Twelve Poets Recommend New and Recent Titles

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

Sally Ball

on The Do-Over by Kathleen Ossip (Sarabande)

Kevin Prufer

on Digest by Gregory Pardlo (Four Way Books)

Lisa Russ Spaar

on The Players by Jill Bialosky (Alfred A. Knopf)

Philip Metres

on Diaspo/Renga by Marilyn Hacker and Deema K. Shehabi (Holland Park Press)

Rick Barot

on Shadow of a Cloud But No Cloud by Killarney Clary (University of Chicago Press)

David Wojahn

on Wallless Space by Eric Meister, translated by Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick (Wave Books)

Randall Mann

on The Wilderness by Sandra Lim (W.W. Norton)

Sandra Lim

on Ban En Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat Books)

Sarah Vap

on The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press)

Alan Williamson

on Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015 by Chana Bloch (Autumn House Press)

Patrick Pritchett

on Net Needle by Robert Adamson (Flood Editions)

Shane McCrae

on On Hours by Marc Rahe (Rescue Press)

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Sally Ball

The Do-Over by Kathleen Ossip (Sarabande)

The Do-Over seems a coy title for an elegy: what none of us get. Though I suppose that’s only if we’re identifying with the dead person. A do-over might instead be what everything feels like in the thrall of grief: a depleted (beloved-free) cycle of repetition in which we observe and re-observe ourselves bumping up against a phenomenon that Ossip names — via Sylvia (and Aurelia) Plath — “No use.” A particular type of futility, this no use: one in which being forgotten (when you are dead) and trying to forget (when you mourn) are equally irrelevant, equally not in the interest of mourner or mourn-ee. When Anne Carson says:

If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you.
Why.
To tell it to.

and when Frank Bidart says:

when I hear your voice there is now
no direction in which to turn

— these are similar instances of no use, a concept that looks over at the concept of a do-over and sighs.

We want what we can’t have, from poems, from ancestors, from jobs, from Amy Winehouse and Steve Jobs, from anecdotes that resonate and thrum. We want to know what they mean, for one thing; we want them to teach us how to live. Kathleen Ossip’s poems in The Do-Over want to know how to live once one has been altered by grief, by the depletion of oneself and the change to the world around oneself that follow bereavement.

OssipColor.jpegMany of these poems are to or about “A.,” Andrea Forster Ossip, Ossip’s stepmother-in-law, whose name frequently appears running down the left margin of an elegy-acrostic: as if she’s in the book, in the poem, right there, a sort of bone structure in the body of the lyric. “I want to believe in reincarnation, an eternity of do-overs,” Ossip writes in a poem in which she’s at home, on land where long ago the Wecksquageek tribe camped and fished and planted corn. A. is in these pages; the Wecksquageeks are too, and so is Plath, and Troy Davis (executed in Georgia in 2011 despite grave concerns about the evidence against him). Here they all recur (live on?) — because Ossip’s desire to have conviction about reincarnation has created instances of it, each elegized person (infamous or intimate) present and provocative, pushing the poet and the reader toward some new thought, maybe our “last big chance at a voice.” Or maybe something smaller, that bone structure of the acrostic, maybe just a trace of presence — a value “absurd, chaotic and tight.”

These others (step-MIL, Plath, the celebrities, a cluster of datalounge.com posters, a Distinguished White Male Poet-Critic) aren’t here as multitudes to be contained. Rather, Ossip’s speaker navigates a world with others in it as a way of making a do-over before she is over:

THE DO-OVER

I will not WILL NOT take my authority
to feed my lucky hungers,
nor dub thee “Full of Mourning”
while the sun is loving me.
No aspect of life is to be despised
though we’re still sitting cranky in the meadow,
sick, singed, loud and daring.
I see the forest, I see the trees.
What I can’t see is the
dappled clearing I’m standing on,
though I know it’s deserving
of the pinkest haloes.
To be left with you, big-sky God?
To be a dreamer, overly?
Have I traversed the wood only to go to—No!

My hand is Wyoming, discovered.
It turns the pages of the recent self-help literature
and wherever I look there are faces like sunbeams.

So kiss the mainstream culture, let it go.

Let go of that beautiful despair.
The shackles of the lyric, let them go.
In the clearing, the
now is falling.
We clean ourselves,
preserve our sanity by playing,
work quickly with fine impulses.
The color of what we choose turns into a remedy,
an important minor sacrament.
There’s something modern within us,
grieving in middle age,
and its intensity stands
between us and death

in the school, the dappled school, of patience.

OssipCover.jpgWith Ossip, we can’t conclude about reincarnation, about afterlife beyond these pages; here, the dream of never dying appears as a kind of boast, undercut and already-unbelieved in its slangy, italicized iteration rhymed with the Western sky (I am never gonna die). A clearing is what we’re supposed to be able to see, and (presumably) to speak about: but if the first poem in The Do-Over reminds us that Ossip is a supplicant, a searcher (“I’m still studying, aren’t you?”), we find in the title poem late in the book that the dappled clearing that can’t be seen is our school, the school of patience. What mourning returns to us, over and over, is itself: impractical, inconclusive: “A song of love and death makes its own/ bitter symmetry, that’s the myth of achievement.” The unbearable borne along: it’s not an achievement, not something we finish with. It’s a song. More than anything we want to hear/ you sing again in a voice not young.

[Published February 3, 2015. 96 pages, $14.95 paperback]

Sally Ball

is the author of Wreck Me and Annus Mirabilis. She teaches at Arizona State University and is associate director of Four Way Books.

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Kevin Prufer

Digest by Gregory Pardlo (Four Way Books)

One of the most frightening dreams I ever had went like this: On my bed was a large pile of crumpled sheets. Under these sheets, I knew, was some truer version of myself. I could see the outline of my own curled body as I tore the sheets away. The pile, however, never got smaller.

PardloCover.jpegI thought of this dream as I read Gregory Pardlo’s newest book, Digest. For Pardlo, too, the poet’s self is constantly both revealed to us and concealed from us, filtered by larger historical contexts, smiling at us from behind (apparently) theoretical meditations, reemerging in remembered narratives or acts of ventriloquism.

Take, for example the book’s opening poem, “Written by Himself,” which makes use of anaphora to suggest one simultaneous assertion and concealment of the poet’s identity after another, each phrase complicating (and often making absurd) the phrase that precedes it:

I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye,
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes.

Though for all this concealment and complication, the shape of a man eventually resolves, one wrapped in imagery increasingly engaged with American history and the influence of that history on a shifting sense of African American selfhood:

I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry [...]
I was born waist-deep and stubborn in the water crying
ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued
by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing
off the problems of the twentieth century: I was born.
I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;
I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.

Eventually, “Written by Himself” seems less interested in suggesting an individual speaker with individual qualities (if so, it might have been called “Written By Myself”), and more curious about a larger, Whitmanian self filtered through America’s troubled racial history, an enormous-minded speaker who discovers, in the poem’s last line, the American history that both predates him and composes him.

