Fourteen Poets Recommend New and Recent Titles

Welcome to the Seawall’s semi-annual poetry feature. This season, fourteen poets write briefly on some of their favorite new and recent titles. This multi-poet/title feature is posted here in April and November. The commentary includes:

David Rivard on Collected Poems by Joseph Ceravolo (Wesleyan)
Lisa Russ Spaar on Silverchest by Carl Phillips (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Daisy Fried on Each Chartered Street by Sebastian Agudelo (Saturnalia Books)
Fred Marchant on Ex-Voto by Adélia Prado, translated by Ellen Doré Watson (Tupelo Press)
Lee Upton on I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say by Anthony Madrid (Canarium Books)
Joshua Weiner on Ring of Bone: Collected Poems by Lew Welch (City Lights Publishers)
Idra Novey on Young Tambling by Kate Greenstreet (Ahsahta Press)
Ange Mlinko on All the Daylight Hours by Amanda Jernigan (Cormorant Books)
Tony Hoagland on Black Life and Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky (Wave Books)
Daniel Bosch on Speculative Music by Jeff Dolven (Sarabande Books)
Nick Sturm on Great Guns by Farnoosh Fathi (Canarium Books)
Anna Journey on To See the Queen by Allison Seay (Persea Books)
Patrick Pritchett on IMAGO for the fallen world by Matthew Cooperman and Marius Lehene (Jaded Ibis Press)
Shane McCrae on Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death by Caryl Pagel (Factory Hollow Press)
John Taylor on La Nuit spirituelle by Lydie Dattas (Editions Gallimard)

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Recommended by

David Rivard

Collected Poems by Joseph Ceravolo (Wesleyan)

I count as one of my luckier days the day fifteen years ago when I picked up a remaindered copy of The Green Lake Is Awake, Joseph Ceravolo’s posthumous selected poems (published in the mid-90’s by Coffee House Press). The poetics behind Ceravolo’s work were familiar enough — a mélange of NY School, cubist, and surrealist influences — but his freshness was startling, original in response. His poems seemed to process perception and feeling at breathtaking speed, a pace contradicted by their calm and tenderness:

PASSION FOR THE SKY

You are near me. The night
is rectilinear and light
in the new lipstick
on your mouth and on the colored
flowers. The irises are blue.
As far as I look we are across. A
boat crosses by. There is no monkey in me
left: sleep. There is something
sold: lemons. Corn is whizzing from the
ground. You are sleeping
and day starts its lipstick.
Where do we go from here?
Blue irises.

CeravoloCover.jpgThis small, beautiful poem from early in Ceravolo’s career is typical of the newly-published Collected Poems as a whole: the product of a recombinant DNA of language play that is full of associative leaping, interruptions, perceptual reversals and hallucinations, collaged hinging, and cryptic syntactical gestures, but always attendant to reality with a great simplicity and directness. His open-hearted work is a spiritual adventure in the vernacular. It sometimes reads as if Francis Jammes and Lorine Niedecker had taken up residence in the body of a civil engineer (Ceravolo’s actual occupation).

These poems — even at their wildest and most abstract — have an enormously attractive physicality, and it’s this immersion in an almost animate concreteness that keeps Ceravolo’s language maneuvers from becoming rhetorical. His phrase making — especially in the earlier, more experimental work — suggests a super-focused, precise, but continually shifting state of attention: “toy for the raking gully,” “cranes in the / wind / like cellophane tape / on a school book,” “again my soda is loud and / cares like a stable horse / out of a thunderbolt,” “Mayan sub-flowers in/the shade,” “then / locusts and hail manage to effect / The sort of cancer that kills, the sort of / silverware.” Mutating dictions have led many poets to dead ends, but not Ceravolo — his language has more in common with the sculptural decisiveness of the Modernists than it does with any squishy post-modern theorizing.

Ceravolo.jpgOften, Ceravolo will let his attention hover and expand through an associative widening of his lens, as he does at the start of “The Green Lake Is Awake”: “The womb can / remind you of mosquitos / if you imagine you are / in a carriage with a net / over it” — the quickness and wit in these moments are related in all sorts of ways, one feels, to the haiku tradition, as well as to the shamanic/Catholic surrealism of Vallejo. I mention Vallejo here, not as a direct influence, but as a reference point. Like Vallejo (or Tomaz Salamun), Ceravolo’s aesthetics have less to do with style or manner, and more to do with the spiritual struggle going on within him. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s a struggle between the spirit and the world? “I speak as a wife to the capsized,” Ceravolo writes in one poem—however soaked in playfulness, melancholy gentility and erotic wonder these poems are, there is also a genuine endangerment and vulnerability in them. He took all of it personally. To remark only on his tenderness is to miss the odd note of fierceness and insistence that sometimes attaches to his speech, not to mention the doubt that fuels it. Who else would write “how many sights / do I have that I’m / against?” or “poverty needs us in / this riot / of our body.”

This frequently awe-struck and enormously physical poet was troubled to say the least by the impermanence of life: “A coyote’s song / wet with death / makes me live just to die / in this approaching light. / These rods of light / that are on everything. / These winds of light that stick to me.” (“New Realism”) The Collected Poems makes all this clearer by including work previously unpublished or little known, like “The Hellgate,” a long poem in four sections, and “Mad Angels,” a sequence of highly notational daily writing that stretches from 1976 to 1988 and takes up nearly half the book. Over the arc of his work, Ceravolo became a less experimental writer in general, less oriented to a pastoral tradition and more urban in his attitudes and subjects, and somewhat more overtly political and social. He lost none of his heartbreaking alertness, even as he approached an early death from cancer, as with this entry from March 17, 1988:

Turn the screw, bang the nail,
grind the stone,
in absolute fragmentation.
There's making a poem
there's poverty --
There's holding in your arms
something you love,
there's childhood
that comes jumping at you
like a bird's syntactical song
on the first Spring morning

[Published January 23, 2013. 596 pages, $35.00 hardcover]

David Rivard is the author of five books of poems, the most recent being Otherwise Elsewhere (Graywolf Press, 2011). He teaches at the University of New Hampshire, where he directs the MFA in Writing Program.

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Recommended by

Lisa Russ Spaar

Silverchest by Carl Phillips (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Entering the singular, syntactically complex and sexual realms of Carl Phillips’s poems — texts vibrating with mortification, passion, restraint, tenderness — I am both lost and found, veiled and discovered, in the inseparable mysteries of utterance and erotic desire. Phillips’s signature mix of vernacular and song lends his poems an unforgettably intimate force (“Sure, there’s a spell the leaves can make, shuddering, / and in their lying suddenly still again—flat, and still, / like time itself when it seems unexpectedly more / available, more to lose therefore, more to love, or / try to . . . ,” for example, from “My Meadow, My Twilight,” in a passage both conversational and oracular). Crucial exchanges of power and surrender (formal and thematic) in each Phillips poem reveal themselves to me in ways that I understand but can never fully articulate. These instances of urgency may shift, but negotiating their annunciatory loci, pitched between form and thought, makes me more alive to language, to the world, and to myself.

Phillips.jpgSilverchest takes up what has long been Phillips’s flood subject — desire’s intoxication, the lover’s reproach/petition to the beloved, regarding a shift in power play or for the dismissing of his ardor, or for outgrowing or betraying it, or both — but this time the voice reaches us from the blunt, seasoned stance of mid-life. The question “why do we love, at all?” haunts these poems, which, taken together, signal a speaker coming to terms with what feels, in the wake of a relationship, like a destiny of going it alone, of making one’s way through a condition Phillips calls in one poem the afterlife of the afterlife. As Dickinson puts it, “Either the Darkness alters - / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight - / And Life steps almost straight.”

The speaker in these poems is less concerned with placing blame or providing evidence for certain wrongs or with licking wounds (“About nostalgia,” he writes in “Snow Globe,” “I am / still against it”) than he is with recalibrating his disabused sensual and aesthetic inner life in aftermath. Here is “Blizzard”:

After agony had left his body to find another,
or in search of no one, just agony on its
own for once, merely cruising,
something stayed like
a precipitate—
grief, maybe,
that’s what they said,
as if such had ever been
grief’s properties. . . Why is lying
to others always so much harder
than to ourselves? Yesterday, for example,
starlings in flight, the ice of
the frozen pond beneath them briefly
containing their shadows—not
reflecting them,
not the way water does, the way
the water did, the way it will
in spring when the pond has unlocked itself
all over again with
no more regard than disregard
for the wings and faces that pass, or don’t,
across it, so what,
so what? When I say
I trust you, I mean I’ve considered
that you could betray me, which means I know
you will, that we’ll have between us at last
that understanding which is a safer thing
than trust, not a worse,
not a better thing . . . Wanderer,
whisperer,
little firework, little
not my own, soon enough
the non-world we’ve been steering for
from the start: colorless, stripped of motion, all those
pleasures you knew so well how to give to others
gone also — pleasure,
I can hear you say, what world
was that

PhillipsCover.jpgWhat is the “silverchest” of these poems traversing the terroir and terror of ruin, broken-ness, loss? On the one hand, it is the book itself, which, as a physical object, with its argent cover and glinty, inked and elegant interiors, has to be one of the most stunning publications of the year. The “silverchest” is also the trove of the poem, the glimpse each provides into “the difference between grace / and what simply happens because it does.” It is the aging beloved’s silvering breast, it is a mirror, it is the armored, beautiful torso, cabinet of the broken heart, in which the lost stars of lover/muse/poet (“patrol[ing] the dark shore / of himself”) nonetheless “have been there, glittering, relentless, all along.” Silverchest is a heart-breaking book, but it is an emotionally sustaining, courageous one as well, as these last lines of “First You Must Cover Your Face” attest:

. . . . stillness, not of death,
but intoxication
sweet coma,
zero-ness of no more wanting,
nothing left to want for, the meadow at last
fills with light, like a bowl,
filled with light, spilling with it, only harder now,
as if more desperate maybe, or just a thing that’s brave.

