pines for the moment we hold up the book and see that the normal mirrors the ridiculous.


What makes something humorous? What makes something humorous to you? Startling confession. Surprising intersection. Forced realization. An unfaced gal turned scapegoat.


tinaIn Jeremy Bauer’s interview with  Peter Davis at Front Porch, Davis tells us a little about Tina, the title of his latest book of poems, the name of his not-a-muse-but-okay-a-muse in his ear, the exclamation called the addressed:

Well, this is the way I imagine it. To me Tina is, essentially, what other people might call the muse. I would never say muse though because I don’t believe in a sort of pseudo-mystical inspirational source. I would say, Tina. Having said that, Tina is not necessarily somebody you want to have on your back. She demands you spend each night in your basement (even when it’s cold) writing and thinking and drinking. And to what end? So you might be frequently, tacitly and overtly, rejected by society, by your friends and family, not to mention literary journals? She makes day to day living difficult because she forces you to constantly compare your own efforts with all of the phenomenal efforts of the past, imagined or real. “(Read the rest of their interview here.)

In this, his third book, and in my opinion his most humorous yet, Davis peers out of the ridiculous in search of some balance on normal land. These poems appear as efforts to blame Tina, to distract Tina, to entertain Tina, little methods of giving in, hoping each poem surfaces some reward, anything, in hopes of turning down the difficulty setting of the day-to-day.


Oh, and you know what, I find the poems in these two collections, more often than no way, very funny–haha funny and ah geesh funny and wow funny. They run the gammit of funny, it seems, by letting a peer’s hair burn a little too long or confronting poor ol’ Tina, by unveiling the complicated in something uncomplicated (like dog watching) or telling us the real scoop on Emily Dickinson.


Setting for “Commitment to Excellence” by Matt Cook: dinner party, speaker telling a story, woman’s hair on fire, only speaker notices, and—

So I continued, and only after the punch line was delivered,
And after the appreciative reaction of the room,
Did I finally let the woman know her hair was on fire.

The woman was not seriously harmed,
And she ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.


David Cross, yeah that David Cross, apparently thinks Matt Cook’s poems are funny too, “[n]ot ‘funny for poetry’ but straight up funny. And thoughtful. And human.” Yeah, David Cross blurbed this book.



Certainly, both of these fella’s books are funny, straight up, but I find it interesting (there’s that word!) how Cross makes that distinction, then rolls further. Straight up funny. Thoughtful. Human.

Does the presentation of these anecdotes and quips and awkward confrontations as poems make them funny in a way that would be much different otherwise? A poem being a special plug-in, like the difference between a baseball bat against a tree and a baseball bat in Ken Griffey Jr.’s hand? I think so. Poetry offers (or maybe rather lacks) the visual and auditory elements that harness other humorous forms (I know, I know there are readings—sourpuss!—but you know what I mean). Poet and words on a page. Here you go—Reader and words on a page. Words swirled in a head from another head trying to paint a picture, to swing the bat in the silence there. It’s delicate and it’s brave and it can fail at any word.


What makes a poem humorous? What makes a poem humorous to you?


It is impossible to ignore the top-notch reading styles of these two funny poet men. So, let’s sample that:

“In the Bodega” by Matt Cook on soundcloud


People like to talk about themselves, their experiences. Poet people, sure, but also teacher people and truck driver people and pizza delivery people and old people who don’t have jobs anymore. And it’s often so funny! Wow. Funny stories about their spouses. Funny stories about their youth. Somehow funny stories about tragedy and stress. It’s inevitable, unavoidable, ridiculously human.


First stanza from Cook’s “You’re A Minor Poet Standing Near The Frozen Spinach”:

You stop by the store to pick up your wife’s favorite brand of beer.
Inside, an old woman goes out of her way to start a conversation with you.
You’re wearing an overcoat that reminds her of an overcoat she once knew.
An old woman is allowed to talk to you for as long as she likes.
You cannot tell an old woman to stop talking to you.
You’re a minor poet standing near the frozen spinach.

