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Category Archives: American Poetry

Poems: New & Selected by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

Poems: New & Selected by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

Eric Selland’s introduction heading this new addition to Isobar’s fine series of publications of contemporary poetry is uncompromisingly clear in its assertion about the work of Joritz-Nakagawa:

“Hers is a radically open form – a framework through which the data of life, and poetic themes and materials, freely migrate. She does not reject the personal, but she does not privilege it either. It is simply part of the data. And yet one senses a personal warmth, the presence of an intelligent observer in Jane’s work. What we experience here as readers is not ‘the death of the author’ – the poetic subject has simply become more complex.”

At the opening of ‘PLAN B AUDIO’, one of the new poems that start this remarkable volume, we read the line “courtship of empty space” where the first word contains two nouns, both court and ship, and it is the palpable juxtaposition of what might become appropriate: a reference to a courtyard that one could mistake for the Cortile of Urbino is joined to a sense of movement and discovery. This compound is then placed against the empty space of paper: a painting perhaps which might bring to mind the work of Mondrian or even de Kooning. With this visual prompt I am then drawn to a poem from the 2007 collection Aquiline which highlights the painterly sense laying itself open time and again on the canvas of this visual poetry:

“Grey men in blue vinyl
tents The pond
a web of mistakes the
sky vacant Even
birds
reject it A
hump-backed
woman dips her hand into
opaque water
& immediately
withdraws it Wind
scatters
trash along flattened dirt The
light
is not correct”

The poem is titled ‘View from the Century Hyatt Hotel, Tokyo’ and with that opening word “View” we are offered a cityscape in which colours merge with shapes (“tents”) and the “pond” is drawn with the criss-crossings of “web”. As “Wind /scatters / trash along flattened dirt” there is the sense of a brushstroke and the concluding comment concerning light not being “correct” reminds the reader of the inevitable gap between the artist and his art. Maurice Blanchot composed his The Space of Literature in 1955 and the essay about Orpheus has an appropriateness to Joritz-Nakagawa’s poetry:

“When Orpheus descends towards Eurydice, art is the power by which night opens. Because of art’s strength, night welcomes him; it becomes welcoming intimacy, the harmony and accord of the first night. But it is toward Eurydice that Orpheus has descended. For him Eurydice is the furthest that art can reach. Under a name that hides her and a veil that covers her, she is the profoundly obscure point toward which art and desire, death and night, seem to tend. She is the instant when the essence of night approaches as the other night.”

Or as Eric Selland puts it:

“For Jane, as with Blanchot, the poem never ends. It is an infinitely open system, always searching for that which is unexplainable, and unattainable: the poem is constantly in search of itself.”

In a poem from last year we can read the “merging of potential shapes // in elusive pools”. The poem as a “test run” or “stage symbol” can unearth “what becomes undone”: it can bring to the page “my frozen heart / her upturned body”.

This book provides a fascinating glimpse into a poetic world that shimmers.

Ian Brinton, 25th September 2018

Grabbing Pussy by Karen Finley (OR Books)

Grabbing Pussy by Karen Finley (OR Books)

Performance Artist and poet, Karen Finley, creates for an adult audience and speaks up for those that are silenced or victimised. Her latest book, Grabbing Pussy, based on a performance piece, Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, combines Language and Beat poetry in a bravura display employing the deeply limited and limiting sexual vocabulary of recent American political discourse.

She begins with Donald Trump’s riposte to Senator Rubio’s implied link between his small hands and his penis: ‘if they’re small something else must be small.’

Of pussy grabbing the lack of penis backpack
The ability to men u strate
Takes-over-the-consciousness-of-everything-else state.

Grabbing Pussy focusses upon the psychosexual obsessions during the 2016 US Presidential election and before the MeToo campaign. Her poems, full of feminist humour and outrage, elevate and insinuate by manipulating found material around the language of philandering politicians and celebrities, centring on the misogyny of Donald Trump and his deliberate use of demeaning language and alternative facts for political advantage. Finley’s poems explore the sickness of this denigrating language and squeezes a series of nuances around what was said in a searing dissection of its sexual politics. This is framed within the wider perspective of an ideology that powerful men can do anything without being brought to justice and of an inadequate masculinity that leads to the assumption that a woman’s body is not her own.

