Commentaries - September 2011

Recasting poetry in a time of global warming

Kaia Sand

Just months before his death late in 2009, this video of Dennis Brutus reading "Longing" was posted to YouTube. Seated before brilliant orange flowers , Brutus opens his book, A Simple Lust—first published in 1963—to “Longing,” and reads the poem built of four tercets. He is reading on a patio, and midway through his reading, rain falls briefly, eerily rhyming with the closing phrase of the poem, “rains of poison.”

“Longing” is not a new poem. Rather, he explains in the video, he was recasting a poem from 1960. Had he not framed it otherwise, I might have read “Longing” as addressing anti-apartheid struggles, as some of Brutus’s other poems did during that period. But in this video, Brutus describes how the initial subject of the poem was lost love, and now, he wishes us to read it through the context of unmitigated climate disruption.

In my commentary “Recasting Poetry” I wondered how a poet might take an active role in recasting work, so that a poem might bend, alter, accrue in new contexts. Brutus’s decision to recast “Longing” is a fine example of a poet doing just that.

"I wrote it at the end of a sad love affair, a long time ago," he said, explaining that like this experience of lost love, climate change "seems simple but is actually very complex."

There is a coiled energy of a love lyric from its intensive gaze on an other, the beloved. By explicitly reframing the poem as one that is concerned with environmental justice, Brutus takes that coiled energy, that intensive gaze, and makes it social. This is especially powerful as a choice near the end of his life. Brutus moves the poem from addressing the beloved, the intimate known, to addressing all the other people he will never know who will suffer the affects of unmitigated climate change, the intimate unknown.

Some of Brutus's last acts were directed at climate justice; he voiced a longing, in fact, to be in the streets during the Copenhagen accords, but was too sick for this to happen, and died a few weeks later, on December 26, 2009. Brutus's activism for climate justice followed decades of organizing most recently for economic justice, and in the many decades before, to overthrow the apartheid system in South Africa (I recently wrote about his creativity using sports to protest apartheid). 

"Longing" is a kinesthetic poem, dynamic, motioning explosively. Verbs blast, mushroom, explode[s]. Nouns quiver with their verb potentials: trajectory, detonation, ballistic, fission, devastation, sound-swift. The images accumulate into an extended metaphor of weaponry and physics. In a different poem, "Absence and hunger mushroom..." might read less nuclear, but the wash of weaponry defines this kind of mushroom. This speaker is responding strongly, in a way he perceives to be permanently altering.

In the first stanza of the poem, two words stand out as both outside this extended metaphor and washed anew: “obfusc” and “expletive.” Obfusc is startling in how it does as it means--it blurs, distances, makes unclear. Yet here it describes “logic”--not a word I usually think of as obfusc.


The subject is “the heart,” a simple symbol of love. While one might expect a heart to be contrasted with logic, Brutus creates a more interesting proposition. First, he opens the possibility of the “heart comput[ing]”—piecing together, making sense, building. And, thwarting expectations again, it is “logic” that is “obfusc.” Can the heart make sense of a logic that is clouded, confused with the shifts and confusions of language?

Again, he creates a startling opposition when he describes an “simple ache” has having an “expletive detonation.” Because Brutus established an extended metaphor of war, weaponry, and technology, I read a crypt meaning in “expletive”: I see "explosive detonation." But, again, Brutus makes the more interesting choice. The manner the “ache” detonates is “expletive,” a kind of cursing in its action. Brutus does not bring expletives into the poem; he points outward, outside language, so that a feeling signifies the cursing.

Brutus’s decision to recast theses lines in the context of climate change fascinates me: “To try to make [climate change] sound simple is in fact very difficult, and misleading,” he said as he introduced the video. How does one deal with these complexities in ways that are passionate, full of action? How might paradoxes describe the challenge of harnessing a tangle of intellect and a range of emotions—from cursing to tenderness— in the service of activism? In his memoir, Brutus writes that he hopes the poem’s “argument build[s] up also to an emotional intensity where the intellectual part is not lost, but reinforces the emotional part.” (178)

Two months before the Copenhagen accords, Brutus drafted an open letter, writing that “we know that Africa and the countries of the South least responsible for historical carbon will feel the worst effects,” and going on to warn that the “trade in natural resources that allowed Europe to develop must not translate into a trade in waste byproducts and pollution that again distributes the greatest burdens on the poor.”

Some will suffer more from global warming than others. In addition to this being about where one lives, this is also about wealth. As Naomi Klein’s warns in Shock Doctrine, “wealth provides an escape hatch from most disasters.” Power elites cannot be trusted to make choices beneficial to the planet’s majority because they can always build luxury retreats that are not possible or sustainable for the many.