Of this poem—and one could say the same of much of this book—Pardlo has written, “I accept that my identity is a digest of discourses and that my engagement with the world is mediated through these discourses.” Thus, elsewhere in Digest, Pardlo makes winking (often ironic) fun of the intricacies of theoretical language (in a series of mock academic course descriptions, for example) as he simultaneously effaces and suggests the self’s restless, witty many-mindedness. Or he meditates on conatus (in philosophy, the inherent inclination of a thing (mind/matter) to continue to exist) in a series of poems inspired by observations of philosophers that quickly morph into sonically complex (and violent) riffs on mortality, erasure, annihilation.

PardloA.jpegPerhaps the book’s greatest achievement is the 29-section prose meditation “Alienation Effects,” in which Pardlo assumes the voice of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser who, in 1980, strangled his wife to death. What begins as a deeply creepy act of ventriloquism becomes, over pages, a fascinating meditation on insanity, misogyny, and cruelty. (“Poe says the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world,” Pardlo’s Althusser tells us. “Are these my only options? Enshrine her in the church of the beautiful of display her in a cage of misogyny? I am no poet. She was no beauty.”) And, just when this wildly performative portrait of Althusser seems most real, Pardlo pulls aside the curtain, allowing his subject to address, not us, but the poet himself: “I cannot absolve you. I cannot dress your wounds. I can’t deliver you, Pardlo [...] The figure that haunts you is your own design.”

To imply that this book is uniformly engaged with variations, versions, concealments, and displacements of the self, however, is to do it a disservice, because that suggests a book that is far more clinical than Digest ultimately proves to be. Sewn like a golden thread through these rigorous, witty poems, are profoundly moving, emotionally tangible meditations on the crises and loves of family, the joys and pain of fatherhood, the struggles of our changing relationships with our parents. The city of Brooklyn serves as a cinematic backdrop, diversely peopled, constantly noisy and moving—tangible and colorful.

In all, Digest is like nothing I’ve read in years—intellectually rigorous; serious; theoretically, socially, and emotionally engaged. And Pardlo writes with enormous economy of language, psychological acuity, and sonic complexity. This is truly a memorable and brilliant collection of poems.

[Published October 7, 2014. 75 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Kevin Prufer’s

sixth book of poems is Churches (2014). He is also co-curator of The Unsung Masters Series which aims to bring important, out-of-print, and forgotten writers to the attention of new readers.

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Lisa Russ Spaar

The Players by Jill Bialosky (Knopf)

“Pitching is just an illusion,” said ‘Little’ Al Jackson, former pitching coach of the Boston Red Sox. “You’re dealing with a man’s eyes. Make him think he’s getting one thing, and give him another, and you’ve got him.”

Bialosky.jpegWith pitch-perfect, plain-spoken eloquence, Jill Bialosky appears, on the one hand, to be offering in The Players a series of amiable, perceptive, playful coming-of-age scenarios, many involving a boy who, through the rite of playing baseball in the context of his cohort, his family, and his community, grows into young manhood. On the other hand, Bialosky is giving us, as Jackson suggests, something else, something more — an entire discerned cycle of romance, hope, dream, striving, loss, and recompense, played out in and across family, time, and place. The long game, the protracted season of baseball, is conflated with incipient, then high summer that turns, inevitably, to fall. By the end of the book, we experience this “season” not only in the game of baseball, but in married love, child-rearing, middle-age, the death of parents, the giving up of houses, and the surrendering by parents of children to their own lives. Bialosky’s “The Pillage,” which evokes James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” illuminates the primal reasons we play and watch games, with their subtext of beauty, fear, élan vital, and grief:

Time passes
into the limbs of the boys
on the field stretching
before the season’s last game,
into memories of their phantom selves
tugging wheelbarrows
through fields, flying
gleefully over one bump
and another.
Into the lines
and furrows of their brows,
into the solid precision of their bodies
trained to field and battle,
time passes, the day nearly recollection.
They come rushing from the dugout
in uniform to take their positions,
confident, aware of the fleeting
glory of the moment,
their faces glow
like the last lightning bugs
of the season, heat and adrenaline
bursting from their bodies.
Let’s watch the enlightened leaves burn
span style="padding-left: 20px;">into dark and angry flames.

In all of her poetry books (this is her fourth), Bialosky has shown a gift for making the human mythic, and vice versa, which is one way she avoids lapsing into the merely confessional, though the poems have always been personally charged. The secrets and vexations of family (the families we come from, the families we make) and the language we use to describe and create those contexts have been her subjects from the start, in two novels, an edited volume of essays, and a memoir, as well as in poetry. The book’s title, in fact, calls to mind the “players” in a theatrical performance as much as it does the participants in an athletic event. One of the book’s sections, “Interlude,” offers a kind of intermission in the midst of family drama, making a bow to various literary personae, real and fictional (Jane Eyre, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Isabel Archer) whose disappointments and triumphs inform the rest of the book. Another section, “American Comedy,” is a series of sonnets exploring the tension between the velocity of contemporary life —technology, reality TV, virtual-dating (“No need for soliloquy. We’ve / mastered the grand art of text”) — and the narrator’s lost world of “wildflowers, horse dung, and clover.” Here is “Morning Nocturne,” notable for the characteristic way Bialosky assembles ordinary elements — clouds, the sea, a rooftop, sandpipers — into an expression of metaphysical subtlety:

I am glad today is dark. No sun. Sky
ribboning with amorphous, complicated
layers. I prefer cumulous on my
morning beach run. What more can we worry
about? Our parents are getting older
and money is running out. The children
are leaving, the new roof is damaged by
rain and rot. I fear the thrashing of the sea
in its unrest, the unforgiving cricket.
But that’s not it. The current is rising.
The dramas are playing out. Perhaps
it’s better to be among these sandpipers
with quick feet dashing out of the surf than
a person who wishes to feel complete.

BialoskyCover.jpgOne pleasure of following a writer over time (I began reading Bialosky when her first book, End of Desire, appeared in 1997) is the intimacy and trust that can form as a result of experiencing an author’s evolving vision. The abandonment of a parent, suicide of a sister, stillborn deaths of two children —navigating these territories through Bialosky’s lens, in a range of modes — fiction, poetry, essay, memoir — over time makes me admire all the more the hard-earned substance and veracity of these new poems. One of my favorite poems in Bialosky’s first book is the last one in the collection, “The Dawn of the End of Civilization.” In it, a speaker who has recently lost a child (one thinks of Plath’s “Parliament Hill Fields”), walks along the ocean, meditating on an image of a man carrying a red-haired child, “on sand fine as baby powder. / My boy would have been a red-head”):

. . . It was the eve of the first of November.
There was absolutely no sun. No chance.
Barely a slice of blue in the white opaque sky.
There was good food—salmon peppered and grilled.
Complicated conversation.
Later I walked the beach and shooed away flies.
The seductive, dangerous curl of the waves threatened to shake it,
But the image stayed with me. It was the dawn of the day
I would never give birth to; the life I would never have.

I was afraid.

