Microreviews: Summer 2003
June 1, 2003
Jun 1, 2003
14 Min read time
Nine new poetry collections.
The Violence of the Morning
University of Georgia Press, $16.95 (paper)
In many ways Cal Bedient’s second collection resembles his first, Candy Necklace (1997). Both books exhibit a wide range of subject matter, share considerable stylistic and formal diversity, and find their roving, centrifugal impulses kept in check by the poet’s erudition and fine-tuned ear. However, an impression of variety is not what most seizes the reader. For even as Bedient’s poems yoke together drastically different poetic strategies, his propensity to reach for the highest attainable tonal register makes for a consistent, unifying loudness. If anything, Bedient’s rhetorical and affective superabundance has only intensified since Candy Necklace, and it is this quality that dominates the reading experience. The following lines from “What Was William Painting?” offer a sense of what these poems do: “You appetizing you, / burning point of the shadows. / Love me like a log roughly quoted by the flames. / Love me roughly now. With your flames.” These lines capture Bedient’s knack for writing sonically appealing, rhythmically compelling verse, yet they also reveal the verbal and stylistic “violence” that serves as the collection’s organizing principle. While the speaker’s self-conscious attention to language as language does call to mind various postmodern poetic projects, the dominant note is a darkly romantic one, the overall effect recalling Baudelaire’s spleen more than Bernstein’s vaudeville: “And you, all my dying loves, how can I touch / the bark of your drowned lemon groves?” As a result, The Violence of the Morning seems to have conflict—sometimes brilliantly productive, sometimes frustratingly indecisive—at its core. While many readers will appreciate the vigorous work Bedient does towards finding a middle ground between poetries of older and new guards, others will wish that he had found an easier, less frenetic place to rest between modernist and postmodernist modes, or as the title of one poem suggests, between “Jove’s Thunder” and “a Murmur in the Leaves.”
Hymns of St. Bridget & Other Writings
Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara
The Owl Press, $14 (paper)
From 1960 to ’64 poets Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara collaborated occasionally and in various forms. A curve in the left-hand steeple of St. Bridget’s Church across from O’Hara’s apartment instigated one such collaboration: “It is to you, bending limp and ridiculous, on Ninth / Street, that I turn, colder than usual after a summer / of lime and smoke.” Originally published as a pamphlet by Adventures in Poetry in 1974, their nine hymns for “the first of Ireland’s / saints” are collected here with a miscellany of other Berkson/O’Hara writings including poems, an unfinished novel, and a series of letters and postcards sent between the two in the personae of brothers Angelicus and Fidelio Fobb. In the hymns the poets’ voices become indistinguishable; details of the project’s framework fade and the poems that emerge could sit alongside the best work of either poet. Beneath the steeple they succinctly catalogue a time, locale, and relationship to a neighborhood and to each other, with St. Bridget acting as the unassuming maypole that enables them to move beyond the “I do this or I do that” and the “I Remember” schema of verse. Evidenced throughout is the quick-witted pen and range of both men, but the later games (epistolary and otherwise) are largely hollow punches. As the book progresses, lines spiral towards a hermetically sealed cancan of personal references—a stronger book would have limited this edition to the hymns and a handful of work from the “Miscellaneous Writings.” Berkson’s endnotes are helpful in detailing subsequent collaborations, but a majority of the book requires a more scholarly apparatus, such as might be found in a critical biography of their collective work. As archival material the book is an indispensable facet of both oeuvres, but the pranks strewn throughout the later sections are far outshone by the hymns themselves, whose erudite and tender lines not only commemorate the now-removed steeple but also mark a pinnacle of collaborative poetics.
