Nineteen Poets Recommend New & Recent Titles
Welcome to the Seawall’s fourth annual spring poetry feature. Below, nineteen poets write briefly on some of their favorite new and recent collections.
The material includes:
Lisa Russ Spaar on Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke
Nick Sturm on Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer
Hank Lazer on Luminous Epinoia by Peter O’Leary
Jericho Brown on Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Dwayne Betts
David Wojahn on Logorrhea Dementia: A Self-Diagnosis by Kyle Dargan
Victoria Chang on Mule by Shane McCrae & Death Obscura by Rick Bursky
Ron Koertge on Taken Somehow By Surprise by David Clewell
Melissa Range on Sightseer by Cynthia Marie Hoffman
Brian Teare on Metropole by Geoffrey G. O’Brien
Julie Sheehan on Picasso in Barcelona by Bob Holman
Jake Adam York on The Black Ocean by Brian Barker
Sam Hamill on The Baker of Tarifa by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Thomas Lynch on If the World Becomes So Bright by Keith Taylor and At The Bureau of Divine Music by Michael Heffernan
Piotr Florczyk on Carnations by Anthony Carelli
Grace Cavalieri on Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry by Jim Daniels
Jack Dwyer on Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
David Clewell on Ship of Fool by William Trowbridge
Michael Heffernan on Oyster Perpetual by Austin LaGrone
Tara Betts on Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney
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Recommended by Lisa Russ Spaar
Space, In Chains, by Laura Kasischke (Copper Canyon)
Like other poets working in the riddle tradition – Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Charles Simic – Laura Kasischke has always been less concerned with “answering” or solving the emotionally charged familial, erotic, existential, spiritual, and linguistic puzzles she presents in her poems than with exploring how language (words, poetry) and the unfathomable world are, as Northrop Frye writes in an essay on the subject, “quizzically related.” There is for Kasischke, as Frye puts it, “some riddle behind all riddles which we have not yet guessed.” On the one hand, Kasischke writes, we have “[t]he knot in the mind . . . [the] pounding thought” and on the other the “not asleep . . . [n]ot awake. But waiting … Not a fist in a lake … But a knot nonetheless, and not of our making.” Knot and not. Fetter and freedom. Language and silence. Memory and amnesia. Human life and what is prior to and beyond it.
Kasischke’s Space, in Chains is her eighth collection of poetry in the nearly two decades since her first book, Wild Brides, was published as the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award winner by New York University Press in 1992 (Kasischke is the author of many volumes of fiction and young adult fiction as well). The subjects that haunted her earliest poems -- illness, violence, time, and cruelty, the dynamics of families in generations, the intersections of mythology and the human, luck and fate, and the inanimate and animate – have remained obsessions in all of her books, but with each successive project Kasischke has resharpened the blade of her imagination, holding it to a familiar whetstone while meeting new intensities and resistances: the increasing complications and economies of childbearing, marriage, aging, dementia, death, faith.
Kasischke means quite deliberately, in Space, in Chains, for her reader to consider the challenges and essence of riddling, and of the fickleness of truth and of the veracity of phenomena. The book opens, for example, with an epigraphic narrative/riddle, the text of which is borrowed in part from War of the Worlds witness testimony and in part from an ancient riddle whose answer is “memories”:
When I came in my son said, “Mother, something has
come down from Mars and the world is come to an end.”
I said, “Don’t be silly.” Then my husband said, “It is true.”
Pile on stones,
Yet I will
Dig up the bones.
What am I?
Five poems in the book are titled “Riddle” and many more operate like riddles, offering Dickinsonian “definitions” of both large and quotidian subjects (“Song,” “Time” “Wasps,” “Rain”) as well as charm-like lyrics (“The key to the tower,” for instance, or “Recipe for disaster”). One way a riddle operates, in fact, is to offer its “solution” in the title. Such a riddle, according to Frye, says “[h]ere is what I’m talking about; you’ll never guess what I can find to say about it.” And what, of course, is the human mind, a soul, a poem, if not a “space in chains”?
Particularly exciting to observe in Kasischke’s work over the past two decades is the way this fierce feasting on elemental questions has shaped the poems themselves. Ever rich, even shocking in their figures and juxtapositions, Kasischke’s work has moved from a denser, more Plath-stalked diction and stanza into distilled, restrained, soul-whetted poems whose forms vary to match their modes – a lean, long body for this cataloguing “Riddle” about death, for instance:
I am the mirror breathing above the sink.
There is a censored garden inside of me.
Over my worms someone has thrown
a delicately embroidered sheet.
And also the child at the rummage sale –
more souvenirs than memories.
I am the cat buried beneath
the tangled ivy. Also the white
floating over its grave. Snow
where there were leaves. Empty
plastic cups after the party on the beach.
I am ash rising above a fire, like a flame.
The Sphinx with so much sand
blowing vaguely in her face. The last
shadow that passed
over the blank canvas
in the empty art museum. I am
the impossibility of desiring
the person you pity. And the petal of the Easter lily –
That ghost of a tongue.
That tongue of a ghost.
What would I say if I spoke?
and a compressed, prose-like sledge of language for “O elegant giant,” a poem with an interior focus on the ravages and ironies of dementia:
And Jehovah. And Alzheimer. And a diamond of extraordinary size on the
Hand of a starving child. The quiet mob in a vacant lot. My father asleep in a
Chair in a warm corridor. While his boat, the Unsinkable, sits at the bottom
Of the ocean. While his boat, the Unsinkable, waits marooned on the shore.
While his boat, the Unsinkable, sails on, and sails on.
Clearly, answer is not the destination of these poems. What Kasischke does instead is to write back toward the truths posed, like a category from Jeopardy, by her title. How she does so (“It would take forever to get there / but I would know it anywhere,” she writes in “Home”) italicizes and privileges the questions themselves above the who, what, where, when, why, and how of any one narrative solution or response. A “beautiful soul” at mid-life animates this remarkable breviary of the “inner workings” of a life lived bravely (“The beautiful plate I cracked in half as I wrapped it in tissue paper -- // as if the worship of a thing might be the thing that breaks it”) in the face of the “mysterious unknowable thing.”
[Published March 15, 2011. 74 pages, $16.00 paperback]
Lisa Russ Spaar’s most recent collection of poems is Satin Cash (Persea, 2008). She teaches at the University of Virginia and is the poetry editor of the “Arts & Academe” feature of the Chronicle of Higher Education Review.
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Recommended by Nick Sturm
Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer (Wave Books)
Diet Coke, the smell of marshmallows, Itsy Bitsy Spider, frustration over a stolen car, Burger King, a phone call from Planned Parenthood: Matthew Rohrer casually transforms the mundane substances of the everyday into spirited occasions of imaginative charm. “I am a dream a black obelisk dreams / & forgets. I haven’t / put much thought into it. I just feel good,” he writes in “Two Hours of Crying,” and it is this manner of guileless optimism that makes this book rise up and stay floating. Destroyer and Preserver does so well what all of Rohrer’s books have done: it is simultaneously funny and disturbing, imaginatively wild and politically audacious, transformative and rooted in the everyday, and, most importantly, willing to forfeit irony and artifice for wit and honesty. However, with Destroyer and Preserver, Rohrer’s abilities have, I want to say, matured, but such a statement would undervalue or ostracize his earlier work, which is not the case. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that Rohrer’s poetics have become more intimate, more defiantly human, not in the sense of post-confessional, or any other term, but in that these poems are fully and actively engaged with the world in all of its emotional chaos. The truth is, these poems connect with people, and they do it by making small moments very large, and by making large moments very small. In “Mary Wollstonecraft Traveling With Her Kids,” Rohrer reading about the 18th century British writer and advocate of women’s rights becomes an occasion for some other kind of news.
I walked through the park
to the library writhing
like a terrible serpent.
I felt like Shelley. To love
the world and hate its face.
Then Planned Parenthood called.
I gave them $50 more.
This calmed me down.
To stay out of the fight,
but to egg it on.
It is this tension and exchange between self and world, the ability to, quite literally, destroy and preserve what is most important to us, that pumps the blood through the very big heart of this book. And Rohrer also has a heart, which he tells us about: “I have a heart / it is too big for my clothes” (from “Where the Hawk Pauses”). It is this kind of plainspoken frankness that makes these poems so affecting and bright. Indeed, “a sunny day / is a sufficient cathedral” (from “Marque Número Dos”).
But what makes Destroyer and Preserver such a brave, necessary book is its interest in taking account of our emotions, and our motivations, and really holding us accountable for how we act and react in a world where the consequences of what we say, and how we say it, has tangible significance. In “The Terrorists,” Rohrer examines seemingly minute moments in the lives of a handful of individuals, peeling away the rhetoric and exposing real people. In one section, a woman rides the bus with her child “but this was not / the time / this was just going / to the grocery store.” The poem continues:
a great heaviness kept her
from drawing herself back in
to see, she only heard the child
the fake hysterical raging could not
really find her
the next stop was the grocery store
she was tired of regular apples
she was going to get a Fuji apple
That Rohrer is able is expose truth by revealing complication is what this book is all about. “[T]here is a look in your eyes / I would blindly fly a plane into,” he writes in “Goodmorning,” and what else is there to say? That these lines appear unexpectedly in the middle of a poem is a testament to Rohrer’s incredible abilities. Love, desire, hope: there will always be something radical about genuine emotion. Rohrer knows this and beautifully announces the unavoidable: “The governance of fear will be checked with love.”
Despite such optimism, these poems acknowledge the darkness that continually pushes against us, and which we must push back against. In “Ghost,” Rohrer writes about how, at times, our affect on the world seems futile, inconsequential.
I do not belong to anything but books
which is very sad
I want to kiss someone
the whole world is asleep
This vulnerability is evidence that these poems are serious about what they believe in. Though that belief might be that “a part / of me wants oblivion,” (from “Believe”) Rohrer’s voice is ultimately hopeful. From “The Smell of Frying Fish”:
I saw my neighbor
in front of her mirror
she stepped into her wineglass
as the sun brought everything
a little closer to raspberries
Such moments of weightlessness are an example of contemporary surrealism at its most precise and compelling, and this book thrives on those moments: “you’re at home / I think sitting / still with a light // in you glowing” (from “Drinking With Your Brother”); “a small cloud / that looks like an enormous flea / crouches over the city” (from “Dull Affairs”); “I think the future / belongs to the ghosts / sweeping the sidewalks / with their wedding dresses” (from “Inside Out”). That Rohrer can also start a poem by saying, “[t]hrowing shit we don’t need away / vacuuming up cat hair / that’s what I did today,” (from “Pie”) is what makes Destroyer and Preserver such a rare, vital collection. The spirit of this book is moving everywhere. Listen to it.
[Published March 15, 2011. 88 pages, $16.00 paperback]
Nick Sturm is a graduate student in the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts. Look for his reviews in Barn Owl Review, Coldfront, H_NGM_N, The Laurel Review, and Whiskey Island.
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Recommended by Hank Lazer
Luminous Epinoia by Peter O’Leary (The Cultural Society]
Luminous Epinoia is a rich, compelling, allusive, dense marvel that calls for slow, periodic reading. O’Leary’s book is central to the making, reading, and writing of a new spiritual poetry. I suspect that this book’s significance will emerge over several years of reading and discussion. The book evokes the contours of a spiritual autobiography, a sustained hymn to light, and a beautifully written phenomenology of experiences of the divine. For LE, and for O’Leary, there is a range of kindred spirits: John Taggart, Joseph Donahue, Nathaniel Mackey, John Tipton, Fanny Howe, (most especially) Robert Duncan, Rilke, and Dante among them. O’Leary’s spirituality is insistently and deeply textual in nature, with a special affinity for esoteric theological texts.