Re-reading this poem in light of “Morning Nocturne,” above, I’m struck, again, by Bialosky’s prismatic ability to take the same elements—sky, sea, desire, fear, surrender—and show how despair and hope are inextricably bound up in one another—and not just in any one moment’s dirty trick or curve ball, but throughout the entire game, the whole tragi-comic play, the all of life, during which, if we are fortunate (“It was a miracle, our ignorance,” Bialosky writes in “The Lucky Ones,” “It was grace / incarnate, how we never knew”), we are always stepping up to the plate, ready to be surprised.

[Published February 24, 2015. 80 pages, $26.00 hardcover]

Lisa Russ Spaar

directs the writing program at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Her most recent poetry collection is Vanitas, Rough. She writes about second books of poems for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Philip Metres

Diaspo/Renga by Marilyn Hacker and Deema K. Shebabi (Holland Park Press)

HackerCover.jpgThe Diaspo/Renga, a book-length collaborative poetic sequence written by Marilyn Hacker and Deema Shehabi, dramatizes how Jewish and Palestinian experiences of exile (the diaspo(ra) of the title) come together in an act of imaginative empathy for and solidarity with oppressed and displaced peoples. The book’s intriguing origins speak to the possibilities of solidarity in a digital age. Hacker — a celebrated poet and expatriate American Jew who’s written poignantly about exilic subjectivity from her earliest poetry — sent a Japanese renga to Palestinian American poet Deema Shehabi, whom she had never met in person. Deema replied with her own renga. What ensued was a four year long collaboration across continents—from Paris to San Francisco, and beyond.

“Renga,” meaning “linked poem” in Japanese, is an old collaborative form that encouraged both leaping and linking; the fact of its origins also underscores the globalized nature of the book. Instead of alternating each stanza, Hacker and Shehabi wrote four stanzas each, to stretch the form and allow for a more textured picture to develop.

From the very first alternating exchanges, the poets lift and shift our gaze from site to site, and from sight to sight, beginning during the 2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza, the archetypal site of immobility and imprisonment:

M

Five, six – and righteous,
the child in green in Gaza
stands in her wrecked home,

grubby, indignant. Her hands
point; she explains what was done

bombed, burned. It all smells
like gas! We had to throw our clothes
away! The earrings my

father gave me… No martyr,
resistant. The burnt cradle…

D

breaks over the cold mountains
of North Carolina where a Cherokee
poet huddles in a cottage

by an indigo fire. She sees
the child and says,

This is the new Trail of Tears.
Calls out, Oh outspread Indian nation
let's braid our hair

with the pulverized
gravel of Palestine.

Witness, she says, the unpinned
knuckles of this child. Feel
the burlap curtains whip across...

M

the third floor window
in Belleville, dyed blue-purple
like the hyacinth

on the windowsill. Nedjma
does math homework. Strike today;

but school tomorrow.
Coming back from the demo
they sang in the street –

Rêve Générale! -- the slogan
makes her smile. Wan winter sun …

Hacker.jpegHacker initiates our journey in Gaza, where a child becomes spokesperson for the depradations of Israeli bombing, and Shehabi—whose grandfather was once the mayor of Gaza—sends us to North Carolina, where a Cherokee poet sees this child, presumably on television or in a news story, and sutures her own experience of dispossession — the “Trail of Tears” to the Palestinian nakba. The connection between colonialisms has been a regular motif in Palestinian literature, famously in Mahmoud Darwish’s poems such as “Address of the Red Indian.” Then, almost as quickly, Hacker brings us back to her Paris, richly populated by Arabs such as Nedjma, and the city’s vital tradition of general strikes.

Diaspo/Renga is the digital poetic enactment of a Cherokee braiding hair with gravel of Palestine. In these linked poems, Hacker and Shehabi create a meeting place, inflected by exile but not silenced by it.

When Shehabi writes of the experience of reading Arabic to Hacker, who is a student of Arabic, they meet in the raw sensuality of the lips and teeth and tongue and ear. One final example of the leaping and suturing of the “Diaspo/Renga” will render the poignancy of the poem’s vision:

M

In Damascus, she
reads her son’s letter. He wants
to translate a book

a Jewish journalist wrote
with a Palestinian

prisoner of war,
from French into Arabic.
His carte de séjour

was renewed. As she folds up
the foolscap, she remembers

D

standing on the balcony
of her tiny apartment
in Kuwait overlooking the Gulf.

The smell of iodine so sharp
in her nostrils as she watched

the neighborhood kids
listening to Saber's crazy
stories of goat-hooved spirits

who linger at the fourth
ring road.
Dear God, she sighs,

M

covering her face
with the abaya behind
the hired car’s smoked glass.

Môsul’s main streets are jagged
with potholes. Before the war

she drove her own car
to the university.
She’d thrust the letter-

menace into her book-bag.
Tomorrow at dawn she’ll go

D

visit her father's grave
and read the
Fatiha.
Who knows when she'll

return? The word refugee makes
her cringe. She'll go, but she'll carry

the sound of his voice calling her name.
How does one say farewell

To Iraq, Iraq, Nothing But Iraq?
She grabs a fistful of ground.

HackerShehabi.jpegIn a globalized age, poets have struggled to find ways to respond to the paradoxical conditions of increasing interconnectedness and profoundly alienating isolation that our age entails. Through their process of co-creation, Hacker and Shehabi have built a form that reaches toward the dizzying experience of globalization, but does not replicate its paralyzing alienation. Rather, in these humane renga, we feel into the real vulnerabilities and griefs of the refugee, the exile who “grabs a fistful of ground.”

[Published June 18, 2014. 117 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Some language from this review first appeared in “Carrying Continents in Our Eyes: Arab American Poetry After 9/11,” in the volume A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (U of Georgia Press, 2015).

Philip Metres

is the author of Sand Opera (2015), A Concordance of Leaves, and To See the Earth. A two-time recipient of the NEA and the Arab American Book Award, he is professor of English at John Carroll University.

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Rick Barot

Shadow of a Cloud But No Cloud by Killarney Clary (University of Chicago Press)

Followed with obsessive attention over many years, the work of an artist begins to seem like an autobiography that is also your autobiography. I have felt this way about Killarney Clary’s prose poems for over 20 years—that she is somehow writing my story, even though we are, in virtually all the identity markers that people would point to, nothing alike. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that Clary is writing the story of my mind and its development over time. My mind’s interactions with place, its relationships with others, its conversations with itself, its hunger for image and incident, its inability to settle on meaning even as it continually seeks meaning, and last, my mind’s characteristic attitudes of tenderness, brutality, indifference — Clary’s poems are mapping these things for me.

Clary.jpegClary has published four books. Who Whispered Near Me, from 1989, is, compared to her later books, Clary’s most ample work in terms of the sheer amount of things the poems contain—more description, more place, more story, more words. The poems have a warm regard for Southern California, where Clary seems to have lived most of her life, and for the people and events of childhood. The two books of Clary’s middle period — By Common Salt from 1996 and Potential Stranger from 2003 — have a startling severity. The poems’ narrative coordinates are spare, their tonalities often clipped. There’s a Didion-like atmosphere that pervades these two books, with perplexity as the defining motif in the encounters people have with each other and the encounters the speakers have with their own sense of things.

