Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Large White House Speaking by Mark Irwin
(New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2013) 
 
reviewed by Danielle Beazer Dubrasky


Mark Irwin’s poems juxtapose the preservation of memory with a poetics of the inaccessible. He asks, “Tell me...how we hear music / in silence, or a dead person’s voice / in our minds (that child’s swing / blown back and forth).” These lines perform a kind of mining through memory that takes us to an edge where sound and language are ultimately inaccessible and are conjured up only through an associative image. The remembered voice is conveyed through an image of absence hermetically sealed in parentheses that can never be completely opened. It is around this point that poems revolve in the collection Large White House Speaking.

The recurring theme of preserving the past is introduced in the first poem, “On Sundays, Sometimes.” Irwin uses language to plumb a line toward memory:

     I’ll start in the afternoon and follow the words of a new sentence
     ...I’ll open a photo album and descend
     into its cellar where people are walking toward me, out from
     the white chancel of each corner

In these lines, time is transformed into place and place represents a time preserved. “Memory is love’s quarry,” a phrase from the poem “Creation,” describes this fusion. In “April,” the fusion exists through a link between a father’s football helmet and a bronze Corinthian helmet. The former is found in an attic and is described as “scratched and dusty in the dormer’s blast of sun.” This family artifact is decaying from the elements. But a memory has preserved another image associated with the father—a brassy pole and shiny firetruck from the speaker’s childhood. A brightness exists in memory that becomes dull in the present. That brightness returns when one literally touches the past: “In London once / I touched a bronze Corinthian helmet whose pitted crown / was dented from blows.” This helmet corresponds with the football helmet, yet its existence conveys a certain defiance of time that the other helmet does not have.

Irwin’s poems explore both a desire for the past be tangible and the unnerving discovery that sometimes only abstract words can be a source of preservation. “April” expresses one of the few moments when the desire to feel the sensations of the past is fulfilled. The poem “Elegy” takes the opposite view. There is again an attempt to revive the past in the lines, “I am polishing the lens of a telescope to make / the distant more bright.” However, here the past is represented by a daughter and a marriage each lost in some way. There is no preserved artifact in the attic nor in a museum to represent what is gone, what cannot be retrieved: “—A glove, a ball, a house collapsed. A carcass of vowels wept.” In “Elegy” the speaker seeks objects and hears them from decaying letters that become a strange metaphor of absence. The house with its inhabitants is no longer intact. These interior letters that provide shape to words are simply sounds. It is the sealed, parenthetical phrase turned inside out with the loosened letters falling into a void.

The poetics of the inaccessible is aided by telescopes and telescopic poems, as in “Augenblick” which begins by looking into the eye of a dead robin then shifts to a glimpse of the setting sun into which the speaker sees “closer far.” In that instance, the speaker sees a moment from his past: “I remember Katherine now… / Some things you can never hold.” The poem “Ghost” addresses this relationship with the past head-on:

     Sometimes your name’s
     a dress like an iron/ bell the years
     swing shadows from/longer than home.
     Can you hear/that word peal? I’m going
     there now,
     carrying the windows/from inside
     all the vowels

The question plaintively expresses desire for sound to be tangible. The speaker wants to touch sound itself, and an attempt is made through the remarkable last line “I’m going there now”—as if sound is a place. These vowels and their sounds are now the opening to that place, to the bell’s peal.

The drive toward an interior space is contrasted by other poems that move almost cinematically through an exterior pastoral world. Images of trees, leaves, sunlight, insects, and the presence of other animals exist in these poems to clarify time into a tangible present. Yet the poems are both entranced by and skeptical of the natural world. The recurring seasons and their seeming beauty testify simultaneously of continuity and inevitable death. The poem “Red Feather” elucidates the former idea: “The owl / blinks its glass eyes / in a tree. Sometimes I think the red feather’s / the word is.” Likewise, in “Moment” the juxtaposition of singular images gives a nod to the pastoral hope of cheating time through recurring common events:  “Years. It was cold. You wore / red mittens…/ Summer. The late light / upon us. Blue coppers, just hatched….” Yet it ends with a sense of oblivion: “... then you are sent to a country of nameless people / where there is no time.”

There are two poems in which a brutal death coincides with images of the natural world that convey continuity. “Pastoral” defies the connotation of that word by referring to the rape and murder of a young girl whose body is found beneath an elm, “A balloon, red, was tied, bobbing from a limb / above her.” The childish image of the balloon in the tree and the reference to growing grass create a haunting contrast to the girl’s life cut short. In a poem about Matthew Shepherd, “Shoes,” Irwin places the image of people leaving “their offices and homes in that quaint / mountain town” next to the image of Shepherd: “He was tied, naked to a fence, then beaten.” Here it is the continuity of the sky that creates a brief, if inadequate, refuge.

In poems such as “In Winter,” Irwin plays more gently with notion that time and death stalk the pastoral. The former poem describes the lives of two widows. One husband is memorialized through the simple gesture of tracing a map, the other as his widow hangs bedsheets in which he died out to dry. The speaker acts as conduit between these women and their dead husbands. When he helps the one widow hang the sheets, their hands accidentally touch and for that moment, he breaks the loss that time awards through death.

