on Recent Poetry by Barbara Claire Freeman, L. S. Klatt and Dora Malech

Incivilities by Barbara Claire Freeman (Counterpath Press)

In his new book of rich essays, Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life, Oren Izenberg notes that the theory and practice of Language poetry “make authorial intention and readerly attention look incidental to the project of manifestation -- the difficult work of indicating a universal competence that can be neither produced nor received, but which makes both production and reception possible.” (The key words here are “look incidental.”) This is a poetry, he says, that not only dispenses with “the liberal idea of a better situation” but also is “a fantasy of no situation.” Affect and tone are not just flattened but banished.

What interests me lately is the extent to which many poets, not only the hardcore theory claimants, are tussling with these ideas. Smudging authorial intention and playing rough with the reader’s attention, they are not quite willing to give up on deliberation, direction, or situation. They may not entirely privilege the first-person narrator, but they won’t go as far as condemning her to the gulag.

FreemanCover.jpegWhat exactly are “projects of manifestation” for these various poets? What is each trying to make manifest in his or her own way? For the Language poets, says Izenberg, “grammaticality regrounds personhood in such a way that it can make itself manifest.” But if you’re not a poet who swoons over the supposed purity of unpurposed grammar (uncorrupted by statement), then what is the thing you wish to show? What is your motive?

Barbara Claire Freeman’s poetry in Incivilities, her first book, is voiced as a kind of delirium brought on by a contagion of globalized financial chatter and political officialese. It then breaks into (perhaps breaks free into) abject, unsettled, and deeply strange comment on barely defined situations – enacting the arduous process of discovering the present moment and obtaining guidance from memories. Mention options traders in your poetry, and they will say your work is “overtly political.” Erode the bold outlines of persona, and they will say your language is “privatized.” But Freeman’s dynamic poems are striving to make manifest something else – a way of speaking beyond the political and the private.


Originates off Africa, carried by Gulf Streams,
followed Declarations of Helplessness,
took 4,170, damaged the Eastern seaboard
from North Carolina to Nova
Scotia, ruined fodder, wrecked ships,
razed houses, we knew, we did not know,
we were here after all, not there, came in
from the wilderness void of form in the early
months of autumn when weather is most
schizophrenic, come in she said, I’ll give you shelter
from heat machines, convert tropical dark, tobacco
bred by negroes, good as gold, not to obey
was the difference that would yield salvation
or revolt, the West to be erected, mine
by right of an election I could tell to none,
moving walls of water, people, come, she said,
between shattered windows, children tied to trees,
bodies of men and beasts lifted in the air, we
are not there, we did not know, drowned
in adjectives, she said, “I wanted to tell the story
of my country, how it became, what it began.”

The “Gulf Streams” in the first line are both corporate jets and ocean currents. History swoops in and swamps even those who wield or are sponsored by power and are left to say “we knew, we did not know.” There is no saving purity in sheer grammar for Freeman, though she uses it with panache, since the innocence of being “void of form” is no longer a potential. There is too much pressure on her to speak. In “come in she said, I’ll give you shelter,” one hears Bob Dylan’s story about finding safe harbor briefly with a woman – the face of a benign presence that the poem’s speaker seems to wear as her own mask. Struggling to find an adequate language, “drowned / in adjectives,” she is the one who will now “tell the story.”

Freeman.jpegOften her motive is simply to jolt our understanding of our culture. Her sententiousness results more from the poems’ aftertaste than from the moments of encountering her lines. The title poem ends, “Greed’s gone viral in someone’s sentence but a stock / that clings to its fifty-two week high begs to be sold.” What saves such pithy accusations is a self-reflexive gesture: “My purpose / here is to decline into the realities of the economy.” Freeman’s speaker offers herself up to Dow Jones as if volunteering for a clinical trial of a drug known to devastate the immune system but eliminate facial wrinkles. We get the message.

