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Category Archives: American Poetry

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

This is, it must be said, a deeply intelligent and thoughtful book, of what are interviews and essays. This comes very late for Michael Heller (b1937) who has already behind him a copious collected poems This Constellation is a Name and a number of significant prose volumes, including a much admired study of the Objectivist poets Conviction’s Net of Branches (1985)This comes some years after a significant volume from Salt, Uncertain Poetries (2005). There are insights to be gleaned here not only on Heller’s writing but on poetics and practice more generally.

A full appreciation of what is going on here might very well spur further essays. So in that sense this short review is bound to seem a little superficial. The book is in three parts, one more general, one geared to specific readings and a concluding ‘Coda’ of just three articles. 

It is doubtless relevant and pertinent to note that Heller’s predominant influences have been George Oppen and Walter Benjamin, with whose work he has sustained a lasting relation (p117) and there was an Oppen correspondence. The book, regrettably, has no index but there is a bibliography of works cited, some six pages.

There is almost an unspelled out theory of poetic composition here, almost an ars poetica, but it is not stressed or emphasised, and we have reference to such notions as revelation and clarity, as well as the void, which language might ‘cover’ with some nods to Heidegger, in ‘revealments and concealments’ (p189). This is plainly not far from the notion of authenticity if not exactness. There is also Heller’s late encounter with Buddhism, something he shares for instance with Ginsberg. The notion of ‘now time’ is also picked up from Benjamin.

The book itself has a wonderfully perplexing epigraph from critic Geoffrey Hartman,- ‘the sacred has so inscribed itself in language that while it must be interpreted, it cannot be removed’. This suggests of course that interpretation can be a kind of usurpation or adaptation. Yet this intrinsic core of the sacred remains, although Heller, to his credit, does not harp on about this.

So in that sense, the first part is about poetics generally, and the second offers specific readings, of Oppen, another leading Objectivist Reznikoff, HD (her ‘Helen in Egypt’), Robert Duncan and Norman Finkelstein. Memorably Duncan asserts that he is waging poetry, not war. There does seem also to be an awareness of Harold Bloom’s notion of the literary agon. For Heller his engagement with Oppen seems to have been quite critical. Heller’s implication in secular Judaism cannot equally be discounted. 

For better or worse, Heller’s main engagement has been with the Objectivists and of course also Benjamin. He writes insightfully also about Pound and HD. Olson is mentioned only briefly, and there is certainly an awareness of Whitman as well as Ginsberg. Also the Oppen connection in which Heller was imbricated was personal. Heller may be very interested in the methodology of poetry but he is not trying particularly to sketch out any larger historical development.

Poetry as Heller asserts is ‘an articulation of that which was inarticulate’ (p45). He then discusses the ‘desanctification’ of Whitman and how this must be ‘re-examined in the light of present circumstances’, before going on to discuss some Buddhist possible extrapolations, whose foremost exponent might be Ginsberg. Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, might be seen to be reaching out to the West, in a way for instance that Hinduism does not.

And there is more besides;- Heller is very aware of Judaic thought for instance, and how this must relate to contemporary poetics. He speaks of a tendency to ‘turn the Torah of Israel from a source of authority to a source for inspiration’ (p59), of converting Law into lore. One might cover ‘the underlying void and expose it at the same time’ (p61). This he says leads to Oppen’s ‘speaking the estranged’. (p62) Citing the poet Bialik he asserts ‘between concealments, the void looms’ (p64); and he continues that ‘between a perfunctory use of language and a language of the mysteries’ ‘are at the heart of the sacred text’ (p65). 

There is an interesting engagement with Leiris, where we find commentary on ‘the refusals of the confessional writer to indulge’ in a more palatable artifice (p73), described in terms of ‘adherence to the rules of the game’. And, actually this is a signal characteristic of Oppen and the Objectivists that they tend to be disinclined towards confessionalism, introspection and subjectivity which are then bound up with purported solipsism or narcissism. 

Given that, the presentation of lyricism here is penetrating and thorough, as well as effectively honed. There is of course nary a hint of Lowell, say, and one feels that this is a work of communal engagement, not the solitary or personal insight. Given that, the sophistication of argument is high, and just about all the poets cited well worth the attention and effort. I would maintain then that this is criticism and comment of a high degree. But of course Heller is not discussing the ‘New Americans’ but the ‘Objectivists’ and their legacy. Yet given this process of constraint there is much here to stir a quite delving creative interest if not some soul searching.  