Large White House Speaking is divided into four sections and while there are poems focused on memories, they never settle into nostalgia. Instead, there is a restlessness that indicates it is not enough to restore the memory and the people within it. Instead, these poems explore how language unlocks memory to fulfill a desire for the sensuality of those lost moments. It is that desire that compels so many of the poems and creates the deft metamorphoses the reader encounters in seeking lost sensations. Often, after several transformed images, the only result is untranslatable sound. This happens in “The Mirror in my Parents’ Room” in which the mirror has trapped within its silver, the Milky Way’s “phosphorescent, streaming light” which hums “infant sounds.” “Ars Poetica” conveys an unsatisfied hunger for the sensations of words,

     So many words I put
     together, pushing them along their way, packing them
     with light, loss, smells, tastes
     silence, seasons, and the lost
     seasons of an hour

The speaker responds to this hunger with a desire to “unwrap the cellophane from what we mean.”

The complexity of these poems is a pleasure as is the thematic insistence that pushes toward an elemental space. To focus on sound as being the doorway to that space creates unusual relationships between the words and their context. The sense is that if Irwin could shake these words from their context he would detect the heart that beats inside the letters. When he comes close to doing this, there is almost a euphoria at the discovery, as in the final lines of “Survey”:

     And there are those, who, almost
     after a lifetime, only listen.What
     ushers us through the years? Yellow leaves
     swirl past a stop sign. It is
     a ringing you/can feel.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Even Years of Marriage by Ash Bowen
(Dream Horse Press, 2014) 


reviewed by Bill Neumire


Ash Bowen’s debut collection, The Even Years of Marriage (winner of the 2012 Orphic Book Prize), charts the dissolution of relationships just as it charts the disillusionment of the speakers in these finely wrought, tightly woven poems. Every sound is intimately intended for another, the harmony almost at odds with the disconnected characters who weakly try to solder relationships, as in “Mexico’s Waters Are Only for Newlyweds,” from which the title comes:

An affair every even year of marriage and this is another
makeshift reconciliation—mojitos and a week of beach

we’ve charged to our credit card:   penance
of the easiest order…

                                                                                    Twenty years of marriage—
my lust’s no longer monstrous, your sarong has little left
to hide.

These sonnets, villanelles, and nonce forms are dense thickets of iambic sound, like pomegranate seeds of rhythm that convey anxiety for the loose, unruly lives described. The structures and strictures of these poems are arbitrary rules to anchor the unsettled worlds of their characters—characters who can’t depend on marriage or parents or siblings to steady them.

The book proceeds in three sections: the first details the unraveling of the speaker’s marriage; the second and third branch out and back to the speaker’s parents’ unsteady marriage and stories of the sister’s sexual misadventures and other menacing episodes. All of it is built through metaphors of space, physics, and 50s sci-fi movies, as if those were all systems of arbitrary rules, too, and could keep the chaos from overwhelming reality.

Bowen wields an array of tricks to create pauses, lacunae in which one can ponder, reconsider, recalculate. He employs white space particularly well to this effect, a fitting technique in a book so fraught with issues of separation and divorce:

                                                            stars collapsed
through the atmosphere

They threw their light between us

as I made a wish for you
to love me and you did

not.

A sense of nostalgia pervades these poems, a struggle to believe in a world where things still work, where the wedding day smiles and expectations last. Bowen draws from metaphors of old, often sci-fi, movies in this regard; movies that can be rerun ad infinitum to continue to show the way things should have been/were in some more fictional, romanticized past. Meanwhile, space gives the poet a metaphor through which to convey the cold distance that inhabits so many of these poems of failed marriage and failed attempts to have children that result in disillusioned reevaluations of other relationships. While the space metaphors provide fertile ground for illuminating topics of distance and ache, they also register a note of larger universality:

The night you went away
                                    the interstate glowed red beneath the flaring
                                                fins of your father’s Cadillac.

Now this collect call
                                    from outer space & what you’ve called to say
                                                is clear at last: Among stars

lovers come and go easy as you please. It’s the gravity
of earth that makes letting go so hard.

The idiom “to be expecting” doesn’t appear in this book, but a motif of unrealized expectations does, and often it is overtly in the form of trying to have children, the mechanized drudgery of working to get pregnant:

                                                                        You, from whom

all paternity proceeds, it’s on nights like these
I try to hide, creep farther across the beams
whenever she calls for me.  God,

how I fear the grisly machinery inside of her—
blood in the spokes, miswelded DNA, another
month of trying.

There’s a more sinister, even monstrous, quality to the poems in the second section, poems that portray the females in the narrator’s life as whorish, abused, hurt:

                                                Once my sister

did pirouettes through the city park
saying, I’m a leaf blown by a twister.
Four years later, she boarded a train

with a man who turned her head
six times against the edge of a knife.

Ultimately, this section positions the speaker as an inheritor cursed with an inability to escape the failed relationships of his family’s past, as well as the inherent separateness of his species. In a way, the speaker becomes his jealous father. These poems are creepy yet engaging: morbid, menacing, corset-like. These are characters in jeopardy surrounded by a society that loves the gory details of their sordid stories. And it would be easy to write these poems as judgments, but that’s not what happens; Bowen is skilled at switching points of view, and adapts well to new characters, creating pathos, wisdom, and universality, even when adapting the first person. These often come across as poems of invasion, as in these lines from ‘Stork:’

Tonight I am looking for you
to reclaim your fine down, to break

the windows of sleeping men
hoarding your plumes in their pillows.