Luminous Epinoia begins with an epigraph: Mandelstam writing about Dante, and thus we enter a spiritual domain guided by reference, precedent, revision, and translation. O’Leary’s poetry is, like Duncan’s, unabashedly and enthusiastically archaic. Thus, Luminous Epinoia is somewhat daunting, from its overall title, to individual poem-titles such as “Anacoluthic,” “Lepra,” “Hid Divinite,” “The Geophagy of the Imagination,” “Agiologos,” “Aera Umbrata,” and “To Epithymitikon.” The book’s opening passage begins “his ochreous choruses issue cures” and gives a good sense of what you’re in for: a complex archaic language where melopoiea and the palpable passion of the writing carry us along. The book’s Notes prove helpful, informing us that the book’s title comes from the Gnostic Apocryphon of John where “luminous epinoia” refers to “the creative or inventive consciousness sent to Adam by God in the form of Eve.” O’Leary adds, by way of Elaine Pagels, that “luminous epinoia” “might also be understood to mean the creative imagination and related modes of awareness, an inner resource, and the most refined mode of consciousness receptive to revelation” (my emphasis).
For all its surface complexity, O’Leary’s book revolves around praise, love, revelation, and encouragement. O’Leary’s poetry locates us in a world of echoic and musical beauty, a domed space that in a non-doctrinal manner places us in a realm made for worship: “Falling into the brilliant residence, work/ shades the churches’ interiors, spirit mirroring their umber hulls the acolytic eye / dives through, gold-glazed, in an ordeal of divination.”
O’Leary follows the light, leading us into his tactile experience of the divine light: “Caritas looks onward into centuries/ from the depths the light the Godshape hives in,/ abides in, rests on.” The stumbling musical beauty of phrases like “the light the Godshape hives in” (a kind of strangely graceful music with a skilled awkwardness akin to the musical phrasing of Thelonious Monk) occurs throughout the book. O’Leary’s odd musicality and strange vocabulary are integral to his textual evocation of the sacred: “Reverence is a language, / its grammar tacticians occult in lexicons,” adding that “The body’s lamp is a cosmic light, the eye of prayer who sees it in its/ desert-father’s cell, the heart – luxosomatic – a thesaurus.”
The heart of O’Leary’s book presents a study of the earthly/divine order, as traced through the path of light:
All things have order, informing the universe like God.
Eternal value encodes growth into every cell, every helix, every pattern
where it tends. Order is not destiny. Rather, inclination.
It moves us nearer or farther from our origin.
Your impulse in me is a weather. Your best idea is a feeling.
Your being a forecast.
It permeates every motivation, adhering the earth together,
bearing fire to the moon.
Mindlessly. Love is the mind. Erotic or compassionating.
The climate of your living hurries into rotations spun by the winds.
Hyperheated by pyrocumular torches, from the vast fires you sparked,
a great telluric bonfire your whole art.
Two key elements to note in O’Leary’s cosmology: 1) the first line quoted above suggests that we are going to get a certified dogma, a flat proposal about order and its reflection of the divine; such a statement would be a tired automaton of little contemporary interest. Instead, O’Leary moves rapidly to a sense of order based on change, movement, love, feeling, and inclination, i.e., an erotics of fiery turbulence. And 2) ultimately, O’Leary’s writing becomes a hymn to the music of such thinking. The line that follows the passage quoted above adds: “Our lives are the air’s where the songs stream” (a line as pleasing to say aloud as to contemplate). Or, as stated a few pages earlier, “Religion is when you find a new vowel/ in a book/ on your tongue.” It is the “book on your tongue” – the immediacy and joy of saying and singing aloud – that rescues O’Leary’s textually derived poetry from being merely allusive or second-hand. O’Leary’s project: “Each effort to renew light in language, / in a somehow holier tongue.”
Thus the importance and timeliness of O’Leary’s poetry: it is inscribed at the intersection of a radical poetics and a renewed/renewing investigation of spirituality. Along with poets such as Lissa Wolsak, Fanny Howe, and John Taggart, Peter O’Leary reinvigorates spiritual writing. In a long-standing tradition of mystical writing, O’Leary’s thoughtful poetry approaches the unknowable and the unsayable:
are believed to have intuitive knowledge, whereas men
know by discursive reasoningEarly
esoteric Christians personified knowledge in Secret Books as feminine, a function
of the gender of the Greek words
they spoke. Luminous
unknowings are now a place in feeling.
His poetry, in its avowal of limitation and in humility, asks, “What if this life is the first scratched draft of our thinking?”
One of the most concise statements of O’Leary’s impassioned fusion of musicality and transcendence is “The Geophagy of the Imagination”:
Love the craft ear is heir to. A mellow chthonic thud
resonates through it, subsonic and mesmerizing. Embellished
by a suggestion of names millennia bear in us through the common
feelings of panic, which is a kind of language
autism; a life in lapine emergency. Rabbits
So do men. Here’s the trick:
Eat the earth.
Eat the earth until packed in like X P C you rise up through it.
Casketed in song.
For anyone who wonders whether Luminous Epinoia is worth the effort, I suggest that phrases like “love the craft ear is heir to” – zingers in their sound and sense – more than repay the effort.
The foundational dual tropisms of O’Leary’s poems incline toward song and light, and these tropisms are strands that O’Leary is eager to fuse:
From stars in thermal deteriorating fulgurations.
Dynamited hydrogen fused.
In whirled gravity blares. This light from many stars
questions me, even as it pours down into me the supreme
mingled effluence – soul and awe, the two innate
human aspects – heavenly constellated. “Let them hope,”
intoned the psalmist, “in Thee who know Thy name.” Theody
is to song what stars are to light.
That concluding sentence may be O’Leary’s most concise articulation of the nature of his faith (and of his poetic practice).
O’Leary’s final poem, the fifteen page “Spiritual Autobiography,” draws the entire book into focus. At the heart of O’Leary’s autobiography is “Photogogikon” (a hymn to light), which intertwines the poet’s inclination toward the light, natural process, and textuality. O’Leary summarizes the direction of the spiritual journey that LE maps out: “The drift is thus: from phos to theos. / From icon to mouth.”
Luminous Epinoia and the autobiography conclude in a kind of telegraphic/telepathic messaging: “Gnosis./ Says./ The highest./ State./ Of awareness./ Of the divine./ Is./ An experience./ Of the uncreated./ Light./ The experience./ Itself./ Being./ Light.” The poem and book conclude with pronouncements that move far away from the merely personal, far away from the poet’s own particularity toward a more generalizable realm of possible experiences: “Union./ With./ God./ Is./ A./ Mystery.// Worked./ Out./ In./ Human./ Persons.” In a Whitmanian concluding remark, O’Leary writes, “Whoever./ You./ Are.// God.// Bless.// You.” Luminous Epinoia creates access (for us, as well as for the poet) to a sense of the marvelous and miraculous in light, in nature, in a savoring of archaic and obscure words (as musical pathways in their particulate strangeness). It is a poetry of blessing, tuned oddly in an idiosyncratic tuning to which we can, with a bit of time and inclination, attune. I, for one, am glad that such poetry has, in our time, come to light.
[Published October 2, 2010. 128 pages, $21.00, handbound & sewn with metallic cloth. To reach the Cultural Society on the web and order this book, click here.]
Hank Lazer’s most recent books are Portions (poems, Lavender Ink, 2009) and Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008 (Omnidawn, 2008).
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Recommended by Jericho Brown
Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Dwayne Betts (Alice James Books)
In his first book of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Dwayne Betts joins the experience of being sentenced to prison for nine years at the age of 16 to his thirst for well-crafted lines. The book seems to me the perfect marriage of beauty and truth, as well as a one-of-a-kind testament to the life lived by so many men of color caught in the American prison industrial complex, detailing that experience in a language that is filled with music, lyrical intensity, and muscular, unforgettable juxtapositions. This is not just a typical poetry book by a young person entering the world and learning his craft as he goes along. This book is an event, a testimony which by elevating Betts' highly dramatic experience to the level of lyric intensity gives the reader a collection of stunning poetry. It is rare, these days, to come across the work of a poet who is so socially engaged and so lyrical in his language at the same time. Betts doesn't just have a powerful story to tell. He is a true poet who can write a ghazal that sings, howls, rhymes, and resonates in memory years after it was first read.
[Published May 1, 2010. 80 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Jericho Brown is the recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. His first book, Please, won the American Book Award.
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Recommended by David Wojahn
Logorrhea Dementia: A Self-Diagnosis by Kyle Dargan (University o0f Georgia Press, VQR Poetry Series)
Kyle Dargan’s third collection begins with something we rarely see in a volume of poetry these days — an honest-to-god manifesto entitled “Breathing: A Preliminary.” In it Dargan concludes that he is “tired of writing the poems I’m expected to write and whose language leads me to the places I’m expected to go.” As manifesto resolutions go, this sort of assertion is nothing new, but Logorrhea Dementia delivers upon its author’s promise, and often brilliantly so. Dargan’s first two collections are capable and shapely, but they don’t prepare us for the sustained imaginative ferocity and verbal swashbuckling of this new book. Indeed, the change in Dargan’s work seems to me as radical as that of an earlier poet at the same juncture in his career, James Wright.
Like Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break — the book where Wright replaced his Frostian gestures and careful metrics with the recklessness of surrealism and bald personal disclosure — Logorrhea Dementia says goodbye to the received pieties of its period’s well-made poem and instead offers querulous self-reckonings, rants and jeremiads, and an improvisational immediacy. Also like Wright, this change toward a greater subjectivity in his poetry has-- almost paradoxically--made Dargan a more socially aware writer. And finally, Dargan resembles Wright—that poet who famously longed to “step out of his body’ and “break into blossom”—in the sheer viscerality of his new work.
Tellingly, Dargan entitles the three sections of the collection “firstbreath,” “secondbreath” and “thirdbreath.” The book begins and ends in the body: “At some point after escaping the larynx,” he writes at the conclusion of his manifesto, “breath becomes a body, engorged with itself and free of the cells that compose our flesh. To this breath language will attach itself….” Again, there’s nothing new in this statement—it’s a sly subversion of the opening of the Gospel of John. But the passage epitomizes both the book’s intentions and the quirky singularity of its music.
Of course, Dargan differs from Wright in two key ways. Wright was a pastoralist and Dargan, who resides in the District of Columbia, is a militantly urban poet. And Wright was a white Midwesterner while Dargan belongs to the formidable generation of African American poets who began publishing around the start of the new century -- figures such as Major Jackson, KevinYoung, and Natasha Tretheway. Dargan’s new mode is less the expression of aesthetic freedom in the manner of Wright than it is a reflection of the bewildering complexity of contemporary urban existence, social injustice, and the benumbing effects of media culture. Pop culture references abound in the book, but as often as not they are seen as symptoms of the malaise Dargan describes: they have little in common with the giddy name-checking and pop allusions that afflict the work of so many younger poets. And the poems move forward with a cacophonous intensity, at a pell-mell pace that owes more than a little to hip-hop. Yet there is also an exactitude and specificity to the poems that serves to counterpoint their dissonance. Here’s a poem entitled “Harmonica, Green Line”:
He plays with muted shoulder
He plays with
progression as I pass
L’Enfant Plaza (wrong
fucking train) —listening.