[Published April 2, 2013. 80 pages, $23.00/$14.00]

Lisa Russ Spaar

teaches writing at the University of Virginia. Her most recent book of poems is Vanitas, Rough (Persea).

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Recommended by

Daisy Fried

Each Chartered Street by Sebastian Agudelo (Saturnalia Books)

Serious readers of poetry like to be knocked off-balance, challenged, disturbed. To struggle to find your footing is more appealing than to be soothed. Vertigo is welcome. So are poems that display split, even conflicting, instincts, poems that appear to be of two minds about what they’re after. For example, Sebastian Agudelo’s splendid second book, with its urge towards both panorama and intricate detail, documentation and celebration, the global and the local, the street and the page. It’s blessedly hard to summarize these novelistic, various, rich, dense poems—and why not? It’s hard to summarize a city.

AgudeloCover.jpgThe “chartered streets” of Philadelphia and its troubled, troubling inhabitants are Agudelo’s subject. (The title of the book is aptly copped from Blake’s “London”: “I wandered through each chartered street, / Near where the chartered Thames does flow, / A mark in every face I meet, / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”) Agudelo wants to get everything in. He’s a magpie-ish collector—hoarder?—of sights and sounds and smells. On a commuter train platform: “blood and wing bones /...A kid’s tutu on the tracks. // In the air, urine and cold cream/overheard talk.” (“Commute”). We hear about food court jobs, neo-Nazi baby showers, “sputtery fizz of police radio,” cars racing stripes and subwoofers, “bricks buckling, collapsed roofs,” a neighbor who won’t pick up after her dog, grownups airing “the sour of marriage on the sidewalk.”

Few poems here are less than a page long. One short one, “Memorial,” focuses on those bedraggled conglomerations of plush detritus which in urban areas pop up where kids are shot on street corners. “A damp season,” writes Agudelo, “they’ll seem like fungal spread/on posts...,” then proceeds to describe a scaffold for stuffies:

Alvin
the Chipmunk, strapped by the neck, Sponge
Bob wire-tied above, Daffy and also the generic
fauna spawned in sweatshop elsewhere meant
for fair or dollar bins, plush teddies, lucky dogs,
eglantine owls, Noah’s every beast, every creeping
thing of the earth after his kind, it seems, left
to tuft and mildew after rain, blanch in the sun.

Agudelo.jpgNote the swoop-out to economics and oppression in “sweatshop.” Note the biblical reference. Agudelo inflects even his closest scrutinies, like this tragicomic list, with the bigger picture. His longer poems develop via accumulation and discursion, some in continuous narrative, like the couplet-driven “Testimony,” an outlandish story of an immigrant woman trying to get her daughter back. Others, like “Commute,” are made of shorter lyric sections, brief journeys full of images, gesture, and thinking out loud on the page. “Novelists,” begins part vii of “Commute,”

From overseen Tweets and Facebook
postings you’ll gather the seeds to the next
epistolary saga of a girl lost in the big city

and

In the afterlings of confession that follow ringtone
you’ll sound a whole
Bildungsroman

and

Or reconstitute a picaresque from the husks
of minister bargaining with some politico
on the other side.

Does Agudelo half-yearn to write a novel? He loves ideas and stories, character and setting, but might like things —images -- even more. “Theory & Praxis” begins with garbage and (theoretical) money:

For late capitalism, there is that truck again,
its plush animal bungeed to the grill, Taz
or Mickey, take your pick, grinning as vehicle
barrels out of the hidden loading ramp
of new corporate headquarters ....

The praxis part of things is mostly sex — fucking, really. (Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” supplies the epigraph: “A shudder in the loins engenders there/The broken wall”). The theory part of things is supplied by a sociologist pontificating about teen pregnancy:

One: that street families share a cultural
Code
whereby sex is a way of preening.
Two: that by having children early, the poor
are
preempting the high infant mortality rates
associated with bad healthcare. He’s serious.

That mocking “He’s serious” punctures the sociologist’s pomposity handily, and also allows Agudelo to satirize himself. For all its word-cascade, this poem mistrusts “the prison house of language.”

The garbage truck moves through the city,
leaving just the whiff of rancid
in Center City. In the park, the other kid is done,
zipping up, walking away, girl rights herself.

Everywhere: a sense of aftermath, tired out, squalid and sad—the way America often feels these days. And yet, somehow none of this is a downer. Instead we get news of the world, and of people who seldom make it into poetry, rendered with such detail and complexity that it’s pure pleasure. Agudelo is tuned in to what’s wrong in the U.S., but there’s also something remarkably hopeful in his attentive, intense, clear-eye book. `
[Published Octover 15, 2013. 80 pages, $15.00 paperback]

Daisy Fried

is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (Pittsburgh, 2013). A recent Guggenheim Fellow, she is on the faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for writers.

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Recommended by

Fred Marchant

Ex-Voto by Adélia Prado, translated from the Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson (Tupelo Press)

PradoCover.jpgEmerson in “Self Reliance,” wrote that “in the hour of vision there is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy.” I can imagine him saying that what we find in the hour of vision is ardor, struggle, and various other intensities of the inner-life. Such intensities are exactly what Brazilian poet Adélia Prado presents us with in Ex-Voto. This is the second collection of her poetry to be translated by the American poet Ellen Doré Watson, whose lyrical yet colloquially beautiful English captures the range of tonal energies of Prado’s work. A selection of poems from three of Prado’s books from 1988-1999, Ex-Voto charts the deep, inward struggles and vicissitudes of a life-long love affair. Prado’s beloved is often called Jonathan, and sometimes in these poems one almost thinks there is a literal person called Jonathan, but there is no getting around the fact that Jonathan in these poems is Adélia Prado’s private name for Jesus. She concludes “The Sacrifice,” with this crucial, definitive assertion: “Lustily I sing out: / Jonathan is Jesus.”

And she means all those words. These are exuberantly lusty poems. Prado is often overtaken by a genuinely down-to-earth physical desire to be joined with her beloved. “Everything beating inside me / is desire” she writes in a poem titled “Fibrillations,” and since Jonathan or Jesus is embodied in every aspect of the world, desire radiates outward toward everything the poet encounters. This includes the most surprisingly quotidian as well as the most sublime aspects of life. Prado would insist there is no real distinction between the ordinary and the eternal. “O God,” she writes in “The Holy Face”:

You’re so good to us —
roses, removable dentures,
tufts of grass like tiny palm trees,
a profusion of miracles.

As she says in another poem, she is “training to see God.” Her deity is immanent, and cannot be known other than through what is given to her by her senses. In “The Third Way,” she says “without a body, the soul has no pleasure.” Prado’s vision is not above or beyond the material world, but within it and of it. Her way of seeing is in the end a sacramental embrace of our actual, physical existence. Her sense of the sacred in everything is one of the great sources of energy crackling throughout these poems.

Prado.jpgThe other great source of energy in these poems comes from the inevitable thwarting of such devotion and yearning. If Jonathan sometimes offers epiphany, at other times he recedes, slips away, suddenly disappears, and has even, she says, been unfaithful. The poems that arise out of these predicaments are often rueful and wiser, wittier and ironic. They are also occasionally bitter or furious with her beloved. These are the times, she writes, when “the soul was murky / and no one could see it.” There are several harrowing poems of the dark night of the soul, when visions she says are “raw and clear, / sometimes peaceful / sometimes pure terror.” This is when “the bottom of the river falls away.” In less elevated terms, Prado also says it is “as if God’s smacking me around, / pushing me away.” Sometimes she says Jonathan is “so dumb. / I don't know if I should find someone more wily / or wait for him to grow up.”

The dark and light spiritual energies of these poems point us toward their most profound dimension: the delineation of our capacity for such intense love. We leave these poems marveling not so much at the deity glimpsed, or the sacramental vision of one-ness, but rather we marvel at the voice and person of the one who strives for such a vision. An ex-voto is typically an object left behind at a sacred place to commemorate a moment in which a given deity helped or felt near. Each of these poems embodies Prado’s votive gifts, and they signify and remind us of the human capacity to love so intensely. As Prado writes in the title poem of the collection:

the poem,
my ex-voto,
not the shape of what’s sick
but of what’s sound in me

These remarkable poems plumb the depths of what might be truly sound, deep within any of us.

[Published August 1, 2013. 115 pages, $19.95, paperback)

Fred Marchant

is the author of four books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Looking House (Graywolf Press). He is also Founding Director of the Creative Writing Program and The Poetry Center at Suffolk University in Boston.

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Recommended by

Lee Upton

I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say by Anthony Madrid (Canarium Books)

In our era of hyper abbreviations — where compressed bits of language travel continuously among us (the sound bite, the text, the tweet, the ad button) — the compression in Anthony Madrid’s poetry performs in an opposite direction. His poems in I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say bristle with interpretive problems and expand their implications while resonating with defiance against the enemies of long-term pleasure. The poems thread the needle between the funny and the serious and the ever-new contemporary absurd where whatever is incomprehensible today will outdo itself tomorrow.