Your ghost is circling the city. I am
looking for you like an expectant falconer,

my arm raised against the sky.
  
Admittedly, the poems sometimes are too honed in on one conceit without enough discursion, diversion or surprise for a reader of contemporary poetry that has so exploded with the cult of surprise. But there’s something nostalgic and comforting in the very way Bowen’s rhythms carry the reader back, soothe the reader with songs even as they recount such haunting stories.

In the end, this is a fine debut, one that welds sound and story into a moment that examines anxieties about our ability and inability, to be together, to damage each other, to keep going while constantly looking back. It’s a smooth read that offers pleasure on the level of each poem as well as pleasure on the level of following characters through dark, narrative tunnels. It deserves reading and listening as it connects to its readers in an abstract salve against its own anxieties.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tantivy by Donald Revell
(Alice James Books, 2013) 


reviewed by Andrew Haley

Over the last 15 years, as a professor at the Universities of Utah and Nevada, Donald Revell has been writing poems that have evolved to match his surroundings. It is a true trajectory for a poet whose own manifesto is titled The Art of Attention. There is little of the ivory tower in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas and there the attentive eye finds new contours and distinctions.

Revell’s acclaimed earlier books of poems, represented best by New Dark Ages and Erasures, have seemed to wear away into essentials in the desert. The long lines and uniform stanzas disappeared. Poems obsessed with the last European century and its ancient betrayals, and with the tropes of modernism Revell inherited from his native New York City—urban space, the crowd, chaos, and class—faded away. Imbued with an adaptive, transcendental, almost Cathar Christianity, the poems in There Are Three, Arcady, and My Mojave, turned instead to the individual and the individuating landscape of the West. Revell found anew the mysteries of geology and climate, aridity, uplift, desiccation, the struggle of plants in the desert weather and the long suffering gardeners who grow them, as well as the idylls and isolation of first Salt Lake City and then the Las Vegas suburbs.

Revell’s son Benjamin appears frequently in these poems in an idealized state of innocence that serves as the reliquary for Revell’s lost innocence. His paeans to Jesus and God may stem from Thoreau but take on the desert-struck solitude of Saint Jerome. The conflux of transcendentalism, Albigensian mysticism, and pre-Socratic thought in the brooding solitude of the Mojave created in the songs and meditations of Arcady and My Mojave a spare, free-from, personal but not confessionary lyric that surpasses Revell’s early work both in music and idea.

The Bitter Withy starts very much like a continuation of the style and sensibilities of My Mojave and Arcady, but with an unmistakable sorrow that is less present in his other desert books. “Long-legged Bird,” the penultimate poem, captures the long-lined clip and measure of poems in Erasures and the earlier books, and brings to us again Revell’s considerable anger and anxiety, his bitterness, though here it has nothing to do with the wars in Europe or the destruction of cities or peoples. Instead, his middle period is one of transcendence, wisdom, and religion. We have a poem tuned to the sound of Revell’s mortality and the decline of his desert arcadia:

    […] I want to explain—tremolos
    And squealings and then a high sound
    Sweeten the little halfway house
    Forever. I mean it just goes on forever,
    As through the little portals children pour

  
Arcady has become a halfway house. The decline ordains Revell’s own death with the transient and sacred essence that flits around and inside particulars but is apart from them, perhaps above them. It is a masterful poem, one of Revell’s finest.

Tantivy carries this matured, sorrowful new music even further. In the previous decade, Revell has translated Rimbaud, Apollinaire and LaForge. The French strain is strong here and more so than ever in his work, the poems in this book provide the rare sensation of true originality, of a poet past caring who has not shed influence but has moved past caring about it. They do not feel received but are new in the old way. Tantivy is one of those books that perfectly fits the occasion of its being, which is to say, it may well be a classic.

“The Last Men,” the first of four sections, opens with a suite of poems, titled “Victorians (1)–(11),” which play with form and rhyme in a manner reminiscent of Revell’s early work, but in a completely unstudied way. There is nothing inherited in their formality. They give you the sense of how it must have been to hear the first rondel sung in torchlight 800 years ago.

    Motherless goddamn modernity never grew.
    Here we are again at Christmas
    On fire escapes without a fire in view.


The French poets have long provided their American counterparts an alternative approach to rhyme more suitable than that of the English Romantics. Though Tantivy is indebted to Alfred Tennyson, the play of rhyme in the book and the shaping of poems into resemblances of forms remind one less of that cardboard viceroy of old Britannia than of John Ashbery, whose poems Revell’s early work sometimes resembles. Revell’s poems have always been more somber, and that darkness is at its fullest in Tantivy. Consider the following lines from the first poem to follow the “Victorians” suite, titled “Homage to John Frederick Peto.”

    All in green we went out rioting.
    Lute music demasked the commercial radio,
    And girls knew everything.


    […] Any ornaments for the poor man’s store?
    Any moments of leisure at the fish-house door?


    […] Time will come again to talk perfection,
    A succession of creatures in midair.
    I won’t be there.

