Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth by Joshua Maria Wilkinson 
(2009, Tupelo Press)

Reviewed by Michael McLane

“What you lose/cannot be recovered if the light is wrong. What you speak will always have/the capacity to break you. If this is clemency, I’m learning to be aligned with/its torque & needles, with the glug of its voice through water.” So begins The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth, the fourth collection by poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson. As the passage above implies, light is crucial to this work and the modifiers of light in the poems are many—jewel light, copper light, sleepwalker light, undoable light, thimble-light—just to name a few. Over his first three collections, Wilkinson, who is a filmmaker in addition to being a poet, has slowly built a projectionist’s mythology, a mise-en-scene created with idiolect and parataxis, held together with, ironically, an emotionally volatile and fragmentary aesthetic that is unmistakably his own.

These elements coalesce in The Book of Whispering, where Wilkinson has honed his craft to the point that he is now cutting, editing, and hand-painting the brief frames of his poems not before the screening, but as the reel is spinning. The transitions are sudden, dramatic, and yet in Wilkinson’s hands they occur with a seamlessness that is eerie, not so much like dreaming as they are like sleepwalking (a theme that recurs throughout his work)—the unsettling and yet strangely enlightening experience of waking up again and again in a strange place without knowledge of how one got there but knowing all too well that the body or the guide has motives and motions of its own. Such moments are many in Wilkinson’s work as in “light blew open the hutch & a boy saw it,” which ends:

Coin-operated telephones, Laundromat pinball, & airport televisions
attached to their seats. What of this will we remember with our hands?
What tent will find you as warm night air? How many stories were you
asked to bury & which ones did you bury?
The plants grew a hutch around the raccoons & the children grew a city
around the hutch.

Or in “a brief history of the developer” where we are given a brief look inside the darkroom only to be redirected again and again:

…This happened before the fires took
the trees to charcoal, before the white fish were locked in the ice of the
fountain. I am the boy who took the pictures you’ve seen. This is my sister
who developed them without her gloves on. These are her hands.

The cinematic quality of Wilkinson’s poems cannot be stressed enough. His work is visceral, compacted with imagery that vacillates between mundane and surreal. In the prose poems, he relegates abstraction to the spaces between sentences, leaving it up to the reader to make the leap of faith across them. He further reinforces the episodic qualities in the shorter, syntactically broken poems that appear periodically throughout the book. These poem series, like frames on a filmstrip, are separated ever so briefly by a break, a dash that reminds the reader these are the briefest of still moments strung together into a storm, a life lived in minutiae but relived in a flurry, as in the sequence:

Four days
            since I found
the clawhammer in the mailbox
attached to a note
which read,
You will need this when I come back

The wind too will eat the scars from your face.

Nest of possums in the orchard,,
skunk grasses lay flat, & a mare
sniffed them, spooked them.

Photographs of where the river
tugged our laundry line down
& it brought the edge in
                      off the edge.

These shorter sequences, while not as strong overall as the prose poems, provide welcome breaks to the longer pieces in that they provide a kind of reverse exposition or abbreviated flashbacks. Rather than providing the reader literal and exhaustive contextual notes, these poems are condensation and distillation of shared experience, the serifs and flourishes that, like Wilkinson’s “letter where I already/concealed you” make the moment and its mislaid emotions recognizable.
Despite the fragmentary framework of Wilkinson’s work, its emotive quality is remarkable. These are not confessional poems and one would be hard-pressed to confuse the anxiety and disorientation that frequents the poems with pathos or anything even bordering on catharsis. It is both easy and enjoyable to make the authorial fallacy in these poems, to make them biographical and place Wilkinson in his “kingdom of the phonebooth” or his “city of ferns and copper light.” It is all too tempting to see him as the boys listed in “deer & salt block.”

One boy is a liar & says there’s a block of salt under his bed to draw deer
in from the orchard. One boy says the pantry wall will open if you say
an untold anagram of his name…
One boy took a long time in the bathtub reading the
comics. One boy loops a tractor chain to the ceiling fan & tears the
whole roof down.

