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Category Archives: American Poetry

No Land In Sight by Charles Simic (Borzoi Books /Alfred A Knopp)

No Land In Sight by Charles Simic (Borzoi Books /Alfred A Knopp)

I always think of Charles Wright, Mark Strand and Charles Simic as an American trinity of poetry. Although their work is very different from each other, and Strand died in 2014, they knew each other and occasionally addressed each other in their work. Wright and Strand shared a concern with – for want of a better term – the spiritual, addressed mostly through poems concerned with memory, life, death and loss; but Simic’s work seemed very different.

Born in Yugoslavia, Simic moved to the USA at the age of 16, and has been publishing books since 1967, mostly poetry but also a memoir and translations of other writers’ work. For a while his poetry seemed rooted in a kind of surrealism, juxtaposing things that have some sense of disconnect between them and offering a new way of seeing situations or events, sometimes by use of a strange point-of-view or tone, personification or an approximation to magic realism.

Elements of this still inform some of the poems in No Land in Sight. ‘The Mystery’ moves from ‘mutts barking in unison’ to burglary and murder, disquiet at the noise, to ‘a star calling it quits /After millions of years’, taking ‘a long dive out of sight.’ whilst ‘Come Spring’ quickly and unexpectedly moves from ‘the birdie in a tree’ to the return of the ‘wicked back from hell’, accompanied by Satan. I’m not sure how literally to take this poem’s warning about how they are ‘think[ing] up new evils’ or the fact that Satan’s ‘guile has no equal’.

Many more of the poems here are strange snapshots, isolated events, or moments, presumably designed to surprise us or make us think. Here is a complete poem:

   COULD THAT BE ME?

   An alarm clock
   With no hands
   Ticking loudly
   On the town dump.

Errr, yes? It is only with some reluctance and a sense of desperation I can force myself to make associations with extra time, unwanted time, wasted time, the nature of time, the relationship of humanity, machines and measured time. Mostly I shrug, as I do with the book’s brief opening poem, which for me is a real squib:

   FATE

   Everyone’s blind date.

Hmmm. I’m sorry but this is pseudo-profundity, a kind of (non-) riddle, a metaphor pretending to be a poem. It might have been something to work up to a poem, a starting point or notebook jotting, but not a whole three-word poem.

The majority of poems here rely on the supposed weight of words like stars, light, graves, night, and love acting on the reader, but it often doesn’t work. Take this poem about washing hanging on the line:

   WINDY DAY

   Two pairs of underwear,
   One white and the other pink,
   Flew up and down
   On the laundry line,
   Telling the whole world
   They are madly in love.

Are the two pairs of underwear in love? Are they speaking? Or is there a causal connection between neighbouring washing and their owners? Maybe the narrator knows something we don’t know? (Perhaps he could share that?) Does pink and white imply heterosexual norms or gendered clothing? Again, it’s a squib I’d like to see developed rather than simply written down as an image plus ‘poetic’ interpretation. (I’d also like to know why each line of Simic’s is capitalised, something I always question my students about. Mostly it’s because they haven’t looked at the preferences of their word processing software.)

I hate to be so negative, but this is a disappointing and slight volume from a poet I have previously admired and whose work I have very much enjoyed. What I am about to quote, the closing lines of ‘My Doubles’, a 13-line poem which – without using the term – is about doppelgängers or possibly past versions of ourselves, seems appropriate as a way of understanding what it feels like to try and engage with this new work:

   As for me, the last time someone saw me,
   I was reading the Bible on the subway,
   Shaking my head and chuckling to myself.

I can’t help but feel like a passenger on that train, wondering what the chap opposite is laughing about, or in this case what the author thinks he is saying, or is trying to achieve in these poems. Simic is adrift and, as the last two lines of the book announce, ‘There is no / Land in sight’. No poems either.

Rupert Loydell 3rd August 2022


That Which I Touch Has No Name by Jennifer K Dick (Black Spring Press Group)

That Which I Touch Has No Name by Jennifer K Dick (Black Spring Press Group)

The dialogic process of Jennifer Dick’s poems occurs in a multilingual context in which English, French and Italian interweave. The demolition of meaning and of naming provides space for a provisional reconstruction of language that evolves in sounds, alliteration and chains of words. They evoke each other in a multifaceted, polyphonic rhythm that envisages infinite possibilities. A Saussurian signifier and signified are proposed in a different perspective in which Derrida’s concept of the loss of the centre seems to be more relevant. Traditional forms are reviewed and opposed, giving way to multiple voices and different perceptions. These diverse interpretations are ‘off-the-centre’, as Derrida claims, as there is no centre, or any transcendental or universal entity to which we can refer or appeal. This concept of displacement opens the individual up to the construction of alternative views. 

