Reviews - May 2012

Scholars to come

A review of Matt Miller's 'Collage of Myself'

Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass

Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass

Matt Miller

University of Nebraska 2010, 320 pages, $40.00, ISBN 978-0-8032-2534-3

The image on the cover of Matt Miller’s new book, Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass, will look especially familiar to anyone who has googled the good gray poet in the past few years. While the William J. Linton engraving of Walt Whitman, itself based on a photograph by George C. Potter, first appeared within the poet's published work in 1875, the last place many of you may have seen this “rough-cut mask” was on the homepage of the Walt Whitman Archive, an electronic teaching and research tool that makes Whitman’s work — from his earliest extant manuscripts up through the so-called “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass — available free online.

As a graduate student at the University of Iowa and now as an assistant professor at Yeshiva University, Miller has worked extensively with the Archive, most notably on the transcription, encoding, and dating of Whitman’s earliest notebooks. In ways far more significant than the book’s cover, Collage of Myself — the first full-length study of Whitman’s innovative compositional practice, a collage-like process that Miller establishes as a predecessor to the visual art of Picasso and Braque — is an homage to the Archive and a testament to the promise of digital research in the humanities. Utilizing manuscript material now easily accessible through the Archive — notebooks, drafts, and prose fragments that in the past scholars would have had to travel around the United States to see — Miller has produced a thoughtful examination of Whitman’s theory and practice of collage first developed in and through the poet’s writing shortly before the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855.

By turning to Whitman’s own notebooks — the most reliable documentation of the poet’s process — for an understanding of how Whitman sprang, seemingly full-grown, onto the poetry scene in 1855, Miller’s book stands as a significant departure from earlier studies that have strained to explain Whitman’s sudden discovery of a signature verse style. In this sense, Miller’s turn inward towards the manuscripts is refreshing and provocative. And it’s through this methodology that he is able to reconstruct for us the collaging Whitman: a poet whose theory of language enabled him to appropriate the writing of others and incorporate it into his own; a poet who also almost compulsively cannibalized his own writing, “packing and unpacking” words, phrases, and even whole lines as he moved closer and closer to the mature style recognizable in poems like (the one eventually titled) “Song of Myself.” For Miller, the evidence of a procedural, collage poetics found in Whitman’s notebooks is a direct extension of the poet’s philosophy of language, a performance of the poet’s approach to “all writing that he both found and wrote.” According to Miller, Whitman: 

extracted phrases and lines that attracted him, and in the process of moving them from their initial sources into new contexts, he filtered and changed their tone and meaning. His appropriation of found text is not a weakness or a disguise; it is something essential to his writing process and reflective of his lifelong involvement with language: as a newspaper writer, a typesetter, an editor, a layman scholar and linguist, and a nomadic young poet who wrote while on the move.

Miller offers several examples of the “radical portability” legible in Whitman’s earliest manuscripts, demonstrating how Whitman “saw the language of his drafts not as a series of interlocking units in an implacable architecture, but as blocks of text to be toyed with, cut and pasted (sometimes literally so) into ever new shapes and forms.” For those hooked on Whitman the Romantic, a bard of divine inspiration and ecstatic revelation whose Leaves of Grass begs to be read in the open air, Miller’s Whitman the Modern will come as a much needed shock. But even if you are reluctant to let go of that caricature of the poet you love (or just as likely hate — he does contain multitudes), Collage of Myself will remain a fundamental gateway to our understanding of Whitman’s proto-modernist poetic project. 

Whitman’s theory of the “poem of materials” (from an original manuscript).

As the characterization of “text” as “blocks” above may suggest, the Whitman that emerges from Collage of Myself is a poet highly attentive to the materiality of language. In his book’s most illuminating chapter, Miller demonstrates how Whitman, approaching language “as something that [preceded] his own creativity, as opposed to originating within himself and flaring up in inspired burst,” continually explored “the material nature of words on the page and the idea of words as materials, the building blocks … of both poems and people.” Whitman’s concept of a “Poem of Materials” — a phrase Miller picks up on from a manuscript in the Trent Collection at Duke University, available on the Archive as well as pictured here — is brought to life through an extended and subtle reading of “Song of the Broad-Axe.” For Miller, Whitman offers readers of “Broad-Axe” “two kinds of poetically reimagined materials — language and the productions of the axe … at the same time [stressing] the material nature of his art.”