It is this many I think of when I read the line O my heart, my lost hope love, my dear, in the third stanza of Brutus’s poem. I think of his concerns for the poor, for all the people on this planet who will suffer unmitigated climate change, the people he has worked his whole life for, and whom he will soon leave through death. A life of activism as an act of love.

“Many love lyrics are also political, if one would read them that way,” Brutus writes in his memoir (175). In the case of “Longing,” he chose to recast the poem to layer it with a new political context.

He begins his last stanza with the powerful line:

My heart knows now such devastation.

Recast as the words of a man nearing his death, these are jarring words. Despite all he had done, he saw so much work left to be done, so much left for us, the living.

works cited
Brutus, Dennis. Poetry & Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader. Lee Sustar and Aisha Karim. ed. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).

photo © 2007 Charles Bernstein/PennSound
photo © 2007 Charles Bernstein/PennSound
Close Listening

Program 2:  (37:13) MP3
recorded Sept. 12, 2011
Greenwald talks to Charles Bernstein about being a young poet from Queens in the 1960s, how the mind takes orders from the brain, the relation of the art world to the poetry world, and about revisions, form, style, and vernacular practice.

Ted Greenwald’s many books include In Your Dreams, 3, Two Wrongs, The Up and Up,  and Jumping the Line. His most recent book is CLEARVIEW LIE, a memoir just out from Angel Hair.

Program One was recorded in 2005
Entire Program One (Reading) (27:48): MP3

From Common Sense:
Goes On (0:34): MP3
The Pears are the Pears (0:29): MP3
Straight On Bearing Left (0:38): MP3
Airy Rushes Punch (0:41): MP3
Complete Balancing Weather (0:37): MP3
Seated on the Back (0:44): MP3
The Book I Toss (0:23): MP3
Last Five Minutes (0:26): MP3
Anyway - 32 short poems (8:50): MP3

    From In Your Dreams:
    Out of Town (1:58): MP3
    You Maybe Only (2:05): MP3
    Speaking Of (1:35): MP3
    Empty Orchestra (1:30): MP3
    You Never Asked (1:50): MP3

    From Common Sense:
    Whiff (2:20): MP3
    One Foot in the Other World (0:04): MP3

In the wolf-songbird complex

Wolf kill
Wolf kill (elk bones) in Waterton Park

I had the good fortune to spend three days in the field, last week, with a wildlife biologist and her field crew, in their study area in the Southern Canadian Rockies, observing and helping the team “pull transects,” inventory tree growth, and track for wolf and other predator sign. They were compiling data for evidence of “trophic cascades,” in the ecosystems at the mountain-prairie interface. Trophic cascades are the energy that ripples out from the presence of a top predator, or a “keystone species,” in an ecosystem—not necessarily through direct predation so much as through an “ecology of fear,” which keeps herbivores vigilant and on the move, balancing browsing with scanning for predators. Removal of the predator can result in a collapse of the number and complexity of the energy cascades; presence of a predator amplifies and expands the energy ripples. Through such “cascade” effects, we ultimately might establish links between, say, wolf presence and songbird diversity. (For some ecosystems, a “mesopredator” like the coyote fulfills the function of the wolf.) Or so the theory goes. 

Theoretical or not, I like to call it the wolf-songbird complex.

Cristina Eisenberg and field crewIn her book, The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity, Cristina Eisenberg writes: “The term trophic refers to anything related to the food web, while the poetic term trophic cascade refers to the movement of energy through the community food web when predators are removed (or when they return). This dynamic resembles a waterfall and involves top-down regulation of an ecosystem, in which predators have a controlling influence on prey abundance and behavior at the next lower level, and so forth through the food web. Remove a top predator, such as the wolf, and deer grow more abundant and bold, damaging their habitat by consuming vegetation (called herbivory) unsustainably. Intensive herbivory can lead to deer literally eating themselves out of house and home and, consequently, to loss of biodiversity and destabilization of ecosystems. Lacking top predators, ecosystems support fewer species because the trees and shrubs that create habitat for these species have been overbrowsed. With top predators in them, they contain richer and more diverse habitat and thus can support a greater number of species such as songbirds and butterflies.” 

Trophic cascades theory also encourages a shift in focus from single-species conservation to the complex relations between species. Simple “abundance” is no longer a reliable measure; for instance, increased reproduction of bald eagles in Alaska may be linked to decline in sea otter populations (and a consequent irruption of the sea urchins they feed on, which suppresses kelp forests and the fish they in turn sustain, leading the ever-resourceful eagles to shift their diet to one dominated by more nutritious seabirds). Nor is the presence of a “kind” of landscape a reliable index: after cod were fished out of the Gulf of Maine, kelp forests declined, then rebounded as the sea urchins that browsed them were also overfished—but this time emptied of the biodiversity the kelp forests formerly supported. 