Clark Allison 10th October 2021

Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Press Interview by John Brantingham

Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Press Interview by John Brantingham

Just outside Joshua Tree National Park is the city of Joshua Tree, which has drawn artists and writers to itself forming a community of creative people in the Mojave Desert. Within this community is Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library, which have created a space for these folks to share their creativity. He publishes a monthly literary magazine and hosts readings to celebrate each new issue. He also makes sure Cholla Needles is involved with other local events including the Big Read put on each year by the Arts Connection of San Bernardino County.  In 2021 the Big Read featured the U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

       What I find particularly fascinating however, is Cholla Needles’ publishing project. Soos publishes a wide range of work, but his series of books of poets who are also visual artists is stunning. These are often about forty pages and include full color art. They often feature desert themes and capture the spirit of the Joshua Tree’s arts community well with authors and artists like Kendall Johnson, Cynthia Anderson, Susan Abbott, Zara Kand, and Cindy Rinne, serious writers who take their art just as seriously. The effect is a body of work that is the best of what ekphrasis does, where the art and words work in unison to make new connections, to create new ideas, that the art or words alone could not do. These are not just exceptional books. This is an exceptional series.

      I wanted to understand the collaborative process between him and his writer/artists, so I talked to him about the project.

John:   Would it be fair to say that you are deeply involved in a collaborative process that is not just you printing the work, but helping the artists/writers to draw out ideas that they might not have necessarily found on their own?

Rich:   Well, a lot depends on the author. I am always involved in the collaborations, obviously. How deeply depends on the other parties involved. There are some poets/artists that I spend lots and lots of time with attempting to craft a final product that works. There are others who are excellent at self-editing, and describing their vision well, so I’m largely the old guy in the background making sure the technology matches their vision. 

John:   Did you self-consciously decide to develop this art/poetry project? Do you even see it as a project or is it just something that naturally built itself?

Rich:   I walked into pie for the people in Joshua Tree for some pizza and saw artwork on the walls that knocked me over. I discovered an artist who had placed my deepest dreams and poetry onto canvas and was fascinated. I found my heart pouring out words that had been waiting for these images and created two proofs – one called Interiors, and one called Exteriors. I created the proofs before talking to the artist because I did not have the language to explain the vision I had for these publications. The cover of both was the same, the titles were different. When I took the proofs to the artist we immediately bonded and collaborated to help make the vision I had a mutual vision. This experience started the series of art/poetry books and is solely the fault of Zara Kand. Without her art speaking directly to me this would never have started. I’m not sure the word “project” is the correct term, I just know it was something I had to do to satisfy my own need to see poetry and art that moved my soul become a single unit. I do like your description, “naturally built itself”.

     Many of these art books have come together the same way. A vision in my head that I can only express through the printing process. As an example, Cindy Rinne submitted a book of poetry that she wanted me to publish Called Moon of Many Pebbles. I loved the words, and was willing to publish them in the same way as most of our books – black words on white paper. As I read through the words I kept seeing her art, so using the same format, I decided to try the art/poetry approach to add a vivid dimension to the reading experience. Again, I was unable to use words to explain the vision, so I made up a proof version and shared it with Cindy. She was very happy with the presentation, and from that first proof we were able to collaborate to make the vision a mutual one.

      Now, of course, folks have seen quite a few of these books and are able to send me material to create these art/poetry books using their vision. For example here, I had published work by Cynthia Anderson and Susan Abbott. Cynthia saw Susan’s work and wanted to have her words enhanced by including full color pieces with her words. And that beautiful collaboration became Now Voyager. We have over 25 of these books by many folks available now, and I am proud of the series. Each book is unique, and meets a specific creative desire within me. I love the technical challenge of turning the vision in my head into a work of art others want to hold in their hands. 

John:   Would it be fair to say that you are deeply involved in a collaborative process that is not just you printing the work, but helping the artists/writers to draw out ideas that they might not have necessarily found on their own?

Rich:   Well, a lot depends on the author. I am always involved in the collaborations, obviously. How deeply depends on the other parties involved. There are some poets/artists that I spend lots and lots of time with attempting to craft a final product that works. There are others who are excellent at self-editing, and describing their vision well, so I’m largely the old guy in the background making sure the technology matches their vision. 

John:   I’m wondering about your placement in the Mojave desert and if that’s influenced the way you’ve developed as a press.