I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women] – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wat. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything …”

Finley’s ‘Pussy Power’ poem is a rant at the white rich triumphant ego
turning the language back into itself with repeated phrases such as, ‘My time is spent grabbing pussy’, ‘Let me man up’, based upon the ‘I You We’
communication skills around ownership and leadership. She cleverly links this to sublimated desire and thus elevates the rant to art. ‘Let me grab some pussy / Bite off man’s naughty bits / and feel my small manhood, my small hands’.

Finley’s use of juxtaposition, repetition and disjunctive language is borne from writing more for performance than the page, and it is gloriously effective and literary, as in ‘She He’:

She He
She She She
Constantly referred to as the She
He said She She She
As if Hillary doesn’t have a name
The only She on the stage
The She Devil She Wolf
She did that
She didn’t do that
She needs to be stopped

Finley’s response to Trump’s verbal abuse of women in general as ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals’ deconstructs his words exposing his insouciance and belief that women should be punished for having an abortion, if made illegal, and is emphatic in its assertion of a woman’s right to own her own body. This is linked to his portrayal of Hillary Clinton as a cold, distant and crooked woman, his contradictory thoughts on migrants and support for statues commemorating idols of enslavement. She takes this a stage further by mixing the hate and misogynistic speeches and sexual politics into a montage of confused and contradictory direct speech with social and cultural asides implicating more discursive material. It is in the cut-ups, emphasising obsessions with hair and bodily functions, that the poetry moves beyond Beat rant to a more elevated and disjunctive place.

My kinky fetish
My kind of girl
That is why I have to be such a pig, for I really am a pussy
My head is my pussy
My sprayed wiglet, my merkin
I really want to be a Barbie
I want to be Ivana

There are memorable lines, such as ‘You pray at Trump Tower / Trump Tower is my Flower Power’, ‘Grab me some pussy / Let me woman up’, ‘I am Doris Day with Rock Hudson’, and so on that pepper the sequence with humour.

This is an impressive collection, with a trenchant reading of power that enables and legitimises attacks on women’s rights to their own bodies, becoming subtler and more nuanced with repeated reading.

David Caddy 15th June 2018

http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/grabbing-pussy-by-karen-finley/

Women of Resistance: Poems For A New Feminism Eds. Danielle Barnhart & Iris Mahan (OR Books)

Women of Resistance: Poems For A New Feminism Eds. Danielle Barnhart & Iris Mahan (OR Books)

This anthology has a strong feminist ethos that cuts through race, gender identity and sexuality. The resistance in the title stems from the fight for agency through suffrage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President. The editor’s note that ‘suffrage’ comes from Middle English, meaning intercessory prayer, and this informs their invocation of the other, encompassing transgender women, as well as its sense of grieving for the violence, rape and oppression of women. They affirm that womanhood is not limited to the biology of the female body and glory in work that occupies poetic space for all who fall in the category of the other within white patriarchy.

The first stanza of the opening poem, ‘A Woman’s Place’ by Denice Frohman sets the defiant tone:

i heard a woman becomes herself
the first time she speaks
without permission

Here women and others speak out and are not named and shamed into silence. Frohman’s poem ends:

if this poem is the only thing that survives
me
tell them I grew a new tongue
tell them I built a throne

tell them when we discovered life on another planet
it was a woman
& she built a bridge, not a border

got god & named gravity
after herself.

Many poems occupy the space of resistance, protest and survival, supporting stances for Planned Parenthood, Reproductive Rights, Black Lives Matter, Civil Rights, and other issues. There is also a strong sense of grieving for women that have unfairly lost their lives, as in Kaveh Akbar’s poem, ‘Heritage’, which commemorates the life of an Iranian woman hanged in 2014 for killing a man who was attempting to rape her. Akbar’s poem moves towards prayer and hope that God may ‘beat us awake’ and that we may ‘measure every victory / by the momentary absence of pain’.

Others have a more explorative, transformative and open edge. A prime example is Dorothea Lasky’s dense and suggestive poem, ‘The Secret Life of Mary Crow’. The poem works on several levels, positing a secret life as the place ‘where we are no longer us / But the beginning of things’, and sees the body as ‘corpse and text’ and also ‘a possibility’. The poem effectively enacts a series of losses, uncertainties and moves beyond grieving to another deeper place. I was also impressed by Jade Lascelles, poem, ‘This Is Why We Are Afraid’, a striking allegorical poem of quiet power and subtle depiction of young females under attack. The poem paints a broad canvass with its third section highlighting shades of blue revealed after fracture and when darkness becomes visible. The poem later highlights female resistance to male figures that are against nature and wild creatures: ‘Fragile containers at the whim and mercy of a flicking wrist.’