But for all we gain from Collage’s turn inward towards Whitman’s writing process, some will be left looking for more comparative context, if not in the form of an overview of popular proto-collage practice during the mid-nineteenth century, at least through a glimpse at manuscript evidence demonstrating the essential differences between Whitman’s writing process and the compositional practices of his literary contemporaries. In one sense, Miller anticipates this critique; acknowledging the role the Archive played in the maturation of his project, he gestures, at least implicitly, toward the current impossibility of a comparable study of a writer like Martin Farquhar Tupper, or, even more surprisingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Miller provides the obligatory discussion of both Emerson and Tupper, two writers contemporaries often associated with Whitman, but nowhere are we given access to their manuscripts as we are to Whitman’s. Even a cursory look at Emerson’s or Tupper’s writing process might be enough to assuage any lingering doubt concerning the true originality of Whitman’s poetic and procedural breakthrough leading up to Leaves of Grass. Perhaps that’s the greatest gauntlet thrown by Collage of Myself: through his example, Miller calls for the creation of large, free, public archives that will enable, not necessarily challenges to his work, but the depth of scholarly engagement, the near total manuscript immersion Collage is able to achieve. For anyone who has spent time digging through Whitman’s manuscripts, digital or otherwise, you are often left wondering just how idiosyncratic Whitman’s tendencies are. Questions spring up ranging from those central to our appreciation of Whitman’s place in literary history — how are other writers “packing and unpacking” their manuscript lines? — to the more banal — could Whitman possibly be alone in drawing these little pointing hands everywhere? Those questions remain beyond the scope of Miller’s project; however, the strength of Collage of Myself lies in its astounding depth, even if at times we are left searching for a broader manuscript context. Collage of Myself thus invites us to create that context, calling poets, scholars, and those at the forefront of the digital humanities to facilitate this level of critical inquiry for a new generation of readers. In this challenge to the future of literary studies, Collage of Myself is worthy of its subject, Walt Whitman, a poet “hungry for equals night and day.”

The decidedly American, Whitmanic grain

A review of Matthew Henriksen's 'Ordinary Sun'

Ordinary Sun

Ordinary Sun

Matthew Henriksen

Black Ocean 2011, 120 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9844752-2-3

To address Matt Henriksen’s poetry, we start with a passage from Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

… from the eyesight proceeds another eyesight and from the hearing proceeds another hearing and from the voice proceeds another voice eternally curious of the harmony of things with man.

I cannot think of a better definition of poetry’s visionary impulse. The poet employs his or her senses in the service of a perception that is not of the order of this world. It is a mode of perception that points to another world right here in our everyday homelessness. The key to the visionary impulse is in our mutual sympathy: if the poet is curious about “the harmony of things with man,” then we too can be curious. The aim of the visionary impulse is to explore the endless ravishments and ravagings — harmony’s dualities — of the unacknowledged worlds within our world.

Matt Henriksen is a visionary poet in the decidedly American, Whitmanic grain. His first book, Ordinary Sun, is a record of his process of discovery and invention as he has harnessed various strains of the American Visionary. Throughout the book we find Blakean prophecy as filtered through the Beats’ rebellion against the limits of stifled selfhood; we find James Wright’s pessimism bound in pastoral; we find a Stevensian beatitude; we find Romantic Brooklyn (R.I.P.); we find the haunting Southern convulsions of Frank Stanford; and we find the transcendentally homespun observations of the Williams lineage. 