Madrid.jpgI Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say is Madrid’s first book, although it hardly reads like a debut. He writes a poetry of cognitive jolts through paradoxes, oxymorons, and enriched ironies, all the while employing some of the ghazal’s restrictions with the sort of imaginative loyalty that Emily Dickinson reserved for the Protestant hymnal. While Madrid’s poem often are faux ghazals, they are indebted to the tradition through stanzas crafted like starched aphorisms, the frequent strategic inclusion of Madrid’s name or that of his mirror-persona (MARDUD), and the form’s ornate tone, escalating grandiose passions and deflating hopes. His stanzas are pods of advice, defensive, gleefully idiosyncratic, and agile enough to escape whatever prescriptions they first call for.

At the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, those of us on a panel discussing the poetry of James Tate were asked to make links to younger poets who share his characteristics. I spoke briefly about Anthony Madrid. My encounter with his work was marked by the similar sort of exhilaration I experienced upon first reading Tate’s poetry. Here are a few lines that immediately indicate the slyly welcoming and mock self-deflation of Madrid’s work:

“IF I am a total washout as a lover (and I am), / I want to know: Where was my teacher? // If I have no skills, no sense of adventure, if I’m hemmed in by mere convention, / I want to know: Where was my teacher?” His poem “O You Beautiful Young Readers of Poetry” ends with “anyone can see / How much better this poetry would be if it were written by a twenty-five-year-old punk.” For me those lines have instant appeal. But, as I mentioned at the conference, Madrid’s lines that fully converted me are these: “JAM me in hot hell. Make me drive a street-cleaning truck / In the folds of the Devils anus, but don’t make me read all this Irish poetry.” In thrall to Irish poetry as I am, upon reading those lines I felt a wonderfully weird blast of happiness. Here was a voice brimful with life-giving mischief: teasing, cunning, wily, and dexterous. In Wallace Stevens’s terms, Madrid’s poems, alternately manic and serene, almost resist the intelligence successfully, making oracular pronouncements and then watching their own logic burn down into something else entirely.

MadridCover.jpgIf a crow walked into a bar with an Urdu poet, Ambrose Bierce, the Buddha, the Sears Roebuck catalogue, and a lower order demon, would Madrid’s poetry walk out? Almost. But it’s not principally through allusions that this poet’s ghazals do their work, however vivid those references may be. It’s through their logical double loops and beehives of sound effects, extending from our contemporary idiom backward to the archaisms of a troubadour intent on making poems that are alternately witty, harrowing, and blush-worthy for their recipients. His spring-locked strophes cajole, exhort, and needle with a passive-aggressive quasi-mystic’s demands for obedience, and they’re so rich with reflections on beauty, desire, shame, and intellectual prestige, that they’re worth measuring out in doses. We might take Madrid’s word for it in his poem “Of the Many Hymns to the Goddess Kali”: “Whoever reads more than a dozen ghazals at a time will be overstimulated. / After a certain number of hits, one is simply wasting a precious drug.”

I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say is exciting, should prove to be influential, and is surely made for pleasure. Some of these poems are as viscerally head-clearing as wasabi. And out of the collection’s wild bounty we’re given more than a few shreds of pure and uncompromising wisdom: “MADRID, do you not see your poetry gives comfort to the wicked? / It does give comfort to the wicked — but it also makes wiser the wise.”
¬
[Published April 1, 2012. 117 pages. $14.00 original paperback]

Lee Upton

is the author of the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy. In spring 2014 her collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, will appear from BOA Editions.

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Recommended by

Joshua Weiner

Ring of Bone: Collected Poems by Lew Welch (City Lights)

What happened in American poetry between 1940 and 1970? For a long time we thought we knew; but tracing some of the counter currents required hunting down out-of-print books and fugitive poems. In the last 18 months, our view of American poetry of the last century has opened up with easier access — especially to work written in the 1950’s and 1960’s. We’ve seen publications of Collected Poems by, respectively, Jack Kerouac and May Swenson (Library of America), a long-anticipated Collected by Joseph Ceravolo (Wesleyan) and another one by Philip Lamantia (California); Ted Berrigan & Ron Padgett’s charismatic Bean Spasms, (with illustrations by Joe Brainard) (this, a facsimile reprint from Granary Books); a magisterial Early Poems and Plays and Later Poems and Plays by Robert Duncan (two volumes in California’s Collected Writings series devoted to him).

Of all of these, the most important is probably the early Duncan book — not only because it returns to us work that’s been hard to find, but because Duncan is emerging now as a strong influence on some good younger poets, such as Peter O’Leary, Brian Teare, and Lisa Jarnot (who wrote the new biography). Duncan looks like the poet of the last century that we need to know right now to understand what’s happening in some of the more interesting American poetry being written by poets under 50. However that may be (here comes the curve), the ‘book of returns’ that’s meant the most to me this year has been Ring of Bone: Collected Poems by Lew Welch.

How’s that?

WelchGionsberg.jpgLew Welch is a figure of significance in the history of the Beats, specifically the post-World War II San Francisco poetry renaissance. A roommate of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen’s at Reed College in the late 1940’s, his participation in helping to bring Eastern mind science to bear on American writing aesthetics was foundational. If Snyder is the root tone in a triad drone chord, Whalen comes across as the perfect fifth, and Welch the major third. Still, you couldn’t find much of him around. (A few pages in Anne Charters’ Viking Portable Beat Reader, even fewer in Donald Allen’s earlier seminal anthology, New American Poetry . . .) Nonetheless, Lew Welch’s name shows up everywhere in the biographies and histories of the period, though you’d be hard-pressed to put your hands on more than a couple of the poems. Unjust neglect.

City Lights’ issuing last year of an expanded edition of the Donald Allen 1973 Grey Fox publication, long gone from bookstore shelves, is a good deed done, and overdue. Welch wasn’t present at the famous 1955 Gallery Six reading in San Francisco — he was living in the Windy City at the time, having dropped out of the University of Chicago, where he had been studying literature, philosophy, and linguistics; a nervous breakdown had lead to psychoanalysis, which had lead to a job writing ad copy for Montgomery Ward, not as cure, but as means for financing the psychoanalysis that saved him. Soon after he heard of the Gallery Six reading, he got transferred to the Bay Area in order to rejoin his friends and write the poems he felt born to write; he quit his job, and started driving a taxi. You can trace the change in Welch’s work between the personal breakthrough ‘Chicago Poem’ (“I lived here nearly 5 years before I could / meet the middle western day with anything approaching / Dignity”) and “Taxi Suite / After Anacreon” (“When I drive cab / I am guided by voices descending from the naked air / . . . // When I drive cab / I end the only lit and waitful thing in miles of darkened houses”). Lew Welch was a quick study who enrolled in the mid-1950’s self-directing Bay Area café & saloon curriculum of no-self, with its improvised abroad program in the California woods.

WelchCover.jpegThere’s a blurry notion that floats around the Beats in regard to ‘the academy.’ It’s true that they were opposed to a certain kind of stifling academics that they viewed as oppressive, inspiration-killing, and beside the point — the mind-forged manacles of mid-century institutional life. But they were also hip to the root idea of the academy as a special grove of trees, less a metaphor than a real and practical space, a legendary one (where Plato taught) for philosophical transmission between teacher and student. Welch was a real student in a true sense, as was Snyder, as was Whalen. And one of the qualities he brings to the SF mix is a very fine attention to American language and American speech that started with his intensive and sustained formal study at Reed of Gertrude Stein’s writing, and that he continued in his graduate study of linguistics. He doesn’t have Kerouac’s impressionistic ‘language spinning’ spontaneous genius, or Ginsberg’s developed and driven breakthrough visionary technique so grounded in historical study of ellipsis; but Welch is a highly disciplined poet whose best poems convey depth of insight through clarity of sound; short line poems (mostly) that know how to dramatize what Ginsberg called ‘surprise mind’ in a carefully measured native speech, rhetorically stripped down, rhythmically lean, and moving fast. (In Kerouac’s Big Sur, Welch is the character Dave Wain, described by Kerouac as a more dependable driver than Cody Pomeray, the character based on Neal Cassady).

I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed,
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a

bone does

The expanding ripple of that ring in the clear stream of reality is a figure for continual opening of mind, captured in American mid-century open form. W.C. Williams’ visit to Reed made an impression on Welch, who was inspired by what he heard in the poetry; the interest was reciprocated by Williams, who invited Welch to come visit him in New Jersey. Welch learned from Williams about relative stress, vowel volume, and musical phrasing; from Stein he learned how poetry is really a kind of translation of speech, and a clean placement of one word alongside another. But it was from his Eastern studies that he learned how to make a final sound continue ringing: the acoustic effect of the phrase ‘bone does’—the way vowel sounds close in the first word and open in the last one—carries American modernist practice into a new consciousness. This effect can be heard in much of Welch’s best work. He calls Ring of Bone a spiritual autobiography; it’s also an artistic testament. It stays vibrant and vibrating in the air.

WelchFishing.jpgWelch lived hard. He drank too much for too long. He suffered from serious depression. He liked guns. Bad combination that didn’t end well. In 1971, he walked into the wilds of the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode with a revolver, and never returned.