Published eleven years since her last book, Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud begins as an extension of the textures in Potential Stranger. The poems in the book’s early sections have Clary’s signature compression. Each poem usually presents an individual engaged in some small occurrence of life, or in the moment prior to or after a larger occurrence. In keeping with the fraught moods that often informed her two middle books, the poems in the early sections of Shadow of a Cloud seem haunted by a sense of contingency and vulnerability. A poem in the second section begins: “My feet are soft and quiet against the cool floor. Midmorning I understand there are no birds.” Here is Clary’s delicate attention to the body, its environment, and the details that might turn out to be portents of a kind. The poem’s second paragraph: “I have gone through the first night, the worst.” Here the poem slips into the heart of the speaker’s dark circumstance, without telling us the nature of the circumstance. This quick slip is characteristic of Clary’s handling of narrative in all her work: from part to part, she leaps without warning, leaving us to piece together the arc — narrative and emotional — that we are following. Here’s the third paragraph, and the third leap we must make: “Dry gravel ticks, crumbles into rivulets. Sparse grey foliage and its shadow tremble in a dusty wind. I spent half the party saying goodbye.” And the fourth paragraph, and one more leap: “You hold your T-shirt at the label, pull it up and off your back and lie down.” And the last paragraph, with its wounded question: “Why is there still a world for me?” The poem’s ending question is still another signatory gesture of Clary’s, whose poems are full of questions that relentlessly signal the uncertainty, the unsettled, and the refusal of easy closure in Clary’s world.

In the later sections of Shadow of a Cloud, a pointedly new theme asserts itself: the deterioration and loss of parents. A poem in the third section is representative: “Mama and I knelt together near the brick edge. She dug holes on the border of the bed, cut flats into squares with a kitchen knife, went inside for the phone. I was by myself, planting pansies in the late afternoon shadow of the house, in the cold, springy dichondra so easily bruised. The plum tree leaves stirred, black-purple, deadly, dark. I wanted her to come back.” If sometimes, in Clary’s tersest poems, there’s a withholding that keeps the reader at a distance, the poems in Shadow of a Cloud have a fullness of disclosure that has the opposite effect. The book is a reminder of the sense of wonder that has been a part of Clary’s idiosyncratic lyric project from the start. “I love waiting here where bees were once kept, in the forest clearing, alone in the cold wishing I weren’t alone,” the book’s final poem begins. And, marvelously and movingly, continues: “I think what I can to make myself ache — how it was when we were all alive and all talking. Mama believed that when she died she’d see her mother; Daddy said he’d be nowhere. I hear their voices in my own, feel their manner in my posture as I bend to pull the Scotch broom while it can still be easily pulled. I am full of them.”

[Published October 24, 2014, 88 pages, Paperback, $18.00 paperback]

Rick Barot

teaches at Pacific Lutheran University and is the poetry editor of New England Review. His third collection of poems, Chord, will be published by Sarabande in 2015.

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David Wojahn

Wallless Space by Eric Meister, translated by Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick (Wave Books)

I doubt if even the most avid readers of contemporary poetry have taken note of this, but there has been recently been something of a mini-boom in translations of modern German poetry. The Paul Celan juggernaut of course keeps rolling on, as evidenced by Farrar Straus and Giroux’s recent publication of Pierre Joris’s translation of all of Celan’s later poems. It’s a behemoth endeavor which according to my bathroom scale weighs eight pounds. Michael McGriff’s Tavern Books has republished some of Michael Hamburger’s classic translations of Nelly Sachs, which have been unavailable for over forty years. The indefatigable poet and translator Michael Hoffman has brought out a superb bilingual anthology of modern German poetry, and — even more excitingly — Improvisations, a rich selection of the poetry of Gottfried Benn, much of it previously unavailable in English. Hoffman’s versions of Benn, who comes across as one of modern poetry’s great curmudgeons, a little akin to figures such as Alan Dugan and Philip Larkin, make a strong case for Benn as a modern German poet second only to Rilke — and he’s much more fun to read.

Meister.jpgThe latest addition to this boom-let is Ernst Meister, born in 1911, and the author of sixteen collections of verse, much of it published toward the end of his life. Translations of Meister scarcely exist in English—Hoffman’s anthology prints only one of his poems—but the Germanist Samuel Frederick and the poet Graham Foust (who strikes me as one of our most substantial younger poets), have sought to rectify this paucity: Wallless Space is the second installment of a trilogy of Frederick’s and Foust’s versions of Meister’s late collections, and it is the work of a Twentieth Century master. Published in 1979, shortly before the author’s death, Wallless Space is a brooding but never insular meditation on mortality, written by a deeply philosophical yet deeply humane poet. Meister’s poems are tersely epigrammatic, but also haunted and quirky, and above all fearless in their reckonings with our transience. Meister--who studied philosophy with Heidegger’s principal pupil, Hans-Georg Gadamer -- writes with a kind of intellectual severity that seems utterly different from most contemporary American poetry, and thus his poems seem shocking but also oddly bracing: Here’s a representative effort from the volume. Like most of the collection’s poems, it is untitled:

To be
dust isn’t really
an official function.

O
only desolation,
eternity’s desert

Once born,
I was
flung into knowledge.

MeisterCover.jpgThe sparseness of Meister’s method bears some superficial resemblance to the later poems of Celan. But Meister possesses none of Celan’s hermeticism or cramped spiritual yearning. He’s a materialist through and through — tellingly, the opening poem of Wallless Space is a vexed ode to paper on which he composes. But Meister is never a materialist of the reductive, no-ideas-but-in-things variety. In the introduction to their earlier volume of Meister’s work, Time’s Rift (2012), Frederick and Foust liken Meister’s method to that of George Oppen, and the comparison is very apt. Like Oppen, he places great value on clarity of description, and is vehemently skeptical of language’s ability to arrive at any semblance of such clarity. This skepticism partially explains Oppen’s famous decision to stop writing for over twenty years. Meister maintained a similar silence; after his first collection was issued in 1931, he too published no poetry for two decades. Also like Oppen, Meister’s striving for exactitude often results in a quirky and unconventional syntax, odd enjambments, and a halting sort of utterance that repeatedly seeks to remind us that knowledge and accuracy of seeing rarely arise from adornment or mere eloquence: Witness the pained nihilism of this poem:

The story
of that which was
is contained only
in ruin.

The dead, namely,
they’re incapable of
the circuitous
fable of themselves

Even though
the grave would be
the very place
of storytelling.

For Meister, the abyss is palpable, insistent, and seems to move ever closer as the poems of Wallless Space unfold. (“The ditch is nearer,” as Lowell put it in “For the Union Dead.”) Or, as Frederick and Foust insist in their introduction to the volume, “Meister’s great achievement, we believe, is his celebration of language’s power as both product of and protection against the existential void.” I can think of no better illustration of this claim than the following poem:

The figure, the one
called existence,
has as father
the abyss of abysses.

And the mother,
quite radiant,
is here and hereafter
called woe.

