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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless by Matt Hart
(Typecast Publishing, 2012) 

reviewed by Adam Love

    I raise my Black Flag to declare my dis-allegiance
    Always do the opposite of anything I tell you
    I’ll do it too    Whatever you say

Matt Hart’s newest collection, Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless, is chock-full of opposites and a love/hate relationship for opposites. At times both Taoistic and sagacious, dark and brooding, the collection is honest and open—always in love with itself and its many worlds. It’s essentially a book that has been waiting to be written for the longest/shortest time. It attempts to re-define the entire human experience, or perhaps to reconnect with it, in the digital age: in this very time that defines us:

    How to grow and grow along without turning
    into a devil/red giant     Or if one must, how also to be
    a sequoia     One thing’s certain: I won’t do it typing
    The sun a sort of burning white hole in my pocket
    Better to spend life spending one’s life, shouting
    and rocketing, blasting the igloo

Hart argues that it’s “impossible to say anything for sure,” that all men are mortal—it’s as if his speaker is trying to tell its readers how short the human life can be. But one thing that nearly seems infinite is the idea that technology, and our use of it, will likely outlast us. However, it’s not necessarily something Hart seems to be confident in—and treats it more as a curse: “I wake up typing letters / Alphabet, alphabet—thought not to anyone in particular / To the circus     To Fluoride     Beelzebub or Beelzebubba.”

As a front-man of the punk band TRAVEL (the book is available with a full album by Hart’s band, with Hart himself shouting each poem over a discordant and harmonic wail of guitar and drum), the speaker throughout Hart’s book constantly references its own punk roots. Artists like Patti Smith and Alice Cooper, among others, are often conjured or quoted directly: “Buried / in the forest by seven singing dwarves, still waiting for a kiss / from The Slits or Patti Smith    But ‘When we die we go / to recess’ is the end, that’s it    Which seems perfect.”  And each of the five poems of the book surmount as a kind of private concert for the reader, where he/she may find themselves in the relentless urgency of their own moshpit on the page.

The book is perhaps best experienced in its entirety, as a cohesive piece, like an album. The collection is woven from the ashes of burnt vinyls and fistfuls of postmodern algorithms. What makes this such a stand out, fiery bundle of poetry is the substance between the quirks and tics of a neurotic and self-afflicted speaker, who might have more in common with contemporary language and the inner world, than most voices could strive for.

    Walking home drunk the other night, I said a bunch of weird, good things
    and you did, too and while it’s hard to remember exactly what,
    the shadows of what and the feelings still linger—even now,
    even sober—we were so fired up, because
    the night was so ridiculously in flower, so and so and me and you

    electrified and shocking, terrific and true, and we were laughing together,
    leaving our strung out presence like presents around the city,
    me an amplifier and you a defender.

The heart of the book seems to be the third poem, “Amplifier to Defender,” from which the above excerpt is taken, where the speaker suddenly jolts into a strikingly different tone separate from the punk-driven, near non-sequitor declarative sentences and brooding musings throughout the sections titled “Lamplighter” and “Sermons and Lectures.” Hart invites the speaker into a private arena, as if “Amplifier to Defender” were really a letter written to a lover and left on a kitchen counter. After realizing its clear and direct command, the poet merely diced it up with line breaks:
    Just back from running—it seems I am always writing to you
    when I’m just back from running, but that’s what happens:
    My mind in motion works better in motion, or maybe it only works
    more furiously. Or happily, clearly, seriously. My plan is to make a few notes

    on who we are/what we might be.

It is in this poem where Hart might be at his most poignant with lines like “As Matthew Rohrer / put it, / ‘I must learn to say the things I never intended to say,’ and then / I want to add: I also want to learn to say all the things I intended to say— / intended and unintended in the very same breath.” A dualistic view on both poetry and the act of creating poetry; vision and near desperation, as conflicted and complicated as a Jack Myers poem; verse that conjures up an almost William Carlos Williamsian sentiment that is completely devoid of sentimentality.

