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Category Archives: American Poetry

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Ranney Campbell’s Pimp comes out of a direct, narrative, unblinking tradition that includes artists like Kevin Ridgeway, Gerald Locklin, Patti Smith, and Fred Exley. These are poems drawn out of the latest period of Campbell’s life when she decided to change her life by quitting her job and moving to California as a way to break away from the traditions and limitations that she found in St. Louis, Missouri. She has found a way to express herself with a narrative clarity that speaks her truths.
Her work comes often from a memory of exploitation, which she might be angry about, but does not draw her into self-pity. “In Them Days” for example, she recalls a relationship with a man who

owned a Mercedes
dealership, how he loved
his beautiful things

I was most prized
living art
up in Alta Loma

snow
in the foothills

me
in the Jacuzzi

with those high-priced prostitutes
brought to party
when sales was good
any certain day (33).

Her work throughout has the ability to draw a picture and suggest arguments and conclusion with quick images and a couple of perfect words. We are left to ponder the implication of what it means to be a woman who is chosen to party with prostitutes. In “The Boys come,” she draws on a previous time when men simply demanded of her with no thought of reciprocity:

when they came across Gert,
they got lucky.
when they came across me,
they got stitches (12).

This collection is not by any means stuck in her past; it is equally about this new life that she is building for herself and how she came to be where she is. Her move from the Midwest and her longing to get to the West away from its humidity and to the dryness of the deserts is shown in her prose poem “Burn Off.” “Red desert. Tan desert. I don’t care. Can’t stand it here. All the trees and green and weeds and humidity and people so slowed and dull with Midwestern demands on me . . . Sticky thickness manner oppression offends my innards” (35). This reminds me so much of the themes that run through a lot of Locklin’s work. For him the East was a place of pointless oppression, and for Campbell it is Missouri, but both find a freedom to be themselves in California. For both of them, California seems to be the place where they can find the authenticity of their true selves. For Campbell, it has allowed for this book which is an expression of emotions in a style that she did not feel welcome writing in St. Louis.

Campbell’s book is the kind of work that I love to see coming out of Los Angeles. Stylistically it is what I have grown up with without being a kind of imitation of previous work. It is her own work, informed by an MFA from her hometown but innovated through the life she is pursuing in the West.

John Brantingham 3rd March 2021

An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press)

An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press)

Michael Torres is one of the great writers coming out of the Pomona Valley area where notables such as Sam Shepard, Kem Nunn and more lately Matt Sedillo, David Romero, and George Hammons have written from and about. Torres’s debut poetry collection, An Incomplete List of Names from Beacon Press is very much about the experience of coming from this area and how a place can work itself into a person. It’s an exceptional work that is in part about how Pomona colors the way he sees and relates to the world, and the ways that the world relates to him.
Torres has moved out of Pomona and now lives in a college town in Minnesota where he teaches, but he describes the pain and awkwardness of carrying his past and his own expectations for himself with him. He writes:

I’m at a couch at
the professor’s house. And there are two

of me. One sits, cross legged, a glass of wine
in his hand. I don’t know what kind.

He offered and I said, Sure, that’d be
delightful . . .

The other me floats between the professor
and the glass, not wondering what this man

thinks of my use of the word dichotomy (6-7).

He seems to feel a good deal of awkwardness about the place he occupies, at once feeling that he does and should belong and at the same time feeling that he does not and should not. The collection captures so well what it means to grow into a position and to still feel that imposter syndrome that follows so many people through life. Throughout the collection, he is showing that he is doing exceptional work as a poet and a professor, but he still feels like an outsider.
However, that he feels like an outsider is not surprising as this status is enforced and reinforced by the society in which he lives. At a party in Minnesota, he is describing his hometown and friends to a woman: “When I mentioned my homies, she laughed. I stared. She stopped and said, Oh, you’re serious” (53). This collection is full of moments where society is subtly and unsubtly telling him that he just does not belong, which is of course, one of the major problems of the academic world. His nickname from his childhood REMEK that he used while tagging follows him, not that people identify him this way, but he still identifies internally as REMEK. It is a part of him, and it’s not just that Pomona follows him. He wants it to do so.