We are saved
by nothing,
and nothing
remains for us.

Need it be added that Ernst Meister is not the sort of poet for the faint of heart? But should you be weary of the trifles, sophistry, and dutiful careerism that comprises so much of contemporary verse, Meister’s work — astringent, uncompromising, and, above all, revelatory — may offer you some discomforting but enduring solace.

[Published September 2, 2014. 144 pages, $18.0 paperback]

David Wojahn

is professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. His most recent poetry collection is World Tree.

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Randall Mann

The Wilderness by Sandra Lim (W.W. Norton)

At Green Apple Books in San Francisco, in January 2015, I read with Sandra Lim, to help her celebrate the launch of The Wilderness. Except, I’m a little ashamed to say, apart from reading a few sharp pieces in magazines, and from hearing her read before, I didn’t really know The Wilderness. But I like Sandra; I liked the idea of liking her book.

**

She killed it that night. I picked up the book; I’m taking you to Venice tomorrow, I told her, you and Brodsky will be in my carry-on, something new and something old. Venice in winter, she said, wistfully.

**

LimCover.jpegLouise Glück chose the book for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and in a way they share an sensibility, a cool psychology — but Lim is more elaborate, philosophical, vulnerable. And then there is all her calculated rage. The first poem, “Small Container, Fury,” a Cornell box of detail and desire, moves from Rembrandt to Humbert Humbert to weather — the world beautiful and bloody, spring “holding out love and death / like a platter of the daintiest cakes.” This sets the scene for the book, this and the coming poems so delicate and exquisitely made; as in a fairy tale, consuming these seductive pieces has consequences. She ends the poem, wry and fierce, “Let the world eat me, but // then, let the world sob, not me.”

**

This is a book of winter, rebirth, of the ideologies of spring and snow. “Spring comes forward as a late-winter confection, and I cannot decide if it advances a philosophy of meekness or daring,” she begins the poem “Snowdrops,” and one can hear the ambivalence, the lack of faith in the natural world, its skeletal betrayals. I admire that Lim has the gift to appear to tease out argument as the poem unfolds — rather than just present it as something foregone. She continues: “This year’s snowdrops: is it that they are spare, and have a slightly fraught lucidity, or are they proof that pain, too, can be ornate?” I admire her effect, a sort of poetic seasonal affect, an attention that calls to mind Jorie Graham — a madness, too. Lim has a sinister, off-kilter, abstract way of seeing the everyday; the poem ends: “More faith is asked of us, a trained imagination against the ice-white.” This is also a book of control.

**

A word like landscape probably doesn’t mean much at this point, but this is a book of landscape, the physical world and the mind’s interior, the promise of both as lost promise. “The stars could rise in darkness over heartbreaking coasts, / and you would not know if you were ruining your life or beginning a real one,” she writes in “Amor Fati.” I love that knowing word real, the wilderness that is self-doubt and diminishment and truth. “Always, everyone lies about his life,” she ends this poem, wisdom that is another gorgeous warning not to trust her.

**

Lim.jpgThis is a book of seeing and failing to see. A book, like all good books, of complication. “The world we see never is the world that is,” she writes in “The New World,” life a gorgeous erasure, cold, an endgame, unfeeling in its fully felt way. For all the winter in this book, it might be tempting to cast paradise as more conventional wilderness, colors moving into colors. Not for Lim: “Paradise would be paper-white, / a way to ease into this nothingness.”

**

The pleasure of reading Sandra Lim is the pleasure of travel is the pleasure of containment. There’s a luxury in reading poems while traveling. A certain kind of possibility, I suppose, in the discovery of the coming words and the coming place. Something enforced: I am strapped to my seat, I cannot go anywhere, the present more present yet possibility looming: digital map, blue sky, a field of snow. Calamity, perhaps, too. I read this book in airport gates and on planes; I read it after watching the mist rise off the green waters near the Ospedale. “At a crucial point, there is yet more than one way / Of proceeding, but it seldom appears that way,” she writes in “Envoi: Lazarus.” The word wild alive inside wilderness. The Wilderness is one of the best books of poems I’ve read in years.

[Published September 22, 2014. 96 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Straight Razor (Persea Books) is the latest collection of poetry by

Randall Mann.

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Sandra Lim

Ban En Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat Books)

Every moment of Bhanu Kapil’s visceral and shimmering Ban en Banlieue alerts the reader to the urgent conditions of its production: the entire book is presented as a collection of notes toward a novel and its paratexts. The narration builds around the story of a woman thinking about a fictional black girl named Ban as she walks home from school in the beginning moments of a race riot in London in the 1970s. Ban lives in an immigrant suburb of London, the banlieue of the title, and her act of lying down is the central image around which Kapil imagines various bodies violently slipping from legible modes of citizenship, language, human subjectivity.

KapilSpeaker_0.jpgAlong with the figure of Ban, we are introduced to the real-life figures of Nirbhaya, “The Fearless One,” a young woman from New Delhi gang raped and beaten to death in New Delhi in 2012, and Clement Blair Peach, the antiracist activist killed by police in 1979 at a London demonstration. Something about their inclusion anchors this highly self-reflexive text; it reminds us that distinctly conceptual works are always caught up in the most material and historical specifics: “Feral events cut through.”

A book turning itself inside out like this to display its inner workings has the effect not of representation nor even of re-figuration, exactly, but of immediacy, deferral, and a sort of noble faith in dissonant ontologies. Ban en Banlieue’s performance notes, annotations, documentation of protests, record of exercises for the body, quotations, notebook extracts, and long list of acknowledgments all feelingly serve as a warning about the often disappropriating effects of an effort to reconcile the body, psychology, biography, politics, writing, media, and other forms of knowledge. This makes for the integrity of the book. “One thing next to another doesn’t meant they touch,” writes Kapil. And later, “You can be hybrid and not share a body with anything else. Thus, the different parts of ‘Ban’ do not touch. They never touch at all.”

The concurrent blurring and disjointing of Ban the book entire, the fictional girl, Bhanu Kapil herself and her different moments in history, the metaphors generated by the word “ban,” and the decomposing figures of Ban, all allow the reader to think about two things at once — being and the account of coming into being as deepest wish, twinned reality: “I wanted to open my mouth in a novel. I wanted to lie down forever in a novel. I dragged myself off the floor of the novel.” The book and Ban allow each other to co-exist: “The notebook lets something die in order to arrive,” notes the poet. “Ban is a spine. Sometimes, looking at the watercolor drawing of an animal skeleton, I think her movements, even in the dying process, the spasms before death, are transforming her forever into something new.” Her transformations, in body and in text, in performance and in afterimage, work out some of the conditions of speaking and accounting: “Ban lies down. She folds to the ground. This is syntax.”