The syntax of the book alters between use of white space and non-sequitur lines; the speaker seems to remain keenly in tune with the trials and tribulations of a postmodern world, both in the literary and worldly sense, through the duration of the collection. It’s as if the speaker present throughout the entire collection treats the notion of postmodernism and its uncertainties—at some times absurdness—as a metaphor for the human condition he is perplexed by and obsessed with: “To live we keep living     Some minutes / The instructions     You read and you weep / Or you act and then curtain      I can’t stand / the suffering, so give ‘em enough rope, / then occupy my life with anthemic meander.” At times comical and nearly acrid, the final poem, “Blood Brothers, Weird Sisters,” seems to do exactly what the speaker is obsessed with: dis/re-connecting the human life to its own vague, infinite temporality. The speaker becomes a proselyte who doesn’t proselytize:
    At the root of human being
    is a dot disconnected, wishing to be connected in earnest
    to a mission, a set of instructions, a deep inflated thing,
    hissing and red with a nozzle and a label.
    You’re a rabbit painted sunset, so I speak of you fondly
    to anyone and everyone who will listen to the music.
    And whoever won’t listen will also have to listen,
    you can bet I’ll keep singing/find a way.

It’s easy to assume, while listening to the album version of Sermons and Lectures, that Hart might be referring to himself as the punk rock poet he is. The collection, in and of itself, is a grungy album in a dank basement of some shitty bar where kids with half-greased Mohawks sip PBR under the cold blue glow of a LaBatt sign. And this is where all the meaning is: the voice throughout Sermons and Lectures is a voice that will consistently keep singing and find a way to make its readers listen as well. Perhaps what’s most interesting is how the untraditional line breaks and use of white space mirror the untraditional music that classically defines punk rock—rhythm and discordance: “Nature awaits us, / and Nature’s got fire     I’ve been cool for too many / summers     Temperature is rising     Joe Strummer.”

Sermons and Lectures both Blank and Relentless is a book that will leave its readers both satiated and dissatisfied, as each reader will be moved by Hart’s darkly tender observations—at times to the point where they might feel as if they’re staring into a mirror and simultaneously frustrated that they will never be able to write poems the way Matt Hart does. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a book of poems the reader will want to return to again and again, constantly finding new meanings—as any good collection of verse (or album) should do.

Because, as Hart tells us,

    Nothing is perfectly nailed to the wall.
    I want as much as possible for the carnival of what is. Better worn out
    and wary, than a mannequin pretending. “The slightest loss of attention
    leads to death,” said Frank O’Hara. I say: “Be prepared for the darkness

    when it takes you, but stay alive and stay light
    for as long as you can.”
Shaking the Kaleidoscope by Kate Kingston
(Lost Horse Press, 2012) 

reviewed by Nancy Takacs

Kate Kingston weaves culture, language, and myth from Spain and Mexico, throughout her first book, Shaking the Kaleidoscope, in surprising ways, engaging the reader with images from her travels there, as well as from her childhood in Wisconsin and her adult life in the American west. Balancing her desire for humanity and beauty against a world of loss and violence, she observes with a level eye, and reconciles this looking at the world dead on, sometimes with humor, but always with verve.

The book begins with poems about Lorca. Kingston travels widely in Spain, was a Spanish professor, and is currently a poetry translator. Interspersed through her Lorca poems are sections of the title poem, which include memories of an accident when she fell as a child as well as one in which her son almost died. The voice throughout the five parts of this poem cannot suppress her memories of violence:

          I cannot recall violence […]
    I cannot recall pistachios,
    the way the shell cracks between my teeth,
    or myself dropping
    from a metal
    bar chipping my front
    tooth on happiness,
    the stain of blood in the sand,
    nothing like the matador
    gored in the groin,
    so that my lament rises
    up next to Lorca
    and smells of wet ashes.