Before I left, I wanted
to tattoo this town across
my back. I thought POMONA
between my shoulder blades like
a pair of wings for all those
stories I had just in case
the sky asked where I’d been (65).

If he is an outsider in Minnesota, there is the feeling that he is being forcibly disconnected from this new academic society, but that he wants to be disconnected at least to some degree to retain that part of himself that he believes to be his authentic self.
There is, of course, more to An Incomplete List of Names than this, but Torres’s sense of self is central to the collection. It is an exceptional collection as social commentary and an autobiographical debut work.

John Brantingham 11th February 2021

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Victoria Chang’s collection of mostly prose poetry, Obit, published by Copper Canyon Press, calls on a literary tradition of loss that builds from the poets whom Chang references such as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, and I would say more modern poets like Sharon Olds and even Ted Kooser in his discussion of the loss of his father. Chang is a Los Angeles-based poet who has reached that time in her life when she must deal with the death of the previous generation, and Obit is simultaneously about that loss and the strange position those who mourn are put into.

With the gravity of loss, any other concern seems trivial and moving on with one’s life seems wrong. She discusses that emotion most directly in “The Doctors” where she writes, “To yearn for someone’s quick death seems wrong. To go to the hospital cafeteria and hunch over a table of toasts, pots of jam, butter glistening seems wrong. To want to extend someone’s life who is suffering seems wrong” (68). Anyone who has witnessed the process of the death and dying knows what she is capturing so well here. Even acknowledging that one feels awkward seems wrong because that emotion cannot compare to death, so we, like her, are left not knowing how to deal with death because we have no training for it.

Obit also clearly shows us how long the process of dying can be; the narrator’s father suffers from dementia and her mother from pulmonary fibrosis. She has to watch as her mother loses oxygen over months and years. The knowledge of the coming death is overwhelming, and her father’s dementia after a stroke turns a once intelligent mind foggy. In “Language,” she writes, “Letters used to skim my father’s brain before they let go. Now his words are blind. Are pleated” (10). It is a slow burning pain developed throughout the collection, and her poems like the reality of this condition are complex and subtle.

This was a painful book for me to read, but also a necessary one. I read it slowly having to deal with the pain that is in my life as well, but that is not to say I didn’t welcome the process. This is a healing book. Part of the problem with dealing with death is that we do not have a good vocabulary for it, and we feel that there are so many aspects that should not be discussed as though our emotions surrounding death cheapen it. That fact makes the process so much more difficult, but here, Chang is speaking about it out loud. By doing so, she is giving us a vocabulary for mourning.

John Brantingham 3rd February 2021

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Much has been written and said about Natalie Diaz’s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem. It is an extraordinary and complex book that discusses among many other things the long history of oppression in the United States of the Mojave people and the legacy of that oppression. As a nature poet however, I would like to focus on its power as a collection of nature poetry. Diaz discusses the function and power of water in California in a way that I have never seen it done before, directly addressing its importance to the person and the community and the casual way that we in the United States treat it.

            I live in an area called the Inland Empire just to the east and north of Los Angeles that is much warmer and drier than Los Angeles itself. My friend who works for the water district tells me that typically a drop of water that lands in the mountains near my house will pass through three people before it reaches the ocean. It must be processed and reprocessed if we are to keep up with water supply demands. Diaz lives even farther inland where there is much less water.

            There are people in inland California that treat water casually and do not understand its importance, and Diaz’s poetry illuminates the threats to it and its importance. In “The First Water Is the Body,” She writes, “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States — also, it is a part of my body . . . We carry the river, its body of water, in our body” (46-47). Here, she illustrates the connection of river and person. In a real way, the two are not just interconnected. They are one. A river is not just the riverbed, but the entire watershed of a region, and humans, who carry that water are a part of the watershed, so much so, that the water district considered the people in the Inland Empire are considered a resevoir themselves. We often forget this, but here and throughout the collection, draws our attention to the fact again and again.

