Reviews - June 2011
A review of 'Ventrakl'
To quote Christian Hawkey’s quotation of Jean Laplanche:
The movement of auto-translation, the drive to translate (Trieb zur Übersetzung — to use Novalis's term) issues, springs up, not from the translator but from this untranslated or this imperfectly translated [text], which endlessly demands translation. (41)
Ventrakl is obsessed with the idea of translation (and its discontents). It interrupts itself so consistently with critical theory on the subject — not to mention archival photographs, imagined interviews, and poems — that you soon realize the book is entirely composed of interruptions.
For Hawkey, the act of translating from one language to the next has to be blatant. The poem is to be changed irrevocably if it is going to make it across the language barrier — not to mention the century gap between Trakl and his newest translator — with the same “spirit” intact. Though the final product looks completely different — the difference between a house and houseboat — Trakl’s still in it.
After all, any form of translation is inherently flawed, and the author celebrates that fact by filling his book with as many imperfect processes as possible: poems churned through an online translation engine; poems made of every line Trakl wrote that mentions the colors red or yellow ("Redtrakl," "Yellow Trakl"); and even poems made of what remained after leaving a book "outside to decompose over a full year in a glass jar filled with rainwater" (8). All these methods force the reader to trust the translator's premise that this is the poetry of Trakl, though you are provided with little proof. For example, "Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens" does not directly correlate to any of the poet’s collections; instead it translates Trakl’s obsession with orphanhood:
1. It is difficult to think in the presence of an orphan.
2. It is difficult to think in the presence of the word "orphan."
3. It is like trying to think in the middle of an earthquake, trying to think about something other than what is happening, especially when what is happening is the repeated disturbance of the very ground of thought.
4. Some orphans become orphans, while others, despite being born, are born orphans, and still others are both born orphans and become orphans.
5. These orphaned orphans are the orphans with stillness-mittens (the ground is shaking). (96)
Like many poems in the book, “Reasons Why Orphans” elaborates on a theme from Trakl, rather than presenting one translation for one poem that he wrote. The last poem in Ventrakl, "Grodek," is the only occasion where the English translation appears side by side with the German original. It literally stops the book:
Die ungebornen Enkel.
is translated as:
The grandchildren — unborn. (148)
Here, the words match up quite neatly, but it’s Hawkey's differences — from/of/with the Austrian poet — that drive this book. And it's those same differences that put Ventrakl in conversation with all of Trakl's former English translators, who make an interesting bunch. That lineup includes (among others): Michael Hamburger, the great Celan translator immortalized in Sebald's Rings of Saturn; James Wright and Robert Bly, the dynamic duo of the Midwestern deep image; Robert Grenier, the father/uncle of the Language School poets beloved for his minimalist epic A Day at the Beach — all of whom appear in the 1983 volume Georg Trakl: A Profile, edited by Frank Graziano.
A Profile begins with a question by Rainer Maria Rilke, writing on Georg Trakl: "What could he have been?" (Trakl, 7) — which is apt. What kind of figure could attract and marry the avant-garde tendencies of Grenier with the rural/lyric placidity of James Wright? Hawkey attempts to answer this question by marrying those two aesthetics himself. Poems like “Grodek” are paired with more bizarre translations, such as “Rosencrantz: A Western” or “You Bend My Megahertz,” whose titles alone address the range of permissible interpretation.
The nonstandard translation has its own traditions as Hawkey, in his introduction, points to the work of Jack Spicer, Louis Zukofsky, Anne Carson, and David Cameron, whose Flowers of Bad stands out as a particularly dedicated "bad translation" (Cameron's own phrase). Cameron, for example, takes Baudelaire's poems and puts them through chance operations to create works that are the spawn of the great French poet, if translucently so. Hawkey puts Trakl through similar filters, though his methods don't reveal themselves immediately. The resulting language is more Hawkey’s than anyone else's.
In Ventrakl, he echoes Rilke's question:
The question of what?
Of who is speaking.
Who is writing then?
Who is. (37)
Who is writing is the translator.
1. See W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 1999); Robert Grenier, A Day at the Beach (New York: Roof Books, 1985); and George Trakl, Georg Trakl: A Profile, ed. Frank Graziano, trans. Robert Grenier, Michael Hamburger, David Luke, and Christopher Middleton (Durango, CO: Logbridge-Rhodes, 1983).
A review of 'Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes'
I struggled with this review for a very, very long time. Both Jeffrey Side and Jake Berry's aesthetics are deeply invested in maximizing each reader's unique contribution to the process of meaning-making, and both would vehemently resist any effort that might seem to reduce a poem to a "stable and finite" reading. Side in particular has powerfully encouraged readers to resist merely being "passive witnesses," and to consciously search out "less obvious or appropriate" meanings.
The problem is that a review would seem to work against this aesthetic principle because, by definition, it privileges a single, authoritative interpretation: "Like this poem because I liked it;" "Look for the elements that I found most interesting;" "Mistrust the elements that I found offputting."