     Dick’s poetry is a poetical journey that delves into philosophical and linguistic topics without an apparent logic and with no definite ending or goals. It is a wandering around, sometimes in circles and at other times in a winding path that emphasises the process rather than the conclusion. Fragments and echoes of everyday life and today’s society, such as political issues, shootings, women’s rights, scientific knowledge and the environment, are embedded in her discourse. In this way she explores language and therefore identity in a complex and comprehensive view of being human. Though we are strangers to ourselves, we take ‘another self […] into ourselves’ in an exchange that is promiscuous and generates intertextual connections. 

     References to Sappho, Erin Mouré’s A Frame of the  Book and the myth of Dibutades, the inventor of the art of modelling clay in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, trace constant intertextual routes throughout the collection and give direction to the narratives. It is a conversation that marks displacement and loss but also a constant attempt at replacement: 

her herding herself forward and again to go

forth into this bright afternoon unaccompanied 

by the whorls of the whims of another’s loss

                                                                      this body

unlatched

absence in

the reassertion of self

space/shame in

a presence of griefs          (‘The Body As Message’)

Quotations from Mouré are signalled in grey notes as titles interweaved into the poems. They flag up the inconsistency of our reasoning when we try to make sense of ourselves through language. Words can deceive, and the only strategy for finding a way through the labyrinth is to create alternative connections:

collect stones, shells, ants, the carcasses

    of bees, derelict homing predilections

    combing the convex codex for a hived

    intermezzo  /  in stance  /  stead

                     of intermission

    stand               and              re-geolocate     

the space          (distance)        place                (‘Figurative Blight /’)

The myth of Butades’ daughter (Dibutades in French) is thoroughly explored in the central section, ‘Afterlife’. It is the legend of the origin of drawing and painting in which the protagonist outlines her lover’s shadow, which is cast on a wall. He will leave soon, so she wishes to keep the memory of him in the drawing. However, ‘Butades’ daughter possesses no independent name./She is not in the story./She is not.’ She is therefore erased from history, ‘an illusion,/a recollection of,/ a line traced onto the wall.’ Sections in French alternate with those in English in a partial translation that is also a reworking of the story. 

The ‘process/of redefinition’ culminates in the final poems in an ‘assay’, that is, an attempt to create through memory. The poems are ‘inkling of emerging vocabularies, linguistic minefields of the forgotten, written over, re-emergent’ (‘Assay’). Space and ‘body/time/language’ are in constant movement and transformation, projecting the outline of their shadows onto our uncertain existence. The collection examines the complexity of these fundamental concepts with precision and depth.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 26th July 2022

There Are Angels Walking The Fields by Marlon Hacla translated by Kristine Ong Muslim (Broken Sleep Books)

There Are Angels Walking The Fields by Marlon Hacla translated by Kristine Ong Muslim (Broken Sleep Books)

Let’s get the negative out of the way first: Tilde Acuña’s calligraphic and hand-drawn ‘Introduction’ is physically unreadable here, despite looking wonderful. It’s a shame, because Broken Sleep books have got better and better designed since the press started, because I’m sure she had something useful to say, and because this is a marvellous book.

Kristine Ong Muslim’s useful ‘Translator’s Note’ explains that this collection was originally published in the Philippines in 2010, and frames the book as a gathering of ekphrastic poems which ‘”manifest” real or imagined artworks through various poetic devices’. It’s not the kind of ekphrasis that the reader – or English readers – will recognise, as few sources or artists are mentioned. Instead we get intense and often disturbing snapshots along with captured moments, most often set in stark, desolate or abandoned settings and populated by nameless characters and personified objects.

The language is often voluptuous, the images engrossing, even when describing violence. ‘Diorama #26’ tells us ‘The fingers were like dragonflies / As they strangled her’, whilst ‘Serial Killer’ enters the mind of the subject:

   Now, about that man on the first page of the newspaper
   This morning, the one whose mouth has been slashed,

   Don’t worry.

   I let him scream
   Just a little.

   Always, knives are reasonable priced in the public market.

The titular angels appear in the final line of ‘Diorama #54’. They are the memories or ghosts of those already dead at the scene; the poem is about a grenade which ‘was useless at this point / Because there was no one else left to kill.’ Hacla’s landscapes are often populated by the unexpected: cicadas which ‘sound as if they are trying to tell him something’ (‘The Trysting Place’), a child’s ‘invisible friend’ (‘The Playground’) or ‘a being that was not yet an infant’ (‘Some Forsaken Things’).