This effect is emphasized by the strange disparity inherent to the speaker in much of Wilkinson’s past work that is carried over into Book of Whispering as well. The speaker, while reasoning and speaking like an adult, often possesses an unmistakably childish or adolescent air and seems to constantly oscillate between awe and trepidation of the strangely lit world around him, as in “the thunder makes its easy way into your whole family”:

You must take the boat on your back & then onto your bicycle. You must
carry the news in your top hat. You must reckon with the autumn’s sorcery
& take it to school in your thermos. You mustn’t clear the table with your
crows & you must remain asleep in the bunk no matter who arrives

The speaker is accompanied through these pitfalls and curiosities by a series of totems that recur not only in this book, but throughout Wilkinson’s works. Rabbits and projectors, messenger girls and moonscapes appear again and again in the poems playing both ominous harbingers and luminaries for the conflicts that remain unnamed throughout the text.

Like the figures and landscape mentioned above, The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth is ghostly and transient. Like a voice on a cell phone or radio that is slightly out of range, we catch Wilkinson’s missives in fleeting, crackling whispers only to have them disappear and materialize again a few feet later and hundreds of miles away. The book’s true grace is in how fluid the text feels and how it embraces its interruptions. We continue pursuing Wilkinson’s sleepwalkers, despite their irrationality and the instability of the ground. Like the speaker in “sparrowfield,”

…we are standing in that field. The
light is falling all over, developing us in the sounds of the chase.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Duties of an English Foreign Secretary by Macgregor Card 
(2009 Fence Books)

Reviewed by Curtis Jensen

An electric generator is a device that transmits mechanical energy into electrical energy. A simple AC generator consists of a strong magnetic field, conductors that rotate through that magnetic field, and a means by which a continuous connection is provided to the conductors as they rotate. Each time a complete turning-over is made by the rotor, a cycle of alternating current is created. Thus a rotational energy is converted into an electrical energy. Rotation over time can be graphed as a sine wave, fixed points along the wave’s curve corresponding to events along a rotation’s unfolding in the flow of time. If such a waveform is centered on 0, its point of equilibrium, and its high peak is 1, then its low peak must be -1. The line of a sine wave turns and returns (or returns and turns) to its high and low peak as it unfolds in time.

In the poem, “Nary A Soul” in Macgregor Card’s Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, Card’s speaker states:

If I could
If I no could

If I could: high peak. If I no could: low peak. Here the waveform is centered on I, the couplet’s subjective equilibrium. The peak to peak voltage of the couplet is something like the relative value of could + the relative value of no could. In this case, the peaks are understood to be of a class of subjective possibilities, If I could: the speaking subject in the conditionally possible mode; If I no could: the speaking subject in the conditionally impossible mode.

As the figure rotates its conductive high and low peaks through the charged field of the poem unfolding in time, energy is generated. Of course various devices might be operationalized to conserve and/or also generate more energy:

If I could
If I no could...

If I could could could
No, could NO could could...

The figure of the first waveform is present in the second couplet, but its material spine has been reordered in rhythm, repetition, and variation. If oscillation can be understood as repetitive variation in time about a central value (a point of equilibrium) or inversely between two or more different states (in this example could and no could, but the states need not be opposing), then oscillation is what’s happening here.

From “The Merman’s Gift”:

“Take care.”
“Take care forever, no!”

Another reversal, another oscillation. From “The Libertine’s Punishment”:

Something is moving beside me
Nothing’s supposed to be there

Equilibrium here is the position between the something that is and the nothing that is not. Oscillation occurs in the charged field of presence, absence, expectation, fear, doubt... Cartesian geometry is insufficient to the task of this field’s mapping as there are too many planes for it to express.

In Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, Macgregor Card searches for (and finds!) those figural planes capable of expressing and so transmitting the energy of his nimble, terrifying, hilarious, melodic and significant poetic oscillations between sets of peak values: contemporary cityscapes to depth charges of historical conventions and texts; plunges into the complexities of a relationship (romantic and platonic modes both) to recoilings back from the social milieu; the subjective plane of present earth to the objective heights of the air, which turns out to be just as contingent in its flickering phenomena as anything perceived at the firmament. In the wash of the work’s music, points of equilibrium blister out of the text as certain subjective perspectives. Often roles such as juror, maudit, and my favorite: the sun’s own paned ajudicant. Roles are taken up or avoided, embraced or shunned, constituting another oscillational plane of the text. Oscillations set into the fields of other oscillations, e.g. in “Gone to Earth” a social interaction in the air permutates to a private kind of night in the tomorrow possible on the ground.

            Often feeling talked about
                                                     or bored
I’ll start to count, but it will pass
                                               Haven’t seen one beast today
   Gone to Earth
                                 It is too near–maybe I can tell
                       It’s difficult to clear the air

Tomorrow I will find a kind of private night

Card is at all times clearly conducting the oscillations of the poems in Duties. He does not do so from behind a shroud, like an idiot tractor-driver with a paper bag over his head expecting the children at the field’s edge watching him to believe the field plows itself; nor is he standing on one foot on the tractor seat, with his scalp dyed red and his clapping hands, screaming at the children over the knocking engine to collectively acknowledge a projection of his self. Card is clearly present as the conductor within each poem of Duties, driving the works’ turns and returns phrase by phra se. Card shows the movements of his hands in his struggle with the material of the text in its necessarily non-Cartesian geometry, and Card’s secret suit lies in this open handling of the poems’ material. Furthermore, through motif, melody, pathos, humor, rhyme and theme and variation, and other devices, Card beckons the reader to join him in the poems’ oscillations and transmission of energy, in the working out of its movements. It is in this aspect of his work that Card draws his cues most significantly from the Spasmodics, the group of Victorian era poets characterized by their verse dramas and lengthy introspective soliloquies. The Spasmodics ascended quickly to popularity, and just as quickly to derision, their namesake taking on a derogatory aspect in most modern criticism in spite of its link to canonical figures like Tennyson and Browning. Sidney Dobbel is a Spasmodic Poet who Card has promoted outside the text at and acknowledged within by Duties’ title and inscription.

Card’s struggle to manage the sonic/linguistic material of the poem is something that can be heard and read throughout Duties. In essence, Card shows his work at every turn (or return), thus his authority is transparent in his open struggle with the text’s material. We see, in fact, we hear and therefore feel, phrase by phrase, how Card made his compositional choices. Paradoxically it is Card’s quickness and poetic skill, his nimbleness in music, word play, and phrasal movement that makes the book wholly his own. So we have another oscillation, between transparency and mastery. But at certain moments it is this mastery that can sling the reader from the text. Certain moves perhaps might be considered over-nimble, moves so quick as to wrench the reader from the poem and into the dirt of pragmatics’ arena. Perhaps that is the cost of such productive experiments in the generation of energy through poetic oscillation. Nevertheless, through his precise management of affective devices, the motifs, melody, pathos, humor, rhyme and theme and variation mentioned previously (devices of which Dobbel was a master), Card by in large supports the reader throughDuties’ interelational unfolding, and in so doing he harnesses Duties’ high-charge oscillations to powerful poetry.

What geometries then could describe the energy dynamics of interelational oscillations such as those that Card executes in Duties of an English Foreign Secretary?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Meet Me at the Happy Bar by Steve Langan 
(2009 Blaze VOX [books])

Reviewed by Liz Kay

Steve Langan’s obsessions are many: the body, as both an object of beauty and a decaying form, reappears in poem after poem; death and its compatriot, time, wander the pages; language, visual art, and music leave their marks. Still these are not the subjects of the Meet Me at the Happy Bar, merely landmarks that remind us where we are within its landscape. From the opening poem “Landscape with Pony” through repeated meditations on exile and home, the primary obsession is space itself, both literal and psychic. Leading us on a quest for that perfect confluence of time and place, that “Happy Bar” where we’re all two drinks in and completely at ease, Langan invites us into a world where he tries out every space he can imagine:

Landscape with promises.
Landscape with malcontents.
Landscape with syringes in a shoebox.