I've tied myself in knots trying to avoid the ethical paradox of publishing a review that is a univocal, potentially stultifying, interpretation of a ferociously polyvocal text -- and the result is less a review of Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes than a review of my reading of Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes.
In the interview released on Jake Berry's blog "9th St. Laboratories," Berry and Jeffrey Side variously describe the long poem Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes as "a conversation," "an amalgam," "a poetic symbiosis," and "a work that would have been impossible by either of the poets alone." Side describes the creation of the poem in terms of musical improvisation: a "spontaneous 'call and response' approach, whereby we would each simply respond poetically to what the other had written." The poem would be mailed back and forth between the authors, each adding something new. Even after the text of the poem was finalized, the organic artistry of the volume continued to evolve through Rich Curtis' contribution of eight visual images and Bill Lavender's orchestration of the layout and design.
The final product is very much a collaborative effort, yet the poem itself is a lyric "quasi-narrative," the single narrator an unnamed "I" in circular, polyvocal conversation with himself. Narrative hints suggest that the poem is voiced by a paranoid schizophrenic man in a psychiatric ward, physically trapped but mentally traveling across continents and through time -- "hiding" while "on the run" (22, 23, 40, 41) from unidentified assailants that may be the ward supervisors or may be wholly imaginary.  Because the tale is told from his fractured, inconsistent point of view, it is never clear whether the hospital is literal or metaphoric (or, indeed, how/if the distinction might be relevant).
The poem is full of decisive statements that somehow avoid meaning decisively, and the opening lines foreground Barry and Side’s aesthetic of making/unmaking:
could not be effaced
by the quality
of her clothes. (9)
The apparently simple statement -- a claim on behalf of "her dignity" -- is actually negated by the narrator's defensive tone. Instead of affirming her status, it invites a series of undignified questions, most importantly: What is wrong with her outfit? In effect, the poem opens in negative space, stressing a sense of absence rather than moving forward with a cohesive plot.
The mysterious woman’s dignity is further undercut by the next lines, but, again, only indirectly. The narrator does not say anything against her, but his choice of language pushes her into the background, further obfuscating her concerns and feelings behind an overwhelming self-preoccupation:
I knew this
back near the border
when I was not satisfied.
I recommend highly
a new approach
to the situation.
Such was the time
spent together. (9)
Throughout, Cyclones draws attention to readerly expectations without catering to them. Side and Berry's poem offers just enough of a narrative form to indicate story-ness, but it withholds the kinds of detail that would make up a clearly denoted plot.
The woman of the opening line is mentioned on several occasions, but her significance is all but lost in a narrative that is also a high-speed whirling psychological cyclone, tangled with narrative detritus: bits and scraps of half-memories ("I remember, but I do not recall" 11); pained, introspective questions ("Was freedom as tangible then/as I remember it being,/now that/it is so elusive?" 21); otherworldly proclamations ("The greatest difficulty/may be with the terraces/or the third,/secret hand,/of the gardeners/ that tend them." 17); and allusions so oblique as to be uncertain ("I didn't bother to answer/or even turn away/from the window./I learned long ago/to distinguish between/strong memories and/whatever the world is," 27).
The absence of a familiar, intellectually comprehensible plot contributes towards a raw, visceral sense of readerly disorientation and vulnerability. In Berry's terms:
By its very nature art is subjective -- that is what makes it work so well and gives it such long life. We can appreciate cave paintings from 30,000 years ago, each of us in our own way. How many theories have survived that long? […] Even in its ideal environment theory is just a collection of ideas that may or may not be validated. Art, at least for me, works the other way around. Though an artist might make preliminary sketches, and a poet might revise, without the inspiration -- the air one inhales -- that which comes from outside -- the artist is damned to repeat the past, to reproduce what is known. […] Whether the artist or poet accomplishes it or not, he or she should always try to discover something. Perhaps that discovery is old news to someone else, but that doesn't matter. At the very least the work will be charged with the enthusiasm of that moment of discovery.
In Side's terms:
A satisfying poem is one that enters your mind and turns the key to your imagination. It enables you to find specific meanings and emotions that only you can recognize because they are filtered through your memory traces. A poem that fails to satisfy does the opposite: it tells you what it is about, the feelings you are to feel and the understanding you are to have. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that you can use to paraphrase every thought you have had, are having, and will have. The words should be twisted, stretched, moulded and freely associated to mean anything you want them to mean. In this way you become, in effect, a creative talent in your own right-you write the poem as you read it, so to speak.
At every turn, Cyclones enacts an aesthetic that demands readerly involvement because the text is tenuously suspended around gaps, elisions, and highlighted erasures. Even in the layout, Bill Lavender carefully and humorously spaced the page breaks so that the enjambment interferes with a reader's ability to process the poem as a linear narrative. A reader may flip back and forth -- mentally and sometimes physically leafing between pages to re-conceptualize images that have been carefully built up on one page and substantially modified by an unexpected final phrase on the next.
of her now
the inevitable (10)
The very dry visual joke works at two levels, both to lighten the slightly lugubrious narrative tone and to "distance" the rather grim narrator -- who ostensibly controls dialogue -- from the mischievous artists (Berry, Side, and Lavender) who control both narrator and the mise-en-scène of the published page.
