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Poetry Microreviews

Selah
Joshua Corey
Barrow Street Press, $14 (paper)

Joshua Corey wrings the resources of the language in search of his own lost cause. In a homophonic translation of Paul Celan’s “Psalm” (Selah’s prefatory poem) the German “gelobt,” meaning “praised,” becomes “galloped,” and “niemand,” meaning “no one,” becomes “kneed man,” as well as “Neiman Marcus.” The result is not only a “dazzled weresong” of a poem that strangely retains its Celanian roots, but also an amplification of Corey’s practice of “elegy [as] an edifice of sound.” In the four sections that compose Selah, absence finds its overarching trope in the figure of the departed mother. But whereas the book’s first pages establish a kinship with Celan (whose “this word is your mother’s ward” provides the epigram), Corey’s actual aesthetic is born of Wallace Stevens’s notion that “death is the mother of beauty.” For the poems of Selah, beneath their firmament of losses, are ultimately grounded in the consolations of poetic pleasure—rhetorical, somatic, imagistic. Corey leavens the gravity of the elegiac circumstance with a plangent lyricism that displaces the “red-walled rooms of self” with “rhetoric’s blue, too-buoyant planet,” the most moving poems trembling at the threshold where unspeakable private experience gets recomposed as “plain scarred song.” What particularly distinguishes Corey’s first book is the poet’s achievement of having fashioned, in an impressive variety of forms, a new elegiac mode capacious enough to accommodate the lapidary, the expansive, the disjunctive, and the earnest. (Corey can give rise to a line so limpid it seems to have sprung straight from the Song of Songs.) In the end, that the “dark waters” maternally lapping throughout the poems of Selah should produce for the reader a “plug of saltwater taffy in the cheek” is emblematic of the poet’s fruitful search for sweetness in an injured world. Around the wounded’s deepest “blessure,” Joshua Corey is wont to tie a tourniquet of silk.

—Zack Finch

The Fatalist
Lyn Hejinian
Omnidawn Publishing, $12.95 (paper)

Danny Glover, Seabiscuit, and pink roosters; 17th-century autobiography, a detective named Askari Nate Martin, and “the tallest man in Denmark”: The Fatalist is Lyn Hejinian’s latest expression of “frustration that we can’t simply reprint the whole wondrous thing.” (The ambitious and digressive inclusiveness here recalls Denis Diderot, the French Enlightenment’s tireless philosopher, novelist, and encyclopedist, who in fact makes a handful of appearances throughout the book-length poem.) Since 1980, when My Life first established her as one of Language poetry’s central figures, Hejinian’s investigations of consciousness’s democratic possibilities have grown less austere and more comic, modulating into an almost unwieldy ecumenism of particularity in 2001’s A Border Comedy. Other reviewers have noted the new volume’s affinity with John Ashbery’s Flow Chart, and with reason: each poet’s work inhabits a breezy dialectic of linguistic suspicion and tempered sublimity. But Hejinian’s is more didactic and, with her interminably nested clauses, more syntactically serpentine than Ashbery’s has been lately. Moreover, where Ashbery’s is often an ontology of the background, Hejinian is up-front about what thoughts evaded in the mind she hums after: words like “life,” “experience,” and “reality” litter these leaves. Not, however, in hope of unmediated access—Hejinian is still committed to “the characteristic heterogeneity / of Language writing, the mark of its relationship to knowledge.” This heterogeneity is reflected in what she unabashedly calls “the world,” and as she searches out new forms of realism, she remembers how the narrator of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist continually undermines the protagonist’s determinism by enacting writing’s possibilities for freedom. “Destiny is simply a good excuse for experience” and “That’s what fate is: whatever’s happened” are representative of the slightly wonky aphorisms that skitter around your brain after an initial reading. As she put it in the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E over 20 years ago, rather than “a vocabulary for ideas” Hejinian “seeks ideas for vocabularies. Many are extant.”

—Michael Robbins

Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays
Joan Houlihan
Del Sol Press, $13.95 (paper)

