Thursday, April 29, 2010

In order for there to be some chance of catching up on my April reading posts, I’m limiting each to a maximum of ten sentences. Here, then are ten sentences on

David Larsen, The Thorn (Faux Press, 2005)

Where the utterly absurd and ironic, especially as they relate to our contemporary political milieu, generally produce poetry that places its author and its reader at a safe distance from danger, damage, risk, and involvement (as in, generally, Flarf), David Larsen uses them as motivating energies to set off chain reactions of thoughts and feelings whose earnestness is bound up with their self-sabotage, itself in turn a far cry from the safety of the earnest political poetry of liberal acknowledgement of one’s own complicity.

When Larsen begins “Portrait of Gerard Malanga” with “Osama Bin Laden is the most beautiful / man I have ever seen,” later claims that “he is in daily communication with angels,” and in-between asks, “BUT SHALL I TELL YOU / WHAT BEFELL THE PANCAKE VENDOR, / ON HIS FINAL VISIT TO OSAMA’S / MOUNTAIN PRECINCT?,” it certainly doesn’t seem as if we’re to take him seriously.

The whole poem, however, never seems to slide entirely into kitsch—I think I’m being asked to feel what these thoughts would be like to genuinely think—and it seems pretty serious when it throws off a series of other poems, ranging from the promised account of the pancake vendor’s execution (itself linked to a frightening story about the vendor’s wife’s encounter with Bin Laden’s followers) to genuinely informative meditations on religion and to the presence in other (less directly related) poems of parodic prayer language, considerations of masculinity, devotion and idolatry, and mourning.

The book forms a loosening and tightening serial set in which such systems of relationships activate each other retroactively, so that the poem before “Portrait” (its title scratched out) appears in a different light by virtue of the cultural associations of its proper name:

with nothing to lose
can be able to want to
will over the dam
a feeling to let spatter and
turn no wheel.
He throws the shells of the nuts he eats.
Alawi, turn a friend of mine.
How did you wind up

Through such resonances the wide stylistic variety of the book, which initially makes it seem like a series of pleasurably all-over-the-place independent works, comes to seem like a wild, unstoppable energy carrying important material in all kinds of directions.

This energy is expressed in the handwriting in which many of the poems are presented, in the use of obscenities, and in the surprising swerves between lines in a great number of the works, like “My Star is Rye:”

Plants and I
look back on it.
We’re fucking choking it, and
I’m poured all over the lawn in broths,
steaming. My star is rye
and forearms at the edge
of dampness, straining
in the math scores of
the state in which I am visiting.
Eighth graders, and Krishna in his bower
also did well on the test, and that is when
I decided to become a
Toronto Blue Jays fan

Among the book’s themes are friendship and death, and they state the argument of the book’s mode in an amazing way in a handwritten poem consisting of a numbered list of items like:



FOR ANN SIMON (1968-2003)

The ridiculousness of the listed items, it seems to me, embodies an intensity that is as appropriate as any, maybe more appropriate than anything more emotionally intuitive, to commemorate and protest against the loss of a beloved human being.

This intensity reaches its apex in the amazing “Wild Speech” (the fulcrum of Dana Ward’s Typing Wild Speech, the subject of my previous post), which activates nearly all the tendencies of the book and amplifies them to a degree that takes my breath away.

The Thorn should be absolutely required reading for anyone interested in poetry that engages with our contemporary worlds of pop culture, religion, politics, humor, education, interpersonal relationships, and the irony that plunges into an acknowledgment of the messes we’re in while all too rarely exhausting its many strengths in an attempt to live through and in spite of them.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Dana Ward, Typing Wild Speech (2010)

I lent my copy of this powerful little chapbook to a friend last week, so I’m unable to quote it directly, or mention the publisher—but I had to skip forward in my alphabetical reading binge, as I couldn’t wait longer than a few days to read this book after I got it.

Ward performed in Madison a few weeks back, in the Deceptively Wall-Shaped Poetry Reading, along with John Coletti and Jess Mynes. The reading blew my mind, took my breath away, made me tear up, laugh and think hard. I’d been reading Coletti and Mynes and loving their stuff, but hadn’t yet been able to get my hands on much of Ward’s work. It’s a real revelation in its kind of honest persona-based directness, its talkiness—what is it that works so well in this writing? (Tapping tab key gently with middle finger while thinking—softly enough that it doesn’t get depressed, or even glum—pardon me, I just rode sixty miles on the bike and my mind is erratic). Ah, ok—what Ward read at the Mercury Lounge, and the writing in this book, is often—usually—centered around the speaking “I,” but—and—I get no sense at all that what’s being talked about is supposed to be important simply because it belongs to that “I;” instead, it’s more that only what’s important about the experience of that persona will be discussed, or that anything that comes into the poem will be pulled into the gravitational field of something urgent. That’s a special kind of integrity, which probably wouldn’t be enough to make great writing if it were not also characterized by surprising turns of thought, really sneaky ways of ending us up somewhere without it being clear how we got there—or the occasional screeching swerve into some other trajectory—less a letting-thought-go-where-it-will than a driving while just barely touching the wheel.