“Bottom-up” influences like climate and fire also play an important role in ecosystem diversity—which can be considered an effect of the complex interplay between “top-down” and “bottom-up” factors. What is clear is that, due to the extirpation of its top predators, North America’s wild landscapes (which include aquatic ecosystems, such as the Atlantic kelp forests) have succumbed to an irruption of browsers: 

black bear tracks“[Aldo Leopold] documented widespread sharp increases in North American populations of ungulates from the 1920s through the 1940s. The first to apply the term irruption to this phenomenon, he identified the irruption sequence as removal of a top predator, then release from predation of its herbivore prey, which leads to an increase in prey numbers, followed by overbrowsing and overgrazing—what today we call a 3-part trophic cascade.” 

It was my interest in “soundscape” (a term coined by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer to denote the sonic environment) that had brought me into Eisenberg’s study area—specifically, my pursuit of what elsewhere I have called the “poetry animal” (see my piece in the “American Poetry After 1975” special issue of boundary 2, no. 36.3, ed. Charles Bernstein) and my critique of humanist prosody (whether based on feet and accents or other closed metrical systems) that entails considering how the sounds of poetry are both closed off and radically open, subject to yet uncannily apart from the impulses and vicissitudes of the sonic environment. 

I am also interested in sound recordist Bernie Krause’s theory of “biophony”—the audible equivalent of biodiversity, where species occupy acoustic niches as much as trophic ones (and certain highly developed species, like the Asian paradise flycatcher, can even occupy multiple niches in a complex soundscape). Krause proposes that with proper training one can learn to “hear” the diversity (or lack thereof) in certain ecosystems. Conversely, interruption of and incursion into the natural soundscape, a regular effect of human “internal combustion” activity, can impact the functioning of the ecosystem (so at rush hour the robins cannot hear the worms). The U.S. National Parks recently declared natural soundscapes a conservation resource. 

As I have suggested, sound may be the “true north” of ecopoetics: thinking about how poems interact with their sonic environments may be the quickest (if most literal) way to check in with the environment, whether urban, “wild,” or in-between. It requires, first of all, that we bust the poem out of the black box of the “poetry reading.” (The one time Lorine Niedecker did read her poems in public, she was bothered by the “somewhat inattentive” audience, but also, I suspect, by the sanctimonious silence of the poetry venue—as one who, “must have been washed in listenably across the landscape/ to merge with bitterns unheard but pumping, and saw/ and hammer a hill away; sounds, then whatsound . . .”) I was inspired by Jonathan Stalling’s Wolf Howl Poems (published in ecopoetics 04/05), in pursuit of a fantasy of hearing some wolf howls, and attempting transcriptions of my own. 

Jonathan Stalling's Solitary howl #2

But as Eisenberg’s research shows, the soundscape of wolf presence may actually be bird song, a buzz of dragonflies, bugling elk. (Bird song this time of year, in the northern hemisphere’s autumnal migration, is limited, of course.) It also may be the murmur of human trackers examining a paw print or a bit of wolf scat spiked with shards of crushed bone, or, as the case may be, the tone of the tale of a wolf encounter

wolf scatWe neither saw nor heard wolves in Waterton Park, nor any conclusive, fresh wolf sign. The tales ended up being ghost stories. While recent inventories have estimated 5-17 wolves in the park, park officials suspect that all but one or two of the wolves this year have been killed by local ranchers. (CORRECTION: two days after I posted this, Eisenberg informed me that the park warden has just received a report of two wolves with four pups seen repeatedly by ranchers near the park.  Also, Eisenberg reminded me that her team had located two conclusive wolf scats in one location and a fresh track and a fresh scat at another, earlier in August, plus a trail camera on the trail we used into her study area has picked up a lone wolf on several occasions this summer, most recently in mid-August.) Wolves in the North Fork area of Glacier (U.S. side) fare somewhat better, so far, with 25-38 wolves estimated to be thriving there. My cousin’s husband makes his living leading packing trips into the nearby Bob Marshall wilderness and is not happy about the presence of the wolves where he hunts, as they keep the elk on the move, making them scarce. Wolf research is so controversial that we were not, as we tracked, allowed to say the word “wolf” into our two-way radios. 

I was struck by the (no doubt also controversial) affective economy Eisenberg locates at the heart of the ecosystems she studies.  Her book borrows its title from Robinson Jeffers’s poem, “The Bloody Sire”: 

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine 
The fleet limbs of the antelope? 
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger 
Jeweled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head? 

