November 30, 2016
Nov 30, 2016
3 Min read time
Since when has poetry been without politics? Benjamin Hollander reviews Out of Print by Julien Poirier.
Poet, editor, and teacher Benjamin Hollander died on November 21, 2016, while we were in the final stages of preparing this essay for publication. We are very glad to be able to publish this late example of his commitment to engaging poetry as exchange and conversation.
Out of Print
City Lights, $15.95 (paper)
Julien Poirier’s gambit in his recent City Lights collection, Out of Print, is that poetry survives and continues to evolve both as an art and as a way of life. In Poirier’s case, both life and art drag on in the suburban subdivisions and money-cratered cities of twenty-first-century California. Like that state, the surface of this poetry shimmers pleasantly with narrowly evaded disaster, with “absurd good news,” as the title of his previous book has it. But evidently, all that good news cannot last long.
The pleasure of reading Poirier is that the poet is evidently having a ball on the page even as disaster unfolds. With one eye he keeps the poem in the air, with the other he tracks the absurdly bad news. The resulting tone is an unusual combination of urgency and playfulness. For all of its references to poetry itself and its author’s self-orienting “I-am-writing-this-poem” missives, there are no meta-poetics in Out of Print. His poems seem to have been written by ear, to be read.
Poirier comes to poems for the joy of seeing what words can do when they collide like particles in an atom smasher.
When Amiri Baraka said of the late Bill Berkson that he was “fundamentally unaffected by the virus of dullness which has lately begun to re-infect the public literary muse,” he could have been talking about Poirier. And there is something to this. Poirier comes to poems for the joy of seeing what words can do when they collide there like particles in an atom smasher—for “his musical, bonkers play of language,” as David Meltzer observes in his back-cover gloss on Poirier’s book.
Poirier’s poetry is fun, but not frivolous. There is, for example, a passage from a Poirier poem with the sensibility of a poem by Bertolt Brecht concerning the relation between poetic and public space. Paul Celan later responded to Brecht with his own poem-statement. Poirier’s poem, born after both, manages to echo across the line. The question that all three ask in their own way is: How do artists and poets negotiate public events through what may appear, to non-poets, to be an insular, or apolitical, poetics?
This is Brecht, translated by John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried:
What kind of times are they, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
The question here is: what is the purpose of pastoral poetry in a time of silence around genocide? For Celan, who survived a Nazi labor camp, the question is: why should the poem be so explicit about “unspeakable horrors”? He could not name the Holocaust, obliquely referring to “that which happened.” Here is his poem, translated by Pierre Joris:
A LEAF, treeless
For Bertolt Brecht:
What times are these
when a conversation
is nearly a crime,
because it includes
so much being spoken
Here is Poirier’s entrance into the conversation:
What business do poets have
in poem, what is “vote”?
Cut the bastard’s throat
For Poirier, the question is: What use are the rituals of a compulsory, spectacle-driven democracy to the poet? Isn’t the poet turning in her laurels (like a cop in an old noir) by agreeing to take an emotional part in that spectacle, thereby feeding the corporate war state that any North American bard worth her salt is born to slash and lampoon? In this reading, the words “Cut the bastard’s throat / clean through” do not make a dictatorial political statement, or even a rejection of democratic etiquette. Instead they are a demonstration, via line break, of the autonomy of poetic gesture in the face of a co-opted, coerced demos.
Poirier’s poems have an attentiveness and intimacy and wonder that address all of us who naturally expect a poet to speak to us, but are astonished to discover that he also hears us and gives us a voice. What better reason to read Poirier, as his poems need us as much as we need them:
Dear Reader, among the many things I enjoy
is your beautiful voice. . .
I have lived with you
now, for so long the stars have begun
to glint among mountains even as my hand
trails before the stream: Here, drink
before it runs through my fingers, before
it changes its ways, though you know
nothing is ever lost, in your wisdom
wild as silence.
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November 30, 2016
3 Min read time