Rich:   My “placement” in the Mojave desert was simply a result of the big real estate crash of 2008. I had always wanted to move here since my first visit in 1972, and by 2008 I was very close to “retirement”.  We had honestly given up on ever being able to return to California to live because of the ridiculous costs of homes. In 2008 real estate prices were slashed to 25% of what they were in previous years, and we immediately bought our retirement home because we knew that was a once every 20-30 years opportunity. The entire country has experienced the doubling and tripling of real estate prices in the past few years, so I made a good decision. There’s no way we could afford to move here now.

We had come to Joshua Tree every summer and I can’t deny it’s influenced me as a writer and artist – and probably as an editor. I have a deep love for work that is sparse and carries deep meaning below the surface, and I’m sure that comes from my walks in the desert. Also, our motto here at Cholla Needles is from a poem I wrote 40 years ago when I learned the hard way the strength of those little needles. The motto basically says that I look for work that slices through the surface, and leaves a healthy scar long afterwards. Poetry should bear repeated readings, and stay deep within us long after we’ve turned the page.

The development of the Cholla Needles phenomena happened quickly once we started. My initial desire was simply to have a monthly magazine. I started receiving full length manuscripts almost immediately, and when I’m presented with work I know others should be reading, I can’t help but desire to print it. In five years we’ve published 60 monthly issues and over 120 books.   

John:   Speaking of the monthly magazine, you’ve told me that you draw many of the people you publish from Cholla Needles Magazine. This involves both art and writing as well. Was one of your impulses for book publishing to get a more complete vision of individual artists?

Rich:   Cholla Needles magazine is presented as what I call 10 mini-chapbooks between two covers. This was on purpose – to give readers a real good flavor of each writer and artist. And you are correct, this mini-chapbook is a mere taste of what they are capable of, and the books offer much more depth into the authors. I did plan that specific requirement – that an author or artist appear in Cholla Needles prior to being considered for a book – for a reason. My sanity. I always feel obligated to read material that comes across my threshold. I’m sure no one would be surprised how many people have book manuscripts ready to be read. Any editor will tell you – it is very easy to become overwhelmed. By making sure authors/artists first appear in the magazine before I read their full book manuscript, I save a lot of time. I do believe the best books come from mutual respect and a willingness to work together. If we can work together to get their work prepared for the mini-chapbook, we have a much better chance of some real success with a 120 page book. 

John:   Do you have any plans or dreams for the future of the press or do you plan for it just to develop organically?

Rich:   Oh yes, we have dreams, big dreams! However, our plan at this point is simple – to survive the pandemic, and to build back to where we were pre-pandemic. 

            Understandably people’s financial situations have been in havoc the past sixteen months and their ability and desire to support magazines like ours has almost disappeared.

            Our three dreams remain the same, the same dreams we have included in our non-profit by-laws. 

            First, we’d love to pay our authors and artists. Our plan pre-pandemic was to change from a single copy to several copies as payment starting 2022, with the continued dream of being able to pay in greenbacks as we grow. 

            The second dream is to move our library from the garage into a site that would double as a poetry bookstore/art gallery. The dream is to sell new poetry from around the world, and maintain our library for the classic books of poetry that are no longer available for sale. We have several thousand books in the library already, and it continues to grow. Many writers donate their own books to the library, as well as books they’ve collected that they no longer have room for. 

            And finally, the biggest dream was practical pre-pandemic, but since real estate prices have tripled in the past 16 months it feels impractical. That said, a dream can still be a dream, and we want to have a Cholla Needles retreat where poets can reserve a place to come from anywhere in the world to be inspired by our beautiful landscape to either start a new book, or find the peace to complete a project they are working on. The dream is to have this space available to writers at no cost and underwritten by donations from patrons of the arts. There are folks who still do that and we simply wait for the right ones who love Cholla Needles and love our area and love writers. The perfect trifecta.

            In the meantime, as these dreams continue to motivate and inspire our board members we will continue to develop organically. Last year for example, a single board member pointed out since I was answering emails 10-12 hours a day seven days a week that I didn’t have time for my own writing. I hadn’t stopped to consider that, but it was true, so I asked the simple question – how do we change that? She suggested “guest editors.” Such a simple, organic solution, and yes, we have had four issues by guest editors in the past year, and it’s been so successful we will continue to keep that new tradition alive.

    We’ve been blessed to be able to continue publishing during these days when folks are more focused on survival than poetry. Maintaining our schedule has proven to be inspirational to our readers, and their monthly notes of thanks and praise help us tremendously. Mutual love and respect. Good times!!!