Typing Wild Speech is a prose work with a few embedded poems, a “New Narrative”-influenced piece of—I assume—autobiography. In the process of being thrown back into trying to deal with the past suicide of an old close friend (by the resemblance to the friend of the actor playing Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in a film about Curtis’s last days), the narrator (Ward) also tries to break a deadlock in his writing, and part of this attempt is a repeated typing-out of David Larsen’s poem “Wild Speech.” The poem, as it appears in Larsen’s excellent book The Thorn (which I read immediately upon finishing Ward’s text), is handwritten—so Ward is typing a handwritten poem about speech in trying to interrupt his own mental chatter. Though Ward claims that the attempt failed to get him anywhere, the overlaying of these forms works in the finished text as an model for the layering of levels of thought throughout the work.

Ward is skeptical about his own project, suspicious that he’s using the death of a friend as material or impetus for writing; that the concepts he comes up with along the way are insufficiently thought through but sound seductive and effective enough that he’ll end up employing them for a long time; that his notion of what it means to be a poet might be damaging his relationship with his lover Sarah—all important considerations that fall into the general complex of questions about how writing relates to everyday life, to the social and political world, to the larger culture. The self is always doubled by something else—Dana’s recollections of Geoff (already doubled by Curtis) are doubled by a story about the a rich man’s daughter who becomes obsessed with Kurt Cobain’s death. Dana’s perspective is doubled by Sarah’s and called into question by it. A daydream about the perfect crime is doubled by a short love poem that repeats it but takes its narrative in a completely different direction. The entire work is doubled by Larsen’s poem.

Hell. This is one of those books whose excellence is very hard to explain. I give up here, and close by highly recommending that you read Ward’s important work. It’s challenging in ways I didn’t expect, and still don’t, even as those ways recur in me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I’ve been getting behind on my April book reports, but nearly keeping up with the reading.

New publication-happenings!

An essay in the Ron Silliman feature of the new Jacket (which also includes, among other things, a big Bob Perelman feature. Just thinking about Bob Perelman makes me happy).
A review of Roberto Harrison’s work in the new Aufgabe
Poems in the first issue of We Are So Happy to Know Something, which came in the mail today and is an absolutely gorgeous little hardcover, stab-bound construction, full of what seems so far to be some pretty amazing writing.
Poems in the most recent Pinstripe Fedora. Some really weird ones.
All the best to all of you! More little essays to come soon.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Myung Mi Kim, The Bounty (Chax, 2000)

I read this one a couple of weeks ago, in preparation for Kim’s reading at UW, having read bits and pieces of her books for awhile. It’s perhaps the most difficult of the texts that have found their way into my April marathon, and a discussion of it really needs more time (and more rereading) than I’ve been able to give to it this month. I’ll note some observations on her work in general, as I’ve found it so far, both in relation to The Bounty and to her recent Penury (the focus of her reading here, which was followed by an intriguing and friendly discussion).

Kim’s poetry is engaged with history—a train of wagons clambered upon by more and more poets these days, and one that I feel is well worth pursuing, with many directions open to investigation—and that includes the history of the present as well. In fact, much of Kim’s material from the present can often feel like the past, because it deals directly with issues of labor and gender in places and cultural contexts (Korea, Africa, the “third world” in general) that hardly get a mention in the news, are hardly a part of our everyday thinking. When we do encounter them, it’s in the context of something like a photo in the Times—an image so surrounded by the communicative, technological and informational contexts we’re used to that it’s all-but-drowned-out by our habitual perspectives. Kim somehow bypasses those conduits, and that makes it seem less “now” in a way that’s valuable in a culture in which “now” means “the latest thing” and precludes the experience of the genuine presence of things as they are.

Part of this is acheived through her use of the fragment. Many (in Penury, even most) of the lines seem clearly to be parts of sentences from source materials. These fragments don’t work in two of the most common modes for historical poetry. They’re not compressed citations of a Poundian or Olsonian sort, and they also—and this is a subtle and great aspect of Kim’s poetry that I didn’t fully get until I heard her read it—don’t come off as silenced, as buried or barely uttered. There’s a lot of space, a lot of silence, in and on Kim’s pages, but it doesn’t seem like a silence enforced by oppression. Though this poetry targets injustice, its silences are less a symbolic protest than they are a utopian space.

In the post-reading discussion, Kim made a lovely contrast between mourning as a state and as an activity (if I’m remembering this right). She wants mourning to be a way of moving forward with what’s passed, and thinks of her silences, mournful and otherwise, as productive sites of activity—so that a set of fragments becomes a constellation in which something about the sources that never spoke before can come to light their encounters with one another. Their fragmentariness makes their borders permeable to one another. It heightens aspects other than informational content (such as sound and figuration) in any given individual fragment. At the same time, the content of those fragments reappears in the gradual accumulation that takes place over the course of a long work—the content recurs on a larger scale, and in a different light, or in a way that’s quite transformed, as new meaning. It’s that accumulative aspect that’s impossible to convey in excerpts, so I’ll just re-cite the crucial notions here and end with a couple of almost randomly selected pages from the “Anna O Addendum” sequence of The Bounty.

--Silence is a spaciousness productive of new relationships between fragments, rather than representative of a silencing.
--Fragments no longer function as fragments, instead gaining connotative and semantic richness, becoming in their nature something other than their documentary origins
--The cumulative effect of constellations of these parts brings content back into the foreground in a new way, and it’s a content that’s dependent upon the original specifics of the fragments, though not reducible to them.