Freeman has knowingly arranged the poems to diffuse the more obvious and necessary effects of the pseudo-public poems, another of which is the splendid “First Georgic” which braids a letter from “Yr Hble Servt., G Washington” to a slave shipper with a disturbed, accusatory run-on outburst. Just like her poems’ narrators, the “we” in her work would like to find solace and pleasure in the personal but cannot achieve a level of coherency to indicate they have arrived there.


line of white
verbs we say

thank you,
please, at day-

break we sleep
when night comes

we breathe
lines laid on rock-

crystal or
cash, we rise

and we rise
like whip-crested

waves, lick
grass in pastures

beside shepherds

beside gaping
potholes, a

nothing to
want, say please

white as we dive

white lines
as we weep

At mid-book, Freeman spreads out her fine sequence “Apocryphon.” The sections are addressed to a “you” who is about to receive a “secret book” from the speaker. She writes in the first part (“X I, I-68, 18”), “I am not certain you will be / able to open this attachment or if / our platforms are compatible ...” and then, “I have translated / this into the obscure language we / learned at the camp that has neither vowels / nor consonants so you will be / the lone interlocutor.” Obscure language, designed to communicate the secret: this is what is promised from the text, and presumably, from the secret book shipped to the PO box. But in this remarkable sequence, Freeman turns into a poet for whom abjection inspires cunning and elusiveness.

VI 13, I-21, 32

Shadows defective because

they take their form from

what they copy. The air

around the crypt is air,

the earth around the root

is earth. The fire around

the esplanade waits, the

water around the detonator,

water. If you fax, attach,

or photograph this text

without permission from

the unbegotten one who hides

in silence you will be

its replica.

The shadows in the first line are “defective” because they aren’t protean; they are cravenly attached to their archetypes, the previously determined. Freeman’s poetry carries the suffering of immobility. It bobs and weaves – but it can’t elude the grip of the authorities. Instead, it projects a persona that pretends to a subversiveness. It will not give up that defeated stance. It will not undress into starkly naked grammar.

The poem “General Motors” begins “Walk with me to the end of the moment” and ends “Most of the ideas we’re talking about are bridges and roads / When the rain came through today it came through heavy.” But there are no ideas and the moment is blurred and timeless. Freeman bets everything on the shifts between these impeccably arranged miasmas and the declines into the sump of marketspeak. I think she succeeds in a curiously potent way, the stranger the better. Dollar bills in “Fourth Georgic” resemble and turn into dolphins: “Who are these sea animals and what are they really buying.”

[Published November 16, 2009. 69 pages, $14.95, paperback ]

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Cloud of Ink by L. S. Klatt (University of Iowa Press)

Klatt.jpgIt has been 44 years since James Tate’s The Lost Pilot won the Yale Younger Poetry Prize, bringing comic estrangement and a deadpan Midwestern delivery to American poetry. L. S. Klatt is heir to Tate’s early work. His second book, Cloud of Ink, is one of two surprising picks for the 2010 Iowa Poetry Prize, the other being Julie Hanson’s Unbeknownst. Both titles are conventional productions, a half-turn away from the restively innovative work in recent Iowa collections by Samuel Amadon, Zach Savich, Sarah Vap, Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Emily Rosko. Hanson’s poems in particular are as “guiltless and forthright” as the streetlight she describes in one of her pieces – and come not only as a respite from the ethnic cleansing of plain speaking in American poetry but as a representative of those citizens our verse has left behind as lost to the Big Box Matrix.

Klatt’s Cloud of Ink features the terseness and slenderly drawn lines and stanzas of Tate’s first book, and seems less interested in the sustained jocular narrative of other Tate successors such as Dean Young and Tony Hoagland. Where they tell stories, Klatt simply remarks.


I worry about your fences

wherein thousands of propane tanks
stand breast to breast
like white chickens.

depend on wishbones

& their smelly parts set off alarms
near Dayton.

Those that range
Cross I-75 where they are struck
Now & then by Airstreams.

So much attention here given to the tornado.

I would like to add that when threatened
chickens retreat into silos.

It makes sense, if it’s true, that Ohio
is the birthplace of flight.

KlattCover.jpgHis ars poetica and the title of his book, come from “Andrew Wyeth, Painter, Dies at 91” – Wyeth, the punching bag for all of us who agree with Stevens that realism is a perversion of reality. The first three lines of the poem present a barn, hilltop, woman and slope. Then: “A giant squid rises out of a hayfield, & the barn / is compassed in tentacles / then a cloud of ink.” Cloud of Ink consists of the medium through which Klatt escapes – his commitment to his own highly composed if sometimes fractured scenes is as thorough as Wyeth’s. His cloud of ink may ruin the meticulous renditions of bland representation, but the cloud demands the respect previously given to the thing it obscures. Klatt’s eye is an alien element in an otherwise supposedly ordinary world – but it sees in a highly selective and artful way:


Salmon packed in ice are now swimming, they’re saving.
Saving their breath; saving their shekels.

