Their Kind of Town
Graywolf Press,$14 (paper)
Million Poems Journal
Faux Press, $13.50 (paper)
A Handmade Museum
Coffee House Press, $15 (paper)
now than in decades, perhaps, younger American poets are gravitating
toward big cities. Those who earn MFAs in prairie states decamp
to Manhattan or Brooklyn, where they start quarterlies or Web-based
journals; later on they may take (or turn down) jobs in the provinces.
Poets who eschew academia find themselves all the more dependent
on the poetic communities that big cities provide. It should be
no surprise, then, that some of the most interesting debuts from
the past year not only emerge from New York City but return to
it for subjects and for sources of style.
Not only Jordan Davis's own poetry but all its obvious influences point to New York. Some passages favor the "I-do-this-I-do-that" casualness perfected by Frank O'Hara; others (sometimes within the same poem) offer the affectless attacks on ordinary usage associated with slightly later New Yorkers such as David Shapiro. The Davis of one moment-e.g., the deconstructive poet who asks, "Is 'distilleries blown down' what I think of you?"-may have trouble communicating with the Davis of another-e.g., the sincere man who asks, "Why will no one say the truth / About what they think and love?" The result is a smart, sharp poetry of unease, of "traditional" emotions arriving unasked in a poetic consciousness unsure of how to take or where to place them: "the meaning which was formerly if not connected to / Then associated with the streets and open sky has gelled / Into the kind of translucent paste atop slices of cake / In a chinese bakery."
Davis's work, like his city, offers an environment where many conversations (or monologues) are already happening-the poet does not make up his language ex nihilo but arranges and edits language already at hand. One poem exclaims, "He's interrogating us and deciding what we said. He adds his little / Words. Cast doubt? Call today!" Another explains:
Words attack me. They attract me, which is the same thing
If you're a target.
I won't be here forever.
When the bridge is raised, a crowd gathers, waiting for it to go down.
Davis treats urban vistas almost (and almost as skillfully) as he treats overheard speech; he can walk out the door and generate an attractive poem by editing the results:
I get up early
For New York
In the middle of spring
Put on my blank pants
To go for a walk
And a swim
And then to the library
To study for her exam
A year's latin
Balancing on the curb
The end of this poem reveals its other subject as straight (or bi) male sexuality: "Meet me in the bookstore / In gold and silver . . . Silk panties." Another poem opens: "My lips are chapped / And the world is full of girls!" (He titles that one "Sexism," making sure that we know that he knows what risks he runs.)
Davis's best-made poems examine the frustrations (with crowds, self-suspicion, information overload, powerlessness, erotic bafflement) that the less organized poems merely enact. If his attacks on commodity culture do not show him at his best, it may be because they go with, rather than against, his grain: the results are more interesting when he tries to play nice. "Jubilee" (one of several likeable love poems) evokes Central Park:
Every girl is a cat
Every dog is a boy
Meet me at the reservoir
And I'll hold you blurry
Like a camera in the wind
For all its flourishes of technique (which include, as "advanced" poetry does these days, the apparent lack of it) Million Poems Journal ends up as a very personal, very appealing, book. Its last (and perhaps best) short poem, "In the evening the air time," becomes its most articulate take on the massively multiplayer city Davis envisions:
This system, or view if you prefer,
Has a soothing remedy for trumps
And other clevernesses, acknowledging
The alphabet, the structure,
Coordinating maddening redundancies
And dispelling them. One trope one vote.
Davis's title poem describes the flash of publicity he received after telling The Wall Street Journal that he planned to write a million poems-more attention than a young poet could ever hope for or know what to do with. Brenda Coultas, too, makes light of the conflict between her big goals and her low profile: "I write poems for the public. / I call myself Brenda Coultas"; "I am a word that exists on the soles of your shoes. / Please stop walking on me." Coultas presents herself as an advocate, an archaeologist, and a documentarian. Though it also includes verse and discrete prose poems, A Handmade Museum begins with the 40-page prose sequence "The Bowery Project," chronicling her observations on and near that famous avenue: "A church lady rakes through trash for goods, man asleep on sidewalk. (NOONISH, JUNE 10, 2001, 1ST ST. and 2ND AVE.)"; "What had been an empty lot, then a plant nursery, is now a building site for NYU dorms." Such writing displays sincerity, close observation, and a defiant refusal to organize, a refusal so dramatic and well-intentioned that Coultas wants it to do the work of organization: "Thought it would come out in the writing like dreams or nightmares, it would manifest and that writing it all down was important if just to say here's a document." (Though that passage concerns September 11, it also describes Coultas's project as a whole.) Yet there is all the difference in the world between an apparent refusal to organize (as in Whitman and in Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day) and an actual lack of organization. When prose poems, or poetic essays, say so insistently "Here are things I really observed," it seems uncharitable and undemocratic to answer, "These things are certainly interesting, but your linguistic choices have not made them more so."