This list of Henriksen’s influences, though incomplete, should indicate the calico quality of Ordinary Sun. Its varied inspirations are never far from the textual surface, while prosodically the poetry bounces between the baroque and the plainspoken. In terms of tone, it is a book of extremes. Take for instance its opening stanza, from the quietly powerful patchwork, “Copse”: 

An eye is not enough.
A hand rubs an unpainted fence. 

Compare this to the book’s final poem, “Ordinary Sun,” a simultaneously propulsive and idling text that at its opening declares:

The Center that Pretends to Start the Engine
Ignores the Regime of Endless Centerlessness.

The contrast between beginning and end should be telling. In “Copse” the straightforward statement that “an eye is not enough,” suggesting an uncanniness of the body (of being homeless in one’s body), gives way to a subtle, visionary treatment of bodies moving through domestic space. In “Ordinary Sun” the center continually gives out as the poem thrashes through various registers, from the bombastically surreal to the plainspoken. The book ends where it begins: with a disarmingly straightforward couplet, suggesting this time a literal homelessness: 

When she came to the curb
I held out my paper cup. 

Between beginning and end is a dappled collection of poetry that stems from a deep engagement with the doubled, dual perception of the sort Whitman espouses in his Preface. If the couplet is the stanzaic form that best conveys both duality and the turning of thought, it is no surprise then that it is the most commonly employed form in the book. Henriksen is a strong turner. Viz:

We’ll miss the world bitterly.
We’ll go on without it.

(“Ordinary Sun”)

Light from the garage: hands from the tree.
Memories stopped making sense.


Sometimes she’d touch
a body in her empty bed.


At such moments Henriksen touches a sort of Stevensian grace. In fact, the Stevensian Moment — when the turning of thought is seduced by a hypnotic prosody — peppers the poems throughout Ordinary Sun. It can be heard in phrases like “all edges edging,” or “cloudless marrow burning stones,” or “Birds beyond the window cried the glass.” At other moments — no less charged with Vision — the rhythms are softer, the images homelier: “A bucket in the garage burned.”

What is interesting about Henriksen’s disparate influences, prosodies, and attentions are the tensions that arise between them. One could dismiss this mottledness as an indication that Henriksen has not absorbed his influences, though the presence of so many lineages converging in his poetry is one thing that makes it unique. It is refreshing to read a contemporary book of poetry that is diverse in its attentions without boasting its diversity. This evidences Matt’s fidelity to poetic process, which is finally a fidelity to poetry. But to place process over product — especially when the poet is not working in fixed forms — will lead to varied results. And the results are varied in Ordinary Sun. Take for instance these four lines from “Carolla in the Midden”:

In refuse we find a hidden refusal
to die, a shape

that never forms, a blinking eye
that will not shut. 

The first turn — “In refuse we find a hidden refusal / to die” — embodies a negative truth on level with Williams. It offers a clean angle on the connection between garbage and death that, though abstract, is married to sense. But “a shape // that never forms” is overly abstract, and “a blinking eye / that will not shut” is easy surrealism. These second and third turns are both abstractions severed from perception — they veer into a realm of entropic symbolism. The impulse here is visionary, but in moments like these Henriksen loses his vision.

While I feel that in these lines Henriksen is attempting to stretch the poetry beyond its impulse, they do stand as further evidence of his motley poetics, combining as he does so many seemingly contradictory influences. One of Jack Spicer’s many characterizations of the act of poetic creation was of the poet wrestling with the limits of the poem. Here Matt is wrestling with the possibilities inherent in past poetic traditions by reconfiguring them in new ways, as he does throughout the book. It just doesn’t always work.

When Henriksen’s attentions follow objects perceived, employing a visionary perception rooted in the senses, the poetry is strongest:

We set our bodies on the grass.
Stones held our breath. 


The plainspoken tone here conveys a densely charged moment. The scene described could be one of astral birth, just as much as bodily death. There are dual undertones of the terror of disembodiment and of creature comfort. It is a true marriage of the quotidian and the visionary, the Of This World and the Of Another World, the core dualities of Henriksen’s purview.

