Reviews - November 2011

Perfecting dissatisfaction

A review of 'The Smaller Half'

The Smaller Half

The Smaller Half

by Marc Rahe

Rescue Press 2010, 75 pages, $14, ISBN 9780984488902

So-subtle but also entire avoidance of the ironic or deeply transcendent moment end-stops many of the poems in Marc Rahe’s spare and affecting debut, The Smaller Half.  More than just a show of resignation, refusal, or wariness of the comedic or the sublime, Rahe’s poems are reflective of the times in which we live. Why wish so hard for alternatives that don’t exist? Why indulge in the complex mysteries … when it’s hard enough to get the errands done, furnish your house, try to be good?

In a poem titled “Petition,” Rahe writes, “I’ve signed the petition against me” (16). Things are not as they seem. The doctor mentioned in the poem is not a doctor; she’s a maid. A description that the last signer of the petition was seeking revenge is quickly altered, too. He was actually in need of Security, with a capital S, of the Campus variety, and these cops seem to be hot on the speaker’s sweaty heels. Rahe writes,

I’m perfectly dissatisfied.
The fist in my chest clenches
and unclenches according to my medicine. (16)

So much is out of one’s control. Perfecting dissatisfaction, however — it comes off as stoicism, sometimes, and other times it’s tinged with obvious regret — is clearly a significant part of Rahe’s project.

In the poem “Dear Paul,” something terrible has happened to friends, and a previous encounter, one from youth, is described obliquely and formally: “The indecency surrounding that incident / makes me feel terrible shame” (21). Paul’s wife Joanna, we learn, was badly injured or killed in an auto accident. While the speaker’s concern is clearly pronounced throughout poem, his honesty in the direct address of the final stanza is genuine and surprising — more than a little sad, even off-putting.

My glass is empty now.
We arrive the second of August.
You won’t need to meet us.
All solace we may bring you,
we will then. (22)

So is it coldness or wisdom that compels the speaker of these poems to practice repeatedly many forms of avoidance? Or does Rahe simply nod along to acknowledge the fact we wish to deny or make excuses for; that it’s a challenge now more than ever for any of us to bond?

Much of our best poetry is intentionally deflective. But Rahe is sometimes able to deflect experience and open up to it simultaneously. Here is “Thrift Store” in its entirety.

Thrift Store

I am afraid for my life.

The exit sign is audible.

Second-hand clothes from the dead
and the living. I don’t know

that I can love a stranger.

Unrehearsed, never to be tried over.

Every pair of pants
affords a disappointment.

A stranger’s hope
that usefulness hasn’t faded.

I understand the longing. (37)

While we know he doesn’t really understand this “longing” — none of us does, really, until it happens, and probably not even then — Rahe is able to summon longing in its complexity and neatly shelve it for another day.

“I disappear everywhere I look,” Rahe writes, in his poem “Screen.” And that artful “now you see me and now you (and I) don’t” move is on display throughout this collection (55). Why does the speaker of these poems surrender so often and in so many ways? Because, in Rahe’s poems, the world is way too big, and the single person, the single voice, is far too puny, too powerless, in comparison.

At the end of the collection, Rahe writes, “sometimes when I’m waiting / I get patient” (72). Here and elsewhere he presents an exasperating lesson for readers taught to fight to reach the peak and against the dying of the light. No matter what challenges the culture imposes, somehow acceptance becomes an utterly complex contemporary stance Marc Rahe develops and even redefines throughout this memorable collection.