Tombs of women ornamented

Who wants me dead

Referred to as water in a tube

Given X, Y sisters in slings of ars

Enter foyer breathe alike

Cauterized condition of agreement

Just so pose of pumpkin gourd

Surplus tomatoes screen of oaks

So long as economy sailed with men

[page break]

Scrupulous remnant

Snapped for chewing

Reticent dowel laurel plague

Contaminate feed and see

Disdain fabric worn through

Torch fact defer

[page break]

Rank swan either rye ripe

Threading treading threw up the word: skylark

Scent and scene audible tooth and tongue

A vowel is that which a consonant brought to touch

Noses of corralled animals part species a flame

Perfidy method divisive

Point a composite significant sound

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lisa Jarnot, Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck, 1996)

This is an incredibly disorienting book, so different from Jarnot’s later work but definitely containing some of its seeds. I have experienced a long and uncomfortable process of coming to adore her writing (especially the relatively recent Night Scenes), and finding this at the root of it makes me want to reread the rest in its light.

Some Other Kind of Mission has the feel of cutup work, and I suspect that something like that is involved in the generation of its material. Many of its pages are scanned or photocopied images of typed, handwritten, drawn-upon, collaged sheets with most of the words crossed out, and many of the remaining phrases can be found in the conventionally printed text. The book as a whole seems like a travelogue, with the “I” and a few recurring names driving, drinking, sleeping. There are many farm animals, sometimes in trucks (Jarnot’s familiar chickens), sometimes as surreal roadkill (“miles of strips of pig” recurs frequently). There are explosions, which sometimes seem like car bombs, sometimes like war, at least once a gas station exploding. Time seems to pass—they seem to have been on the road a long time—but this is all dim, shadowy, seen through a mesh of irregularly reiterated and varied sentences and fragments whose juxtapositions make up what is more an eerie sense of narrative than a narrative proper.

That’s the main prose text. The title pages usually include a short poem in verse, a bit closer to Jarnot’s later style, but without the dominant tone of playfulness I associate with much of the latter. There’s one very strange reiterative verse section in conventional type (“Emperor Wu”), and there’s a final section of “Marginalia,” with little reiteration of parts, that switches between Paris & Helen / Greek stuff and relatively straightforward, almost diaristic sentences. Here it’s as if the two main underlying strands of the whole work are being separated out and laid bare—the Trojan war and a complicated set of contemporary interpersonal relationships—but I don’t get the sense that this explains what preceded it. Instead it seems like a ground is being established that itself turns out to be ghostly; when there are a few repetitions or Steinian disorientations of language, it feels like a powerful drug coming on—in a minute we’ll be back in that strange variation on the production of reality that this book enacts.

In response, here’s a piece based partly on a travelogue text I’ve been keeping around for thirteen years. I’m glad to finally use it:

we swamp through film floor to return, carpentering even stranger, the mindless degree
in quick little of a low case floor all night into and through history and OK, the obvious intention
just waking observer. derrick in our object the witnessed doesn’t write silk and the match for others
saying setting slowly, scarred forever with mining after selling ourselves with pad ton ends
can ethical ham survival is not nuclear dust vanishing in a snare, then still read and bright fact
the row did the load, the mindless degree armed code enforces: do not flock V.
a loaded shown a red even stronger cause to ice, the cop trained terrain only from tulsa to texas
we felt its wife, the inexplicable violence to reach light, to caucasian well, paying our little whales
no of real, a beautiful dry, work to when allow, consequence of abstract architecture
just as we wear illusory rooms pulled over wants. pay in swine, flukes have no deal/solutions
I need quote to war, hair and satchel, notice of endless horseshit a fellow got to eat in
its six of, then peaches of, or off were off, we felt trained in flickering phosphor dots
and the, thinking the blanket question playing in bracket songs. share our survival
alien energies staffing energy waste if he and die everywhere, share our survival
floor that trailer, we drank it up the mountains, lost the freedom to fail the emotional residue
in the still it was getting liked a liked anger liked the fact all shapes of the stone
usually composed of maps, even stronger illusory rooms trying to sale. the ill county
the lumen still white and frank et al. evolving instantly into meme cancer
black and steam to swallow the silence of the silent, behind us both are presence
the PLO of budget boxes, files of holders slowly co-lessening, what a wonderful contract
watched assignment come up the witnessed to traits trace, then went to an ant
that is a cross of dealers that space must thus get chairs to fail close to note toilet
says they just bill it high down the Willow Santa, then may come out to the traced trace
and build him another wheat shaft, incredible vegetarian fluid bubble like to horror
just like gophers known as deal eagles will claim the paperless traveller
see blanket question. gift of a windblock we spent throughout turkey
traffic was waking up in order to present a robbery in the city needed with beef
but in the period we stared at the blue gibbons, code-enforcers share our survival
some diets garbage comes out like stained glass jewels, two traits to the traced trick scares

this happens despite the clear language
of the Low-Laid-Lawful Let Act of 1913:
“may not be in feared with or deny
the o\o\Open-the-Sewer Act

to cancel
to be gentle
in everything
outside the law
fear put
half both speech
all-out boasts
this should get
into hard
centralized shit
keep steel home
shells crossing saints
passed the largest increase
biggest cross in the
centralized saint
to be gentle
when only eight
a.m. keeps you there
to fail, share
our survival

you don’t have to tell me that
or anything really

allow levine your hard to two cross over the empty space fact everywhere must he must
allow the fine of your heart to cross over the empty space that everywhere must be owners
allow the vying ability or hard to two-cross over the GE space fact everywhere must be over his
all of the vying to your heart to cross over the empty space event everywhere must be dealers
allow the fine above, your heart to cross, over the key space, that everywhere must be awards

fights to read itself in the dust

Thursday, April 15, 2010

p. inman, at. least. (Krupskaya, 1999)