KapilCover_0.jpgAlong with rendering Ban en Banlieue the heated feeling of making, its anti-mimetic gestures allow the book to sustain its meditation on bodies and violence without neutralizing the missing political voices of the disenfranchised, of “the immigrant, the monster, the schizophrenic and the wolf.” The narrator’s grief and anger over recurring patriarchal violence, racism, and public and personal insurrections sometimes express themselves as sudden capitulation in the face of the wholly awful:

She lay on the ground for 40 minutes—twitching—making low sounds—then none at all—diminishing—before anyone called the police. I thought about those 40 minutes and compared them to the fictive –12 hours—that Ban lay on the ground. What was in the work—as an image—had appeared beyond it—as a scene. I thought about the crowd that gathered to watch as—the girl—the Fearless One—as they called her, afterwards—began to die; a black rope and other materials extended from her body towards them—according to witness accounts. Does the body of the witness discharge something too? At that moment, I stopped writing Ban.

Early on in the book, Kapil invokes Giorgio Agamben’s theory about the politics of sovereignty: “What has been banned is delivered over to its own separateness and, at the same time, consigned to the mercy of the one who abandons it—at once excluded and included, removed and at the same time captured.” This ambivalent gesture of inclusion-exclusion reverberates throughout Ban: figures keep lying down on the ground, decomposing, and one effect of this is to keep shifting the points at which boundaries form: “I think about a monster to think about an immigrant, but Ban is neither of these things.” And “‘An organism that shares a membrane with other organisms is a false indicator of hybrid form.’” The outlaw status of the banished brings them into close association with the animal or animality; Kapil notes that “to study the place where the city dissolves is to study the wolf.” The wolf is that person who is outside the law; the animal-human hybrid state marks the point at which a life is no longer authorized by the political identity that comes with citizenship in a community. In such a field of representation, there is a profound desire “to write a sentence with content more volatile than what contains it” or to make it “so that sentences are indents not records”; such a field requires a “literature that is not made from literature.”

Kapil’s sentences resist assimilation, cannot be possessed in a conventional way. She wonders aloud: “The poetic project — its capacity: for embodiment, for figuration, for what happens to bodies when we link them to the time of the event, which is to say — unlived time, the part of time that can never belong to us — I would like to present: a list of the errors I made as a poet engaging a novel-shaped space, the space of a book.” This made me think of another quote by Agamben: “The author marks the point at which a life is offered up and played out in the work. Offered up and played out, not expressed or fulfilled.” As readers of Kapil’s luminous book, we become participants in its methods by submitting to its various textual insecurities, its unresolve, and its willingness to put life into play without reserve—all the better to secure the conditions for deep empathy and awe.

[Published January 6, 2015. 88 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Sandra Lim

is the author of The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), winner of the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize. She lives in Cambridge and teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

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Sarah Vap

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press)

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, as her books most often are, is a fiendishly smart memoir full of her readerly and bodily experiences. In it she speaks about her role, physical and cultural and personal, as mother. She speaks about falling in love, she speaks about getting pregnant, she gives us details about the birth of her son. She also considers at length her dual maternal roles: stepmother of her partner Harry’s son, and mother of their new baby son together. She gives us, I could say, the story of contemporary, thoughtful, educated, privileged, white motherhood.

And Motherhood is the story that no one has ever wanted to hear.

NelsonCover.jpeg“Motherhood” is the nauseating turf that neoliberalism stuffs full of its breederly, heteronormative, patriarchal, capitalist, war-mongering, colonizing, racist values. The only baby that matters, neoliberalism tells us, is a wealthy white hetero baby and so much the better if it’s clearly male. That particular baby, we are told, is so precious, it should and it shall take precedence over all the other (brown, black, queer, poor) babies of earth.

And THAT story of motherhood, no self-respecting poet, academic, anti-heteronormative, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, or decolonizing person could abide.

However. Except. The family that Maggie Nelson is making, the family she speaks about across the book, is no holy white family, it’s a particularly queer family. Her partner is genderqueer. The sex they have is sketched out in the first paragraph of the book as one in which “You had Molloy by your bedside and a pile of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better?” Their new baby is made with technology. Nelson’s references are, I could say, mainstays of anti-heteronormative conversations (Sarah Ahmed, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick). And, if Nelson is going to identify herself as any “kind” of maternal, it’s going to be a “sodomitical maternity.”

And THAT story of motherhood, no self-respecting patriarch, republican, fox-news-watching, fundamentalist, homophobic, capitalist person could abide.

Nelson_0.jpgSo, with Nelson’s The Argonauts, I walk through the book, foremost, delighted and relieved that motherhood and childbirth are being queerly, radically, and sodomitically portrayed — in detail! And I walk through the book, next, asking myself if Nelson is saying that the “sad/bad old family” can be beautifully queered, or if she is saying that the “sad/bad old family” is infiltrating (to the detriment of queerness) queerness. And I believe she is asking herself these exact same questions. Her audience is not, after all, the self-respecting patriarchal, republican, fox-news- watching, fundamentalist, homophobic, racist, capitalist person — her audience is the self-respecting poet, academic, anti-heteronormative, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, decolonizing person!

But whatever: these two sides offer only tired dichotomies of theorizing the maternal. Nelson knows this.

Queer theorist Lee Edelman solidified this dichotomy in 2004 with his book No Future, which outlines his stance of anti-reproductive futurism, and his stance of, specifically, not fighting for children. (Fighting for the children —“no child left behind,” “family values,’ etc. – is what neoliberalism does — because of course neoliberalism doesn’t care about all the children, it cares only about the white, wealthy children.) And while illuminating the intersection of pharmaceuticals and queer interests in the era of “pharmacopornography,” Beatriz Preciado’s recently-translated Testo Junkie nonetheless confirms the age-old hierarchy (of electrifying masculinity over a meh-maternal) by adoring T (testosterone) and pooh-poohing estrogen. But Nelson’s The Argonauts troubles these dichotomies as they are conceptualized by some queer theory and by some feminism.

The Argonauts troubles age-old hierarchies, it troubles maternal, it troubles baby, and it troubles reproduction — but it does not trouble them by being repulsed by female persons who have children, or by children, themselves. “[G]enerally speaking, even in the most radical feminist and/or lesbian separatist circles, there have always been children around.” Nelson reminds us who the enemy (of almost everyone on earth) actually is — it’s not “the mother,” a figure conceptually manipulated by (and repulsive to) all theorizing sides — the enemy, she says, is neoliberalism, itself:

Reproductive futurism needs no more disciples. But basking in the punk allure of ‘no future’ won’t suffice, either, as if all that’s left for us to do is sit back and watch while the gratuitously wealthy and greedy shred our economy and our climate and our planet, crowing all the while about how lucky the jealous roaches are to get the crumbs that fall from their banquet. Fuck them, I say.

In The Argonauts we learn a lot about the fraught-ness of the western pregnant and western maternal body. People across theory camps freak out about maternity, and what the maternal body means, and what it stands for, and who controls it, and what values it perpetuates, and what values it is imbued with, and whose side it’s on. The maternal body is never just the body of the person who embodies it—it’s weighed down (like bodies of color, like queer bodies) with ideas and needs and theories and repulsions and controls on all sides of it. However. Except. It’s not. It’s not for the person whose body it is. For that person, the maternal body is her own body that is doing some crazy shit. I am asked to wonder, alongside Nelson, if the body of a pregnant person is ever just the body of the pregnant person — or if a pregnant body is simply a state of being that is perpetually and continually hijacked by one camp or another (or is given freely to one camp or another) for the purposes of ideology.