'A speck of behavior, a fleck of culture'

A review of 'Field Work: Notes, Songs, Poems, 1997–2010'

Field Work: Notes, Songs, Poems 1997-2010

Field Work: Notes, Songs, Poems 1997-2010

by David Hadbawnik

BlazeVOX 2011, 138 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60964-010-1

When Henry James wrote about “the state of the streets” in American cities at the turn of the twentieth century, he expressed over and over the difficulty of ever doing justice to the task. Faced with “a welter of objects and sounds” James in The American Scene claimed his powers of perception to be in such disarray that the semiotics of American manners eluded his grasp almost completely.[1] For James “there couldn’t be any manners to speak of” in cities defined by such violent congestion, such “unmitigated publicity, publicity as a condition, as a doom, from which there could be no appeal.”[2

In his new book Field Work, poet David Hadbawnik rises to the challenge that possessed James, as it has occupied so many literary ethnographers of American cities. Hadbawnik succeeds exactly because he hasn’t tried to summarize our patterns of public behavior, or to narrate cultural “truths.” As Clifford Geertz once wrote, “There are enough profundities in the world already”[3] Hadbawnikcaptures instead the most ephemeral surfaces of daily behavior, the tiny gestures and the subtle, split-second glances that communicate the ways in which we communicate with and avoid communicating with each other in public. Whereas James wanted to place the American scene into proper perspective, Hadbawnik jots the world down in the instant it peels off.

The urge to catch things, to save them from falling; first it was the leaf tumbling down as I walked to the bus stop, then it was the woman falling back in the aisle as the bus pulled away[4]

Hadbawnik’s notebook procedure is naturally well adapted to this urge. If Dziga Vertov assumed the task of the “man with a movie camera,” documenting social reality from a heroic perspective, Hadbawnik is that most unassuming man with a pocket notebook, looking out the window of a public bus stalled in perpetual traffic.

The woman made both of her dogs, huge Rottweilers, heel and sit on the curb even though the light was green. As soon as they sat, she got them up and hurried them across the street (64)

Such notations of “the ordinary” do what poetic writing has always tried to do, since the days of Imagism forward — to arrest the world in its tracks. But as soon as one enters the first pages of Field Work, a strong historical undercurrent becomes immediately apparent. The majority of Hadbawnik’s observations inscribe themes of surveillance, of authority and control, of menace and premonition. Although the woman at the intersection is innocently enough training her dogs to heel, in the context of Field Work her orders acquire a vague feeling of injustice. There is something rather arbitrary, the reader feels, even insidious about the dogs being “made” to heel, then suddenly made to hurry across the street, according to the whims of their master.

A similar feeling hovers around this observation, dated July 23, 1997:

Man puts calico cat into passenger side of a pickup truck, then walks away. (13)

Why should the man’s action feel weirdly hostile, as if a kidnapping were taking place right under our eyes? The entirety of Field Work is taut with this barely suppressed violence, its candid observations shot through with feelings of suspicion, distrust and paranoia.

I notice it again as we’re all forced to transfer onto a new bus — that urge everyone has to sit in the exact seat on the new bus — which I’m unable to do because somebody’s already sitting in mine. Everyone looking around at first to check their relative positions. (12)

Hadbawnik’s need to “look around” is thus a far cry from the detached aesthetic interest taken by the flaneur or the urban haiku-seeker wandering through more temperate surroundings. In millennial cities divided by poverty and homelessness, public space is an agonistic, highly contested arena. Keeping one’s eyes peeled becomes a necessary habit, a technical means of survival. Everyone is always potentially guilty, in Hadbawnik’s version of the city, of crimes that no one has committed.

When I saw two young hoodlum-types walking towards me on my street, snickering in a suspicious way, I tried to observe them very carefully, as though I might have to describe them later to a police sketch artist (24)

If a culture of surveillance implies that we are all guilty until proven innocent, then this condition, most importantly, involves the observer himself. In Field Work the act of watching is itself a “suspect” act, for the gaze infringes helplessly upon other people’s “privacies.” To size up others is to assert power, and to have power is to be prey to others’ suspicions.

As I wait for a bus on the corner of 18th and Mission, a small, tough-looking guy with his hair tied back in a ponytail walks towards me, catches my eye, and mutters, “You stand there staring at people someone gonna think you a cop.” I say nothing. A little while later he passes me again with a hard stare, muttering under his breath; meanwhile, everyone nearby looks at me distrustfully (24–5)

We are indeed a long way away from “petals on a wet, black bough.” Field Work is less given to moments of undistracted beauty and transcendent perception than it is interested in registering those moments when, as Nietzsche once said, “the soul squints.”[5] The all-too-human affects of anxiety, disgust, anger, hatred, impatience and aggravation may be feelings that one is not particularly proud of, though they pervade our daily lives.