Time and action are frozen here, where ‘Everything begins / With a long wait behind the window’ (‘5.26 p.m.’), a long wait that is shared by many others behind their own windows, all aware that ‘Everything ends with a long wait behind the window.’ Even the ‘White stones have been crushed / Into teardrop-shaped pieces’ (‘Still Life Moments after the Blast’) and ‘Suppressed moans can still be heard / Next door’ (‘The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh’). Only by remembering can the world be understood, and there be the possibility to forget.

Caught in this contradictory tension, the poet and reader are like the characters in the brief poem ‘The Room’ (reproduced here in its entirety):

   He led me inside the room
   Where she kept his past.
   Each day is like a corpse.
   Like sapphires devoid of luster
   Their open eyes.

   All night we stroked and closed
   Every eyelid.

By recognising and confronting the war-torn, abusive and violent world, Hacla animates and subverts the darkness, offering us an awkward exit point in ‘The Exchange’, the final poem here:

   Tell me everything you want to say
   Before the light silences us.

This is powerful, moving and lyrical poetry, and I hope to be able to read more of Marlon Hacla’s  astonishing writing in due course.

Rupert Loydell 23rd July 2022


Conversations with Diana di Prima, ed. David Stephen Calonne (University of Mississippi Press)

Conversations with Diana di Prima, ed. David Stephen Calonne (University of Mississippi Press)

Although recognised and remembered as a radical political and feminist poet, Diane di Prima (1934-2020) always questioned what was happening and chose what to engage with. Having read and reviewed a recent complete edition of her Revolutionary Letters I wanted to find out more about the author, and this new book offered just the opportunity. On the very first page of this book, in an interview from Grape, published by the Vancouver Community Press, we get this:

   Grape: You mentioned earlier that you’ve stopped reading underground papers. Why is that?
   Diane: Because I find that level of information just isn’t giving me anything I can work with at this point. It’s not interesting to me. All that’s happening on that level is a kind of sick “history repeats itself” piece of nonsense as far as I can see.’

Which seems, in part anyway, a rational response to the popular and fashionable revolutionary discourse of the time, but is somewhat undermined by the writer’s statement later on that she goes ‘for information to things like astrology, things like . . . whatever . . . like the I Ching’, the first of which gives her ‘concepts of form, a feel of energy nodes, of vortexes and how they might interact’. She talks of stepping back and giving herself time ‘to find out about more of the things that were going down.’

What was going down, according to di Prima, is the fact that she thought there was ‘a lot more black magic involved in the manipulation of the planet that’s been going on.’ She chose different areas to investigate, including those mentioned above as well as homeopathy and self-awareness (rather than science), desiring ‘intuitional leaps’ rather than ‘slow understanding’.

This, of course, is as much of its time as what di Prima was questioning. She doesn’t have any answers that will mend society or heal the planet, but she states that what she is basically saying ‘is that we were all taken in by a bunch of bullshit.’ This includes the counterculture options of back-to-the-land farmers, reclaim-the-wilderness games, commune dwellers, the acid tests, the Diggers, and much else which – along with schooling, ‘food, television, fluorescent lights and the whole trip’ – is resulting in ‘[a]pathy and cynicism’, people who ‘don’t believe anything’.

It’s scary, depressing reading, both diagnosis and di Prima’s answers, and that’s only the first piece. She declares that people must be strong, physically and mentally, and find out how their bodies function, and then ‘find out as much as [they] can about what people used to know’ and start taking ‘things literally like myth and symbol. Just believe ’em.’

Myth and symbolism have informed much of di Prima’s poetry, most of which is not at all like Revolutionary Letters but more complex and difficult. She clearly continued her personal explorations and remained suspicious of much we take for granted, asking if the web actually reached people or facilitated informed learning and thinking. She’s right of course, but at times throughout this book, she seems inflexible and stubborn rather than wise. 

On various pages she buys into the ‘my work is my life’ shtick, and evidences her engagement with a pick’n’mix hodge-podge of new age beliefs, picking bits from magic, psychology, alchemy, Buddhism, occult texts, and meditation (etc. etc.) as suits her; but she also gets stuck into working with children and students to try and counter, indeed subvert, the educational norms of 20th century America. Although she repeatedly states that her poetry has no solutions, only ideas and information, she seems more obsessed with personal action and the content of her writing, rather than any engagement with radical poetry and poetics.