The sections of the poem build with the thread of violent events we might witness in our everyday lives, such as a refusal to someone begging, and the near-death of a loved one in the powerful,“Shaking the Kaleidoscope III,” a piece about her young son’s near-asphyxiation, and the distance and paralysis felt when one force clashes violently against another:

          I cannot recall violence,
    but one morning my son’s face
    turned blue. I forced
    my own breath into his lungs,
    cannot recall the sound of waves
    claiming shore or the way
    his feet toed-in, only the cadence
    of silence, nothing like
    the chain of mountain peaks
    suffering from lack of rain.
           I cannot recall the way a knife
    slices coconut into quarter moon
    wedges, cannot recall cleats
    biting into cobblestone, nor the bull
    lifting his horns to the groin,
    the matador spilling onto sand,
    nothing like the pomegranate
    or the blue face of a child
    when his lungs will not pull air,
    nothing like exhaust filling
    my nostrils or pesetas
    dropping into an open palm.

The pulse of the five-section poem is violence, and it is unforgettable. This underscores her compassion for Lorca, his poetry, his perseverance in facing, and not fleeing from, possible assassination.

“What Does Lorca Own?,” placed in his summer home Huerta de San Vicente in Grenada, Spain, also shows Kingston’s connection with him as a writer, in the following lines:

    Lorca owns a room full of assonance placating
    his pen with ohs and ahs. He begins to float,
    and the room becomes a river, current and undertow…
    …Twenty-six boots cross
    the plaza, worn-down heels bring him men
    filled with bullets and lime. When he closes his eyes:

    he sees the stray dog approach his knee, the stray
    dog sniff his crotch, the stray dog lick his face…
    Lorca owns the word Green.

The poet discovers meaning for herself in both Spanish and English, in her interaction with the tangible, learning what is symbolic in one culture could have a different meaning in another, although in her own poetic language, she intersects them both, creates anew. For example, the word “green” connotes death in the Spanish language, as opposed to new life in English. In several of her poems, she uses this word, allowing both meanings to surface, not choosing one over the other, because both languages are on her tongue and in her consciousness. Both meanings add to the context. She also searches in her comparisons for evidence of one world inside the other, cultures skipping boundaries.

As an example, although many of her images in the book point to a less anxious and more gentle Mexico, while visiting Mayan ruins she learns how women were killed or sacrificed, brutality against women evident in this culture, with “bruised skulls / found in the cenote,” how the “the women were struck, pushed, / over an edge into the sweet water / this underground river, and she leaves “clutching the cabled rail ready to steady [her] descent.” Kingston returns to snorkel this underground river in “Mayan Riviera Wedding” after her daughter’s wedding there, alone, to a cave where she pulls out a vigil candle that she lights as she feels fish surface, and watches bats fly around her: “murceilagos, struggle[ing] / with light, not unlike my daughter—her complicated veil, / its lace teeth catching on doorknobs, on coat hangers.” This re-visitation of the place where the women were killed suggests her need to mourn them, as well as to celebrate their lives, to both mourn and celebrate her daughter’s marriage. She begins “a new altar, / a piece of stalagmite.”

Kingston directs our attention to an American misunderstanding of art, another kind of violence. In the poem “Concourse A Exhibit,” an airport art exhibiting Denver was screened and critiqued as “inappropriate” because some of the artists’ works had images of skeletons; however, the poem suggests looking at art for art’s sake is what is important. Travelers are aware of what could happen on a plane and don’t have to be protected from a painting’s “eye socket of the skeleton staring back / as [they] clutch [their] boarding pass and identification in one hand, / [their]carry-on in the other”; or from the image of “bones / when the country is in code orange…”

Kingston writes of the world’s inconsistencies and tragedies, but also writes as strongly about joy. In “History of My Body” she celebrates:

    This body remembers trick-or-treat, its Snickers bars
    and bruised apples. This body remembers the way dried leaves
    scratch the skin when I somersault into the pile
    of tattooed veins—oak, elm, maple—then wrap myself
    in a sarong of silver water. Inside this body, flies buzz,
    this body with cake on its tongue.

In the final poem of Shaking the Kaleidoscope, “When Anna Meets for Lunch,” she intimates to a friend: “We are pearls born in the clam’s lust for sand. We are / coal before the diamond. What can pressure make of us now / taking us by the hand into the kaleidoscope of dark?”