Several poems, such as Ada Limón’s ‘Service’, emphasise and enact the need for independent space, and locate a space for female survival, as in Safia Elhillo’s ‘After’, where ‘every day i go missing one eyelash at a time’. They work through implication and benefit from being less explicit. Similarly, Kimberly Johnson’s poem, ‘Female’, employs new urban words to offer a sense of an emergent female being transformed by ‘Secret, quaint horror’ and ‘betrayal of the flesh’.

This vibrant and dynamic anthology is far from being one-dimensional and has many fine poems to which I shall return.

The book comes with a cover blurb by Eileen Myles. Amongst the contributors are new writers, academics and established voices such as Kim Addonizio, Jericho Brown, Kwame Dawes, Karyna McGlynn, Mary Ruefle and Anne Waldman.

http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/women-of-resistance/?utm_source=Tears%20in%20the%20Fence&utm_medium=review&utm_campaign=womenofresistance

David Caddy March 13th 2018

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

This is a compelling collection of essays focussing upon a wide range of artists and led by the pied piper of the Arts, Barry Schwabsky. We can engage with Jack Spicer and John Ashbery, Samuel Beckett and Italo Calvino, Peter Manson and Denise Riley…Paul Celan and more…and more.
A taster: the review of Rasula and Conley’s anthology Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (Action Books, 2012) opens with an uncompromisingly clear tone:

“There’s nothing like an ambitious anthology for redistricting your inner map of poetic possibility.”

There is a clean sense in Schwabsky’s use of the word “redistricting” which locates us firmly in the urban world that Blake might have recognised in his use of the word “charter’d” in ‘London’. Ambitious anthologies might include Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), Crozier and Longville’s A Various Art (1987) and Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos (1996); they certainly include the one mentioned by Schwabsky, Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium. The time-frame of Burning City is approximately 1910-39 and “Jed Rasula and Tom Conley have given us a historical anthology with clear implications for our present sense of what literary modernity might be and of how we could still be implicated in it”. As the editors assert “We still inhabit metropolitan configurations pioneered under the auspices of Modernism” and therefore, implicitly, our writing is still conditioned by such habitation. It was Ben Jonson who wrote that “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee” following that dramatic statement with the assertion that language “springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the Parent of it, the mind”. Barry Schwabsky’s review of this anthology reflects his own sense of mind: a fairness concerning the enormous amount of work done by the editors spending “untold hours leafing through half- or entirely forgotten magazines in seemingly every European language (there are a few Asian writers included as well)”. It comes of course as no surprise that Schwabsky should also pick up on what he sees as something rather surprising, that this complex piece of publishing “has been undertaken by a small press like Action Books:

“One would have thought this kind of project to be the preserve of the university presses…but these days, apparently, such things depend less on institutions than on the heroic efforts of a few individuals. Action Books had long since won my admiration for its publications by contemporaries like Glenum, Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon, but Burning City puts the press on another level altogether”.

Towards the end of this essay on the Poetry of the Modernist City Barry Schwabsky points us to a central aspect of the urban when he says that the city “seems to be constantly in the process of destroying itself but – through (or as) that very destruction – it persists”. In my mind this seems to point back to Paul Auster’s terrifying picture of the future of urban living in his 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things:

“When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

In the opening words to this remarkable collection of essays Barry Schwabsky tells us that to use language is always, in some degree, to disturb it, “to trouble the solidity of the identification through which it is structured – to induce a mutation, momentary or momentous as it may be.” My response is YES! And that is what makes reading so engaging and so important.

http://www.blacksquareeditions.org

Ian Brinton, 1st March 2018.

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

A new critical account of the poems of George Oppen is invariably a delight; the arrival of such an intelligent and closely argued text as Xavier Kalck’s has turned out to be is something more.
In his introduction Kalck points to Oppen’s poems “as remarkably readable compositions, which are only elusive if one chooses not to listen to their specific formal characteristics”. He then outlines one of his major concerns:

“The first objective of this book is therefore the exemplification of a new methodology, based on new readings of Oppen’s poems. Bearing in mind that dysfunction often really shows function, I plead for a critical shift toward prosody as interpretive pragmatics.”