Note for an eco-aesthetics: what we admire in a species are not “individual” characteristics so much as co-evolutionary vectors, honed in an affective economy. “Defined in some systems by fear more than by the actual act of predation, trophic cascades,” Eisenberg explains, “mean that the presence of a predator, such as the wolf, affects prey foraging behavior as prey try to find an optimal balance between fear of being eaten and meeting their metabolic needs. Wildlife ecologist Joel Brown and colleagues termed this the ecology of fear. The ineluctable play of energies involved in fear of predation is no less real than the act of predation. This predator-prey death dance, evinced by the bleached bones strewn about the meadow, the braid of wolves’ voices at dusk, and ravens on the wing lured by the coppery scent of fresh blood, causes human and wild animal hearts to beat faster and cascading effects to ripple throughout food webs.” 

Belly RiverThe ecology of fear was operative when a large grizzly left fresh (not 5-minute old) sign of its presence on the trail just ahead of us, as we were heading in to examine a wolf den (making clear that it had been watching us from the edge of the woods, while we stood on a river bank discussing the history of the landscape with Rob Watt, recently retired Park wildlife warden), or when I hiked alone in grizzly territory the next day.  Shorn of our weapons, we find ourselves somewhat beneath the top of the food chain.  “Wilderness areas” without the functional presence of large carnivores seem unworthy of that name, once one has hiked with the fear of getting eaten. 

I emerged from the wolf-songbird complex with more questions than I had brought into it—the kinds of questions that crop up on the incursions, or thorny bushwhacks, that science and literature make onto one another’s territory.  First of all, what of the elided part of Jeffers’s poem? 

It is not bad. Let them play. 
Let the guns bark and the bombing-plane 
Speak his prodigious blasphemies. 
It is not bad, it is high time, 
Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values. 

I can appreciate this poem for its implicit critique of “peace and love” nature sentiment, but not for its misanthropic transvaluation. Bringing poetry over to science to illustrate an ecological point seems innocent enough (though one strong claim an ecopoetics might make is that it isn’t); science bleeding into ideology, possibly to “naturalize” its perspectives, feels far more dangerous. Eisenberg rightly sees that the only hope for a maligned species like the wolf is a scenario of co-existence with the ranching ways of the American west (however unlikely, though more likely than plain victory for the “environmentalists”)—whether the “ranching” be of cattle, wind or gas, amongst other resources. 

Cristina Eisenberg in the fieldSome powerful parties have taken an active interest in her research: might it be that her “top down” predatory model resonates all too well with their well-funded world view? (Eisenberg sets her research in what she calls the “crown of the continent,” and there is even some discussion in her book of “predator guilds” and of “trophic trickles”—the many pathways for energy movement that occur in systems with high biodiversity, like rainforests or coral reefs. Such figures resonate with an hierarchical perspective.) Within science, there is push-back for a more democratic “bottom-up” (resource-based) model, which has been the standard for wilderness management to date. 

I am reminded of a survey Michael G. Barbour conducted of ideological leanings amongst scientists active in the debate between “communitarian” (Clementsian) and “individualist” (Henry Gleason’s) hypotheses for plant distribution and ecological succession, which leanings it turns out did break down along predictable cold war lines (see Barbour’s essay, “Ecological Fragmentation in the Fifties,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon). Eisenberg herself hardly fits the mold of apologist for the oligarchs, however: she likes to point out how her findings can be inconvenient for all sides of the equation—for environmentalists, ranchers, and landscape managers alike. 

I also wonder how the theory of the wolf-songbird complex, and Eisenberg’s approach to it, gets inflected by the gender gradient in science (persistent under-representation of women in research and leadership), just as one could ask about the gender gradient in relation to research conducted by men. As Eisenberg’s book makes clear, without belaboring or even mentioning the point, the world of conservation science is largely (to date) a man’s world. Hopefully her work is changing that; in what ways (if any) does the gender gradient affect her work as a scientist? 

Bear signBut it is unreasonable, and possibly the worst form of anthropomorphism, to expect human ideals, ethics and problems to map onto the other-than-human world. (Non-western cosmologies have their own way of acknowledging and negotiating the disconnect—as in the “discrepant engagement” Nathaniel Mackey locates in Stephen Feld’s ethnography of Bosavi Kaluli poetics.) Harmonious visions of lions laying down with lambs or grizzlies playing with humans have their Samuel Palmeresque, or Timothy Treadwellesque, appeal but are ultimately offensive to an ecology grounded in real interactions, especially given humanity’s rapacious devastation of the planet. 