That is disappointing for this reader, but it’s good to be surprised. And if some statements annoy or seem naive, there are fascinating sections in here about di Prima’s surprising friendship with Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg’s Naropa Institute, small press publishing, 9/11, gender, feminism and political correctness, painters and painting, and – however critical – some great reminiscences about the alternative cultures and communities in San Francisco and New York. Contradictory, confused and questioning, di Prima is nevertheless revealed as a fascinating, opinionated interviewee, offering optimism and possibility, despite herself.

Rupert Loydell 16th July 2022


Late Summer Ode by Olena Kalytiak Davis (Copper Canyon Press)

Late Summer Ode by Olena Kalytiak Davis (Copper Canyon Press)

Olena Kalytiak Davis’ first book, And Her Soul out of Nothing, introduced a startling new poetic voice; her second, shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities, was even more exciting in the way it, well, shattered sonnets, without any nods to tradition or respect. Shakespeare got an invigorating kick up the backside, as did the sonnet form generally, and the (American) English language.

late summer ode includes a section of sonnets, too, and for me is the best part of the book. There’s something about the restraint and shaping undertaken that contains Davis’ wilder inclinations and tendency to ramble, repeat and drift. I’d forgotten how disappointed I’d been by her last book, The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems, and have struggled to find a way in to this one, to find any sense of structure in many of the poems.

There are plenty of intriguing ideas to spark the poems, ideas which are often used as titles: ‘The Benefit of a Hangover’ and ‘Today I Walked My Racism’ are intriguing concepts, but the language is tired and dull, the poems seem like first drafts, more akin to beatnik cliché than contemporary experiment. There’s also a tendency – perhaps inspired by engaging with the likes of Shakespeare and Rilke – to use archaisms such as ‘methought i saw’, ‘o sophisticatio / o lyric shame’, and ‘i have lived in wait of thy bright poesies’. I’ve come across a lot of this recently in poetry submissions to Stride from the USA, so she’s not alone, but it doesn’t work for me, especially when so many poems are full of popular slang and exclamations: ‘dude’, ‘shit’, ‘fucked’, ‘stupid fucking POEM’.

There are also several longer poems which repeat phrases, repeat phrases again, and occasionally subvert the phrases when repeated again (and again). I’m all for the idea that repetition changes things (because the repeat is affected by the original, etc etc) but this isn’t a Brian Eno CD and the phrases used are very ordinary narrative-driven sentences. Davis also seems to have bought into the confessional rather than distancing herself from her work; even if it’s ironic it doesn’t work for me:

   Here It Is

   the poem 
   that pretends it is suffering
   as much as you

   and truly, yay, truly
   it does not know what to say

So why say it then? The poem really doesn’t say anything, and ends with the egotistical narrator (let’s be kind: narrator not poet) asking

   (how) could they be as lost as in need of
   as me?

Dunno, sorry. And to be honest, don’t care.

Anyway, let’s end on a positive note, which means ignoring the awful six pages of prose, ‘Chekhov, Baby’ which closes the book, and focussing on the 36 sonnets which form a separate section of the book. They’re mostly numbered and use the first line in brackets as a title, use no punctuation and little capitalization, and generally adhere to 4 + 4 + 4 + 2 line stanzas. 

The archaic vocabulary and syntax is mostly reined in here, though I still find some lines awkward, such as this first verse from ‘iv.’:

   these selves divided from my selflessness
   defect with consummate animation
   go forth supreme superb superlative
   less me than my masterly aberration

not to mention the ending couplet:

   i math i count upon their countenance
   they my argument and m’acquiesence

It’s interesting to have math turned into a verb, and the pun using count, but it’s 2022 and I am not sure what poetry like this is doing in a contemporary book. It is more arresting when interrupted; ‘vi.’, for instance, closes with ‘sit down be humbled sit down bitch be HUMBLE’, which at least makes you notice a change in dynamic, tone and utterance.

By the time we get to the thirtieth sonnet (‘xxx.’ – keep up!) Davis is ready to abandon the 14 lines and subvert the form. ‘xxx.’ is a brief statement of poetics, a reflective aside:

   (the iambic and the anapest, the dac-
   tyl and the trochee, the right words in the
   right order by instinct if you’re lucky)

though personally I don’t think luck comes into creative writing. That’s the whole poem by the way, and this is the whole of the next:

   xxxi.

   i fucking glazed it; olena kaly-
   tiak davis from anchorage made this!

I guess it’s a kind of graffiti tag for the page, an effusive shout, but apart from raising a snigger why is it here? Better are the skinny one-word-a-line ‘erased sonnet’ and ‘sonnet for mark, joe, ted’ which follow, Ted presumably being Berrigan. The closing poem in this section/sequence is ‘airless sonnet’ which mentions ‘prodigious lack // of purpose . . .find myself making certain (marks) in it’, having previously declared ‘a moment of of, a small self portrait.’

