Eighteen Poets Recommend New & Recent Collections
Welcome to the Seawall’s semi-annual poetry feature. This season, eighteen poets write briefly on some of their favorite new and recent collections. This multi-poet/title feature is posted here in April and November. The commentary includes:
Joshua Weiner on Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations by David Ferry (University of Chicago Press)
Evie Shockley on The Vital System by C. M. Burroughs (Tupelo Press)
Nick Sturm on Bright Brave Phenomena by Amanda Nadelberg (Coffee House Press)
Anna Journey on Copperhead by Rachel Richardson (Carnegie Mellon)
Rusty Morrison on To Keep Love Blurry by Craig Morgan Teicher (BOA Editions)
Hank Lazer on If by Leonard Schwartz (Talisman House)
Lisa Russ Spaar on Nine Acres by Nathaniel Perry (The American Poetry Review)
Christopher Merrill on Mara’s Shade by Anastassis Vistonitis, translated from the Greek by David Connolly (Tebot Bach)
Shane McCrae on Fowling Piece by Heidy Steidlmayer (Triquarterly)
Adrian Blevins on Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open by Diane Seuss (Univ. of Massachusetts Press)
Paul Otremba on ROTC Kills by John Koethe (Harper Perennial)
Joni Wallace on Animal Collection by Colin Winnette (Spork Press)
Daniel Bosch on More Pricks Than Prizes by Tom Pickard (Pressed Wafer)
Kelly Cherry on The Swing Girl by Katherine Soniat (LSU Press)
Judith Harris on Mark The Music by Merrill Leffler (Dryad Press)
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum on Water Puppets by Quan Barry (University of Pittsburgh Press)
John Taylor on The Tiger is the World by Tomislav Marijan Bilosnic, translated from the Croatian by Durda Vukelic-Rozic and Karl Kvitko (Xenos Books)
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Recommended by Joshua Weiner
Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations by David Ferry (University of Chicago Press)
There is no American poet writing a more American poetry than David Ferry; and by the measure of Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, Ferry succeeds again in showing how American poetry belongs to the world. The rigor of his plain style, its absolute and flexible command of the poem’s verbal surface and his cunning feel for dramatic repetition of word & phrase, put him in a first class of American plain stylists such as Stein, Hemingway, Frost, and David Mamet. As do they, Ferry has a gift for the artfully artless expression, an instinct for reaching far and going deep by sounding the lower registers of speech — Wordsworth, the subject of The Limits of Mortality (1959), Ferry’s early scholarly work, is perhaps the first strong poet behind this style for Ferry, but its timbre and muscularity have grown, one hears, with the suave & energetic classical translations that have brought him greater recognition.
Alone in the library room, even when others
Are there in the room, alone, except for themselves,
There is the illusion of peace; the air in the room
Is stilled; there are reading lights on the tables,
Looking as if they’re reading, looking as if
They’re studying the text, and understanding,
Shedding light on what the words are saying;
But under their steady imbecile gaze the page
Is blank, patiently waiting not to be blank.
This tableau of reading in solitude may evoke for some the reader in Wallace Stevens’ “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” where the solitary imagining mind hovering over the book dissolves the boundaries between inside and outside. But Ferry’s feeling for solitude is keen as Coleridge’s, who understands how deeply alone we are in the presence of others, to be the one awake at midnight in a house of sleepers. “In the Reading Room” stages Ferry’s talent for instilling the ordinary with an eerie light, the inanimate with living shadows; and the insight is quietly terrifying, that our intent hermeneutics bring us no closer to understanding than the bright light that illuminates but does not take in. The experience is far from the comprehension of George Herbert’s “Prayer (I)”. If the lamps are like readers, so too are the readers merely lamps. I find Ferry’s anti-mimesis here—the grammatical continuity that characterizes the radical failure of our understanding—to be more persuasive and moving than the most vigorous á la mode post-everything poetics.
In Ferry’s poems, what appear to be drab everyday events — looking out the window, for example, and observing how a truck has moved from one spot to another — are loaded with potential to enact figures of existential transformation — to unlock mysteries of living, of our struggle to understand our loneliness, separateness, our condition in time, the pathos of how we feel both bound and boundless. No poet now writing more effectively shows how language and form create psychic experiences of the body in time & space, which include the experience of memory, personal memory and tribal. His is a technical mastery of understatement, a forceful eloquence stripped of rhetoric, complete formal actions that fictively reveal the summation of souls. Other poets — John Koethe comes to mind — may be likewise committed to the philosophic/poetic possibilities of plain speech as a mode of thinking; but Ferry’s talent for lyric form create strong supple bodies where others do not; his poems have the irresistible surge of coursing water that threatens to but never overruns its banks.
And I love what the river of poetry carries along in this book: the powerful subtle portraits that readers of Ferry have come to expect; the pungent critique of self-regard that fuels lyric; heartbreaking powerful elegies to his wife, the scholar, Anne Ferry; the range of translations (Rilke, Catullus, Cavafy, Montale, the Anglo-Saxon Bible, and passages from his translations of Horace and Virgil that pick up and amplify themes in the other poems). But special mention should be made of his discursive responses to poems by his friend, the scholar Arthur Gold: collected in one section, each of the five poems by Gold — dramatic meditations on his own illness and mortality — are followed by Ferry’s loose blank verse, that pick up images, ideas & feelings, in a kind of midrashic extension of Gold’s originals, included in full. By foregrounding poetic response as such, the Gold poems concentrate an essential quality and generosity of Ferry’s poetry (that he makes space, first of all, to preserve, in his own book, the otherwise little known poems of a friend, just as he makes a place there for the great ancients & moderns). Thinking, for example, about an image in one of Gold’s poems, of “a darkness so total / That even had there been children outside the bus / And even had they reached to touch the windows with their hands / We would have seen nothing, / We would not have known they were there,” Ferry wonders about the strangeness of the image, and how “the grammar allows those in the bus / To have their vision and not to have it too / As with our every moment of being alive.”
Is their reaching out imploring? Imploring
To be born, or tell us something, something
They know we know but that we do not know
In the way that in that other dimension, before
The event of birth or after the event of death,
They know it, though when they’re born they will
Be innocent of what it was they knew?
In these convincing, poignant experiments in poetic essay and homage, convolution becomes revolution: every turning is a verse that stages and erases human presence. Poetry being a time art, Ferry exploits its formal resources to embody this paradox of being, as a being, avant. Yes, Ferry’s translations help keep alive some of the greatest poetry of the past; and his own terrific poems have absorbed that past and grown up from its fundament; but in the Gold poems he adds something equally important by suggesting how poetry, by anyone, is to be valued as a kind of necessary expressive human document. There’s a seriousness, vulnerability, and fierce nobility in this subtle, complex, and tightly interwoven body of work that I sorely miss in much of the poetry being written now. An exemplary artistry, so confident and sure-footed, would be nothing if it couldn’t also make us feel, as a great dancer does, those moments when the body succumbs to gravity. Ferry’s is such a book; it’s a killer, with a long reach that touches us with its keen intuitive feeling for mortal limits.
[Published September 14, 2012. 113 pages, $18.00 paper]
Joshua Weiner is the author of two books of poems and the editor of a collection of essays on the poet Thom Gunn. His new book, The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish, will be published by Chicago in spring 2013. A recipient of the 2012 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, he is currently living in Berlin.
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Recommended by Evie Shockley
The Vital System by C. M. Burroughs (Tupelo Press)
I waited for The Vital System for a good while, though not by that name. If asked, I would have said simply that I was looking forward to seeing a collection by C. M. Burroughs, whose work I had read only in small bursts. I imagined that her tightly controlled language, make-you-blink images, and ultraviolet emotional registers would only be more powerful within the larger context of a book, and I am happy to report that I was right.
Burroughs’ first volume of poetry is a sustained and involving exploration of three of the speaker’s relationships: one with her sister, one with her lover, and one with herself. Each is a potent mix of sorrow and need, disappointment and hope, made tangible by way of the possibilities, limits, and betrayals of the body. We learn that the speaker — whom one is tempted to conflate with Burroughs herself, as I will unjustifiably permit myself to do herein—is in an ongoing state of mourning for her sister. She parses the quality of this condition for us in “Think Away the Blood,” a two-part poem whose first section comprises small, fragmented tercets, and whose second part, which I quote here, is prose:
Driving to Virginia, with the destination of your grave, I drive into a doe. The eyes bulb gently in their sockets; wide ears bend toward my bumper. Bone and body slam against the undercarriage. Your birthday, nine years after your death. It is 5 AM. I spend the remaining six hours thinking of that body splayed in the road. How long dead. How I travel to you with blood.
This passage illustrates Burroughs’ ability to describe the horrific in terms that render it bearable and unbearable at once. Focusing us first on the soft and beautiful aspects of the doe, which remain soft and beautiful even in the trauma of impact, she is able to shift seamlessly into the more violent images of the wrecked body and the blood that represents the repeatedly reopened wound of her sister’s death. The poem does not explain what ended the sister’s life so early; Burroughs withholds such details, even as she ensures that we feel fully the force with which death enters life. She is thus never in danger of being dismissed as “confessional,” even as her unflinching, economical phrasing steers her clear of sentimentality.
The recurring “he” of the poems, the speaker’s lover, is an emotional lightning rod and a moving target. Sometimes he explodes into an army of men:
I rode the shoulder of my poem, wanting to see
their faces, none specific, all malevolent, calling out
last moments in ridiculous language—love, affection,
tender, one screamed. Not loudly enough and too late.
I wore red paint, salvaging neither plated breast,
nor firm mouth. Not once was I tender.
I wanted them wasted—him, him, him, him, him
Sometimes “he” becomes “she,” a sign of his and Burroughs’ potential for connection:
Suddenly, you had a woman in you. I. Who loved. Who
wanted loved. You and she hyphened between layer-
shucked, glow-wrought. Spoon fed syllables under the
phasing moon. She called you gratitude. Seeing, seen.
Something given. Pocketed in the jaw, stored, hoarded —
you and she, linked in the grammar of —
These passages demonstrate the way her love of language fuels and shapes her passions, whether anger or adoration. We also see the fluidity with which she moves between the real and the imaginary, suggesting how utterly weak are the boundaries between lived experience, dream, and desire. But certain realities cannot be circumvented by love, such as the loss of her sister and the ability of racism to penetrate into one’s most intimate relationships. Burroughs, who is African American, traces the complexities of the latter in a compelling poem titled “The Power of the Vulnerable Body,” from which this passage is excerpted:
. . . Like a man in the female outhouse, he and I tried to hurt
so that the public could not break our skin; we used our canines/birdshots/
rope. We wanted to do everything that could be done to us. We used
which did swift damage. There was a gash where he said “[
Thankfully, he could sew. I was all new within the week except for the
The bracketed blank marks the pain without reproducing it, another example of Burroughs’ control over her craft. These lines, like so many others, employ images of bodily vulnerability to illustrate the depth of the lovers’ bond and the consequent threat they pose to one another.
Burroughs’ poetry is also very much about the threat she poses to and affection she holds for herself. Indeed, poetry, like therapy, offers her ways to be both honest and kind as she negotiates the tricky terrain of her interiority. But this is not poetry as therapy—these poems are too aestheticized and intellectual to serve a primarily clinical purpose. Consider the prose poem “Nights’ Large Fears,” presented below in its entirety:
Hawkweed jimmies window seals. Room for a man whose liquor eclipses him. Beg quiet the body. Fight.
softly, impact nothing. Even your dream, a woman who allows a woman to die. Leaving from or for the world, prayer beads’ iridescent yes/no.
Never admit that the poet in you might use it. Wait, as you are cut into, long enough to draw the body’s pre-break, the red core’s praxis. Drafts of self and self. Deleting.
The poet does use it: ruthlessly and lovingly recasting her fears— of her body’s betrayal, of her powers of destruction, of her ability to deploy the artist’s canny response to her own deepest wounds — as poems. The poems propose ways in which she, the speaker, might be seen and understood: as weak, powerful, or both. They do so without ever giving up their status as art. The language is full of music, from the traces of black Southern rhythms of speech (“Beg quiet the body”) to the assonance and consonance that drive and conspire with them (“Room for a man whose liquor eclipses him”). Rather than pulling poetry into the realm of therapy, Burroughs reconceives self-definition as art, producing and, at times, deleting various “drafts” of her self.