From a global perspective, of course, humans are at the top of the food chain. And that is another one of my questions: isn’t it at the same time destructively misleading to perpetuate the romance of “dangerous” wild animals? When humans clearly are the most dangerous species on the planet. (And how come there’s no beneficial “trophic cascade” from this human predator?) It turns out that many of the folks I spoke with in Alberta, who have long and close experience with grizzlies, agree: fear of bears, cougars and wolves is a confection of the sensationalist media, with very little statistical basis. Though surely the fascination with “bear attacks” and the like does tap into something hardwired over millennia of evolution into the human brain. 

Ecocritic and philosopher Timothy Morton has called for a more gothic pursuit of “dark ecology,” a discourse where the “ecology of fear” might find its edge. As he writes, in response to Juliana Spahr’s “Gently Now Don’t Add to Heartache” (from Well Then There Now):

“And we realized that from the very beginning of our history, we had been androids. There never was a Nature from which we are now separated.
This subjective destitution is happening precisely at the moment at which we achieve ecological planetary awareness. 
Oh fuck.

. . . then we reached an even worse conclusion:
Not only had we done it, caused the ecological catastrophe, the Anthropocene,
But we didn’t even have the feeling of existential weirdness to rely on.
This was because our subjective destitution turned out to be a basic feature of reality
Not some special prize for being human, as Heidegger had argued.
Every blasted thing in the universe was an uncanny monster carving out its reality ruthlessly.”

Though one should note that Gary Snyder has been making this call—if lacking the black lipstick and chrome nails—for years. As he stated in a recent conversation with Jim Harrison, “Life in the world is not just eating berries in the sunlight. I like to imagine a depth ecology that would go to the dark side of nature, the ball of crunched bones in a scat, the feathers in the snow, the tales of insatiable appetite.”

Cougar shot by James GarnerWhat does the ecology of fear sound like? Can poems open themselves to the dark sounds of the environment? Might such ecology actually sound bright rather than dark? Would a posthumanist prosody consider the sounds of “subnatures”—those “other,” entropic natures embedded in our sometimes aggressively vitalistic approaches to listening? What about non-acoustic “sounds”?  What would it mean to write a poem sharpened by the wolf’s tooth? (And by that I don’t just mean the metaphorical wolf—of poverty and social insecurity—in whose mouth most poets are already writing. At the figurative level, I’d be more tempted to speculate about the cascading “trophic” effects of poets on the literary ecosystem.) 

Nature, says Darwin, is an entangled bank—so is the encounter between poetry and science, and one thing a posthumanist prosody is sure to amplify is the noise in the space between disciplines. What poets today are working this entangled bank? 

I took a passel of poetry books into the field with me that I thought might especially speak to dark ecology and the entangled bank.  Let me close with excerpts from some of these books, books I hope to discuss at further length, elsewhere in these Commentaries. 

Biologists on the plateau 
studying wolf 
incursions from Idaho 
keep the name-taboo active— 
‘visitors from the north’ 
then photograph pawprints, send scat to the lab— 
or where did you sleep last night
in the pines with the sinewy long-limbed one? 
parda grammatica 
her language in urine marks 
Wolf did I know the lexicon 
could read it off rocks with my nose 
would you still prove anamika 

High Lonesome Ranch 
DeBeque, Colorado  

Andrew Schelling, From the Arapaho Songbook (La Alameda Press, 2011) 

Watching mink by the Belly River

There are two worlds — one diurnal 
and that other world, where lunar 
mottled eels stir like dreams in shallow 
forest water. Allowing both to continue, 
we painstakingly remove and replace their 
parts with corresponding and interlocking 
absences. The glass machinery equally full 
of allusion to our summer carnality, 
an infinite part of the pattern 
that regenerates itself with its own 
repetitive logic. 

Christopher Dewdney, The Natural History (ECW Press, 2002) 

In the study area

We descend on a field by a lake. a hoosh The lupin, sleep, the fog. a ha Fireflies, silent moths. We bury our legs in sand. Sound through sand is dormant. We desire sleep to enter, virginal. 

 We stretch our feelers toward the warm body. a a Slowly, hands fog-damp spin plants, form air-filled hollows, breath cocooned, fur soft and blurred, heavy even heavenly. hoosh Soft like quiet. ha 

 Soft like we quiver. 
. . .

a night in th life of comma or croceus or maera or cossus cossus or mormo maura. words breed above a bled. l’s sneak in, words bleed pulp. breath like wool. breath like thighs, sewn tight. breath cocooned. lull to sleep nd brighten dreams. or f, nd fl. sleep nd flighten. sleep or silk. ilken sleep of slumberflies’ shantung nd tussah lungs. thick sheets of lungs. each complexhale slo-mo. hypervocal verberate. 

a. rawlings, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists (Coach House Books, 2006) 

Cameron Lake

Coming over a ridge, Joseph saw two pale animals, their heads hanging down and thick with brown dreadlocks. There were drinking from a river with a pack of wolves. A twig snapped underfoot as Joseph strained to look but at that moment, the animals fled, in one sharp curve, back into the green. At night, the animals came once again to drink. In his hide, Joseph shivered. He could not see them clearly but he knew they were there. In the moonlight, the wolves and their companions were whitish, with eyes that shone when they turned toward him, mildly, reflexively. Blue. 