John Brantingham 10th September 2021

SurvivalEye by Mare Heron Hake (Arroyo Seco Press)

SurvivalEye by Mare Heron Hake (Arroyo Seco Press)

For me, Mare Heron Hake’s SurvivalEye is a necessary book in this time of pain and uncertainty. There is a lot going on in Hake’s debut collection. She takes a close look at what is deadly and difficult in the world, but her poetry is filled with characteristics I personally admire above all else, hope and courage. There are any number of poets that show me how to proceed through the kind of chaos we face, Yusef Komunyakaa, Joy Harjo, Paul Kareem Tayyar, and Marge Piercy, and what I love about Hake is that she continues the ideals of these great writers and applies them to the problems of now. As I move with anxiety through my in-person teaching and worry about the health of myself, my family, and my students, Hake reminds me of how to do so with grace. She does it with hope and resilience and her collection gives us a model for courage.

     Hake’s poetry is often an antidote for despair. Her prose poem “your ember” discusses finding resilience in the passions that live in all of us. It tells to have faith in that passion, in her words that “ember,” “it isn’t nothing but something here tangled in your own roots, down beyond their clawed reach, this smallest tip of heat that you can feel, a burning, an ember to keep you warm but could also light the rest of you on fire” (55). Here and throughout the collection, Hake acknowledges that those parts of us that are often demeaned or ignored by us and others are part of who we are and a part of our power. Simply moving and doing often gives us a way forward. She also discusses this same idea in “BossLady” where she writes, “I am the belief no one else encouraged” (9). This looking inward to find strength that gives us hope is repeated again and again, and she shows us that having faith in ourselves is the way to move forward. We should not look to others for this.

     If she is calling to us for hope in this time when we are inclining toward despair, she is also calling to us for resilience. In the titular poem, she writes of how a crow she witnesses survives.

But every-

thing of this crow was committed to

the task — feet in water, one eye

going down, a thing tongued tool

of a beak parallel to the inch of

wet, a neck bent so low for a

moment, and necessary, over

and over again, day after

day (5).

The crow becomes emblematic of the resilience that she is calling for. To live, it must drink, and to drink it must put itself in a vulnerable position, and this is terrifying, but the narrator watching the crow starts to understand and relate to it. Like the crow, she is vulnerable, and life is dangerous, but the only way forward is to keep going, day after day.

         The world needs more collections that affirm hope and resilience, and I am grateful to Hake for having given us this one. Anything that reminds us that there is a better world possible is to be lauded. This is a book that shows us the way.

John Brantingham 1st September 2021

Sex & Ketchup by Mish (Concrete Mist Press)

Sex & Ketchup by Mish (Concrete Mist Press)

     Mish’s Sex & Ketchup is informed by the trauma of living in the Trump Era and especially of being in the quarantine for the past few month. This is not to say that her collection is entirely about this era, only that the poems seem influenced by it and the emotions drawn out by it, even when she is not directly discussing the quarantine, her poetry seems to be a reaction to it. There are of course a number of poems that reminded me a bit of the political writing of Muriel Ruykeyser or Allen Ginsberg. They comment directly on the ex-president and his policies. However, it is equally clear that this time in quarantine has caused Mish to dwell on the traumas of her distant and recent past, and these are drawn out in the collection as well. In this, she is giving a voice to the deeply felt emotions that everyone I know is feeling these days.

     A friend of mine who is a psychotherapist dealing with trauma often says that retirement is a time when people suddenly have to face the PTSD they have been ignoring because of their working life because they have fewer distractions; I don’t know whether Mish would have been dealing directly with the loss of her father and her lifetime of memories with him. Certainly she would have, and possibly in very healthy ways, but this aspect of the collection feels very much to me like the emotions that I have been dealing with. We have all had a good deal of time to think carefully about our pain and worries. She devotes an entire section of the collection to this “Tiny Dancer,” and the fact of his death runs throughout the collection. She writes about the physicality of her father’s death: 

            Dad sucks air

            with mouth open,

            lungs flooded

            with pneumonia (13).

Her feelings of loss rise up in these poems, and of course we can all relate to those now in this time of forced meditation when we are reliving in vivid detail our traumas. Later she writes,

            My father

            Appears to me that night

            In a dream,

            Silently mouthing–

            I think–

            Love you–

            Then 

            Fading away (19).

These painful emotions are gaining power in our time, and this is one of the subtle messages running through the collection.

     Mish’s anger over who caused this trauma is far less subtle, and many of the poems lay the blame for it directly on Donald Trump. If she has regrets for the choices that she has made, she has anger for the person who put her in this situation:

            The virus rolls out

            of bed

            early,

            slips into bloodstained

            swim trunks,

            adjusts

            its “Make America Great Again”

            shower cap” (5).