The psychic tension, spiritual ambition, artistic experimentation, and American invention that Lew Welch embodied inspired Aram Saroyan to put him at the center of his study, Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch & the Beat Generation (William Morrow, 1978)—still one of the best, and briefest, of the good books about these guys, who missed their fathers and found each other in friendship. “Let them say: ‘Most of his poems are lost. / Many of those we have were found in / letters to his friends. // He had a very large number of friends.”

[Published June 19, 2012. 262 pages, $17.95 paperback]

Joshua Weiner

’s new third book of poems is The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (University of Chicago Press). He teaches at the University of Maryland.

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Recommended by

Idra Novey

Young Tambling by Kate Greenstreet (Ahsahta Press)

A familiar American story played out in the rural town of Maryville, Missouri three years ago. A football star named Matthew Barnett, grandson of a prominent politician, raped a fourteen-year-old girl who was new to town. Police collected ample evidence and documentation of the crime but the prosecutor for the case, Robert Rice, dropped all charges against Barnett, stating what happened “before, during and after” the incident played a role in his decision. Rice knew how easy it would be, as an authority, to change the public narrative of a rape case. He knew he would get away with it, and he did—until the case got into the national news.

Greenstreet.jpgI kept thinking about Rice’s statement as I read Kate Greenstreet’s powerful new collection Young Tambling. Through a series of partially erased quotes, poems, memories, and images, she explores the shadowy meetings of narrative and consent. “The narrative,” she offers in a quote from Frank Kermode, “inhabits its proper dark.”

Fittingly, the reader’s first encounter with this quote is partial, all the words rubbed out through the middle except “narrative.” Even the bottom half of the author’s name is erased on the first page. These absences, their inhabiting shadows, comprise the poetry of the collection as much as the lines that do appear, many of which also describe what is “Missing. / One way or another.” Or they offer an imperative for the reader to “Fill in the blank: People are always ______.”

GreenstreetCover.jpgThe title of the book is from a European ballad also known as Tam Lin, Tom Line, or Tam-a-line. In the opening section, Greenstreet questions the ballad as she retells it. A girl plucks a double rose, after which a weird elflike creature appears and gets her pregnant. She considers an abortion, but then encounters the creature again, who tells her he’s not really an elf, but a human who has been kidnapped by the Queen of Elfland. The pregnant girl prevails and rescues him, an ending Greenstreet points out as terribly rare in the history of ballads. “It’s so rare,” she says, “even to this day, incidentally, that a woman drives the narrative of a drama.”

These opening pages provide all the backstory the reader needs to fully experience this haunting book. Like all good poetry that engages with the larger world, Young Tambling has no explicit agenda but the reader knows what’s at stake. The questions and images presented in the poems are so vividly connected to the country and time we are living in that it is impossible to put this book aside.

During the Maryville rape trial, town people who wanted to align themselves with the rapist and his powerful family burned down the thirteen-year-old victim’s home, removing the one place where she might have felt safe. In Young Tambling, published long before the Maryville case was in the news, Greenstreet wrote:

Picture of a family wearing the memory of a house.

Orange.
Orange-red, and black.
Violet,
gray-black. Gray-black
and black. Pale green.

Toward the plains.

These fading colors of a fire, of a family fleeing, could also speak to the assault case in Steubenville, Ohio or any number of cases in which authorities operated on the rural America standard that silence is consent. “What else was happening that day,/ or how did it get buried?” Greenstreet writes in Young Tambling, and on the next page:

Meeting in a field? In real life, who knows.
Things that happen, things that don’t happen.
Why a girl might wish to hear certain words.

Like the ballad she responds to, Greenstreet makes a melancholy music out of the unsaid. In the tam-o-line ballad, it is undeniable that something went down in the field with the girl and the elf-like creature. The girl’s pregnancy is the undeniable evidence. But for the public record, what counts is the perceived order of events, the selected story. There is also the matter of confidence with which one delivers this selected narrative, a factor Greenstreet plays with in furtive, surreal mock-authoritative statements that push against the official voice of prosecutors like Rice:

A taped record of a trial was coming from inside him (I somehow knew). I thought it might be evidence. And I thought it might be important. Now, for the first time, I noticed he was cut in half.

The surprise of the man cut in half as in a magician’s trick is reminiscent of a prose poem by Charles Simic or Julio Cortázar. But like Matthea Harvey in her recent prose poems about mermaids and their relationship to their bodies, there is something else at work in the image as well, an attendance to the history of the female body, which has, historically, been so often spoken for — and spoken of — by men.

As for the complex consequences of taking on this fraught subject, Greenstreet gets it perfectly:

This type of chorus is called
a burden
because it was once submerged.

[Publiched February 1, 2013. 176 pages, $20.00 paperback]

Idra Novey

is the author of Exit, Civilian, selected by Patricia Smith for the National Poetry Series, and The Next Country. Poems from her new chapbook, Clarice: The Visitor, were recently chosen for the Poetry Foundation's 2012 Friends of Literature Award. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.

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Recommended by

Ange Mlinko

All the Daylight Hours: Poems by Amanda Jernigan (Cormorant Books)

Coming in at about a hundred pages, Canadian poet Amanda Jernigan's second book, All the Daylight Hours, stretches out leisurely before the reader, glittering with preternaturally vivid metaphorical devices, built like machines, as Don Paterson once put it, to remember themselves. On the face of it these are descriptions of time passed in either a rural or small-town milieu, rich with woods and barns, work and friends and a husband, somewhere in the north. Her title comes from "December," with its revisioning of the calendar as a dwelling:

December sets up house again
in the old familiar quarter,
and pushes the table out from the wall
and lays in rum and porter,
and splits some kindling for the stove,
and when the weather comes,
all the daylight hours crowd
into her small rooms.

JerniganCover.jpgThere's a bit of Robert Louis Stevenson or Mother Goose in these homely images trotting to a ballad meter; I also hear Emily Dickinson, whose use of personification and vertiginous scales ("The Brain—is wider than the Sky") is a signature of her style. Jernigan's "Memoir" brings Dickinson to the fore as well, beginning as roaming poem, where roads and crossroads unravel from her own walking, ending in Dickinsonian dread, with a web and a fly. No matter how light or domestic the verse, Jernigan manages to infuse it with canonical significance. She does versions of Catullus and an Anglo-Saxon riddle; she considers Lear and Cordelia, Hamlet and Odysseus, Orpheus and Damocles. There is a heartbreaking poem for Keats (that never names him) drawing on Perrault's fairy tale, "Les Fées." This is clearly a writer for whom "Milan" isn't a synecdoche for fashion or a destination on a bucket list; it's what Prospero was Duke of. Reader, I fell hard for this book. See the final line of "Prescribed Burn":

In flagrante delicto the fire
rejoiceth as a giant to run its course

(far off, I wrote, the kindled hills
resemble the clumps of red-stemmed moss
that we’ll find growing in the burn
among the ranks of firekills
years from now, when we return)

leaping the blackline of my verse.

Leaping the blackline of my verse. — Of the several meanings packed in this appropriately dactylic, dynamic line, I don't know which is the most ingenious: there's the purely visual meaning of it, calling attention to the sheer materiality of print; there's the etymology of "verse" as a turn of the plow (and thus the furrows of a farmed field); there's the suggestion that a line of verse is the burnt leftover of the passionate life ("in flagrante delicto"); there's even the legal sense in which "blacklining" tracks changes to a document, keeping the original and the revised versions together for comparison (as the "before" and "after" of a burned landscape). There's more to unpack in the title and the poem, but just the impact of that final line alone gives you a sense of how much Jernigan is able to suggest with language — visually, metrically, aurally, etymologically, and metaphorically.

I mentioned her deep literariness, but I would be remiss not to mention how much of the real person abides in these lyrics. Jernigan writes love poems for her husband, eulogies, epithalamia for friends' weddings; she writes lullabyes for named children (as well as the unnamed one in her womb by the end of the book); she writes an ode to her erstwhile employers at a printing press; she satirizes poetasters and scenesters:

If Wallace Stevens’ glass equipage
came direct from Connecticut,
rattling on about poetry
and blackbirds for the umpteenth time,
he might remind the driver of
the upcoming deadline for Council grants
and tell him there is wireless at Ducky’s.

("Impresario")

Jernigan.jpgAdmittedly, I don't know much about Canadian poetry. I don't quite know how to contextualize Jernigan's work; you'll notice it doesn't look much like mainstream American poetry. It's too composed and metrical, especially for a poet born in 1978. But it is supremely intelligent, and full of love that doesn't breach decorum — even when she's writing about looking for the exact place in an overgrown field where she and a lover had sex. (She suggests a conceptual rhyme between place and time, implying that she wants him again at that very moment ... And simultaneously she's remembering that if they could go back to that prior moment, her lover's father would still be alive. How much more emotional urgency can be imbued in fourteen lines?) It's hard to care about contextualizing when the poems are this good.

[Published April 1, 2013. 96 pages, $18.00 CDN paperback. Purchase via Amazon.ca]

Ange Mlinko

Ange's most recent book of poems is Marvelous Things Overheard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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Recommended by

Tony Hoagland

Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky (Wave Books)

The term artless is one of those funny words like inflammable, which means the opposite of what it sounds like. "Artless" actually describes a quality of unself-conscious grace, so spontaneous and natural that it seems "unschooled." The Romantic poets, with their double religion of Nature and Genius, were always looking for some artless rural poet to stumble out of the corncrib with straw in his hair, speaking in perfect iambic pentameter -- an artless genius. John Clare was one such "rustic genius." This quality called artless is one of the most enviable talents of all -- a voice, a rhetoric, and a facility which seem unpremeditated.