The back cover blurb suggests that ‘Davis writes from a heightened state of ambivalence’, which might explain my ambivalent response, but also claims she is ‘a conductor of sound and meaning, precise to the syllable’, which I find harder to take. For me this work is mostly ramshackle, shapeless and unformed, too self-content and seemingly self-centred. Even the self-aware deprecation of a title such as ‘My Own Self Still Unconcerned’ doesn’t contradict the fact that these poems do seem to generally concern themselves with the self, constructed or confessional.

‘please. make fun of me(,) for how i suffer.’ reads that poem’s last line. I don’t want to make fun of any poet or their work, but this isn’t a great book. I’d really like to see less shattered sonnets, less importunity and more creativity and looking outward: to contemporary poetry and critical works, anywhere but the introverted self.

Rupert Loydell 14th July 2022


Poems by Lydia Tomkiw (Universal Exports of North America)

Poems by Lydia Tomkiw (Universal Exports of North America)

Lydia Tomkiw is probably better known as half of Algebra Suicide, an inventive and eclectic post-punk duo which found Tomkiw declaiming her lyrics over drum machines and electric guitar. If you’re lucky you might find their albums secondhand, otherwise some of this music is still available on a couple of Bandcamp compilations.

Tomkiw was also an accomplished poet – although many poems were used as lyrics – and was championed in the UK by Martin Stannard and Geoff Hattersley, who both undertook a reading tour with her, whilst the latter published her book The Dreadful Swimmers through his imprint The Wide Skirt. Otherwise, Tomkiw’s publications were pamphlets and chapbooks, some self-produced, all now impossible to find. Until, that is, the publication of this 409 page book, which I have only just come across, although it bears a 2020 copyright date.

The band and poet both came out of Chicago in the late 70s/early 80s, part of a widespread surge in independent cassette and record labels, mail art, makeshift venues and mostly attitude. I first came across Algebra Suicide on tape anthologies from bedroom labels, often swopped for other tapes, and was immediately seduced by the sexy vocals and piercing guitars on their mostly short, sharp ‘songs’. Many are emotional recollections or declamations, apparently confessional memories; others seem openly sexual, full of lust and longing. An impression encouraged by the title of one of her chapbooks, Ballpoint Erection, and those of various poems such as ‘Desire’, ‘The Hips of a Woman’, ‘Boys in Bed’ and ‘Lazy Sweat’.

On the page, the words are sometimes simplistic, but always frank and open. In ‘True Romance at the World’s Fair’, the text moves from the opening ‘A whispered remark changed a girl’s life. / Make no mistake there was a difference.’ to ‘mother-in-law trouble’ and ‘A jitterbug wedding and an itch that started quick’, before the subject of the piece goes walkabout:

     Dressed in the most attractive of rubber suits,
     Posing as a young girl, unmarried and unkissed
     She set out to answers questions.

One of which is ‘what brings out the beast in man?’ However, she soon discovers that 

     this ain’t no musical romp, 
     No screwball comedy; 
     This is just dog-collared loneliness:
     The world,
     The world is not a wild place.

Is that last line about disappointment, failure, or just a frank summary and conclusion? At the risk of confusing author and poems, Tomkiw in person was in many ways wild. Post-divorce from her musical partner and husband, Tomkiw took to drink and despair, only starting to come out of it when she and her friend the poet Sharon Mesmer moved to New York City in 1994. There she tried to make new literary and musical connections, undertaking readings and holding a launch party for a solo album, before she ran out of steam and faded from view. In 2004 her widowed mother asked her to move to Phoenix, Arizona, which she did. Little is known beyond that date: there was no public presence, only the news that Tomkiw had died – of natural causes – in 2007.

Thankfully, designer and advertising executive Dan Shepelavy took on the task of assembling and editing Tomkiw’s collected works. This beautifully put together book gathers up 180 uncollected poems, an introduction by Paul Hoover, a personal recollection by Sharon Mesmer, a detailed and factual history of Tomkiw by the editor, and a musical overview of Algebra Suicide. Each of the four chapbooks reprinted here are re-presented as they were originally published.

It’s clear Tomkiw was interested in reaching an audience with her poetry. Shepelavy writes that she ‘utterly rejected poetry’s endemic tendencey towards the insular and hermetic, craving connection and engagement.’ He claims that ‘[e]mboldened by punk’s example, Tomkiw helped redefine the boundaries of poetic performance’, suggesting that the ‘[n]ow established form like slam and spoken word, the promiscuou intermingling of music and verse’, can all be traced back to ‘those raucuous Chicago nightclubs and basements’.