He plays with this captive
audience—blows sharp notes,
then lifts to peer outside
the paused metro car,
then sits down, blows soft.
He prays his play.
He plays for no one except he,
his mouth’s steady resuscitation
of that black breath box--
a cassette tape swelled
with CO2 and whatever
a harmonica man won’t speak.
All of it moist
like the under-crux
of where the jaw ends
and where sound is
simple and famished.
The empathy and exactness of this description recalls the portraits of Parisian down-and-outers that we know from Rilke’s New Poems volumes, if you could imagine Rilke having come from New Jersey, having steeped himself in the in the work of the Wu-tang Clan, and having written the first draft of this on the keypad of his BlackBerry. Kyle Dargan has already demonstrated that he is a good poet. With Logorrhea Dementia he has become an exceptional poet, and the sort of figure we will need in the future.
[Published September 1, 2010. 72 pages, $16.95 paperback]
David Wojahn’s new book of poems is World Tree, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.
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Recommended by Victoria Chang
Mule by Shane McCrae (Cleveland State University Press) and Death Obscura by Rick Bursky (Sarabande Books)
Every year I hope to find a book that is distinct, original, and emotionally moving. This year, I’ve found two. The first book I want to recommend is a book that fulfills all of my hopes for poetry—Mule by Shane McCrae. It’s worth mentioning here that its publisher, Cleveland State University Press, has been consistently offering some of the most interesting poetry in recent years. It’s definitely a press to watch.
What’s so original about McCrae’s book is how he takes narratives of daily life—a failing marriage, an autistic son, racism—all subjects that have been written about before in a thousand ways, and reinvents such topics through syntax, spacing, repetition, and a lack of punctuation. One example that encapsulates a “McCrae poem” is “[We Married in a Taxi]” in its entirety:
We married in a taxi in Chica-
go mid-November in the long wind blowing
Our son has autism married in the back
Seat of a taxi slipping in the wind
We’ll never haveyou said another child
On Michigan and on our left the lake
The long white shadow of the lake in the blowing
Wind and what happensyou asked when we die
Who will take care of him the taxi slip-
ping in the wind and on our right the Mir-
acleand on our right the Miracle
Mile ending on our right no miracles
Cheaper hotels buthe can’t sleep when we’re
Not there you saidhow will he get to sleep
There are so many elements working in this poem that, when packaged together, the poem feels somewhat like a present wrapped tightly with packing tape, about to explode, and we as readers, have no idea what lies trapped within that package. The tension created by the counterpoints of disruptive syntax; the repetition that evokes a sense of going backwards and speeding forward; the lack of punctuation that jerkingly pulls the poem forward; and the spacing that halts and jolts the poem in suspension, causes the poem to feel urgent, important, and utterly original.
And McCrae’s narratives are never linear like a “I did this, then this, then this” poem. He breaks down the traditional narrative, like so many contemporary poets have, but in a way that is truly his own. In many ways, McCrae’s poems capture how spoken conversation reveals itself, especially in modern life with constant interruptions from children, various forms of media, jobs, etc. We live in a society where conversations are constantly cut off by text messages, emails, and ringing phones. McCrae has not only captured this disjunction within his own life, but also captured the disjunction of our contemporary culture. Everyone should read this book to see what a surprising path that originality can take.
The second book I want to recommend is Death Obscura by Los Angeles-based poet Rick Bursky. At first glimpse, Bursky’s poems might seem deceptively simple, colloquial, even a bit light, to use a word that would be a slap to the face in any poetry workshop. But any careful reader who digs a little deeper and continues reading Bursky’s poems will discover that his poems are anything but light. Bursky’s poems use levity as a way to manage the darker aspects of life, of living. His poems are simultaneously funny and sad—if there was a way to bottle a stand-up comedian and a mortician, Bursky would be it. The poems in Death Obscura are death-obsessed, as in “Cardiology” where the poet begins with humor and ends much differently:
Seven years ago I bought a pair of crutches,
just in case. Each Sunday morning I practiced
walking with them, bent my left leg back
from the knee as if the ankle had been mangled
while stepping onto an escalator....
Twice each week the phone rings
at three in the morning. I never answer.
Someone is practicing sad news, I’m certain.
An oak will one day grow from my heart.
No amount of practice can prepare you
for the first push through dirt.
Bursky’s poems also evoke a sense of longing, whether romantic or not. The speakers in Death Obscura are always waiting for something to happen, longing for a different life without loneliness, as in “The Waiting”:
Standing in front of the toilet urinating,
I lowered my head and my glasses fell
into the yellowed water. So much for beauty.
There are parts of ourselves we don’t want to touch,
stories told in small gestures.
Using the tips of two fingers I fished them out,
let them soak in a sink of cold water.
That was over a year ago.
The past smells like a lost dog.
The past is so damned tired,
following us around.
The past can be forgotten
for a while, like you can forget
you’re wearing glasses …
Bursky’s poems may have thematic preferences across Death Obscura, but he never dwells or lingers too long within his poems, especially within poems that focus on love and relationships. The reader only receives small scenes and we are left puzzled, in the same way the speaker is often left puzzled. Bursky captures the mysteriousness of love through these small glimpses, as in “Heroine in Repose”, here in its entirety:
I wasn’t sure if she kissed me
or simply used her lips
to push my face away. Yes,
the moist warmth was enjoyable,
but when my head was forced
back over the top of the sofa
the intention grayed.
Earlier that day I planned
to quit my job and pursue
a career writing romantic novels
that would be confused as memoirs.
But if I couldn’t distinguish
between a kiss and a push
what chance do I have
or writing romantic novels
that would be confused as memoirs?
After the kiss, and I prefer
to think it was a kiss,
she sank back into the pillows
and watched me
out of the corner of her eye.
In the end, what I love about Rick Bursky’s poems is his ability to take life seriously, yet to poke fun at himself and his travails. So many poets focus solely on the dark (I am quite familiar with that terrain myself). And rarely do poets inject humor into their poems, a task that poets seem to know is fraught with danger and failure. Bursky uses humor successfully to counter the darkness in his poems, in the same way that comedians use humor to break discomfort. He is a master of this and poetry is fortunate to have him.
[Mule by Shane McCrae. Published December 15, 2010. 72 pages, $15.95 paperback. Death Obscura by Rick Bursky. Published November 16, 2011. 88 pages, $14.95 paperback]
Victoria Chang's second book of poems, Salvinia Molesta (2008), was published by the University of Georgia Press. She lives in Southern California and blogs/interviews poets at her website..
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Recommended by Ron Koertge
Taken Somehow By Surprise by David Clewell (University of Wisconsin Press)
Singing His Damn Heart Out: A Valentine for David Clewell
So there I am -- a little kid with little kid worries: why doesn’t anybody like me? Why can’t I have a dog? What is the major export of Bolivia, anyway? I’ve forgotten the Poet Laureate of Missouri is coming to school today. And maybe I’ve heard Poet Lariat and he’ll do rope tricks. But any visitor is a good visitor. Not so much math, and my teacher is in a good mood afterwards.
So in he comes -- David Clewell. Poet Laureate of Missouri. And he’s got this crazy white hair. He’s polite to my teacher, says hi to everybody, sits on the desk, opens a brown book and says the first poem he’s going to read is about ghosts and why they pretty much always wear clothes though they really don’t have to.
If disembodied spirits have a sense of self-control
and can arrange their energy any way they want to,
eyewitnesses might see those dispensations as the spirits see themselves:
paler shades of human beings, maybe, but no less modest for that.
I’m waiting for it to rhyme. Isn’t that what poems do? It’s like he knows what I’m thinking, so he reads that part again. I love the idea of arranging energy any old way. I’d like to rearrange mine so I was more popular. And had a dog.
He talks about being a poet, teaching at Webster University in St. Louis, and always having a little part of his brain with a light on so poems can find their way in.
If I have anything at all to say about it
when I get my ghostly marching orders, I’ll be the one
in the Loch Ness Monster T-shirt and flying saucer baseball cap.
My teacher laughs, so then I can, too. Poetry can be funny!
* * *
So there I am – a high school kid with high school worries: why do cars cost so much? Why does everybody else’s them-ness not get along with my me-ness? And then my three hundred year old teacher announces that the Poet Laureate of Missouri will be dropping in pretty soon. OMG. And in he comes with his hair and beard going in nine directions, so I turn my baseball cap around to show him there’s no way. He looks us over. Doesn’t say anything. Just starts to read:
This poem is holding something back.
This poem is covering up.
This poem has a lot of powerful friends behind it.
This poem is something you’d be happier not knowing.
Wow! And then he talks. About his kids and his wife. What he does for fun. How he misses his mom:
She looked so
unbelievably radiant. And young. And just like that, I understood
what she’d always known: it was her life, to do with what she would.
All of a sudden everybody’s listening. Hands go up. We want to know how he does it, how he can just say stuff like that. Doesn‘t poetry have to have an orb or two in it? He grins and reads one more line:
This poem has you exactly where it wants you.
Then he’s done and he’s been such a cool guy that I want to tell him, “Don’t eat in the cafeteria!” Instead we all clap and grin at each other. A couple of the girls even stand up. C’mon. He wasn’t that good.
* * *
So here I am, a seventy-year old poet pretty much ga-ga about David’s new book Taken Somehow By Surprise. It’s the inaugural volume in the University of Wisconsin’s Four Lakes Poetry Series. And what a commodious carry-on it is: pink flamingos, Coleman Hawkins, the Human Blockhead, and Albert Einstein. The latter
was on his knees
in a sweatshirt, rumpled chinos, and sneakers, on his knees pulling weeds –Mostly being himself, my father would say later, utterly impressed.
Well, not as impressed as I am by Taken Somehow By Surprise. And I’m not the only one. Former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins rightly calls Clewell exuberant and inexhaustible and Chris King of The Washington Post wisely observes how David’s poems wave their arms and invite everyone in.
I envy every reader who gets to read David Clewell for the first time. And I would kill to be part of the audience at the St. Louis Poetry Center Benefit who gets to hear David read on Blueberry Hill in – wait for it – the Duck Room. How perfect is that!
[Published March 5, 2011. 144 pages, $16.95 paperback]
Ron Koertge is a retired school teacher who bets on thoroughbred horses regularly and every now and then writes a poem. The latest collection is all ghazals! Indigo (Red Hen Press).
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Recommended by Melissa Range
Sightseer by Cynthia Marie Hoffman (Persea Books)
Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s debut collection, Sightseer, winner of the 2010 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize from Persea Books, couldn’t be more aptly named—not just because the book revolves around the theme of tourism, but because the poems within are so crisply visual. As she guides us through Europe (Russia, Poland, Germany, Ireland, and elsewhere), Hoffman’s tourist-speaker points out not just things we would expect to see and would want to see, were we tourists ourselves, but also the things we might overlook that are clustered around the attractions: a mangy dog sneaking into a cathedral; a flock of sheep on a hillside near a ruined castle; an old woman drinking milk next to a statue of Pushkin; a girl spilling a tin of mints, “white and sudden / as a mouthful of teeth,” near a “chipping yellow wall” in the shadow of Cloth Hall in Krakow.