This is an absolutely gorgeous book. It’s composed of seven pieces, and in five of them each word is followed by a period and a space. Capital letters only occur at the beginning of proper names. In combination with varying line and stanza length and differing degrees of sentence-like behavior, inman’s form produces a breathtaking range of ways to structure sense. Here are some bits of a few exemplary sections from the longest work, “n.b.:”

only. of. action. is. state. power.

empiricism. by. all. the. typewriter.
hobbles. (less. of. contentment.

property. relations. in. talk.

oin. wr.
write. pr.

ones. in.
terms. of.


could. fl.
extric. ls.

bug. bites.




to. snowed.
film. clip.

skin. color.
as. minutes.


say. the. sparing. of. a. theoretical.
moment. the. far. egg. of. another. market.
slump. placed. beside. a. book. whitecap.

--and this, from ten pages earlier:

looked. after.
a. lysine. of.
such. ink. crook.
only. the. farther.
he. moves. into.
him. striped. sweat.

Separation by periods gets amplified or softened by line length. Shorter lines tend to emphasize the independence of each word, so that even when conventional syntax is potentially present my tendency is to read for sonic qualities—whereas I look for sentences in the longer lines. In one-word lines there’s a finality to each word, whereas, over the course of extended reading, the emphatic pauses in longer lines form a stammering rhythm. It’s like physical gesture broken into its component micro-gestures, small muscular adjustments and shifts in balance—or like seeing a film frame by frame—except that the stops affect the individual moments (for instance, the intonation curves I hear in my head are very different from those I’d hear in a normal version of the sentence, and pronunciation is affected as well; I always hear “the” with a long “e” and “a” as “ay,” rather than “ah” or “uh”).

All this has its effects on content as well (often the content deals with the history and theory of communism, and sometimes with the work of other writers). A sentence fragment like “the. principal. objective. of. action.” seems less suspended or floating than it would without the periods, whose regularity of visual and sonic intonation weaves everything into a shared fabric made up of universal separation. If this is parataxis (it is driving me wild), it’s an unusual variety in which the distance between juxtaposed parts is doubled—one kind of distance varies with the degree and kind of content, while another is relentlessly regular.

“milton. babbitt. (50. words. each.),” in tribute to the great serialist composer, works through five permutations of ways of structuring its number (ten five-word lines, two columns of 25 single-word lines each, etc.). “Mel;nick’s” adds an extra space after each period in a series of four-line stanzas drawing from (I believe) David Melnick’s book pcoet. In “i.e.” (late in the book), commas replace the periods, and its alarming how much of a difference this makes. Perhaps the most gorgeous piece in the book is the three-page “lieu/instead,” written in two columns with highly variable margins, without regular punctuation. Every small cluster of words here is incredibly charged—it’s something like Robert Grenier at his best extended through Larry Eigner channeling Clark Coolidge, plus elegy.

I’ve always been a bit of a punctuation fetishist, constantly replacing colons with dashes, adding and removing commas, and so on, finding the ways these marks structure meaning. inman gets an amazing amount out of just a couple of punctuation devices here, but though the sense is one of exhaustiveness I finished the book with a wonderful sense of opened possibility. It doesn’t hurt that the writing itself is so graceful, so tuned to minute particulars, to music and to ethics at the same time.

What follows is a mere warmup, playing around in response. Another project to explore less imitatively and with greater seriousness.


dots. connect?
stars. lead.
(led.) LED. can’t.

consequence. co.
-incidence. the. bus. went.
too. fast. for. soldiers.
fired. from. the. check.
point. eight. civilians.

blckbrdsonfg. stoned. instantaneous.
late. making. time. marking.
intent. most.
beautiful. spot. that. “always.
already.” smells. like. sewage.
tie. as. floating. bug. frog.
-song. consequents. two.
herons. winches. margin. dent.
mind. as. as.

as. ass.

find. things.

oiled. tark. ob.
viousness. e. volved.
carpentering? even? stranger?
illusory? rooms? rods? and?
slabs? memory? turns? to?
rust? nuclear? dust? vanishing?
in? snap? of? snare?



prosopopoeia. I?
am. a?
blueprint. for? adeptation. chair?

depth. was? a. victim. of. its?
distaste. for? chance? its. source?

every. inch.

stars, words,
constellation, scarred,
for, ever, by, mining,
equipment, itself, covered, in,
symbols, seeing, a, description
as, if we, wandered in, a.
prairie. until. dark.

when, stars.
come, out.

body. compass. gone.