While moments of Ordinary Sun seem oddly abandoned, I find a poetry that makes visible its lacunae — or its scars — much more engaging than another well-wrought urn. Maybe Henriksen knows when the spirit of the work has left him, when the corpse of the words on the page is all that’s left. Rather than cut open the corpse and attempt to Frankenstein a new poem, he lets us readers do what we will with what he has.

Of course I am hypothesizing here, projecting a philosophy of poetic composition onto Henriksen’s practice based entirely on my own bias. Maybe “a blinking eye / that will not shut” will be the one relic from this book to survive a millennium from now, after several apocalypses have occurred and only shreds of shreds of our era remain. If so, so be it.

But here is the point: Ordinary Sun offers a variety of visionary embraces of ordinary life, and in much of its prosody is an acute awareness of the ways inspiration momentarily inhabits and slips away from us. Poetry does not care whether the poet is able to finish the poem. Matt Henriksen not only knows this, he has reckoned — and wrestled — with it within the space of poetry itself. 

These books need to be collaborated with

A review of Debrah Morkun's 'The Ida Pingala' and Aimee Herman's 'to go without blinking'

The Ida Pingala

The Ida Pingala

Debrah Morkun

BlazeVOX 2011, 100 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60-964074-3

to go without blinking

to go without blinking

Aimee Herman

BlazeVOX 2012, 156 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60-964080-4

Debrah Morkun’s new book enacts commingling (“here is my torn dress made of semen”); is a non-monetary fiduciary — an ethical holding between the Ida Nadi (lunar Nadi, site of comfort, nurturing, said to control mental processes and to be the site of the “feminine” aspects of personality, represented by the color white (“the forest was open”)) and the Pingala Nadi (solar Nadi, stimulating, said to control vital somatic processes and oversee masculine aspects of personality, represented by the color red (“a virile member of the eternally repeated word”)).

This book is: “two ancient things combusting” … “sperm glass egg socket.”

Nadis are not nerves, they are channels; conduits. I often consider Nadis as elongated mini trenches. As veils removed from the vein for the sake of flow. Always to increase flow. If only, to increase flow toward pure desire. Morkun’s The Ida Pingala is a toward. A toward and a through. This toward and through is relevant in considerations and pursuits of Kundalini (coiled/corporeal energy), of which Morkun’s The Ida Pingala is interested.

Kundalini has an extremely compelling relation to the possibility of unlocking or inhabiting pure desire. This desire is not inherently in/of the genitals. It is located in the base of the human spine and needs to be cultivated toward the genitals. The Ida Pingala is a draw by libidinal amplitudes. It is by way of this libidinality that Morkun brings gender and sex (as elements capable of relation with each other and with other elements) into her book.

The content of this book moves in and out of many different types of relations (from “a glittery Honda Civic” to “the halls of saints”). Objects, individuals and sensations interact here. The Ida Pingala (without particular delineation of such movements) funnels and simultaneously switches as matter passes through it. Is this book a handbook for working with the eroses of the psyche from within embodied states?

The Ida Pingala’s cover is comprised of a dual statue: exhibiting both a stone woman and a stone phallus. Here, seeming opposites are brought in aspect-based relation to each other; are in an energetic cull toward uniting. And we, as readers, are swallowed up in this funneling and switching.

The work (with uniting) that Morkun engages here, is something that reveals Morkun’s genius re: torque-instigations of previously perceived oppositions. This book is a virtuous hunt for fusions (“motley firmament”), for strange exposures and disclosures that are revealed by way of unforeseen or odd conjunctions. Whole view focused on overlapping; on certain studded myopias as they are amalgamated.

It is true that as we move from one Nadi to the next (the sunset to the sunrise to the sunset) we can learn to exercise one and two together in personal ways. But, this takes time — takes effort. Takes embodying duration and focus in order to get to “a tradition of eternity … tradition of hoisting.”

Hoisting as a way to host well, a lingam made of petals. A largess, being needfully translated by pearls.