We are presented time and again with close critical analysis that reminds one of what it means to read with an engaged concern for what the poet is presenting. As a result we can both see and hear how Oppen builds a song from the common – though shattered – resources of language. The blurb on the back of this new book recognises an aspect of what Kalck has achieved:

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace offers the first survey of the critical consensus which has now built up around the poetry of George Oppen, after over two decades of substantial interest in his work. It proposes a comprehensive perspective on Oppen and the criticism devoted to Oppen, from the Objectivist strain in American poetry to the thinkers, such as Heidegger, Levinas, Marx and Adorno, which critics have brought to bear on Oppen’s poetry, to pave the way for the consideration and exemplification of a new methodology which sheds a critical light on the ideas and practices in contemporary poetics, through well-researched close readings.”

And there we have it! What makes this book so important is not only the wide range of its focus and its placing of Oppen’s work within a background of substantial twentieth-century thought but also the fact that it takes one back time and again to the words on the page: we are offered an approach to POETRY .
When Michael Davidson edited the New Collected Poems for New Directions in 2002 he had referred to Oppen’s method of working, whittling and refining his poems “into tough, recalcitrant lyrics that would endure the test of time.” After the publication of Discrete Series, a short volume from the Objectivist Press in 1934, Oppen did not produce a second book of poems until 1962 when The Materials was published by New Directions and the San Francisco Review. Some of the poems in that volume had appeared in 1960 in Massachusetts Review and Poetry making the gap between Oppen’s published poems just over twenty-five years. During that quarter-century he saw active duty in the Battle of the Bulge, being gravely wounded in April 1945, became a custom carpenter in California, fell under the watchful glance of the FBI, went into exile in Mexico in 1950 and only returned to New York in January 1960. The epigraph to The Materials was a quotation from Maritain: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things’ and it was those lines that Charles Tomlinson underlined in the copy which Oppen signed for him after they had become close friends. Tomlinson also wrote a brief but firmly-held statement just before George and Mary visited him in Gloucestershire in which he recognised that Oppen never wrote poems “where the powers of disquisition begin worrying to death the initial experience before it has been permitted to declare its own terms.”
In a letter from 1959 Oppen had written to Julian Zimet about what it was that so fascinated him about “Things and mechanisms” he said that “I like the things that people have wrested out of the idiot stone…All the poems are about the same thing. The shorter poems are shorter fragments of what I want to say, the longer poems are longer fragments.” In a cancelled opening paragraph to his introduction to the selection of Oppen’s poems edited for Cloudforms No. 4, Tomlinson had referred to making audible Oppen’s “characteristic voice, so distinct from the personality cults of Berryman, Lowell and Plath”. That voice is precisely what comes to the ear and eye in Xavier Kalck’s masterly account of the late poem “Song, The Winds of Downhill” and this book is worth getting hold of if only for those pages of “an architectural representation of the poem’s rhetorical framework”.
In conclusion Kalck refers to another letter sent by Oppen to a British poet. In this case the receiver of that letter was Anthony Barnett and the story behind the correspondence which lasted some thirteen years is told in SNOW lit rev 2. The letter in Kalck’s chapter earns its presence by epitomizing best the several threads which run through this book of criticism. I know that Peter Lang books are expensive but please do put some pressure on your Library to acquire a copy; you will not be disappointed.

Ian Brinton, 31st January 2018

Ring of Bone by Lew Welch (Grey Fox Press, 1973)

Ring of Bone by Lew Welch (Grey Fox Press, 1973)

The title of Lew Welch’s Collected Poems 1950-1971 is taken from one of his earlier Hermit poems which had appeared in 1965 from Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco as Writing 8. Published in an edition of 1000 copies it was reproduced from the author’s handwriting.

‘I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it’

The image of sight and sound occurs of course some eighty-five years earlier in the sonnet Hopkins wrote about movement and every aspect of Nature dealing out ‘that being indoors each one dwells’:

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring…’

The effect of a stone’s splash into water is to produce a number of rings which move outwards from the moment of impact; the movement lessens as it gets further from the source. The echoing sense of experience moving outwards from the initial moment is caught by Hopkins in his wonderfully contradictory image of bells: the sonorous ’roundy wells’, the depth and darkness, give out a clarity of ringing which stretches through air.
In the Preface to his Collected Poems Lew Welch suggested that ‘Ring of Bone might be called a spiritual autobiography arranged in more or less chronological sequence.’ He goes on to say that the mind grows in a ‘flickering kind of way’ and that sometimes ‘an insight comes too early to be fully understood.’ Book II of this Collected Poems reproduces the 1965 Hermit poems and includes the drawing Welch did for his hundred foot circle:

‘Step out onto the Planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody’s ever really seen.’