I sit down at a table in the library. The man behind me glances up sharply, which I take as an admonition to keep quiet, so I softly unscrew my soda and munch quietly on my snack. But after a few moments, it begins: first he crumples up several bunches of papers, then rises noisily to deposit them in the trash, comes back, groans, stretches, sits down, sings to himself, moves pencils and papers around, handles a business envelope, crinkling the cellophane window; scoots his chair in and out. Quiet for a moment. Then, noise again. On one of his passes he looks into my eyes as if sizing me up, seeing how much I can take (30).

The wonder (and so often the humor) of Hadbawnik’s writing follows from the meticulous but nonchalant precision with which he documents such a wide variety of incidental encounters.

I hated the man with the little electronic device for the knowing smile that turned up the corner of his mouth as he glanced around on the train (106)

Because of his interest in recording moments of sudden ressentiment, Hadbawnik participates in a poetic tradition that one most immediately associates with Poe and Baudelaire. Indeed, the earliest portions of Field Work were first published in a chapbook entitled SF Spleen, published by Skanky Possum in 2006. A quieter, less melodramatic version of Baudelaire on the prowl in Paris Spleen, Hadbawnik’s observer both suffers and enjoys the poet’s “loss of a halo.” Like Baudelaire, he has become “bored with dignity.”[6]

This boredom clears the way for him to notice details like the texture of dog shit — “rich red-brown, often with undigested bits of food in it, beaded, sculptural, coming out in little balls or ‘soft serve’ in one big bubbly lump, warm in my hand through the plastic bag” (93). More importantly, it allows him to attend to the various indignities his own (male) gaze imposes upon others.

I watch the girl with big eyes walk out of the café and across the street, and I feel a twinge of embarrassment that she might be going to the same performance I am, since it was my staring (I think) that made her put her sweater on over her blouse (79)

Whereas Baudelaire claimed that the poet, having lost his halo, could now go about “incognito,” this is certainly not permitted Hadbawnik. “I regret to say that I have not yet become totally unrecognizable, totally inconspicuous,” reads one of Field Work’s epigraphs, from Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World (9). The erstwhile goal of the modern ethnographer — to be a transparent eyeball documenting life from a distance — is not a goal to which Hadbawnik aspires.

In fact, one must conclude that the opposite condition obtains. Field Work aims to expose itself as a primary cultural document — not simply a work of secondary critical reflection. This notebook demands to be experienced as the “confessions” of a serial notebook writer. “Every move / you make is on / the jumbotron, / and the stadium’s filled,” reads the beginning of an unwritten poem (115). Indeed, the second half of the book is littered with the drafts of aborted poems, one-off story ideas, scraps of song lyrics — some dark and acidic, some funny and light — all presented in the raw.

The body is merely
           a kiss
but a kiss that
            encompasses the
world; a glance
a flash of skin.
             a gesture, a lock
of hair blown
           out of one’s
eyes, an eye
expanding into
a pair of lips,
a tongue
           a voice
but I am a ghost (108).

“Americans have an inexorable urge to be confessional,” Hadbawnik at one point quotes Lyn Hejinian, “but they seldom speak confidentially, preferring to be overheard” (35). Like so many great notebook writers before him, Hadbawnik displaces the performance of private speech with the performance of confidential writing. The ghostly intimacy of Field Work reminds us of how the notebook genre enacts writing’s very own dream of itself — the construction of a habitable space that offers the itinerant writer a utopian version of “home” in the midst of the point-blank violence of an indifferent world.

Interestingly, throughout Field Work the only people who are exempt from the humiliations and impositions of the public gaze are those workers engaged in physical activities. Hadbawnik reserves his most romantic writing for descriptions of manual labor, such as a man painting San Francisco’s Polk Street station in the middle of the night.