Sunday, April 11, 2010

Horace, Odes, book I (Chicago, 1960, trans. Joseph P. Clancy)

Horace, what’s up? I don’t feel like trying to say something original about Horace. I’ll read the other books. It’s hard to take the “hail Caesar” bits, and I feel strange about the coloquial stuff, its often-mean tone, contrasted with—or, jeez, that’s moralistic, it’s “bound up with”—the hot life in its engagement. A model of social poetry worth investigating. It really starts to get good around #14 or 17 or so. Here are a couple of dashed-off half-assed bits written under the Horatian influence. I’d like to make a day’s or week’s project of responding to Horace’s poems with more care and effort.

John, Dana, Jess, Lewis, Lisa, Karl
Michael, Kevin, Bridget, John, Jordan
Rebecca, Hai-Dang, Steve, Connie
Matt, Seth, Ron, Rick, Mark, Mavis

Amy, Ryan, Ryan, Ryan, Elizabeth
Beth, Astrid, Deena, Carolyn, Gretel
Karin, Jeremy, Kjerstin, Clay, Roberto
and you, voice is not speech, can we

carve a path between the name, I
recognize, and am that path, and
the tunnel of sound that opens me,
you, budding onto time, by which

I mean world, and am back in words
again, as if I ever left, on that path,
the voice, the underground tubes, shooting
down and welling, so long as it

does not dominate, let us be the voice
of voice’s polyphony, all over a choir
and that choir in counterpoint to what
doesn’t even sound, a lark of earth


Chant the praise of what’s not so hard, my love,
in you, chant the praises of what tones sing when you shake
a limber string, tuned enough
to set the other lyre alight.

Toes, sink in the mud of streams of barely-lived distances,
the cool tones that distinguish the middle ground,
the green ground hardest to see,
harder than the far dark mound of sky,

where hands, cold of the panhandling temple
with a name, an island to you, strain to birth
the quiver of passion held common
on common ground nobody gave.

May war with its tears and fearful famine and plague
be lifted from our people and from our enemies,
may we wish well on all
because that’s easier and doesn’t hurt.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Michael Gizzi, New Depths of Deadpan (Burning Deck, 2009)

War with its lights out eschews imagination. All our buds lost their heads in the flower of their youth.

So we got this apartment on Jockey Street. They used to race houses there.

Those are two stanza/paragraphs from “The Deep,” the first of the many brief prose poems that make up Gizzi’s book, which is one of the most fun things I’ve read in a long time, and is marvelously strange. This little excerpt gives some good examples of the ways Gizzi works: the sewing together of anomalous parts in the first sentence; the punning on “buds” that turns a cliché into a literal statement, which in turn doesn’t quite work, the sentence never stabilizing and that instability of metaphor pointing back to the first sentence’s different instability, that connection amplifying the sense of “our buds” having been killed in the war—where have all the flowers gone?; the “mishearing” of “race horses” as “race houses,” connecting that phrase with the preceding sentence in a doubled way with a surreal image (or is it a metaphor for real estate competition, for the turning of houses into apartments, of ownership into rental?).

I find this utterly brilliant and hilarious, and every moment in the book is as singular, complex, weird and pleasurable. I should make a list of poets, on which Gizzi would be included, who seem extraordinarily free, unfettered, able to simply write what there is to be written, without being held back by preconceptions of what their writing should be. At least it seems that way from the outside.

This was marginally written under Gizzi’s influence—though not much so—and while listening to Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” op. 109, 102, & 117:

The Esques have no jism heads, two songs and irregular sock type novitiate

What will think a flow’r perfectly carnival

A sotto crystal approach bounces a puncture into king’s ice

If you’re very having fun, give ed a humor changing into skunk
Dress, a little riverboatin’ ball

Not the resolution I’m used to breaking took me by surprise balls storm

Cheap ultra backed up in the mine, hung on the Shelley hoke

Saming noise

Plugs in—click—armada-shaped confectionesque
Sentescence hots him whence

Pocket procession, nobler calendar sticking to itself and story

Album leaf over and under water twins its tricks

A purpling corona holds three-step sky

Hove a grappling arena to shore

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Joel Felix, Regional Noir (Bronze Skull, 2007)

Regional Noir makes me curious about Felix’s writing. I feel like this brief chapbook is part of a larger project, or should be.

It’s in four sections:
(a) about three pages of verse, beginning with the line “Is found locally,” and continuing through a series of fragments and near-complete thoughts whose connecting idea seems to be the way in which local context is constructed—this explored in various senses (excerpted from various places in the section):

the lake communicated a fifth wall

as town repeats this pattern
of pedestal replacement

the one hundred twenty year present
of extremely local ecologies

If you think I’m the subject
then I will act suspiciously

and so forth: a situation defined by the length of a romance, the specific objects “found in a photo of the desk,” a desert place, a storefront and its parking lot...

(b) a prose journal of a train trip from Chicago to Detroit (apparently Felix’s home town), especially including reflections on the appearance and economic/industrial/ecological character of the Great Lakes shore between those cities. It also contains this:

If you reduce the scope of the text so finely that any suggestion of an outside world would be arbitrary and anomalous detail, then the outside of writing would be rendered a consequence of writing. But the world is not a consequence of this writing. The is that coincides with writing is a feedback of the system, no less than Orson Wells (sic), or Orion.