There are elements of both hyperbole and truth there, which in a way dodge the real issues. Riding the zeitgeist of punk and post-punk always meant you were going to be left behind when musical fashions changed, whilst wanting to be taken seriously as a poet is never helped by being popular or populist – you get your fame perhaps, but rarely do you get ‘literary recognition’ or critical acceptance, however wrong that might be.

It feels hard to separate ‘connection and engagement’ from the notion of fame, although Shepelavy argues that ‘Fame was a diversion all along’ and that ‘Lydia Tomkiw’s work remains precious proof of imagination taking hold of reality and bending it to requirements – reality made to rescue, reclaim, seduce, exhilarate, amuse, and transcend.’

He’s not wrong, and although Tomkiw seemed to want fame as proof of her imagination, her poems and songs, she was also aware it might not happen in the way she wanted. ‘Sometimes’ ends with a verse of both resignation and hope:

     Sometimes, things are heinous and torture us to tears
     And we want everything we could possibly imagine,
     And we want it to be glowing and pretty,
     But we settle for something that
     Might shine bright in years to come.

And here it is, a book shining brightly. In ‘Coup de Grace’, Tomkiw declares that

     You won’t forget me:
     I’ll be warm and wet in the thin winter air;
     I’ll be the murmur, the secret like crazy. 

As another poem says: ‘It’s time to reap the fun we’ve sown.’ Poems is seriously fun, seriously engaging, disturbing and enjoyable. You should buy it and share the secret.


Rupert Loydell 26th June 2022

Plans for Sentences by Renee Gladman (Wave Books)

Plans for Sentences by Renee Gladman (Wave Books)

These sentences are isolated outgrowths on the page, declamatory black islands on the sea of white page.

These sentences are accompanied by, perhaps arise out of or derive from, drawings. These sentences are unsure if they are words or images, are what arises from asemic writing, from figures, plans and imaginary architecture. These sentences ‘inscribe their own topography; make their shape with their shape’ (fig. 23).

These sentences ‘both fog and chart the rising structure’ (fig. 45) as they gesture, dome, tower and broadcast. These sentences are active participants in the construction of a shelter for the reader, built in their own individual way.

These sentences ‘balance the question of movement against that of enclosure’ (fig. 7). These sentences take risks, do some pretty heavy semantic lifting, and sometimes collapse under the weight of their own intentions and possible interpretations. 

These sentences are carefully built temporary shelters, and can be rearranged into other dwellings. These sentences imagine possible future sentences, as purely text, at the end of the book.

These sentences are dream structures, buildings made of language arising from sentences which are drawings. These sentences ‘will up and flutter and through’ (fig. 60), ‘will not know space’ (fig. 5).

These sentences explore sentence construction and the nature of language, ‘and will not always say what they mean’ (p. 127). They often self-destruct but ‘will open when they fail’ (fig. 47).

These sentences are both tentative and self-assured. These sentences cluster and work together, but also stand up for themselves and elbow each other aside. 

These sentences are hollows of meaning, are moments of illumination.

These sentences are some of many.

These sentences have no closure


Rupert Loydell, 24th June 2022

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

This book is a quartet of slow, accumulative, long prose poems that touch on landscape, personal experience, geography, and philosophy. Sectioned and/or paragraphed, they gradually build up encounters with ‘Landscapes. Subtle shiftings of reality.’ These shiftings come from attention to detail, consideration of change, the seasons, the weather, how the light falls, and of how humans engage with the world around them.

Moorhead is interested in her own place in things, and in place itself, willing to be both scientific and emotional, rational and speculative, and to grapple with the unknown, in an attempt to allow ‘this existence to be full’. This fullness of experience, of course, means dealing with ups and downs, winter and summer, light and dark, the desired-for and the unwelcome. Death and mortality are part of nature, as is longing, absence, memory and anticipation; our own stories make sense of our lives, and ‘[f]ables frame the day’. Moorhead is well aware that ‘[t]his insistence on recollection alters the perception of light, changes the angle, lifts the dark shades to a brighter hue’, and she willingly brings that self-awareness to her texts.

But her self, her ego if you prefer, is pushed to the background throughout this writing. Moorhead gazes outwards, sits still and observes, walks and watches. She is well travelled and well aware of ecological damage and devastation, in fact it informs her work, but her work is mostly sitting still, looking and thinking about what she can see, and putting it in to language. ‘Sometimes’, she writes, ‘the day itself wobbles, sometimes everything wobbles, oscillates, shimmers and shivers along some axis that isn’t readily apparent.’ 