He reaches about five or six difficult spots, the corners where bars meet, the backs of beams, without ever shifting his feet. Every movement slow but efficient — he dips the roller in the bucket again and plunges it up and down, and a thin sheen of sweat glistens on his skin. Table saws buzz, a dozen co-workers clomp and scrape about him, wet paint reeks in the cold night air, and a halogen lamp throws his shadow up the sides of the structure (22)

Such passages seek redemption in routine, exacting, everyday actions. The painter has an inalienable practice that permits him a temporary escape from the glancing blows of the world. Whenever Hadbawnik describes construction workers patiently laying a concrete foundation, or a hockey player maneuvering swiftly down the ice, he is also alluding to the emancipatory potential of a daily writing practice. We write, in part, to lose ourselves in the work of composition, in the choreographies of sentences, in the patterns and variations of phrases that make writing a profoundly formal pleasure.

One wants to keep reading this notebook, which spans the years 1997–2010 and a series of cities from San Francisco to Buffalo, for the simple reason that the miscellany saves each moment’s notice with such grace. Its highly irregular, ephemeral character accentuates each passing pleasure considerably. The fact that the notebook is a very fragile form of expression, for it could be abandoned or interrupted at any moment (“many oases of inactivity,” reads one entry), only reinforces the sense of free agency that accompanies “non-productive” modes of writing. Field Work’s intermittent, catch-as-catch quality echoes the question that Baudelaire asked himself, upon shifting from the idealized genre of poetry to the unclassifiable, accidental, seemingly endless mode of notating modern life in the format of prose poetry: “Why carry out one’s projects, since the project is sufficient pleasure in itself?”[7]

1. Henry James, American Scene (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), 83.
2. Ibid., 10, 9.
3. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 21.
4. David Hadbawnik, Field Work: Notes, Songs, Poems, 1997–2010 (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX, 2010), 15.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1968), 474.
6. Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen, Trans. by Louise Varese (New York: New Directions, 1970), 94.
7. Ibid., 49.

A narrative recollection of the week of the Chicago Durutti Skool

And beyond

John Keene and Jen Karmin read for "Poetry for Labor" at Haymarket Square
John Keene and Jen Karmin read for "Poetry for Labor" at Haymarket Square. Photos by Alan Bernheimer.

The Chicago Durutti Skool

The Chicago Durutti Skool

hosted by Red Rover Series & the Next Objectivists

In May 2011, Jennifer Karmin and I, as curators of the Red Rover Series {readings that play with reading}[1] in Chicago, responded to a call for action by Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover.[2] Their idea was to encourage poets all over the US to implement their poetics in a political and active sense as part of a nationwide initiative called the Durutti Skool.[3] Red Rover joined forces with other groups already mobilized and mobilizing across the city for a week of activities starting with May Day. First, we helped publicize and joined a gathering poet John Keene[4] had called for “at the Haymarket Martyr’s Statue in Haymarket Square (the actual memorial site, which sits in the park several miles west of that site, is where all the major unions held their commemoration). It was the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket Affair of 1886, so the confluence with May Day was especially propitious.[5] A good group gathered downtown early on Sunday. We resisted the wind, and read poems by authors who had written about labor in the past, and to speak about our own experiences.[6] That Tuesday, I arrived at Mess Hall [7] in the Roger’s Park neighborhood to join the Next Objectivists’ [8] intense reading practice and discussion of the connection between literary form and political statement. The closing event of our “skool” (which was sort of a way of schooling ourselves about participation in community as political action) was one of our own devising. Red Rover hosted poets Michelle Taransky and Frank Rogaczewski at Outer Space Studio[9] in Chicago’s Wicker Park.

