Tag Archives: Ugly Duckling Presse

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 Thing I’ve Read This Month: Chapbooks

18 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed the doorjamb’s

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

says the dog-eared lady
who owns both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vowels roll drip down thighs
conjunctions across backs

I put on my city

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

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

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