She attempts to explain how history, geography and language – ‘remarks’ – ‘have a way of escaping […] perhaps dissolving into what people call thin air, the substanceless extension of lived space.’ Moorhead is busy trying to document what is missing, push beyond the surface of the world into the past, the now, and the elsewhere, but ‘[t]he physical world preserves its mystery’ and only ‘fragile words linger’, perhaps not for long.

Much as Moorhead does her best to watch and understand, think and engage, she admits that ‘[t]he hallucinatory boundaries are unclear; illusion, mirage, hope and expectation reek havoc with the mind.’ We cannot escape what we have done and are doing, our shared responsibility, or leave our assumptions and wishes, our selves, behind: ‘flesh is slow to absorb what flickers across the mind’. But in this wonderful book Moorhead attempts to ‘narrow the gap between lost reflection and the insistent weight of the body’, to earth herself and us in time and place, the very now of where and how we live.

Rupert Loydell 14th May 2022

The Pact by Jennifer Militello (Shearsman Books)

The Pact by Jennifer Militello (Shearsman Books)

A pact with a shattered self, disassembled by a violent reality and expressed in fragmented lines, is thoroughly investigated in Jennifer Militello’s fifth collection. It is a wasteland but the fragments do not shore up against the poet’s ruins, as in T.S. Eliot’s poems; instead, they expose the destruction which is irreversible and total. The individual is lost, a wreck; she is empty, a zombie ‘covered in soot’. There is no going back and ‘nothing can be done’ – the only possibility is describing this condition. Love and relationships are dissected in an accumulation of images that explore the topic from all sides, revealing a dark centre that is reduced to smithereens which are scattered around. ‘Love is all you need’, the dedication at the beginning of the book sings, echoing the Beatles’ song, but this remark is ironic and is denied in the narratives of the poems in the collection. Love as affection and a fulfilling relationship is unattainable, delusional and disappointing. It is often described as its opposite, that is, hate, and it causes anger and frustration as well as violent reactions. 

      Militello’s impeccable lines express this contradictory and multifaceted concept of love in fragmented verses in which frequent full stops break the pressing rhythm of the lines and repetitions that are produced using devices such as anaphora and epiphora that reiterate and develop her thoughts:

Hatred is the new love. Rage is right. Touch 

is touch. The collars of the coat, turned down,

point up. The corners of our hearts are smoothed

with rough. Our glass breaks slick, our teeth

rip soft. The mollusc of me, shell-less.

[…]

Let us empty. Let us alone. Madness

is our happiness. Sadness is our home.               (‘Oxymoronic Love’)

I brace: we hit the wall, we slam the brakes. You are 

the maw, the clamp, the rake. Bootlace, foothold,

briefcase, bass. I claw the window, claw the grate.

You snap the whip and clasp the gate. I want it now, 

the great escape.       (‘&’)

     The use of alliteration, enumeration and hyperbole is also frequent; these stylistic devices not only emphasise the skilfulness of the poet but also underline the profundity of her reasoning. She uses a plenitude of thought-provoking imageries that involve the reader in an oxymoronic and often contradictory reality in which opposites do not coexist in harmony but clash with one another. The use of the enjambments together with unusual line breaks reflect this sense of contradiction in the structure of her lyrics. It is a violent reality on the brink of a precipice, in constant evolution and always under investigation. 

     The adventure is daring and risky. The fragility of the self is shamelessly exposed with its losses and flaws in the apparently unconnected arguments and in the vulnerability of the edible body. Cannibalism seems to be part of our humanity; ‘we crave meat’, feast on others’ blood, ‘taste’ their bodies by biting and licking their flesh. The references to the Last Supper and to the Eucharist point to the sacrifice that is implied in love relations. 

     Love can therefore be described in different ways; it protects and heals but also has destructive qualities. The passage through sacrifice and death seems inevitable and is perhaps necessary, but there is no sense of transcendence, only temporary annihilation. This concept is symbolised in the figure of the Nkisi Nkondi, a traditional figure of the Congo. It is usually represented as a wooden sculpture into which people hammer nails or blades to release their anger and frustration, and it mediates against violent forces. It is similar to the figure depicting the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, who is pierced by the arrows of his Roman persecutors and is eventually celebrated as a healer. The saint accepts the wounds in an extreme act of love that is above all a sacrifice and violence perpetrated against an innocent. This violent death is also evoked in the stations of the cross in the poem ‘Idolatry’. In this poem, the confrontation between the two lovers hurts and they ‘bleed secretly, silently’. The relationship may bring a renewal, but it is hard to achieve. Eventually, love is considered a lie:

My collar is my lover’s death.