Michelle Taransky is the author of Barn Burned, Then (Omnidawn, 2009) and a notoriously energetic organizer in various poetry communities. In fact, when she walked into Mess Hall to join the current incarnation of the Next Objectivists, the vibe of joyful reunion was palpable. At the closing event a few days later, she chose not to talk about her own work, but to question what constitutes the politics of the contemporary poetry community. Her talk was uncomfortable and hilarious. It’s difficult to turn the lens on ourselves and ask how the politics that we so bravely critique in the “world at large” are actually reflected in the relationships we cultivate in the poetry world. Because Michelle was in town, she, Jen, and I went to Iowa City to give a reading after the Durutti Skool was officially over. It wasn’t until we were in the rental car on the way to Iowa City that we started talking about barns. And banks. And the painting of the barn in the bank. At our reading in Iowa City, Michelle explained to listeners that the book is split into two major parts, “Barn Book” and “Bank Book.” Holding the book in my hand, I can note that the lines are split along seams almost severely. However, the rhythm created throughout the book as a whole is consistent and as relentless as “progress” and “culture.” Splitting sometimes seems like our only way to approach the concepts in the world that create it as actually separate and able to be analyzed, manipulated. America is where banks and barns come together in a book that makes a small comment in the continuum. Sitting on a bench in a bank staring at the image of a past we want to save in an account. Account for. Profit from.

I first encountered Frank Rogaczewski’s poetry in American Letters and Commentary 20, which came out in 2009. I read the entire issue from cover to cover and came upon Frank’s two poems at the very back. It had the curious effect of fulfilling everything I’d wanted from the all the poems that had come before it in the issue. Not that my desire as a consumer of poetry is the point here. Frank’s pieces are prose, meaning that they dispense with line break to suggest a narrative reflection on our culture’s (America-at-large AND poets-at-large) propensity to think their poems as products into existence. And Frank is well aware of his poems’ potential as cultural capital. He plays, creates parodies that are ironic reflections of poetry’s role in the world. I call the pieces, mostly a page long or a little more, poetry, though, because of the almost microscopic linguistically smart elements that they utilize. The Fate of Humanity in Verse never includes anything for granted that might just be easily seen and consumed as “poetic.”

Rather, Frank’s writing is rife with challenges about poetry and poetics, as well as references to writers and modes of writing. Fate is full of the type of language play that capitalizes on the sound of the words for fun, to create a kind of pleasure that is not to be blindly consumed. Fate takes the opportunity of any coincidence, whether linguistic or historical, to go off on threads that are always relevant, ultimately weaving together a large and beautifully unwieldy poetry/commentary. Of course, my delight in the particular way that Frank deals with issues of poetry and social concerns, as well as the appropriately light treatment that he gives Marxism throughout his work, may be partially purely subjective, my own preference for what poetry should do. But of course that usually goes without saying.

Or, to (try and) put it perfectly, as Frank does in his poem The Day They Outsourced America, “[p]erhaps one way to phrase our question is ‘Can poetry mutter?’” Not that I don’t think that we should take these questions seriously, but I worry about how seriousness can box in the best of us. What kind of light can we let in to our writing or actions to connect correctly to others, I mean to really create community? And to recognize and utilize that community as a potential political force, whatever that ends up looking like. What stuck with me is the idea to create continuity, a feeling of reaching out and connecting continuously. To redefine aesthetically and institutionally. 


Notes contributed by Jennifer Karmin and John Keene:

[1] Each event in the Red Rover Series is designed as a reading experiment with participation by local, national, and international writers, artists, and performers. The series was founded in 2005 by Amina Cain and Jennifer Karmin.

[2] In August 2010, Juliana and Joshua conducted a lottery to determine a solid group of around twenty-five writers to gather as part of the 95 Cent Skool in Berkeley, California, to discuss poetry and Marxism specifically. I was in attendance.

[3] From the Chicago announcement: “The Durutti Skool & Red Rover Series would like to invite you to take part in aseries of events concerning poetry, social existence, Marxism and Anarchism. Our main concern is to join in the greater conversation occurring around the country at other Durutti Skools this year about poetry itself as a catalyst for social change. The idea for the skools began last summer when a group of poets met in Berkeley, California, as part of the 95 Cent Skool. All participants were invited to form their own skools in order to continue the conversation and encourage poets to connect more strongly with their communities and ideas about writing, community, and change.”

[4] Author of Annotations and Seismosis (with Christopher Stackhouse), professor at Northwestern University, Chicago.

[5] John Keene.

[6] Poetry for Labor.