Hoffman’s genius for the visual—the tourist’s eye turned poet’s eye—manifests itself in every poem in this collection. In poem after poem, Hoffman surprises with stunning, precise imagery, as in the following lines:
“Nearby, a fresh grave / is plump with flowers, a mound like a dozen girls / fainted in their ruffled party skirts.” (“Burning Paper in Lazarus Cemetery”)
“A bridge across the water like the limb of a prisoner on the stretching rack.” (“Island of Donan Castle”)
“Every perfect orange brick is a bandage spread across / an open wound the organs have already tumbled out of.” (“In Dresden, a Wall Without a House”)
“Yes, the hill of gravestones swelling like a blister pushing out a fingernail.” (“This is Prague.”)
“[R]ounds of lace / so tortuously delicate you would have guessed the women / had taken their needles to a mound of snow, shaving a lean gauze / from where it settled, perfectly radial, on the head of a shrub.” (“Dear Pigeons, Poland”)
Yet the gorgeously and precisely drawn scenes in these poems are not mere backdrops for the speaker’s own dramas of self or relationship, as one can see in many travel poems. In putting the places, not the speaker, at the center of the poems, Hoffman uses the epistolary form to great effect throughout the book. In poems like “Dear Fluorescent Pink Jumbo Finger Starfish,” “Dear Sunset, July 12th,” “Dear Athassel Priory,” and “Dear Pigeons, Poland,” to name a few, the speaker, instead of writing postcards home to family and friends about the sights she’s seeing on her travels, instead addresses the sights themselves. Crumbling castles, streets, and inanimate objects become “you”; so do animals and souvenirs. These letter-poems allow Hoffman’s outsider speaker to achieve an intimacy with her subjects by speaking to them instead of speaking of them.
Sightseer is not just an image-rich and beautiful book but a socially aware book, wisely and subtly political in ways that are by turns serious and hilarious. Always, the poems bear compassionate witness to historical events and to people’s present-day lives. In “Rain at the Dresdner Frauenkirche,” the speaker looks at a restored church all but destroyed in World War II, its “rows of catalogued debris . . . taking shape as pews, the stones themselves heads bowed in worship ... / / ... the great golden cross, which once / topped the dome that pummeled the earth / like a six-thousand pound stormcloud breaking.” In the same poem, the speaker notices a souvenir stand where a man is selling push-button puppets: “I select one from the tray, though I know / the toys are Swiss and this is Germany. I know what country I am in.” Ultimately, she concludes, “I am sorry”—sorry for the destruction of the church, sorry for the war itself, sorry for the man selling wooden toys he did not even make to tourists who will buy them, sorry for the tourists themselves, perhaps.
In “Idiot Green Salad,” the speaker wrestles with the tension between her horror at historical atrocities and her very present human need to eat:
Tell me the story of the mercury gilding of the dome
at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and do you remember the number
of people who died and whether the vapors
swayed with faintly human expression as they rose.
The 400 kilograms of real gold, 4 bell towers, 40 tons of marble, 40,000 workers,
40 years’ construction. Each of the workers’ two hands, one pressed to the cold
140-ton red granite column, the other to his heaving chest.
Can you give me directions to the Café Idiot? I have looked
forward to lettuce, cucumber, tomato, orange, avocado, and nut.
How many gallons of gray paint were necessary to hide
the gold from the Nazis. Whether the men
dropped off the dome or collapsed later in their homes. Whether it burned.
Elsewhere, Hoffman sees the humor inherent in the tension between the tourist and the sights she sees, between the ruins of history and the souvenir-stands of the present day, between the knowledge of the ephemerality of travel and the desire to have a keepsake for a mantel or coffee table. “Dear Fluorescent Pink Jumbo Finger Starfish” addresses a souvenir with wry, self-aware wit:
You are the most horrendous thing I have ever seen.
You alone are the one magnificent and irrefutable
symbol of capitalism, of everything that is wrong with tourism.
But what am I saying already? I love you. Just look at
those warts! That obscenely speckled crimson flush!
You have no front, no back; you can move in any direction
without turning around. Your gonads are in your
arms, for Christ’s sake. Who wouldn’t want to take you home?
Finally, there is an openhearted spiritual dimension to these poems. “Am I not a pilgrim?” the speaker asks at the end of “Rain at the Dresdner Frauenkirche.” This question undergirds all of the poems in this book, and the answer is yes. Whether she’s buying a trinket or a Pepsi from a stand, petting a stray dog or cat, confessing her love for a tourist-trap starfish, or standing rapt in front of a statue of Jesus or a Holocaust memorial, Hoffman’s speaker purposefully looks at and looks through the tourist attraction to its deeper attraction, to what illuminates it from within—God, beauty, the spirits of the dead, the resilient human or animal spirit, the lessons of history. To quote Marianne Moore, ultimately this sightseer is “not out seeing a sight but the rock crystal thing to see.” Hoffman’s eye is better than any camera for capturing that rare rock-crystal thing I’m looking for when I pick up a book of poems. Who wouldn’t want to take you home, Sightseer? This is a book to journey through, and to return to, with pleasure.
[Published April 13, 2011. 80 pages, $15.00 paperback]
Melissa Range’s first collection of poems is Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010). She is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri.
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Recommended by Brian Teare
Metropole by Geoffrey G. O’Brien (University of California Press)
The density and elegance of the discursive lyrics in Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s Guns and Flags Project (2002) and Green and Gray (2007) identified him at once as a gifted and original interpreter of the living legacies of John Ashbery and Michael Palmer. These acclaimed volumes also showed him to be one among a growing number of younger US poets whose postmodern poetics constitutes both a reading and an unabashed embrace of the Anglo-Modernism of Eliot, Stevens and Auden. In O’Brien’s latest book, Metropole — as in Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation — it’s as though 21st century postmodernism were being read through the lens of Anglo-Modernism, rather than the other way around. This purview mutes the influence of Surrealism and Dadaism as well as that of those New American Poets who largely rejected late Eliot’s and Stevens’ verse in favor of Poundian montage and the projective page. Thus in Anglo-Postmodernism, the loci of experiment tend to be grammar, the sentence, the poetic line, and the individual’s relationship to the givens of discursive logic, rather than fragment, image, typography, and their relationship to an individual historical consciousness. Fittingly, then, O’Brien has written of the literary “historical sense” put forth by Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:
We might redescribe this sense as a self-consciousness about an involuntary relationship to the past of cultural utterance. The "great labor" of acquiring this historical sense…would be the coming to ever greater, more specific, and more elaborate awareness of one's inevitable retransmission of the archive … Put another way, this historical sense is equivalent to noticing and then taking control of one's respiration, making the involuntary briefly voluntary…Tradition and the individual talent are synonyms because they are both terms for the agency of literary work.
I begin with this excerpt from O’Brien’s essay "’Next Year's Words’: T. S. Eliot's ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’," because the lyrics of Metropole strike me as his best, and this achievement could be said to be the result of his “taking control of [his] respiration, making the involuntary briefly voluntary.” Which is to say that what impresses me most about this volume is not that O’Brien’s verse has erased its debt to that of Ashbery and Stevens, but how much more it’s come to resemble theirs. Let me be clear: I think this is a really good thing. “We are all, of course, derivative, but most of us try to cover up our debts when we are aware of them,” Thom Gunn writes in his essay “Adventurous Song: Robert Duncan as Romantic Modernist,” and one feels in Metropole that O’Brien has like Duncan “fed on those he admired…digested their virtues and made them his, and they r[i]se in him with a fresh life, both recognizable and altered.” In a poem like “Dizzy Procession,” it’s as if O’Brien were taking control of his own “inevitable retransmission of the archive”; he self-deprecatingly and cleverly thematizes the apprentice/ master relationship even as he offers up a really good reading of Ashbery:
The apprentices paint themselves how odd
The first line of a poem about painting
Would also be an unused rope…
Predictable the rope frays where
You begin to hear a master speak
The first line of a finished style.
Although his linebreaks, like Ashbery’s, serve alternately to parse grammar into logical parts and to swerve away from grammatical sense, and his phrasing also seamlessly weds high lyric with old-fashioned vernacular tones (“how odd”), the major difference between O’Brien’s and Ashbery’s recent poems inheres in this passage as well: the iambic tetrameter that serves as a base for most of the verse in Metropole. In the above passage we can see the three formal gestures whose tension generates the energy that fuels the book throughout: parataxis (“The apprentices paint themselves how odd”), hypotaxis (“how odd/The first line of a poem about painting/Would also be”), and iambic meter (“Would also be an unused rope”). With most lines as their own metrical and grammatical units, these poems thrive off the tension between establishing a subordinating grammatical logic (hypotaxis) and thwarting it (parataxis) through enjambment so sharp it feels as much like a film splice as a line breaking. If this tension between sentence and line isn’t adequately established, a poem risks falling flat, as does “Poem with No Good Lines,” which privileges parataxis and wagers on meta-commentary’s brittle ironies in an attempt to provide necessary tensile strength. However, in poems like “The Sütterlein Method,” the meter’s variable feet successfully serve as a rough constant that the enjambments more or less undermine, pulling the lines between grammar’s order and a gorgeous waywardness:
October, that idiomatic dream
of flowers withdrawn from boxes,
the difficult herbarium
identical with an induced look
that should, during transfer, become
sketches of rows, morning blinds,
the bright black canal exerting force,
house and surroundings lazy or impaired
but does not …
As in Stevens, there is a deep absorptive pleasure to O’Brien’s prosody, a pleasure that largely depends upon the admirable flexibility of his iambic and trochaic lines. The emphasis on four beats per line with the occasional outlier reaching three or five is typical, as is the variation between a line of metrical substitutions or variable feet (“of flowers withdrawn from boxes”) and a straightforwardly iambic line (“the difficult herbarium”). And if this particular poem could be said to err on the side of hypotaxis, the highlights of Metropole prove that O’Brien is at his best when he refuses to choose meter over sentence over line, but instead keeps all three in tenuous balance. It is from this uneasy balance that his characteristic “subject matter” emerges:
The lights are on so the dark is out
Like the useless children others are
A certain building dream within
A part of speech without a name
Like this nameless part of speech, O’Brien’s poems exist somewhere between logocentric and lost. Their perpetually undercut gestures toward hypotaxis ratify this sense not of alienation nor of personal powerlessness, but of a haunting ambivalence, a suspicion that voluntary literary agency won’t aid in creating satisfactory and lasting cohesion when “You wake only afterwards as though/on days protected from musical speech.” This aesthetic and existential situation of belatedness creates a palpable atmosphere—though not one of Sartrean nausea, since O’Brien’s is not a visceral verse, but rather one of the visual fog created by “fast-forwarding surveillance tapes,” since this is a verse primarily concerned with duration and bad timing. Thus Metropole’s temporality is suffused with blur and busted tracking, technical difficulties best mastered by the volume’s two longer poems, “Three Years” and “Metropole,” each of which utilizes damaged duration to great effect.
O’Brien demonstrates in Metropole a particular gift for the long meditative poem, perhaps because it allows him lines enough to create a formal structure, inhabit it, and then, finally, to haunt it. The autobiographical verse of “Three Years” reads at first like a time-lapsed daybook in which “my head is the wish of a diary filled/with mist”; but it’s haunted by a repetition of temporal markers that slowly become indistinguishable from one another, so that what begins as the notation of time passing is replaced by the slow erasure of notation’s significance. The way significance goes missing recreates the temporal feel of early adulthood, when mortality is not yet the most pressing measure of time’s value, but when it’s nonetheless shaped and made dear by individual responsibility and ambition. There is a sweet self-mockery, an almost nostalgic good humor intrinsic to “Three Years,” perhaps because “no one will blame me if I say/only what I say” in this diary-like form, given “the sudden turn in autobiography/one can’t avoid.”