Although I haven’t discussed the moments of humor in the text, there are many, grounded in delightful wordplay, even in poems that treat her hardest subjects. Burroughs is endlessly inventive in her array of images, expansive in her attitude toward lexicon, and catholic in her approach to form. The umbrella under which she gathers her poems encompasses vast social issues and piercing personal concerns, keeping the reader unsettled in the best possible way. The Vital System’s surprises encourage a rapid first reading; its nuances repay the additional readings it urges and deserves. I am already anticipating Burroughs’ second collection, but will be happily occupied with the first while I wait.
[Published October 31, 2012. 63 pages, $16.95 paper]
Evie Shockley’s most recent book of poetry is the new black (Wesleyan, 2011). Her critical book is titled Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011).
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Recommended by Nick Sturm
Bright Brave Phenomena by Amanda Nadelberg (Coffee House Press)
Bright Brave Phenomena is a system of resilient, big-hearted machines, the warm chaos of the light in the grass, or the grass in the light, a field of slightly glitched musics tending to the terrible loveliness that makes us human. It is difficult to leave these poems not feeling a determined YES resonating off everything’s skin, the trees, the people, the windows, the mountains, asking that we be friends, at least for now, at least while we’re being and being breathtaking. Built around direct statements illuminated by a fair amount of semantic wobble, these poems take in and redefine the world, often turning those definitions over until the poem discovers some little piece of joy or sadness it allows the reader to dance with, feeling complicated and hugged. The book’s first poem, “Like a Tiny, Tiny Bird that Used to Make Us Happy,” is an appropriate entrance into Nadelberg’s sense of motion and emotional momentum, making connections that are as subtle as they are expansive, often related to our capacity or incapacity to love. The poem ends:
and fields quiet broken for winter
but you are still worth thinking, and so
in the tiny century of my mouth
I see you sitting in a window holding
forth, charming the backpacks right
into the night. There were no thoughts
before feet appeared, there was no
time for mapping. The floor of the river
answered the phone, took a message –
the fire smelled of peanuts, the telephone
of stars – it was forever ago dear friend,
you beast, and still I won’t let go.
Propelled by a tender attention that resists anything being inconsequential, the poem, a world inside the world of language (“in the tiny century of my mouth / I see”), delights in its buoyant movements, establishing a logic based on wonder and emotional truth that asks, as desperately as it does joyfully, how is it we can touch the world knowing we cannot hold on to anything. “I say things / because I’m going to lead you to a place and / when we get there it will be so sad,” she writes in “Our Situation,” but this sadness is to be shared, reveled in, recognized as how we know we’re human. It is the door to a pleasure these poems defiantly insist upon believing in, as the poem continues: “We are a lot of / clapping here. So you don’t like flowers? / Fine. Hideous people can have each other, / I don’t care. I just don’t want to be / the assassin. It would kill the mice.”
A search for compassion and empathy is the primary emotional current in Bright Brave Phenomena, continually enacted in moments of simple connection, kindness, and hope: “The telephone is nothing without / friendship” (from “Powerage”), “I will pour two glasses. I will / give you the bigger one” (from “Regardless of Rivers, Aggression in the Driveway is Unlovely”), and “I’m sorry this package does not contain / tiny horses, next time, friend” (from “Recommendation or Decision”). Indeed, these poems create a sense of intimacy between speaker and reader that not only validates the emotional accuracy of our shared confusion, but also suggests that the willingness to acknowledge our wounds as sources of laughter and light is, ultimately, what will save us. “[P]eople are shit shows of fright,” Nadelberg writes in “The Moon Went Away,” but it is “[t]ime for all the what you want, darlings, / darlings, take the fear from your mouths / and listen, blow on the loveliest lamps.” And in the midst of these poems’ well-lit party are the traces of an excellent soundtrack, including references to Springsteen, Dylan, AC/DC, and Stevie Nicks, confirming that these poems aren’t willing to be so serious they forget the music, beyond poetry, that lifts and rescues us daily. From “Here in the Space-Time Continuum”:
I shine. I
keep trying. I mean, why not, I am out
of small slips of paper and if Stevie
Nicks can be broken-hearted then so can
I. I’m going to get red tights. No. No
no, I will sit right here. If I ever wear
lipstick I’d like it to be “June Bride.”
The reference to “June Bride,” a 1948 comedy staring Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery, (which includes such wonderful moments as Montgomery’s character, drunk on hard cider, saying “Man’s best friend is the apple” before falling face first into the snow) again points to a larger cultural and emotional frame of reference for these poems, one in which what’s funny often leads to what is most affecting.
Certainly, these poems are brave and exciting due to their freedom of feeling and association, but they also pop and show their intelligence when they elucidate their own meaning-making, presenting a kind of argument for reconsidering the experiential function of narrative, comparison, and understanding. “You could / be a narrative,” she writes in “This is When I Tell You Like It Is (Part Deux),” implying that a person or object, and here a pronoun, has the ability to contain a sequence of events simply, the poem seems to suggest, by existing in any emotional context. Furthermore, Nadelberg plays with the instability of simile and metaphor, acknowledging the transformations we can undercut and amplify in the cracks in language, as in “Dear Fruit” where she writes, “I am a terrible river but with you / I was a yellow shoe holding open a door. / Riding around in the park like a ship / the car was only itself.” Also, reinforcing Stein’s belief in the role of feeling in understanding, in “The Dinosaur Dreams Its Colors Into View” Nadelberg writes
A person has to
feel something to believe it.
If a person has a face
it could be very hard for
that person to imagine
having another face.
Does anyone understand
anything? Two benches
are two people. Words are
kinds of special to any
Here, the plural “kinds” and break on “any / body” are what create all kinds of celebratory radiance. Bright Brave Phenomena is full of such moments, but never as cute tricks. These poems are honest emotional structures, admitting their weaknesses, asserting their joys, and embracing their obsessions. Through it all, as the book’s title suggests, these poems, inciting curiosity and out-of-the-ordinary interest, refuse to be artifacts of resignation. From “This All Came From a Box, Find a Bright Way Out”:
I don’t know how to gauge defeat.
There are still more chances,
little friends, the way wind
would form a thing. I decided
to become wonderful, found my
legs and removed a heart.
Good thing that Nadelberg’s poems remind us how many hearts we have, and how necessary it is to keep giving them away. Enjoy this book. It insists.
[Published April 24, 2012. 118 pages, $16.00 paper]
Nick Sturm is the author of WHAT A TREMENDOUS TIME WE'RE HAVING! (iO Books), as well as four other forthcoming chapbooks: A Basic Guide (Bateau), Beautiful Out (H_NGM_N), I Feel Yes (Forklift Ink), and, with Wendy Xu, I Was Not Even Born (Coconut). He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.
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Recommended by Anna Journey
Copperhead by Rachel Richardson (Carnegie Mellon University Press)
Asked whether or not I identify as a Southern poet, I often don’t know exactly what’s being asked of me. And when C.D. Wright observes in her poem, “Our Dust,” “I was the poet / of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch / phone books, of failed / roadside zoos,” one suspects she’s been asked that question regularly, too. Are we yarn-spinners in love with spells and sweet tea, people with sticky foods for nicknames? Do we sleep with Dickey tucked under our pillows? At times, folks ask The Inevitable Southern Question out of critical earnestness and, at other times, with an air of patronizing regionalism. While such labels may serve a practical purpose beneath a book’s ISBN, they are reductive in their failure to account for a collection’s complexities, surprises, and subtleties. Folks, a poet is more than her Spanish moss or muscadine jelly.
The work of Rachel Richardson, author of the debut poetry collection, Copperhead, may be vulnerable to the reductive potential of the Southern poet caricature. Richardson does in fact foreground many representations of “Southerness”: her portraits of Leadbelly and the young Britney Spears, section three’s epigraph from Mark Twain, imagery of swamps and parishes, a community fraught with racial tensions, family histories evoked with local color and quirky vernacular. Richardson subverts those poems that enact the dominant narratives of Southern representation, however, through her poems of fragment and mystery, which act as both interrogations of and glosses upon those dominant narratives. Furthermore, I’d argue that like the two definitions of the word “copperhead” in the book’s initial pair of epigraphs — the Northern traitor who sympathizes with Secessionists and the dreaded venomous snake — Richardson’s poetic vision in the collection is a plural one. The various sides act not as mirror images but as warped pairings that distort our more familiar perceptions of “Southerness” — foils that through nuanced narratives and discreet details keep us destabilized and thoroughly seduced.
Throughout Copperhead, Richardson exhibits at least two markedly different subgenres of poems, which I’ll call — borrowing from the poet’s own language — “portraits” and “notes.” The “portraits,” which comprise the prevailing type of poem, strike me as conventional narratives that foreground either family history (grandmothers, sisters, a beloved family friend named Lola) or Southern history (executions, racial injustice, notorious figures). These poems build meaning through the logic of telling stories — or parts of them — and tend to strive toward closure and epiphany. The “notes,” the secondary type of poem, are fragmentary, short, elliptical, resist closure, and accrue meaning through associative logic through the rapid juxtaposition of images, often without explication or commentary. To characterize Richardson’s two main approaches to poems in such a manner is not to reach for easy or reductive labels, it’s to appreciate the sophistication and heterogeneity of her work.
Richardson’s series of seven elliptical lyrics — all titled “[sign]” and scattered throughout the book’s three sections — make up the bulk of the latter kind of poem I’ve described that ruptures the more conventional syntax, linear progression, and closure of the family/historical narratives with mystery, fragment, and a sense of unresolved or submerged danger. Here’s the first of these “notes” poems in the book:
( sweet tea / big girl / get up off your knees )
The lesson is: stop crying. Flies are drawn to honey, not
vinegar. This is how a girl gets what she wants. Beaucoups
Sometimes a bridge goes over a river. Sometimes it goes
over a road.
Sign: Bible answers will be given to many Qs
The way Richardson utilizes both a secular folk saying (“Flies are drawn to honey, not / vinegar.”) and an eccentric Protestant quip (“Bible answers will be given to many Qs”) contrasts established modes of communal wisdom with “big girl”’s own internalized “lesson”: that she’ll get what she wants by ceasing her tears and acting sweet instead of sour. And one must admire the resourcefulness of the lyrical ear that brought together the mellifluous assonance and flavorful Cajun dialect in the sentence fragment, “Beaucoups /dollars, shoes.” I admire the energy and momentum of this poem, how its juxtapositions rapidly develop an interrogation into how we negotiate differing registers of wisdom in our lives. I also appreciate Richardson’s implicit critique of the Bible sign’s dubious offer, with her omission of the final sentence’s punctuation. Richardson’s sly defiance of the sign’s abstract proclamation seems more in step with the concrete stability of the bridges, despite the shifting unpredictability of the rivers or roads that may run beneath the structures.
One of the most striking poems of the “portrait” variety is the prose poem “The Scale” that weighs a series of halved or parallel images in a family narrative fraught with division and darkness. In the first two stanzas, Richardson writes:
The swamps and the silver coffee tray I loved with equal pas-
sion. And, too, finding a robin’s nest flung to the ground in
wind, with three of its eggs destroyed, and three babies bleating.
The world was nothing if not fair. Bread almost broke itself
The asymmetrical pairing of the familiar swamp and the coffee tray, the three crushed eggs and the three live birds, and the “almost” perfectly self-halving loaf suggests that aspects of the speaker’s family circumstance will be revealed as similarly fractured or askew. Take, for example, the following stanza in which the speaker’s flâneur father wanders “block by block as / if to divide the city were to understand,” and how, in the fourth stanza, we find the speaker engaging — or perhaps refusing to engage — a malevolent elderly racist with divisive intent:
“What’s the difference between a live_____________and a
dead_____________?” a friend of my grandmother’s asked, el-
bow to my ribs, a secret grin poisoning his face. He had me
alone in the sitting room, among Chinese silk cushions.
A place for silence and a place for speech. Friend chicken is an
induction. Beer cans on the stoop.