 

Hardly Victorian, rhyme serves less as deep architecture here than ornament, like bells on a jongleur’s hat. Tennyson serves as a kind of muse in Tantivy but more as motif than as influence. True there is a song quality to these poems rather than the terse and incised esthetic dear to the modernist strain Revell has long championed, but in its most self-conscious mock-medieval stylings it is closer to Bertran de Born. Revell is married to poet Claudia Keelan, whose translations of the trobairitz, the female troubadours, is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2015 under the title Truth of my Songs: The Poems of the Trobairitz. It seems that the music of 12th century Occitan poetry cross-pollinated Tantivy. The troubadours and trobairitz faced the quintessential poetic problem: the inheritors of a vast, rich, but obsolete cannon, they sought to make a new vernacular poetry that better matched the world at hand. Revell is on a likeminded quest in Tantivy—to make it new when “Make It New” is now a century old.

Tantivy’s third section, “Tithon,” is one of the most experimental poems in Revell’s catalog. Only a few times has he stepped so far from uniform surface textures and standardized syntactical patterns. Revell’s great little poem, “What Can Stop This,” first published in New American Writing and later included in Arcady (“The sympathy of friends is pleasant VIOLINS/But it makes no difference anymore TROMBONES”) indicates future directions. But “Tithon” is big, filling the middle 10 pages of the book. It is songlike and repetitive in passages but incorporates found materials (a letter reprinted in its entirety; quotes from Cézanne and Char, etc) affixed to the poem with the logic of collage, so that the poem does not feel like a whole smooth object, but rather as a series of coincident, but not necessarily subsequent, parts. While the lines and phrases are highly melodic, their sequencing is discordant, giving “Tithon” almost a simultaneous rather than linear composition:
  
    Shadows of leaves
    Shadows of leaves
    Je suis le prince
    D’un pays aboli

    God counts only up to one
    His hands are small
    And in God’s hands even
    Mountains are sparrow sized

    Also the cloistered fountains, Lord,
    My dearest, my estranged,
    The fountains also

    Shadows of leaves
    Shadows of leaves


This friction between lyric and discord is one source of “Tithon’s” beauty, as is an overarching tension in the poem’s mood. For all of its optimistic intent and homilies about unity, eternity, and transcendence, “Tithon” is ultimately about loss. Here Revell follows most closely in Tennyson’s footsteps, giving new light to the myth of Tithonus, who begged for immortality and was cursed with the perpetual attenuation of life, and whose anglicized name, Tithon, Tennyson first used in the 1833 version of his poem of the same name. Revell’s “Tithon,” like Tennyson’s, is an elegy for lost time, a dirge not for the dead but for the remembrancers.

Tennyson may be the poem’s kelson, but its language more closely resembles those other great elegies for the condemned, Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos and Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill. Like them, it is fixated on the disordered contents of memory—the flashes and fragments of a broken paradise illuminated and made otherworldly by the dawning of death.
  
    I lay my eyes upon the ground and see the ground
    I lay my eyes upon a cloud (clouds are France) and see the
        angel there
    I lay my eyes upon the slowly moving surface of the water
    In a narrow pool between dragonfly and cruel acacia
    And my eyes swim away from me finding my friends
    Alive with skins made of diamonds (the poet Char) and high
        sounds (the poet Reverdy)
    I lay my eyes upon the easternmost horizon just at dawn
    And my only son Benjamin walks out of my eyes
    Never to be seen by me


In its closing, “Tithon” assumes most closely the music of elegy, which, like all lyric poetry, has the ego at its center. Tennyson’s Tithonus is a stand-in for the bereaved for whom, abandoned by the dead, the world has lost its savor. Revell’s Tithonus is himself, the long practitioner of attentiveness, who mourns not his inability to die, but the coming loss of the objects of his attention. His anxiety about this separation rings like a crisis of faith through the whole of Tantivy and seems to challenge the foundations of the mysticism Revell has built in the desert. Though deeply sad, Revell’s work has never been more fine.
Whelm by dawn lonsinger
(Lost Horse Press, 2013) 


reviewed by Kate Rosenberg

The book is a red hibiscus mouth. The book is a shadow box with another shadow box tucked into it. The book is waves and rain and rotting apples. The book is a transparent shirt over transparent skin over a transparent heart. The book is violence and regeneration.

dawn lonsinger’s poems will tell you that the book is something you will find out it is not. These poems disarm you by not giving you the metaphor(s) you expect. Try to grab hold of Whelm and you will find that it will tumble ahead of you, its language revealing a new moment of emotional, physical, or intellectual clarity while it doubles back and loops through what’s been revealed before. We find trees made of money, a river teeming with hippos, a town with fire alive in the mines beneath it, and a quiet, gentle elegy to a bus driver. To point to lonsinger’s language as lush, rich, or sumptuous in the landscapes of these poems, though not inaccurate, is to prettify/simplify the work of the language—to get to the edge of what is unsayable, that ravenous corner of the psyche that longs for connection.