Throughout, Cyclones treads a very fine line between "inchoate" and "incoherent."  It skims from point to point, moral to moral, swirling with non sequiturs and sustaining no stated purpose beyond the self-evident act of storytelling. There are few moments of relative clarity, but they primarily serve to highlight the overall refusal of clarity. For example, two sentences (given about a third of the way through) seem to offer readers one lens through which to interpret the mad narrator's struggle with "the institute" that confines him. In this passage, the careful deployment of academic language playfully/cynically conflates the physical safeguards that secure a high-risk psych ward with the intellectual assessments and conventions that define a typical university campus and, perhaps more to the point, a literary canon:
Me, I tried
to enter into things
but my maps
and the institute
Now I am
who have denied me
within the hallways
of pedantry. (18)
The lines echo a 2008 interview with Jake Berry:
There seems to be two kinds of poetry in the academy these days. One of them has been there for a while; the anecdotal, usually free verse or some modification, that was originally associated with the Iowa School. The other is Language Poetry. Both have produced some excellent work. As with anything that succeeds and succeeds in being taught, the second and third generations produce work that isn't as strong as the first. Innovation comes from the outside, but by the nature of the institution, the work becomes formulaic. Students try to reproduce what they are taught to please their teachers. […] I suppose that every poet hopes to compose great poetry and every publisher hopes to bring great poetry to light, but there is no road map.
If to willfully discard the roadmap is to risk ostracism from the hallways of pedantry, then it is possible to read the poem as an allegory of non-mainstream poetics: the narrator is always trying to find mental loopholes that will allow him to finally escape "the institute."
Alternatively, it is also possible to read the poem as a drawn-out metaphor for the difficulty of coming up with something new in language when language is already so overburdened with pre-set narrative arcs, given poetic forms, and mainstream priorities.
For the narrator, there is no escape from narrative conventions even though no one form, no one plot, no one image holds it all together. He must stitch together a reality for himself from the only pieces he can grasp -- a scattered confetti of learned narrative patterns: diary form ("As I went out this morning/I had misgivings/about Netscape"), medieval epic ("Over the hills/they came in hordes,/led by two men on horseback/with a cross emblazoned/on their chests" (35-6), spy thriller ("I was/intercepted/when I tried/to cross the border. […] you exposed/my cover/and left me here" 51), horror ("Last night/when the cold dark settled in/I lit it/and immediately/saw your shadow/move across the floor" 53), and many, many others. In 32 pages of text, there are 254 personal and possessive pronouns, including 146 uses of "I," "my," or "mine" -- as if the frenetic assertion of selfhood in the midst of pre-determined narrative plots, stock characters, and archetypal relationships will somehow constitute an identity. But the urgency of self-identification is muted by the frequent use of passive voice that distances both narrator and reader from the details of the (possibly imaginary) narrative action:
Now I hustle
through my days
to stay ahead
of the guards,
the dogs of cognizance
who know nothing at all
to masters that
none of us have seen
or believe to exist.
From my vantage point
on this promontory,
I can see all around.
Sometimes I look up;
sometimes I look down.
look too good.
That may be
from my condition. (22, 23)
Ultimately, every apparent narrative interpretation suggested by one part of the text is undermined by another. In this case, by juxtaposing very serious and frightening circumstances with bored, bland reflections, Berry and Side effect an unlikely and precariously balanced meterological/psychological ambiance of…panicked ennui. The narrator describes the drek of a vivid imaginative life flying at phenomenal, chaotic speeds, but notes it with calm, slightly quizzical detachment -- to read this poem is to watch the storm from the eye.
Rich Curtis beautifully captures this oxymoronic ethos in the cover illustration -- a taut, menacing funnel cloud writhes down from a luxuriously languid storm drawn in fat, slow, curly loops and whorls: lax urgency, frantic tedium, homey adventure, ardent indifference, rational insanity. The structural strength of the poem is in the sequence of impossible tensions because it enacts exactly the kind of "non-mainstream" poetic that Side advocates as the editor of The Argotist Online: "poetry that is aware of the plasticity of language and which places connotation and ambiguity over denotation and precision of meaning. This sort of poetry invites interpretation and allows for plurality of meaning as opposed to hermeneutic closure."  Or, to borrow the narrator's words: "Just at the moment/you think you have/discovered its physics/it explodes into/wild distortions -- " (30).
Enough symbols recur through the text to suggest that meaning is possible, but the symbols never relate in such a linear fashion as to define that meaning. For example, "hands" (literal, metonymic, and adverbial) appear six times: "the third/secret hand,/of the gardeners" (17); "We both played/our best hand then,/but I lost;/or did I really win?" (33); "any sharp implement/they had at hand" (36); "I cough into my hand" (47); "This blood/I look at/on my hand/now remains/for you" (51); "This blood/on my hand/speaks clearly" (52).