This might be the central question that Nelson, reflective about her own subject-position, asks of her maternal experiences across this book: Can queerness thrive, or can it even survive, if it includes a pregnant (white, highly educated, salaried) person in it? Which, for Nelson, leads to: can art survive, or can it even thrive, if it includes a pregnant (white, highly educated, salaried) person in it? And these questions imply others: can art continue survive/thrive if it includes a pregnant person of color? A pregnant poor person? A pregnant person not highly educated in academic modes?

I’m writing this reflection on The Argonauts at the same time that Indiana has sentenced Purvi Patel to twenty years in prison on charges of “feticide” – and at the same time that I am writing my own PhD dissertation on the “fetal imaginary” – and at the same time that I am raising three white boys who came out of my body — and so I am highly sensitized to the monitored and racialized state of the maternal body and my own maternal role. I know that I am monitored on the one side by my intellectual and cultural critics — I musn’t exhibit any love of reproductive-futurity, or appear to love those little white boys too uncritically. And I am monitored on the other side by voices that say that I must “love” them in only and exactly and constantly the ways deemed to be “maternal”— that is, I must sacrifice all of my being to insure their comfort and specialness.

Not only is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts brilliant and a great read, it has done the seemingly impossible: it has shoved some space between the lose/lose (/lose/lose…) of “the maternal.”

[Published May 5, 2015. 160 pages, $23.00 paperback]

Sarah Vap

received a 2013 NEA Literature Fellowship. Her forthcoming collection is Viability (Penguin), selected by Mary Jo Bang for the National Poetry Series.

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Alan Williamson

Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015 by Chana Bloch (Autumn House Press)

Bloch.jpegSwimming in the Rain brings together almost forty years of work by the distinguished poet and translator Chana Bloch. Bloch’s is a good poetry that also speaks to a wide range of readers. Her subject matter is what is ineluctable, intractably complex in life: parents and children; loves and marriages; the inevitable approach of aging, and of death. Her work isn’t “confessional” in the usual sense, since these entanglements are universal, and are treated as such. Though the poems record moments of happiness, as well as misery and ordinary apprehension, they are always aware that “There’s no way to change / without touching / the space at the center of everything.”
Bloch’s style brings together a wide range of poetic resources. There is tough Jewish humor: “Your mother wanted me dead or alive” or “Glue Factory Road, all rocks and hard places.” But this worldly wisdom does not prevent the poems from being heartbreakingly compassionate:

Eighty years
to complete the course from
“I can button this all by myself”
To “I can still button.”

Often, the sudden flash of an illuminating image brings some deeper insight to the surface, as in “Twenty-Fourth Anniversary”:

We’re like the neoclassical façade
on a post office. Every small town
has such a building.
Pillars forget they used to be
tree trunks, their sap congealed

into staying put.

Rooted in the body (notably in an extraordinary erotic poem like “Beaux Arts”), and skeptical of easy spiritual promises, the poetry finds its affirmation in a willingness to stick with whatever arrives, somewhat akin to what Buddhists call “mindfulness.” As the last poem in the book puts it,

And what does the heart hold in that tight little fist?
The string of its one life on earth,
taking the tug of it, letting it fly,
not letting it fly away.

(One of the great pleasures of Bloch’s poetry is that it says wise things with a poignant personal intonation that avoids sententiousness.)

BlochCover.jpgBloch is a distinguished translator of recent Israeli poetry, so it’s not surprising that the shadow of the Holocaust can often be detected behind her sense of the insecurities of life. A painter does her versions of Auschwitz in a mixture of “flour and ash” (what sustains life, what life becomes in the end). Using such a fragile medium, Bloch suggests, she wants to leave herself the option “to brush against it / and wipe it out,” and with it, perhaps, the knowledge it records. Yet Bloch’s most memorable poems on this theme have to do with what sustained the Holocaust survivors she has actually known: the man who attributes his ability to risk sneaking away from a “death march” in 1945 to the fact that “I was loved… when I was a child.” The poem ends, with a perhaps unnecessary overemphasis, “I tell his story every chance I get.” But the choice to tell that story rather than others perhaps resonates with Bloch’s ability, in her other life as an activist, not to let the traumas of the past cloud a clear-eyed view of the Israel/Palestine situation.

The idea that suffering can be good for us, teaching life-lessons that cannot be learned in any other way, is more commonly a Christian than a Jewish theme. But Bloch has engaged with that religious tradition as well; her first published book was a study of George Herbert. On this subject, I’m particularly fond of a poem on “The Little Ice Age” that afflicted Europe in the late Renaissance. The poem concludes:

That’s why the Stradivarius cries so convincingly.
It’s the wood remembering,
the stunned wood shuddering,
too numb to grow,
the tree rings huddled close against the cold.

Chana Bloch’s poetry has always been strong, but, like Stradivarius’s wood, it has gotten stronger the harder the material life has thrown in her path. Mrs. Dumpty (1998), chronicling the dissolution of a marriage in the wake of her long-time husband and collaborator’s recurrent manic-depression, brought a new urgency to her work. In the most recent poems, as Henri Cole writes, “Death is the Great Master hovering in the distance.” (“Inside Out” hints at a cancer diagnosis.) In the face of all this, one can only wish Chana Bloch long life, to continuing chronicling whatever she faces with such fearlessness and eloquence.

[Published January 1, 2015. 221 pages, $19.95 paperback]

Alan Williamson

is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Davis. His most recent books are The Pattern More Complicated: New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press) and Westernness: A Meditation (University Press of Virginia)>

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Patrick Pritchett

Net Needle by Robert Adamson (Flood Editions)

Australian poet Robert Adamson’s work is nowhere near as well recognized in America as it deserves to be. The author of twenty books, beginning with 1970’s Canticles on the Skin, and including most recently The Goldfinches of Baghdad, The Kingfisher’s Soul, and Reading the River: Selected Poems, he has also won every literary award his country can bestow on a poet, among them the Christopher Brennan Prize for lifetime achievement, the Patrick White Award, and The Age Book of the Year Award for The Goldfinches of Baghdad (also published by Flood).

AdamsonCover.jpegAdamson came up the hard way, through a school of brute knocks, spending many of his teenage years incarcerated (as related in his powerful memoir Inside Out). It was in Long Bay Penitentiary he first discovered the works of Shelley and fomented the audacious desire to become a poet. Later, he found Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and in time became friends with both Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley (his poem to the latter, “Inside Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems, from The Kingfisher’s Soul, is essential reading). This led to both poets traveling to Australia for memorable events. Duncan’s visit inspired an entire chapter, “Eros,” in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. These singular acts of generosity mark Adamson’s own work as well. His poems sustain themselves on a remarkable wavelength of deep receptivity to what Duncan called “the ability to respond.” For over 40 years now, Adamson has been writing incredibly supple lyrics whose investments in the romantic imagination are perfectly balanced by the precision of his investigative focus on both the inner world of memory and desire and the outer realm’s thrilling ornithological kaleidoscope.