The poems in Whelm aren’t easy, though there are moments when it almost feels as if we’re off the hook—that we can lounge through a poem and enjoy the sights without being asked to notice its multiplicity. One of the pleasurable frustrations in reading Whelm is in the way it does not allow one to be able to address smart, complicated work on the nature and limitations of language at the same time one addresses the poignancy of image, the potency of the visceral, the masterful structures of the poems. I’m thinking, in particular, of the way in which sound and image merge in the first two lines of “La Fille Fragile”: “Her silver waist went out to sea/ like petal debris, rain-tattered ma chère parfois.” Maybe for a moment we’ve bought a ticket to a French film starring a lovely, delicate woman seen in silver and the glisten of rain. As pretty as the alliteration of silver/waist/sea/petal/debris is in these lines with their sweet s’s and long e’s—lonsinger gives us more than lovely footage. “La Fille Fragile” is the poem in the collection that most directly addresses the self as an ever-shifting presence that is not entirely aside from the body and which, in fact, is maybe wholly the body. La fille fragile is not just fragile, but fractured; “mon autre moi” is in slippery, ethereal pieces: “her eyes afloat,” and “fingers scatter like lightning.” The book generally rejects an imagination that would put all the puzzle pieces together to approximate comprehensiveness. Like skillful collage, poems like “La Fille Fragile” retain the electricity generated by disparate (material or linguistic) elements rubbing against each other, contained within a recognizable form.

The poems in Whelm vary in shape and length, but remain within the realm of what we expect from poems. lonsinger does not choose to make her mark with experimental formal structure. That is to say, lonsinger’s potently wrought language is contained within somewhat expected forms, while not being limited by them. Perhaps the most compelling and revealing poems, “Touch Me Also, Goddess of Inevitability” and “Why Deluge” are two of the longer poems in the book. “Why Deluge” is the most formally inventive; split into seven sections, each lineated very differently from the next and yet (again, collage) they are stitched together seamlessly. “Touch Me Also, Goddess of Inevitability” feels much looser insofar as the stanzas range widely and the speaker is more colloquial and urgent in its forceful “I”:

    I am lonely. My body is lonely. I sit outside and let the wind
    tangle my hair. I understand that this is nothing like a relationship.
    I understand that relationships take time
    and hack it into bits. I understand that while we’re not looking
    time slithers back together, wins.


“Why Deluge” is quieter; the only notable syntactic repetition is the “because” at the start of each section. Though lonsinger’s “I” is present here as well, there is a “we” and “you” that carry a significant amount of the poem’s emotional heft:

    we touch our flinty skins together, but nothing
    leaks inside aftermath, my pining deep enough
    to trawl, my knees caught in the damp twine
    of our historic sleeping


In this brief passage, the “I” pines deeply, her knees caught in history. One of my favorite moments in “Why Deluge”, and in the book, is emblematic of the artistic work lonsinger is doing. The last line of part VI reads, “When I try to speak red hibiscus unfolds from my mouth.” Her deftness here is subtly displayed in the drama of the bloom of a vibrant, monstrous flower from a woman’s mouth as she yearns to speak. The choice of the hibiscus is luscious in its intimations of tropical heat and humidity, qualities of feminine desire, even as the conspicuous golden stamen erupts from the petals. There is hardly anything speechless about this image. The declaration is about how the self is expressed, if not in words. Here is where lonsinger begins to walk/write the finest line—the one that exists on the edge of the abyss of the inexpressible, desirous self. This “I” tries language and it doesn’t work, but this incredible flower just might. It is a noteworthy quality of the hibiscus that its blooms last only one day. If one catches that flora fact, it is doubly rewarding to follow the recurrences of ripened, pollinated flowers and fruit, especially in “Fall of Falling” and other poems in section iii of the book.

Nonetheless, don’t expect that the language of Whelm will be less than or easier to parse than a magnificent flower at any turn. “Touch Me Also, Goddess of Inevitability” underlines this visceral nature of language and expression that is rife in Whelm: “Touch me, dear goddess of inevitability, with your giant mouth./ Let me inside of that mouth where it’s warm with ferment and finishing.”

It feels easy these days to discuss a book of poems by a woman in terms of how it deals with “The Body.” The body often feels like a thematic cop-out in poorly written work and in easy conversation about (especially) women’s art. It is when I encounter complicated, raw, finely honed, and (yes!) beautiful collections like Whelm, that I believe in the absolute relevance of writing about the body and how it desires and loves and hurts and withers and aches and pulses and sleeps. Because Whelm’s body doesn’t do any of those things glibly, we are given a chance to reimagine our own worlds as lonsinger does hers. In “Ithaca Falls,” the next to last poem in the collection, she writes,

    Shining translates into soft moss clinging
    to rock, green gratis. I dip my foot in, watch the water plunge into itself,
    contradict the notion of a self separate from what it wades through 

 

And it is with this splitting that is not splitting a self that is not individuated, that dawn lonsinger begins the close of Whelm, which is, as ever, a slippery, lush place that will simultaneously illuminate and wash away.
Plural by Christopher Stackhouse
(Counterpath, 2013) 


reviewed by Patrick Thomas Henry

Christopher Stackhouse’s Plural crams philosophy, aesthetic theories, familiar objects, and everyday events into the compact shape of lyrical poems. At first, the collection seems claustrophobic, trapping the reader in networks of the poet’s own free associations as he mulls over marks on pages, lecture notes, drafts of poems, human fingers, animals, and devices like computers and radios. Yet, these poems reward repeated readings. A curator, visual artist, and poet, Stackhouse crafts his lyrics into complex textual pieces of visual art, elegantly depicting the fraught qualities of the visible world and building that reality without the tactile heft of the objects that infiltrate his lines.