Coultas's faux film scripts and scraps, journals and journalism, with their
repeated invocations of eyes and cameras and the news, do embody serious questions about art, democracy, and representation: am I real if nobody sees or represents me? Are homeless drug addicts real if nobody takes note of them? Coultas does best in the middle of the volume, where poems linked to New York (but not to the Bowery) offer banners under which almost anyone in the arts might march: "We are very unusual and good at being who we are but no one will pay to see us." "Boy Eye" articulates her aspirations exactly and without apology:
I was trying to make sight important. I was making it important to see. I was making it important to describe. I was becoming a seeing eye artist.
What was your work? What was important to do?
It was important to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight, to thrift shop all fifty states and to ride a bike. It was important to hang out and be there. Being there was the best part. I was part of a history. I was a woman, I think. Reading books, that was important, but most of all it was important to see you.
Even more than Davis's, Coultas's book demonstrates the special place in American literary reception that New York City holds: would you read (and would Coffee House publish) a similar book devoted largely to Buffalo? In fact, Coffee House already has (Mark Nowak's splendid Revenant): to compare Nowak's Buffalo to Coultas's or to Davis's New York is to see how much more a New York poet can assume her readers know, how many more tropes lie there for the taking, how much less information qua information a New York City poet has to provide. As if to show she can work without that advantage, Coultas devotes her last 25 pages to rural America, where (apparently) her family lives: we get "A Sightseeing Tour," an essay on rural cats, "Hayroll," "Hayhenge," and "Third Farming Poem." The essay on cats and the striking meditation on "Burials" work well; other rural poems seem forced or tossed off.
In contrast with Davis's or Coultas's damaged cities, Mark Bibbins's locales retain the sexiness and dazzle they promise on first encounter. Bibbins's personae are flirty, cruisy, volatile; they invite us to watch them burn at both ends. His ungrammatical jumps and elisions serve both as a sign of the times (no confessional realist, he) and as a show of how fast his mind can move. Along with familiar sources for urban poetics (from Baudelaire to O'Hara) Bibbins invokes the sexy, sleazy, ultra-contemporary world of queer youth as depicted in recent fiction, such as that of J.T. LeRoy, whose argot Bibbins occasionally echoes. "No Lot Lizards" and "Herethere" tell the story of a sexually voracious youth on his way, via Greyhound, to the city, where he will encounter the bright lights he seeks. Another poem introduces "El Super-Guapo . . . (a.k.a. Outhouse Crank Diva)," who "shows the world beauty." These poems are nothing if not hip, but they are not merely so: the poems have real subjects, even obsessions, portraying people who do and need and believe things. Those things, however, concern attitude and appearance: "Fueled by je ne sais quoi, / I'm distracted by cruising // cars with rockabilly flair." (Note the pun on "cruising.") Whereas Davis's love poems admit to ennui and mixed feelings, Bibbins's are crushed-out and carpe noctem: "the streetlights blush / in their globes as if they could tell how the party towed us / along like a chain of rollerblading kids latched onto a bus." "The Extended Lights" propositions its readers: "Let's drink gin rickeys / in a hotel bar below street level"; afterward "We'll record messages in the fountain / around which the rest of the garden turns."
Bibbins's metropolitan restlessness does not suit the volume's longest poem, a collection of 17 prose blocks titled "Blasted Fields of Clover Bring Harrowing and Regretful Sighs," whose enticing sentences offer nothing except tone to hold them together. Any three sentences might tell a story entirely unrelated to the next three: "Every auditorium is a high-school auditorium. Algae in the canals and a lack of wind hindered the ships and spoiled the race but ropes remain suited to their use. Long night for the union. Some revel in leaving behind no more than a history of woe." Bibbins's short poems, on the other hand, show a gift for making each poem a unique object rather than just an example of his style. The poems distinguish themselves through personae, scenes, conceits, and forms; take, for example, the strict Sapphics that propel the saddened, charmed "A Mouth" (not month) "of Sundays":
Heaven falls like paint from a sagging ceiling.
If you miss me, pussycat, if you need me,
I'll be waiting down by the broken mailbox,
sniffing for letters.
Though he does well (as in "Mouth") with romantic dejection, Bibbins's city, and his volume, begin and end in anticipation, in excitement. Sky Lounge might be more fun than any other book this year, not just (though in part) because fun is one of its subjects; its exuberance, its sonic assurance, and its jaunty forms are delights in themselves. So much fun might make a reviewer anxious: readers in 1923 praised the same glee, the same raw sex, the same resistance to obvious prose sense, the same in-group signals, and the same attention to Manhattan details in the verse of e. e. cummings. But I've often reread Bibbins with pleasure, and I haven't liked cummings since 1988-I'm willing to let the question drop. Here are three New York poets, whose three styles give three versions of their chosen city: all three can stay as long as they like. <
Stephen Burt is the author
Randall Jarrell and His Age and the editor of the forthcoming
Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden. He teaches at Macalester
College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Originally published in the February/March 2004 issue of Boston Review.