Their gills languish mercurially.
Mouths agape suggest smoking guns.

But eyes look forward – lest cloudy
then fishy.

Sometimes in the future the whole mess will transfigure.

They will shimmer in Mercedes.
They will flip-flop at the spa.

Thus, kept on ice as they are, the Kings
save for a rainy day

&, should snow fall, dream of skating
as if to gather up the overcast & sew a silver lining.

In this, they come closest to asking for hands.

Not all of his poems conclude so precociously. When they don’t, Klatt seems to be asking us to relax and let the image hang there until it gathers up whatever immanence we can spare. But usually, Klatt gives us a bit of an odd Berrymanesque persona to follow, a little bizarre vaudeville of situation – and the lyric compression learned from any number of poets.


I found an octopus in the snow.

And not knowing what it was or why it was there, I gutted it
as if a hunter.

To me, up to my elbows in bladder, the ink was a surprise.

I wore it like opera gloves in the moonlight.

So many mistook my passion for gangrene.

One followed me into an orchestra pit. If I could only saw now
what my arms said.

I took up a bassoon & aimed it at a chandelier.

As the house lights came down, the audience lost their places.

They were swimming in a maelstrom of inklings.

Klatt’s moves are never so violent, disorienting or haphazard that his audience loses its place. His is a domesticated wildness. The speaker presents his materials as objects for inspection and further meditation – and his delivery is so fluid and his attitude so generous that when the poem ends, the inklings leak into our lived world.

[Published March 1, 2011. 84 pages, $17.00 paperback]

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Say So by Dora Malech (Cleveland State University Press)

Dora Malech’s poems are filled with intimacies viewed on a slant. Alternating between self-deflation and acidic audacity (and a few degrees in between), Malech would appear to be a poet who exposes herself through narrative, such is her perseverance with persona. But she only pretends to make me her confidante. In fact, I’m just another antagonist, someone who must be enticed, cajoled if necessary, into seduction.


Again I broke
eggs into breakfast, forked
eros from huevos rancheros,
split the silence with a sign.

Each daydream, couplets
and coupling. You?

I’ll hold my tongue
about your humdrum
muses, Pain in the Ass
and Plain Vanilla, mincing
hot an cold. Let me

justify my lament, admit
that I covet the size
of your sky.

I’m tired of wasting
my best lies on strangers.

Believe me
when I tell you I’m kept
awake by the light
from my body, splayed star.

Malech.jpegBut Malech’s speakers never hold their tongues. When she says “You?” it could mean “and how goes it for you?” or it could mean “shall I couple with you?” Her lament is stylized, a doubt turned into a condition, too widespread now to be excised and justified only by the brilliantly deflective language she uses to describe it. Come closer, she says, the better to lie to you. And at the end, there is the body, a shattered cosmic thing. How could I not be captivated? Of course, she may be speaking to a specific “you,” and probably is. But I share that person’s attributes. She is counting on my receptivity. And the poem, after all, is titled “Open Letter” – open to us all.

The 30-year old Malech has now produced two books in three years. Shore Ordered Ocean (Waywiser Press, 2009) is a virtuosic performance, the language rushing between mock-statement (“There is infinite precedent / for the perversion of clemency”) and situational imagery merging surreal observation with chattiness (“I swear I never meant to dream this way. // Did I mention the lilacs? The brothers? / Okay, let’s talk about something else.”) The reader is mainly kept at arm’s length, but what we overhear her saying at the next table is intriguingly eccentric. Now, with Say So, Malech has figured out that we just might pick up the tab if she draws us in.


