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October 13, 2015
New books from Anne Boyer, Ross Gay, Corina Copp, Noah Eli Gordon, Sandra Simonds
“It is probably more meaningful to sew a dress than to write a poem,” Anne Boyer writes. It is an aphorism whose truth we are meant to test. Is a woman writing the poetry of men and/or capitalism better off sewing? In Garments Against Women, the answer seems to be yes. The book is wide awake to questions of indoctrination. Are poets writing (i.e., producing) in and for the conditions that are actually against us? But if poems, like garments, memorialized years of invisible women’s lives, would that make them more meaningful? Boyer resists that strategy of accounting for the unaccounted: “To refuse a bookkeeperly transparency is to protect the multiplicity of what we really want.” Poetry as monument could enlarge a subject, but not, crucially, alter its means and method. Changing the power structure means changing the pattern. Boyer’s calm and paratactic confessions are an anti-poetry: “I am writing to you in long paragraphs so that I will not be pornography. If you read this you will not be turned on.” She calls for unimpressive, minor writing, and for not-writing—for value (or non-value value) in unproductivity. The book acknowledges its paradox: “how could it be literature if it is not coyly against literature but sincerely against it, as it is also against ourselves?” But that question reflects a narrow paradigm, and Boyer’s is a broad, generous book, for much more than it is against. It is poetry “without the frame of poetry,” without a safety net for the writer or the reader.
Sparsely punctuated, short-lined lyrics in Ross Gay’s third collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, issue a gushy invitation, tempered at times by grief, to accompany a speaker who counts among his friends the people he meets under fruit trees, ants inside a fig he eats, and you, the reader to whom he expresses gratitude in the title poem: “I just want us to be friends now, forever. / Take this bowl of blackberries from the garden.” Like those blackberries, these poems are the horticultural, sensual products of a poet sustained by gardening and the human relationships that the garden helps him create and comprehend. A Philadelphia fig tree with “giddy throngs of / yellow-jackets sugar / stoned” motivates a meditation on immigration. A goldfinch feasting on a sunflower and “steadying itself by snapping open / like an old-timey fan / its wings / again and again” resembles love. Fertilizing a plum tree with a dead father’s ashes yields the recuperative juice of the father “almost dancing now in the plum.” Elegies throughout the collection remind you that connecting with the earth means connecting with the dead buried there and that the garden cannot promise safety, let alone paradise. In “Spoon,” an elegy for a gay black friend who was murdered, the poet considers the sickening possibility that the unruliness of his own abundant yard might give cause for a racially motivated response “in Indiana where I am really not from, where, // for years, Negroes weren’t even allowed entry, / and where the rest stop graffiti might confirm // the endurance of such sentiments.”
Poet and playwright Corina Copp’s debut collection is protean in language and content but more specifically in its kinship with Ulysses’s third episode, “Proteus.” Copp shares Joyce’s mood of solitary reflection, in which theoretical concepts, family, alterity, mortality, and sex are analyzed in snatches of thought, creating a sense of narrative tease and a flow of cognizance that changes focus quixotically. Like “Proteus,” The Green Ray—which shares its title with films by Eric Rohmer and Tacita Dean—grounds its movements in body and soil: “to fuck be- / hind not behind but that I’m not one / for anal bleach, by which I mean Unicorn / Arras behind which I get anal bleached or.” That “or” is one key to Copp’s approach, through which meaning is pressed into chance and chance is engaged rather than simply wondered at. There is drifting in The Green Ray, but, carried along with the drifter, there is also always a faith in possibility: “the Evolutionary Transformative / Agent, a quality well we all have that / instinctively understands the greater / plan.” Copp’s work is empathetic; it persistently wrestles with how to respond to ruptures, whether large or ordinary. She meets concern, even anxiety, about the relationship between interior and exterior life by grappling with the intersections between the two: what they might mean and what we hope they mean.
Noah Eli Gordon’s The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom packs a double-handed wallop, battering the reader with poems as abashed by the fact of their poemhood (“I’m writing with my arms raised”) as they are unapologetically brazen about it (“The poem isn’t interested in helping you”). Poems such as “An Experiment in Artifice and Abject-Oriented Ontology” proceed in a largely essayistic manner but downplay their meaning-making with a lack of clarifying punctuation, a condition that captures the complex, self-reflexive nature of the collection as a whole. The phrasing of such poems should be appreciated musically as much as, if not more than, semantically—a reading strategy appropriate to Gordon’s persistent obsession with the limits and vagaries of language itself. But even as these poems openly question their own figuration and the linguistic medium in general, they also find nonrepresentational material reality insufficient: “How many types of ambiguity / can a muffin conjure up?” Ultimately, to call The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom self-reflexive doesn’t quite do these slyly exacting poems justice. Whereas self-reflexivity suggests a mirror facing a mirror, Gordon’s poems tend to be more like a hammer hitting a mirror—he short circuits the predictable, facile circularity that typically arises when language becomes aware of itself: “To paint the word lighthouse on a lighthouse is deserving of shipwreck.” These poems are not playing games. Rather, they are attempting, without becoming precious or overly self-serious, to be sincere: “If I were to say, ‘The only thing inside a muffin / is muffin,’ I would certainly mean it.”
While the fifty-six poems in The Sonnets are unmistakable sonnets, they often work against the form they ploy, pushing at the limits of rhyme, word, and line, and generally buking sonnet decorum. "Ducks Floating Serently across Pond Make Scenery Serene" begins, "Fuck all I say fuck all" (the line recurs), repeating "fuck" nineteen times in fourteen lines; "I Love You So So So Soooooo Much" makes use of twelve little ♥-signs; “Collapsible Sledgehammer” features a functional Internet URL as a line. “This Is the New Romantic” ends, “This is the new romantic®: I’ll post everything / on the internet to devalue® it® for free.” In this collection, Simonds’s third, poetic language never sets itself apart from other language. Instead, the poet mobilizes the sonnet’s traditional resources—as space of compression, site of subjective exploration, instrument for world-making—to speak from within and about the pressures of a very real economics: How do you write poems while caring for children, teaching composition, and trying to make rent? How do you think about—for example—domestic violence, Bikram Yoga, and being in love, all at once? The world is an exhausting place full of unsustainable contradictions; the sonnet holds some parts of it uncomfortably, energetically, together. From preset structures and rhythms emerges a very voicey subject (“I write / what I sing like karaoke. I sing what I write / like Kryptonite”) who engages forces of history, culture, and labor, gathering them up and spikily resisting them, as in “The Soul as Lo-Fi Diva”: “She wears watermelon lip gloss and licks her lips / to a metronome set to civil disobedience.”
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