[7] Mess Hall is a Chicago-based experimental cultural center. It is a place where visual art, radical politics, creative urban planning, applied ecological design, and other things intersect and inform each other. They host exhibitions, discussions, film screenings, brunchlucks (brunch + potluck), workshops, concerts, campaigns, meetings (both closed and open), and more.

[8] Statement from the Next Objectivists: “a free, open-to-the-public poetry workshop dedicated to the study & reproduction of the outside real. We take this term from the ‘Black Mountain’ poet Edward Dorn & our name from the second generation modernist poets associated with the Objectivist Press. Although writers associated with the Objectivists and Black Mountain ‘schools’ (Bunting, Creeley, H.D., Niedecker, Pound, Reznikoff, Williams, Zukofsky to name only those we’ve already studied) are prominent stars in our constellation, our objective is not to reproduce any particular style, mode or tradition, but instead to draw on many different ways of doing and making in order to isolate those practices of writing & publishing & above all those poetic effects which lead us out of the neoliberal present & the future it imagines. The Next Objectivists Poetry Workshop was founded in January 2009. Members make the curriculum as we go along. Our meetings are potlucks and beginners are always welcome. We read, discuss & write poetry together.”

[9] Outer Space Studio is an artist-run performance space. Each member pays a share of the rent so that the community has a collective space for meetings, rehearsals, and events.

The point of contact they create

A review of 'Three Novels'

Three Novels

Three Novels

by Elizabeth Robinson

Omnidawn 2011, 80 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9781890650513

Elizabeth’s Robinson new book Three Novels engages with an archaic form, in this case the Victorian novel. In particular, Eve’s Ransom by George Gissing, and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Woman in White, the latter two read to her as a child by her father, the former a book they shared as adult readers. In Kathleen Biddick’s book The Shock of Medievalism, playing off Freud’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” she writes:

Trauma … resists representation since its traces recur fragmentarily in flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena. Past and present symptomatically fuse in such repetition, and, in so doing, the possibility of futurity — change — is foreclosed. Such fusing is typical of melancholy. To unfuse past, present, and future, to return to the narrative relation of temporality, requires the work of mourning. Mourning does not find the lost object; it acknowledges its loss, thus suffering the lost object to be lost while maintaining a narrative connection to it. (10)

This, in a book that sets out to historicize the institutionalization of medieval studies during the nineteenth century; germane here, though, because Robinson’s is very much a book that responds to trauma — the death of her father, with whom she first shared the above-mentioned novels — and hence a work of mourning. Further, there is clearly a sense of mourning about those novels as well: the lost world they reflect, the possibilities for eros and expression they offer. Which is not to say that Robinson channels some kind of nostalgia for her own childhood and a soft-lens Victorianism; one of the driving impulses of the book is to explore and confront the constraints of that era, especially those faced by the women depicted in the novels. As such — and here, finally, is the primary attraction of the book and its most difficult problem — these poems engage with the Victorian fascination with surfaces (manners, etiquette, decoration) and the obstacles these throw in the way of emotional contact. But also, finally, the way surface itself is the locus of contact.

The first “novel” consists of short prose blocks, and sets forth the issue of loss immediately:

Origin Myth

It has been said that the detective story has structural elegance because it begins with a murder and unravels neatly backwards to relate the cause of the murder: a solution. But this was not true of the first detective story. That story entailed no murders, only a loss, various losses.

Other lines focus with elegant lyric poignancy on those surfaces: “The eye flies over the naked body, yes, but sees only skin … the ability to read the skin, its legend of flush and pallor. The true body, the one which, despite all its acumen, cannot get away” (“Surface,” 22). Later, in a piece called “Sleepwalking”: “The purpose is to walk over the very surface of sleep, as Christ walked over the surface of water” (25). But there is, haunting this, a sense of loss and something underneath. “Think of the self as a locket in which one must carry something foul: a secret innocence” (“Pariah,” 27). The final line of this first section captures the tension at the heart of Victorianism (at least in my admittedly limited experience of it): “As the somnambulant gropes towards the site of loss, his beloved looks on in polite and silent bliss” (“Decorum,” 30).