As usual I am unusually tired.
All night my fingers double-crossed me,
tangled up in someone else’s hair.
Breakfast is sand with a promise of pearls.
If I were an operation, I’d be fly-by-night
and very bloody. If I were a sow, I’d be hog-tied.
I was born under the sign of the toy breed,
the yapper, if you will – and I will – on the cusp
of bikini season. Somersaults, cartwheels.
Call me poorly executed. Call me late for dinner
and a regrettable houseguest, wet towel on the bed.
Call me go-getter, meaning going going gone.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be at the arcade
across from the fire station, shooting
the teeth off the cardboard clown.
If you give me a dollar I’ll take my top off
and let you see my heart.

Malech’s complaints entertain rather than oppress because they have no real grievances at their cores. What they have instead are knowledge and candor. “Breakfast is sand with a promise of pearls” could have been Marilyn Monroe’s line on those mornings when she swallowed an amphetamine with her OJ. The tone here is starting to become familiar among several young female poets: the would-be femme fatale shading into the one who talks too loud on her cellphone in the shrinks’ waiting room. “Face For Radio,” ticking off the speaker’s wanting qualities, is a rhapsody: call me this, call me that, if I were, if anyone needs, if you give. In truth, the speaker is engrossed with her materials, namely her own habits. It’s the stuff of comedy, in both certain types of poems and movies.

But Malech’s hyperbolic legends-of-herself have a winning cumulative effect, that of assembling a complete mentality ranging through memory and present locations. Although her language in Say So has become more demotic, her speech has not slipped into the conversational mode. She is neither an anecdotalist nor an ironist. The aspects of hometown life portrayed in “Consolation Prize” obtain their tensions from the poem’s moment of speaking – the distancing that generates a phrase like “tried on the big desires” (below) but which is still affected by what happened behind the Tilt-a-Whirl.


With morning came the urge to pull up my pants
and escape through the dog door. Sometimes I wanted
to kiss all the men and sometimes I did, not as simple
as relax and be lonely since my hands were so cold.

In the rain, the town smelled like piss and French fries.
The men grew mustaches to shave them off.
With the shades drawn, we compared
scars and birthmarks, tried on the big desires.

Later I told them I mistook head for moon and moved
closer to find the famous face. I told them my lips paid
the standing ransom, forked over the tongue.
Further down the page, the river bent at the fairgrounds

that once starred in the fictions of childhood,
a box in my closet still filled with cramped cursive
in which the clowns embraced the girls
behind the Tilt-a-Whirl. Always the urge to close

the gap between the X’s and the slack-jawed O.
In spring ground, bulbs shrug and shift and whisper
time to change our lives but it was not spring then
and the bulbs hunkered in the frozen dirt

and in the wind the skin of our knuckles cracked.
With morning came a trail of single earrings, rubber bands,
spit-out gristle and split ends. I blamed tequila,
the way the men would lick and salt and lick their hands,

then pucker of lime and a swooning.
Again, again. Variations on a theme of gravity—
Wing Night every Monday, us cheering as the athletes lunged
at earth and at each other on the screens above the bar,

us sucking the tiny bones and then each finger.
Once I asked the men if they remembered
being small and how we hid behind the school
with a can of hairspray and lit its mist into a burst of fire.

MalechCover.jpegThere is a fearlessness in how Malech’s language proceeds, a simplicity of approach (an uncensoring openness) that, with a sudden readjustment as if picking up a scent, can accommodate the unanticipated idea or observation. For instance, it is one thing to say, as she does in the first stanza, that “I wanted / to kiss all the men and sometimes I did,” but then another thing to clarify (or complicate, or both) by saying that such trysts were “not as simple / as relax and be lonely since my hands were so cold.” The line doesn’t exactly require explication – but its blurted personal insight stays mysterious. My first time through, I lingered there for a few moments, marveling at the line. In any event, Malech’s superb pacing and fluency send us off to the next stanza.

Dora Malech’s poems of heartbreak, disillusion and clashing come equipped with their own redemptions – the compensating notion that verbal dexterity gets the last laugh. The intimacy the reader shares with the poet is based on a mutual regard for the fugitive nature of language. But even so, in Say So, language trumps circumstance.

[Published November 29, 2010. 78 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Dora Malech et al

I just want to say that the poetry reviews on this site are wonderful and rare. They not only illuminate the texts but instruct on how to respond to the genre. The tastes here are broad and the commentary is so insightful.

Also, Dora Malech hasa poem in the New Yorker this week called "Country Songs."