The man’s “poisonous” joke, deliberately disarmed of its racial slurs in the poem by the author (“A place for silence and a place for speech”), recalls the juxtaposition of the live and the dead fauna in the first stanza. But even amid the creature comforts of “Chinese silk cushions,” friend chicken, and beer, the speaker is ill at ease in such offensive company and her preoccupation with division continues. The poem becomes increasingly stifling as Richardson evokes a scene claustrophobic with both kitsch and a peculiar, stylized gentility:
One evening at the Hobbit Shop, green in the night-lit
emptiness, she threw a party to introduce us to the neigh-
borhood girls. A stuffed lion moodily shadowed a train on a
circular track. The arms of porcelain dolls reached for finger
sandwiches on trays.
Like the toy train never arriving at its destination on a circular track or the gap between Adam’s finger and the hand of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Richardson’s porcelain dolls’ reach remains imperfect, divided from the object of desire. Elsewhere, at the end of “The Scale,” Richardson’s enactment of division is more explicit:
…one day, in anger, my sister threw me into
the Robinsons’ pool.
Because to divide is God’s will?
Underwater, I tried to pretend I had jumped on pur-
pose, crossing my legs in my billowing rose-print dress.
I raised an imaginary teacup to my lips, determined to
remain until someone fished me out.
By the end of Copperhead, I could contribute a general definition of what constitutes a Southern poet—a writer concerned with regional landscapes, Southern history, family narratives, racial tensions, Protestant ironies, vernacular wisdom, and the idiosyncrasies of a community that must find ways to honor and, at times, indict its own historical culpability—but that might be way too tidy. I’ll say, instead, that the way Richardson’s speaker in “The Scale” attempts to sip from an imaginary teacup after being shoved into the pool by her sister is perhaps a kind of uniquely stylized composure within extremity. One delights in the imaginative performance of her pride even as she hopes for salvation, a desire that, call it the “Southern spirit”—or not—we all may secretly harbor.
[Published February 17, 2011. 87 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Anna Journey is the author of two collections of poetry: Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series.
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Recommended by Rusty Morrison
To Keep Love Blurry by Craig Morgan Teicher (BOA Editions)
What can it mean To Keep Love Blurry — an infinitive phrase suggesting not only value but vigilance. In his second poetry collection, Craig Morgan Teicher demonstrates what is irreconcilable in our commonplace: “Ironic —or not? — that what shames you most is organically yourself?”; what is ineluctable in our tedious internal squabbles —“Well here we are. Does night / race or erase the time / between now and morning?” Such questions make apparent that neither alternative can be the simple answer. They wink conspiratorially toward a reader in tone, and replace any faith in incisive resolution with a hankering for what Giorgio Agamben has subversively extolled — that we should observe, even cultivate our “ways of not knowing.” Agamben is not promoting “carelessness” or “inattention,” but “an art of ignorance,” or as Teicher calls it “blurry”-ness. Agamben explains that “the articulation of a zone of nonknowledge is the condition — and at the same time the touchstone — of all our knowledge.” This zone is where Teicher’s “blur” takes us. Hear it in Teicher’s “Well here we are,” which registers the value of recognizing with humor and compassion the impossibilities that plague us. As Agamben has recommended, Teicher allows “an absence of knowledge to guide and accompany” him.
I hide beneath the sheets, close
to your belly, and apologize
—to you, to my mother, to our son,
to motherhood and fatherhood,
to all those now fleeing
what they love.
You may not understand—I don’t
either—but someday we might:
Someday shines on families like light.
The “shine” of that “someday,” which ostensibly proposes a future understanding, actually underscores the value of this moment—its “light” is in the mutual acknowledgement of what can’t be parsed in the present with logical practices.
This collection takes as its purported subject the characters of Teicher’s life story, or let us call it his “Life Studies,” since the first section is so titled, with a bow to Robert Lowell. Indeed, we might take Teicher at his word when he offers humorously — “If Robert Frost is my mom, / then so is Robert Lowell.” And, yes, there is the pull toward the “bare sorrow” of Frost, as Randall Jarrell called it, which is set against what Teicher describes as the “charm” of Lowell’s “show” of “self loathing.” In addition to his articulated allegiances to Lowell and Frost, Teicher acclaims the value of W.G. Sebald’s “detachment,” — “What more could a mourner want than the cool capacity to simply watch without longing?” Though this is another question that has no simple answer, thanks to Teicher’s deft ability to resist, even in his praise, an unequivocal stance. Hear it in his appreciation of Sebald’s ability to “think until feelings are only thoughts and so less potent, less capable of surprise, whether as rapture or despair.”
Obviously, wise elders abound in this collection, but none will quite account for Teicher’s vigilant candor in the ways that he vitally enacts the “blurry.” Even in a collection that is rich with the past’s re-enactment, he admits that the most relevant memories, the most clarifying instances of forgotten dream, are most likely irretrievable, “locked away somewhere.” Surprisingly, Teicher lets us feel the ways in which such a memory’s very irretrievability will offer him something more valuable than clarity: “When I realize I am waiting for it, I feel childhood rising within me: powerlessness, hope.” No writer I know exposes better Giorgio Agamben’s dictum, that “[t]he ways in which we do not know things are just as important (and perhaps more important) as the ways in which we know them.”
Or as Teicher elaborates, turning a question of meaning inside-out in response to his son’s inscrutability:
What’s to be gleaned from what a child
does and why? He’s simply not given to
interpretation, mine or his own. That’s
the lesson: some things aren’t anything
else. Then, later, all things are other things …
That “some things aren’t anything” (are simply unimportant) shape-shifts in its meaning at the enjambment into “some things aren’t anything else” (which can mean they are entirely without equivalent, even semantically, and that they are simply what they seem to be), and leads, “later,” to “all things are other things” (which suggests that meaning is never what you expect). Teicher is gifted in his plainspoken articulations of a world steeped in disequilibrium for the child and parent alike. But disequilibrium does not engender despair. Teicher’s many vertiginous shifts do not leave us in a landscape of ennui, though a summary of the book’s subjects might suggest this — the loss of his mother while still a child, the fear of failed artistic accomplishment, the often inscrutable responsibilities of fatherhood and marriage. But such fierce challenges, such exacting portrayals of suffering, remain infectiously subversive of sorrow. Even the epigraph hints at this: “For Cal and Simone [his children] — you should know that it’s a lot more fun that these poems suggest — and for Brenda, who knows …”
Watching Teicher in the act of keeping vigil to life’s blurriness is — dare I say it — “a lot more fun” for the reader as well. Take for example even a poem in which the phrase “all words stand for pain” is repeated twice: “To An Editor Who Said I Repeat Myself and Tell Too Much.” Here, the repetition manages to both underline the phrase’s meaning and displace it — becoming as much a rebellious rebuff of the editor by repeating the criticized offence as it is lament. So many of these poems suggest that any experience cannot be understood at surface value, which keeps somberness as questionable as any other pose, especially when it is paired with the sensuous physicality of Teicher’s humor:
the mouth works all its life to spit a vowel—
some long sound with feeling fenced in
by the sharp stops of a few consonants, a howl
In many poems, Teicher uses the structural certainties of repetition and rhyme, which recall childhood lyrics and lullabies, recreating a seemingly trustworthy frame for the dis-clarity and disruptiveness of experience. In this way, Teicher’s casts a quiet enchantment upon suffering — a lilting air of mystery holds sway. As Amittai F. Aviram explains, a poem rich in repetition, rhythm, rhyme, “retains a residue of the … meaningless or nonreferential” as the reader “feel[s] the tension between … these two dimensions in the poem, the meaningful and the meaningless.”
Notably, the book’s first poem engages in rhythmic repetition to introduce a character of fairytale mystery and paradox, suggesting immediately that we must read Teicher with our eyes open to what simple logic can’t disclose to us. “In the land of rivers I was a prince of rivers… / In the land of questions I was the subject of questions. / I’m sorry what was lost was utterly changed …” Think of Robert Walser’s protagonists, whom J.M. Coetzee calls “fairy-tale characters once the tale has come to an end.” Yet Teicher is uncannily adept at exposing even the painful ‘reality’ of surfacing-at-the-end-of-the-fairytale as simply another ineffective realization of the actual, another experience to watch closely, to see where it “blur[s].” Read Teicher to understand why Agamben says “The art of living is, in this sense, the capacity to keep ourselves in harmonious relationship with that which escapes us.”
[Published August 21, 2012. 110 pages, $16.00 paper]
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Recommended by Hank Lazer
If by Leonard Schwartz (Talisman House)
Leonard Schwartz’s If is, as advertised (in Rebecca Brown’s blurb), “a profound and moving book, a modern book of wisdom that merits rereading again and again and again.” If may in fact be Schwartz’s finest book. What interests me most about this book, though, is what I think of as the metric of wisdom, or perhaps more accurately, the metric of dispensing wisdom. Schwartz has an eloquence – a seeming ease of writing – that carries If along. He has a facility for a kind of grand statement with a touch of humor and irony that reminds me of Ashbery. As with Ashbery, I end up wondering about the function, value, and nature of that eloquence.
And yet, a major strand of If is the opposite of a proud eloquence; the overall book, in its beautifully stately couplets, speaks as much to aging, diminished accomplishment, and a humbling relationship to time:
Now I think it is my turn to miss the point
Yet a voice has many arms and builds us a life
Even after language is pillaged of its magic
And flowers no longer know our individual names
Foothills continue to give meter to the way we speak
And glaciers give it weight, thrown boulders
Suggestive of the force of things, so violent
So fragile and so forlorn that by comparison
You can fit any one of our endeavors
Into a little pocket on an ice cube tray.
Even this brief passage provides a good sense as to the seemingly effortless flow of generalization that Schwartz is able to achieve, and the passage also typifies a turning back on itself by questioning or contextualizing the poetic performance itself. Threats of illness and mortality keep the somewhat manic eloquent performance in check: “How avoid betraying / The necessary elegy?”, and, in reference to the poet’s daughter’s illness, “I love her too much to any longer / Distance myself from disease.” Or, the peril implied in these lines: “As if roped together like mountaineers / Parent and child begin the day’s difficult ascent.”
In person and in poems, Schwartz is funny, quick, and sharp in his observations, as in this snapshot of the contemporary:
So everyone texts everyone else
As if this were a silent movie
And the viewer has to wait for the words to appear
As to make sense of the preceding image.
It takes an extended passage to convey the quality of performance involved in Schwartz’s long poem – the way that the poet builds thought upon thought on the scaffolding of the recurring “if”:
If one rarely leaves the cloister of
The Mother Tongue even when ushered
By the conversation elsewhere, if some
Borough of the broken is inescapably one’s voice
If possibilities come into being and pass away
As actualities do, though they never really were
If a bulldozer lurks in every
And the alphabet remains essentially unchanged
For thousands of years
If the warming flesh of rhetoric is
Cut away and the spiritual
Is, surprise, neither warm nor fleshy
If under the pressure of the tragic
Speech seeks out the clearly other
If my mind disengages the moment we start
Imperiously diagnosing our societal ills
If what is said
Is what is sad
If we are signs without interpretation
And what is contemporary in me
Is the sun, the moon, and the stars
Our existence at an inner distance
This community of persons
Born in the same instant
And each instant precious in which cars
Of a moving train do not decouple.
Schwartz’s performance is admirable, and the virtues and problems of this mode of writing are similar to those for Ashbery’s work. As Schwartz himself notes, “If I’m a raincloud and can’t stop talking/ We all get drenched.” There is simultaneously a glorious, inspiring quality to the beauty of the writing along with a sense of it being a masterful performance that, at times, loses sight of the poet’s plausible relationship to the truths and wisdom at the heart of the poem. It’s as if the poem proceeds on autopilot, obeying its governing if-structure, and displaying an engaging inventiveness that perhaps allows us to return to (or wait for) the more centrally profound moments of wisdom. Perhaps If is a transitional work for Schwartz, one where he begins the process of weaning himself from an accomplished eloquence to engage other possibilities: “The loss of impetuousness unfolding over / A thirty year period as if in a few minutes // Contributes to my decision / To lay aside my counterfeiting activities // Even if that means / I can no longer fool my peers.”
So am I really asking that the poem have a higher percentage of passages of less eloquent, less performative, less comedic or ironized “wisdom”? It might also be argued that in fact such a debate is already within the domain of If, a poem deeply committed to wondering how a poet, how Schwartz, might ever say what is true – “If the aspect of language that melts away/ Is the part that tells the truth.” Or perhaps the truth of If lies in the acknowledgment of dissolution as the inevitable condition of any extended language performance (which might also be another way to describe a human life?):
If it is so clear earthly life is corrupted by time
That the concept of “corruption” itself decays
And is discarded, leaving us only with time,
Time and the collective memory of earthly time;
If memory is the only victory over time
But the concept of “victory” loses all its pluck:
The comic models freedom and elasticity
And whatever dissolves whenever approached.