A Border Comedy
Granary Books, $15.95 (paper)
While much contemporary verse deploys discontinuity to perpetrate the elusion of argument and statement, Lyn Hejinian’s recent book-length work of incongruity proposes a happy (hence “hazardous”) resolve. Its allotment of affinities between elements of the various world plots an emergent continuity, emotional rather than rhetorical in kind. A Border Comedy’s compositional process stems from Hejinian’s enduring interest in the way memory determines pattern (i.e., in pattern’s “psychical ‘pastness’”), and accounts for the work’s disjunction: She adds lines sequentially across the poem’s fifteen books—all simultaneously “underway”—in order to tap the lapses generated by time’s passage. The ensuing (sometimes hilarious) alienation of narrative and discursive contexts—cited and invented historical landscapes, selves, bodies, and biases—drives precedence as well as consequence into recurrent metamorphosis. All of the poem’s outcomes are “intermediary,” headed toward re-placement, “at large.” The book’s appendix (citing Apuleius’s Golden Ass through Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?) attests that Hejinian’s speculation advances according to craving and accretion rather than the cropping that pattern-making seems to require. From cowboys or ogres to horizons playing Husserl, no strange agent is kept out of bounds; horizontal arrangements elicit each being’s contingent kinship to others. The ruminations cobbled by contiguous lines keep us “laughing / In research.” Laughter is “a lesson in linkage then or in overlapping and belief,” with the comedian a stranger at the border between discrete periods, sexes, idiolects, species, winds, waters, performing the critical labor of rupture and re-synthesis: “Comedians (being foreigners) often break local laws / Even those of probability / And the syntax of events / They proceed as if in bed / Lying between laws / Which suffer lapses for them.” The volume presents logic as the flexible host of transitory things that can choreograph these shocking proximities. Yet the poet/comedian also recalls that host and guest derive from common genealogical and social ground. Such alliances could only be made palpable by an investigation this adamant to defamiliarize our distinctions.
The Captain Lands in Paradise
Alice James Books, $12.95 (paper)
Rarely does a first book resolve itself so assuredly to such a singly consistent and instructive rhetoric as The Captain Lands in Paradise, in which the continuous return to either/or constructions (“it’s either an orange or cancer”; “either a thing will happen or it won’t”; “either great dignity or the lack of it”) reveals a sensibility committed simultaneously to streamlining logical naiveté and embracing indeterminacy and possibility. Our expectations of the lyrical particular are modified everywhere and undercut by a sly, abstracting instinct. The poet nods to this tendency in “It’s a Fine Thing to Walk through the Allegory,” where she writes that “sometimes the real meaning moves from the specific / to the general,” the phrase reverberating like a koan, its wisdom in evidence throughout the collection, often assaying a tragicomic belatedness. Manguso sacrifices “the low prairie of beginnings and endings” for an altogether different geography and geometry, part rigid mise-en-scène (think Velázquez’s Las Meninas), part heart-struck melodrama; she is drawn at once to mediation, point-blank declaration, and reflected sightlines: “Innocent as eggs, the sheep look at me looking at them. / Each one blinks as if trying to remember my face.” “All love’s sighs,” she declares, “are this, simply: an inhalation, an exhalation, something between that is imagined,” and it is that “beautiful fiction,” those “names you don’t have things for,” which seem to attract Manguso most deeply. There’s a deep and dark humor to nearly every poem, the deadpan gallows humor of a true ironist caught in the midst of failed reconciliations: “Very large objects remind us of the possibility of the infinite, which has no size at all,” she writes knowingly, sympathetically. “But we understand it as something very, very large.”