            Having established the importance of all rivers to human existence and experience, Diaz then demonstrates how badly Americans treat all of their rivers. Perhaps, she does this most powerfully in “exhibits from The American Water Museum ” when she discusses the tragedy of Flint, Michigan where ill-conceived cost-saving measures ended up with lead being introduced into the drinking water. Though this happened years ago, the lead levels have been diminishing at a frustratingly slow pace, and people are not sure what effect this will have on the children of the area. Diaz uses the callous treatment of the people who live there as emblematic of the way water is treated throughout the United States. She writes of those children as she imagines a diorama in her Water Museum, “Now the children lie flat on the floor of the diorama, like they are sleeping, open-eyed to the sight, to what they have seen through their mouths” (65).

            Diaz’s insight into the way the United States is destroying itself is tied to her postcolonial perspective. It is, of course, the marginalized communities who suffer most from environmental degredation because there is a false sense that some communities are in some way divorced from the natural world. Diaz illustrates how wrong and dangerous this notion is.

John Brantingham 26th January 2021

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

Études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments by John Marx (ORO Editions)

études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments brings together John Marx’s watercolours first published in The Architectural Review and a range of his visual and concrete poems, with essays providing introductory contexts to the work. Marx, an award-winning designer and architect, based in San Francisco, works as Chief Artistic Officer for Form4 Architecture, and this sumptuous book takes the reader on a journey through his creative landscape. 

The book is divided into eight sections moments in time, apertures, absent nature, objects in nature, without intention, approaching abstraction, deconstructing perception and improvisations, indicating the book’s focus. 

The reader is instantly drawn by the quality of the watercolours, which are simple, precise and thought-provoking. They strike me as having both an intellectual and emotional meaning through their pared down simplicity and exactitude. Laura Iloniemi’s essay places them in an American Tradition showing their relationship to Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Franz Kline. She notes how they connect an emotional urban atmosphere with natural ‘built landscapes’, such as a sand dune or rock formation through memory and association.

Each watercolour is juxtaposed next to a visual and concrete poem. The poems are similarly pared down to simple statements spread across the page with lines positioned horizontally, vertically, diagonally and so on. The impact is powerful in that a range of potential correspondences are suggested. Thus, the poem, ‘Étude 11, 1980’ precedes the watercolour, ‘The Edge of Possibility, 1990’ and the juxtaposition enhances both as the reader’s eye moves from left to right, right to left, assimilating the forms and dream-like connection of clouds with possibilities beyond the self. The impact is utterly beguiling and accumulates as one follows the journey. 

Whilst the poems may be closed statements presented as shapes and visuals, they are in essence linked to the hypnotic watercolours through juxtaposition and the movement of the eye and mind’s eye. The poem ‘Étude 48, 2005’ has a whirlwind of broken circular lines around the words ‘In the cycle of change / we endure those extremes / each adding / a layer of humanity / to our journey’, and ends with the thought that life asks

‘that we / live intensely / and in the moment’ (in blue). It is placed opposite the watercolour, ‘Ethereal Construct, 1998’ with its two narrow windows and a door within large and rigid building blocks. The eerie atmosphere of the buildings, reminiscent of Hopper, are in contradistinction to any intense living in the moment. The eye returns to the smallness of the windows and door, suggestive of a narrowness of vision and line of thought around scale, balance, opportunity and extremes leading back to the poem’s content. This reflective approach is enhanced by each successive combination in the book and is thus thoroughly provocative.

The work is ultimately philosophical despite its dream like qualities and concerned with vision and a visible language linking our inner and outer worlds. The watercolours often evoke, or imply, an absence. We are, I think, ultimately being asked to consider how we find balance in a world of constant change. This is an utterly beguiling book creating a wonderful synergy between the poems and watercolours. 