Tuberculosis. The red hand of Ulster. Caught red-handed. DNA analysis. Genetic mutation. Gambling. Uncertain stakes. Violence.
The ambivalent associations help create what Berry might describe as a poem that is also a "discovery," not just "the road less traveled" but something of an emotional and psychological "choose your own adventure." The energy of the poem is manifest in the fluid movement between half-related images ("wild distortions" 30) and declarations of identity that are also declarations of purpose ("I must pursue/something" 33).
The multitude of possible combinations are meaningful but unanchored, a pattern of fluid imagery that works toward an organic poetic that Berry has praised in the work of Michael McClure: "direct phenomena that reflects, is in wholeness with, the world through his concept of myriad mindedness and from that, through an alchemy is that is more biological than abstraction."
Having said that -- a fragmented narrative is neither formally nor conceptually innovative in its own right. It raises the stakes without determining the outcome: at best, the gaps in the narrative will inspire the reader to leap between them, forging an electric, emotionally and intellectually galvanizing, unreproducible poetic experience; at worst, the reader will be baffled rather than inspired, fail to connect emotionally, and find no resonance between the language of the poem and her/his own experience.
It is possible that the complexity of the mental exercise involved in reading this kind of poem inspires a more nuanced emotional reaction.
It is also possible that the mental exercise of recognizing and parsing out alternate meanings can act as a buffer to the reader's personal emotional response. A reader can treat a complex, connotative poem like a crossword puzzle to be solved rather than as an emotional stimulus.
I can see how Cyclones could be powerful for another reader, but my personal experience with Cyclones was anticlimactic. I didn't even hate it; I thought the language was banal. The poem opens in negative space, and I think it stays there. Throughout Cyclones, the elusive woman of the opening line incarnates a dozen patriarchal archetypes of woman-as-Other. But to demonstrate that many two-dimensional archetypes of "woman" exist in stock narratives is hardly provocative. As a feminist, I found it a bit dreary and disheartening.
Could these archetypes be deployed ironically? Yes. But ironic to what purpose?
The poem seems like an attempt to be "non-mainstream" that negatively demonstrates the inadequacy of the mainstream by reproducing it in pieces without achieving enough of a unique, positive aesthetic to become persuasively "otherstream." Yet even as I write this, I second-guess myself. If the reader is responsible for meaning-making, can there be "failed" poems or only "failed" readings? (failed readers?)
I worry that some heavily connotative poetics are only perpetuated because they punt any communicative or artistic failures to the reader, as if to say: "If you can't make magic with this, then you are 'mainstream,' lazy, and severely lacking in poetic imagination." Yet that statement seems to sell short the whole concept of poetry -- if it is all in the reader's head, why not make magic with the Reader's Digest? But I still worry that elements of that statement are probably accurate. [How can you tell whether the emperor is wearing clothes in language -- where there are no emperors or clothes that aren't manufactured in your mind?]
I didn't care for the aesthetic outcome of this particular poetic experiment, but it did push me to think about the relationship between the poem and the reader. A review is not the place for a full-blown theoretical quarrel, so I've corresponded with Side about some of my questions, and he agreed to post an interview that follows up on some of these questions in the Argotist Online. [link forthcoming]
The value of any texts' aesthetic to an individual reader is in what the reader chooses (and is able) to connect with in any given moment. Which is to say that I'm glad I read it, but I didn't like Cyclones. Chris Mansel, Matt Hill, and Bill Lavender loved it. 
You may love it.
Go read it and find out.
Berry, Jake. Blog. "New from Lavender Ink: Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes." 9th St. Laboratories <http://9thstlab.blogspot.com/> Posted 15 April 2010. (Accessed Aug 2010).
---. "Interview with Jake Berry, Editor of Outré, Artifact Collective Texts, Anomaly, The Experioddicist, and Currently 9th St. Laboratories." by Alan May. The Serials Librarian 55.1-2 (July 2008): 296-303.
---. Review. Michael McClure. 3 POEMS - Dolphin Skull, Rare Angel, Dark Brown. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/mcclure/mc-jb1.htm> 2 January 1996. Accessed Aug 2010.
Side, Jeffrey. "Abstraction and Ambiguity in the Lyrics of Leonard Cohen" <http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/side.html> 1998. Accessed Aug 2010.
---. The Argotist Online <http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/> Accessed Aug 2010.
5. Cf. Lord Dunsany, "The Wonderful Window" and "The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap" from The Book of Wonder (1912). Full text available here.
8. Lavender's sense of humor is even evident on the library page: "Copyright © 2010, Jeffrey Side and Jake Berry, all rites reserved" (2). The line is a recurring joke that prefaces all the Lavender Ink publications.
9. Cf. Side's blog "To Connote or Not to Connote." In this context, I use the term "inchoate" (suggesting that the text is not wholly unified in a narrative structure) to contrast with "incoherent" (suggesting that the text is incomprehensible).
