on poetry by Rusty Morrison, Leonardo Sinisgalli, and Beckian Fritz Goldberg

Book of the Given, poems by Rusty Morrison (Noemi Press)

There is a poetry deeply troubled by the relation between speaker and listener – so disturbed that the relation becomes its primary subject. To those who take this relation for granted as stable and managed by conventions of intelligibility, this poetry may seem too enthralled by theory, too absorbed with attaining purity, too removed from the readers it claims to more properly respect. But to be a poet concerned with this relation is to work with forces, both internal and cultural, that churn and clash and resist relaxation into regulated behavior and speech.

Such opposing forces are urgently revealed by Pierre Guyotat in his memoir Coma. On the one hand, he says, “Living without others is impossible, yet if you give yourself up to them, you disappear in them … I see the struggle that each being wages to live. Who can see the struggle that the little I might become wages to save that little in advance?” On the other hand, he says elsewhere, “What little I am becoming feeds my need to enter, above all else, into the self of he or she to whom speech is predominantly directed.” His fear, quite literally, is that he will say or write a hurtful word that presumes some power over the other and some privilege given to himself. To live among others is to try to find a dynamically moral and imaginative way of “giving yourself up” – without giving in.

Morrison.jpegThis is why a poet who takes up this relation (and writes superbly about it) is important -- pushing out the boundaries of the art, and prefiguring a way of thinking and speaking that can barely catch its own wavering breath. If you are interested in moving towards these sounds, the poetry of Rusty Morrison is a fine point of departure. She pries language open for new purposes. But she also exploits the lyric’s traditional role of portraying complex psychological states with a deft touch. While hyperconscious of language as material, she also generates curiosity and concern about the welfare and struggle of the speaking presence.

Her Book of the Given begins with a given – an epigraph about giving by way of Nietzsche who said that in assuming another person is the “same” as oneself, one robs that person of something and “deliberately and recklessly brush[es] the dust off the wings of the butterfly that is called the moment.” One’s generosity, therefore, is a deterrent to freedom if it is limited by comforts taken in believing you and I are undifferentiated. (This sounds very much like the Buddhist homily about helping versus serving.) The “given” is simultaneously the insult of the fixed as well as the gift one might provide to overcome the insult. But how?

The epigraph puts me on notice that I’ve been ushered into a speculative space where relations are up for grabs. Am I here only to receive? Perhaps my understanding, freed from the typical expectations of literary gratification, is a form of giving?

Book of the Given, a sequence with a variable pattern, both enacts intimacy and probes its qualities. Morrison begins by speaking within a “script” by Georges Bataille, weaving her lines into his, thereby both surrendering the exclusivities of individuality and enhancing them by association. The sequence addresses a “you” who will be both loved and instructed. Here are the opening lines:

No chapel, no wounded-soldier-in-the-last-scene sacrament,
no field of windswept grass where lovers walk
as the background music swells to tell us

full communication resembles flames – the electrical

fence already surrounds your found object,
which I’m too afraid to fondle. I’d be pitting water against glass.
I have only to imagine you
in my hands, and my skin is a pox of impact,
while the wild horse silhouetted on the sun-blanched horizon
merely kicks hooves and we swoon to that

discharge of lightning. Its attraction

too flawless.

At the same time, the speaker informs the reader/addressee about her own unsettled state: “Every object I am is the rupturing it is built on // -- still you don’t understand, though I come dressed / in several hints.” Clearly, Morrison isn’t afraid of making statements among the innuendoes, even a whiff of sententiousness. The “scripted” section is followed by an “unscripted” block of prose titled “Exposing the seen: a book of snapshots”:

Beware nostalgia’s elaborate snare – its tempting surfaces of gloss will tighten time around us. Each morning, I hold aloft an infant image of us, as you baptize her new again. Let stillness fall from her, I chant, ripen her vulnerability. The revival of music you are playing on our old jukebox is luring an unusual number of souls from my secret neighborhood.

MorrisonCover.jpegIn another unscripted passage titled “Generosity resists clandestine promises,” she bristles against “Beautiful, cloud-fed, silk-draped declarations, offering us the means to master the moment. Magisterial, easy to oblige. Orders nonetheless.” She would order things her own way by proclamation – “but saying is so easily capitulated inside my head.” Nevertheless, she says a great deal. The entire assemblage has a one-step-forward, one-step-back rhythm, a desire to clarify and display care, a counter-desire to arrive at pleasure and affection through obliquity. She acknowledges “My thoughts woven of the same event as yours, but with photons forming atoms into an entirely different cloth.”