Artless poets and poems step into language as if they were opening a screen door and walking into a back yard in summer. "I don't know if I get what D.H. Lawrence means when he says that lust springs from the bowels,." begins a poem by the great Frank O'Hara, so genuine and generous in his overtures that we just want to listen, to hear what he has to say next.

And here's Dorothea Lasky, from her book Black Light, beginning a poem with a similar kind of artlessness:

THANK YOU TO JASON M. HELMS

Thank you to Jason M. Helms
Who for a short while
Saved me from the loneliness of the black night
In which I slept and woke
And there was no end to the sleeping and waking
And to say thank you that he did not lie to me
As some men are prone to do
But gave me the whole thing straight
So that I am not embarrassed to say his name
Jason M. Helms
Or that we met in summertime
When the grasses were high near the sun
Opossums wander and scurry
Opossums wander and scurry with love, they are not cute
But likeable in their strangeness
To thank a stranger is strange but I do so anyway
Because he is a child
Because that is what they think of me

In its directness and its lack of pretense, this poem is, as Holden Caulfield might say, fetching as hell. Its feet are set firmly on the humble fabric of recognizable circumstance and feeling that is the essence of the personal. At the same time, "Thank You" is engaged in a formal speech-act, a ceremony of communication (gratitude), and consciousness of such ceremony always strengthens poetry. Lasky often makes poetry look like an utterly natural act, a spontaneous expulsion of breath straight out of ordinary life.

Lasky.jpgLasky, who has published three collections, is a refreshing and paradoxical presence right now in American poetry-a universe that can be so hermetically bloodless, or so acrobatically ironic as to exhaust a reader. On the basis of frontal fierceness and natural elan, her poems are enormously likeable.

On the other hand, she sometimes seems a little too artless -- so much so, that we wonder, Is this art, or mere spurts of self-expression? The border between the two is less distinct than we think, and Lasky's work constantly tests our ability to discriminate between them. Yet even when her language is quite plain, her poems' vigorous passion is a persuasive credential. Her poems seem to spring straight from the id. What is more, she has all the archetypal narratives of youthful sex, identity, and fury at her disposal.

LaskyCoverA.jpgWhat's striking from a zeitgeist point of view is what a throwback to the sixties Lasky's work is, for her monologues are nothing like postmodern, or avant-garde. She might reasonably be viewed as a re-appearance of femme-Confessionalism, homesteaded by Sexton, Rich, and many others, like Judy Grahn, Eleanor Lerman, or Diane Wakoski. Like some of those poets, and like Frieda Kahlo, Lasky's specialty is the garish self-portrait. Her charming face-first approach is also cousin to Charles Bukowski, her crooked imagist wit to Richard Brautigan. The fact that Lasky's work is being read with enthusiasm by her generation indicates how thirsty readers are for the straightforward, the unironic and untricky, the unclever -- the artless.

On the other hand, sometimes Lasky can sometimes seem, how to put this, alarmingly simple-minded. The heroically naive perspective inside some of these odd elevator rides is staggering: Here's the beginning of "Ever Read A Book Called Awe?" (Awe is the title of Lasky's first book):

Have you ever read a book called Awe?
I have. I wrote it. That's my book.
I wrote that book. I wrote that one.
Some people read it. They said,
We will make your book.
I said, Really? I love you.
They said, We love you too.
I said, Good then.
I will love you forever.
They said Great! And looked scared.
Some people love
Don't love me
Others love me
That's good …

Naiveté is often charming, but, the degree of theatricality at play here is hard to gauge, (is it funny? is it honest? Is it sly? Is it delusionary?). In his tongue-in-cheek manifesto on the "Personism" school of poetry, O'Hara said that a personal poem is one that takes the place of a phone call. Here is Lasky, putting theory into practice:

MIKE, I HAD AN AFFAIR.

Mike, I had an affair.
With Jakob Tunishaea the poet.
It was in the cool light of dawn
That I came to him
From a long journey
As what was between us was true love
Although he was too young to see it.
I peered into his crevices
And upon his bed I peered into more
Like the kind of things that the monsters make.
He was a monster, no
he was not a monster, Mike
His skin was soft and wild
And when he smiled,
I was a bit on fire ...

Call this "unedited," and scoff if you like, but what a precious and liberating quality the Unedited is, there can be no doubt, for poetry. Uneditedness is a talent category of its own.

Speaking of editors, it is heartening that Lasky has found a publisher, and a good one, Wave Books, to bring her work into the open-air fiesta of American poetry. Too bad they seem no more inclined than the author to winnow the chaff from the wheat, that is, to be more selective about what winds up between the covers. Her most recent collection, Thunderbird, seems even less screened than Black Life, the collection that is my favorite. Here is the beginning of "What Poets Should Do":

Poets should get back to saying crazy shit
All of the time
I am sick of academics or business people telling poets
What we should do
A poet is a scientist
To favor poetry
Or science
In that both relate to Buddhism …

This is just drunk-tattoo material, late Friday night teenage waiting-for-the-bus graffiti; to publish it shows poor judgment, and that's too bad, because Lasky has a peculiar, crazed talent, a package that includes freshness, sincerity, and a wild openness as well as grandiosity.

LaskyCoverB.jpegAnd there's the rub with the art of artlessness, and unself-consciousness, as a kind of talent. When artless is well-executed, the resulting testimony is fresh, somehow universal, selfless even when expressing the most anguished or churlish sentiments of Self. Think of Catullus, or the anonymous lyric "O Western Wind." But when artlessness is forced or indulged, or cultivated as an affectation, when it jumps from the poignant groove of the common condition, it carries the preening crud of personal ego, which is, as they say, merely personal.

If she develops, and doesn't just bog down in the valley of self-indulgence, Lasky could join a tribe that includes Beat-Philistine poets like Ellyn Maybe, Ferlinghetti, Etheridge Knight, Gregory Corso, etc ... Membership in such company might initially be won on the basis of sheer hormonal, kamekazi swagger; eventually, though, this kind of talent also entails the obligation to be more than an adolescent loose cannon; in fact, to cultivate the skill-set of a grown-up philistine artist. In the meantime, we can enjoy Lasky's brio, and wait. Whether you consider her a primitive, a drowning Ophelia, or a poetic trickster figure, she brings a blaze of energy, and readers and poets would be foolish to refuse that.

[Black Life. Published April 1, 2010, 77 pages, $14.00 paperback. Thunderbird. Published September 11, 2012. 128 pages, $16.00 paperback. Both published by Wave Books.]

Tony Hoagland

Tony's most recent book of poems is Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. He teaches at the University of Houston and the Warren Wilson MFA Program..

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Recommended by

Daniel Bosch

Speculative Music by Jeff Dolven (Sarabande Books)

The record indicates that Jeff Dolven has written a timeless book of poems.

Exhibit A: George Gascoigne, in an early draft for “Certayne Notes of Instruction,” London, undated (ca. 1574).

The first and most necessarie poynt that euer I founde meete to be considered in making of a delectable poeme is this, to grounde it upon some fine inuention. For it is not inough to roll in pleasant woordes, nor yet to thunder in Rym, Ram, Ruff by letter (quoth my master Chaucer), nor yet to abounde in apt vocables or epythetes, vnlesse the Inuention haue in it also aliquid salis. By this aliquid salis I meane some good and fine deuise, shewing the quicke capacitie of a writer: and where I say some good and fine inuention I meane that I would haue it both fine and good, as it is in Dolven’s “Cantaloupe,” in which he hath not onlye picked the fruite’s locke, as in relishe of its sweetnesse, he hath reinuented it:

If, after so many blunders, we pick the lock
of the cantaloupe, it will keep its promise to sing,
trilling the tongue long coiled in its gut like a snake:

the tongue no botanist has ever wrung
from its seedy heart, nor gourmet ever found
limp on his plate when the summer meal was done.

So hold the brave new fruit with both your hands
and feel its tumblers turn; or better still,
between your fingers take the dangling end

of the coarse twine that’s knotted round its hull,
and follow it—like a melody you’ve sung
before, but backward—till the song unspools

and leaves the naked melon’s single lung
heaving with rare delight. Now listen closely,
and don’t flinch if, at last, you feel its tongue —

muscular, quivering — thrust impetuously
into your ear. Think hard before you answer
its impossible overture:
marry me, marry me.

Dolven.jpeg

Exhibit B: Unsigned Obituary, Amherst Gazette, Amherst Mass., May 17, 1886.

Miss Emily Dickinson, of the Homestead, Main Street, was called back to Our Maker on the Fifteenth, of natural causes, the top of her head having been taken off by Jeff Dolven’s Speculative Music, which she had been reading in her chambers. The book was found beside her body, Miss Dickinson’s right index finger yet pointing to the poem, “Appendix”:

Just to the right — now, slightly further down —
the shy, unminded littlest daughter hangs.
With nothing much to do there on her own

she sleeps late, counts her many blessings, sings
old sailor’s songs she surely wasn’t taught
and dreams she’ll marry a doctor. How she longs

to see herself discovered by his fleet,
mirroring scalpel! In the dark she swoons
with love, turns ripe, too ripe, implacably sweet.

DolvenCover.jpeg

Exhibit C: Marianne Moore, on back of box score for Dodgers game, shaking her head as she writes. Greenwich Village, New York, May, 1927.