Like with Davis’s struggles with Tina’s latching on, Cook grapples with his place in the world as “a minor poet” following him wherever he might go. And the funny reality here is the bruteness in the innocent reminder (the old lady yapping here) you can’t escape reality, and like the memory of the old coat, you’ll carry this shit with you a long time.


From Peter’s “Old Problems”

My wife calls on the phone and I answer it. Have you
Received phone calls before, TINA? Do you know what
This is like? Well, then why don’t you keep your
Mouth shut for a change.

Yet, Davis continues and explains to Tina phones and phone calls and the little idioms that go along with it. The explanation a distraction to the story of the call.

My wife calls and she’s lonely so she’s
Calling me to say so. I respond to her with some sort of
Reassuring statement, like, glad you called. This kind
Of banter continues for a few minutes and then it’s
Over with. I’m back to being off the phone and back to
Helping you with all your dumbfuck ideas.

The phone call a distraction to the distraction, this inescapable/inexplicable shadow of being a poet in a non-poetry world (a.k.a the real world), the inescapable/inexplicable necessity of explaining, of dealing with all the talking. newspaper-mockup


Another thing many people find funny is teens, youthfulness as fuel for ridiculousness, lack of self-awareness as springboard for creative recklessness.

Cook’s “Jesus In My Hair” is the story of a once-imagined sitcom of the same name, one of those goofy high school ideas, over-the-top and somehow poignant (this one involves Desi Arnez Jr. playing a barber who helps Jesus, Jesus who has come back and forgotten his purpose), made up by the speaker and his friend in high school. In the end, the speaker writes the friend, years later, to say they should rewrite the sitcom, only to be bummed with the friend seems “like he was way beyond the whole thing now.”

Which reminds me of Davis’s “My Education,” a poem lamenting on the weird joy of being in high school. Here’s a part of it:

I appreciate the veil, Tina. I like
high school where you know
everyone and have kissed
a higher percentage of your
graduating class. I got even
more play in middle school.
That’s when French kissing
Was like finding a cool place
To skate.

These silly, “useless” moments in youth, conjuring silly ideas and trying to kiss lots of girls, only to graduate, in several meanings, to the real world, adult life, supposedly more grownup things, like buying beer for your wife or writing poems in the basement. There’s the pogo of being relieved to “make more sense,” but also the bummer of having to. And of course, there’s that never ending reminder that you’ll never be under that umbrella again, and though one has the poem as an escape mechanism, it’s temporary. The comedy in the tragedy.


Cook and Davis compare favorably here, for me, launch together as interesting things, because they refuse to just be funny, they refuse to just be storytellers, they refuse to just bite into the sticky everyday apples.

These poems, in both the collections, made me reengaged with life, paying attention to how the ongoings of life leap out in startling, humorous ways—the advertisement for a strip club declaring “The Only Thing Our Girls Wear Is A Smile” or how a man brushes my shoulder while jogging past in the dark, only to return five minutes later and apologize (still jogging).


This humorous approach to dealing with the difficult strangeness of the everyday becomes an interesting thing because it’s so useful, so addictive. You start putting Tina everywhere, naming your own pseudo-muse. You wonder how Matt Cook would deliver the story, what parts he’d include. And that’s what makes this style so brilliant, so enjoyable, so lasting, so difficult. Both for the writer and the reader, it’s a stickler that one must carry around, but that only a few, like these two fellas, have mastered creating on the page.


The last stanza of “Interesting Things” by Matt Cook:

I wanted to understand more about interesting things.
I wanted to ask him if it were possible to define interesting things.
But I knew well that he distrusted precise definitions.