Kingston’s poems embody duende, a term invented by Lorca who believed all good art must have it, saying: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs inside you, from the inside of the feet.’” Christopher Maurer, editor of In Duende, says, “The duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience

, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort.” This is what Kate Kingston’s poetry does. With a forthright and fresh voice, dazzling imagery, and a conscience, it calls us home.
The Frame Called Ruin by Hadara Bar-Nadav
(New Issues, 2012) 

reviewed by Michael McLane

I should admit up front that I’ve been waiting for Hadara Bar-Nadav’s second collection of poems for some time. Her first collection, A Glass of Milk to Kiss Good Night (2007), was a relentless hunger of a book whose opening scenes of butchering were breathtaking and deeply unsettling. I return to them again and again. And so I’ll also readily admit that when I sat down to start distributing the review copies received from numerous presses at the end of the year and opened a New Issues package to find The Frame Called Ruin, I announced to the otherwise unoccupied room “this one is mine, all mine.” I was not disappointed.

The Frame Called Ruin is as much a study in place and space (and the tragedies that try to fracture the former from the latter) as it is an ekphrastic exercise. The “Frame” of the title envelops the confines created by buildings and cities, particularly those under siege, just as much as it does the edges of Rothko’s paintings, Nevelson’s sculptures, and the walls of Zaha Hadid’s architectural brilliance. It seems no small coincidence that the artists who receive the bulk of Bar-Nadav’s attention all hailed from places of long-running strife and revolution—Rothko and Nevelson from Czarist Russia and Hadid from Baghdad. Such places are claimed and reclaimed through violence, yet these artists transcend their fractured roots and identities through artistry in the same way that the love and humor and lyricism at which Bar-Nadav is so adept allows her speakers to transcend the horrors that surround them. Creation is the ever-present counterbalance to oblivion and hate as illustrated in her first poem for Nevelson, “Night, White and Gold,” when she writes “A wall has / certain mass and weight. Focus on forms and vacancies. I own my voids, deepest black. / And now my secret is out: I’m motherhouse” or in “III. Operatic Space,” where Hadid’s curving, effortless architectures illustrate how “Like any set of religious guides / these things are fluid, not rigid. Even building can allow / air and light. Through precision and interpretation / you can eliminate wasted space.”

There are small reclamations in so many of these poems. There is no wasted place, no matter how bombed or burned, as long as making and longing arise from the rubble. Likewise, there is no wasted space here, even when the terse, constrictive lines that make up much of the book give way to fluid prose of the artist persona poems. Even the transitional spaces in the poems—between peace and war, between calm and tumult, between one Rothko red and another—provide opportunity for reflection and to be engulfed, whether by passion or pain, as with the speaker in “III. The Art of Untitled” when she says

    A period says when to begin or end but who really knows. I spend hours and days
    inside red trying to solve syntax. Savage. Salve. Save.

Even within the labyrinth, the pinnacle of confinement and misdirection, the minotaur of the “Inside the Maze” series find ways to transcend the literal and categorical restraints placed upon him. The box forms of the poems belie the reflections and desires of a being that is as lonely as he is monstrous, as fanciful as he is ravenous

    In springtime, my lush season
    To  feed,  I  never  even  try to
    Leave. Berries (reds and deep
    blues) line the maze  plentiful
    and nipple sweet

                     […] I could
    Ram the walls and tunnel through
    But   where   would   I   live?   Exile.
    And  why  leave?   Pariah.  Derelict.
    My palatable palace

Nevelson and Hadid represent another site of constraint and violence in the collection that appear in many of Bar-Nadav’s less prominent characters as well—the female body. Both women overcame overt prejudices in their respective disciplines and Bar-Nadav addresses these conflicts both overtly, as in Nevelson’s question about her sculpture “If I were a man would you call it ‘dollhouse,’” and more subtly in the fluid and fertile images ascribed to Hadid’s buildings. However, women in other poems are subject to far more heinous kinds of violence that points back to an effort to frame, constrain, and reduce. In “Lust and Smoke,” the speaker begins “You overwhelm me with your dress / always lifting, always falling. / Velvet parting” only to lose all of the “you” except the dress “breathtaking on TV, the reporter bleeding from her mouth,” the ruin complete by the closing lines. Likewise, Snow White is disembodied to nothing more than a televised head in “I Used to Be Snow White” and the woman in “Show Me Yours” is reduced to

    The names you yell at night,
    In the day, The names
    You chew like pebbled break.