Towards the end of this exquisite sequence in an “unscripted” piece, she describes a kind of overall intent: “Here, right where I’ve put us: in the space between memory and meaning, between paucity and the pause before plausible. Where any feeling, if felt back, becomes a factory.”

In 2008, judges Rae Armantrout, Claudia Rankine and Bruce Smith awarded Morrison the James Laughlin Award (Academy of American Poets) for true keeps calm biding its story (Ahshata Press). In a Boston Review micro-review, Rebecca Porte said, “the poems chart the interrupted logic of grief in a way you will find either monotonous or compelling in its consistency, a sustained minor chord mediated and shaped by the formal repetitions that both divide one line from the next and drive the poems inexorably forward.” “monotonous” or “compelling”? Surely Porte thinks the work is either one or the other, but won't say. The Manichean schism in the readership of poetry often retards insight and comment.

[Published August 2, 2011. 69 pages, $12.00 paperback]

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Night of Shooting Stars, selected poems of Leonardo Sinisgalli, translated by W. S. Di Piero (Tavern Books)

In the mid-1980s I worked for a Massachusetts-based computer company that signed a deal allowing Olivetti to sell its products in Italy. To collaborate on marketing, I went to Olivetti headquarters in Ivrea, about 30 kilometers north of Turin, to meet with the company’s communications staff. As we got to know each other over dinner, my Olivetti counterpart said, “You know, one of Italy’s most famous poets was once an art director in our advertising group. Leonardo Sinisgalli. He died recently.”

I knew nothing about Sinisgalli. But I soon discovered that W. S. Di Piero’s English translations of Sinisgalli’s work had recently been published by Princeton. That collection, The Eclipse, includes 92 poems spanning 1927 to 1979, and portions of Sinisgalli’s ardent 1948 essay, “On The Figure of the Poet.” Now, Di Piero has published Night of Shooting Stars which includes 45 poems, some from the former collection and some additions.

Sinisgalli.jpgBorn in 1908 in Montemurro and trained as a mathematician and engineer, Sinisgalli ultimately made his living in design and advertising. He founded Italy’s most influential graphics design journal. He worked on the screenplay for the 1952 film “The Overcoat” (directed by Alberto Lattuada). Through the years he published steadily – poetry, stories, essays, and popular science articles. At the time of his death in 1981, he was preparing a gallery show of his watercolors.

SinisgalliCover.jpgDi Piero noted earlier that Sinisgalli had arrived at a poetry “both denotative and spectral.” Along with poets like Montale and Ungaretti, he insisted on “anti-eloquence, mineral understatement.” His first poems, Cuore, were published in 1927, just two years after Montale’s first book appeared. In “On the Figure of the Poet,” Sinisgalli wrote, “The image has detached itself from the object; emotion has sagged and diminished in the capillarity of likenesses. Unable to believe in the ephemeral value of tradition and poetic language, in academic formulas, in the impoverished wreckage of a Mystery now too remote, the Poet has instead found still living roots in barbarisms, in slang, in quotidian truths. And he has found – not among spheres and tabernacles but among thorn bushes and the dismal furnishings of rented rooms – things which share and testify to his inconsolable solitude.”


I go back up to the hills
(they shimmer with wheat bent by the August breeze).
Silvestro, dear friend, you deliver me
To all things past, to the stress and toil
That wears the stone smooth over the grain,
And you offer me a leaf in your generous
Hand. You stand inside
The young moon’s lazy halo
Talking about all the right things.
The crisp wind flickers in your eyes
And harness bells jangle on the hilltops.
The enchanted crowds I saw ablaze
Are the lights of San Lorenzo. You laugh
When I ponder the long trail
Of ants you’re burning.

Sinisgalli felt that the poet is “alert to the precariousness of all earthly bonds … He can no longer construct hierarchies of affection, interest or passion; all things past, present and future stand equidistant from him.” It’s a stark, cautious perspective resulting through and from harsh times – Fascism, war and ruination, recovery. Sometimes Sinisgalli’s poems are as tonally easeful as classical Chinese verse. They often speak of childhood and his place of birth, “my grieving province.” At other times, stranded in the present, he is the one whose “only standard or ambition may finally be to document the possibility of his own existence”:


The distance between things around me
changes every year
even if I’m nailed in place,
even if things don’t move.

[Published February 1, 2011. 135 pages, $17.00 paper. Click here to visit the Tavern Books homepage.]

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Reliquary Fever, new and selected poems by Beckian Fritz Goldberg (New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Over the past year, I’ve kept three recent “new and selected” collections close at hand. Dara Wier’s Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2009) and Chase Twichell’s Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2010) represent steady, unique achievements over the past four decades. The third title is Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Reliquary Fever. In a 2006 interview in Willow Springs, she said, “The poets who become well known are the critically acclaimed but not necessarily the ones who inspire poets.” Certainly, her work has inspired me, even though commentary on her books is sparse. Goldberg’s poetry is generally marked by a fidgeting, sociable presence that feels a responsibility to make use of itself. But one often has the sense that she would rather let things slide. What results, therefore, is an impossible-to-plan detente of urges heading out on different vectors.