As a textual work of conceptual art, Plural obsesses over the crisis of representation inherent in language. Stackhouse’s poems question poetic diction and imagery as if they were Chinese boxes, each word containing a multitude of other ideas. The volume’s opening piece, “Mark,” immediately places the reader into the concepts nested in a single typographical mark:

    as a mark is made it becomes an image
    as you make a mark you become the image
    of an image making a mark—


Here, Stackhouse implicates poets and readers alike in this system of words. A poet setting pen to paper will inevitably “become the image / of an image making a mark,” so that writers themselves become markings, letters on a page that represent an abstraction. But this maps onto the readers of Stackhouse’s book, as well. After all, readers must encounter these marks, grapple with them, and conceptualize the things represented by language. Without the reader’s intervention in these poems, the texts cannot reproduce the lost “ephemeral moment” of experience. “Mark” suggests that the act of reading is an effort to signify the ephemera of the visible world:  “the vapor, the audience, the contrast, the sophist- / ication swollen by a bee sting […]”

Stackhouse charts these efforts to articulate an already lived experience in formally experimental and ambitious poems, which usually hinge on following a web of free associations. Some of the poems in Plural drop readers into a philosophical framework they can’t readily grasp. The lecture note poems, “After Alain Badiou” and “Arthur Danto at the Guggenheim,” can prove especially disorienting for readers unfamiliar with Stackhouse’s theoretical frameworks, which include Jacques Lacan’s brand of psychoanalysis and Arthur Danto’s post-historical theories of art. Such poems à clef (for lack of a better term) require some background to unlock how they, to quote “After Alain Badiou,” describe “what is an artistic event—a ‘new’ trace— / materialist, materializing, materialism of art.” Other poems that seem to intentionally occlude readers’ access include the collection’s brief homage to experimental composer John Cage, as well as notation poems like “Notes from Panel Disc. @ The Fish Tank Gallery.”

These dense pieces are confined to the first fifteen pages of the sixty-page volume. The forbidding, highbrow edifice that these opening poems erect will no doubt intimidate certain readers. However, a reader who breaches Stackhouse’s wall of abstractions is greeted with poems that depict the genuine struggle of representing anything—let alone in an aesthetically pleasing way. The first “Extractions,” subtitled “From Poet to Draftsman,” labels “the poet’s depiction” as “an intimacy, concision of economy and line,” which requires readers to become intimate with all the possible connotations of a poet’s language:

    They have that effect
    defy viewer attempts at drawing out or divining some
    straightforward reading.


These three lines state the relationship that Stackhouse imagines between poets, poetry, readers, and critics more elegantly than the conceptual and experimental lecture note poems. For Stackhouse, even straightforward poems should possess an element of abstraction: a well-wrought poem denies facile readings and forces us to prod, question, and evaluate. It is little surprise that the first “Extractions” rankles against critics who, like students in a lazy workshop critique, attempt to limit poetry by saying “this is art, this drawing, this is A drawing, this is the soul, this is / the record of the soul.” So, the second “Extractions” poem, subtitled “Addendum Section III,” proposes that poetry does not speak to the individual identity of a reader, but instead to “[a] system of audiences.”

These two poems mark a dramatic pivot in Plural and its use of innovative diction and forms. In speaking to this “system of audiences,” the book’s experiments become sensual, evocative, and disarmingly sincere. “Angel Smoke” captures a “moment thin as parchment”:  the disorientation of the speaker’s senses as he cogitates on beauty and symmetry as a woman performs fellatio on him, the “angel smoke” of her breath “reduced to mirage on the glass.”  The provocative prose poem “Short” follows, casually sketching out a day consisting of a breakfast (“Special like bacon and eggs and toast with jam, my morning coffee”), beer, pornography, and a dog walk.

The tenacious verve of a piece like “Short” is Plural at its apex, distorting conventions of narrative time to express the tumultuous immediacy of human thought. “Short” launches in media res, as the speaker says,
    Seventy-five cents short of three dollars and fifty cents, I couldn’t purchase my favorite bottle of     beer before I headed into the apartment after walking the dog. All I wanted to do was sit down     to the computer and talk about my day with myself, while I surfed the web and intermittently         wrote.

Time is compellingly disjointed:  the speaker reflects on his desires while stopping at a bodega to buy a beer at the end of his dog’s walk. In a single moment of thought, all of these disparate events are of equal importance. Indeed, everything in this poem is “special”—the speaker’s cigarettes, his morning coffee, his computer, the graphic pornography on his computer. Imagining the pornography arouses the speaker, even as he stands in the shop: “I am shocked and absorbed imagining, as I stand in front of the counter paying a dollar eighty for a Negra Modelo,”  The poem, which happens in a single moment like Ambrose Bierce’s classic story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” comes full circle:  the speaker fantasizes going home, smoking, writing, and watching porn, so he frantically “handed the man a fistful of change” so he could rush to his apartment and live his fantasy.