    Breakage is such sweet sorrow

Nonetheless, love and companionship are what keep the darkness at bay in these poems. Though it does not seem to have the personal immediacy of A Glass of Milk to Kiss Good Night, the new collection is every bit as unrelenting in its brutality, and also its healing, as Bar-Nadav’s earlier work. From the opening image of Tel Aviv’s face wearing “a makeup of ash,” we are in the heart of ruin that is simultaneously reiterated and renounced. The world explodes again and again, “Days crumble unceremoniously,” only to reveal some small blossoming in the bedlam.  In one of the book’s most startling moments, amidst the knifed and torn and mutated world of “Let Me Hold the Kaleidoscope,” two lovers rush to their room where
    Everything unbuttons and we
         forget about war,                 
                 its itchy apparatus.

    Romance nevertheless is true,
         The moon a cluster of shredded sequins,
         Deconstruction a song for two.
Likewise, in “Blur,” victims of the Eilat suicide bombing long for “wine / to drown this red day” and describe the aftermath of the explosion:
    lights and fire balloons,

                  a painterly gasoline blur. 
                 Let’s find a sailboat,
    bread, za’atar and figs

                  and watch the distance burn.

These moments, among many in the book, illustrate an unwillingness to be framed, both in terms of constraint and in terms of incrimination, by the horror humans are willing to visit upon one another. Life is affirmed again and again, in spite of the crumbling Twin Towers or the wreckage of a baby carriage abandoned on the beach, as in the speaker of “Meet Me (Breathless)” who begs a companion to “Bring your accordion mouth and your love / of emptiness. Bring a fire and the wild nest of your neck. Bring your open throat.”  Even in Bar-Nadav’s litanies that choose as their focal point phrases such as “my wife,” “less lonely,” and “to be dead,” we find that the commonalities and the finalities of being human bind more closely than any framework’s religion and geopolitics have to offer. We rise from ruin in the same impossible ways to watch, like Rothko “how slowly life eats. And so full of color.”

The Frame Called Ruin is, like the “impossible stairs” in one of its poems—kaleidoscopic, so much “torsion and thrust.” For every step, there is uncertain footing, a likely fall. The reader feels them equally, especially in the poet’s uncanny knack for condensation, for tiny couplets that explode in their oscillating humor and devastation. Bar-Nadav sums up our persistent cycle of failure and longing in one unfettered line:

    We love beyond all these drippings,
               a love that lasts.
Clangings by Steven Cramer
(Sarabande Books, 2012) 

reviewed by Dylan Mace

More than ten years ago, I worked in an emergency room as a clerk. With the flow of heart attacks and car crashes, strokes and lacerations, came the crisis patients. Mostly, they were suicidal. Ambulances rushed them in, brought them to the locked rooms where nurses fed them a slurry of charcoal to counteract whatever poison they had ingested. By the time I saw them, their eyes were red and swollen, their mouths stained black from vomiting charcoal. They were pitiable; and easily understood. Sometimes it seems better to end it. More rarely, the patients were psychotic.

One of the many symptoms sometimes displayed by people experiencing psychosis is clanging, which is typified by compulsive rhyming and alliteration, the use of words based on how their sounds relate to other words, rather than their meaning, and disorganized speech. In his book Clangings, Steven Cramer has taken this symptom as the basis for a collection of poems.