An earlier poem by Welch offered a picture of Chicago and Samuel Charters wrote about it that it was almost as if the poet ‘were standing on a street corner with his arms folded, trying to tell somebody what he thinks about Chicago’. The language is casual, immediate, direct and ‘he’s only concerned with telling you what’s on his mind, half listening to whatever anybody else is saying’.
Perhaps nowadays one might have to turn to the Notebooks of R.F. Langley to unearth the quietly resounding sense of what is in Lew Welch’s ‘ring of bone’:

‘As I came back up the garden, I sat down on the bench, and stayed there a couple of hours. Barbara was in the attic with the computer, the roof window by her open, the electric light in there strengthening during those hours, from invisible, to a suggestion, to gold in a cave. There was continuous cloud crossing, with blue gaps paling between. Metal grey. Lead silver. With darker whiffs. At first there were touches of citrine, not brown, not yellow, not orange…which chilled and disappeared. There was a small star, which I thought was a satellite because it was moving, but this movement was transferred from the clouds, as I realised when the star reappeared in the same place later. No swifts. No sparrows. No starlings. The raucous bird life has moved away from the garden, to Africa or into the fields and marshes. House martins still, high, in a group, like swifts but slower, gentler, quieter. Thirty or so of them. They vanish as darkness comes.’

The final poem in Lew Welch’s Hermit Poems takes us back to that circle of engagement and observation, of openness to the world:

‘and vowed
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a
bell does’

Ian Brinton 21st January 2018

A Tale of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman (OR Books)

A Tale of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman (OR Books)

This anthology of 36 essays, short stories and poems concerned with addressing the financial inequalities, systematic injustice, entrenched racism and oppression, poor treatment of immigrants and increased mechanisation possesses a depth of shared experiences within an impassioned plea for a more emphatic ethics. This begins in the editor’s introduction with calls to look beyond the statistics of broken America to the wider human cost and need for a greater ‘bandwidth of care’.

Rebecca Solnit’s essay ‘Death By Gentrification: The Killing Of Alex Nieto’ concerns the shooting of a young security guard by San Francisco police in 2014 and shows how his past and Latino identity were used against him and how this relates to the gentrification of the victim’s neighbourhood. Solnit, known here for Wanderlust: A History of Walking, produces a memorable account of the events, trial and aftermath for the Nietos, with minimal English and Spanish, and neighbourhood who came together for one of their own.

Manuel Muñoz in ‘Fieldwork’ writes of his dying father who migrated from Central America to pick lettuce and cotton to support his family in jobs that are now vanishing. The poet, Juan Felipe Herrera recalls the unnamed and undocumented workers searching for ways out. Many contributions pivot around travel. There is a sense of the contributor’s ability to fly, as in Julia Alvarez’s ‘Mobility’, and the circumscribed social and economic mobility, language barriers and difficulties faced by the majority of Americans.

Natalie Diaz contributes one of the strongest poems, ‘American Arithmetic’. She points out that Native Americans constitute less than one per cent of the population yet 1.9 per cent of all police killings.

In an American city of one hundred people,
I am Native American – less than one, less than
whole – I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let’s say I am only a hand –
and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover,
I disappear completely.

Displacement and loss of sustainable employment and community permeate the anthology as facts of life with many contributors seemingly echoing Freeman’s notion that the solution lies ‘between us, not above us’ and not with governments. For example, in Joyce Carol Oates’ short story ‘Leander’, a white woman visits an African American church hosting a Save Our Lives protest and experiences a sufficient range of emotional and psychological pulls and uncertainties that she contributes financially to the cause and finds an elevated self-consciousness. Anne Dillard contributes a concise flash fiction calling upon artists unable to create on some days to work in a soup kitchen, give blood as part of a good day’s work.

There is an undertow of laying bare inequality without developing a narrative arc beyond precarious employment or having to sell blood plasma to survive, as well as a tendency to nullify raw experience and anger for sophistication. Notwithstanding, this is an important and nuanced anthology.

http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/talesoftwoamericas/?utm_source=Tears%20in%20the%20Fence&utm_medium=review&utm_campaign=Tales

David Caddy 16th October 2017

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