Small, graceful phrases power the poems in the latter half of the book while toying with Stackhouse’s interest in representation, in imagery’s endless Chinese-box deferral of meaning. “Efficient and Particular” refers to the title’s abstractions as “[i]ndifferent / to the indifference of cats,” while “Chew the Candy” coaxes readers to “[b]e comfortable in all that is not / there. It simply is.”  Stackhouse charts these indifferences and absences onto poetic diction and images. “Each Bird,” for instance, begins with a reflection on lovemaking in the grass, and the speaker considers “the swaying / shadow of leaves” before imagining the birds inhabiting a park’s trees:

    Each bird is this poem’s color against—no, with
    the asphalt, between the white stripes, wherein
    strollers cavort, fertile, intrepid, antique,
    soft with age, browning beneath the blaze
    refracting daylight.


By refuting the vision of “color against [. . .] the asphalt,” the poem melds the bright colors of birds’ plumage with the black of pavement, the white lines separating lanes, the sidewalks, and strollers pushed along. But this assimilation is notably a poetic project:  the speaker cannot imagine the vibrancy of birds without the swarm of sensory information. A conventional poem might edit out these details, but Stackhouse’s Plural insists that poetry thrives because of—and not in spite of—the network of external objects and forces that shape a poem’s vision of reality.

While the dense, associative poems of the opening pages may put off readers, pieces like “Short” and “Each Bird” encourage us not to fear the endless system of marks, images, and representations abounding in Plural. After all, as Stackhouse asks in “Radio,” “If you don’t know what the (a) secret fiction is how can it depress you?” Living with ambiguity—rather than resolving it—is necessary for appreciating this volume of poetry. In Plural, Stackhouse treads the intersection of lyric poetry, conceptual art, and theories of representation. Even if representation in art creates “one implausible copy after another,” Stackhouse’s poems depict the individual’s struggle to shamble together reality from the abstract stuff of experience, from intimate encounters with a quotidian world inhabited by animals and objects.
  
Pretty Marrow by Shanan Ballam
(Negative Capability Press, 2013) 


reviewed by Shari Zollinger

    Letters, like bone, have pretty
    marrow. Intimate, gritty

    as a pearl
[…]

So goes the title poem from Shanan Ballam’s second book of poetry, Pretty Marrow, winner of the Utah Arts Council’s Original Writing Contest. In this collection, Ballam offers the inmost and essential parts of herself through exquisite syntax and sparkling, clear lines that explore such gritty themes as alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide, depression, and family dynamics.

Ballam structures the book via five sections including “Back into Syntax” and “Pretty Marrow,” yet each section might have also donned such titles as “mother,” “sister,” “father,” “brother,” and “lover.” In the first section, Ballam invites us to come to the hospital window behind which her mother is dying of alcoholism.

               I tip-toed to the hospital, peeked
    in my mother’s window. My one wet eye
               spied the tidy bed where my mother lay.

    A porcelain doll. My sisters sat near her,
               their lips and cheeks painted pink.
    Purple chrysanthemums, yellow daisies in vases,

               the pastel green light of a monitor
    made me remember sugar eggs for Easter,
               a little peephole to view a lovely scene
[…]

Ballam’s words glimmer, rendering priceless even the most painful poems. She propels the reader back into syntax, each sentence embedded with semi precious stones available to mine, to collect, to keep hidden under the bed or to pull out, to shine.

Shanan Ballam’s doppelganger/alter ego, Red Riding Hood, enters at the end of the first section and features strongly in the second. Her first book-length work was a chapbook called Red Riding Hood Papers. Ballam uses the familiar fairy tale as archetypal sidekick to elevate her own familial story from the personal to the mythic. Ballam’s fresh approach to the Red Riding Hood story weaves seamlessly through her poems, as we are granted unexpected perspectives from inanimate objects like Red’s basket, or Grandmother’s bed. Through this section we meet a sister who married, for all intents and purposes, the wolf:

    Wolf, ulfe, lupine, lupus:
    the slippery animal of time.

    Wolf will always be waiting the girl always
    watching, maybe inside, maybe outside, in the sky.


Ballam explores the nature of instinct and how to protect her sister from the real threat of domestic violence. She does not shy away from complex emotion and asks the reader to see, even empathize with dark things. She takes responsibility for every word on every page, anchoring the reader in precise, god-honest writing.

In her poem “Once More to the Lake,” Ballam speaks to the family experiment, its successes and failures. She highlights her relationship with her father.

    Weren’t we a family?
    Weren’t we?
    And wasn’t our father charming
    that day on the lake,
    his blue hat flying off in the wind?
    And wasn’t he marvelous,
    his enormous authority as he leaned
    from the truck window, Marlboro dangling
    from his mouth
[…]

Section four charts the bittersweet budding of the body, sexuality, and new relationships. Lovers emerge but are nameless. They share qualities of the wolf—still so animal. The body is both refuge and refuse.

    You, who just to feel your falling, fell,
    unlocked your eyes to splendid shame.
    You who crave delicious hell

    fell to feel the spark in every cell,
    shock of knowing shimmers your brain.

 

In Ballam’s final section, “Pretty Marrow,” we have fallen in love with Ballam’s loves. It is clear she loves her sisters, as well as the precision of words, the catharsis of poetry. In Ballam’s story, it is her sisters who save her and transform her poetry into a love story
  
    […] and my sisters bend, we all curve
    in to the sweet breath of one another’s hair
    as we sit in these, then other sticky chairs
[…]

    Then you sing, sisters your soft songs […]

Ballam finishes this collection on a highway, in a storm in “White-Out, Wyoming.” Having already guided us deftly through sharp metaphors and dark terrain, she asks us to take one more journey, linking us to the “little blue car” just ahead.