The Red Bird
Fence Books, $12 (paper)
This startling debut collection establishes a secure foothold for Joyelle McSweeney in the world of contemporary poetry. Chief among her gifts is the ability to consider everyday language as if entirely from outside of it. Her poems are not so much depictions and descriptions as they are estrangements from experience—the experience of possessing (and being possessed by) a native tongue, a culture, a body, a sensibility. While their surfaces can be obdurate, elusive, and at times occult, these poems, in their very intractable nature, approach the reader not as objects of comprehension or persuasion but as objects of sensuous apprehension. Composed in large measure from found language, eliding syntactic and rhetorical transitions, jumping with little warning between discordant registers of speech (corporate, journalistic, oracular, slangy), McSweeney’s poems assert the eclectic, artless, willful beauty of collage. What she achieves through this dizzying, bracing technique is an almost unbearable freshness of perception, even while forgoing familiar claims to simplicity or objective clarity. The stakes, of course, are high. In the least successful passages—those that dither with the accidental phonological similarities between unlike words—the governing consciousness of the poems threatens to retreat into an autistic, self-stimulating isolation. These moments, however, are rare, and if they are the price to pay at this moment in McSweeney’s career for the frequent jolts of marvel and invigoration her poems relay, then the reader’s expenditure of patience will be richly rewarded. The poem “Roman” concludes with a rhetorical chord assembled, characteristically, from the jaunty and the grave, the lofty and the demotic: “It took the Discordia Concourse. / It took the trompettes-de-la-mort / and the world as a vast divine system of metaphors / to keep me operating. / to keep me a going concern.” One can hope that the high, clear, protected sources of McSweeney’s inspiration keep her a going concern for many books to come.
A Summer Evening
The Center for Literary Publishing/University Press of Colorado, $14.95 (paper)
Each poem in Geoffrey Nutter’s book-length sequence transcribes one minute of a summer evening. Each minute transmits a 10-line poem, and often the minutes are sequentially scrambled so that toward the beginning of the book, for example, “8:29” comes directly after “9:42.” This deliberate disorder may leave the reader feeling that the time is “out of joint” or even that he or she has been thrust “out of time” to experience the ecstasies and boredoms of something like eternity. But more fundamentally it serves to keep us more deeply aware of being inside time, more sympathetic to time’s autonomous movement, sensitive to the temporal distension one would feel, for example, on a long summer evening, from the earliest dusk to the latest dawn. Perhaps all good lyric poetry has this effect—if so, to what extent is Nutter’s organizing principle unnecessary? It may be a flourish, but it’s not an entirely regrettable one, because the book itself (the poet’s first) is nothing short of dazzling. Nutter has an arsenal of iridescent poetics; pantheism and synesthesia are his visionary rules, and they lead him into culs-de-sac of severe, contagious fun: “Like an octopus or flower, I relaxed. / The night turned its computer on . . . I drank the golden Spanish milk, floated into night’s green blades / Automated omnium gatherum spun, the claws of an automaton. / O, hit me in the face with your long hair while fucking. / Like a flower in the rain.” This playfulness often abuts metaphysical seriousness, providing Nutter’s speaker with the opportunity and power to trump the book’s divine addressee: “I have touched the part of you that never felt me / I have touched you all the way to untouchability.” What I like best about these poems is how they maintain the sensual precision and poise of Chinese court poetry while perverting its solemnity—as if perversion, because it is still in the service of transcendence, were also an act of reverence.
You Never Know
Coffee House Press, $14.95 (paper)
Ron Padgett has built a career out of tender exuberance. To some extent the poems in his seventh collection continue in that vein, but in many of them the poet takes a somber turn as he muses over old age and death. In “Listening to Joe Read” he writes, “I’m reminded that what made him great / was not that he was a great reader (he wasn’t) / but that he was Joe.” What makes Padgett great is that the reader of his poems can never predict what will come next (as the title says, “you never know”); the poet himself observes that “it’s interesting that / no matter how one starts / a poem, the poem can lead / to something else.” Each poem has an identifiable, emotive catalyst—“The older I get, the more I like hugging” or “A second ago my heart thump went / and I thought, ‘This would be a bad time / to have a heart attack and die, in the / middle of the poem’”—but there’s no telling where the associative process will end up taking you. Along the way, as ever, Padgett immortalizes the everyday and pokes fun at the decidedly humble nature of his work, but in doing so he inversely affirms the importance of his project. The members of his pantheon (Whitman, O’Hara, et al.) all make brief cameos, but if any one figure dominates the book it is the figure of the bird that flutters throughout, always in another guise, but always the same bird. (“This morning on the windowsill a bird,” were Blaise Cendrars’s final written words, Padgett recalls.) “I am forty-nine years old and surrounded by death. Does writing help? Probably not,” he writes in one of the book’s many elegies. And yet it does help, actually—it helps us.