The virus here is personified as a Trump supporter, later in the poem a Jim Beam swilling angry and violent monster, grabbing a machete, which it tests out on the news media. Trump’s choices and the fall out from those choices are all deadly and terrifying. She is showing that he has released a violence on so many levels against the world and there seems to be no way to contain it. However, she is also able to show how this violence will turn against him:

            Your cash,

            your chic,

            your limos —

            your verve —

            all wilt

            under the virus

            the way

            ice cream cones

            melt

            in the sun (10).

This is of course one of the many strange effects of Trumpism. If the populace is affected by the pandemic, he is not immune to it. What he has wrought upon the rest of the world, he has also wrought upon himself.

     The collection often also gives us glimpses of how to make it through such time with physical release or as the title suggests sex and ketchup. Food and sex. While Mish makes a point to show us that even these have changed, she takes the time to mention our need for them. Everyone I know reports having found refuge in physical pleasures. I have too, but for me, and I think Mish, these have been very temporary and so very dominated by what is turning out to be an era of pain.

John Brantingham 8th August 2021

Words Become Ashes: An Offering by Cindy Rinne (Bamboo Dart Press)

Words Become Ashes: An Offering by Cindy Rinne (Bamboo Dart Press)

Cindy Rinne’s Words Become Ashes: An Offering is in part a reaction to the pandemic and in part a spiritual guidebook to healing from it. Rinne is a poet and fiber artist who designs clothing and wall hangings among other objects of art. This collection highlights her poetry and fiber art, and both discuss the ways that she has worked through this time of pain. She is a deeply spiritual person whose work seems to be guided by Buddhist philosophy.

One of the ways that Rinne has found strength is through her art, which is an emotional link to those women who have come before her. She writes about the strange phenomenon of natural places being closed. She is cut off from these places that feed her spirit. In “The Forest Is Closed,” she writes of a national park being shut down because of the quarantine, but she imagines a meeting with women who have shaped her:

. . . Underneath the masks

reveal a blond woman floating. My grandmother

I never knew? She crochets a coverlet, a cross,

Shows me other women crafting by hand” (15).

If she cannot have the connection to the forest right now, she does have a connection to the natural world through a history that she continues with her art. In “Dear Flood Plain,” she does find a connection to the natural world by sneaking onto a floodplain where no houses can be built but is still cut off from her. “I arrived when you were called ‘Private Property Keep Out.’ I sneak under the chain and listen to eucalyptus, greet the sunrise over the mountain and take three deep breaths as my arms reach above my head” (19). In this passage, she is giving us one way through the pandemic and life’s problems generally, and that is a connection to the natural world.

     Rinne also writes about turning everyday activities into a meditation that brings healing and calm. She writes, “Night cream, vitamins, lavender oil, and brush teeth. Then stretch my back across a large exercise ball. . . Stretch and bow before ceramic Buddha with thoughts of thankfulness for another day. Blow out candles. Smoke drifts to ceiling leaving lines like spider webs. Read about a small shoreline bird. Lights out” (43). In this poem and others like it, we are given an insight into how she turns chores into ritual meditation that works for her. She is not exhorting us to follow what she does. She is simply allowing us into her life to show what works for her. It is up to us if we want to do something similar.

     Words Become Ashes: An Offering is as its title suggests a kind of prayer in and of itself. These are words meant to move the spirit, and for me they do. They offer hope in a time that has been so bleak for me.

John Brantingham 23rd July 2021

Parallel Movement of the Hands by John Ashbery (Carcanet Press)

Parallel Movement of the Hands by John Ashbery (Carcanet Press)

This, first off, is a work of posthumous reconstruction of five coherent but unfinished pieces at various levels of progression that Ashbery’s assistant of some years Emily Skillings managed to put together. So we are lacking the author’s intended ideas for book length presentation of these works.

I think however we do get quite a strong sense of the poet’s voice here, albeit that any narrative elements might be in a stage of incompletion. Ashbery of course is renowned as a key member of the core New York school along with Frank O’Hara, whose career was cut short, James Schuyler, with whom Ashbery wrote A Nest of Ninnies, and Kenneth Koch. He completed a large number of French translations, and was many years involved in art criticism. 

The design of the book has a certain logic to it, wherein probably the most substantive pieces start and conclude it, so that we begin with the long six part poem ‘The History of Photography’, which, Ashbery being Ashbery, isn’t entirely about photography.