My first experience of clanging was in one of the crisis rooms, while attempting to get personal information from a schizophrenic patient. His eyes glanced around the room, and he incorporated the things that he saw into a rush of alliteration and rhyme. Even though I could see his sources, his speaking made little sense. I asked his name and he answered with a singsong rhyme, which, so far as I could tell, bore no information that I needed. Another patient was paranoid and psychotic, but was deemed by the doctor and social worker to not need inpatient care. So, in the middle of the night, during a rare downtime in the emergency room, he sat waiting in the lobby and talked to me until his cab arrived. He told me a little about his life, but he kept veering into concerns about aliens. There were moments of lucidity, then he’d plunge back into his rhythmic concerns about the aliens’ plans. The cab took terribly long to arrive. Reading Clangings, I had another experience of the rhythm, rhyme and alliteration

    feral sheikhs, in the sheets, amigo
    Wrecked rexes, they preach shrieks,
    refluxes inbred, steppe-tundra freeze reflex.
    A good sniff, out snorts an inner wooly rhino.

feels like a book-length poem rather than a collection. The entire collection is tightly rhythmed in more or less rhyming quatrains. This structure allows the reader a way through the chaos of the poetry, though it is not easy going (reading a few pages left me exhausted as those long-ago conversations). Cramer is acrobatic in his wordplay, and the reader is quickly caught up in this. The simple structure of the quatrains belies the difficult syntax and slang and creates the reading equivalent of running down a steep hill, when momentum is the way that the runner keeps their footing. Thrown into this, are moments of lucidity. After being battered by lines like:

    If an elf owl’s about to kill, he’ll nick
    its greedies in time, strafe my mouth,
    take a summer pump and cool off…
    Dickey’s what a tear in the eye’ll reflect

the reader suddenly comes across something like

    I’m speaking with my mother’s voice
    because she always told me what to say.
    Because he always told me what to say,
    I’m speaking with my father’s voice.

It may seem a welcome break, but in the rush of clangings that the reader is accustomed to, such clarity becomes alien. They trip the reader as much as they provide a point of relief, and are quickly followed by the difficult and perhaps nonsensical words that follow.

Throughout Clangings, in spite of the tumult of the narrator, Cramer manages to convey portions of the life of the character, though it is usually difficult to put a finger on specifics. The reader grasps at scraps and tries to cohere them into a narrative. Sometimes a relatively obvious meaning hides, easily, within a poem. Multiple readings bring clarity. I had to read passages such as

    Stashed my secret name in its haven.
    Think I mean dick when I say Dickey?—
    I do and I don’t; or did, but won’t say
    anyway. Makes a greener chameleon

at least twice before it struck how simple the meanings can be. The book contains a biography of casual abuse from parents, lost homosexual love and inability to maintain normal human relations because of mental illness. The themes of this biography are not particularly unusual. It is the clangings and confusion Cramer uses that give the reader a deeper understanding of the narrator, that give us some insight into his suffering and his inability to hold onto reality.

Cramer has done his research while writing this collection. Numerous lines come from books and articles about the disorganized thinking that manifests during psychotic mental illness. He has taken these phrases, modified and repurposed them for the poems. These lines, however, are inconspicuous within the poems. It was only when I finished reading that I noticed the citations at the end and knew that they were not Cramer’s. That the whole sounds so similar to these legitimately psychotic phrases shows that his research allowed him the ability to mimic the sounds and rhythm of speech of psychotic individuals. Cramer’s method also suggests that the human experience of any person,  be they mentally ill or not, is relatively similar to that of the rest of the species. Even when their communication is garbled and disjointed, we are able to glean meaning and understanding, and to empathize with their suffering.

I had not thought much of the time when I worked in the emergency room, until reading Clangings. Only a few pages into the collection, I remembered those experiences clearly, as if they had just happened, propelled by stanzas, such as:

    the outlets, swipe the prints
    off DVDs, weep up the tea
    stains where once were coffee.
    Not one seep from him since.

These moments pile up and overwhelm. I had this reaction initially, eager to get through the experience. This in itself would have made me declare Steven Cramer’s book a success—he hit close to the mark and was able to vividly recreate such disorienting, and often impossible, conversations. However, as I made my way through this collection, I realized that there were bits that I could connect together to find meaning and understanding in the confusion. Clangings made me remember the humanity of those people, to think again about the frustration and fear experienced when confronted by mental illness, no doubt to the greatest extent by those who are ill; to empathize with those patients who so confused and frightened me over a decade ago.