14. "She" is the unattainable object of desire ("There would be/half a smile/and polite rejection" 9), the lost beloved ("I had a wife then,/and a son on the way./But to dwell on the past/just serves to bring/the present into grief," 18), the soul mate ("When I met her,/those first months,/we had/complete command/of the skies." 21), the object of regret and blame ("I hated my life/because of a beautiful woman" 28-9), the enchantress ("She bound me/so fast/that I half expected/to go mad." 33-4), the damsel in distress ("…I would find her/and save her/from these men/in case her love/became transferred/to them" 39), the sex worker ("…a picture of you,/scantily clad,/apparently/from a silent porno,/1920s." 47), the femme fatale ("You knew/I was never/a security risk/yet you exposed/my cover/and left me here/to bargain/for my freedom." 51), and so on.
16. Quotations available on Berry's blog
Reviews of Tichy, Tadić and Barskova
What does it mean to witness? What becomes of the object of an unsustained inquiry? Gallowglass, Susan Tichy’s fourth book of poems, tries for answers. It’s an afterwards-document of calamity and of a loss of understanding, charged with elegiac grief for one lost and with an enervated sadness at our country’s role in terrible violence in the Middle East.
Gallowglass attempts an ecological, rather than phenomenological, understanding of its subjects. When their material is emotionally severe or politically charged, many poets who use disjunctive forms are tempted to arrange the material into post-Romantic fragmentary flashes, self-dissolution, and apotheosis. (Examples of this kind of work include Martha Collins’s Blue Front and C. S. Giscombe’s Giscome Road.) The subjects of Gallowglass are about as severe and charged a project as a contemporary lyric collection could attempt — but, to Tichy’s credit, Gallowglass represents a rigorous effort to deal with systems (of society and nature) over sensations. The book wants to show us something.
Tichy grids British Isles ballads over the confused cruel grace of birds, our wars in Iraq over Afghanistan with our individual memory’s attempts at the “rescue of dead men” (78). This systematic quality to the language can be startlingly beautiful:
Camera a little too close to a cheekbone, face hidden by a microphone.
Graffiti here says Rich Stench. The singer rubs her thighs and can’t sit still.
There’s a kind of stunned afterglow, for minutes and then for years.
'Be taught by walking’ was the best advice, but my muddy boot left tracks across the carpet. (12)
But at other times, Tichy’s contrasts feel self-conscious and facile:
This is how I must learn to describe peace
A white stork down by the fish ponds
And a blond man in a bathing suit
With an Uzi propped on his hipbone (71)
The book is also riddled with attention-grabbing self-revisions (“Tapestry makes a landscape without depth. I copied that, but it came out death” ), spliced-in quotations (“‘In Encounter everything depends on Perseverance’ / So was that a sheep or a beaver with its mouth full of twigs?” ), and attempts at defining (“Reflective means you can’t see in” ). These feel like old tricks, uninteresting in the scale of the project. And few of Tichy’s interpolations from highland balladry add up to much, just a sense that deeds of battle and violence once called honorable now chill us.
Though the long, collage-heavy, formally regular poems that open the book include a few beautiful and alert moments, the most moving and thought-provoking portions of Gallowglass — the times when its ethical claims seem clearest — come towards the end. “Book, Land, Night,” written in shifting couplets, has a strong, terrible thread of feeling through it as Tichy follows the bearing home of a body:
Splinter of bark is a splinter of lightning
I listen to the birds in the walls, their dry
Fluttering I think must be
The washing of your corpse (67)
By the poem’s end, the portent of “strange headlights in the driveway” makes the reader’s stomach knot. And Tichy concludes Gallowglass with the best thing in it, “To or From,” an intensely physical account of accident and grief.
Not one question, not one nightmare
Skidding a body down five hundred feet of rock and scree
Or sipping tea in the quiet morning
Looking down that god-awful
Slope where the plane went down
Bagging pieces that had been men
You’d held a heart in your hand (77)
The reader is never shown the entire terrible story hinted at here. But throughout the poem, Tichy repeats the phrase “every object discipline,” and the poem does reach an animated focus much more intense and charged with questions than anything in the book’s more essayistic first half. “To or From” ends in space —
Sand on the road and a wind to lift it
This is the image of pause
This is the image of step (79)
— and the reader too is left hanging, out of breath.
So what’s next for Tichy’s poetry? As a systematic inquiry, Gallowglass is mixed, though the effort is enticing. A lyric collection situating America’s Middle Eastern wars in a natural and Western-historical order hasn’t been written yet; in the meantime, Tichy’s next subject of examination might yield more even and energized results.
Stanley Kunitz once said that poetry’s art is not anecdotal, but legendary: that the stories in poetry are magnified, mythic in contours even if not in scope; that they answer a longing not for simple recognition but for allegory or origin story.
Kunitz probably had narrative poetry like his own in mind when he made the claim. But such needs are also met in weirder, woollier poetries: there’s a legendish outsizedness in Lyn Hejinian’s long poems, in Kenneth Koch’s antics in “Nights and Days” and “Fresh Air,” or in the he-she dialogues of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Reluctant Gravities. I originate in grand conversations just like I originate in grand experience, and poetry still shows me how so.