In the iambic prose of “Metropole,” however, subjectivity is haunted not by time passing but by urbanity, its pervasive technology, and the abstract intimacy of population density—its “Project: in paragraphs of novel length proceed to summarize collective dreams.” Its almost forty pages of sentences in iambs creates a prosodic lull textured by the most disjunctive parataxis of the entire volume; reading many of O’Brien’s sentences feels like riding in a subway train traveling in parallel to another, only to watch the doppelgänger train veer off and disappear into another tunnel. To split the reading experience uncannily between two contrary methods of measure seems apropos of contemporary urbanity, a time and place of consciousness haunted equally by routine and shock, complicities with the grid and failures to comply. “Metropole” suggests that the site of such paradox is the seat of the urban citizen: home, unheimlich. Each sentence thus dazzled by fracture conjures “joy from out of nothing much,” and in so doing does allow each reader to join for a while “collective life in flight.”
[Published March 2, 2011. 112 pages, $21.95 paperback]
Brian Teare’s most recent book is Pleasure (Ahsahta Press, 2010). He is on the graduate faculty of the University of San Francisco and Mills College, and he runs the micropress Albion Books.
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Recommended by Julie Sheehan
Picasso in Barcelona by Bob Holman (Paper Kite Press)
Bob Holman’s Hiding His Ego!
Bob Holman has every incentive to be a jerk, but he’s not. For an impresario with a hand in every poetry scene from slam to academia, for a guy who knows everyone from Sapphire to Sappho, for a poet whose “publications” include CDs, performances, collaborations (with no less than Chuck Close), documentaries and books, for a man with his own personal griot, Holman keeps his ego firmly under his porkpie hat. It was with curiosity, then, that I read his latest, a biography-in-persona-poems of Pablo Picasso’s famously unchecked ego.
Picasso and Holman make a fascinating pair, with their similarly voracious energy and the relentlessness of their involvement, but Holman is more often than not turned outward, toward pursuits that benefit other people, a selflessness that would have shocked Picasso if he’d known selflessness existed. Along with activism for endangered languages, Holman’s spawned countless other good-for-poetry initiatives, anthologies and venues. Picasso’s activism, on the other hand, was confined to making art and fucking.
Why did Picasso’s energy orbit so closely, so desperately, around his own ego? Why doesn’t Bob Holman’s? These twinned questions drive the vehicle of persona Holman uses throughout Picasso in Barcelona. By channeling Picasso’s voice, Holman can experiment with being the dangerous jerk Picasso was, especially when it came to women. (Another point of contrast, Holman’s book is dedicated to his late wife, the painter Elizabeth Murray, who died of natural causes and with whom he had a long marriage and two children who still speak to him. He wrote Picasso in Barcelona while on a family vacation.)
That Picasso in Barcelona is an exploration of ego is clear from the first two lines, “At fourteen I could paint better / Than Leonardo Da Vinci.” As a tender youth of 15, the Picasso persona also takes on Manet (“My park benches are better / Than your park benches”), and then, in my favorite of the artist-as-an-arrogant-young-man poems, Rembrandt:
In 1900 the future
Opened up its arms
I invented the car
“Rembrandt Coupe,” above, is quoted in its entirety. So is “Manet!,” the couplet about the park benches. The other poems are just as tiny and there aren’t many of them. There’s really just one, divided into poemlets in the first half of the book and iterated as one unbroken piece in the second, a “dance mix” version, Holman calls it, with a Spanish translation by Sol Gaitan on the verso pages. The book is slim, to say the least, although Holman’s gift for economy accounts for some of that, as in the zeugma in “Rembrandt Coupe” yolking “car” and “Rembrandt” to the verb “invented.” But considering his theme, you’d expect long lines, more exhaustive treatment, less white space: “The white shadow is what / I fear most,” the Picasso persona says in one poem, surrounded by the stuff.
Picasso in Barcelona follows the painter’s periods, from early works through the Blue Period and into Cubism, but it also connects Picasso’s sex life to his artistic ego, a connection Holman establishes early. The second poem, “Put Paint on Tongue,” eroticizes every boy’s first girlfriend, his mother. The title suggests a talented child’s version of a French kiss. “I’ll show you,” goes the poem. “My mother is the sea / She heaves under the white foam.” Picasso’s mom fades pretty quickly, replaced by a series of lovers. Seven poems later we get “Virgin no More” and eleven poems later, “Book Cover”:
Take off your clothes
I will take a book cover
And put a photo of me on the back
To make sure it sells
Adios, Mamá. Hola, Musa. The “you” in this poem drives the “I” toward making art, though the action is in the future. Also in the future are the commercial benefits of that art. What’s in the present moment is the command, “Take off your clothes,” and the confidence that the speaker, not the muse, deserves the credit for any future sales.
Picasso’s hyper-consciousness of his potential both feeds on the women he seduces and brutally disregards them, except in a few rare instances, like “L’Amour Fou”:
I want Margot to know
The blood of my love
I hope I will not hope
When I eat her up
And her breasts will
When Picasso’s not disregarding a lover, the language contradicts itself (“I hope I will not hope”), sentences disintegrate (is “When I eat her up” conjoined to the line before it or after?), and the poem ends before the thought is finished. Her breasts will do what? There could be a pun on “will,” if it is read as the breast’s action rather than a dangling helping verb, except that it’s unlikely Picasso would grant Margot’s breast any autonomy from his own desire for it. His priorities are clear. “Of course I will marry you,” he says in another poem, “As soon as I finish this damn painting / Hold still.” “L’Amour Fou” marks what happens when Holman’s Picasso actually tries to focus on a woman truly apart from himself, someone with her own body of knowledge. Its collapsing language describes the failure of that attempt.
Elsewhere, “fou” love is not attempted, and we get poems like “Faux tendresse” instead:
I will invent quatroism too
I will invent sadness
I will go to sleep
Only after everybody else
No one but no one
Must ever see me dream
Who is the object of this speaker’s tenderness, however fake it is proclaimed to be? The poem isn’t saying, overridden as it is by the artist’s demands. “Faux tendresse” is a cover for Picasso’s real tenderness, his aversion to being seen, his insistence on being the seer. Holman handles that dramatic irony—the difference between what the speaker believes he’s saying and what we as readers find out about his condition—with sympathy, the very quality his Picasso lacks.
As Picasso in Barcelona moves toward its conclusion, so does the persona at its center, in a dawning realization that in spite of his super-sized ego, he will one day “go to sleep” before others who outlive him. One day, they will see him dream. Or put in painter’s terms, “The Miracle of Triangles”—unlike people—“Is they never wear out.” The language of the last poem, “Running Toward Death,” echoes the disintegrated, paradoxical, unfinished quality of “L’Amour Fou”:
They call me genius
But I cannot confront Death
Don’t you know, my loves,
My sandals, my sail, my sad—
All I paint is Death
A moment of reverence, please, for that list in line 4, with its jumble of paraphernalia and parts of speech. The idea that Picasso painted what he could not confront is beautifully developed by that list—indeed by most of the poems in this book, where what’s not being confronted is his ambivalence toward women. Then, in this last one, those “loves” are told that he wasn’t really painting them at all. A better reader than I would make sense of the Love=Death formulation here, but I am stuck at coitus interruptus, wishing the book were slightly longer, wondering whether Picasso had any alternative to his brutal treatment of these women. Holman, as someone who seems to have found an alternative, is the perfect artist to take on this question. I was hoping for a slightly longer climax, but there’s plenty of heat with Picasso in Barcelona.
[Published March 1, 2011. 96 pages, $19.00 paperback]
Julie Sheehan’s latest book is Bar Books: Poems and Otherwise (Norton, 2010). She teaches in rthe MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.
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Recommended by Jake Adam York
The Black Ocean by Brian Barker (Southern Illinois University Press Crab Orchard Series in Poetry)
On some rare occasions you read a book whose power is so uncommon that you feel as if you are still reading it, even after you’ve put it down. On even rarer occasions, that book you are still reading remains so vivid in your imagination you realize not only are you still reading it, now you are reading the world through the book — its pages gone transparent, its letters lensing or diffracting all else. The book changes you.
Brian Barker’s The Black Ocean is that rarer book.
I read this in manuscript last year, just about the time it was being picked up for the Crab Orchard Series. Because Brian and I are pressmates now and because we work together, I was hesitant to select this book for recommendation, but it remains the single most powerful, most clarifying, most deranging, and most imaginative book of poems I’ve read in the last year, and I’m confident that when it appears in the next eight weeks, you will agree with me.
In short, the book is an apocalypse. It looks with such intensity at our contemporary situation that the history behind the situation becomes not merely visible but substantial. In one poem, Mikhail Gorbachev—now a conscious voice—speaks back to Ronald Reagan, and through Reagan to the political lineage that has followed Reagan, narrating a saddening acquiescence to a narrative of Capital:
and then I could see the One-In-Whom-I-Do-Not-Believe
shake his bald, congealed head, ever so slightly, as if
he pitied Gorbachev, as if he wouldn’t gift
a bushel of peasant dung for the hearts of Lenin or Mao,
and I knew then that the One-In-Whom-I-Do-Not-Believe
was a Capitalist, and I turned to you
to say that you could have your Star Wars if the U.S.A.
would show Soviet movies in your picture houses,
for this seemed fair, as we showed many U.S.A. movies
in Soviet picture houses …
[“Gorbachev’s Ubi Sunt From the Future That Soon Will Pass”]
In another poem, Edgar Allen Poe descends from the afterlife into the streets of Richmond to address the population of vagabond teens. In another, Hurricane Katrina refugees, stranded on a bridge, share a vision of Abraham Lincoln. All poems in which the figures, or the forces, or the figures who stand for forces that have caused or shaped our contemporary situation arrive, the gods of our time, and reveal their powers.
In some of these poems, one is able to imagine that this is what Larry Levis might have done after the poems of Elegy, had he lived another decade. The evocation is strong, in part because of the geography—a post-Confederate and memorial South, returning often to Richmond—and in at least equal measure because of the tone achieved in moments that, like Levis’s last poems, seek to articulate both the absurdity of a reality mediated by bureaucracy and the diaphanousness of what’s left outside that mediation. This is especially clear in the opening lines of “Lost on the Lost Shores of New Orleans, They Dreamed Abraham Lincoln Was the Magician of the Great Divide,” which is haunted by the infamous “Heck of a job” appearances made by George W. Bush in the days after Hurricane Katrina:
In unison, the administration unknotted their ties
and rolled up their sleeves
and dismissed them into darkness
that was no longer darkness
but a state redefined as a temporary failure of light,
though the rain shone on everything like staples that hold
a body together after the soul has slipped out.
They didn’t want to be infinite, but more human.
They cried out, placeless and disembodied, scrawling their names
and messages everywhere, a graffiti of prayers pushing
back against nothingness, against the rain,
indivisible. The rain behind their eyelids.
The rain pearls of cotton dissolving
on their chaffed tongues.