(c) a brief verse meditation on the sentence as a way of linking a human life with the world, the sentence as a finite place in which one can lose one’s way

(d) a prose section largely about the visit to Detroit and its recent history, but beginning with an account of writing as “the inexhaustible need to replicate” the things of the world, to produce something that both is them and “claims a life over” them. The section ends with the imagining of “a little pillow-cover ghost like the kind my mother made for Halloween” suspended in the darkness of an empty lot.

The relationships between these ideas just barely get played out in the course of this text, and that leaves a good deal to think about, but maybe too much, and therefore not enough. Which makes me feel it as a beginning of something. Which is an advantage, in a way, for a text. For a complex thought forming. It’s humble in relation to its own ideas, doesn’t want to own them except in their further exploration.

A made ghost: a replica of the trace of a past, its made-ness a life denied real ghosts. Its own humble status preserving its particularity, resisting total absorption into metaphor. Joel Felix as a detective, under a streetlight in the empty lots of Detroit, searching out the proper relation of the sentence to the specificity of local context, a context that, in its brokenness, has become soaked with collective and personal memory. A project I’d like to see continued.

does a train track

and what


where now big lonesome houses make a class ladder squash an elm wood
which is an advantage for development, aka the ugly pictures on “for sale” signs
my neighbor is the one I brush in accidental murmur in line at the store
not the association of rules on lines and lawns
growing a replacement

opening sentences opening sentences

writing is a balloon full of the world’s air
when it pops there’s a displacement of the sky
for a short time

sky rushes in

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

kari edwards, obedience (factory school, 2005)

From the moment I opened this book I knew it would be a crucial work, and I’ve saved it for a few years, glancing in every now and then, until my attention seemed oriented toward it in the right way. This is, for me, a good time to read it, having drifted away from emphatic engagement, in my own poetry, with political and philosophical questions (not that they’ve been absent), having in the last year written more in response to a sense of physiological energy, bodily intuition, more in arenas of the force of language and of its more nonsemantic characteristics, beginning lately to miss the centrality of that engagement, those questions.

I don’t think I’m going to try to excerpt from obedience here—not that there aren’t plenty of great lines, great thoughts. I’ll just note some things I admire about the work.

obedience engages with philosophy, with substantial thought about the metaphysics of space and time, the ontological constitution of things, thoughts, bodies and identities, in a way that reminds me of how necessary this kind of thought really is in engaging with the politics of everyday social existence, with the language that defines and limits us, that determines the range and possible meaning of terms like environment, sexuality, need, spirit, conversation. So much, for instance, depends on a concept of causality, which links things in chains of effects, and reflection on the being and becoming of things in the intersections of space and time involves critical reflection on the concept of cause. In this sense, the book is a meditation.

The meditation is emphatically oriented toward a utopianism, always pushing pure possibility into the foreground. I mean to contrast “pure possibility” with the “possibly actual,” where the latter indicates the range of what can be conceived as coming into being, given our current nexus of fundamental concepts. “Pure possibility” is the source of unlimited calling-into-question, of possibility not tied to what is, and questions are of the utmost importance for edwards’ work. Hir philosophical thinking means to reconceive fundamental frameworks, in order to present, through the poem, specific indications of the workings of a desirable world. obedience, unlike some recent work with whose engagement and commitment to emphatic thinking I am sympathetic, never falls into the trap in which the reiterated gesture of mere negation produces a consistent dark tone, a tone that can seem louder than the thought that produces it, sacrificing the creative thrust of negative utopianism for the sake of a feel of aestheticized protest.

I’m sorry that this is so vague. It will take more time than I have right now to figure out for myself how this works in edwards’ book, let alone to convey it to someone else.

How it works certainly has something to do with all the particulars in the poem. It’s not all time and space. There are rocks, rooms, knives, body parts, mosquitoes, leaves, viaducts, colors, emotions. These are generally non-archetypal (meaning that they don’t stand as citations of some larger argument), and remain both independent of and linked to the philosophical material. Sometimes they become near-metaphors, and this kind of operation, in which something kind of pushes something else in a particular direction of meaning, rather than being subsumed in the work of representing it, is worth further investigation.

edwards’ formalism is worth remarking. Zie often works with the page as a unit, or with a particular set of margins, or length of line, or reiterative character that structures a section, but these are rarely foregrounded. Sections don’t have rigid identities (which parallels edwards’ concern with destabilizing gender and other identities). Their boundaries are somewhat porous while remaining definitely present. Sections feature kinds of writing that are different, but not drastically so. I’d call it a gentle formalism, though not a soft one—there’s a good deal of structural meaning (meaning generated by formal movements and juxtapositions), but content is usually structuring the form as well. The movement of the boundless sentence, for instance, gets tied into the conceptual concerns of the poem.