Bhanu Kapil, Humanimal (Kelsey Street Press, 2009) 

bear tracks beside human tracks

Thrashing disability— 
Torn when edges 
Remora mound where body
 | Went was covered 
In grassy expanse 
 | Fangs 
Hail havoc 
We exchanged feline brains
—A twin incarnate coat 
Cerebellum wished
 | Changed into globe 
To spin worlds | 
—Duchess of forearm agape 
Clever nebulae which govern literacy 
I cling unapologetically to liberty (macro)—
Tiny pewter speck 
Been dead, bones heave 
 | As slay coats each mirror morning 
 | Muscles and nerves alternating liberty’s current 
Other epidermis orders leather 
Hierarchy subject to anarchy 
See crowns tossed
Take care, take back  our commons |

Brenda Iijima, from “Panthering,” If Not Metamorphic (Ahsahta Press, 2010)

Combo no. 4 detail

Culminating in an all-Flarf twelfth issue, Combo is known to have been the first print publication to gather a full collection of Flarf poems. Published in the same year as K. Silem Mohammed’s Deer Head Nation (poems from which were also first published in Combo) the magazine stands as the original print vehicle for the listserv-generated poetry movement. Magee’s Flarf manifesto “Mainstream Poetry” is first published here, and the editor’s and contributor’s notes are ideally suited to the collection (see Combo no. 12). As Jordan Davis writes in his 2004 Village Voice article “O, You Cosh-Boned Posers!”:

Magee's small-press magazine Combo broke the flarf story first, in early 2003. A significant finding in that issue, currently required reading for Charles Bernstein’s literature students at the University of Pennsylvania, is that Google searches on the phrase "aw yeah" yield more socially acceptable results as the number of w's in "aw" increases.

From the fascinating mixture of emerging poets in the early issues to the formation of a group aesthetic in the last issues, Combo is essential reading for major developments in poetry around the millenium. Magee's own manifesto poem "Mainstream Poetry," as timely today as when published in 2003, can serve as the best introduction to the moment.

Publishing new poets in each issue, the magazine features an impressive roster of works by Bruce Andrews, John Ashbery, Nathan Austin, Amiri Baraka, David Baratier, Eric Baus, Bill Berkson, Anselm Berrigan, Daniel Bouchard, Jules Boykoff, Taylor Brady, Lee Ann Brown, Nicole Burrows, Louis Cabri, Fran Carlen, Nate Chinen, Jessica Chiu, Barbara Cole, Clark Coolidge, Yago Said Cura, Rachel Daley, Catherine Daly, Maria Damon, Jordan Davis, Jacques Debrot, Katie Degentesh, Albert Flynn Desilver, Ray DiPalma, Mark Ducharme, Patrick Durgin, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Laura Elrick, Andrew Epstein, Brett Evans, Bill Freind, Romina E. Freschi, Heather Fuller, Kristen Gallagher, Sergey Gandlevsky, Drew Gardner, Alan Gilbert, Michael Gizzi, Loss Pequeño Glazier, Laura Goldstein, Nada Gordon, E. Tracy Grinnel, Carla Harryman, Matt Hart, John Heon, Mitch Highfill, Jen Hofer, Mytili Jagannathan, Summi Kaipa, Alex Katz, Vincent Katz, David Kellogg, Rodney Koeneke, David Koppisch, Susan Landers, David Larsen, Sara M. Larsen, Alex Lavigne-Gagnon, Ben Lerner, Carl Lombardi, Lisa Lubasch, Carl Martin, Pattie McCarthy, Chris McCreary, Mark McMorris, Paige Menton, Sharon Mesmer, Phil Metres, Ange Mlinko, K. Silem Mohammad, Jonathan Monroe, Harryette Mullen, Christopher Mulrooney, Sheila Murphy, Jason Nelson, Alice Notley, Jena Osman, Eugene Ostashevsky, Gil Ott, Ronald Palmer, John Parker, Bob Perelman, Kristin Prevallet, Dmitry Prigov, Randy Prunty, Rachel Raffler, Tom Raworth, Kit Robinson, Lev Rubinshtein, Mark Sardinha, Standard Schaefer, Prageeta Sharma, Lytle Shaw, Kerry Sherin, Rod Smith, Katherine Steele, Brian Kim Stefans, Chris Stroffolino, Gary Sullivan, Abigail Susik, Sara Thacher, Lorenzo Thomas, Edwin Torres, Rodrigo Toscano, Elizabeth Treadwell, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Shawn Walker, and Mark Wallace.