Like Levis could, Barker’s vision encompasses whatever is broadest and whatever is most minute, telescoping from one level to the other so rapidly the circumference of the poem’s attention feels amazingly large. Reading these poems on feels enlarged as well — not simply a witness to the capaciousness of one person’s imagination but, more convincingly, a citizen in a world that is always witnessing itself, in every particular, and creating the documents of its self-consciousness.
This is what The Black Ocean’s final sequence, “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind,” offers, drawing from the images of Abu Ghraib, creatures of conscience that speak not as masks for the poet but as conscious participants in a process that is inscriptive as much as it may be executive or mechanistic. The first section of this poem is subtitled “What the Hood Whispers to the Head,” and reads thus:
friend I grow more alive with you each day
I drink up your sweat your spit your tears
I drink up your grey phlegm and the blistered coagulations of blood
minerals once a part of you
fizz between us like cold starlight
scouring the desert and when you drown
in the long keelhaul of electricity
I suck in your breath
that prickly chandelier or wind
shuddering from your throat
believe me when I say that there are things
you do not want to see
your body is eating itself
and still they grin they strike a pose for the camera
when they wring me out they’ll know
I held your dreams
like a bell holds the iron ghost of sound
Brian Barker’s The Black Ocean looks through our time and discovers and shows to us the eternity our life in our time implies. The vision frightens, but always rings true. The Black Ocean is a necessary book.
[Published June 17, 2011. 72 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Jake Adam York’s books of poems include A Murmuration of Starlings (2008) and Persons Unknown (2010), both presented in Southern Illinois University Press's Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. York is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver and for Spring 2011 is serving as the Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.
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Recommended by Sam Hamill
The Baker of Tarifa by Shadab Zeest Hashmi (Poetic Matrix Press)
“These ghosts, like fireflies, glow only for an instant. I have come to catch their light.” Shadab Zeest Hashmi opens a door on the world of Islamic Spain, Al Andalus, and through luminous anecdote, portrait and contemplation, reveals a world rich in history, rich in humanity. In our time, it is nearly impossible to imagine the great minds of Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths living side-by-side, nurturing one another, introducing paper-making and Hindi-Arabic numerals, cotton, algebra and more to Europe. Hashmi meditates on that remarkable social fabric in a linked suite of short lyrical poems.
BAKER OF TARIFA
Coals left over from breakfast
will be enough
You’ll need a cup of crushed
(pistachios cost more than a bottle
of Syrian perfume these days
so do without)
brown sugar and plenty of butter
Also an eye-cup of rose-water
for the filling
Mugawwara means arena
Cut the bread
neatly in that shape
Take care the dough has been softened
with fresh milk
what your mother sang
while you fry the bread
The poet’s judicious notes explain that Tarif Bin Malik was the first Muslim to enter Spain (in 711 CE). The bread and the singing are timeless, what binds us to our shared past and to our future. In “The End of the War,” she describes a “market puffed up / with flags and shrouds,” and as morning comes, experiences both a literal and figurative dawning:
Morning broke on the page
I was reading
And I let words fall
into tightly woven nests
And I let illumination
be the song
Those who dislike reading notes in books of poetry would have to be well-versed in the cultures of Al Andalus not to feel swamped by the historical allusion and reverberations of Baker of Tarifa. But I’m one who loves Richard Sieburth’s annotations of Pound’s complex Pisan Cantos, which I read time and again. And while the Baker is no Pisan Cantos, it is rich, layered and rewards patient reading beyond the notes themselves.
In “The Fire Did Not Cool for the People of Abraham,” for instance, she supplies notes for the Islamic “Ibrahim,” the Inquisition, Maimonides, Averroes, and Albucasis—all to provide context for a short lyric poem:
Loaves of bread
and obsidian as books
containing the grain
When the spell broke
Ziryab’s lute strings
were strewn like intestines of stray animals
Carved wood ceilings had turned
Galleries were sweating paint
On the walnut shelves
Corpses with coins
Groves cut down
to feed a furnace
By reminding us of what was coming to an end when Spain began persecuting the innocent and exiling its Arab community, by pausing to think of the gifts of the men mentioned, the poem takes on a didactic element that I welcome. She presents an elemental poetry with exact imagery: “Groves cut down / to feed a furnace / with unfaithful / innocents.” Her language is exacting while being also rich with assonance and alliteration. Some of the poems are simple and clear, requiring no explanation:
THE STONEMASON’S SON CONTEMPLATES DEATH
Because my heart
became a kiln
I wished to die
The inscription on the tiles
made a prayer in the butterfly script
crowning your well
May the water refresh your soul
The clanging of keys became loud
A soldier stood behind me pissing in the well
Someone sang in the distance
Couldn’t tell if she was a Jew
Christian or Muslim
It was a devotional song
Reverence and irreverence commingle without judgment except inasmuch as the transcendental closing line implies a humane stance toward this world.
While there is a range of styles in the poems, short-line to long, highly lyric to prosaic, what I find most intriguing and beguiling is the book as a whole, a considerably felt reading of history combined with personal observation. Both in conception and execution, the poems link, building an environment, a world, into one fairly small suite of poems. Shadab Zeest Hashmi expresses that world as a well-woven fabric carrying the word and smoke and song and tears of a time long ago, and yet still present because the human spirit and these poems make it so.
[Published September 1, 2010. 66 pages, $15.00 paperback]
Sam Hamill is the author of 15 volumes of poetry, four collections of essays, and translations from Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Latin and Estonian. He was editor at Copper Canyon Press for 32 years.
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Recommended by Thomas Lynch
If the World Becomes So Bright by Keith Taylor and At The Bureau of Divine Music by Michael Heffernan ( both from Wayne State University Press)
Publishing poems, Don Marquis once observed, is like dropping rose petals down the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo. “Who’s Don Marquis?” no few are asking. Alas, who are any of us! Still, among those who regularly listen for some whisper of that echo, Annie Martin, acquisitions editor at Wayne State University Press, seems a sort of Joan of Arc, willing to amplify, in the face of all odds, the most compelling voices that she hears. Her “Made in Michigan” Writers Series, co edited by Michael Delp and M.L. Liebler, seems bravely undaunted by the blight and ruin porn that have dominated the news about Detroit. Nor has the predicted demise of the book and booksellers and all the accoutrements of the writerly culture put Ms. Martin and her colleagues off. She continues to bring out books that matter.
As evidence, consider two recent volumes: If the World Becomes So Bright by Canadian born and Ann Arbor based Keith Taylor (he directs the undergraduate creative writing program at University of Michigan) and the just launched, At the Bureau of Divine Music by Detroit native and long exiled Michigander, Michael Heffernan who has labored in the MFA program in Fayetteville, Arkansas for over thirty years.
Keith Taylor’s poems are theaters of light and moments of grace, which proceed from the poet’s engagement with nature. If the World Becomes So Bright collects new and selected earlier poems and showcases his powers of observation and meditation. From Isle Royale to his bungalow in Ann Arbor, from the Huron River to Douglas Lake, where he summers in a shack among co-religionists at U of M’s Biological Station, Taylor watches the wolves and waterfowl, back yard birds and geologies, fellow pilgrims and family members, the change of seasons and the seasons of man. For Taylor the natural world is at once brutal and numinous as in “The Day After an Ice Storm.”
When it dawns crystalline, blue,
the air sparkling with prisms
reflected off oak and spruce,
off every twig, branch or limb,
even off trees cascading
over fences, trees uprooted
by the splendor of ice –
the day lifts us, takes us out-
side ourselves, outside the news
of a nurse driving back home
last night, at the blackest hour
of the ice storm, when I was
watching electrical arcs
illuminating the yard.
I heard trees break apart
and was thrilled with fear. She stopped
to help at an accident –
it looked far worse than it was –
and a young man, 23,
also leaving work in his truck,
spun out on the ice killing
the nurse who already might
have imagined the next day
dawning crystalline and blue,
brittle, gloriously cold.
These intersections of sadness and happenstance, wonder and reverence are emblematic of Mr. Taylor’s exquisite poems – at times, heartbreaking as the Book of Job; at others, breathtaking in their consolation. A son of the manse, poems like “Altar Call” and “Guilty at the Rapture,” and the elegies, “If the Miracles Return” and “Gossamer,” mark Taylor as a poet as much at home among mysteries as among natural sciences.
There’s a way out. In the back
corner under mulberry bushes and a stand
of juniper we hide with our familiar
spirits. We dance discreetly naked.
[from “Detail from the Garden of Delights”]
If Taylor is Michigan’s most bookish naturalist, Heffernan is the wayfaring, world traveler from the old neighborhood, returning in dreams of Paris and Galway, Greece and the East to Southwest Detroit, near Vernor and Junction, laden with exile’s inevitable baggage. It is an occasion Heffernan rises to, a burden he bears with such good-humored virtuosity, that the reader grins and winces along as he hums his homecoming tunes. Not since James Joyce gave voice to Molly Bloom’s duplicities and ambivalences -- “as well him as another… yes” – has a male writer’s version of the domestic interior rung so true as Heffernan’s does in epic monologues like “The Way You Do” and “The Message.”
I never thought
the crazy bastard knew me well enough,
he was so stupidly in love with me.
He’d call me up when I was out of town
and tell me how he wished that he was there,
and there I’d be with Jack or someone else
reaching his hands around me from behind
trying to get inside me with his fingers.
One time I almost had to cry out loud.
My husband kept on talking and never noticed.
Finally I told him he didn’t get the message.
Heffernan’s deployment of serviceable iambics and syllabics is as organic and as reliable as Frost’s. It upholds a stunning variety of emotional and intellectual tones with memorable acoustics. A formal master before it returned to fashion, Heffernan’s sonnets – this collection opens and closes with fourteeners – ought be a study on their own.
A BAR OF CHINESE SOAP
I wanted to speak of something you could use,
when you got to be my age. This is not far
from where you are, as you might think it is.
With adequate cerebral attributes
such as you possess, along with richnesses
of wherewithal, the prospect clarifies,
so someone just a bit long in the tooth
could come to notice how many old fools
as well as old wise men there are around.
Both of them miss the truth. The truth is hard.
One does grow used to looking on them both
with like disdain. This can be taught and learned.
Whatever goes there, bee and flower will join
the ministries of sense from their two forms.
At The Bureau of Divine Music is Heffernan’s ninth full- length collection and -- one can hope -- a harbinger of an overdue selected volume.
These are poets working at full stride: Taylor not yet sixty, Heffernan not yet seventy, both of them gifted with stamina, curiosity and purpose. Their lives as scholars and common readers invest their work with intelligence and style. Neither does bus tours, cable TV or Twitter updates; their books will not make the bestseller lists with Messrs. Bush and Rumsfeld or Mrs. Palin. But both make poems that change readers’ lives and echo as only rose petals do.
[If The World Becomes So Bright, published February 15, 2009, 104 pages, $15.95 paperback 2009. At The Bureau of Divine Music, published March 15, 2011, 80 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Thomas Lynch’s most recent books are Apparition & Late Fictions (stories) and Walking Papers (poems), both published by W.W. Norton in 2010.
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Recommended by Piotr Florczyk
Carnations by Anthony Carelli (Princeton University Press)
When I heard that Princeton University Press was about to re-launch its dormant poetry series under the editorship of Paul Muldoon, I felt as if a light bulb had illuminated in the darkest corner of the poetry world. It seems dubious that PUP would jump back into the game without having made a long-term commitment to poetry. Which is why we now have Anthony Carelli’s Carnations.