Admittedly, it would take another essay to explore the specific nature of Schwartz’s own comedic methodology – quite different, say, than Charles Bernstein’s mode of the comedic (based on a transformation of stand-up comedy) – but let me suggest that If points toward a more encompassing metaphysical point of view, something akin to Kenneth Burke’s (ethical and philosophical sense of) a comic frame of acceptance. That comic frame of acceptance comes from a tragic sense of our existence, a perspective that Schwartz pushes even further (so that we might see ourselves possibly as the bearer of death):
If we are a living speck surrounded by death
On a planet that supports life some of the time
On some of its surface, icy
Or burning or dry, or if we are the germ of death
Spreading itself amongst a mass of living cells
And forces succumbing around us as we grow …
Perhaps all that we can do is to extemporize – to perform the mixed eloquence of If as a heuristic process of knowing by doing:
One cannot prepare in advance
For one’s conversation with unknowns
And so there’s no reason to stop
Making it all up on the spot.
If it isn’t extemporized it isn’t the important
Conversation… never write about what one knows.
Sacrilege! “We do what we know
Before we know what we do” (Creeley)
So that where we find ourselves – and If is definitely the testing-by-writing-it of shifting perspectives on who and what we are – is in a place simultaneously of beauty and constraint:
A treasure impossible to describe,
Subduing even those not consciously aware.
If sacrifices are required there is
No god or mortal who would not offer himself.
If speech is the source of a compensatory
Cosmos in the mouth
If the unknown can only be created
Out of what is known
And the known is already created stuff
A cow fence electric with current
Please set me free from anguish as one might
A calf from a rope, a horse from a bit.
For our circumstance, in human being, and in our loving relations with other mortals, is one of anguish. A poem, then, a poem such as If, becomes a way to share perspective, to make a vision and saying trans-personal, though with the awareness, as beings in time and as beings constrained by our own radical particularity, that we will, to a great extent, miss one another:
If an individual’s thinking is a mystical ground
Between concealment and disclosure
If a private point of view
Both particularizes and traps
Like a sharp knife plunging
Into the chatter of good intentions –
Suppose each of us our own time zone
Such that by the time one reaches the other
One is already jet-lagged.
But with effort, with some rest, we can shake off the jet-lag and join one another in this time, in the place of speculation and eloquence that pours forth from that profoundly initiating and simple word if.
[Published October 20, 2012. 88 pages, $15.95 paper]
Hank Lazer has published seventeen books of poetry, including Portions, The New Spirit, and Days. His seventeenth book of poetry, N18 (complete), a handwritten book, is available from Singing Horse Press. Lazer’s most recent collection of essays is Lyric & Spirit (Omindawn, 2008).
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Recommended by Lisa Russ Spaar
Nine Acres by Nathaniel Perry (The American Poetry Review)
All poetry, whether free verse or no, is formal. And all poems, whatever their ostensible subjects, are finally also about form: the torsos of language they erect, the fields of white space their lines plough, and in which their words alight and from which they take flight. Nathaniel Perry’s Nine Acres, winner of the American Poetry Review/ Honickman Book Prize, takes its 52 poem titles from the 52 chapter headings of a go-to farm manual, Five Acres and Independence, written by M. G. Kains and published in 1935. Perry’s is a daringly formal book.
Each poem (with Kains-borrowed titles like “Essential Factors of Production,” “Green Manures and Cover Crops,” “Who is Likely to Succeed?,” and “Figures Don’t Lie”) consists of four tetrameter quatrains, often enmeshed by rhyme schemes. In the overarching story of the series, the speaker narrates his young family’s acquisition of and engagements over time with nine acres of rural property. But the poems themselves — as agile, nimble, sexy, smart, and culturally and linguistically savvy as his prosody is regular — are about much more than agricultural husbandry. Eschewing any over-simplification of this endeavor, or of the heart, even as they strive for an utter clarity of expression, these are love poems —f or place, for spouse, for children, for the making and the mystery of making. Here is “Soils and their Care”:
The field we bought is filled with clover.
You are still my lover, I am still
yours. Our children are halfway here,
and we try to imagine being filled
more—like a pint of beer before
it loaves above the glass and kisses
the landlord’s hand. Remember the year
we lived in London? We don’t miss
it much, but you were my lover there
as well, and I was yours, which was
a good way to be in the city, so many
roads to cross and places to puzzle
over. And what, exactly, binds
this August meadow and that year?
I could say love—we’d all, of course,
expect that. I should, but won’t, say fear.
What is it — if not love, fear, beauty, and desire — that leads us to create things: a garden, an orchard, a family, a poem? As I suggested above, Perry’s poems are, in essence, about this impulse to transform a field, to form a poem, to be formed by the act of making. Poems like “Who is Likely to Succeed?” have as foreground and subtext a meta concern with their own cultivation, shape, and process:
I always assumed beginnings were
the best places to start. But times
are that middles are all you see
or something slowly muddles the line
between starts and middles or middles and ends,
like love, or something just like love
but more so for its having lit
the corners of what you’d always thought of
as the start of something but now
seems exactly like the middle
of something else, a thing you had thought
you might miss, like the sweet note on a fiddle,
if you’d tried. And now my song’s all soured
with thinking. I’ll start over. It begins:
you, then you, then here, where the trees
are bright, will soften, will brighten again.
Farm. Form. Coincidence? Form, Perry writes in “Introduction,” is “that which hunts before me, / that which is not dark in the darkness.” In his farming manual, M. G. Kains writes that above all, farm life “gives the thinking observer mastery over his business, brings him en rapport with his environment and in tune with The Infinite.” Perry’s “The Farm Library,” in which Perry’s speaker directly addresses Kains’s text, ends this way:
What did Kains, his skiff
of a book shored up, his harvest stored
for winter, need me to know of knowledge?
That in seed and land we find an anchor,
and in language we weigh out our courage.
This figurative nexus of the wild order of horticulture is at the ardent heart of this collection.
[Published October 25, 2011. 96 pages, $14.00 paper]
Lisa Russ Spaar’s sixth collection of poems, Vanitas, Rough, has just been published by Persea Books. In March 2013, Drunken Boat media will publish The Hide-and-Seek Muse, a selection of her essays that had been published weekly from 2010 to 2012 for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Arts and Academe” blog. She teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia.
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Recommended by Christopher Merrill
Mara’s Shade by Anastassis Vistonitis, translated from the Greek by David Connolly (Tebot Bach)
Anastassis Vistonitis occupies a unique position in Greek letters: equally acclaimed as a poet and a journalist, he switches from one medium to the other with seeming ease, now composing poems and literary essays, now turning out book reviews and articles, often on the same day. Both streams feed the sea of his imagination—he calls his prose a continuation of poetry by other means — and his Greek readers are fortunate to have his work available to them in so many forms. He has published eleven collections of poetry, three volumes of essays, four travelogues, a book of stories, and a translation of the Chinese poet Li Ho; he edits and writes for the book section of To Vima, the leading newspaper; he even assembled the candidature file for the Athens Olympics, articulating the argument that convinced the International Olympic Committee to return the Games to their original site. Indeed his work is a testament to the ancient Greek idea of the intimate connection between the body and the soul. What good luck to have a selection of his poems in English, in the splendid translation of David Connolly.
Vistonitis cuts a large figure, both in his presence and on the page. He was born in 1952 in Komotini, near the Turkish border, and when an injury cut short a promising soccer career he threw himself into poetry, coming of age during the military dictatorship (1967-1974). His early work is marked by the artistic, intellectual, and political ferment of the time, and it is no accident that in his subsequent writings he exhibits a deep understanding of the relationship between literature and politics (he studied political science and economics in Athens); also a grasp of the world beyond Greece. He traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, and Asia, lived in New York and Chicago, where he perfected his English, and schooled himself in several literary traditions, ever mindful of the ethical dimension of his craft. His work is dense with allusion and insight, as befits one of the best-read writers of the age, and in these poems he displays not only a range of theme but also formal possibilities, from variations on Byzantine prosody to prose poems to lyrical meditations. Readers will instantly recognize the voice of a major poet.
“From the Side of the Sea,” for example, opens with a series of apocalyptic versets:
It was night when we descended the narrow path to the sea. No wind was blowing just as yesterday. Lights were mirrored in a black glass. In it we saw our faces’ negatives.
Far off appeared the flickers of a huge fire.
This is where we’ll stay till morning, I said, and the others didn’t speak. Another land began where the fire was fading and no one knew it. no one knew if what was burning was the great palace, as the day’s rumors had it, or gleams of a glory burning in time. Someone suggested we go to find the ash remaining before the wind scattered it.
Always there’s a sea intervening, said one of the others, with his voice covering his face. We, too, could find a fire and burn the sea. Glass doesn’t burn and what you see is not the sea.
The speaker, who claims to have born with a glass eye, goes on to raise questions —“Who is the night, what is the night, left right, O left right”— and pose hypothetical solutions: “If I were to jump, I’d find myself at the other edge of the sky, if I turned around. If…” He means to discover his bearings in a place that has not been mapped before and a time that demands a more accurate form of measurement than conventional literary practice offers. The situation is dire, and yet the very surge of these lines suggests that an imaginative response is possible—which, if nothing else, may make our walk in the sun more bearable. The poem thus concludes with an image —“The ruins of the fire in the palace began to set”— that in its seeming finality promises nevertheless that another sun will rise, another occasion to light the darkness.
This is what distinguishes Vistonitis: his determination to grasp the meaning of the fact, as he writes in a poem titled “1968,” that he is but “a fragment of all that [he has] encountered.” Whether exploring China, traveling on a train from Lisbon to St. Petersburg in the company of a hundred poets and writers, or reflecting on the achievement of literary figures from around the globe, he brings to bear an exacting and exuberant intelligence. “Nightmarish imagination,” he proclaims in the last line of this book: “you are not yourself, you are not, you are not.” Indeed it is other, it is the language itself, and in these poems it speaks for all of us, lighting the way.
[Published May 25, 2011. 116 pages, $15.00. To learn more about or contact the press, click here.]
Christopher Merrill is the Director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
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Recommended by Shane McCrae
Fowling Piece by Heidy Steidlmayer (Triquarterly)
The title poem of Heidy Steidlmayer’s first collection, Fowling Piece, terrifies me. Here’s the whole thing:
The pull of guns I understand,
my father taught me hand on hand
how death is. Life asserts.
(Best take it like a man.)
I shot a dove, the common sort
and mourned not life but life so short
that gazed from death as if unhurt.
And I had nothing to report.
It’s the last line that scares me — that actually, really terrifies me. And Steidlmayer sets the reader up to be terrified with great craft: The poem moves smoothly to its conclusion, and distracts the reader along the way with a few straightforward, even bland, poetical remarks — the first three lines of the second stanza, especially, demonstrate Steidlmayer’s skill. The language is, again, poetical — a little lofty, a little stilted. It is the sound of a poet making an observation from a great height, but the observation itself is nothing more than that — the sound of a poet making an observation from a great height: “mourned not life but life so short.” This language is deployed to make the reader comfortable, to prepare the reader for a great and wise summing-up — and then, nothingness. An abyss opens up. The poet has contemplated death—more, the poet has made death happen — but whatever effect that had on her, if any, she isn’t sharing (sure, she says she “mourned,” but I don’t think that word is meant to communicate any real sadness or regret; I think it functions only as poetry, as a poetical sound). And the reader must confront, suddenly, the possibility that the killing meant nothing to the poet, that it affected her not at all. But how familiar the language! Up until that last moment, the poem reads so familiarly that it’s almost as if the reader has read it before, it’s almost as if the poem is already part of the reader. And so the last line strikes the reader as a moment of self-revelation, but it’s more the reader’s self than the poet’s that seems revealed. And I’m frightened by what seems revealed, even though it doesn’t correspond to what I know to be true about myself, precisely because it doesn’t correspond to what I know to be true about myself.
