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Poetry Microreviews


Fugue State

Bill Berkson
Zoland Books, $13 (paper)

Though they’re guided by conventional syntactical patterns, particularly that of the declarative sentence, Bill Berkson’s poems map the places where language goes when it unexpectedly shifts on its axis, reminding us that sense is a fragile thing, easily unbalanced, open to mimicry, balancing always on the threshold of amnesia. In his latest collection, this verbal ‘fugue state’ (helpfully defined in Berkson’s endnotes as the condition in which one cannot remember deeds committed earlier while seeming to be fully aware) is chillingly prefigured before the first poem even begins, on the book’s cover painting: a night view of New York harbor from the World Trade Center, a perspective no longer possible after 9/11—in essence, a lost consciousness that can never be regained. But darting among the many lines that seem strayed or stranded from the thought that spawned them (“built sideways from a limb”), that seek coherence through the whistling-in-the-dark bravado of their saying (“A mole slide’s third’s tainted fab blue hoot avail, / Taint, tawny micros stippling about a ditch”), are flashes of phosphorous concision: “Know history backwards, “sensation argues a metalanguage,” “What didn’t happen once?” Forging a kind of Ashbery-Ginsberg-Bernstein fusion, Berkson combines Manhattan art-gallery urbanity with nervous Beat syncopation (trochaic lines, such as “Epodes of bat in city streets / Sucrose end-alls spraying rural yards,” shaped by a playfully subversive diction reminiscent of the early Surrealists. And it’s Berkson’s knowing sense of play—not inscrutable theories, not elaborate, lab-tested procedures of “improvisation”—that makes his skewed excursions interesting. We anticipate that fleeting moment when the poem will remember itself and find our wavelength for a split second before moving on through its unsuspecting future.

—Fred Muratori


Music Like Dirt
Frank Bidart
Sarabande, $8.95 (paper)

Admirers of Frank Bidart’s work often complain that it comes out all too seldom, and Music Like Dirt, a slim chapbook, seems to address such readers directly: these fourteen poems, read individually or as a sequence, are elegant and precise in their refusal of satisfaction. One of Bidart’s many compelling virtues is that he can explore as complicated a subject as human need without forcing the poems, as perhaps too many writers do, into providing convenient or artificial solutions. Here he turns his considerable verbal intelligence to the need to make, ranging broadly from how we formulate ideology to the desire to procreate, and it is his unusual intellect and aural instinct working in tandem that guide us through extremely problematic ground. But what may be most impressive about these poems is that one senses the author’s profound personal investment in every line. That is, instead of merely offering us acrobatics or erudition—this poet is quite capable of both—the sequence is also the story of the speaker’s involvement, equal parts ecstatic and tragic, with his subject matter. Or as Bidart writes in “Hammer,” the maker seeks impossibly “To be both author of / this statue, and the statue itself.” Nearly all of these poems, from the deceptively simple “Advice to the Players” to the deceptively oblique “For the Twentieth Century,” demonstrate the level of refinement we have come to expect from Bidart, a refinement that is productively at odds with the insatiability—the sense of spiritual incompletion—that pervades this chapbook, as the closing lines of “Stanzas Ending With the Same Two Words” suggest: “Hard to grow old still hungry. / You were still hungry at your death.” Indeed, this is a kind of hunger that Bidart is singularly capable of eliciting, and our desire for more can only increase with repeat readings.

—Benjamin Paloff

 

Transpacific Displacement: Ethnography, Translation, and Intertextual Travel in Twentieth-Century American Literature
Yunte Huang
University of California Press, $24.95 (paper)

Transpacific Displacement is the latest and most ambitious work by Yunte Huang, whose publications already include an array of highly original works ranging from the first Chinese translations of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (1998) to Shi: A Radical Reading of Chinese Poetry (1997), a provocative blurring of translation theory and poetics.  In his new book Huang applies the formidable energies of several disciplines to uncover the deeply embedded history of textual migrations as they have been driven by the desires of innumerable writers to appropriate and revise the others’ languages in order to represent them.  Huang’s search takes us through a surprising selection of literary figures:  Earnest Fenollosa, Amy Lowell, Maxine Hong Kingston, and the translators of China’s Misty Poets (Bei Dao, Shu Ting, et al.), to name a few.  Perhaps the most provocative moment arrives as Huang imagines a teahouse conversation between Ezra Pound and Charlie Chan, Earl Derr Biggers’s fictional detective, as they exchange Confucian witticisms and Poundian etymologies. “This imagined scene,” writes Huang, “despite its apparent absurdity, helps to illustrate a simple but significant fact: American pop culture’s creation of a demeaning image of the Orient—as in the case of Charlie Chan—was strikingly contemporaneous with modern American poetry’s cultivation of a genuine interest in Oriental languages—as in the case of Imagism.” In addition to its challenging textual assemblage, Transpacific Displacement’s originality also resides in the fields of inquiry it brings to bear upon these works:  namely, the radical ethnography of Dennis Tedlock and James Clifford, the politically charged work of scholars of Asian American studies like David Palumbo-Liu and Lisa Low, the innovative poetics of Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff, and the dissident translation theories of Lawrence Venuti. Drawing from these fields, Huang delicately uncovers the positivistic legacies still present in ethnic and literary studies and offers an important intercultural supplement to the history and criticism of American Modernism and twentieth-century American poetry and poetics.