This is my muddiest post yet this April. I’ll just say that this is a unique, provocative, moving book with which I’ll need to spend more time, and will quit this writing while I’m not ahead. An improvisation follows.

return to scale
where concept comes in
the incomparable
in a snail
of relation
not the impermeability
of a body
strange to have
enough to cry
doesn’t have a body
one has an honesty
that kills
one has a body
its skin an organ
part of an organ
completed in contact
fenceless mapping
in porosity
to resist
the turning of thought
a question
into answers

systems shit
disinfected things
negation is not
to innoculate
that’s abstract
I try to stare
into blinding shadows
sockets blaze
skull predicts
its artifact
dying in
to scale
heart divides
runnels all over
racing ice
not “I will
be gone”
but the going
in staying
as web
of skin skull
and dirt water
burning after
that shows up
as a window
everywhere I look
through it the clouds
of names
in the unnamed
world we will
with every No

exactly this scale

the one died into
each breath out

the window

before this there’s time

Monday, April 05, 2010

Beverly Dahlen, A Reading 11-17 (potes and poets, 1989)

Having just written tomorrow’s post on kari edwards, I’m really beginning to feel a sense of futility with regard to these little reviews. I can’t, for instance, hope to adequately convey here what it’s like to read Beverly Dahlen’s work. With that in mind, I’ll try to keep it short.

I can’t think of anything that A Reading resembles. It’s a lifelong project that views writing, reading and thinking as continuous with each other, overlapping and often just facets of the same activity—and “reading” overlaps with living, since there’s as much reading of the world here as there is reading of texts. This description could, I guess, be applied to Lyn Hejinian’s work since Happily, but the two approaches to poetry don’t read in the same way at all. Each, though, conveys a thrilling sense of unfetteredness, of real freedom in composition, that is very rare.

This comes through in one way with regard to form. Dahlen moves with regular ease between prose paragraphs and verse lines whose lengths vary as the work and thought require; there’s little concern with “poetry” in terms of measure, polysemic linebreaks and so forth, at least not in any usual ways. There are plenty of poetic “markers”: the absence of initial capitals, the occasional recurrence of a Stein-like syntax, repetitions, puns. It’s just that “poetry” doesn’t seem to be the central concern. I find this intensely valuable.

The sections have different degrees and areas of focus—Dahlen often seems to deal with a collection of topics in a given section. Number 11 deals with memory, moving quickly from the personal to the archaeological (“finding a relic, this fingernail survived but the source is gone”), and then to reflections on the human transition from prehistory and myth into history (“the great leap forward, the idea of progress, that we might enter history at last”).

A little later, this leads to a beautiful page:

our course through the mountains, under a glaze.
the sun had come full circle. we might step out
of these clothes but we were moved towards a future.

there what we held in common against the end.

there is a common world which does not yet exist.
all our lives from the caves forward is a labor towards it.
I held her in some moment towards it.
there are those whom I have held towards it. in moments, that
time towards it. that moment in history in which we break and
fall away towards it.

wherever we come to claim it
it is a falling away, out of this bristling.
standing away towards it, this is not mine
I have not made it. there is that in which we are joined
and not one among us may claim it. there is that in which
we are joined towards it, it calls back to us from some future
“the substance of things hoped for”
calling backwards towards us.

our own,
Freud’s prayer to Eros
now come you among the powers
in whom the way, however obscurely
might lead, come some path and pathmaker
come in which we might fall away from ourselves
towards that common day
come as such a one
as ever
in this life
not my own
but ours from the beginning.


These concerns branch out over the remaining seventeen pages of the section, which work with “we,” origins (births), the structure and function of stories, the unconscious, and the relation between parts and wholes, each always anchored in something highly specific (lots of jokes, flowers, seaside observations, accounts of conversation).

Other sections have quite different relations to their material: #12 is undeclarative, #13 frequently quotes idiomatic speech, the vast #16 spends a good deal of time on the Bronte family, #17 begins with a collection of words that are then deployed throughout the body of the poem, almost like a theme and variations movement. The last metaphor seems appropriate; reading Dahlen’s book reminds me of listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas in order. Both artists have a highly developed sense of what “material” can mean: the tonal or grammatical system, larger formal structures (like the sonata), the historical aspect of such material, the texts of predecessors, the activity of composition itself. A given work selects meanings for that term, approaches them from particular distances, brings them to reflect on each other in ways specific to that work, and explores the results with virtuosic skill and freedom.

I won’t presume to do an “imitation” of a life-work like A Reading. Instead, here’s a rough draft of a new section of a piece I’ve been working on. Its goal is more or less to organize notes on non-poetic readings, to bring them into thematic conjunctions with each other and with everyday materials. Once this April binge is over, an in-depth reading of Dahlen’s work, which I’ve read in bits and pieces for a long time, is in order, and will, I’m sure, influence the progress of this project. Since a lot of my thinking is done via editing, the thoughts here are still pretty messy:

Opening silences opening silences. Pure possibility, the noise of it,
the richness, the bounty. It challenges the mouth, suspended above peaks
the deductive-nomological fanatic economist loves. So close today to the
uselessness of poetry, nothing is more striking than these strata, their
sinuosities so like the calcinated scree an ocean away—the same strange
ramifications we find in cake. The eye assures us affliction. The ethical sockets anonymously tremble. And the same can be said of the blue mirror. Turning
a corner, the picture framed in a doorway takes an attitude, not a position,
toward the world. We express our politic, our melos, in legato, in being bound to life together, as in boundaries, the leaps in bounds, as abounds. Hearing
is touch. There are languages lacking. Contingency is what is happening
to the birch leaves: unique and incandescent, entirely normal and repeatable. Rhyme pretends. Credit it to theft, tempo rubato, time stolen from the objective for a lonely thought, to hear many voices at once and remember them. Debit it in Muzak form, banking on a chain of analog copies, desire bound to false image—-take the gamble and drill in Ecuador, 1970, too late, the hundred-year-solution covers it, flatbeds execute boiling systems Keynes saw whose limbs we fetishize. Yet our grace in time: everything comes in return, not in exchange. We’ve already been out, but “out” was nowhere. One has the feeling that it began earlier, before the silence, as if one stepped onto a train to find it already moving fast. It’s always one, thinking, and thought is always all. Seeing well can’t cause a clear shape of the crucial wound read off and back. Stippled, the memory stalls, plays around the edges bind drive to particular. Oslo off-tempo. To become history is to change keys.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

John Coletti, mum halo (Rust Buckle Books, 2010)

I feel close to John Coletti’s poems, not so much in terms of their content but in their way of moving. I’ve written a good deal in a mode that feels almost identical in its structuring of reading-time, its way of getting from one line to another and in the kinds of mild sabotage that the syntax performs on itself along the way. I’m really looking forward to hearing him in the Deceptively Wall-Shaped Reading here in Madison this Friday.

79 Pieces

Earshell stillness

all her friends were there

sucking on toes

French dalmatians

flicker by bedside

thick water sunlight curb

crushed re-crushed rock

The lines generally seem independent, beginning with the connotative and consonant strength of the opening line, not quite an image, and with its floating syntactic non-connection with the next line. That “floating” sense sets up an expectation that the third line will also not follow syntactically from the second, so that—when it does—its independence amplifies the character of both lines. The second line seems almost quoted, the third truncated (missing information; one wouldn’t say “sucking on toes;” one might say “sucking on each others’ toes,” or even just “sucking toes”). The capital “F” at the beginning of the next line again doubles the sense of which way the connections are going; is it the opening of a new sentence or not? The bedside seems to continue the scene, while “flicker” jumps the big gap to the penultimate line by connecting with “sunlight.” “Sunlight,” because of the implied grammatical parallelism between “thick water” and “sunlight curb,” ends up feeling like a partly adjectivized noun—though it’s resistant to that (a resistance that conceptually parallels the unlikelihood of “thick water”). That grammatical ambiguity is taken up in the first “crushed” of the final line. If we read the lines as syntactically flowing into one another, then we get the sentence “Thick water sunlight curb crushed re-crushed rock,” in which case that first “crushed” is a past-tense verb. If we view the line as syntactically independent, that “crushed” reads as an adjective. Either way, the rock has now been crushed at least three times. The ambiguity (which I find mighty funny) dramatizes the situation of the whole poem; every line (rock) gets “crushed” more than once, standing on its own and always leading into the next line. It’s that downward motion that makes “crushed” seem so appropriate. In almost every poem in this book, the movement is very powerfully stepped, from one line to the next, always to some degree independent and always retroactively pulled onward. The result is that, by the end of a poem, we’ve ended up in a surprising place, and can look back on how we got there—but we can never get from the second stage to the end directly. Perhaps a better metaphor is one of linked chains of lines.

To continue comparing and contrasting my April readings: George Albon’s work depends on linkages between parts that may be very distant from one another; the sense is of a constellation of parts. Steve Benson’s book is forward-moving, but in “real time.” Or without the quotes. The separation/connection dynamic is very different. All three of these poets deal with dailiness, though. That may not be apparent from this selection of Coletti’s, but throughout much of the book there are names of friends, addresses to pop culture figures, drinks drunk, days in the park, trees and weather observed. The shared formal movement of the poems allows them to accumulate in a way that suggests a world common to them. The person whose world it is remains blurry, glimpsed only in relation to these movements, objects, actions, names, and impressions. Perhaps that’s why I’m least attracted to the poems (most of these are in the second section, previously published in the chapbook Same Enemy Rainbow) with the most “attitude,” the hippest ones—they solidify a voice in the poems, and it’s precisely the “attitude,” which in “real life” is already less individual than part of the culture’s social games, that makes it a voice (something similar might be said about nearly all instances of “voice”). Even those, however, at least tend to be funny—and the rest (many of them very tender with regard to the people in or near them) convey a continuously disorienting sense of reality that I like a great deal, a way of experiencing the world that’s twisted up with a way of constructing it, both dizzying. I also suspect, from what I take to be the improvisational rhythms of a well-tuned ear in these poems, that Coletti is a musician.

Here’s another:

The Warlock

Thinned paper roses
burnt on top
mushrooms actually
on a sea walk for ice
hungry ospreys
dive hold then splash
search for wallets in high tide
moose horns line up
sucked in headlights
chill with the hill stubble
as gnomes pull back
their brittle nets

I can’t, especially having emphasized their similarity, convey the variety among these poems—the beauty of the last handful in the book are, on their own, enough to make it worth buying, and I’ll certainly be reading this one more than once.

My “imitation” follows. This one is actually less close than some stuff I was writing a while back, and certainly doesn’t measure up.

Square in

which a warp

roasted seams

see what

happens taps

the frame glow

off shingle

why does talk go

wrong language

becomes metaphor

for yeasty gunk

none of that is technically

reading about clouds