Fowling Piece — the book, but the poem also, though on a smaller scale — arrives slowly. And Fowling Piece arrived slowly. I first noticed Steidlmayer’s work over a decade ago, in the February 2001 issue of Poetry. The poem that struck me hardest then was “Knife-Sharpener’s Song,” but “Talking with the Dead” appeared alongside it, and both reappear in Fowling Piece. And now, with the book in front of me, I can see that “Knife-Sharpener’s Song,” with its incantatory sing-songiness, is less representative, whereas “Talking with the Dead” can be read almost as a map of the whole, especially the last two lines: “to fill the room’s starched emptiness / with a voice that answers to no one.” Fowling Piece almost doesn’t answer — it arrived slowly, I had begun think it wouldn’t come; and it arrives slowly, and must be read and reread if one is to be in a position to receive it — but that’s partly because the answer it gives isn’t one the reader is prepared for. Most of the poems seem to be written in a conservative mode about traditional subjects. But, as happens in “Fowling Piece” — the poem, but the book also, though on a larger scale — the poems often end in a vacuum. An abyss opens up. The voice that fills the room answers to no one. And the room was already empty, but that emptiness was antiseptic, impersonal — the new emptiness fills the room with no regard for the people already there. It is, in other words, an emptiness different from the emptiness of an unfurnished, undecorated room in which someone is standing — after all, if someone is in the room, even though that person would likely say the room is empty, it isn’t empty — it is an emptiness that fills people as well as spaces. Honestly, the whole book terrifies me.
Even though Steidlmayer writes at the end of “Fowling Piece” that she has “nothing to report” about death, death, it seems to me, is the emptiness that fills the poems—but, crucially, the poems aren’t usually about death. Consider, for example, “Heartbreak,” which reads, entire:
That windows without breaking
promise the sky to sparrows,
shows in a heartbeat how
sorrow is the slowest teacher,
and why, falling for stories
of sparrows untouched by storms,
I’m crestfallen when I can’t help
but press my ear hard to your chest,
hear something like your heart
protest too much this death —
so little to do with us.
“Heartbreak” isn’t about death so much as it’s filled by death. And so the metaphorical stand-in for death is a shut window into which a sparrow is bound to fly — death is not the skyscape the sparrow sees, it is the glass in which the skyscape is reflected. And if the sparrow could speak, it would describe only the skyscape; it can’t see the window. But the window is there. The window is the most important part of the skyscape. Steidlmayer has “nothing to report” about the window because the only alternative would be to say: “The sky isn’t really there.” And the prospect is terrifying.
Published February 28, 2012. 80 pages, $16.95 paper]
Shane McCrae is the author of Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and Blood (Noemi Press, 2013), as well as three chapbooks — most recently, Nonfiction, which won the Black Lawrence Press Black River Chapbook Competition. In 2011, he received a Whiting Writer's Award.
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Recommended by Adrian Blevins
Wolf Lake, White Dress Blown Open by Diane Seuss (University of Massachusetts Press)
Rejecting the denunciation of genre for now, I’ve been wondering a lot lately why a poem has to be a poem rather than an essay or a story or, even, a russet tad of tea in a little china cup.
Is it language compressed into music that we’re most after when we read poems rather than novels, stories, essays, and whatever new prose things wait for us out there on the vista? Or is the especially sensual way a poem might liken clouds to “wedding gowns for Big Beautiful transsexuals” that thrills us so? Why do we hunger for new metaphorical relations so acutely in the library and bookstore year after year after year? I mean — seriously — what is it really about poetry that makes poetry so necessary to us?
Is it maybe intimacy?
The novel like the story does scope and consequence — all that plodding A then B then C then death. The essay can be musical and feel real — a good essay will put something genuine at stake at the core of its utterance — but the essay is sometimes such a literalist it can be a bore. Meanwhile the poem, when the poem is good, can reconnect us to our deepest need for and even knowledge of others. It can therefore sequester us from the black little box we keep ourselves tucked so unpromisingly into.
Diane Seuss’s Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open is one of those books that remind you that you are, thank God, part of a whole goddamn, loving, long-suffering tribe. It is a lush and even sexy collection of poems ultimately celebrating the bountiful and even often luxuriant intersection between body and soul in “a secret place”…“beyond the jurisdiction of the sentence”…“bordered by lilacs.” Wolf Lake is also a funny, fully vocalized, but not too talky book written “under the influence / of heartbreak.” Seuss is a master of contradiction, but is never merely clever, even when she’s being flippant. Seuss is meanwhile both a master of vernacular English and one of the most sophisticated and liberated image makers writing poetry in America today.
Seuss’s poems are far from shy. Instead, they’re “ravaged” and open-hearted. In fact, they get much of their power and authority from being dog-eared and road-weary:
I’d already been shot in the head
and struck by lightning
but most of it —
abortions(s) Kevin’s heroin
overdose Mikel’s AIDS forty-eight
hours of labor divorce poverty
roof collapse assault redbud
tree silenced in half leg snapped off
at the high-water mark —
Seuss’s poems are also — meanwhile and simultaneously — quite joyous. Even in “the Lee girls had it bad,” when the speaker tells us that she “used to believe all the babies // Mrs. Lee lost when they quit breathing and turned / blue were the lucky ones,” difficult human experience — in this case extreme poverty — becomes not only bearable, but strange, alive, and even somehow dangerously beautiful in the minute particulars inside a hayloft “on the top floor of that old barn” on account of a dollhouse
with a matching tablecloth for the table and cups
and saucers and beds for us and small beds
for the dolls and a wash basin and a vase
filled with wild chives and white lilacs and empty
cans for canned goods and nails in the walls for
our coats …
The moves in Wolf Lake are always the strange and particular detail, sometimes the litany, and sometimes a fragmented jump cut from, say, “a bright aquamarine / blouse I called my power shirt” to “emerald green shampoo” to “my boyfriend’s skin…the color of skim milk.” These moves mate in other generally expansive and breathless long-lined poems to create a sense of comic giddiness. Often language itself can evoke in a Seuss poem a tone of defiance, and this defiance and sense of unruliness can become contagious, thank God, as when the speaker tells us that “if there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee, battery’s dead I killed it, canary at the bottom of the cage I bury it …”
The spoken tones in this example (“Song in my heart”) mixed with the poem’s subtle sound repetitions work together to produce a talky-but-not-too-talky lyric whose music defamiliarizes and stabilizes at the same time. In “Jesus wept and so did Rowena Lee,” just the names of people combine together into such compelling music that we might miss the death in the undersong of the poem:
Jesus wept and so did Rowena Lee
and one of the Haven girls but not the other
and not Gladys but Marge Taylor when she got
the cancer diagnosis and Irma Stack, often,
not Elray Peppel and not Hazel Hicks, well,
Hazel wept once and that was the end of it,
the barber’s wife when she got the phone call
about the telegram, her brother Jimmy dead
near Salerno, the barber, no, maybe a little
moisture in the good eye, Verna, no, things
die and you go on, Dosie, often, in bed alone
at night, many in bed alone, Aunt Pat was not
a weeper she was a carouser, Mrs. Tuesley
cried over burnt pies and some cried and rage
and some in pain but weeping is another thing.
The empathy the speaker has for the tribe in this poem also comes as a kind of uncannily shocking undercurrent; the syntax of negation here and the musical containment of the poem’s content prevent emotional overstatement, which work with the poem’s theme of a fear of emotional expression to ironically increase the poem’s emotive power. And, again, the pleasure Seuss obviously takes from the language without her lushness becoming too indeterminate and self-interested is one of Wolf Lake’s major accomplishments.
Speaking of certain images of Marianne Moore’s, Robert Pinsky made the observation many years ago in The Situation of Poetry that certain kinds of images point backward toward their speakers rather than outward toward the world. He called such images “exhibitionist.” Our appetite for verbal complexity (which I think comes at least in part from our experience of more and more complex verbal objects and which I liken sometimes to an addiction) has increased astronomically since 1976, which The Situation of Poetry was first published. Therefore the problem of the exhibitionist image and, by extension, the exhibitionist poem — the character problem of egotism at the core of any speaker more interested in himself than his tribe—has just increased and continues to increase in the contemporary period. But the exhibitionist’s pyrotechnics, pointing backward as they do, do not really take us —“this chair I am now sitting in, the bowl / steam rising spirit-like before my eyes as mist hovers / over water”— into account. They therefore do not really relieve us of the problem of being stuck inside our own locked-down and in other ways entirely fucked-up old selves. Diane Seuss’s wonderful collection shows us that it is possible to make multifaceted poems — wild, sexy, verbally complex, empathetic, liberated, feeling poems — without shutting the reader out.
And that’s impressive.
[Published April 1, 2010. 66 pages, $15.95 paper]
Adrian Blevin’s most recent poetry collection is Live From the Homesick Jamboree (Wesleyan, 2009). She received a Kate Tufts Discovery Award for The Brass Girl Brouhaha (Ausable Press, 2004) and teaches at Colby College.
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Recommended by Paul Otremba
ROTC Kills by John Koethe (Harper Perennial)
John Koethe’s latest book of poetry is driven by retirement. This active withdrawal from activity is a paradox, but that is the collection’s source of tension and urgency. The most obvious way retirement figures in ROTC Kills is in the narrative circumstances of its poems, which are linked by a determinate and convincingly autobiographical speaker, who spends his time in reflection and contemplation in identifiable settings. The collection’s present tense takes place between the sixty-fourth and sixty-fifth year of a man who literally has retired, though not from the work of the poet. Here, the poet/speaker writes from the farther end of a life of thinking, teaching, writing, and social engagement.
Koethe himself has recently retired from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where for decades he served as a philosophy professor. Across his nine poetry collections, Koethe has perfected a meditative style that extends the Romantic conversation poem and the utterance-based, associative, inscribed consciousness of the New York School aesthetic. In this new book, that style has been rendered down to an affectless directness, verging on the essayistic, a quality further demonstrated by the inclusion of a few prose poems. In the conventionally lineated “1135,” a title that I assume refers to the street number for an old acquaintance’s house visited in the poem, Koethe — or his surrogate poet/speaker — says this of his poetic development:
No one has to write any special way —
You make it up as you go along. I started
Writing this way — no thoughts at first,
Then a lot of words in the guise of thoughts,
Then real thoughts — a long time ago.
There is a straightforwardness in these lines with their ghost of blank verse. Yet, this quality does not mean the poems are without personality and cadenced phrases. The poems talk and think with an effortless effort, as in the lines: “I follow thoughts / Wherever they lead, and dreams until it's clear / They won’t come true. I live in my imagination / Most of the time, biding what’s left of my time.” The sentences fall across the lines measured and musical, using the enjambments to score the inflections of thought and utterance.
The very idea of retirement seems fraught with paradox. It is meant to be the fulfillment of a promise and the sign of achievement, but it also creates the conditions—the withdrawal—needed for the luxury of taking stock of that promise and achievement. Retirement has afforded the poet the opportunity to build his dream house, called “the Bean House,” because “everything in it came straight from an / L.L. Bean Home catalog.” It is a literal space of which the speaker of the book’s titular poem says, “I’m retired, I’m sitting in a house I made / In my imagination years ago, that now is real.” Yet that reality is troubling for the speaker, as is the reality of the years past in which the imagination took shape. Much of what happens in the speaker’s retirement is the work of memory. Memory’s existential condition is a double consciousness—being in the present and past at once. This provides the exigency behind the straightforward description in ROTC Kills. Identity has stakes in reclaiming out of the past names, places, and details of experience. While the Romantic William Wordsworth in his seminal poem of memory finds “abundant recompense” in the wisdom reflection can foist on the past and present, Koethe only discovers a contemporary’s skepticism. His skepticism is also inextricable with language, or as one speaker admits, “all I have to wrestle with are words, and yet these / Syllables bring back the feeling of those summer afternoons, / The red tile roofs, the blood and the ballet, as I sit here in the future.” Or in these lines that begin with an echo of Keats: “The sudden stab of fear that I may cease to be. / I make my way across the page on which I find myself / Confined, a cipher at the center of the story.” That last phrase gestures towards solipsism, which is a state along with quietism that forms the problematic and morally questionable side of retirement, at least a conceptual retirement.