Net Needle, his newest book, is a work of extraordinary vibrancy. A mixture of autobiographical recollections from Adamson’s youth – moments from prison, learning the craft of net making from the local fishermen – along with powerful “versions” of celebrated European masters like Trakl, Reverdy, and Rimbaud, and a continuation of his life-long attentions to the fantastic birds of Australia, these poems hums with a precise music. I don’t think I’ve read another poet so intimately attuned to the ways of the avian. There’s absolutely nothing sentimental in these highly detailed accounts of birds, no reducing them to symbols of human ambition and failure. They live their own enigmatic lives in Net Needle, as in “Harsh Song”:

Afternoon’s
pulse,
a feathery
sussuration –
half song,
soft
leather
ratchet, or
breath
forced
through
a snake’s
throat
across
the roof
of its
raked
mouth –
whispered
sounds,
a smoker’s
thick
exhalation –
bowerbirds
in the grapevine.

Adamson.jpegThe delicacy here, the astonishing discretion, owes something to William Carlos Williams, perhaps, but is entirely its own, fully realized and miraculous. Because discretion lies at the heart of witnessing, as the poet knows. And in Adamson’s poems, nature’s mysteries are never forced into the open, never uncovered by a pile-on of qualifiers; rather, they come into being through a form of intense attention. To enter into, rather than unmask, the flight of the kingfisher, or the kookaburra catching snakes, is the poem’s desire. These acts of poetic restoration occur on a small scale, but generate an enormous and enlivening eco-poetic charge, one that places Adamson squarely in the company of John Clare, Lorine Niedecker, and W.S. Graham. Adamson is never vatic, though. His concentrated gaze condenses from myriad details an uncanny and beautifully faithful image of how all these things hum and flow. Not mere images then, but the flow itself, these poems give the marvelous lightness and ease of perception itself.

Net Needle weaves together a luminous directness with a hard won simplicity. They give us the very grain of the English language, its exacting measures, its eschewal of adornment, its rhythm that is also a way of seeing, as Zukofsky knew. For longtime readers of Adamson’s work, the re-lineation of “The Kingfisher’s Soul” will delight and move. The poem has opened out. Can a kingfisher have a soul? Or rather, is the soul a kind of kingfisher, diving fiercely above the river, a missile of incarnate desire, a ravenous muscle that drives bright plumage into flight, into love?

In the old days I used to think art
That was purely imagined could fly higher

Than anything real. Now I feel a small fluttering
Bird in my own pulse, a connection to the sky.
Back then a part of me was only half alive.

The poems in Net Needle are so fully alive they fly off the page. And some of them, like “Net Maker” and “Spinoza,” are as perfect as any I have ever read. What is a “net needle’? Simply a device for repairing a fishing net.

Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone

net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell ...

they wove everything they knew
into the mesh, along with the love they had,

or had lost

Whether loved or lost, the net re-gathers it, without judgment. The net is woven to sift everything and cherish it.

[Published January 28, 2015. 95 pages, $15.95]

Patrick Pritchett

is visiting assistant professor of English and Film Studies at Amherst College. His books of poetry include Burn, Gnostic Frequencies and Song X. His article “How to Write Poetry after Auschwitz: The Burnt Book of Michael Palmer” recently appeared in Journal of Modern Literature.

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Shane McCrae

On Hours by Marc Rahe (Rescue Books)

Rahe.jpgI’ve spent all morning (you don’t know what time it is; at the moment, “all morning” means a few hours, but “all morning” also suggests that whatever has been going on has been all-consuming, and it has) trying to think of a simple, or at least brief, way to sum up Marc Rahe’s second book, On Hours — it would be nice if I could give you a sentence that would tell you what the book is about, and maybe even give you a sense of Marc’s aesthetic. I would like that. But I don’t think I can manage it. Which seems strange? because Marc’s poems don’t strike one, upon one’s initial encounter with them, as particularly difficult, and the book itself can easily be read in one sitting. I mean, here’s a whole poem, “On Self-Consciousness,” which is, yes, a bit shorter than most of the poems in the book, but still, I think, representative:

A man with a beard without
a beard looks nothing like

himself.

Clean-shaven, I am living history.

RaheCover.jpgOk, sure, that’s, uh … well, that’s fantastic, really, isn’t it? and so much bigger than it looks. It’s positively disorienting, actually; I’m disoriented now that I’ve typed it out myself. Hold on a sec. Ok, once, when introducing Marc’s poems, I wrote: “In his first book, The Smaller Half, he showed himself to be a master of something very like the plain style. But there was a strangeness just below the surface of those poems, and that strangeness surfaces more and more frequently of late. Now I would say he is also a master of something I want, stupidly, to call ‘plain strangeness.’” I think that earlier remark points toward what I want to say about “On Self-Consciousness,” and maybe about On Hours as a whole: Marc’s poetry introduces itself very gently — it makes a very kind first impression — and it certainly doesn’t force you to stare too hard at it, but if you do stare, if you do follow up that introduction with conversation, you very quickly find yourself tumbling through a full world at night, a world seemingly identical to your own, and yet a world in which no correspondence between the people, animals, objects, events, and ideas that populate the world, and the people, animals, objects, events, and ideas that populate your former world, is complete. You find yourself experiencing radical empathy.

So, yes, I am saying that Marc’s poems introduce a new way of seeing. And, yes, supposedly a lot of poems do that. But here’s the difference: Marc’s poems really do introduce a new way of seeing. Often, when one is told that so-and-so’s poems introduce a new way of seeing, one is actually being told that so-and-so’s poems are full of striking and new imagery —in other words, one is being told not that one will see in a new way, but rather that one will see new things. Marc’s poems require one to see things, some of which one might already have seen, as if one were somebody else seeing them, and to think thoughts as is one were somebody else thinking them, and to feel feelings as if one were somebody else feeling them. Here, read this:

The Sun, the Moon, the Stars

Across the field near the school
a teacher spread objects to illustrate scale.

An acorn here, a child there.
Called the child “sun” and how far away

the acorn must be to be
our planet. Could it

be seen there at that distance
to give a glimmer of distance?

The grass and grasshoppers,
the wind and the sound in it

must be given to be nothing
in the model. Nothing

must be held in mind
that holds the world.

To understand Marc’s poems in the way, I think, they are written to be understood, one must set aside oneself. Radical empathy arises from an engagement with an other in which one not only refuses to privilege, but refuses, as much as one can, to even draw upon one’s own experiences as a guide toward understanding the experiences of the other; radical empathy has nothing to do with comfort or comforting. You must refuse to draw upon your life and experiences when reading Marc’s poems — if you don’t, you risk missing the poetry. You must encounter the poems and find the life there. It is as big as yours.

[Published May 1, 2015
Number of pages: 60. 60 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Shane McCrae

is the author of Forgiveness Forgiveness and The Animal Too Big to Kill (forthcoming from Persea). He teaches at Oberlin College and edits BOAAT Press.

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