I, too, dislike opera. Why cannot our librettists rise above insolence and triviality? Why cannot they become literalists of the imagination? Why won’t they present for inspection imaginary gardens with real toads in them, as Mr. Dolven has in his “Libretto for Speculative Music” which he calls “The Invention,” and which is the center-piece of Speculative Music? Listen! As his two voices exchange sounds, each makes the other more substantial:

As the INVENTOR sings, the REPORTER transcribes each word a beat behind, and sings it off his page in that flat, one-off echo. He is shaking his head as he writes.

INV.
Or my harpsichord? Old-fashioned sound.
The keys change places when you turn around.
Famous for that one. Some time ago.
Forget the score. You’re good to go.
My guitarrh: you catch it by the throat—
but it’s getting late. You have your coat?
Tick tick tick. So nice to talk.
And tick again. Should fix that clock.

REP.
—check—but is it—double check—
our sources—off the record—say—
their sources say—there’s something new—

INV.
Where are you from? The
Mirror? The Star?
No news here. Sorry you came so far.
Nothing happened. Don’t know how.
what’s the use of remembering now?

It’s an affectation, you say, to attempt libretto without a score? Well, there is no longer any revolution: am I not allowed my tricorn? Mr. Dolven’s garden is as real as the Polo Grounds. The measures of “The Invention” are measured. Each silence counts. Syllables like spots on toads!

All these phenomena are most important!

Exhibit D: Robert Frost, in an unsent letter to Jeff Dolven. Cambridge, Mass., December, 1948.

Your poem, “It’s Raining,” begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness:

It’s raining. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s late.
What’s raining? What’s cold? What’s dark? What’s so late?
The clouds? Or the air? The sky? The days?

No. No. No, no.

You put a lump in my throat. The rule of your lines — each singing four parts, like a barbershop quartet — satisfies my boy’s ear. But it is awfully cold here. You’re so nearly Lear in the last line I know you know it.

Cold enough to float a poem on. But like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting, as it does in “Dichten = Condensare” — bless it. I’ll not trouble you about that head note — but I wish I could cut you some of that Bollingen money they’ve given to Pound!

The garbage men are talking trash,
Deep in thought beside their truck:
The job provokes reflection on
Essences and accidentals.

Paper or plastic? Glass or can?
Such distinctions seem to help.
There is naming at the end,
As there was in the beginning.

Meanwhile, things keep piling up:
Strollers, hollow-boned, like birds;
The slender stem of a halogen lamp,
Heliotrope, straight as a saint.

Someone wants to forget this stuff —
Forget all about it — so the truck
Clenches its brow, closes its mind
Hard on the facts as it receives them.

Each thing makes its own wild cry.
Who thought, so many kinds of throat.
Under pressure all confess

I never knew what I was for.

But the poem knows what it is for. It is to make a speculative music. So when it reaches for the sublime — at the end — it’s already moved on. It’s vapor, like our breath, like the ice cube.

Like the garbage truck. It’s moved on to the next block. It’s got promises to keep. So do you. You’ll keep them. There’s nothing speculative about that.

[Published July 2, 2013. 65 pp. $14.95 paperback]

Daniel Bosch

is senior editor at Berfrois. He lives in Chicago.

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Recommended by

Nick Sturm

Great Guns by Farnoosh Fathi (Canarium Books)

Enigmatic with Stevensian lusciousness (“We’ll wooly a way back by wording innards out”), funny with dissonant hyperbole (“I am a horse about to be braided, / Asleep in the shattered pajamas of man”), and intelligent with intricate rhetorical musics (“one feels something obviously / forgotten and one begins to know its worth in perplexities”), the poems in Farnoosh Fathi’s Great Guns elegantly resist simple attempts at extrapolation. The book is more an accumulation of thinking-as-color and feeling like language is a new, dangerous toy. Or wondering why you’ve never thought of poems as velvet compost pits. Or words as cram-echoes.

There’s a kind of melodramatic grandiosity throughout the book that feels as much like a critique of a privileged space of speaking (in and out of poems) as a sheer delight in surprising the tonal capacity of a poem. For example, here is the first stanza of the untitled first poem:

Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.
Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.
A light peck cracks the constellation.
They want our secret without becoming like.
They want our secret to undo.
Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care –
a pure harpoon dissolves in outer space.
Bone by bone, we have backed too far
in divulgence to front with reticence,
nor do we look as happy as the indigenous.
Stars, we trusted you!

FathiCover.jpegMoving from subversive African-American folk song-made-nursery rhyme lyrics with a subtext of aiding in the white master’s death, to direct statements that read like racial/aesthetic pronouncements, to a mysteriously threatening progression of images containing a sense of imminent ontological loss, to a banal, histrionic exclamation, these lines are characteristic of the textural shifts in Fathi’s culturally absorbent and lyrically rich poems. What makes this poem, and all of Great Guns, so enticing is the dissonant yet lucidly tangible sense rushing in and between the textures of these lines. As Fathi writes in “The Conductor”:

A vision must turn on itself and wander,
in order to reckon a new earth,
while hearts may still be heard octagonally,
among cattails dreaming of birds dropping white violets
like ions loosed from outskirts.

With a kind of quasi-mystical wisdom and half-tongue-in-cheek imagistic hyperbole, half-charming reconfiguration of emotional capability, these lines create exactly the conditions for a pure, reverberating impasse of sense that makes what is often called “difficult” writing so sensorial and enlivening. There is the sense of being exposed to a Real of forces that takes on an impossible, yet familiar shapeliness: “The unconscious pearshaped in the fragrance / Garden[.]” A mode of perception develops predicated on flux and incompleteness: “lights rubbed raw of joints / seen as through ruins.” The mistake would be to read these poems as disruptive, to assume that a swift loosening from line to line or image to image is a condition of disorder or unruliness.

For readers hoping for traditional guideposts of associative stability and representational coherence, these poems make clear their position: “Metaphor is elsewhere, a jewel resulting in the snout of a pig.” Rather than rooting for some dazzling ornament that turns out to be a mouth full of rubbish, the poems in Great Guns render themselves vulnerable to the vibrant collisions of sound and sense, intention and attention, form and formlessness.

Fathi.jpgHow we might traditionally talk about “control” in a poem is thwarted here: “Innumerable exactitudes - / Nothing I can do[.]” In “Worm Rally” Fathi writes, “whether by instinct or error / one has the pleasure of it not mattering, so long as it finally / catches.” It is important here to give “pleasure” the full weight of its meaning as a jouissance without recourse to purpose, as how I would feel “in the flowerbeds of your headroom.”

Though the book does not linger directly on themes of war and violence, the title of the book does suggest a reference to “Great Guns!” a 1927 Oswald the Rabbit cartoon produced by Walt Disney in which Oswald goes to war and is blown to pieces by canon fire only to be gathered and liquidly reanimated by his nurse-lover. With a kind of Ashberian irreverence and borderless pattern making ability, Fathi culls up the paradoxes of the cartoon’s comedic sense of the absurd, writing in the title poem, “The great guns of a lover – / his sweat broke into ants that led the other way. / One must lie down. Grand debt of the observer!”

But as suggested elsewhere, these poems revile such a debt, choosing instead an indeterminacy that is more a negative capability of the reappropriator where possibility is not abandoned but remains always provocatively juxtaposed and immanent, “looming yet / inconspicuous as roses within / roses.” It is the faith in a radical, elegant indeterminacy: “We’ll find less termly limits than these.”

[Published April 1, 2013. 80 pages, $14.00 paperback]

Nick Sturm

is the author of How We Light published by H_NGM_N BKS and co-curator of Dear Marge, Hello, an independent reading series in Tallahassee, Florida.

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Recommended by

Anna Journey

To See the Queen by Allison Seay (Persea Books)

“If I am still enough I see Liliana, a figment,” Allison Seay writes in the first poem of her debut collection, To See the Queen, winner of the 2012 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. Throughout Seay’s book, a host of ghostly figures govern the impressionistic terrains of a lyric speaker’s fevered psychological distress. Called variously “Liliana,” “the figment,” “God,” “the sadness,” “the queen,” or simply “you,” Seay’s phantasmagoric cast of allegorical others embodies the existential terror at the core of these stark and quietly meditative post-confessional lyric poems of a restless self exiled from itself. Liliana is by turns a shadow-self, a confidant, an indifferent god, a self-devouring Plathian lioness, and an archetypal artist à la Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe. Liliana also recalls, with a subdued irony, the iconic beloveds of Italian literature — Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura — and the poet addresses the figure, aptly, through the sonnet, that famed form of obsessive self-debate.

Seay.jpgAdditionally, Seay’s allusions toward her speaker’s erotic past with both men and women counter hetero-normative representations of desire in the sonnet (“That was before I let a man wreck me, / or let a woman touch me”; “before / I thought of women and men before I knew / I was a woman”). The debate in Seay’s book is fundamentally an existential one: an argument with the self and with an absent god. Significantly, “Elianna,” in Hebrew, means, “My God has answered me”: an ironic choice for Seay’s elusive figure, though we ultimately learn, from a poem among the “recovery poems” late in the book, “He has answered.” And while Seay draws her subject matter from the harrowing disclosures of confessional verse (a suicide attempt, an affair, a collapsed marriage, an acute depression and tenuous recovery), her formal experiments with Italianate and Shakespearean sonnets provide a spare and sinuous scaffolding for her narrative of psychological extremity.