Find the full run of Combo available for download here.

Selections from Combo

Kristen Gallagher, from Combo no. 1:


Editor's Note (Michael Magee), from Combo no. 2:

In thinking of how this second issue of COMBO took shape, I'm reminded of something Nate Mackey wrote: that "creative kinship and the lines of affinity are much more complex, jagged, and indissociable than the totalizing pretentions of canon formation tend to acknowledge." Good. There's hope then for a community which doesn't resemble a club. I wanted my own editorial predilections to be mediated as much as possible. It wasn't cacophony I was looking for but some pattern based on antiphonies. The community implied by our first issue was a place to begin and then maybe we'd just see what happened, what sorts of conversations developed post-dlistribution. Not to imply passivity — O'Hara's warning: "One must not be stifled in a closed social or artistic railway station waiting for the train." Creeley's prescription: "any 'we' must, willynilly, submit to the organic orders of its existence." [...]

The missing element now is audience. These are difficult poets who care about readers — a contradiction to those who do not see the poem as a participatory arena. But I would say this: any static between interpretation and intention is less like scraping friction and more an issue of distance between radio and signal; one imagines space being the variable and deciding factor between noise and reception: music becomes a matter of moving on, adjusting the dial, directional guesswork. Difficulty, then, is related to poetry's potential agency, its ability to affect, set in unanticipated motion, an audience: the difference between "eating that fig newton changed my life" and "eating that wrench changed my life" is what I have in mind. Let there be a few wrenches between us, a series of necessary adjustments, in the getting there.


Clark Coolidge, from Combo no. 3:


Loss Pequeño Glazier, from Combo no. 3:


Eugene Ostashevsky, from Combo no. 7:


Editor's Note (Michael Magee), from Combo no. 9:


Lytle Shaw, from Combo no. 10:


Editor's Note (Michael Magee), from Combo no. 11:

I had wanted to touch on so many things here: on the poems which have begun to articulate a politics valuable in its refusal to meet the rational, euphemistic obfuscation of mediaspeak on its own terms. I thought again of something Frederick Douglass had said, "At a time like this, scorching irony, not convinc- ing argument, is needed." Thought too about those poems which seem to eschew politics, willfully, for the invented spaces where, to quote Bemstein, "the mouse chases the cat," testament, perhaps, to the poems prophetic role, the extemporization of altematives. (The ghost of "traditional" — formal, canonical? — poetry seems everywhere in this new issue. A salvaging, a writing through? Make of it what you will but look too to the answers Kasey Mohammad provides in his wonderful review essay.) [...] Again, I feel as if I am merely talking around the real significance of the work. So much the better, I guess, "go find out for yourself' — which, as Creeley once pointed out, is the meaning of historein, root of "history."


from Combo no. 11:


Michael Magee, from Combo no. 12:

Mainstream Poetry
After Baraka

Poems are, like, total bullshit unless they are
squid or popsicles or deer piled
on elk in the trunk of David Hasselhoff's
Cutlass Sierra. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. MAINSTREAM poems
and they are USEFUL — Great if you like
having a Popsicle stuck in "I love George Bush," like,
the popsicle squid goes "gong" when all the other
dishes run out of toilet paper, how far can Bush go
with a squid up his motherfuckin ass - see what I mean?
We want LIVE world wide words of the MAINSTREAM ready
to sink her teeth into the flesh of our Deputy Defense Secretary
Paul Wolfowitz when the napalm in his blood
starts cooking. I could kill an entire day
with a popsicle stick and a small jar of insignificant
brain cells lost in the 70's by George W. Bush. We want
poems like epileptic Pokemon fits on Walmart's
lingerie racks, MAINSTREAM poems to smear on
a photo spread entitled the "Women of Enron," to showcase 50%
Chance Of May Rate Hike whose numbers are
Glycerin Suppositories between the ass cheeks of
Justin Timberlake — Check it out! Photos, Soundtracks, Video Clips,
Fan Boards and More! Fucked-up poems that everybody understands
like "The Morality Of Money 4:46 pm CD Sludge UQ
Wire: Kissinger - Bloody Hands," cavity searching the man himself
with the broken off end of his Run-DMC glasses and
sending the swab sample to the Olson Twins for analysis.
Knockoff poems for Sindhis and Baluchis, Kurds, hundreds of
Brittany fans, some in full cowboy dress with a smattering
of applause from the Tekken Anime fans doing
their 5 Kick Massacre sidethrow, clutching their throats
and puking themselves into eternity "as TV Heroes
safe from these Viagra rimshrooms proceed
to kick the Bard's ass in a Tom Hanks Bison-Death" — sub-
way poems like, "Aw yeeh, got my NASDAQ petunias
AAWWWL mixed up, woah, thass nice, flufffy lil
mestizo couch doing the ROLAID smooch in my NAWSTRils,
hhuh hauh ,,, Mkaeing some TYPos, cuz i wasnna be PRASSident of
the Ungdidtyedf Stsnaatesand go to coleege with a ANDROiD bitch!!!!!!"
Our Greatest Poet is pinned to a comfy chair at his favorite
hangout spot, a Barnes & Noble Cafe in Louisville Kentucky
reading a poem that begins, "I love shopping
in Brooks Brothers, oh, / and I found the cutest
sheer / cappuchino colored button" . . . rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . .
In his award-winning epic poem he revisited
Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, relocating to
Gap Kids . . . rrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . .

Aggghhh . . . searches Google . . .
Put it on him MAINSTREAM poet!  Strip him nayKlD
to the world wide world. Another MAINSTREAM POEM cracking
squid tentacles upside the tea-stained skulls of the
FAKE-ASS MAINSTREAM . . . poem scream
Son ecologistas; y Jorgito Bush es todo, "izquierdosos, moros,
Archienemigos," — Que puta mierda. Me cago en Bush
y los 365 santos del ano!! Llego tarde a la iglesia!
EI jodido televisor no funciona!
Tongue-kiss the MAINSTREAM world for love.
Let their be no non-mainstream poems written until
love can exist freely on the headstones of Nixon's inner
circle.  Let MAINSTREAM PEOPLE understand
that they are the lovers and the daughters and sons
of lovers and workers and children
of workers Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world

We want a MAINSTREAM poem. And a
Let the world be a mainstream poem
And Let All Mainstream People Speak This Poem


'Secession' no. 8

Accompanied by editors Kenneth Burke, John Brooks Wheelwright, and Matthew Josephson (often operating under the nom de plume Will Bray), Secession moved in upredictable directions over the eight installments of its premeditated two-year run. Munson writes:

Beyond a two year span, observation shows, the vitality of most reviews is lowered and their contribution, accomplished, becomes repetitious and unnecessary. Secession will take care to avoid moribundity. (Secession no. 1, 25)

Secession, no. 2

from Secession no. 2, 32:
Secession aims to be neither a personal nor an anthological magazine, but to be a group organ. It will make group-exclusions, found itself on a group-basis, point itself in a group-direction, and derive its stability and correctives from a group. True, is has as yet no detailed manifesto and no organized  group behind it. Its writers are scattered all over th world and have no common headquarters or generally sanctioned plans. Yet if one examines the writings of Kenneth Burke, Malcolm Cowley, E. E. Cummings, Foster Damon, Mark Turbyfill, the first two numbers of Secession, it is clear, I think, that there is a sizable corps of young American writers working substantially in the same direction, battling with similar problems, and achieving results which can be assembled in a fairly homogeneous review. Secession exists unreservedly for these and their kin.

Secession, no. 4

from Secession no. 4, 30:
For secession is not revolt. It is rather a resignation from a milieu whose objects are other than ours. It is an unemotional sloughing-off by writers who profit by the gains of that milieu, but have never been bound to it. It is, in essence, a prompt deviation into immediate esthetic concerns. Our warfare is not denying, but tangential.

Secession, no. 2

from Secession no. 5, 26:
                             To Secession.
Every man, it is prophesied, must eventually become his own brewer. Certainly, every man must already import his own art from Central Europe. The Dial, as official importer, lands too many dead fish .... Portrait of Richard Strauss by Max Liebermann (geboren 1847, now President of the Berlin Academy of Arts), Richard Specht on Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig on Dickens .... we produce this sort of stuff in vast quantities on this side, too. I recommend as a counter-irritant the Hungarian activist review, MA, edited by Ludwig Kassák. MA excels in experimental typographical composition, reproduces the latest work of Moholy-Nagy, Raoul Haussmann, Jacques Lipshitz, Picabia, Van Doesburg, Mondrian, Gleizes, Léger, Tatlin, Viking Eggeling, Man Ray, the Russian constructivists, and photographs of beautiful bridges, machines, and New York, and publishes translations from the avant-garde writers — in Germany, France, Russia and America, the last being represented so far by Malcolm Cowley, Gorham B. Munson, and William Carlos Williams.

Secession, no. 4

from Secession no. 6, 19:
Mr. Frank Shay complains that the size and shape of Secession make it too easy for his customers to “lift” copies from his shop. While we are proud to have a circulation among thieves, we beg our impecunious patrons to divert their activities to Brentano’s, who are better able to stand the loss.

Secession, no. 5