Carnations pays homage to the poet’s masters and ushers in an exciting new talent. Carelli gives us thirty-three poems, many with religious titles, and their order echoes the structure of the Mass. Additionally, the peregrine architecture of the collection suits the speaker moving from Wisconsin to Chile and back to Brooklyn. What Carelli’s speaker longs for is spiritual uplift and a union of body and spirit under the aegis of our acrobatic senses feasting on earthly delights.
The unknowingness that shrouds these poems holds the key to the book. We come face to face with meditations that are often quietly celebratory in nature. For example, in a parable called “Glass Work Song,” we meet a son who follows in his father’s footsteps and gets a job “he’d sworn he’d never do” at a glass factory, only to learn something about the exquisite nature of glass-making. The speaker tells us that “This song is not about materials.” The men who “stack these panes for many years / and say very little of glass” suggest a profound longing on the part of the speaker to make his world durable, even though the endurance of objects seems dubious at best. No wonder the poem ends on a note that pivots between pious acceptance and a hunger for more, since the workers form a fellowship, “a chorus that aspires / to a certain quiet; a quiet becoming / the closest we can get.”
This tug-of-war between our unfulfilled cravings and the voice of doubt telling us to settle the score regardless of whether or not we come out ahead, plays another lead in the collection. The stay in Chile comes to an end, we learn in “In Ordinary Time,” because “Nothing came up, and the money run out,” and the rest of this aptly-named sonnet maps out the speaker’s sense of disengagement against the backdrop of a seemingly unflattering job of selling meat pies at “a new joint called The Pie Shop.” Yet this predictable routine of greeting customers with “a Midwestern smile,” opening the existential vista for the speaker and allowing him to cherish a splinter of certitude, becomes unsettled each time a customer walks in looking for – what else – sweet pies. Carelli’s deft feel for how much detail to employ to keep the poem moving at the right clip makes the poem believable. Finally, the speaker tells us “never before have I said I’m sorry so often. / Never before have I been so forgiven.” The poem traces a circle, oscillating through doubt and gratitude.
The rest of the collection feels equally grounded with similar self-examination. In the richly-layered “Agnus Dei,” we come across a revelation concerning the body and the Word, and the speaker’s desire to articulate awe-inspiring pureness and innocence, while in “The Brooklyn Heavens,” we learn that the anonymity of interpersonal interactions fits our passive spirituality, as when the speaker says that “the people I pass without a word or thought / are no better than gods, because again I’ve lost my chance / to speak to them, and now they talk behind my back.” But this call to action is short-lived: Carelli is well aware that the sum of our losses and shortcomings grounds us. We are the gods as much as we are the sinners; we swap apartments, sometimes countries, as much as we trade our insecurities. Ultimately we are left with a surplus of ourselves, so to speak. Impoverished, we inevitably turn to familiar terrains, even though they evolve as much as our personal connections to them do.
Carelli concludes with “Amen,” a poem in short-lined tercets that bear the speaker’s anxious testimony of how his past informs his present. When the speaker says, “Mom, // I nod to the signs, I / nod to that song, I nod / to the devil himself,” I feel as though we are being invited to do the same – no matter the awe or the pain we’re made to feel – and to keep going unconcerned about the outcome, if there will be any, even. Anthony Carelli’s Carnations sends us back on the road and this wonderful collection is as good a guide as they get.
[Published April 3, 2011. 72 pages, $12.95 paperback]
Piotr Florczyk is editor/translator of Building the Barricade and Other Poems of Anna Swir (Calypso Editions, 2011) and Been and Gone: Poems of Julian Kornhauser (Marick Press, 2009).
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Recommended by Grace Cavalieri
Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, by Jim Daniels (Carnegie Mellon University Press.)
Jim Daniels is a humorist, and like Billy Collins, captures bad luck and good together on the head of a pin. Yet the comic–tragic voice in this book is never one of complaint. An early poem identifies “one more complaining yo-yo.” This poet is far from that. His book is the opposite of dolor. The speaker is almost hero, almost anti-hero struggling to make sense of it all: fatherhood, job, life in this century. There is death and loss, but there is no sorrow. Freewheeling language protects and entertains us even through the bad news.
How did Jim Daniels get to be the way he is? Think back to Robert Penn Warren’s use of plain speech where diction and word choice moved poetry one more turn toward the colloquial, toward a small p. Maybe we can cite the built-together fragments of T.S. Eliot that also count for something in this lexicon. Certainly the “primary experience, individually said” may not have existed without ee cummings, who could rhyme and meter with the best of them but was always the modernist. And Daniels is the product of more: Kunitz as myth- maker.
Section 2 of the book is titled “Esperanto.” This segment features 25 poems about individuals who are icons of modern culture. Daniels, always the innovator, ends each character with the name Esperanto: James Brown Esperanto, David Bowie Esperanto, Judy Garland Esperanto, Ella Fitzgerald Esperanto – and so forth. But even more interesting and important, each poem somehow delivers the essence of the person, accurately, intuitively.
FRANK SINATRA ESPERANTO
Black baggage gleaming at the curb.
The melting knife trick. The lie
of memory. Expensive kisses
stolen and hocked. Life under
the table. Cutting in line. Getting
away with a shrug. Muscle behind
the muscle. Imaginary resort
where money is swallowed. Luck
and more luck. Cement-controlled sway.
Scripted tabloidathon. Secret sex
lives of the saints translated
by a blind pimp. Lock out
below. Lifting the false bottom.
Discretion of shadow. Getting
what you paid for. Paying for
what you got.
Daniels’ mythmaking shows up as well in Part 3, “The Tenured Guy,” where institutions of learning are made larger than life, and much funnier. An example here from the poem, “The Tenured Guy Calculates Salaries”: “You’ve got a formula / that figures in ass-kissing /and grade inflation. The pal/ factor, the longevity factor, /the padded vitae factor, /the committee-wonk factor / the self-promoting factor / the gossip factor, the meeting- / attendance factor …” How Reed Whittemore would love to read this. Reed, one of the early easy talkers, who saw the poet as the American pioneer, fighting the windmills of bureaucracy. Daniels is as impious as Whittemore and just as relaxed.
Next, we may point to Howard Nemerov’s ability to turn a joke into a poem. dignifying jokes for the first time in poetry. Daniels writes:
MAKING A MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLEHILL
is the poet’s job.
There is in Daniels an acerbic wit remindful of Randall Jarrell -- found more in Jarrell's prose fiction and criticism than in his poems. “The Tenured Professor” poems cut hypocrisy to the quick in the same way. Daniels also has the sexiness and longing of the young Don Hall – as well as something very made-in -America in a Home Depot way, with nuts and bolts, hammers and ladders, like Robert Pinsky, who turns stuff into art.
Yet Daniels’ writing is not at all like any of the predecessors named above. He is an original, but he’s certainly the product of boundaries that were broken before him. This is the way I understand Jim Daniels as an American poet in the 21st century, irreverent and bold. This is how I see him able to change natural speech to powerful verse through his effortless grasp of language and its effective reflection of our time and sensibilities. He is better than post-modern. He’s post- pretension.
[Published January 27, 2011, 112 pages, $15.95]
Grace Cavalieri is the author of 16 books and chapbooks of poetry and 23 plays. “Anna Nicole: Blonde Ambition” is in readings in NYC through March 2011. She produces “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now from the Library of Congress and celebrating its 34th year on-air.
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Recommended by Jack Dwyer
Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Tupelo Press)
The figure speaking these poems is simultaneously modest and empowered. In the opening poem, the speaker invokes her own presence – one foot lingering in childhood, the other sticking a toe in sorcery.
THE SECRET OF SOIL
The secret of smoke is that it will fill
any space with walls, no matter
how delicate: lung cell, soapy bubble
blown from a bright red ring.
The secret of soil is that it is alive –
a step in the forest means
you are carried on the back
of a thousand bugs. The secret
I give you is on page forty-two
of my old encyclopedia set.
I cut out all the pictures of minerals
and gemstones. I could not take
their beauty, could not swallow
that such stones lived deep inside
the earth. I wanted to tape them
to my hands and wrists, I held
them to my thin brown neck.
I wanted my mouth to fill
with light, a rush of rind
and pepper. I can still taste it
like a dare across a railroad track,
sure with feet-solid step. I’m not
allowed to be alone with scissors.
I will always find a way to dig.
The strange, appealing call of these poems has a double nature. On the one hand, the work is richly endowed with the materials of the world – the encyclopedia opened for us. On the other hand, the materials are present only because the speaking presence is so desperate to find them in the first place. Loss is constantly forestalled while the mind celebrates a bias for gain. “I will always find a way to dig” suggests that some unnamed force would prevent her from digging. Also suggested is the idea that when any of us tries to experience the world unconventionally, we take a dare.
There is also a note of confidence in Nezhukumatathil’s posture. That faith in discovery is what the “secrets” reveal – not the soil or the smoke, but the faith in finding something in them or expressed by them. Lucky Fish often sounds like a pep talk, encouraging the reader to go over the edge: “The search for red pigment was like biting /
into a pie that you know is too hot: you do it / anyway, and fast, and with such vigor” (“A Natural History of the Color Red”).
Lucky Fish expresses an ease of observation, a sort of gift passed on to the reader. But its impulses are not easily named. They seem to rise not from a need to categorize and describe the world but to accept its wildness. Therefore, Nezhukumatathil rocks between the act of ordering the elements (the displays of her poem) and the act of disordering our understanding of them.
This action succeeds with great charm in many poems, including “Baked Goods.” Here, the poem begins in the present tense with the speaker folding the batter for blueberry muffins. In a typical leap, she tells an anecdote about a man in the city who “was rescued from his apartment / which was filled with a thousand rats.” Next, she jumps back to her kitchen, “a riot / of pots, wooden spoons, melted butter.” It is “a kitchen wrecked / with love.” Her strong urge to underscore value spells out where it lies: “After all the pots // are stacked, the goodies cooled, and all the counters / wiped clean – let us never be rescued from this mess.”
This summing-up line is the kind of excerpt a reviewer is drawn to. But Nezhukumatathil is really not a summing-up poet. She is more likely to let her imagined and remembered locations fill with substance – as if she functions like the smoke in the opening poem, filling any space. But there is no dullness of sheer description. The language is enlivened by the receptivity of an eye’s first glimpse and the tendency of a mind to tend its knowledge of the world’s appearances. Lucky Fish is Nezhukumatathil’s third and best book from Tupelo, which should be commended for sticking with its writers.
[Published January 15, 2011. 90 pages, $16.95 paperback]
Jack Dwyer is an MFA candidate at the Whidbey Writers Workshop low residency program. He practices as an intellectual property lawyer for the University of California system.
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Recommended by David Clewell
Ship of Fool by William Trowbridge (Red Hen Press)
In an introductory note to his lively previous collection, The Complete Book of Kong (SMSU Press, 2003), William Trowbridge laments that, with some noted exceptions, most contemporary poetry seems “dismayingly humorless. Much of it is wonderful, sometimes brilliant, but even its joy often seems overly earnest, devoid of the sense of our shaky perch between nobility and buffoonery.”
Yes, Trowbridge is presenting a brief for his much-loved King Kong poems, but these several years later, his general observation still holds. Collections are still rife with narrators who confuse taking seriously the world around them with taking themselves the wrong-kind-of-seriously. This imposed sense of solemnity does no reader any favor — not when we take our own daily walks through a world that can appear to be discordant, brutal, disconnected, and almost always dizzying.