Although only ten of the fifty poems in Seay’s To See the Queen are of conventional sonnet length, many of the poems hover just under or above fourteen lines. Poems of thirteen and fifteen lines crop up a number of times, while poems of twelve lines appear five times, evoking an instability or vacuum where the volta, or turn, would take place in the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. Also, Seay alters the Shakespearean sonnet’s structure as she replaces its three quatrains with four jagged tercets, plus a couplet. In “The Fever,” Seay slyly subverts the Petrarchan sonnet’s asymmetrically bifurcated structure through using two stanzas of seven lines each, as if to mirror, endlessly, the psychological claustrophobia of the speaker’s inward debate. “And who would have trusted / me murmuring in my sleep?,” the speaker asks. “Who could know I felt I was drowning?” Later in the book, “Wolf Town” inverts the order of the Petrarchan sonnet’s octave and sestet, emphasizing the similarly reversed course of a couple’s failed marriage. In any case, Seay’s abiding interest in broken or “phantom” sonnets suits the haunting nature of her subjects (loneliness, grief, regret, self-alienation) as well as her representations of actual, dreamed, or projected specters.

Seay divides To See the Queen into three sections, each one titled, respectively, “Liliana” (which names her speaker’s awakening existential crisis allegorically, often through symbolist gestures), “Geography of God’s Undoing,” (Liliana vanishes, replaced by an explicitly addressed threefold trauma: the collapse of a marriage, the violent shooting death of a man/former beloved, a suicide attempt), and “Room of the Queen’s Dreams” (Liliana returns, often in dreams, to engage with the speaker’s psychological recovery and return to wholeness). While Seay’s poems in the first section of her triptych contain some of the book’s boldest and most arrestingly cinematic, even hallucinatory, imagery (“Wild gold and dark red. The color of snow under a streetlamp.”; “God is the smell / of apple soap in the morning”; “The bees came by the hundreds / and by the hundreds was she stung, // their little shell-bodies working like a net.”), it’s the sparser, more plaintive poems about domestic collapse, in the second section, that become the book’s most resonant works. Take, for example, “Wolf Town”:

Apparently there was a place away from here
that would save us — except he went alone,
to paint and drink and tear down and rebuild.
Some time, though, we would live there
which was among other things supposed:
the green sash on the dress, the orchids,

the fathers toasting our lives, our lives.
And it may take forever to finish imagining
the shutters, the rooms, the flowers and vines.
What was that story of a beam in the ceiling
that took him weeks? My whole life is in and out
of the kitchen: either the door opened to the woods
so we faced the bright world or, while we ate that
little supper, we kept our backs to the wolves.

SeayCover.jpgIn “Wolf Town,” Seay locates her speaker’s grief in a gestural town fraught with physical and emotional peril, as if regret requires its own sovereign landscape. Here, the inverted structure of the Petrarchan sonnet enacts the scrambling of the speaker’s idealized past (“the green sash on the dress, the orchids”) with her vulnerable future (“we kept our backs to the wolves”). The beloved’s gestures towards painting and rebuilding would seem hopeful except for the “drink[ing] and tear[ing] down” which foreshadow the strain on the couple as well as the supporting beam. The marriage, Seay suggests, becomes as upended as the sonnet’s transposed octave and sestet. Even the music of the language reinforces the inevitability of the couple’s decline, as in the rueful repetition of “our lives” in the now-ironic wedding toast (“the fathers toasting our lives, our lives”) and the blunt slant rhyme of “woods” and “wolves.”

Elsewhere, Seay’s speaker in “Town of the Early Marriage” undercuts a would-be pleasant recollection with an accusatory metaphor, which becomes the jarring volta in the extended sonnet’s final rhyming couplet: “I think often / of how we walked the field: even happy, // you kept an axe-length’s distance from me.” In “Town of Small Fields,” the speaker discovers a poignant metaphor of domestic collapse in a fallen nest that, like the marriage, “had unraveled as marvelously as it had been made: / thing by small thing, hour by hour, / mostly without witness.” Luckily for the reader, the one “witness” in Seay’s To See the Queen sees a whole lot. She sees inward, into the haunted regions of trauma, as well as outward, toward the many towns and rooms populated with specters of the past and of the imagination. Through adapting the sonnet’s formal argument yet subverting its shape, Seay’s searing and intimate poems face the ghostly figments that beguile us and bravely interrogate the constructs we all must make.

[Published April 17, 2013. 62 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Anna Journey

is the author of the poetry collections Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009).

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Recommended by

Patrick Pritchett

IMAGO for the fallen world by Matthew Cooperman and Marius Lehene (Jaded Ibis Press)

CoopermanCover.jpgMatthew Cooperman’s 2011 STILL: Of The Earth as The Ark Which Does Not Move was an incendiary book of poems, a harrowing late modernist jeremiad trembling with the vehemence of its perceptions. It took its place alongside the work of Amiri Baraka and Cooperman’s old mentor, to whom he paid homage, the master assassin of bourgeois pieties, Ed Dorn. The book was stunningly laid out, with a mix of typographical fonts drawn from commodity and pop culture, as if the poem was simultaneously invaded by this language and trying to metabolize it. Interleafed with the poetic sequences – each one titled “Still:” – were pages of bold white text on stark black backgrounds, a kind of photo-negative, with disjointedly laid out quotes from Hart Crane, Harriet Tubman and Paul’s Corinthians, among others. They interrupt and stitch the rest of the book together rather like prayers of intercession or warnings to the reader. The whole book is a three-tiered reticulated marvel, with the chant sections hinged by calmly meditative passages, as in “Still: Fighting.”

HubbleVox II: I am Super Nova X and Nebula Y, and the prophecy of heat death
Chant: “On Donner, On Blitzen, On Hellfire, On Humvee!”
*
in a cell
on a tank
what lightning said
hunger comes only
after rain the
bright clear embellishment
of writing today
is time’s space
and dead’s dance
hazel green finches
in every flower
on which to
sing sing all
prisoners want presence

This finely leveraged mix of polemic and pastoral both invites and estranges the reader and it’s a tension the book maintains throughout.

Cooperman’s career has been fascinating to watch unfold. His first book, A Sacrificial Zinc (2000), was an accomplished debut of journeyman work, filled with sensitive reports on experience, yet not really all that distinguishable from a great deal of other poetry being produced by his generation. 2006’s DaZE signaled the beginning of his shift away from a certain kind of graceful, well-behaved poem to the exploration of more daring formal possibilities. The poems of DaZE draw from experience, but they take place in the land of language. With Still, Cooperman has parted company with grace and is swinging for the fences, something that very few poets these days have the ambition to undertake, content either with fussy experiments of a bankrupt avant-garde, or the Jim Tate school of goofball sublime, which only Tate really knows how to bring off. Jena Osman’s recent Public Figures is a strong example of work that pushes through the boundaries of what a poem can do, combining images and text to produce a powerful critique of social space, military idioms, and the political unconscious. But where Osman’s characteristic surface tone is starched and clinical, denuded of affect, Cooperman’s surges with intensity.

CoopermanExtra.jpgNow comes Imago: for the fallen world. Imago continues the thrust for the vitals of late capital begun in Still and can be read as a further opening of the same field; not a sequel, but a fresh attack along the same vectors. It’s an audacious work in every sense, its pitch ranging from the colloquial to the elegiac. Written in collaboration with the visual artist Marius Lehene, Imago complicates and enriches its critique of the decaying moment with gorgeous and disturbing full-color images on nearly every page. The full effect is difficult to suggest. Imago is really two books in one, two parallel and overlapping formal structures that complement, interrupt and re-align each other at every stage. The juxtapositions generate a swirl of impressions that are entrancing, but also unsettling. To give one brief example, from “Still: Policy”:

Utopia: is a virus I am anxious to be rid of. I move to
many addresses to begin my true discovery. We are
always looking back and the real day is all in front of us.
Given is a word to a more developed world, a flag we fly,
and we possibly in it.

Lingis: what gifts give us is the ability to give gifts.

Facing this poem on the right-hand side is one of Lehane’s images: what looks like a treated photograph, possibly painted over, or possibly a water-color, taken from above, of a crowd of robed and hooded figures, mainly women, standing on a pier. The crowd occupies a narrow strip in the foreground, while the majority of space is dominated by rippling water. A small boat pushes its way into the frame on the lower right side. The perspective is flattened. Are these people refugees? Religious pilgrims? Or merely waiting for a ferry? Cooperman’s facing text suggests that the dream of a utopian social order must allow greater mobility. Movement, arrival and departure, is essential to a new kind of nomadic structure, one that abjures fixity, because the desire for utopia must always be more important than utopia itself. And yet, the need for fixity runs deep. To travel by water is one thing. To be like water quite another.

Cooperman.jpgCooperman and Lehene’s work fulfills one of Adorno’s injunctions about late modernist aesthetics in the age of perpetual crisis and disaster: “Art is true to the extent to which it is discordant and antagonistic in its language and in its whole essence, provided that it synthesizes those diremptions, thus making them determinate in their irreconcilability. Its paradoxical task is to attest to the lack of concord while at the same time working to abolish discordance.” The “many addresses” of Imago refuse to be unified into a single location. Utopia, to paraphrase William Gibson, is always arriving; it’s just unevenly distributed. It is nowhere and everywhere, a ghost stalking the perimeter of desire. This wild, insurgent, chaotic and disturbing book keeps asking the question, “can you hear me now?” As Cooperman writes, near the end of Imago, “the body is a call in the dark.” The whole poem is a straining to listen to that call and form some adequate response.

[Published February 7, 2013. 212 pages, $36.00 paperback. 8.5” x 6” format.]