Landscape we’ve lived here so long clawing
after privilege you told me you would bring me
back to the sea before I die.

Still, none of these places ever really fit, and so the search is on through the beautiful and the mundane, the absurd, and the achingly normal, the ordinary dullness and the absolute rebelliousness of both life and love. In Langan’s hands, these moments feel recognizable. Ours is an age both overstimulated and seemingly lacking significance, and so we recognize ourselves in the speaker who is “already tired of this century. / Mothers, children, their forgetful children. // I can’t keep them all straight.”

Langan’s is a speaker admittedly in exile, though whether this is literal or psychic, self-imposed or otherwise seems always in flux. Admiration is juxtaposed with contempt, affection with disgust. Still, in his quietest, most fragile moments, he longs for the mother tongue, asking:

Will you hold me a while?
Until morning.

And speak only in English,
please, in plain flat
stupid midwestern.

So I cannot forget you.

Interestingly, it is in these moments, with these people who have not been forgotten, that our speaker seems most at ease. He is intent on preserving the characters of his memory, even those of whom he says:

Pay him no attention. He was the neighborhood
bully. Undocumented, suffering lapses,
certainly he’s come a long way,
but he’s still dangerous…

and this remembering is a dangerous exercise, as our speaker freely admits “It takes nerve, gumption and moxie / to remember all we’ve been through / and document it for the next generation.” There is great intimacy in this act of remembrance, and yet it is an intimacy that is portioned out with controlled detachment, as in the poem “Meditation on the Cabin (and Beyond)”:

You flash into my mind, dear one,
and are exalted then extinguished.

Safely tucked away, returned to exile.

All these forms of courage the mind enacts.

A wish followed by a denunciation.

This is a book with a great deal at stake, and yet there is a certain humor, too—a sense that our speaker recognizes the absurdity of the exercise, and a playfulness of language and musicality that enlivens the poems, offsetting their darker tendencies as in the poem “Where Is the Cigar I Left Burning” in which the speaker ruminates over his misplacement of:

                         …the journal
with the article I was reading
about the misconstruction
of deconstruction? The TP,
your famous IUD, the brochure
from the cemetery where we
can buy our plots now

For all his misanthropic quirks, or more likely because of them, Langan’s is a speaker we ultimately trust, a speaker we believe when he urges “Will you call me? You can count on me. / I will not omit triumph or disaster.” This use of the second person “you” is important. In poem after poem, we are directly addressed, invited to enter, confided in, and we trust what he has to say because, with the unparalleled intimacy of the stranger on the next barstool, this speaker hasn’t bothered to lie to us. We get the sense that we are both too important, and not important enough, to lead him to varnish the truth. Thus, our speaker’s admission of isolation is precisely what allows us to feel so connected to him when he says to us (and it really is to us, it feels):

Let’s make a wish, too, and let’s not cry
at all, not one tear, even though the darkness
has arrived, you remember light, don’t you,
and being moved to rapture by the singers,
their birdlike pronouncements in the final movement—

Langan’s is a voice both disconnected and discontented—searching, fully aware of the irony—for that which might connect and content. Who else could speak for us so fluently “in plain flat stupid Midwestern”?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

History of Hurricanes by Teresa Cader 
(2009, Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)

Reviewed by Michael McLane

Early in the first and title poem of Teresa Cader’s third collection of poetry, History of Hurricanes, we are thrown headlong into the conflict that haunts nearly all the poems that follow:
No whirling dervish on the radar, no radar, no brackets
no voices warning—no Voice—fugue of trees, lightning