David Caddy 13th November 2020

Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

In writing about Hank Lazer’s 2019 collection of poems Slowly Becoming Awake (Dos Madres Press) for issue 28 of Lou Rowan’s Seattle-based magazine Golden Handcuffs Review I referred to a ‘Notebook’ entry for October 7th 2016: ‘poem radiating outward’ with its immediate follow-on, ‘landfall the page’. The strings of thought in Lazer’s new collection act in a similar fashion as the particularity of the moment is seen against a spiritual and philosophical awareness of the progress and effects of the Covid 19 virus. In a comment made by Charles Bernstein after reading these poems Hank Lazer ‘precisely notates the passing of time through pandemic and uprising’:

‘Consciousness alights on each poem “like a butterfly drawn to a bright flower,” offering luminous company in dark times.’

That luminosity is brightly evident from the opening four lines of the first poem:

‘books & blossoms
spring & all
cold morning no
wind cloud bank’

What is contained in the reading of books and the world of flowering is perhaps brought into focus by the early lines of William Carlos Williams’s 1923 volume Spring and All: ‘a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world’. As Williams escorts his readers along ‘the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds driven from the / northeast – a cold wind’ Lazer takes us

‘over the mountain
ridge city & its
tower in the distance’

The journey of this remarkable collection of poems charts a pathway along the moments of a sutra as we come to terms with the effects of both the pandemic and institutionalised racism as are asked to question the nature of wants and needs:

‘the treasure store
is open you
can take what
you want – no

you can take
what you need
through practice
you may learn

to receive what
is already yours
here is the bell sound
to awaken you’

It was Shakespeare’s King Lear who exposed the central nature of the relationship between wants and needs when he was confronted by his daughters removing from him every token of what is meant by the royalty of oneself. Goneril and Regan remove his train of followers and insist that his needs can be cared for by their own servants. However, it is when Regan delivers the final brutal blow of ‘What need one?’ that Lear pronounces his understanding of what it is to be human:

‘O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s’

Lazer questions what changed ‘when the virus / hit’ and wonders whether ‘connection’ breaks ‘away’. It is perhaps in this nature of connection, who we were and who we are now, what we want and we need, that the poet also finds an echo of a sound from later than Shakespeare. As the bell sounds ‘to awaken you’ we can hear the quiet conclusion to a tale told by an ancient mariner whose guilt had not only weighed him down but had compelled him to tell his tale.

In the second ‘Sutra’, subtitled ‘flattening the curve’ the distance we have travelled (guided by the science) leads the poet to question the nature of ‘liberation’. A sense of spiritual wonder at the moving of the clouds of unknowing has become a mark on a door made ‘with numbers & distance / given us by our sciences’. The ‘hurry to find / a cure’ and the ‘hurry to assign // blame’ is placed against a perspective that Gary Snyder had recognised in his years spent in the Yosemite range of mountains in the 1950s. For Hank Lazer

‘this place
perfect
hillside
light shadow

& a view
of the pasture
having become
this changing light’

For Gary Snyder

‘distant dogs bark, a pair of
cawing crows; the twang
of a pygmy nuthatch high in a pine –
from behind the cypress windrow
the mare moves up, grazing’

The quiet and individual intelligence of Hank Lazer’s poems is perhaps contained in his awareness of the particularity that constitutes played music being ‘never the same twice’. As he puts it in ‘Sutra 3’, subtitled ‘phased reopening’, the individual is ‘here now’ and can ‘see only a small fraction of it’. Faced with the unknown enormity of the pandemic it is worth perhaps bearing in mind the section concerning humility in the late fourteenth-century treatise ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ in which the author asserted that humility was ‘nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is’. And one response to this statement may be found in Lazer’s poem:

‘The pictures of Jupiter answer some of the
questions.
This world here & your life in time are not what
you think they are.
If it is a cloud of unknowing know that the cloud
like any weather is constantly changing.’