How many days I can’t think.
So when I do think of blue flowers
it’s something to hang onto
something briefly phosphorescent.
To fill the void I watch endless
murders on TV. Potential suspects.
Can the bullets removed from
Vince’s body reveal the identity of
the killer? How comforting is this
when I wanted to write a sonnet on mortality?

I remember my mother once planted
lilacs in a hedge. They aren’t blue but
that’s where my mind goes. The mind
being a nose.

Jojo, we have some questions to ask you,
says the cop.

Blue, the most grateful color.
Who could think of killing
the one they love. He, she. He and
he or she, she, or dog, sky. Suddenly

October cuts the endless summer cold.
But it’s still the desert. Hardly green.
It’s why I can’t think, why the moon is
most at home here. You think it loves
those picturesque fields, those leafy
copses? Hard loves hard.

The air smells like cold iron tonight,
yes it does. It’s something to
hang onto. Not like a thought.
Not like heroin in the suspect’s pocket.
A secret life weirder than any
Little Rock detectives had ever known.
I bet in Little Rock they have flowers
blue as a blue bucket. Suspects, suspects.
It’s not a season if it expects
a conclusion. That’s what I think,
because of you.

GoldbergCover.jpegGoldberg’s poetry is often propelled by comic nervosity – but also blunt toughness (“Hard loves hard”), sudden branchings of fresh sentiment, an embrace of popular culture (the usable is everywhere), and an affinity for things that make trouble (candidates everywhere). Her speaker is a person provoked -- who then presumes to match her wits against the shifty density of an intrusive world. Her weapons are verbal dexterity and a tale-teller’s beckoning forefinger, though she is more interested in situations than stories. Her persona seems both out of place and perfectly situated in extreme, a secretly delighted bystander pretending annoyance, clenching a single fist. The poems bristle with restless intelligence.

Goldberg’s first book was Body Betrayer (1991, Cleveland State) but I didn’t discover her work until Never Be The Horse (1999, University of Akron Press). One of that collection’s poems, “My Bomb,” now republished, is a favorite poem of recalled adolescence, animated by both the adult’s amazement at lived-through circumstances and the retention of a child’s habitual individualism. There are dangers and cruelties in these poems – but where most comic poets defuse and accommodate them by reflecting credit on their own quirky talents and affable generosity, Goldberg keeps the difficulties alive so they seem darkly essential to mature understanding. In “My Bomb,” the speaker recalls herself as a child whose feel for the world was made intensely physical by nuclear threat. But the poem works not because of the poignancy of memory but rather its conversion into a way of speaking. Goldberg was born in 1954 – eight years old during JFK’s Cuban missile crisis. “My Bomb” concludes:

This is how I loved the earth

with my life. With the pure nuclei of
my matter. How it fell into my hands.
Better than desire,
my bomb lit the face of my own

twentieth century. I had it
so no one could use it. I would have more
so no one could have enough.

Goldberg’s first poems sport a forever-young sort of imagination insofar as they celebrate their own flexibility and porousness. But there are also primal laments and longings just as deeply rooted in time. In 2005, Oberlin College Press published Lie Awake Lake, a book occasioned by the death of her father and obsessed with the body – such that one comes to recognize this central preoccupation in all of her work.


Leaving this world must be the flower,
Its three violet faces turned to the air - a man can’t look
at a flower without knowing he’s dying.
That’s the beauty. Parting must be this little
chance, with its stem and flutter. It’s no god
and it’s no force and our grief is a rock, a clod,
a punk of earth. Truth is,
what we will miss most
isn’t her or him or mother or child but
the particular blue at the side of the field,
the heart’s pure botany, for

the body is a science. And there is no
substitute for
thing. Not love, not happiness,
not faith. But flower. But flower. But flower.

Goldberg.jpgReliquary Fever is a richly phrased and lively trove of work – as big a book as one should expect (but only sometimes finds) in a new & selected volume. Her poems are remarkable for their remarks – but equally so for the strange wholes they manage to make. She is undaunted by the unseemly desire to say what the “truth is.” Her art is how she gets away with it.

At the end of “The Books of Hens,” she writes, “The heart wants to be -- / anything in it.” Goldberg’s scope is vivaciously broad enough to gather a vast amount of the world into that anything.

[Published October 1, 2010. 214 pages, $18.00 paperback]