Special End Reminder: Don’t forget to check out Publishing Genius’s Kickstarter page for their 2014 lineup. It’s gonna be sickkkkkkkkkk.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Scape

7 Aug


The opening stanzas of Louis Zukofsky’s “A-22” read:

Other letters a sum owed
ages account years each year
out of old field, permute
blow blue up against yellow
—scape welcome young birds—initial

transmutes itself, swim near and
read a weed’s reward—grain
an omen a good omen
the chill mists greet woods
ice, flowers—their soul’s return (508)

Written in counted verse (each stanza contains five lines, each line five words), Zukofsky winds his way through the natural world’s fields, birds, weeds, woods, and flowers in an alliterative, idiomatically dense, syntactically circuitous, but formally rigid structure. As line after line and stanza after stanza unfold, each word “carves a breath” (509) into form, shaping the poem into a linguistic landscape via its musical and grammatical elements. Certainly, “A-22” pushes toward the upper limit of Zukofsky’s poetics, an “integral” he defines as “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music” (138), in order to engage the natural world in a visceral manner that “speech” by itself cannot achieve.

It’s no wonder, then, that Joshua Harmon prefaces his book Scape (Black Ocean, 2009) with a fragment from the opening stanza of “A-22”: “—scape welcome young birds—.” Just as did Zukofsky, Harmon creates a landscape in a similar fashion, focusing on alliteration, complex syntax, and a lush idiom. Likewise, Harmon composes Scape’s first poem “Wither” in counted verse (each stanza contains two lines, each line four words). The first seven stanzas read:

—heelprint and halter, halfway
heard: before mean back

then, to know before
it breaks it lurches

so in the snowfield’s
stalk- and stem-broken

edges a rosehip bends,
reddens at its tip:

halfway across, near dusk,
to know snow before

this is nothing to
naming this unread surface

defect of drifting lines:
snow breaks back (3)

Phoneme after phoneme echo each other through alliteration and rhyme for another ten couplets, all within the framework of a single syntactical unit. The experience is not unlike walking through an expansive “snowfield” at “dusk” while “drift lines” dust over one’s path to shelter, the journey home made difficult by the unforgiving conditions. Yes, it’s easy to wander off and get lost within the landscape of the poem.

And this, I believe, is the joy of Harmon’s Scape: we can walk “step by step” through and “toward the form of a field” (7) within the poem, wherein “sound alone” (9) causes us to experience a particular type of “vertigo” (8). Indeed, our senses disorient as we travel through a poetic “landscape” that appears as “an open system, a naïve word’s wound, a trick made of…waiting breath” (13), while we journey to “the elided spaces / inside [our] head” (20).

To further highlight this point, I’ve excerpted the opening and closing lines of the poem “Escape”:

Torque of tongue
twiddle: starched
when you run
the wind follows
you, falls blistered
and burnt: hand-
writing allows
such green timber
to ruin knife-knit
openings: (55)

beyond a briarneck, lapse
turns light: turl and sumac-twist
how this stretch bees

rooted redundancies
race to pattern it

These scabbed leaves loosely north,
landslipped: otherwhorled in vacancies
of bough-bladed stripling—

Lonesome intention, riven match:
boon of brazen dismantlings takes
amid later light: underwinged (56)

As with the previous excerpt, the “rooted redundancies” of alliteration build a sonic “pattern” and “torque” the “tongue” so as to cause the mouth to “sumac-twist” within Harmon’s landscapes. But, in addition to this sonic strategy, the poet creates linguistic “dismantlings” through creative slippages. To this end, “landscape” becomes “landslipped” (my italics) and “otherworld” becomes “otherwhorled.” These playful techniques allow us to whirl in Harmon’s whorled otherworld of words.

Yes, just as Zukofsky wrote “A-22” in a manner that “uncompassed” the directions “north south west [and] east” (513) in linguistic dislocation, so too does Harmon immerse us in a “landscape [that] can no longer / hold itself to together” (42), at least to the extent that its musical and syntactical structures unravel our senses and dizzy us into an ever expanding soundscape.