Because we cannot know, we imagine
What will happen to me without you?
That final question, posed within the context of the impending hurricane season, opens the door to countless other impendings—seasonal change, aging, children growing and, of course, death—and places the poems in History of Hurricanes securely within the lyrical realm and, more specifically, in the long tradition of the early Latin and Anglo-Saxon ubi sunt form. The ubi sunt relies upon the question “where are those that came before us” and Cader not only poses this question in various ways throughout the text, but attempts to answer it in ways that are equally compelling. Much like the hurricane that becomes conspicuous in it absence in the above passage, many examples of the form feature a presence, whether abstract or personified, that looms over its protagonists. What is off the radar or forgotten is what most endangers us. That is not to say these things are repressed in Cader’s poems. Rather, she names them. There is nothing rhetorical to questions posed and nothing sentimental in fears and flaws confessed. This is particularly true in “Blue Table With Pomegranates,” where Cader writes of a table a couple has
decided to give away and concludes:
I know how your hands smooth skin, stroke hair.
   That much I allow myself to imagine of your body
                                                             Taken from me someday,
                                                             And the table—

         Already spoken for by a young couple at the iron gate—
or in “Petrified Light” where, upon seeing a large-scale museum display of a black widow, the speaker admits:
Whoa, I said to my ordinary. To my stubborn. To fear’s
Onion smell welling up in my armpits. What we have here is a body
Created for me. A creature of wild and deadly desire. 
While both passages contain a powerful confessional element that is poignant in its simplicity and expertly woven into deceptively mundane contexts, what is perhaps most interesting about the two poems, and nearly all the poems in the book, are the contrasts they create, the vacillating between fear of the deaths and losses we are helpless to stop and the pain and traumas we are capable of and culpable for.

The poems in History of Hurricanes are, for the most part, firmly rooted in the domestic. Whether walking the dog, watching birds through a bedroom window, or taking a trip to the museum, family, lovers, children, and home are all thrown perpetually into focus. Even when poems gesture towards seemingly larger historical events or figures is always a result of some more localized trigger, as in “Burying Ground,” where the speaker’s daughter discovers the graves of six children lost during the Revolutionary War including a boy just under 3 years old:
She asked, “What does ‘wanting 8 days mean’?”
Eyes wide: “What happened to them?”
War in Lexington. Fear. Near starvation.
In eighteen days the deaths of six children.
Disease. Epidemics. “Could be smallpox,” I said
“Don’t worry it’s been eradicated.”
She wasn’t worried. Summer’s rebound
beckoned for another bike ride into town.
But I went back to read the stones more closely.
Cader’s speaker, like any parent who has not lost a child, finds herself in the disorienting position of explaining away the fear to her own child while internalizing the tragic potential of a world that had been so average only moments before. The presence of death is realized in a far more concrete way later in the book in the poem “Habits”, which stands out both as the longest poem in the book and, in many ways, as its climax. Cader writes of dealing with both her mother’s death from what is presumably lung cancer, and her ashes which the family plans to use to fertilize a memorial tree:
I cannot watch again. I will not water the pitted 
ground with my prayers, or spend nights in the garden
singing to the god of drought. Have you watched a tree die?
Pathetic fisted leaves, cocoons like burial shrouds.
How much should I save, one pound, or two?
What is so stunning about Cader’s poems is how much mileage she gets from absence, how much she does with so little. Like the hurricane alluded to in the first poem, these poems are all quiet nods to the inevitable, to moments we can neither predict nor prepare for. The poems are mostly short and even the longer poems are surprisingly stark. There are few grand gestures or metaphors made in the book and few of the poems call attention to themselves in a way that says “Look at me, I’m important, I’m a crux.” Instead, the connections between poems are clear, the conflicts are consistent, the craft impressive in its subtlety. History of Hurricanes reads as a poignant meditation on love and family that, time and time again, is interrupted by moments of doubt, an ode written and rewritten, but like that songbird bringing good news in “Aria” is silenced “by the swift and deafening, a spring downpour.”