Ten Thousand Lives
Ko Un, translated by Brother Anthony of Taize, Young-moo Kim, and Gary Gach
Green Integer, $14.95 (paper)
Sentenced to life imprisonment for opposing South Korea’s military dictatorships in the 1970s, the poet Ko Un decided to write a series of poems chronicling the lives of everyone he had ever come into contact with. This Green Integer paperback, with a wonderful introduction by Robert Hass, brings together a selection of these portraits, most of them about a page in length. But the most striking portrait is the first: a photograph of Ko Un himself, whose expression of implacable and jolly fortitude sets the tone for the collection. Alert, bracing, immediate, and folksy, Ten Thousand Lives is a gathering of people—mostly village folk—that does not discriminate between riffraff and bigwigs. The exclamatory and often tinny voice of the speaker is never brutal, but consistently achieves a brightness of tone that exceeds clarity and teeters on the brink of the surreal. In “The Wife from Kaesari,” the culturally situated restraint of a village woman is treated to such brightness: “Knowing no eloquence in her lifetime, / she was incapable of any decent last words. / She was more or less heard to say / the lid of the soy-sauce jar up on the terrace / ought to be opened to the daylight / and also, it seems, / that the lining in father’s jacket ought to be replaced.” There is no way of getting around the deeply moral impulse that governs these compositions, but a poem like this one doesn’t allow judgment to be its focus. Conscience, especially in the earlier poems, acts more as a structural principle than one that makes the poet—or the persons he memorializes—reflective. Meeting a handsome murderer in jail, Ko Un writes, “That bright smile / those graceful movements / undoubtedly the star in some movie / only it was as if somewhere in his life / the seed of that dreadful act had sprouted / and grown up, taking his body for humus.” Indeed, each person in Ten Thousand Lives seems both excruciatingly present and terrifyingly absent. More than, or at least different from, a collection of poems in the traditional sense, Ten Thousand Lives is an uncanny testament to the brutalities of history and a nervy attempt to remind us that individuals are worth dignifying.
Harcourt, $22 (cloth)
“They are wagering over me, placing bets,” Charles Simic writes in “The Gamblers Upstairs.” “The high rollers and their sidekicks / On their knees / Little Joe from Baltimore, /Ada from Decatur.” A playful yet urgent sense of risk makes this poem one of the most memorable in My Noiseless Entourage, Simic’s 16th book of poems. Unfortunately, most of the poems here are less risky, more akin to, say, poker night with friends than the World Series of Poker—a diverting way to pass the time, but there would be more exhilaration if there were more at stake. Simic revisits territory here that felt stranger and more satisfying in previous books. Early on he seems to announce that these pieces will contain his usual features, including “Horror movies, /All-night cafeterias, / Dark barrooms /And poolhalls / On rain-slicked streets.” When he writes, “I’m still living at all the old addresses, / Wearing dark glasses even indoors / On the hush-hush sharing my bed / With phantoms / Visiting the kitchen / After midnight to check the faucet,” this too reads like an admission that we’re treading well-worn ground. Despite its title, this book is noisier than most of Simic’s collections, with the best poems drowned out by the static of weaker ones. Often the book puts one in mind of a Tom Waits album, full of fanciful stories and sketchy minor characters, as in “Cockroach Salon.” Yet even here, the cockroaches do exactly what you would expect Simic’s or any cartoon roaches to do: “Talking of greasy spoons, / Late nights in back alleys, / Rats leaping out of trashcans.” In the book’s final section, the poems tighten their focus, all seeming to ponder the existence of God, and here the work gets notably fresher. Simic ends with pigeons waiting “For the one who comes to her window / To feed them angel cake, / All but invisible, but for her slender arm.” As fans, we too are left waiting, hoping that Simic’s next book will be even finer.