Koethe unapologetically entertains withdrawals into consciousness, and into a contemplative space beyond the spheres of political and social engagement. In the poem “Eggheads,” the speaker confesses this compulsion: “I’d rather listen to ‘Take Five’ / Or watch another movie, secure in the remembrance of my own complacency, / The complacency of an age that everyone thought would last forever.” This dilemma finds its objective correlative in the book’s title poem, where the speaker describes posters hanging on the walls of his dream house, the house of imagination, “posters from the Harvard / Strike in 1969 [he] saved for their designs.” One displays an anti-militarism slogan of “rotc kills,” “[i]n tiny red letters with three red bayonets.” The poster is leached of its political significance and has become a signifier of aesthetic taste, nostalgia, and a link with the past that composes an identity for the speaker.
Yet these poems are not paeans or apologias for the comforts of bougie retirement in America. The speaker is restive. He is not an irredeemable apostate. Rather, he has lived with these experiences long enough to feel them attenuate and morph. Nothing appears safe from that fate, not a sense of self, not even poetry, which in one poem is described as something that “falls like snow, and settles where it falls, / And melts,” and in another is called “a marginalized enactment of experience and subjectivity in which the medium itself is half the point.”
Koethe’s poems are deeply felt and thought and have come out of a life committed to paying attention to thoughts and feeling. A brilliant way this profound engagement manifests in the book is in the use of quotation and allusion, which arise without citation or attribution. Instead, they’re woven into the very fabric of the poet’s consciousness. Eugenio Montale might have called this “the second life of art,” where a line of poetry gains substance once it appears spontaneously and inevitably as the expression of a reader’s own thoughts and feelings. Keats might call it a philosophy felt along the pulse, which is the sensation I get with the appearance of Shakespeare in the prose poem “The Reality of the Past,” which speculates, “the individual life… fades from others’ memories and then from time itself, from that dehumanizing structure where it dreamed itself alive, bare ruin’d choir where late the birds sang.” But the most impressive use of quotation comes at the end of “Book X,” another prose poem, where after a reflection on Plato’s quarrel with poetry in the Republic, Koethe gives us verbatim—without any introduction or warning—the death scene of Socrates at the close of the Phaedo.
Intellectually serious and experientially honest, ROTC Kills is a significant addition to John Koethe’s already impressive body of work.
[Published August 28, 2012. 96 pages, $14.99 Paperback]
Paul Otremba is the author of the poetry collections The Currency (Four Way Books 2009) and the forthcoming Pax Americana (Four Way Books).
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Recommended by Joni Wallace
Animal Collection by Colin Winnette (Spork Press)
Here are the bone clouds. Look at them suffer to live.
(from “X-Ray Fish”)
Beavers, baby cheetahs, naked mole rats. Foxes that curl into you and become small as handfuls. Thug elephants, fire-breathing Ulysses butterflies, vermin, zebras. Add to this pajama bottoms, mix tapes, candy, orange soda, and Cheron’s Dine and Eat and you have the guts and stuff of Colin Winnette’s Animal Collection, an abcedarium of stories, flash and short prose, each piece titled for its central animal character. Amid psychological unease and disorienting sexual encounters, Winnette’s characters throw garbage in rivers, contemplate divorce, circle aquariums, perform vivisection, battle and become vermin. Part Wes-Anderson-on-Beckett dioramas, part echo-boomer on Kafka dramaturgy, each piece works to shatter ontological constructs of what is human and what is animal. The tiny sparks that fly off each, strangers and charms, make up Winnette’s trouble-wall called the human condition.
First up here, “Beaver,” a kind of dear-john narrative. Beaver, the rational. Beaver the talk-therapy counselor-turned-seducer. His psycho-babble quickly tips us to queasy but it charms the narrator, who gushingly describes him to her husband: “when he’s worked up his eyes turn almost white, and his tiny, perfect hands just won’t stay still, and it’s impossible to stay mad for long.” Beaver has made a new home for the two of them, one that doesn’t include her husband. It’s a done deal; it’s not a question of feeling , it’s a question of how to proceed. Respectfully, stresses Beaver. With this, we’re dropped into Winnette’s subterranean field.
Stories unfold like tiny processions, scenes in boxes, situations often disintegrating into the shock-elegant. Take “Starfish,” for example, consisting of one paragraph unraveling like a Berryman Dream Song:
He removed each of the STARFISH’s legs with a pair of lime green safety scissors…and spent the day by the shore springing mollusks from their shells and sipping the brine slowly. He scaled rocks, then the leg of a bridge, then climbed a bank wall and had his photo taken. He was briefly the focus of the town’s attention. When the legs dried up, he bought a table and cup. He put the dried legs in a cup and shook the cup and poured them out and told a cop where to find a body.
Other stories take Freudian dives while the backdrops, stylized recerche, produce stark discordance. In “Killer Whale,” we’re given a snippet about destructive and suicidal tendencies in young males from a biological anthropologist. The self-same narrator, at an opera with his girlfriend (Killer Whale) notes, “Her opera glasses are enormous.” As he sponges her to keep her moist during the performance, she remarks on her love for opera, “[T]he sounds of an opera,” she says, “are unlike anything else in the known world.” Childish sweetness dissolves into what seems vivisection, the narrator fiddling with the sprig of a suture, until she “blooms like a bromeliad.” She is shaking, but doesn’t seem to mind, so he climbs inside where it is warm, he listens to her deep laugher, he lays down by her heart, cheek on a lung.
Dialogues, which presuppose language where there is none. Spectacular syntax, attention to word sounds, imagistic precision. These are reasons enough to read Winnette, a talented young writer. Because he is also capable defamiliarizing experience, of making new bits of meaning in precarious times, he’s one to keep eyes on.
Even nicknames like Jello or Womps or Tagger are saved from preciousness by the elusive narrators and Winnette’s sly circling. For example, in “X-Ray Fish,” the narrator is a self-described “potentiality” and tour giver. There are things to see: bone clouds, star frogs, kittle kettles, bare-chested balloon cats, red ass monkeys, buckworthies, name tags that say Blinktagger, butterfinger wrappers streaked with light. Yet in the midst of lush-cute, Winnette declares the language itself as false, slippery. “A name’s just a thing that slides off the back of each creature moving past us in the yearslips. ” And stepping out from behind the curtain, he names his aesthetic project, too:
So when I gave the tours to the little kids and the grandmothers, the ignorers and bored ones, the eaters and the footer, I was thinking more or less about ways of taping them to the glass, face first, so they might see what there was to see, instead of doing whatever it was they were doing.
“There are marvelous and strange things in this zoo. There are entrances and exits, ” we’re told in “Zebra.” And one of the pleasures of entering and exiting Animal Collection is experiencing the physical book, designed and produced by Indie publisher Spork Press (brain-child of poet Richard Siken and writer/editor/book artist Drew Burk). It’s a beautiful example of a symbiotic relationship between text and book object. Artist Andrew Shuta’s animal glyphs precede each piece like mirrors and black-outs, and the book itself, with a modified Japanese four-hole binding and too-turquoise bunny hand-inked on cover, is reminiscent of a Little Golden Book: dead-on perfect for an Animal Collection. (Be warned, though, the bunny has expired). In fact, the very act of Burk’s letterpress printing on book board medium means the type degrades with every copy, so that even making the book is metaphor for the extinction blitz we’re currently living.
What I love most, though, is Winnette’s poetic glimpse of our own oblivion, and how he arrives there variously with post-postmodern sensibility. And while he invites into these stories some heavy literary ghosts (Raymond Carver in “Quail”; Franz Kafka in “Vermin”; James Thurber in “Wood Duck”), he ultimately presents his own vision, one that skewers the idea that the act of writing – or art-making – elevates the human above anything animal. All existence blends; it is chimerical, ruptured, elusive, disappearing and disappeared. Through juxtapositions of darkness and quirky-beautiful, Winnette reveals how the latter contains the former: how we’re here, if we look closely, to see it. “YOU are here,” he writes, the only words on page 65. And with this we we’re up against his blink wall, where the NOW of NOW WHAT? is all that lights up.
[Published September 23, 2012. 75 pages, 10.00 plus shipping from Spork Press
Joni Wallace has an MFA from the University of Montana and is the author of Blinking Ephemeral Valentine (Four Way Books, 2011). She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
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Recommended by Daniel Bosch
More Pricks Than Prizes by Tom Pickard (Pressed Wafer)
Sometimes books are worth their weight in marijuana. That’s what poet and former book shop proprietor Tom Pickard found out when he got involved in the temporary possession of a ton of “Ugandan bush.” As Pickard tells the story in this brief, elliptical memoir, his part was to see that the grass was switched out of wooden crates, and the crates refilled and returned to a bonded warehouse. But what would he and his crooked cronies use as ballast? A nearly complete Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition) from Pickard’s own bookshelves made a start. Three sets of The Times History of World War I, three dozen bound volumes of Punch, and ten more of Boys Own, bought from a shop down the street, made up for several stone of weed. But it was an antiquarian bookstore owner on Farringdon road who realized Pickard’s great need, and urged him to take off his shelves
all the space wasting dust gathering, back breaking, spirit deadening unread and unreadable religious and military texts; all those pounds of printed pages by puffing parsons, anaemic academics, bloated bishops, geriatric generals, corpulent combatants and high ranking haemorrhoidal heroes. All that catechistic cataplasm, that militarist mucus, that pedantic pus from festering farts. The engaging entrails of emetic ambassadors, pestiferous papers by prudish pedagogues. I struggled to the wagon with arms full of books, and still he wasn’t satisfied—so I purchased conquering chronicles by conceited commanders, acned abortions by abstemious abstractors, asphyxiating articles by arthritic archbishops, bromicidal broadsides by bumptious broadcasters, asthmatic excretions by abject aesthetes, moralizing morsels from mealy mouthed manufacturers, windy waffle from former centre forwards, bird brained banter by juiced-up journos, celebrity cackle from coked-up cacky-crammed crack heads, pontificating prime-time poseurs promoting puffed-up personalities, mendacious manuals by manic muff munching mullahs, post-modern pancakes flipped from non-stick pans stuck to the threadbare ceiling of their own gravity-defying gravitas. And it still wasn’t enough so I bought the works of talk show hosts, canting sofa cunts coughing up chintzy chunder, bloated volumes by toady poets who sit in circles blowing prizes up each other’s arseholes with straws—until we’d filled the crates.
The particular transshipment from Uganda reached its Greek purchasers without a hitch. (Pickard will be nicked by the police some time later, because of his connection to the deal, but that’s another story.) Pickard doesn’t say where the books he hates so much end up, but the glee in his catalogue makes me hope, for his sake, that they were exported from the United Kingdom, leaving Pickard’s pockets a little better-lined and Her Majesty’s realm a ton lighter.
Do you feel, as I do, an excess of contempt in Pickard’s rhetoric? He rips the remainders of clergymen and generals and celebrities, athletes and CEOs and journalists alike; bad books are bad, bad, bad, and the bad is all the same to Pickard. I appreciate what’s pure about this outburst. But I confess to wondering what such contempt burns for fuel. Is Pickard angry about his own work being passed over? (He’s published more books than I ever will.) He knows with a capital K how unworthy some books are, but I searched More Pricks Than Prizes in vain for some small acknowledgement of how hard it is to make a good book of any kind. Whatever it is at the nuclear core of Pickard’s rage, I hope that it isn’t a notion that some of us are born writers and some of us are not, or a faith-based assumption that valuable writing only comes from those touched by a certain lineage.
The explosion above is my favorite passage from More Pricks than Prizes. I prize it for its lyricism and for its consciousness of fakery and waste. The early pages of the book seem to me too intent on establishing Pickard’s personal connection to the great Basil Bunting—the only real “prize” the book shows Pickard to have received. (One hears Bunting in all of Pickard’s most inspired lines.) The book is full of “pricks”— or “troubles”— and Pickard is blessedly unafraid to portray himself as the other kind of prick. Bunting is Pickard’s moral and poetic paragon. The elder poet has made Pickard immortal in his fabulous short poem “What the Chairman Told Tom,” and perhaps it’s understandable that Pickard would try to disentangle his mentor Bunting from the Bunting who was mentored by the anti-Semite Ezra Pound, but I found his effort dull, especially in light of the fucking and drug-dealing and jail cell epiphanies to come. Finally I don’t think Pickard’s absolution of Bunting has any authority, and Pound’s sins haven’t got the legs to reach Bunting—or Pickard.