—Jonathan Stalling


Earliest Worlds
Eleni Sikelianos
Coffeehouse Press, $14.95 (paper)

It’s impossible not to remark on the range of literary forms and tonal shifts collected in Eleni Sikelianos’s hefty book-length debut: “essays,” “cantos,” prose, clever barbs, cris de coeur. . . . At their worst Sikelianos’s poems are overworked for effect; at their best they do far more than ruffle their feathers. Earliest Worlds confronts a problem that, writ large, isn’t new: “It is not enough that the buds have come out.” The lyric tropes par excellence won’t suffice. In addition to (or integral to) the visceral and the personal, there’s the scientific, the mathematic, the historical, and so on—worlds which, to her credit, Sikelianos doesn’t want to part with. While this restlessness might place her in an avant-garde tradition, Sikelianos’s ability to complicate lyric without discrediting or entirely abandoning the genre evades easy labeling. Certainly she rejects the either/or politics that all too often mars contemporary poetry and poetics. And although Barbara Fischer recently characterized ‘inclusion’ as poetically “fashionable,” Sikelianos’s mind is so alert, discriminating, and uncompromising that she restores integrity to the pursuit—there’s nothing na<0x00EF>ve about her (for better and for worse). Her poems wrestle with a childlike determination to have it all—“I have renounced ever landing”—and a mature understanding that forms of experience aren’t always compatible. “If we knew how the body was made,” she quotes Flaubert, “we would never dare make a movement again.” Yet “even he had to make do with visible hands.” Like her syntax—often because of it—Sikelianos’s worlds are in constant collision. These poems are “experiences” in the root sense: experiments, testing grounds. (“Can I / only live as far as I can / speak?”) The poem is not necessarily a mirror of the world, nor should it be. However, that doesn’t mean the discoveries and transformations of the poetic self (“shall I unsex my dress / rising up like an antelope”) are transient. Sikelianos’s poems are first worlds, not final ones.

—Bryn Canner


Haunt (No-Boundary Proposals)
Keith Waldrop
Instance Press, $12 (paper)

“Words are haunted by, for instance, meaning,” prompts the flyleaf of Keith Waldrop’s sprawling, fragmentary poem, Haunt (No-Boundary Proposals). Part memento mori, part metaphysical speculation, part dialogue with nothingness, this book is possessed by the conviction (along with Eliot Weinberger) that the Western rationalist-positivist conception of death is inadequate (“brought up along the clickety-clack of rails, we lack a sense of death, supposing it regularly scheduled, rerouted”) because alienated from daily life: “the dead each / age buried / deeper and deeper.” The book aims thus to “empty the coffers”: an archaeological dig (logocentric ghost-chase) through the “barrows,” “tombs,” and “cenotaphs” of language, ransacking the interstices between words, the “deep trenches” of lost signifiers, in the search for the “word worth a thousand / pictures.” Words, by Waldrop’s theory, are mortal bodies (corporeal presences upon the page) haunted by the errant spectres of meaning—thus, “always already” vestiges of a forgotten or inaccessible past: “Words perish, like the word for oyster. Words / are a great retreat—they are / like strips of existing or like / sea-shells echoing words.” The homology between word and body, meaning and soul, borrows from a Christian dualism (“and Aquinas: . . . the parts of the / body contained / in the soul // imperfect unless / what is enfolded in the / soul be // unfolded in the body”). Waldrop’s is thus a poetics of un-folding and en-folding, (“enfolded, death / at the window, un- // folded, blue starlight”), of meaning enfolded in signs, and signs which unfold into meaning. Words, in his adept hands, are not discrete units of meaning but “divisions // upon a ground,” constantly un-folding, pervaded by their traces (‘folded,’ for instance, in “un- // folded”). In its mystical, ingeniously ‘open’ ensemble, Haunt is nothing less than the excavation site of human consciousness: its poems the fragments of an uncovered burial mound to which meaning is not a property, but something which haunts it, silently and unseen.