Polina Barskova’s first English collection, This Lamentable City, introduces readers to a poet of legend. Readers meet the giants of twentieth-century Continental literature in her poems, meet angels (“those tall, sexless bitches” ), meet the Lord in a “dialogue / That won’t cease” (27). But Barskova’s voice, in poet Ilya Kaminsky’s English (cotranslators include Kathryn Farris, Rachel Galvin, and Matthew Zapruder), is bitter, ironic, body-eager in turns. Her legend isn’t stately, and it’s never dull.
We met on a Sunday, no not exactly,
we met before, but it wasn’t that either:
you drank coffee through a straw but it was more like
a poor bird stopping in to see a horse in a coat
and you took me by the took me by the took me by the hand … (29)
Polina Barskova and Ilya Kaminsky
This degree of verbal instability characterizes most of the poems here. Barskova magnifies and animates her material, but she doesn’t elevate it. Rather, humans’ “low” and “high” functions of the spirit — rage and anticipation, lust and intellectual argument — occur at the same level of sensation on every page.
I will become any object,
I don’t care what —
I will be this speeding train.
Or a beautiful gay man laughing in the front seat.
The human body is without defense.
It’s a piece of firewood.
Ocean water hits it.
Lenin puts it on his official shoulder. (9)
Notice that “I don’t care what”: separation in Barskova’s poems (death, loneliness, heartbreak) is faced with this same curious mixture of hunger, enthusiasm, and anger, as if the hugeness of our human feeling — its ability to reach forward and back in time — were more important than our objective bodied smallness. Russia’s history is a colossal presence in this work, but humans don’t feel tiny in it. There’s an animating voice that suggests life even in ruin, as in the middle of the short lyric “Moscow”:
To lose your belongings,
Wearing each shirt to a small hole.
To stand under the sky as if in a valley.
In dazzling light: a lonely toilet
Abandoned by human asses.
How plainly now speech pours! (27)
This Lamentable City is a weirdly conceived little volume. It comprises just ten bilingual poems, all in free translation — without the tight formal music of her Russian originals, which Kaminsky’s introduction praises. We’re told she’s written six books. Is This Lamentable City a poetic calling card, the first step in a process of bringing full volumes into English? I hope so; the translations here are fantastic. Kaminsky (disclosure: a former teacher of mine) once lectured a class: “When you translate a poem, don’t use English that an English speaker would use. Use English that an English speaker would love.” I speak no Russian, but the voice caught in these translations is appealingly fierce, funny, and unfamiliar, a credit to the translators’ obvious sweat and exactitude. I hope after City there’ll be more to hear.
Barskova makes unsteady affirmations; Novica Tadić (pictured below at right with translator Charles Simic) a poet of negatives. He doubts reason and faith, human brotherhood and the self. His poems — celebrated in his native Serbia, known in the States mostly through Charles Simic’s translations — are never explicit in their politics, but the oppressive realities of Balkan Communism and the Milosevic regime are present in every surreal image of decay, every spasm of violence. Ending one poem, a soldier sings “I’m a cross of human flesh / on which nothingness is crucified” (31). In another, a dead man is mourned: “May the earth be easy on him; / since it was only today that we noticed / he had been alive” (34). The title poem of his second English collection, Dark Things, portrays human impulse and urge itself in these constrained terms:
Dark things open my eyes,
raise my hand, knot my fingers ….
No force can revoke them,
untangle them, explain them. (15)
The speaker, in the grip of these nasty energies, can only observe wearily and bring the poem to a close.
Essential to the speakers of Dark Things is this knowledge and the distance that poetry permits. Tadić’s poems are never oracular or immersive, despite the visit from an occasional outside muse (such as his “Midnight Lady,” “covered with nets and shining scales” who sits on the speaker’s bed “as if it were her work table” ). As if seeking a difficult precision, the poems fasten to a tone or scene immediately, and rarely last more than twenty lines.
The book is skeptical, but never (as in procedural or post-Dada poetics) anarchic or destructive in spirit. Rather, any unity or force is to be doubted as an unhelpful metaphor. In this collection, we are only as substantial as we tell ourselves we are. So, what are the comforts of Tadić’s work? The poet finds peace in his own grubby, nattering mind, the possibility of fixity in memory (“This dream, I am not / bound to forget” ), and the offer of a stepbrotherly decency toward fellow humans, “the unbaptized of every faith” (31).
To a reader of contemporary American avant-garde poetry, the claims on the imagination in Dark Things seem small. But the poems are unfailingly affecting. Listen to the quiet, perhaps ironic, ending of “On a Train Station, Dream,” quoted here in its entirety:
Small, bent over, gray,
I’m sitting with arms crossed
on my luggage.
I ask nothing of no one.
Wait for no one.
I don’t know where I’ve come from
nor where I’m going.
In the trunk are my books,
in the suitcase my shirts.
I packed everything I had.
