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Category Archives: American Poetry

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/

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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