—John Hulsey

 

The Good House
Rod Smith
Spectacular books, $6 (paper)

Regarding the composition of Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein noted “I began to discover the names of things, that is not discover the names but discover the things the things to see the things to look at and in so doing I had of course to name them. . . .” This process of circling around the essence of a noun in order to enliven it sets the foundation for The Good House, Smith’s latest chapbook-length poem. The sixth beautifully produced title from Spectacular Books, The Good House is an investigation not only of the concepts of house, home, and domesticity (“Any sung house requires / calligraphy, camp, & / curtains—all too cute yes / yet one tires of burnt / toys, dry fetishes, dead / humor, & clocks.”) but also of the language in which such concepts are rooted. Welcomely, Smith animates much of the tiresome postmodern/linguistic debates of the last few decades with his wacky sense of humor, as when he asserts that “the house seems / to be a verb though it dislikes / the term ‘housing’.” Smith’s exploration of the way in which a house is at once in constant flux (“sometimes house, sometimes home”) and complete stasis (“That it is a house. / That it never moves. / That it loses concentration.”) might read simply as an analogy for poetry, but he is careful to defuse such an easy out: “If the house is just poetry / we’re in trouble.” As Lorca knew, “very often intellect is poetry’s enemy,” and Smith, through his syntactical play and the twisting, elongation, or complication of phrasings, moves one just beyond an overall intellectual comprehension of his work and toward the more rewarding sphere of intuitive knowledge, where “anything can be made out of a house.”

—Noah Eli Gordon

 

Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls
John Gallaher
Spuyten Duyvil, $12 (paper)

Winner of the 2000 Spuyten Duyvil Book Award, Gallaher’s debut collection evokes scenes from the life of a socially active young man: pool parties, romantic evenings, bedroom episodes, wispy cigarette smoke, bright morning moments of coffee and contemplation. Sharply imagistic and periphrastic, the poems capitalize on fragments and half-tones; they suggest the kind of drunken magnetism usually associated with the high modernists, at times waxing unmistakably Eliotic (“And if one should call the vase / cut crystal / and the flowers spring tulip, // must one then wonder / at the way the drapes / are more gray than taupe and drawn?”) as well as Stevensian (“clouds / and the idea of clouds”). Relaxed into a postmodern shapelessness, however, the poetry lacks the form that gave high modern poets such magnificent bearing. Gallaher’s “Delta Admonitions,” for example, describes a girl wandering along the edge of the sea, somehow at once forming it and taking her identity from it. This can only remind us of Stevens’s “Idea of Order at Key West,” the genius of which lies in its balance between strict pentameter and modern painterliness—not to mention legitimate philosophical insight. By comparison, Gallaher’s ‘version’ seems haphazard: “She’ll launch herself // in that direction any minute now (channeled, / in this dash to the water, // teeming because she’s thinking of it . . .).” None of this is to say that the poems in Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls lack charms of their own. They feel uniformly luxurious, linguistically very smart, and demonstrate a confident, practiced poetic instinct. Perhaps they’re a bit too slack and swimmy, but readers will discover delightful pockets of infatuation throughout.

—Aaron Belz

 

The Grammar of Nails
Amy Scattergood
Creative Arts Book Company, $9.95 (paper)

With an almost obsessive insistence, this first collection repeatedly examines scenes of devastation, exploring the willful and haphazard ways in which even our most intimate institutions—families, friendships, languages—are destroyed. As the characters in these often narrative poems prove prone to calamity, aggression, and judgment, Scattergood underscores the human vulnerability that is her most constant concern: “Then, after a polite interval, God came down / with a game He called Catastrophe. // When He played, everyone else lost. / And so the wars started.” A former student at the Yale Divinity School, Scattergood fills the first half of the book with biblical narratives rendered contemporary and terrible. At times these revisions, however quirky in their details, can seem predictable in their larger gestures, and the poems’ rejection of the possibility of transcendence can seem merely the conventional religious posturing of modernity. More often, however, these stories are legitimately harrowing, fully aware of the wounding submission required of their subjects: “And all the names he’d had for God / arrayed themselves upon his skin as scars.” Turning to secular ground for its second half, the book loses the focus with which it began, taking up topics as diverse as colonialism, censorship, espionage, and the lives of various figures from history and literature. Even in these last sections, however, the best poems retain their fascination with extremity, “the trap by trap gathering of the . . . world.” As the collection draws to a close, Scattergood narrows the scope of her concern to the compass of a single life, addressing her daughter in poems that focus her obsession with vulnerability into something urgent and particular: “but how do I know / how many miles the night has for you, // what thunder the layers of stars pour down?”

—Garth Greenwell

Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review



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