On my head I wear
a cap of many colors,
my great pride and joy. (52)
Poof! On — and maybe in — the speaker’s head, the poem’s only flash of color and feeling; a figure (like Wallace Stevens’s “tigers in red weather”?) for the enduring, flimsy, vivid life of the imagination.
That Tadić is the poet most celebrated (after the late great Vasko Popa) in Serbia says something about the role of the artistic spokesperson in the Balkan nations. Tadić’s readers won’t find gentleness or lyric beauty in his work, only the comfort of an acute, undeceived consciousness. The faces of our leaders change, but in these poems’ decayed world, only the products of the animated mind are ever truly new.
A review of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's 'Concordance'
In a 2003 interview printed in Jacket, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge noted, “For me, collaboration has been a wonderful way to open someone else’s sensibility, to use that openness like oxygen or ocean.” Concordance is such a collaboration and such an openness. It is comprised of two poems: the first, “Concordance,” a work by the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and the artist Kiki Smith, and the second, “Red Quiet,” a poem by Berssenbrugge. Berssenbrugge and Smith worked with the book artist Anne McKeown to create the work in its original form, a limited edition accordion book published by the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper. Kelsey Street Press published a trade edition of Concordance in 2006.
Concordance opens with the dedication “for the frogs and toads” and thus begins as an offering to creatures who live in both air and water and who appear as both word and image in the work. These double existences are not dualities as division but rather elements on a continuum of existence that Berssenbrugge and Smith amplify into a sensuous field of attention: “Attention gives light: shine on a baby’s calf; as he hears what I say, I become that,” Berssenbrugge writes in “Concordance.” The poem, written in three parts, inhabits the atmosphere of language and light shared between a speaker and listener, a writer and reader, between body and thought; it attends to the spatial and temporal phenomena that comprise relation. Berssenbrugge’s words and Smith’s images coexist to create a stunning ecology of plants, animals, people, water, air, light, idea, feeling, abstraction, concretion, and question.
Writing encounters one who
does not write and I don’t try
for him, but face-to-face draw
you onto a line or flight like a
break that may be extended,
the way milkweed filling space
above the field is “like” reading.
Because the text is so large, inhabiting the white space that surrounds verse, it is uncertain if the line breaks at the end of the page or has simply run out of room and runs over into the next line. The stanza may comprise a single line or it may be lineated verse. This formal uncertainty holds open both formal possibilities, and the stanza’s claim of “draw[ing] you onto a line or flight like a break that may be extended” resonates as the reader’s experience of the poem’s line. This possibility occurs as a question of relation, a “may be” that extends into existence. “Concordance” itself extends and co-extends; its images and text touch each other. The first “f” and tip of the “a” in “face-to-face” vibrate in a spot of blue ink, which suggests “milkweed filling space above the field,” which is “‘like’ reading.” The openness of the image allows the blue milkweed to resonate as flower or as sun or star. Ink, linguistic image, visual image, idea, and simile emerge in Berssenbrugge and Smith’s ecology as a web generating relations that the poem opens out. “Relation is in the middle, relay, flower description to flower”; these words appear on a page with a blue-feathered owl staring into the reader’s reading eyes. As you turn the page, the owl’s body and feathers extend onto the left margin of the new page. Here, transformation inheres in their presence; they recall the owl while also suggesting plant leaves bordering the text. Animal to plant. Smith’s image becomes both at once, and a single body opens out, transformed, across distinct planes into “asymptotic lines of the flights of concordances”: concordance as harmony, index, context, cross-reference, and genetic trace.
page details from Concordance (Kelsey Street Press 2006)
The poem is a concordance of surprising, feel-able relations and their bafflements: “I write to you and you feel me” and “For the first time, I write and you don’t know me.” The interesting possibility emerges in the work that feeling is a form of engagement that brushes up against and then runs askew of knowing. “Concordance” can be perceived as a textual and visual narrative of feeling thought. Thought becomes a share-able, sense-able experience in the work; it joins bodies and distinguishes them. Berssenbrugge writes, “Desire individuates through affects and powers I place on a page or plane of light vibrations, like a flowering field.” The “milkweed filling space above the field” that “is ‘like’ reading” is here inverted so that what is “placed on the page or plane of light vibrations” is “like a flowering field.” This chiasmic relation between field and text, text and field suggests “Concordance” as a space where the collaborative projects of printing — image and text — and perceiving produce a phenomenal field comprised of text, image, and one who engages them. In “Concordance’s” second section, Smith draws a hand as if reaching for a milkweed pod and milkweed filling the air, and in the third section, opened milkweeds appear, their shape turned substantial, grown the height of the page. This reach is the book’s beautiful work of opening. It is oxygen and ocean offered to the reader.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Photo: Kiki Smith. Courtesy of Kiki Smith and U.L.A.E.