What was immediately recognised by Rae Armantrout when commenting on the importance of this collection of poems was that it ‘brings us the news in the way that 18th century ballad broadsides did to Londoners’:

‘Quatrain by quatrain, Lazer sings the present world, its viruses (covid and structural racism), and its beauties (animals, friendship, the shape of a sentence).’

Just as Hank Lazer’s earlier collection had presented the reader with the poem radiating outward this new collection offers us a world in which

‘each day is
rich
in its
specifics’

Ian Brinton, 7th September 2020

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books)

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books)

If a more original transposition of a genre from its traditional medium to that of another, wholly alien to it, has ever been attempted – and so successfully and bracingly – I can’t recall of it. Imagine a femme fatale from a classic Noir movie cast as the speaker that unites a suite of poems which adhere to quintain form. Each poem visits a theme, such as seduction, murder, romance, laziness, fun & games, bargaining, larceny, love, and, ultimately, failure. Now envision not one speaker, but a host of female speakers, archetypes from 30s and 40s Hollywood, alternately flouncing into the ring of limelight in their nightgowns while nursing a highball or flute of champagne, inspiring deep draughts from a cigarette, and tossing an endless string of gimlet one-liners. The voice is refracted in a thousand ways, producing a stream of apparent nonsequiturs. Finally, consider the fact that many of the lines could each stand alone as a monostich, so jarring and incisive that the reader literally recoils in stupefaction if not shock. This, in essence, is what Chelsey Minnis, an American poet raised in Colorado and author of several prior collections, has accomplished in Baby, I Don’t Care.

Although she was educated at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and studied creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Minnis has obviously devoted much time to the review of cinematic source material and dissection of a classic Hollywood phenotype during her preparation for this book. That she is fascinated by a period of film history might be anticipated by the observation that she has a habit of ‘reclaiming unfashionable gestures’ in her work as noted in her Poetry Foundation profile.

Unique is grievously inadequate as a descriptor for Baby, I Don’t Care. An irresistible temptation to psychoanalyze the speaker(s) of the poems in this collection overtakes the reader. She/they, a composite in effect, are at once boozy, disjointed, delirious, seductive, self-absorbed, tangential, acquisitive, mordantly witty, bored, brutal, and broken. A hard-boiled vamp, or amalgam of Noir personae, with a penchant for luxury and a deep vein of masochism. She is a chiseler, a philosopher, and an ‘immoral princess,’ to borrow an epithet from the collection. And she knows she is off-kilter. Keenly observant one-liners are rife, like the telling ‘Something’s wrong with me and I like it.’ She certainly does, and so do we. A throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the speaker knows she is an actor when she says ‘Let’s play the scene how it’s written.’

The pastiche effect achieved by the frequent semantic transitions, with one thought careening into the next, unsettles the reader and this is premeditated. It is as if we are fingering a necklace of variously shaped and colored stones, many of which deserve sustained admiration, but all of which we can touch only fleetingly and incompletely. This staccato rat-tat-tat arbitrariness, with coherent bursts of thought rarely lasting more than one or two lines, echoes the devil-may-care attitude of the jaded speaker. In prior work, Minnis has used ellipses liberally, and the Poetry Foundation quotes Sasha Steensen’s observation that her ellipses ‘are, on the one hand, the bullet-holes that remain after Minnis’s speaker takes shots at the reader. On the other, they are evidence of the unsteadiness of the speaker’s own hand […] embody[ing] the vulnerability that so often lurks behind the book’s defiance.’ Although ellipses are not prominent in Baby, I Don’t Care, we do feel both bullet ridden and acutely aware of the speaker’s imbalance. Invisible ellipses, in essence, separate elements of the barrage of micro-semantic units in these poems.

Minnis’s syntax is simple and declarative, and the diction is ‘ginger-peachy’ period-perfect, but the thoughts, which may seem trivial or superficial at times, often reflect an incisive intellect with profound insight into the most tenebrous corridors of human psychology. The best way to get a flavor for this collection is to sample several lines, extracted below from various sections:

Baby, it’s so sexy to think.
Why don’t you try it?