This is beautiful. The first section of the book proceeds as almost an ekphrasis of the moods, themes, and language of the Victorian source novel. At its best, when most sensual, it hints at the lapse or loss between bodies, their unwillingness or inability to connect. The second section is laid out in sparser, fragmentary, lineated poems, while the third seems a hybrid of the two.

A good deal of the book feels like an extrapolation or extraction from the source text, a dance alongside it, an effort to understand its alien discourse of manners and indirectness, which seems a particularly poignant way of reflecting on the mourning that lurks beneath the poems’ own surface. A sense of bafflement pervades: at bodies, loss of bodies, the way that Victorian avoidance of contact can paradoxically bring bodies closer. (It is perhaps no coincidence, and something worthy of study, that the “shock” of medievalism emerges alongside the shock of Freudianism during the Victorian era.) Poetry, especially in the hands of someone as accomplished as Robinson, is the perfect instrument with which to explore this bafflement, this mourning, this loss, and also to hint at the era’s stunning emergences.

Ultimately, there is a satisfying lack of closure here that reflects what Robinson-as-reader notes in her source texts. If the dark harmonies are resolved at all, it’s on the level of language, where Robinson continues to prove herself a poet of some power in manipulating sound, image, and text. Examples abound; one chosen at random reads,

The blanket crocheted itself over the sloping plain, and all
was woolly and opaque            Not to be perturbed            Portent’s
sharp consonant softened to omen (44)

The resolution of vowel sounds in the final line, already deftly hinted at in the preceding lines, is expert, and the fact that it falls against the “sharp consonant” sounds sprinkled among them is evidence of the level of sonic awareness that Robinson brings to the task, the way that sound can slide into sense and vice versa. It is powerful stuff. If anything, I found myself yearning for more power in a different way — poems that hit with the force of death, loss of time, age, movement. In that sense, there is a poise or even stasis in some of the poems, perhaps caught up too much from the tone of the Victorian novels. But perhaps this feeling is the very lack that the poems, taken altogether, crystallize around, the point of contact they create.

The way we tend to compose, or hear, poetry these days

A review of 'The Odicy'

The Odicy

The Odicy

by Cyrus Console

Omnidawn 2011, 88 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9781890650520

The title of Cyrus Console’s book THE ODICY is a pun that references Homer’s epic and Leibniz’s 1710 book Théodicée, which coined the term “theodicy,” a defense or vindication of God in respect to the existence of evil. As such, it immediately calls into play related, but disparate texts (and indeed, modes of discourse), as well as different cultural-historical moments. And it hints at what is perhaps a fatal overdetermination of elements at work in this book of poems. The poems are written in pentameter. They proceed in six-line stanzas, three stanzas each — except for the third section, which repeats an acrostic on the word “rainbow” — and occasional use of end-rhyme, or near-rhyme. As to theme, there is religion (especially fundamentalist fears about the apocalypse), the dangers of sugar and sugar substitutes (the cover is an image of a giant mound of sugar in a warehouse), and the “personal” odyssey of a narrator variously referred to as Tony and Anthony (and the lyric voice of same).

 That’s a lot; and the book, even in five sections, is not particularly long at eighty-three pages. With its formal constraints and thematic scope, it recalls long projects like Berryman’s Dream Songs, Berrigan’s Sonnets, perhaps even Eliot’s The Waste Land or Four Quartets. But I was also reminded of W. H. Auden’s 1947 book (reissued this year) The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, written in an approximation of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, and exploring in six sections questions about individual identity and spirituality in an industrialized, urban world. There, as here, part of the challenge for both reader and writer is the grappling with an older verse form; there, as here, a prominent feature of the text is the way it dates itself, thematically and formally, to both distance and bring to the surface contemporary issues in the somewhat blurry lens this dating creates. Also, of course — as with any poetry that embraces constraint — another implicit challenge is to justify the need for the constraint; how does the content dovetail with form?