“Red Quiet,” Concordance’s second poem, is also comprised of three parts. It is printed on semi-opaque, red crêpe paper with fibers that gather and loosen, creating a rippling effect across the page. The slight transparency of the page reveals layers of text emerging from the pages beneath it. This depth appears from the play of light on the surface of the open page, and it appears differently according to the lighting situation and position of the reader. The page seems alive to the poem printed on it, and this vibrancy creates a vibrating field: “If existence is vibration, everything creates sound — trees, heart cells,” Berssenbrugge writes. Vibrating “trees” and “heart cells” sound in and as “Red Quiet.” From the work’s responsiveness to light and its evocation of continuous sound, a singing, palimpsest-like poem emerges. In the poem’s field of resonating light and text, words are both ghostly and embodied. Berssenbrugge notes, “Words spoken with force create particles.” This force, particularized, becomes a form of warmth: “I send out an emotion of warmth, welcome, the way scientists erase sound with sound.” Berssenbrugge’s welcome sings in “Red Quiet.” And Concordance is a great warmth, a great welcome.
detail from Concordance (Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper 2006)
Josie Sigler's living
In her debut book of poems, Josie Sigler links life with violence, love with loss, and mourning with the natural progression of time. Published by Fence Books as the 2010 winner of the Motherwell Prize, Living Must Bury is a mixture of repeated phrases, historical flashes, and tragic endings linked by the universal experience of living. In these poems, it is the living who must exist in both the present and the past simultaneously, and Sigler’s poems provide ample space for both while challenging us to find beauty in the process of grieving.
Sigler reminds us that we, the living, must bury a host of people, objects, and memories, even (if not especially) the ones that cause us the most pain. The world she creates carries a heavy message for the living. We are repeatedly informed that we must bear the burden of interring all that the dead leave behind. This reality comes through a safe system of poems linked by traditional poetic devices and references to everyday encounters. Designed to guide the reader as we come to terms with the weight we share as members of those still here, Sigler’s book provides a number of lists of what it is the living must bury:
those who are infidels, who in summer once / turned wide circles in grass.
those who would be skewered like hogs if they failed.
those who covet coral
those who will discover trace amounts of urine in their Mountain Dew.
those fighting causes they disbelieve,
those lost, those anonymous, those dream-singers
Through the repeated phrase “those who,” an extensive inventory creates a sort of respite for the reader. Rachel Zucker calls this book a “strange, archaic, 3-D prayer; a lucid palimpsest,” and I agree: Sigler has crafted a work rich with layers. She has moments in which she places religion on top of nature on top of domestic violence:
those who sit through the piercing test for life in Christ’s side.
As in stigmata, the part of the pistil that receives the pollen,
9) the portion of a body that can withstand the hard pew
& after church, my grandfather prying the knife
from our drunken neighbor’s hands & the man weeping
on his knees to the howl of sirens. […]
Sigler frequently employs the couplet to create a meditative space for mourning and remembrance, a place where chanting these memories makes them more powerful. Throughout the book she catalogs violent acts and carnal pleasures, sits them squarely in the memory of the speaker, and recalls relationships and painful places — both her own and those of a distinguished sampling of figures. Dickinson, Plath, Sappho, and Woolf (to name a few) share spaces with Holocaust victims and those affected by war:
those with yellow fever. those whose bones surface like fans,
including those fornicating in places where there is such mud, […]
those shivering on the deck, those who were once stars.
those for whom crumbling is not an instant’s act,
a fundamental pause in which enlightenment:
a mother might sell herself.
It is the union of beauty and brute that brings Sigler’s work to life. She contrasts that which we cannot clearly define with that which we can only define with negative meaning, like the “rusted plow left in winter’s field” or the idea that “hoping love will save you” is a problem. It’s clear that one focus of Sigler’s work is death and its aftermath, but the book also pulls us into a space in which responsibility and desire are at odds.
those wives in church clutching their hankies, their purses, their children.
You know the women who hold onto the world like this.
They’ve married the wrong man, taken the wrong job,
walked down the street during the hour of wolves.
No white-knuckled embrace can save them, no good deeds,
no casseroles left steaming on porch steps.
This contrast provides a familiar dichotomy placing Sigler’s work in a position to redefine the conventions of palimpest-inspired poetry. Moving between figurative language and literal descriptions, the poems seem to have no true beginning or end. This recursive discourse forces the reader to move between the common and the uncomfortable for sixty-three pages. But Sigler does not attempt to trick or deceive her readers; she begins the collection with an epigraph from two poets, Jorge Luis Borges and Sylvia Plath. Together, the two provide an entry point into the idea that Sigler is creating a universe for her readers, one that is quick-moving like Plath’s poem “Getting There,” and one made up of a language Sigler intends to teach us by the end of the book. From Jorge Luis Borges: “If there is [a universe], we must conjecture its purpose; we must conjecture the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonyms, from the secret dictionary of God.” And from Sylvia Plath: “I shall bury the wounded like pupas, / I shall count and bury the dead.”
These kinds of moments ground the reader in sometimes earthy and other times transcendent moments blended so seamlessly that one is not sure if the encounter is with triumph or tragedy. And so the living are celebratory in that we continue to enumerate what must be buried while attempting to exist in the moments that Sigler so aptly defines as “the dank smell at the bottom.”