    […] and I was Alice tumbling down
    the reeling, deep throat
    of the rabbit hole. The heater blasted
    my face. My bladder ached.
    I was incredibly small
    but gripped the wheel, nudged
    the pedal till faint lights glittered.


But this poem is different. We enter that rabbit hole with her, because she’s taught us time and time again that we will emerge from each poem holding a glint of hope extracted from even the smallest of things—a smile from a boy, “his red hair wild in the snow.”


Reviewer’s Note:
During the period of time it took to write this review, Ballam’s younger brother Dylan tragically died. This review is dedicated to Dylan, who, Ballam believes, is the subject of her poem, “Paper Boat.”

    […]Why did I not save you,
    lay you in the sun, why did I
    not lift you, moss-limp and lovely, press

    your river blurred words to my face.
    You are my love note to the world,
    my paper boat. I wish you

    could let go and swirl away
    to a place unblemished, where light
    could pour its honey onto your face.

A Penance by CJ Evans
(New Issues, 2012) 


reviewed by Erin L. Miller

In CJ Evans’ latest collection of poems, images speak for themselves, allowing their peculiarity or violence to stand on their own. Despite what the title suggests, A Penance doesn’t seem a collection meant to atone but rather one that pulls certain things to the surface. In each poem, Evans creates a new world set in carefully selected and connected images. He strikes an uneasy timbre, placing stories of prison inmates next to personal confessions of desire next to a speaker vexed with the cruelties of the world. He writes through both a personal and global scope, touching on broad yet poignant themes. The collection is frank but lyrical and it is this balance that makes the blunt declarations so surprising.

Small, curious turns of phrases show up unexpectedly in the middle of poems, as in “the porpoise of a woman near orgasm” or “dangerous as owl pellets.” Other parts halt the reader in their certain and somber temper: “We have certainly failed so far,” “I dread your affection,” and “How can I know my children won’t be monsters?”

It is this consistent and lingering sense of doom that reminds the reader of the speaker’s acute familiarity with dark places (in himself and his environment): “It’s late / and I’ve misplaced,” “Trouble is nesting in my lungs,” and “Here’s the pallid / infection, the much-quiet dying.”

The speaker seems tethered between doubt and a wish to redress. Living in the company of paradox, Evans speaks of the “much-loud living” against everyday failings. He pairs subdued natural scenes with the wires of industry, animals with people, tragedy with intimacy. And despite the subtle brutality of some of the poems, others embody a lovely tonality that serves as soft interruptions, as in lines like “The nights pass like gypsum and butter” or “Let’s find a nesting box and pull / the smell of figs from beneath the bed.”

Mindful to sound, Evans strings together images and commands in a captivating stride. In “Instructions for Silk,” he begins with a thread of soft “b” sounds, “Never again the black box, the bind, / the flightless bird. Becalm in paper scent / of scotch.” only to quickly advance to an even longer series of biting “s” sounds “Silt, spend your fume […] Arrive / slim-boned, wisped, lusting after lust […] Never again, singe or wasp.” It’s this quiet unraveling that lends to the textured quality of his work.

In “The Work of Giants,” Evans writes about the wolfish, sometimes paltry quality of lust when compared to the world’s cruel giants: “The world is furious and I’m so tired / of being furious with it […] all / I want is your skin against my skin.” However, desire takes on multiple meanings in the book. It represents the distractions of lust but also a means toward growth and a lens to interact with the world.

In a book that hinges on honest examinations, Evans not only writes about conflicts of the world but also conflicts of the self reacting to the world. He explores self-evolution, learning through failure, and the inevitable not-knowing, as in “This Time in Wartime”:

    […] I don’t

    know the name of this new
    thing. This thing I’ve let settle

    down throughout me,
    which spreads itself enormously

    like unfurling skeins
    of creosote and becomes

    me. Far off, the artillery
    flashes, and I miss the boys

    I’ve been
[…]

The poem “Metamorphoses” serves as a multi-tiered study of the inevitability and universality of change in its use of the first person plural while moving back and forth from natural elements to the human condition. He also writes about moving beyond and reconciling the cruelties of the world while avoiding a maudlin voice of redemption. Many of the poems in the book have a fictional, dreamy air to them, as if existing just beyond, in another realm. The power of poetic whimsy is certainly not lost on Evans. He takes a step away from the first person, choosing instead to focus on observation. He lets the speakers’ reactions to their environments reveal their true character. They’re speakers who are simultaneously tired and sanguine of the world’s machinery. Despite the dark themes surrounding the text, they don’t give in to helplessness. For example, in “I Know the Pinecones,” the speaker discusses the pinecone’s sharp defenses as merely products of the world’s design, blameless subjects of the Earth’s “cruel devices.”

The collective self in the book ultimately becomes the self that, as Wallace Stevens writes, “touches all edges… that fills the four corners of night.” There’s no denying that A Penance is an expansive collection, which can appear, at times, scattered. Yet, what the book loses slightly in cohesion, it gains in powerful single lines and concise language. Every piece feels precise. If Jean-Luc Godard is right in saying that language is the house man lives in, then CJ Evans has built a striking piece of architecture.