The Holy Spirit of Life: Essays for John
Ashcroft’s Secret Self
Verse Press, $14 (paper)
Joe Wenderoth is a relentless antagonist to the dominant inanities of culture and politics. There are some who would like to dismiss him at every turn: he is too foul-mouthed, too self-absorbed, too sarcastic, too silly, too reckless. But as soon as one begins to think Wenderoth’s mind is permanently stuck in chakra two, he reels off inspired, compressed vignettes about seemingly minor or preposterous issues (citizens on television’s Mayberry and drinking games such as “The Lumberjack’s Melancholy Pussy”) that reveal desperate humanity in all manners of action. In his new book, The Holy Spirit of Life, Wenderoth imbues these essays with such concerned philosophical purpose (and drama) that the reader is led to believe in their deeper significance, and the tension between his earnest rhetorical choices and somewhat seriocomic tones and content leaves us laughing disturbingly. When he proposes that it is time to make Martin Luther King Jr. white so that the white population can love him, one finds oneself caught between the absurdity of the proposition and the terror that our culture might be so fundamentally racist and irrational that this just might make sense. This is Wenderoth at his best, championing ridiculous possibilities of change that deride this country’s culpabilities and hypocrisies, not to mention pursuing an argument ad absurdum: “Wasn’t it King who insisted that one should be judged without concern for the color of one’s skin? Poetic justice, then, to refashion him white, if only as a demonstration of the irrelevance of skin color.” The book also includes 24 photographs of Wenderoth at various stages in his life, including one on a park bench with a disarming Ronald McDonald, a wedding photo, and a four-part x-ray of his colon. As in his previous book, Letters to Wendy’s (2000), Wenderoth proves himself one of our country’s most daring satirists—no one is more willing to follow issues through to the rawest conclusions, or to show the slick world the other side of its smile.
Skinny Eighth Avenue
Stephen Paul Miller
Marsh Hawk Press, $15 (paper)
There’s no place for compression or fragmentation in Stephen Paul Miller’s third book of poems, which embraces a mode of “ongoing discourse” in order to narrate, argue, and inquire at length and in complete sentences. Miller’s expansive lines migrate across the page from margin to margin, an undulating motion that propels a breezy prosaic tone. This conversational fluidity and unstrained syntax enables him to address politics, current events, theoretical concerns, and personal experience with both critical acumen and wry self-mockery (as in one poem entitled “I’m Trying to Get My Phony Baloney Ideas about Metamodernism into a Poem”). Miller, who is also a critic, allows the work of analysis, interrogation, and synthesis to seep into the peripatetic observations of his poems, ruminating by turns on suburbanization, Jewish poetry, the American economy, and “George Whatever Bush.” One poem, “All Visual Materials Emit Countless Cartoon Bubbles,” riffs on a photograph of a boat by Jacqueline Goossens—“the corroding orange red of the hull’s bottom”—while meditating on the mechanisms of ekphrastic attention—the ways the photograph “is pushed / in and out of your view.” These critical forays are neither dry nor strictly cerebral, owing to healthy doses of humor and paternal affection—among the most important “visual materials” in the book are accompanying illustrations by Miller’s young son Noah, which add quirky appeal. Miller’s New York School influences, especially the tonal registers of Kenneth Koch, are palpable throughout the volume in two ways: through the inclusion of a wide range of cultural references and through the acoustic and semiotic play that enriches the poems’ essayistic surfaces. Yet both of these tendencies are also evidence of the endearing and observant presence of Miller fils. Young ears know that “if an elephant can camouflage / then a camel can elephantage,” and having a young mind nearby causes the train of thought to careen from Hannah Arendt and Islamicist mafias to Red Lobster and SpongeBob.
—Barbara K. Fischer
The New Spirit
Singing Horse Paper, $14 (paper)
Jerome Rothenberg calls Hank Lazer’s The New Spirit “a crisis in search of resolution through language.” Invert this apt description and you have another, equally true: this is language seeking its dissolution through crisis, “to hear this / the exact metaphysics / of your historical moment of listening.” The painful personal events Lazer considers here—“that scene / his labored breathing”—are opportunities to examine and threaten the most basic structures one uses to frame the meaning of experience in order to “let through /. . . acolyte space / a few certain sounds . . . beckoning of attention / chasm of [that] opening inward / precipice.” As the “new” of the title suggests, this is not your typical, anecdotally derived ascent to epiphanic intercourse with spirit. It is instead a text that interrogates “what might be of use here in this country / of domesticated soul.” Lazer demands that “the singing in his heart” be “a quiet threat / to gods gathered in that odd margin,” using an eclectic mix of Heidegger, Hebrew terminology, and allusions to many writers of “opposing poetries” (to quote the title of one of Lazer’s excellent, exacting prose collections) to question even the rhetorical frames to which these references might denote allegiance, “breaking up compelled incorporation.” Lazer makes good on his threat to those “gods” and complicates the hierarchies that one may, consciously or unconsciously, fall back on and serve. Lazer even wryly dispels the notion that this collection might stand for anything more, or for any moment longer, than the breathed instance of speaking the words themselves: the “force /of the poetry the life . . . is only for now incarnate this way.” While Lazer extols instant-by-instant incarnating, he also suggests “savor” and “an unextreme attitude toward extremity” rather than a rush toward intensity for intensity’s sake. Teshuvah, a Hebrew word Lazer uses repeatedly—which can mean return, reply, repentant introspection—suggests a counterbalance to the title’s “new,” reminding that we must look back as well as forward to fully appreciate what is “possible in any breath.”