Now, once more into the breach comes Trowbridge, his sea-worthy Ship of Fool brimming with the exploits of a flexible character so wondrously based on the Fool archetype in literature, history, and popular culture —s o drolly told in what amounts here to third-person perfection. This poet’s Fool is equal parts klutz and klutz’s inadvertent victim — schlemiel and schlamazel. He delights; he suffers; sometimes he almost triumphs. And if he’s not already part of us too, there’s no way he won’t be after we’ve experienced this collection of Fool at serious play.
The opening poem, “Fool’s Family Album,” introduces the modes and moods of Fool we’ll encounter on this particular poetry sea, including:
His have-a-nice-day smile,
some read as “Kick Me.”
His may-I-help-you smile,
which scares the children.
His line-in-the-sand smile
and Chamberlain blink.
His who-me smile,
nimble as dead meat.
His my-turn smile,
if it’s ever his turn.
In the title poem, we learn that Fool’s ship
is a bathtub toy of Chance, who loves to play
Torpedo, Typhoon, Big Silent Iceberg;
who sings, “Fwim, wittle fishies, fwim if you can,”
when the body count gets good and the cries
swarm up like fizz in a Shirley Temple.
Lashed to the wheel in his yellow slicker,
Fool dead reckons the way, aiming
a weather eye at the horizon …
And as Fool looks out for whatever’s ahead, sooner or later we can’t help but do the same. Since Trowbridge’s protean Fool comes literally in so many shapes and sizes, each reader is bound to find a comfortable—and, guaranteed, sometimes less-than-comfortable—fit.
In “World’s Biggest Fool,” Fool is inexplicably expanding, until finally
takes up a galaxy. There’s room in it
for all humankind, even burdens on society
and threats to public decency. Everybody,
which, of course, includes God, now adrift
inside that humongous ticker, flushed
from auricle to ventricle, awash in the blood
of a fool. Out goes sin, out goes death.
In comes the free pass and the truly
set off God’s Doomsday Device for when
life gets too good for our own good.
And figuratively at least, Fool is that big-hearted throughout the book; how could he be anything less, given his poet-maker’s own meticulous, generous ticker?
God, the archetypal maker, also figures significantly in several poems. He’s Fool’s nemesis, antagonist, friend, and ersatz spiritual adviser — depending on the situation. In “The Incredible Shrinking Fool” (playing off the campy 1950s sci-fi movie), Fool is headed, size-wise, in the opposite direction. He falls through molecules and then
who, unknown to many, is infinitely small
as well as large and wise and good
and never to be told he seems
a lot taller in the Bible or on TV…
“Playing the Fool,” a duet featuring Fool and his God-as-instrumentalist, begs to be quoted in full:
God makes Fool His Stratocaster. “Purple
Haze,” He commands, and “Blue Hawaii” twangs
down to earth, creating Muzak, hemorrhoids,
and the Super Bowl halftime show. “Toccata
and Fugue,” He says to Fool, His Wurlitzer,
and something akin to a 45 of “Tutti Fruiti”
played off-center descends, and with it forty wars,
smallpox, and the birth of Richard Nixon.
“OK,” says God to Fool, his kazoo, “ ‘Turkey
in the Straw,’ anything,” at which Heaven’s
heavens crack apart from a high note worthy
of the cast from “Revelation,” unleashing
Chaos and, with a blinding electrical pop,
Old Night. “Fine,” says God. “Thanks for nothing.”
Apparently, Fool’s God is better at getting mad than getting even.
Trowbridge’s humor is not the postmodern sass-and-swagger variety of a Hoagland or a Hickok. Those two poets have found fine places and some perfect times for that, but it doesn’t happen to be right now, here in Fool’s world. Trowbridge is closer to the spirit of funny found in the poetry of Midwest maestro Dave Etter. The humor comes out of a love of distinctly American vernacular speech and the genuine, unsentimental good intentions of those people just trying to do right by each other in a world that seems bent on doing them so much wrong. Even when Trowbridge flirts with the corny or downright ridiculous, his testimony rings humane and true.
In the middle section of the book, Fool goes into hiding, and we’re treated instead to poems featuring father and sons, school bullies, the Palmer Method of penmanship, athletic coaches, rental tuxes, James Dean, accordion lessons, and class reunions. These are surely measures of the past, where Fool’s bathtub toy of Chance has been temporarily transmuted into human mishap or accident of circumstance — where the archetypal Fool takes a breather while a rich variety of Fool-inspired moments in a more personal, first-person narrator’s history are held up for inspection, sung out in Trowbridge’s distinctive, idiomatic music.
Remembering a past—and contemplating what might happen in some version of a future — is inherently part of what makes us human; if Fool was with us, on our side before, surely he’ll show up there again. In “Class of ’59” the speaker says it for so many of us:
We’ve arrived, in the Orient
Room, Ramada West,
road weary, adjusted
for the cost of living, past
the need to care who knows
how high we’ve climbed
or had to jump…
… Thank God
for the big name tags.
And when Fool considers his own past—which might as well be the entirety of sapiens history — he can’t help thinking, “What’s the use of being / such a big crybaby out here bedded in a flop house / doorway, sparring with the plastic bags, waving / as the young sweep by in splendor’s rental limo” (“Fools Give You Reasons”).
In “Fool and His Money,” Fool’s doing the best he can while things go less than well: “He wishes / he’d had some kind of handbook to consult, / one with a good index…” And when his guardian-angelship doesn’t quite work out, “Fool’s put in charge / of the Small Consolations detail that plants / dimes and quarters under sofa cushions. / Each one you find contains his blessing.” In Trowbridge’s largesse—the particular world so doggedly navigated by this Ship of Fool — that type of small-change blessing provides some of the surest sustenance around. Chock full of compassion, unabashed nuttiness, and sheer resilience, this poet’s heart is truly no small thing at all; rather, it is an unmitigated, anything-but-overly-earnest joy.
[Published February 1, 2011, 96 pages, $18.95 paperback]
David Clewell is Poet Laureate of Missouri. His latest collection is Taken Somehow By Surprise from the University of Wisconsin Press (reviewed here by Ron Koertge). He teaches at Webster University in St. Louis.
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Recommended by Michael Heffernan
Oyster Perpetual by Austin LaGrone, (Lost Horse Press)
Oyster Perpetual is beautiful from the beginning — its cover art by Bruce Holwerda, “Toulouse’s Flowing Yellow Dress,” showing a high-stepping dancer in a billowing yellow-orange or orangeish yellow dress and spotted stockings with the toe of her left shoe kicking straight toward the rest of the book while her back arches into the spine. She raises her hands and closes her eyes. The book seems to be coming toward her, filled with dread. She is stepping over the title, Oyster Perpetual, as if she is about to plunge on top of it.
As the judge of the 2010 Idaho Prize for Poetry, which he awarded to Austin LaGrone for this book, Thomas Lux stands at the door, with his adroit introduction, couched in deferences and guesswork (“this poet seemed to be from the South”) left to hang there, unbeknownst, while the back cover bio clearly notes LaGrone’s birth in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, so Lux can trail along after the Stanford connection (“a little tip of the hat”) and discover, finally, the “lovely elegy to Stanford, called ‘His Name Was Frank.’ LaGrone never uses his last name.” In fact, LaGrone does not refer to Frank Stanford in this wonderful homage until the poem’s last line, with the observation that death “went down to Arkansas / and shot that poet three times in the heart.” That is the one most famous fact about Frank Stanford, the essence of the Stanford Legend, at least to those who know it or of it: he shot himself in the heart three times. LaGrone’s poem claims that death did that, which is as good an explanation of how Frank managed to do that and in doing that, unto himself, as it were, caused himself thus to become at once dead and immortal. There are people still living who were there. But every time the story is told, the teller will say, “He shot himself three times in the heart.” LaGrone’s poem begins with a title, “His Name Was Frank,” on which the last line has bearing.
Regardless of poor, permanently young and even more permanently dead Frank, with no last name or with one, the poem LaGrone has written is about death, personified. It is arguably the greatest poem in Oyster Perpetual, because its reach is very wide and its truth stunning—completely so. Lux points that out, in another context, to the effect that the book “contains stunning images,” the “cages of beaten shopping carts” being Lux’s favorite. Here is an assortment of others:
Carlotta, tell me the new moon of twilight
rises behind your curtains, velvet
is the peach fuzz of a generous God,
soap and razors in the bathtub
give new life to old legs.
. . .
Then there was Little Ricky. He’d drive
to work with his television in the trunk,
afraid his wife would pawn it.
. . .
We could wait until morning
and rest with our backs to the levee
as tugboats push fields of stone
along the Mississippi.
. . .
sleeps with the television on,
says the flickering light
scares away the roaches.
. . .
Reading aloud her father’s
obituary on helium
how he burned the eyes
of dead presidents
with mentholated 100’s,
in the waiting room
of the blood bank, taught her
to say lemon slowly
with firefly juice
on her lips in the dark.
That last sentence is a little more than half of “Where Vegetable Ivory Passes for Bone,” nearing the end of Oyster Perpetual. The point is you can quote this book till you’ve read it all out loud.
What Austin LaGrone can do on a single piece of paper is probably illegal, somewhere. There is risk involved in the production of this much liberty. I say let it prosper.
[Published February 1, 2011, 64 pages, $18.00 paperback]
Michael Heffernan’s ninth book of poetry, At the Bureau of Divine Music, is published by Wayne State University Press. He teaches at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
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Recommended by Tara Betts
Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)
Nikky Finney’s fourth collection Head Off & Split is both a distillation and expansion of her previous work. An epigraph taken from a postcard sent by Finney’s mentor and friend, Toni Cade Bambara, sets the tone for a series of poems rooted in her Southern heritage and a larger historical purview. “Don’t leave the arena to the fools” lets readers know that the entwined poems focus on the gravitas of politics, looking back, the body, and close attention to a community.
The surge of memory begins with woman who revisits the fish market of her childhood in “Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction.” This is reprised with the title poem, “Penguin, Mullet, Bread,” and “Liberty Street Seafood” toward the end. A sense of water pervades the other poems with life, celebration and tragedy, including the section titles that all make references to terms related to water, poems about Hurricane Katrina, “The Condoleeza Suite.” This watery sensibility first emerged in earlier pieces from Finney’s last collection The World is Round, soon to be reissued by Northwestern University Press.
Finney’s approach is a measured response written in long, isometric lines. Some of the poems are several pages long, but there are no extraneous words in these narratives that move toward understanding and empathy for people and living things. Even the way fish are split, gutted, and beheaded leads the speaker to decide to keep the innards and the head to remember that there are lives that sustain her life.
In her last poem, “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica,” Finney employs a call to stay alert in the arena noted by Bambara in the beginning: “Be camera, be black-eyed aperture. Be diamond terrapin, the only animal/that can outrun a hurricane. Be 250 million years old. Be isosceles. Sirius. Rhapsody. Hogon. Dogon. Hubble. Stay hot. Create a pleasure that can stir/up the world. Study the moon with a pencil.” There is an unexpected interconnectedness between the past, nature, power and lack thereof, and it can be recorded. Finney succeeds in linking and documenting the larger circles of life throughout Head Off & Split.
[Published February 1, 2011. 80 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Tara Betts is the author of Arc & Hue (Aquarius Press/Willow Books, 2009). She teaches creative writing at Rutgers and is co-editing an anthology of Bop poems with Afaa M. Weaver.