If Pickard writes long enough in prose or verse, he’s liable to burst a vein of righteous spleen. Read his anti-Blair rant from Fuckwind for a taste of a Beat-inflected Pickard making the most of a fucking limited vocabulary. But the reason we need slim volumes of memoir like More Pricks than Prizes is because the subject poet’s best lines are very good indeed. Six pages titled “The Raw” in the fall 2011 Chicago Review (56: 2/3) indicate Pickard’s strongest suits. You won’t quite hear his Northumbrian accent from these pages, but you’ll hear narrative, proudly pursued — Pickard’s a social historian, and cares to know, and tell, what life was like in the north of England in the late 18th century, for it’s a story worth telling — and perhaps you’ll feel the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon hemi-stichs. The opening quatrain is a storm-scene of clashing consonance:
A razor wind slashed as she douked below dykes,
followed dips and shake holes, took detours along dales.
Her skirts tacked the storm that stropped her face
with the sharp icy edge of a blade.
Prosody redoubles Pickard’s imagining of the cold, and makes new the tired metaphor of “cutting” wind. Later in the set, fugitives from the law ransack the holdings of old Maggie Crozier, whom they must restrain. Things don’t go right, of course, and the intermittent irruption of ballad-like measures in Pickard’s tale connects “The Raw” to “The Highwayman” and to a trove of stories-in-song that will eventually produce Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run,” and Wings’ “Band on the Run”:
The sisters held the old woman down while he took the gear outside
to wrap in two aprons, sewn together for the purpose.
When he came back to fetch them Jane said, “she’s got coin,”
and showed him a hidden pocket near Maggie’s head.
But Winter said “it’s time to gan and if yi divvin shift I’ll skelp yiz.”
He went to the bedside but old Maggie was still.
He took hold of her shoulders and began shaking her.
He raked the fire to make a flame. Lit a candle
and found a cut on her face, and a handkerchief drawn around her neck
and tied with two knots.
Her raised her and laid her down again.
He threw cold water on her.
“You’ve done bad lasses, she’ll not speak again.”
They put the gear in sacks on the ass’s back
and set out for Kirkwhelpington
but got lost in the dark and sheltered behind a hay pike
where they ate bread and cheese,
and gave the ass some green peas
found amongst the swag.
As in More Pricks than Prizes, well-chosen details here help Pickard draw ethically ambiguous heroes we are glad to know. But Pickard’s prize possession, as Bunting would have had it, is music.
[Published November 27, 2010. 68 pages, 14.00 paper. Order directly from Pressed Wafer]
Daniel Bosch lives in Chicago.
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Recommended by Kelly Cherry
The Swing Girl by Katherine Soniat (LSU Press)
Who or what is "the swing girl"? Our first thought may be of a young lady dancing to Glenn Miller, her partner rolling her out from under his arm, then reeling her back, their faces flushed. A second thought could be Evelyn Nesbit—whose famous lover, architect Stanford White, was murdered by her husband—in a red velvet swing at the start of the twentieth century, the tag end of the Gilded Age.
Katherine Soniat's swing girl is neither of these. For her, the swing girl is an image on a Greek burial vessel, icon of the real girl who died. To see this image, the speaker has walked "down the hot path past the unwatered donkey / and shells that held the damp curl of the living." The "living" would have been the small creatures whose "[e]mpty snail shells bleach on boulders / near the tomb entrance." This is a poem of hard light, like the brilliant glare of sunlight in Greece.
Soniat's poems about the Mediterranean bring this intense focus back to us in our clouded climate. We see her Greece by that metallic light, and also the sea, and also the gods who seem to flicker from one grove to another. These poems make up the fourth and final section of her fifth full-length collection. Here we meet the swing girl, the girl "who set sail for the other side" and now occupies an ossuary, "the swing and its girl tucked in," her "remains . . . posed fetal," so perhaps the long-dead girl herself still holds the "curl of the living."
Throughout the collection we encounter poems that possess a disturbing elusiveness, yet there is no vague or generic language. Indeed, her language is stunningly exact, her focus precise and clear. What makes the poems elusive is the way she will often home in on particular details while omitting context. Viewing the world through her poems, we see foreshortened moments, things and ideas moving in and out of the periphery, odd alignments. We are thus encouraged to see the world anew—to see the ways in which, as the epigraph taken from Sir Thomas Browne puts it, we live "in divided and distinguished worlds," here and there, then and now. At the same time, Soniat's changing perspective allows us to live in more worlds than one.
Because images and themes, not contexts, are foregrounded, it can be difficult to find something to hold on to that separates each section of the book from the others. This difficulty is intentional and underscores the ambiguity that is the book's central idea.
Sometimes we can extrapolate a context. "On the Steppes" may be about a dying father ("He moved to another level, looking for a place to stop / the thoughts"). "Ghost Laundry" may suggest a wife recalling her husband's memory of his first wife. These are not easy poems, and yet with some thought a reader will find them meaningful, whether interpretation be accurate or not, and meanwhile the musical strength of Soniat's work enraptures us. Music moves the book from section to section, poem to poem; her cadenced lines are something like a luxury: luxurious, sensually lush, and yet disciplined. The book's first poem, "Thoughts at Paliani," offers a view of the plain, "the convent garden, the thousand-year myrtle tree" whose branches bear ribbons signifying good wishes for the ill or convalescent. The nuns are devout and dedicated. A picture of peaceful hard work, then, of sisters who are nurses. The shock of the poem is in its last stanza:
It's a long stream water makes falling,
each drop coalescing. That spring you died, the moss on the banks
was greener, spray going farther than thought.
We don't know who "you" is. A husband? A mother? There's no telling, not in this poem, but we know from the detailed imagery and the word died that a memory has been awakened and the poet is mourning. Perhaps "spray" stands for reality and reality is too much for thought to encompass. Or maybe "spray" refers to beauty or life, and both are greater than thought. Yet the poem in its mystery pushes us toward thought, so the poet has not disowned the value of thinking. Rather, she is having it both ways at once—that ambiguity, that sustaining of opposing thoughts, of "divided and distinguished worlds"—central to the poet's project.
And of course, "spray" may mean spray. Reality presses these poems to a point of urgency. "Flute notes lift from the rapids," writes the poet, in "The Hill Station," "and on the trellis a buzzard skeleton / winks its Christmas-light heart. Red again, then dark."
The beautiful poem "Nightshade" allows "a liturgical young elephant" to co-exist with a Chinese painter whose "paints, bought in Beijing, / over time would disappear." The speaker imagines herself in a painting by the Chinese artist, how she would "know with each breath she was fading a bit, / going away."
"Of Aviary Mice and Men" asks us, "How can we comprehend history?" and perhaps suggests than we don't, can't. "Know there are no roads back, no ladders," the poem concludes. "Dropped / seed, the thing left in context."
In context, but not contextualized. The thing as it is.
"Minoan Apocrypha" asks us, "How to study loss closely?" and warns that "[a]lways, the end is poorly / conceived. . . . "
"The Mark," "Sleeping Alone," "Day Spool," "Birthday Crossing," "Morning Child," "Brocade," "Flight," and the entire last section are remarkable. And the other poems are very, very good. In "Rose Mold" she envisions cut and dying rose buds as "beauty on its way to being mystery."
There is a sense in which that vision contains all the book's contradictions and ambiguity, as if the book itself is a waterfall—waterfalls turn up in several poems—or "spray going farther than thought." Reading Soniat's poems can be like standing under a waterfall, the words like weather around you, and watching beauty become mystery.
I haven't seen it, but I've heard that Soniat has already published her sixth collection.* She may be on the verge of a breakout. She deserves such a moment. Her work is finely skilled, probes deeply both intellectually and emotionally, and dares to say the seemingly unsayable, managing that noble trick through organization and image, coherence and melody. Readers should rush to read her; they will be, by turns, puzzled, surprised, made newly aware, and delighted.
[Published September 12, 2011. 74 pages, $17.95 paper)
Kelly Cherry's chapbook Vectors: J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Years before the Bomb is forthcoming from Parallel Press (U of Wisconsin Libraries) in December and her full-length collection The Life and Death of Poetry: Poems from LS.U Press in spring 2013.
* Katherine Soniat’s new collection, A Raft, A Boat, was published on August 15, 2012 by Dream Horse Press.
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Recommended by Judith Harris
Mark The Music by Merrill Leffler (Dryad Press)
Occasionally, a book of poetry comes along that, while maintaining poetic conventions, also breaks them in exciting ways so as to appeal to a broader audience. Paradoxical? Yes, but one need only think of that wonderful bombastic pronouncement by Whitman: ““Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large -- I contain multitudes.”
Something of Whitman’s protean magnitude describes Leffler’s poetry at the outset. The title emphasizes the importance of music, particularly jazz, with its strong but flexible rhythmic understructure. The book as a whole alternates between “poetic solo” and “ensemble improvisations” on basic tunes/structures resulting in a more disperse harmonic idiom. Sometimes, that harmony does not work; the poems in some sections clash with one another coming from such variations of theme and style. But for the most part, the movement is cogently realized. The sectional Interludes combine lyrics and narratives as well as typographic poems, then shift back to meditations, and comic satire—a cornucopia of poems, and a feast of melodies. Leffler is a reveler. As he writes in “The Republic of Imperishable Lines”: “Who shall say I am not the happy genius of my household?”
Leffler has long been immersed in poetry, as a scholar and a poet, from his early years as a graduate student studying poetry. His skill is evident in poems shimmer with nuance, and invocation such as in the poem “ Arise”:
The poem is sleeping deeply in his body
He calls lightly at first to awaken her
but she does not stir …
However, Leffler’s muse is not always as passive and precious as invoked here, as we learn from his first poem of the collection, “Metaphor.”
“Metaphor” is a particularly clever and intriguing opening, giving the reader a taste of Leffler’s wit and knowledge of American poetry and how it has evolved through modernism. In that poem, the whimsical speaker personifies metaphor as a female escort, such that “she (a metaphor) can say anything” and she can be in “love with anything” because she functions as the keel of imagination. And, in the making of the traditional poem, she is the one who garners most admiration. The modernists were ambivalent about the use of metaphor: Williams used it as a means of entering the inner self, Stevens tried to abolish it as an impediment to gaining access to the real.
Leffler’s Metaphor has a job and that is to make the poet look good to readers, to appear richer or more talented than he feels he really is. “Metaphor is at your service—always, just don’t take me for granted. I am no sentimental blonde. I have an accountant. I pay my bills on time.” And the speaker laments: “She charges by the hour. Nothing is free.” In a postmodern era, Metaphor has lost some of her zing: she can bring only “stale flowers, elaborate tropes, grief that is delicious, and lacks propriety.” Still she is insatiable. “Just when you take her as your friend/ confessing everything, baring your nakedness / metaphor grabs hold of you like a mad cop and roughs you up.”
In the end, “Metaphor” has the power to desert the speaker, to leave him in his nakedness to a world bereft of imagination, a non-presence. Metaphor has become autonomous, as the art object has become autonomous. “She says find your own way home”. The admonished speaker is belated—he is left to cover his own nakedness without her. She leaves him without the language that can express that flood in the heart—and so he withdraws from the stage, back to the absence of his own mind, a new and genuine basis for making poems without her flirtations and distractions. The poem that turns failure on its head: the poem itself is a triumph despite the foreboding image of backing into an absence, a hollowing like death.
Poems that follow capture the poet’s narrative from early years when belief felt true as in “The Man Who Stole Laughter”:
I wanted to call out to him,
But was frozen in my bed.
He lingered there as though in need
Then turned away instead.
Before he disappeared I glimpsed
That his eyes now dark and wild
And gave all hope up to grief that night
And knew I was his child.
This poem, dramatizes a childhood memory recalled as a traumatic story and yet, in the conscious ordering of the poem, the original fear of self-dissolution is abated by the persistent order of formal devices and rime schemes that make the interloper less threatening. Stories recalled from childhood progress through the book into poems about adult experience and quotidian life, allowing Leffler a range of topics to explore with only a wink of sentimentality, broadening the narrow vision of the personal into poems about cultural inheritance such as “Opera Americana” and “Montaigne and me.”
Throughout, the persona of the poet moves forward into the world of middle age shadowed by cultural memory, both personal and collective, a familiar pattern of second-generation Jews brought up by assimilating parents who wish their children to become fully Americanized. And so one senses the allure of the forbidden as the poet returns to themes surrounding his European ancestry. He includes translations from Hebrew texts and translations of poems by Israeli poets.