Aimee Herman’s to go without blinking is a particular and fierce calisthenics (a “smothering [of] loins”) being performed around a deeply intended apparatus. Herman states in the intro of the book: “this body of text practices trilingualism and contraction.” I would go so far as to say that the book also practices triangulating and contradiction. With these four activisms acting in combination, we as readers are able to experience tgwb as something that both haunts us and hinges us. I would not go so far as to say that we ever get a hug (or anything approximating it) in this book, but we do get a hinge, and as we move through it we find ourselves desperately swinging.

To move by choice through something of such “sacred disturbance,” as tgwb is, is important. I am saying that this book needs to be collaborated with; needs us to collaborate with it. There are various points (in the process of moving through) where we are seduced into staying. It is almost as if an under-voice says: “just keep reading,” and we do. We must. Herman recognizes that the deep sway of her workings (in twgb) are not nice or simple or pretty. They are violent and juicy (they need to be so). They are “slick back polynomial” driven by an accumulation of jolt-like parts. The aspects of this book perform like a sweaty “bravado of sprouts fondling soil.”

In tgwb we are barraged (I always mean that as a compliment) with gritty and edgy content (“She was persuaded to use her cunt as a cabinet” / “Gabriel from Chickopee tried to fuck the gay out of me and almost got away with it” / “I would tear out my cunt and give you mine just so you could fondle decontamination”) — so much pertinent information regarding identities, genders, aesthetics, wishes, body realities, artifice, suffering, etc. I feel like Herman has somehow gotten it all into this marvelous book!

If we are conscious as we go through metallurgical transformations, what remains? These poems. These poems whereby beauty is able to be an embodiment of disparate aspects: “She thinks of beautiful women, wearing her fingers, wrinkled, like an article of clothing” / “She just wanted to know what it would feel like to be feminine: pigment of wax” / “When the stick of honey is gone, one must turn toward the bitter.” Herman turns us. We are here and we are gathering this butter.

These scenic genital-details are anything but gentle; I can hear my own scream building wildly as I read them. I scream inside of me for the arousal I feel. I scream inside of me for the anger I feel. I scream inside of me for the altered-ness I feel. I am not sure if Herman was meaning to induce readers to such states, but by sharing her life and visions, these scars — it has become impossible that we not feel these things right along with her.

At its core, tgwb is much like the heartfelt narratives of Lidia Yuknavitch’s novels, but Herman’s pieces are schisms of a form slowly coming together. By body, by light, by night. No Aimee, you are not the “only one to notice the night.” Because you are showing it, sharing it by way of tgwb, I notice this night with you.

And yes, dear Aimee, when you die, I will play at your funeral.  The song will be a full-handed violin melody reminiscent of the image of whole fruits inside of an enormous, ever elongating mouth: “washing [your psychic] mouth with fruit carcass” as a way to counteract all effects of the impositions you have encountered.

Architecture rings true

A review of Carol Watts's 'Occasionals'



Carol Watts

Reality Street 2011, 90 pages, $12.50, ISBN 978-1874400523

When the occasion arises, or for a particular occasion, or perhaps once in a while, or in the case of Carol Watts’s Occasionals, poems written from September 2006 until September 2007, or not poems but a poem in rigorously regular “cuts,” sixty-eight altogether, divided into four equal segments: “autumncuts,” “wintercuts,” “springcuts,” and “summercuts.”
The opening cut/poem begins with the largest durational sentence:

So sit down with your green tea
as if this was your last day, leave
the ledgers unfinished and overdue,
and tell me what you take with you,
now, the sounds of instruments ringing
on pavements, a crow mulling over
trails of aeroplanes, everyone out
in the town, and sirens going.                         (“autumncuts” I) 

The lines invoke Ezra Pound’s “And then went down to the ship,” but instead of setting keel to adventure on the sea, we are home, domestic, with “green tea” and “ledgers unfinished.” We are in a writer’s mind highly cognizant of the natural world, where “spiders hang / in mating season” and “Hydrangeas shoot pale green flowers.” Indeed the specific things in the occasional world are a part of the great delight a reader experiences in the poem. Specific, even in this first poem, in evocation of domestic, economic, personal, urban, aeronautic, and noisy domains. Yet all the things that invoke such a world are, as well, “words.” 