It is worth citing briefly Skilling’s epigraph, which includes the expression by Ashbery that ‘we can dream safely in our environment because art has set soft, invisible limits to it.’ (pxv, p169). This doubtless helped Ashbery’s will to experimentation and unorthodoxy, but I think this kind of ‘invisible safety’ is a mite questionable.

When Ashbery is in full flow he seems to come up with long fluent lines, unlike the briskly lean variety of O’Hara. He could not be described as a formalist; and there are occasional noticings of disjunction as well as surrealist touches.

‘Photography’ in its 6 parts takes a little while to warm up, but by the third section I’d say we’re arriving at something approaching Ashbery’s typical voice. Here we find

                                                                        ‘What I buy

                        I pass around; all are unbidden to this feast

                        of the every-day, so I can hear its

                        partial music just as a bird sings

                        out of reach, within the edge of a forest.’ (p16) 

This sounds almost Whitmanesque. But Ashbery’s poetry is of a more terse, frisky variety, no doubt also more cerebral, rather less Falstaffian. 

Emily Skillings’ very insightful introduction offers a very useful commentary on these pieces. So that if Ashbery takes something from Whitman, there are also smatterings of perhaps Auden too. The departure from Whitman may be owing to what Skillings identifies as his interest and leaning toward not so much hesitation as tentativeness, a certain thinking on one’s feet. This she cites from some of Ashbery’s art criticism. So we have Ashbery saying,-

‘The artists of the world can be divided into two groups: those who organize and premeditate, and those who accept the tentative, the whatever-happens-along. And though neither method is inherently superior…I probably prefer more works of art that fall in the latter category.’ (cited pxlii)

This is possibly part too of what makes Ashbery’s work so American and New York school.

For all his flowing lines nonetheless I sense Ashbery as a writer much in control of his material. There are for instance line endings that are curt and contained rather than flowing on, a fairly sure footed quality with that sense that he knows what he is about. Nonetheless the first person singular is much absent, and there is never anything resembling Lowell or confessionalism. Ashbery has indeed sometimes been proposed as a precursor of the rather objectified Language school. And that is much part of his extraordinary originality, in the sense that this strange mix of styles we get from him is peculiarly much his own. 

But there are limits to this. Ashbery does, agreed, seem to be language driven, and in that sense the experiential roots of his poetry are rather muted. At the same time he’s always been very conscious of pictorial models.

Another writer Ashbery resembles to an extent is Wallace Stevens, and in his more relaxed modes there do seem points of comparison there. Because Ashbery can convince himself of ‘invisible safety’ he is content to lay down his guard here and there, which no doubt is how we get books of poetry with such titles as Houseboat Days or The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery’s undeniable seriousness is not at all heavy handed and he plainly enjoys following the play of the language.

This playfulness or even ‘softness’ of an amount of Ashbery’s writing may either engage or not; were he a South American he leans much closer to a Neruda than a Vallejo, though with a much more restrained quality of intimacy. Skillings appropriately dedicates this volume to Ashbery’s long term partner David Kermani. As Ashbery concludes ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’, ‘Thereafter/ foils drooped./ That’s what I thought he said,/ trespassing.// It won’t be entirely winter.’ (p80) which reminds me among other things of the title of that Stevens’ collection Transport to Summer. Not quite a case of ‘poetry doesn’t change anything’ as with Auden, but there perhaps is not a developed sense of political or social consciousness here, though perhaps we do not expect that of poetry. If unlike Lowell, certainly unlike a Ginsberg besides. But that said this poetry is highly original and does plough its own furrow quite to effect.

Clark Allison 7th July 2021

Let Us Now Praise Ordinary Things by Kareem Tayyar (Arroyo Seco Press)

Let Us Now Praise Ordinary Things by Kareem Tayyar (Arroyo Seco Press)

Kareem Tayyar’s Let Us Now Praise Ordinary Things is an extraordinary collection that discusses how one can find fulfilling and long term joy through a balanced understanding of how to appreciate simple things against a backdrop of pain. I have long admired Tayyar’s work and his approach to life. It is not easy to write about appreciating life, and he is able to do so without becoming preachy or treacly. Instead, he looks into the essence of things and moments to understand them for what they are. He doesn’t ignore pain; in fact, he acknowledges it. What he dwells on, however, are the moments between moments that constitute joy. The final line of the collection sums up this philosophy well: “After all, there is so much to praise, and so little time” (103). For him, death is a fact and that lends an urgency to his appreciation of those moments that comes before it.