Patrick Pritchett

Patrick’s third book of poems, Song X, will be published in spring 2014 by Talisman House. He is a lecturer at Harvard and visiting lecturer at Amherst.

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Recommended by

Shane McCrae

Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death by Caryl Pagel (Factory Hollow Press)

My grandmother died eight years ago today (November 1); this review is due “On the Seawall” on her birthday (November 3). She raised me. And although I always knew she was my grandmother, I thought of her, when I was young, as my mother, or nearly so —as a mother and mine. I haven’t once, since she died, even tried to speak to her, and she hasn’t spoken to me.

Pagel.jpgCaryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death at first seems to be a book about clairvoyance—in particular, it seems to be a book not about speaking with the dead, but about people who claim, or have been observed, to have spoken with the dead. But it’s not about clairvoyance at all, just as efforts to speak with the dead are as often as not efforts to address the needs of the living. Rather, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death uses clairvoyance as a lens through which to observe the self-body connection. For example, in the following excerpt from the first poem in the book, “Levitation,” Pagel suggests that the self is both something that, as it were, floats somewhere outside the body — much as the body in the poem floats briefly outside a house — and therefore can lay claim to the body as to a possession, and, especially in the final clause, something that is inseparable from the body:

The walls hum & quake; a grim audible gasp escapes the lips of [space] a lady (ivory broach brick locks) in the front row Then (most bewildering [space] of all) my ascending body floats out an open window & into [space]the evening Branches are stripped They crack beneath my skull Later—I read that [space] my body circled around the building & returned through the opposite [space] pane Tell me how that is possible; I could not see it but I was there

The scrutiny to which Pagel subjects the self-body connection is apparent in the forms of the poems themselves, as in the above, where the prose is interrupted by caesurae and all the end stops have been removed—the received form in which the poem is written is interrogated by the graphic imposition of music; in this way, the body is unbodied by the self.

PagelCover.jpgAh, but here I want to say that the poems in Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death are enjoyable as poems qua poetry, and not just as think pieces; in other words, here I want to reinforce a binary very like the self-body binary. Pagel does not lament the distance between the self and the body, and one does not, when reading these poems, feel obligated to lament — Pagel’s achievement is not of the moralizing kind. She knows exploration — experiment — must come first. Her achievement in this, her first book, is that she successfully positions the reader to think about fundamental issues of being, which is harder than it sounds — this positioning is necessarily also a constant re-positioning; the writer must anticipate that the reader will be repeatedly changed by her or his thinking. Pagel pushes herself, and the reader, ever forward, recognizing, as she does in the book’s final poem, “A Vision,” the consequences of stopping too long in any one place:

See: there are dark soldiers at my back

They compose an army

This morning I am aware that if I take one step forward they will take one step forward

If I take one step back I will join them

And she has me wondering why I haven’t spoken to my dead. And she has me listening — the ear being where the self and the body meet.

[Published September 1, 2013. 78 pages, $15.00 paperback]

Shane McCrae

is the author of the chapbooks One Neither One, In Canaan,and Nonfiction, as well as three full-length collections: Mule, Blood, and Forgiveness Forgiveness. He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award and an NEA fellowship, and he teaches in the brief-residency MFA program at Spalding University.

[Ed. Note: the notations of [space] in the excerpt above indicate hard spaces. I was unable to find the CMS code for this in-text space usage. RS]

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Recommended by

John Taylor

La Nuit spirituelle by Lydie Dattas (Editions Gallimard)

Lydie Dattas’s exceptional poetic-prose sequence, La Nuit spirituelle (The Spiritual Night), leaves no reader (and, especially, no feminist reader) indifferent. Written in 1977 and first published by the Éditions Arfuyen in 1994, this short book has been reissued in a new edition by Gallimard. There is an unusual story behind the text, as Dattas (b. 1949) recounts in a preface:

One day I found Jean Genet sitting in my armchair. Having run into him on the street and wanting to please me, [my husband, the Gypsy francophone poet] Alexandre Romanès, using his Gypsy science, had led Genet to my door. The poet soon settled into the one-room apartment upstairs. That very evening, I entered his room to converse with him, joyously expressing my disagreements with this man whose writings I venerated. The next day Genet banished me: “I don’t want to see her anymore, she contradicts me all the time. Moreover, Lydie is a woman and I hate women.” These words rejecting me into the night of my sexual gender despaired me. Finding my salvation in pride, I decided to write a poem that would be so beautiful that he would be forced to come back to me. For weeks, I sought an angle of attack for my words. Overcoming my despair, I wrote La Nuit spirituelle in order to wound him as radically as he had wounded me, returning one death for another. When I had put down the final period, the massive night of my poem stood there gleaming, facing his hatred of women. By siding with him, the poem proved that he was wrong. The next day someone knocked on the door: it was Genet.

Dattas.jpeg“Siding” with the author of Our Lady of the Flowers (1944) and The Miracle of the Rose (1946) means that Dattas adopts, from the onset, his negative viewpoint about women. She especially focuses on woman and the ideal of beauty. Women can experience beauty only as a “lack,” she states in this series of twenty-two paragraphs that progresses in a resonant French echoing not only Racine’s dramatic poetry but indeed Genet’s own sublime prose. Dattas compares her exclusion from genuine aesthetic experience to standing “on the threshold of Beauty as if on the steps of an admirable cathedral the dazzling stained-glass windows of which would remain opaque for [her] eyes alone.” “Beauty is my Calvary,” adds this poet who has also written Le Livre des Anges (The Book of Angels, 2003) as well as the memoir and critical essay La Chaste Vie de Jean Genet (The Chaste Life of Jean Genet, 2006), among other books.

She associates her “song” with a “darkened voice” as well as with a moon which, representing her thought, would “eclipse” the sun of Genet’s thought and cast darkness on his soul. “Even as the black crescent blinds and cannot be gazed at without harm,” she claims, “anyone witnessing the eclipse of beauty in these pages will forever be darkened by it; anyone gazing at the damned face of beauty in these pages will forever be affected by it.”

The word “damned” (“maudit” in French) establishes Dattas’s vantage point within Genet’s own aesthetics of damnation. In his novels, plays, and poems, he often exalts what society considers abject. Indeed, such acts as stealing, murder, and betrayal constitute creative impetuses for Genet, who emphasizes their awesome “beauty” and metaphysical implications—which is not to say that he justifies the acts. A telltale example is his long-poem “The Man Sentenced to Death,” a solemn hymn to a friend and fellow convict who was convicted of murder and guillotined at the age of twenty.

Dattas applies the same negative or inverted aesthetics to herself and to women in general. For her, a woman is “immoral” when she “tries to save her soul by asserting an ideal perfectly foreign to her nature.” Seeking metaphorical light is thus “foreign” in this sense. Instead, a woman should “experience her own terrible condition” and “seek the truth it contains, even if this truth means death.” In a declaration recalling Genet’s own style and philosophy, she addresses him directly: “Unable to set against your purest illuminations anything but the dark conscience of my spiritual void, this is the very truth that I will experience so that my soul will shine with its blackest malediction.” By accepting and praising darkness, she thus creates something that gleams. By extolling her “spiritual negation,” she seeks to compose “lines between which no ray passes and through which no light filters” so that her life itself will become “nothing but night.” As in negative theology, an absence glares here, literally, and becomes an unavoidable presence. The penultimate paragraph even announces her intention to “reunite with Beauty”:

Unable to bear living outside of Beauty yet unable to approach it without profaning it even more, I will strive to turn this very malediction into beauty, I will strive to make this malediction so deep and dark that it will be beautiful . . . Unable to use thought for raising myself up, for saving myself, I will use it for getting lost and for cursing myself. Unable to comprehend anything but the low grave notes in singing, anything but the darkness in magnificence, not possessing the moral right to make use of language to attain the light—any luminous use of language by a woman being in itself a sacrilege—, I will use language to make the shadows shine, but whatever the cost, I will reunite with Beauty.

DattasCover_0.jpegLa Nuit spirituelle thereby forms a fascinating black star, as do Genet’s books. Note the similarity of vocabulary. He writes in Miracle of the Rose, for instance, of fellow convicts using “frightfully complicated mathematics” to calculate, on the wall, the number of months, days, weeks, hours, and minutes left before their release from prison. “These calculations,” notes Genet, “seem to sink slowly into the night of the future and the past, and to shine with a present gleam so unbearable that this gleam is its own negation.”

As the preface reveals, Genet reacted to Dattas’s tour de force. The appendix reprints a letter from him, alongside ones from the German novelist Ernst Jünger and the French poet Jean Grosjean, both known for their spiritual curiosity. Genet implicitly notes that, as in his own writing, Dattas’s problem was how to transmit the “vibration” of one sentence to the next. “This is more than an aesthetic problem,” he observes, “it is a metaphysical one. [. . .] I don’t understand how you have managed to make such rich sentences. It is like what I love the most, Baudelaire, Nerval.” If a bit of misogyny perhaps lies in the “I don’t understand,” it is offset by Genet’s conclusion: “I have been slapped.” Such are the personal and the “spiritual” stakes of this darkly luminous book, which, by the way, has never been translated.

[Published May 21, 2013. 48 pages, 7.20€, paperback, ISBN: 978-2-07-014068-8. Translations above are by John Taylor.

John Taylor

has recently translated Louis Calaferte’s The Violet Blood of the Amethyst (Chelsea). He is also the author of the three-volume essay collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction). His most recent book of short prose is If Night is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press).