In the case of Auden, there was a strong history with Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse that seemingly justified his delving into it. Auden studied with arch-philologist J. R. R. Tolkien, and his early poems bear the heavy mark of alliterative rhythms. In terms of subject matter, the argument can be made that the form reflects Auden’s own linguistic anxieties about transitioning from England to the United States, and the poem’s theme of introspective psychological reflection in a changing, alien world certainly echoes with Old English elegies such as “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife’s Lament,” etc. — a correspondence with postmodern lyric concerns that makes such poetry both a continuing point of fascination for contemporary poets, and woefully understudied. For Console, the touch is at once lighter and the burden heavier. That is to say, the emphasis on pentameter is not likely to be so overbearing as repetitive, alliterative stress. All the more so, because Console’s pentameter is only intermittently iambic: many of the poems actually scan trochaic, with dactyls for further variation. In that sense, it is perhaps more accurate to say that Console works in syllabic verse; but that is part of the difficulty of meter in an age of printed poetry, anticipated by Pound all those years ago — it is simply not the way we tend to compose, or hear, poetry these days.

And that feeds into the burden here, which is that Console’s case for the formal constraints he employs seems somewhat artificial, even arbitrary. But perhaps that’s only because we’ve gotten so far from the high-modernist idea (to again reference Eliot and Pound) that “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” Some sense of meter or at least rhythmical pattern is still, one hopes, the concern of well-trained poets determined to work with the line, which Console clearly is. If this book had come out even fifty years ago, it would be no remarkable thing that the author had pursued a more or less regular metrical line. It remains then to examine how regular, and how effective, that line is in its actual deployment.

We have no rest. Wakeful is our enemy
ther solitude. O he is many
No dark cham
ber. For iniquity
Is always working. Sad irony
We bar
ter enmity for enmity
Alone. Alone we sing close harmony

Walk away, Anthony. Walk away
Alone among the lilies of the valley
Of the shadow of mortality
On water deleterious to memory
Unaffected by renown or money
ing every person equally

Go now, Tony. Else you got to stay,
y. Fix a stocking to the chimney
orate a tree this holiday
ificial is the only way to fly
king is the best activity
In your sleep is the better way (15)

As can be seen from my amateur scansion of the above poem, from section one of THE ODICY, the meter in the poem is far from regular, though discernible patterns emerge from time to time. There is, for example, a faint overtone of the iambic in the first stanza, broken in each line by a tendency to string two unaccented syllables together — and the echoing y sounds at the end of each line practically necessitate a falling stress there, thus giving a dactylic feel to some lines (“enemy,” “enmity,” “harmony,” etc.). In fact, the heave at the start of many lines, and the frequent use of three-syllable feet, reminds one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s rhythms, an acquired taste that, as with Hopkins, the poems will hopefully acclimatize the reader to as he or she goes along. The recurring end-sounds, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, also exemplify the arbitrary nature of the project from a formal standpoint (there is no obvious reason for them here, and nowhere else is rhyme hinted at so overtly). In these ways, the poem demonstrates the risks and rewards of the project as a whole. The greatest risk is a tendency to swerve into a sort of formal diction and archaic lyric tone. This risk actually pays off (at least to my ear) in the above poem, since the tone set by the first two stanzas makes the sudden switch to the informally voiced “Tony. Else you got to stay / Tony” really pop out.

Therein lies the reward. But I’m left wondering if, given all the determining factors that went into the making of these poems, it’s enough to sustain a reader’s interest.

A great poet once told me that obsession is the key to a long poem (or series of poems). Clearly, that is the case with Cyrus Console’s THE ODICY, in terms of both form and subject matter. But obsession does not guarantee success. I find myself wishing, contradictorily, that the project had been pared down in certain respects and extended in others. Section three, “THE OPHANY,” with its “RAINBOW” acrostic structure, tamps down the emphasis on pentameter — there is still a strong sense of rhythm, but some lines include only eight syllables — as well as spirituality, and recalibrates to a less formal tone. Instead, the focus here is the sugar industry and big corporations such as Monsanto. This is by far the most compelling and cohesive sequence in the book, and I wanted a lot more of it.