     Much of this is a pure appreciation for art in all its forms. He is someone who loves classic rock of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and his discussion of it reminds me of the work of the late Gerald Locklin, who was one of Tayyar’s early mentors. Both have a casual voice that draws out what is extraordinary about the artists and the experience of encountering their music. In “On the Rolling Stones,” for example, he acknowledges what so many people love about the band, but highlights what people often forget, which is their potential for sensitivity. He writes, “they have written one of the most sensitive, vulnerable, and downright gorgeous songs ever committed to record: ‘Winter,’ which is the kind of ballad Wordsworth would have written had he come along in the age of electricity” (47). He goes on to allow his readers to enjoy the nostalgia of an old rock band, but also to draw out what we might have forgotten or never known about them. He discusses many musicians in this way including Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, but he certainly does not stop with popular musicians but classical music, jazz, Impressionist painters like Monet and Michaelangelo and writers like Shakespeare and Hemingway. Like his mentor, he does not limit his mind or creativity but allows himself to follow any line of thought that appeals to him.

     He also allows himself to explore the more spiritual dimension of small pleasures. In “On Dogs,” he demonstrates how powerful those moments can be. Here, he longs for a dog, “just so long as he is as much of a healer as Hero, a black labrador whom, upon arrival, pulled a close friend out of an extended depression that she has never fallen back into” (41). The small pleasure of being with a dog can lead to joy if someone is awake to it. In “On the Small Mandarins I Purchased at the Market this Afternoon,” he writes, “these mandarins are really something, small enough to double as Christmas ornaments, sweet enough to make ice cream seem hopelessly dull by comparison, and filling enough to make me believe that I could subsist entirely on them and nothing else for the rest of my life” (97). He often allows himself to dwell on these small kinds of pleasures.

     Anyone has a long history of pain and a great deal of pain to come, but Tayyar has found his way through that pain. He, like Kurt Vonnegut before him, offers us in this collection the day to day attitude that can make life a much better state to be in.

John Brantingham 26th June 2021

Now Voyager by Cynthia Anderson & Susan Abbott (Cholla Needles Press)

Now Voyager by Cynthia Anderson & Susan Abbott (Cholla Needles Press)

Now Voyager is a collaborative project as part of Cholla Needles’ series of books that combine art and poetry and have included poets and artists like Cindy Rinne, Kendall Johnson, and David Chorlton. Anderson’s poetry is illustrated by Abbott’s art and the result is poems that are enhanced by the surreal nature of Abbott’s watercolor paintings and paintings that are given spiritual context by Anderson’s poetry. Anderson, who lives in the deserts of California near Joshua Tree National Park captures the reality of living in this wild and extraordinary place. Her poetry is at once a journey into the mystical as it is an appreciation for the natural world  and her relationship to it.

     Anderson’s poetry is not universally positive; she takes a look at her own carbon footprint and anxiety about living in the desert where too many resources are being consumed by the people who love living outside the boundary of the city. The prose poem “Future Archaeology” imagines a future where anthropologists look over the remains of her community. A narrator describe the destruction of society:

The water was what kept the desert alive. When it ran out, the locals had no choice but to get in their cars and drive away — heading for the coast, where the water wars began. There’s nothing here worth further study, we’ve seen it all before . . . We’ll let the desert bury this town, let the sandstorms do their work.

However, if these passages and others like them present a hopeless vision of the future of humanity, it is hopeful for the future of nature. Here the desert is the most powerful force. It is not, thankfully, the desert that people have destroyed. They have only destroyed themselves, and the desert takes back what should not have been there in the first place. 

     While there are anxieties about her effect on the natural world, the heart of this collection is her joy for the beauty of the natural world. In “Early Earth,” she describes our planet when it was young:

         From deep space

         the view is clear —

         hardly a cloud

         to hide the surface.

         . . . 

         Already life pulls 

         nitrogen from air

         to build the biosphere

There is a love here not just of the earth as an object of beauty but for the science of it that has created our world. She blends mystical and scientific throughout so there seems to be no difference between the two. The chemistry of the earth, the physics that go into it are seen as magical.

     Cholla Needles has created a community of artists and writers to the east of Los Angeles that should be recognized and commended. It is a group of people who are working in collaboration to build something bigger than individual books. They are forming a new vision of the desert and its people.