With its suggestion of intimacy, efficiency, and eradication, the title of Houlihan’s first book perfectly suits its essays, which maintain a convivial tone as they assault without mercy a diverse assemblage of current poetries, poets, and publication practices. But in fact the title is taken from one of the book’s 35 poems, many of which present emotional and spiritual predicaments with considerable discernment and force: “And this is what holds me together / and this is what takes me apart: / the shot, the hot rush, the hole / through the heart.” Houlihan exhibits an impressive control of prosody and an arch yet tender sensibility throughout, often distilling perceptions of the physical world into exacting, resonant imagery: “Sky contracts to one bird / and the cone of evening is lowered, / snuffs day out.” However, while the poems attest to the complex vexations of living vertiginously close to death and disillusionment, carefully probing the equivocating compromises we make (“Rosaries greased / with whatever your fingers have rolled”), the essays present a narrow, simplifying, and even negligent approach to poetry criticism. Here Houlihan fuses sharply critical and incisive close readings with scathing ad hominem attacks, straw-man knockdowns, sweeping generalizations, loosely fitting analogies and a habit of quoting as representative lines that are easily ridiculed when taken out of context, rendering laughable or even reprehensible the poet or poetic practice under evaluation. These five essays may be devilishly fun to read, but they foster divisiveness and intolerance for the various, sometimes contradictory means of making poems in our era. All poetry written today cannot be judged according to the same standards or without first considering what poetic practices and traditions the poet in question is striving to assert, extend, or leave behind. The most unfortunate result of such criticism is that readers unfamiliar with the work under attack will be predisposed not merely to avoid it, but to resent it.

—Rusty Morrison

Thieves’ Latin
Peter Jay Shippy
University of Iowa Press, $13 (paper)

Hip, edgy, and pointedly ironic, the best poems in Peter Jay Shippy’s debut collection mourn the inadequacy of our vocabulary to address a dizzying, short-attention-span culture over which “The stars twinkle / like pix of stars.” In the collection’s first and finest poem, life is simplified according to mechanical principals: “When the special people came they deleted for us”; when we manage to slip past the pervasive forces that obstruct our thinking—and therefore our acting—“Life is what [we] get away with.” In eerie speculations, the poet attempts to secure a sense of knowledge and control: “We can go over each part of the body / of a bird and find traces of the future”; “Rinse your eyes before you look.” Unfortunately, too many of the poems in Thieves’ Latin amount to little more than magpie nests of juxtapositions and snippets of bad news that occlude and confuse: “I am Kurious George, / your man about deatheatrics in this middling city”; “the neighbors’ porcine faces / pressed against the windows, // their shitake shaped ears plugged / into the ends of bugs.” Literary and cultural celebrities make cameos throughout (“Photo of Beckett on the fridge”; “ The Mikado as script doctored by Mamet”; “Rilke sits there all day . . . waiting for perspiration”), cheapening both the poems and the figures they appropriate. Other poems confound with willfully odd imagery (“ Beetles in baroque armor acquit from the milk draw”) and fingers pointed at nebulous targets (“Outside, in the tavern’s parking lot, two meteorologists / are striking a deal, money is exchanged; it begins to snow”), leaving the reader wondering exactly who is holding whom accountable for what. Mirroring all too well the barrage of stimuli facing a contemporary cultural consumer, Shippy overcrowds his poems, often sacrificing grace and coherence, and ultimately leaving unfulfilled the promise exhibited by the more focused poems in the book’s beginning.

—Craig Morgan Teicher

Dancing on Main Street
Lorenzo Thomas
Coffee House Press, $15 (paper)

Is it more painful to be jilted by a lover or an entire nation? In his latest collection, Dancing on Main Street, Lorenzo Thomas writes: “Don’t you remember me / Your pretty little America / Blue and shimmering.” Thomas’s mode of address throughout the book owes much to vernaculars that use doublespeak and verbal slipperiness as subtle, imaginative means of conveying and critiquing information. Developed during slavery, this is subterfuge as truth in direct opposition to the truth that is usually a subterfuge. Enacting a linguistic and formal experimentation born of cultural necessity, Thomas brings a focus to the socially and economically marginalized—the othered America: “The gleaners roll in / With heaped shopping carts // We have constructed ruins / To be reborn out of // Here in our cities, a question / Is there life after birth.” But as with his poems of romantic love, homelessness isn’t meant only to be read literally. Rather, it signals a broader sense of exile in one’s own country that increasingly is the everyday experience of Americans from all backgrounds, if it hasn’t always been so. The dry wit and hard-won wisdom of Thomas’s poetry reveal a rationalist toiling in a time when it’s difficult to be one, just as he continues to believe in—and maybe even love—the possibility that the United States might somehow realize its ever-postponed promise of equality. Yet there’s no misplaced optimism here. As Thomas says in a short prose section: “The recent history of the United States is the record of bizarre plots and frantic attempts to cover their behinds performed by an amazingly conscienceless batch of born-again hypocrites and felons-in-waiting.” Although his poem about multiculturalism and The Price Is Right is among the funniest and most pointed in the book, Thomas is convinced that certain parts of a sordidly commercialized Main Street have the capacity to remain shared public spaces. Similarly, his poetry keeps singing, no matter how sad the song.

—Alan Gilbert



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