I wear it heavy. I wear it 

hellish as a home or shell,

hollow as a wreck.

[…]

[…] I want him to live, but we do not 

fit. I want him to live,

but I writhe and twist and

an animal in me lies down

on its side and withers to bone

through our time-lapsed lips.         (‘Electric Fence’)

      The nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ at the end of the poem ‘The Pact’ suggests tense and unsettling relationships with family members, such as siblings, and especially with her mother. These feelings are also expressed in the sibling series and in the poems ‘Dear Hiss’ and ‘My Mother is in Antarctica’. The lyrics are twisted; ‘pretty maids all in a row’ becomes ‘all the daughters caught in their rows’, pointing not only to contradictions but also to constrictions and maybe abuse. 

      The final poem, ‘Ode to Love’, seems to open up to a more hopeful vision. However, the scenario is still unsettling, with its ‘complexities or cries’. The final ‘Hush’ that ‘must be soothed. Has a snag. Has a bleed. A drape’ does not seem to bring reconciliation. The apparently reassuring image of the heron is turned upside down in the final line, ‘a wide bottom perfect with fish.’ Militello traces until the end of the collection her relentless exploration of love that is vital in human relations and part of our effort to survive. Irony and violence permeate the poems and are expressed in unexpected and compelling imageries that render her vision challenging and exceptional. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 27th April 2022

On Becoming a Poet edited by Susan Terris (Marsh Hawk Press)

On Becoming a Poet edited by Susan Terris (Marsh Hawk Press)

Although this book is subtitled ‘Essential Information About the Writing Craft’, it’s actually more a collection of 25 autobiographical musings from a collection of American poets. That’s quite a relief: I wasn’t looking forward to a how-to-write manual, nor anything that suggested poets were born or relied on muses and inspiration for their work.

What we do have is a mostly enjoyable anthology of people looking back at what informed and encouraged them to start and keep writing. Sheila E. Murphy focuses on the music of language, linking it to the ever-present music in her childhood home. Geoffrey O’Brien wittily deconstructs a nursery rhyme, Philip F. Clark discusses how to ‘sustain wonder’, Burt Kimmelman links it all back to Black Mountain poetics, and Lynne Thompson writes about how her ‘journey to becoming a writer was inspired by my father’, a nice contrast to Denise Low’s discussion of ‘The Womanly Lineage of Writerly Mentors’, which celebrates her feminist teacher Mrs. Sullivan.

David Lehman is a little bit more schoolmasterly, with some sections of his work instructing the reader what to do, but it’s mostly sensible if slightly obvious stuff, such as ‘Write any time, any place. Take a little notebook with you. Jot down possible titles, overheard phrases, unexpected similes.’ More useful is his recognition that poetry is no different to and is informed by other genres:

   Write prose. All the writing you do helps all the other writing
   you do. Learn the prose virtues of economy, directness, and
   clarity. Good journalism or nonfiction writing or speech writing
   or technical writing can help your poetry. Writing to an editor’s
   specifications, on deadline, with a tight word-count, is a sort of 
   discipline not unlike writing poems […]

He’s also astute enough to point out that ‘poetry is not the whole of one’s life, it is a part of it’.

Personally, my two favourite parts of the book are both interviews. Arthur Sze discusses ‘Revealing and Revelling in Complexity’ and declares that he loves ‘the intensity and power of language, and imagination that all come together in poetry.’ He also discusses clarity and the use of specialist language, multiculturalism, science and poetry, and writing with ‘openness and risk’. Jane Hirshfield has to answer some dodgy lines of questioning about inspiration, influences and – worst of all – ‘poetic voice’, but mostly keeps coming back to what she calls ‘deepened language’ and wanting her ‘poems to be stranger’. I’m less convinced by her aspiration to use poetry to make ‘a more full human person’, although I note her hesitant ‘perhaps’ earlier in the sentence.

This feels like a rather old-fashioned anthology, from the rather clunky cover design and disingenuous blurb and Introduction, to the insistence on traditional publishing and the volume’s overall confessional, or autobiographical, approach to things. There is little mention of performance, visual poetics, digital publishing or experimental processes and poetics. Mostly it is as though the late 20th Century has not happened to the poets here, although I know for a fact it has! It would be good to see another volume that focussed on younger writers, what they make with language, and why they do so.

Rupert Loydell 15th April 2022

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