John Brantingham 25th June 2021

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Hoarders by Kate Durbin (Wave Books)

Kate Durbin’s work has been compared to Kafka’s and Beckett’s in its approach to the surreal, and her new book Hoarder’s certainly captures what is absurd in the culture of spectacle that is evident in the AE network’s television show, Hoarders. The reality show episodes focus on a single person or perhaps a couple who feel compelled to hoard objects. These objects come out of a culture based on the idea that consumerism solves problems and brings joy and gives us a voyeuristic look at the result of what is essentially someone’s mental illness. Durbin’s prose poems mix what the participants say about themselves as she describes what the camera is showing. The result is commentary on why they consume what they do and what we are consuming spiritually through our viewership. It is an exceptionally powerful collection that left me often sick to my stomach and moved powerfully by the humanity that the collection seems to suggest we return to. 

     For me, the most compelling poems are those where the people profiled clearly need help or they will suffer physically from their hoarding. For example, she writes about Alice, who takes in cats to care for but is not able to do so. Alice has stopped cleaning up after her cats who relieve themselves in her house. Here, Durbin uses italics when quoting and regular type to describe the camera work. She writes:

I feel awful, I’m a failure and that’s how my whole life has been one fresh shit among old shits.

My cats probably have worms, they probably have ear mites, there’s probably feline leukemia, feline AIDS running through black kitten whose hind legs won’t work lurching across the floor

I had a kitten and there was so much ammonia in the air that its eyeballs popped out grey cat with its eyes crusted shut.

I don’t even know how this started hiking boots under the bed, soles thick with shit (102-103).

Here and elsewhere, the characters profiled on the television show seem to be calling out for help, but their needs are ignored. Instead of providing help, we are asked to indulge in the spectacle of the moment. 

     Underlying the collection is a discussion of what this kind of culture is doing to the environment. After all, these are people reacting to trauma, whose society has told them that if they purchase more and more things they will heal themselves. In 2001, the president went so far as to say that consumerism was an act of patriotism that fought against terrorism. The sheer weight of the objects described is overwhelming. One couple has so many books that the floorboards are beginning to bend. Another woman keeps tapes from 40 years of compulsively recording television. Most people have objects that would seem random except for the commonality that they are meant to bring pleasure. There is very little here that has a function. Mostly they are objects like Barbie Dolls and other toys no one can play with now gathering around them.

     Kate Durbin’s Hoarders is incisive and brilliant. I could call it surreal, but it accurately captures what is on the screen, and the way we have been asked to view other people. 

John Brantingham 8th June 2021

Building Stonehenge by Marc Maurus (Arroyo Seco Press)

Building Stonehenge by Marc Maurus (Arroyo Seco Press)

     Marc Maurus’s Building Stonehenge is revealing and vulnerable in the way that Kevin Ridgeway and T. Anders Carson’s is, allowing his readers to have access to the complex interior life that many people hold secret. It is a work that comes not so much out of a suicide attempt, but at the vitality and life that followed it. Maurus intentionally drove into a concrete barrier at sixty miles an hour without an air bag or a seat belt and lived but experienced extensive brain damage. His doctors told him that his only possible path forward to recovery was by reading constantly, which he did, and against the odds, that treatment worked. What followed was a period of exceptional creativity, introspection, and even joy, and these poems are a result of that time. On my first reading of the collection, I thought of “The Day My Life Stood Still” (51) as the central poem of the collection because it describes his injury and cause of it. I think that was a mistake however. I think what is central to the collection is what brought him back to happiness and healing.

     Healing came out of a time when he read every moment that he was awake, and certain authors, especially Beat poets like Kerouac and Ginsberg, found their way through several of these poems. He has a gratitude for them. He constructs the cento “Timothy Leary’s Dead” out of a number of sources, but relying on these poets for key lines and understanding to his meaning. What he creates is not simple nostalgia, but a way of reseeing the old ideas and reapplying them to our world now. He does not reference only these writers by any means. They just seem central to his thinking. His poems convey a broad sensibility and a good deal of reading the books that he loved. Because of his brain injury, he would read these books again and again, and to me it feels like they have become a part of who he is and how he filters experience. This is not a bad filter.

     Another theme that runs through the book is a kind of call to humanity and to recognize that everyone is deserving of the human experience. Now that he is in recovery, he is able to hold a job, and one of those is as an ice cream man. He describes a moment when he gives a child who has little money an ice cream. This basic kind of dignity seems to be the mission that all of his reading has led him to. He inspects his own complicity in the poor race relations of the United States and looks to himself to improve, showing others a way forward. He praises those who do good and exhorts us to do the same. For me it functioned as a reminder of what kindness is and how to express it.

     It is no surprise that constant reading leads to kindness. Anyone who reads deeply knows that it helps to develop empathy. I think the great take away from the collection for me was that reading and thinking deeply leads people to their best selves. It has certainly let Maurus in a positive direction.

John Brantingham 4th June 2021

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