Why don’t you make love to your wife?
The outstanding novelty of the year.

You’ve completely gone out of my mind.

The grenades are in the champagne bucket.

Let’s fall in love,
just the three of us.

I guess it’s like the sexual equivalent of a flamethrower.
What are you going to do?
Complain about the heat?

The speaker claims she may be ‘strictly ornamental’ but that ‘this is highly agreeable as long as I am paid in gems.’ The truth of the matter is that she finds little of her life enduringly satisfying or congenial, and that her astuteness and wit belie her claim of a mere ornamental status. Ultimately, a sadness pervades the collection. In a Philip Marlowe-style simile we are asked to ‘Behold my dazzling mental illness like a chandelier.’ And there seems to be plenty of that, especially depression. Perhaps the most poignant line she utters is: ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be saved.’ But we know that men will line up for miles to try to save her, anyway, because she is more lucid and powerful than any of them.

David Sahner 23rd August 2020

Plan Audio B by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

Plan Audio B by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (Isobar Press)

With this long poem’s title being ‘Plan B Audio’ one might be prompted to wonder what was Plan A and I recall referring to the painterly sense to be discovered in the selections from the 2007 volume Aquiline when I reviewed Joritz-Nakagawa’s previous Isobar Press publication, New & Selected Poems. In his Foreword to that 2018 publication Eric Selland had pointed out that for Joritz-Nakagawa 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.’

The blurb on the back cover of this new remarkable poem asserts that it was written during, and in response to, ‘a life-threatening encounter with illness, and in the aftermath of the radical surgery that saved the author’s life.’ In its ‘dissolving into / beams of frenzied impossible / yearning’ it brings to my mind the figure of Mahood, armless and legless in a jar situated opposite a restaurant with its menu fixed to it, in Samuel Beckett’s 1952 novel L’Innommable (translated as The Unnamable in the John Calder edition of 1959):

‘There I am in any case equipped with eyes, which I open and shut, two, perhaps blue, knowing it avails nothing, for I have a head now too, where all manner of things are known, can it be of me I’m speaking, is it possible, of course not, that’s another thing I know, I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’

It was Beckett’s earlier fictional creation, Moran, who had suggested that all language was an excess of language but in Joritz-Nakagawa’s poem we are presented with a sinuous winding and weaving of words that seem both to keep the reader at a distance whilst at the same time drawing that same reader into a dystopia:

‘edge of a sinister forest
dissolving into darkness
missing on the clothesline
a delicate smile

near a wandering brook
children’s fantasies fall silent
a deserted door
opening onto a freeway

to collapse the dystopia
i ate the data
scars that itch
failure of languages’

This canvas of language goes beyond the ‘depths of my nest’ to a ‘mute soliloquy’ from the ‘dunghill of which’ the song wanders intricately across the page prompting us to wonder ‘about the sound of doors and walls’. And of course Plan B is sound but it is there as what, on the back cover, Nancy Gaffield calls ‘a contingency’:

‘…an event the occurrence of which could not have been foreseen, but also a conjunction of events occurring without design’.

These poems dissolve into ‘beams of frenzied impossible / yearning’ and they move through ‘wickets / of doldrum and bureaucratic / spoils’.
The last lines of Beckett’s novel which is unnameable leave us on an edge of movement concluding with the possibility that words

‘…have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

As ‘Plan B Audio’ reaches a conclusion it is ‘sound’ that is missed from beyond the door and the stiffness of doctors in white uniforms are on one side whilst on the other the poet sobs in the bathroom:

‘by accident
my hand brushes my stoma
how stiff it is

sadly
i touch my waist
swollen with plastic

cherry blossoms
students laughing at their desks
how i miss that sound

grey sky
buildings too
what is this world’

This long poem is perhaps one answer to that last question and the reader remains haunted by the vivid individuality of self and other, of sight and its photographic records offered to us by Susan Laura Sullivan, and of coloured sound from which ‘my sorrow spills / in all directions.’

Ian Brinton 15th June 2020

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/

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