                                                  waiting for
replacement, by someone else, words.

Once into the poem, into its words and world, one finds not a simple definition or inhabitation of domestic and natural spaces, but a linguistic experience, akin to a Language poetry environment, except articulating not quite what one might expect of a language poem as, while the reality of the depicted world is constrained, it is also fully constructed and present, or at least its presence is fully indicated, fully gestured. And, as any painter knows, gesture carries a world of meaning.
Consider a passage from “springcuts” IV:

Memories, the warmth on green feathers
spreads, the cries. Of distant. Calling,
screeing of swifts, piling over. Sycamores,
so many green bunches of keys, floating.
Might unlock depth, is it now. That seasons
give way to density, will they. Flow,
as they did once. On another scale,
dropping. Wax, the way it cools, skin.
Rucking into something monumental later.

Divided by periods and commas, the representation of the real and of ideas remains fairly close to complete. The real is thus presented as something constructed, yet construction itself is called into question, and the markers we call punctuation also function simply as timing devices. Flow, that which we think of as continuous, stops and starts again. But not quite. “Of distant. Calling.” works as impediment to flow, yet also shows the partialness involved in memory. The whole and the fragment (the partial). Both are here. It is as though Watts has taken, from Louis Zukofsky, both “the” and “A,” and given us “this.” As the next cut, “springcuts” V has it, “In the nature of this.” The natural has a thisness about it, becomes a sign, lifted up.
Perhaps I am presenting Watts’s work as a philosophical idea, or even a demonstration of a poetic. And, while it might be that, it also contains the personal, which comes through in glimpses, inferences, double entendres.

                                       You think you have it.
Taped, then it returns and you see. Your
self, approaching. Unconscious, a deer
in the undergrowth, or embarrassed at.
Meeting, didn’t you just come by the other.
Other way, she might say, you. Answer, yes.
Are you caught out by each. But time goes,
it does not unpick from. Skin is older,
ready to crepe up behind you.                  (“springcuts” VIII) 

There occurs an urgent, sometimes joyous, sometimes startling physicality in Occasionals, with “cells bursting out of” (“springcuts” X), “vital heaving in city bodies” (“springcuts” XV). Yet if there occurs intense eroticism, it signals not just a personal experience, but the world as erotic embrace, as when “birds adapt, raid / brief tongue incursions. Sheltering, from. / Battery, then they dart in open. Dares, / how many. Sound, bound, soar more.” The erotic is, in this instance, a matter of language as well, so that, while the “tongue incursions” seem obvious, the climactic release powers through in “Sound, bound, soar more,” a culmination of openness and escape, linguistically speaking as well as literally soaring.
Toward the end of Occasionals Watts writes, “Life signs. It will be mayhem” (“summercuts” XVI). Rich life, in all its clarity, and all its messiness. Yet though rich and fulfilling, one always desires more. Fulfillment is momentary.

                        The way dancing spreads your
shoulders, is never enough.                           (“summercuts” XVII) 

Finally, no matter the thisness of the world, there is an implication of something else. The poem ends, 

                            Steam rises from the cup. Tell me who is.
Here, now. This. When my sheet is full. 

Here and now, but when? Where? This, but what? “My sheet” is my list of duties, but also the cover to my bed, and a metaphor for my life.
I have seldom read a poetry so exact, yet so longing, expressive of what just might be, somewhere. So abundant, yet with such awareness of our partialness. A poetry that makes of its sentences an architecture that invokes, at the same time, brokenness and clarity. Robert Duncan writes, in “Apprehensions”:

is a building. The architecture of the sentence
personal details,   portals
reverent and enchanting
construction from what lies at hand
                            to stand
for what rings true. 

Occasionals rings true. Truth is beauty, or truth is an architecture of beauty.