Mark the Music is a book by a mature poet who has honed his skills over years of immersion in poetry revealing a truly remarkable love for language expressed through the genre. His breadth of knowledge is impressive, his poems particularly frank and availing of the natural world, where he regains the customary stance of the solitary poet trying find solidarity with nature and the universe. The book closes with a wonderful ending poem, “Beginnings and Ends” celebrating language and its power “To open the dark/…To empty the light/…And here is the last/ To carry you home.”
Mark the Music is formed on the value of self-expression and self-examination—through rumination and reflection. Leffler’s poems are large, honest, frank, lyrical and prosaic, celebratory and mournful a book that should be feasted upon for years to come.
[Published October 16, 2012. 128 pages, $17.00 paper]
Judith Harris’ new collection of poems, Night Garden, will be published in spring 2013 by Tiger Bark Press.
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Recommended by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Water Puppets by Quan Barry (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Quan Barry’s second collection, Water Puppets, fixes its gaze on the various ways in which those with power abuse those without in beautifully and fully-controlled verses of constantly evolving syntax, structure, and scope. Refusing to settle into any particular mode, structure, or setting, Barry creates an environment that persistently shifts beneath the reader’s feet, which keeps us on our toes in a way akin to the worlds and characters in the poems themselves.
In the opening poem, “lion,” for example, the dynamic between a male and his harem is the unnamed speaker’s initial focus: “In the Serengeti sun, the male’s harem / like solar system… / …throughout evolution the cat’s barbed penis / nicking his breached mate as he dismounts.” “lion” takes a radical turn, however, when the male’s face is described as “crucified” and we discover that he and his pride are caged by the American forces interrogating our speaker:
… Unhooded and naked
we are pushed into their presence
and for a shining moment the animals study us,
these fabulous aliens.
Even though “lion” utilizes fairly simple, enjambed tercets, this sudden shift is easy to miss. To miss this shift is to miss the deeper meaning of the poem: that our tendency to abuse our power over others is scribed into our DNA, is simply part of who and what we are.
The fourth poem, “reportage,” is more complicated on the surface, opening:
This is the journalist’s mission from the Old French
for to carry back over the blond bridge sewn from sticks the green hills
with the twisting stalks of their serrated grasses each
fibrous blade pointillistic murderous historical quotidian
These densely-packed quintets cycle through repeated symbols and images sans punctuation in order to tell the story of a journalist who returns to Rwanda ten years after the genocide. Hoping to report on a renewed and enlightened society, the reporter instead finds that
… the rebels and the army
buy cold drinks in the same village though each in turn
is outfitted for the destroying of the other
this isn’t a story of hope but rather of dormancy
Such brutality, it seems, is doomed to repeat itself, Barry argues; such slaughter is always just beneath the surface. Barry doesn’t bang the reader over the head with this message in this five-page poem; rather, she implies it with her use of repetition and the lack of punctuation.
Similarly, “meditations,” a sixteen page poem at the center of the collection, takes us from the incarceration of Nelson Mandela to the massacre of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese government to “the existence of WMDs” and beyond in tercets that leap from subject to subject with little to no indication. Once again, form meets function; the reader has to hold on for dear life much like the speaker, travelling this vast landscape of manipulation and cruelty.
Later, a sequence of six prose poems all titled “poem” walk us through everyday life in postwar Vietnam where stillborn babies deformed by napalm are preserved in jars and the faces of the dead are “everywhere…in the polished stone” walls of a museum. “Know,” declares Barry, “that the United States considered using nuclear weapons against these people. Close your eyes. Imagine the guilt-free life you might live someday, then remember why you don’t deserve it.” In the next poem, “history,” Barry meditates on the nature of pornography in which men almost always dominate women in single-line stanzas that extended in ecstatic and unpunctuated near-prose lines across its seven pages:
how did I end up here what was I searching alabaster skin like a dinner plate
a her 24/7 lover come rain or come shine literally some kind of oil derrick
all stainless steel and mechanization cold struts and gleaming www
Luckily, embedded within these difficult verses are poems of less complex design. There’s the second poem of the collection, “learning the tones,” which meditates on the six “diacritical marks used on certain vowels” of Vietnamese in six sections of eight couplets each. “lament,” similarly, describes a city built on a fault that sacrifices a member of its citizenry each time an earthquake strikes in a single, ten-line stanza. “different location, same outcome” uses colons to link each image/idea to the next:
everywhere an army:
twenty thousand father sand sons
equals a rookery: what comes down:
the black wing with its fused bone:
It also helps that these poems are so beautifully written. No matter their complexity, Barry rewards the reader with her masterful use of metaphor, image, and diction. In “arsenal,” for example, the Antarctic Peninsula becomes “the shattered kneecap / at the bottom of the world.” In “ode” she personifies “the shorn [that] moon picks its blue path / across the night valley.” Any poet would wish they’d written the following lines in “Sunday Essay”: “Someone’s soul is pooling out of their body though the staff / is attempting to ram it back in”, “The body is self-programmed to die.”, “the blond moon wears its hair shirt of light.” And who could forget this description in “If only I had been able to form the idea of a substance that is spiritual”:
Once I saw a pod of sperm whales sleeping
in the long night of the sea, their bodies
vertical like a forest, tails to the surface,
the massive trove of their heads
like stopped pendulums trained down straight
No doubt, the poems of Quan Barry’s Water Puppets challenge the reader to adapt to Barry’s almost violent shifts in structure, style, and subject matter from poem to poem, and, often, line to line. Readers must also accept that these poems are serious ones, poems that have something to say about or world and our country that they may or may not agree with. America isn’t exactly portrayed as the land of the beautiful and free. Individuals are not exonerated for their actions. These poems place the reader’s face in front of Barry’s various mirrors and demand they accept what we find there or leave.
[Published August 28, 2011. 88 pages, $15.95 paper]
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum's poems appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, The Missouri Review, storySouth, InsideHigherEd.com, Glimmer Train, Hayden's Ferry Review. His anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, is published as an ebook by Upper Rubber Boot Books. He edits a href="http://www.poemoftheweek.org">a site called Poem of the Week.
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Recommended by John Taylor
The Tiger is the World by Tomislav Marijan Bilosnic, translated from the Croatian by Durda Vukelic-Rozic and Karl Kvitko (Xenos Books)
“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night.”
When we first came across William Blake’s lines at school, wasn’t it as if we already somehow knew them? The meter, the rhyme, and the striking nocturnal imagery immediately engaged us; however, beyond prosody, indeed beyond poetry, didn’t they above all confirm the universality of similar specters (or persistent intimations) that had been haunting us ever since a much earlier period? A tiger provides Blake with a vivid representation of all that is utterly different from us. It is man’s ontological predicament to remain at one remove, en face. And what we face seems to loom in the form or the shape of all that we are not. Call the tiger God, Matter, Nature, the Cosmos, Death, man’s Animality, one’s Fellow Creature, Love, or even and perhaps especially Life, that Other waits over there, across from us … Yet this apparently unreachable otherness also lies within us (and remains unreachable, as it were): we formulate the othernesses that we sense by means of language. So it is impossible not to think of Blake when we read “one of the first words is tiger,” as declares the Croatian poet Tomislav Marijan Bilosnic (b. 1947) in The Tiger is the World, his stimulating collection of 96 poems and prose poems devoted to the animal and its rich philosophical resonance. First published as Tigar, pjesme in 2004, the book has now been fluently translated by Karl Kvitko and Durda Vukelic-Rozic.
Even as Bilosnic’s prose poem, “The Tiger in Speech,” states how the word tiger helps him to leave behind the “uprooted” lyrical poems with which he began writing, to seek a deeper and more genuine inspiration, “to return to the first word again,” and thus, in effect, to found a new poetry by forsaking poetry, each piece in this volume focuses on a different aspect of the factual and symbolic beast. For Bilosnic, the tiger is “the world”; that is, everything that the poet is not as well as, sometimes paradoxically, what he aspires to be or actually already is. For some of these poems, one thinks of Nietzsche’s imperative of “becoming what one is” (see the subtitle of Ecce Homo) and, even more so, of its Pindarean antecedent: “May you become what you are by learning what it is (you are).” Arranged into five sections, The Tiger is the World hints at personal sources and certainly surges forth from personal necessity, even as it narrates the destiny of the tiger both as an animal and as a multifaceted metaphor that should be — or should have been — useful to us.
The founding act, as recounted in “The Tiger in the Market,” occurs when the poet spots a “plush tiger” when he is an adult, after a childhood in which he had never been given a single toy. Upon the sight of the stuffed animal, he tells us, “the sun I’d forgotten existed shone out from his markings, and instantly I knew I’d experience everything there is to experience in love. He returned me to the refuge of childhood, brought me comfort and restored my optimism. Finally I was able to roar and to sing, to strike out with my pack, to nourish my soul and my body with blood.”
The passage illustrates the tiger’s autobiographical significance as well as the irony that sometimes lightens poems with serious import. Uniting with the tiger’s being, with a “world” that is no longer a hostile steppe or a menacing jungle but rather a “refuge,” enables the poet to become himself, at least for a while. Diminishing, with the tiger’s help, the various separations that he feels is thus a kind of initiatory rite to self-realization. And Bilosnic traces other aspects of the tiger’s psychological and creative influence on him, including his feelings of helplessness when it is absent. The second section, “The Tiger’s Eyes,” notably relates how the tiger leaves the poet, perhaps for good. Alluding to the creativity spawned by the aforementioned “first word,” Bilosnic notes: “Watching him depart, I feel my tongue fall out. I no longer have a heart: it’s a yellow leaf in the snow. By accident I found myself pushed into this tunnel, into the night, covered by the tiny bristles of a dream through which the tiger came, like a child that screams after being awakened.” The tiger is intimately linked to both life and writing.
Alongside the tiger’s implications for a specific self is its mythic, cosmic, and transcendent character. Drawing on symbolism from various spiritual and philosophical traditions, including Christianity, Bilosnic delineates various metaphysical tigers, as in “The Tiger on a Throne of Snow”:
The tiger emerges from out of himself
and lies down on the shadow of his love.
The tiger fascinates with the white frost of his whiskers
and looks through the crown of an orange.
The tiger is the judge who judges afresh.
The tiger sits on a throne of snow.
The tiger is the truth of a painted star.
The tiger loves and conceives happiness.
The tiger lives as a consolation to time.
To put it in a single word:
The tiger is the world.
Other poems highlight different metaphysical tasks or responsibilities. The animal takes on additional, sometimes mutually contradictory, attributes in every new poem or prose poem, to the extent that its composite portrait is not so much full-rounded as kaleidoscopic — which is, once again, how Otherness can appear to us. The tiger cannot be captured as a single entity, however complex, and kept in a cage. Probably it cannot be captured whatsoever, except in the most ordinary sense. Still other poems evoke tigers as we know them on this earth, in their animality, their non-humanness:
He is not interested in impersonal things.
He’s devoted to the body.
He’s devoted to the game,
during which he thinks about nothing.
For him nothing lasts longer than an instant
in which every shape deceives,
every impression is an illusion,
everything is like a bit of fluff in your palm —
captivating and real.
Yet the negative comparison in the first line and the simile in the penultimate line show that the very act of describing the tiger-in-itself reveals as much about how we imagine the animal to be as about how it might truly be; and this and other poems suggest that the tiger is essentially an object of our expectations and, arguably, desires. The tiger discloses us, exhibits us, as at the zoo where the poet sees a tiger and is “not impressed.” Intricacies of subjectivity and objectivity underlie these thought-provoking pieces which, moreover, sketch an overarching narrative: as in our real world, mankind ultimately makes of the tiger “something he’s never been” and the animal vanishes at the end. The second-to-last prose poem, “We Need the Tiger,” opens up a perspective on this extinction: “Because the tiger does not exist, there is a story about him.” This fine volume should be meditated on and discussed.
[Published July 2, 2012. 108 pages, $15.00 paper]
John Taylor has recently published If Night is Falling (Bitter Oleander), a collection of prose texts, and three book-length translations of French poetry (by Philippe Jaccottet, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, and Jacques Dupin). He is also the author of Into the Heart of European Poetry (Transaction).