American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language
Edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr
Wesleyan University Press, $24.95 (cloth)
As much a record of the semi-eponymous conference that took place at Barnard College in 1999 as an academically packaged, user-friendly compendium of some of the 1990s’ most-talked-about female poets, American Women Poets in the 21st Century raises far more questions than it puts to rest. Although any intermittent reader of contemporary poetry will be familiar with most if not all of the names of the poets under study—Armantrout, Berssenbrugge, Brock-Broido, Graham, Guest, Hejinian, Hillman, Howe, Lauterbach, and Mullen—he or she will almost certainly never have seen all 10 presented as they are here, as an implicitly feminist united front collected under the gentle (even genteel) blanket category of the “woman poet.” In her introduction, coeditor Spahr states that “the collection presents a variety of ways that modernist techniques are being used within lyric contexts,” but the reader will find a less-than-harmonious conversation taking place within the book’s pages. While the collection does what it can to recuperate the lyric by expanding its compositional purview, it fails to address the most basic philosophical differences among these poets. As Spahr herself puts it, “While there is a clear difference in intent between a poem written for investigating the self and one written for investigating language or community, it is more and more the case that the techniques used might be similar.” In this sense what the book does best is to expose our contemporary moment’s enthrallment to poetic intention (perhaps accounting for the recent proliferation of poetics statements, manifestos, critical investigations, etc.) as the aesthetic forms that such intentions take come to resemble one another to a closer and closer degree. If one were to glance from Graham to Lauterbach to Hillman to Hejinian and so on without the aid of the critical entries that make up the bulk of this book, one would have little idea that the “poetry wars” of the last several decades had ever been waged.
Guide to the Blue Tongue
University of Illinois Press, $13.95 (paper)
The section titles of poet and novelist Virgil Suárez’s latest collection—“Mascaras/Masks,” “Mythomania Dance,” and “Blue Tongue Poems”—signal the dazzling yet divided play contained therein. In the first of these Suárez breaks down and reassembles Shakespeare’s The Tempest with prodigious ease; Caliban, not Prospero, stars, and rather than command the elements, he participates in an eternally dynamic conversation with both the weather and the island. Suárez renders this relationship in generous, gorgeous lines: “As a child he learned to read sunlight, the way shadows cut / across the sand, a particular hue on the water, a reflection / in the underbellies of clouds, cirrus, purpled like a dead man’s // tongue.” In actualizing the long-conjectured association of Prospero’s island with the poet’s native Cuba Suárez swells Shakespeare’s magical landscape with the heavy, sensual weight of observed and experienced life: “A banyan tree . . . chooses to send out more of its sons / into the ground.” This is an island where every native is laden by the burdens of desire, and where non-natives, including Prospero, pass like papery ghosts. Suárez’s remarkable and flexible vocabulary allows him to move out of his Tempestad and into modern life effortlessly. In “Mythomania Dance” his speaker steps back and forth across boundaries, sometimes speaking like a local to a would-be tourist (“if clouds burst in a sun-filled day and empty / wallets rain down from the heavens, we call / this suerte”), at other times turning an inquisitive tone back upon his own exiled self. The book’s third section, “Blue Tongue Poems,” stages the wildest spectacles of the volume. Here Shakespeare, Bakhtin, Derrida, de Sade, Neruda, Tiresias, J. Edgar Hoover, and even Godzilla mud-wrestle their way across the slippery terrain not only of Florida and Cuba but also of nativeness, tourism, exile, desire, age, sex, and real and imagined returns. This surfeit of possibilities delivers and re-delivers on the promises of escape and arrival extended by Suárez’s dizzying guide.
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June 01, 2003
14 Min read time