Reviews - December 2012

The poetry of re-formation

A review of Jefferson Carter's 'Get Serious'

Get Serious: New and Selected Poems

Get Serious: New and Selected Poems

Jefferson Carter

Chax Press 2013, 74 pages, $16, ISBN 978-0-925904-20-1

After eight collections of poetry, a poet usually arrives at a point when a “new and selected” is a natural, a given, if not something of an earned entitlement; a milestone in any case. This is no less true for Jefferson Carter’s Get Serious, a gathering of the best of a poetry that is as original as conditions of originality permit, so much so it seems to stand alone, like a night club in a cemetery.

What allows for this is an architecture so consistent and noticeable it might be called Carterian — a muscular, sharp-edged concision of cropped allusion, unexpected Martianesque references, Taser-like in their effect, often packed into a Euclidian block, a vertical rectangle. The experience is similar to entering a Scandinavian furniture  store, austere and sparse, then having the back wall fall away — that vertical rectangle — becoming a portal to another biosphere. Typical of this unique aggregation is “Pasture”:

To a narcissist, all
the world’s a mirror.
The day I misread
the no trespassing sign
in the laundromat window
as no trepanning, I retired
from narcissism.  I stopped
worrying about my headaches.
I’m not so lonely now
& even a goat isn’t just
a goat.  I told my neighbor
my lawn’s a pasture & today
I saw a herd, fainting goats
he calls them, grazing there.

These poems, consistent with others that form Carter’s oeuvre, hold promise for a wide literary readership if for no other reason than they offer an alternative that has immediate appeal, and occupies its own territory. They may even be said to bridge the distance between a literary populism claimed  (in one way or another) by “New” Formalism that never seemed to have actually occurred (owing to its own nineteenth-century strictures that exclude the more absurd details of contemporary conditions) and literary extremes like those oblique assemblages of language and letter-art bricolage used to produce objects simply as objects, to remain intentionally unreadable in any conventional sense.

The speakers in Carter’s poems are overwhelmed souls, so confounded by the ridiculous, they can only find solace in a bewilderment that consoles through the otherwise unnoticed, the ordinary, a consolation that is wry, amusing, and endearing, like a discovery of “a school for famous readers” from the sound of sow bugs in a shower:

Writing in the Shower

I wanted something
Eastern European, you know,
something portentous
in the best sense of the word,
but what I managed was
two lines of Southwestern
animal husbandry, half
a simile comparing
something wet to a teaser
stallion on a stud farm
& I was too busy
to mention the sow bugs
in the shower stall,
which echoed like a school
for famous readers.

Carter’s poetry could have easily slid sideways into esoteric extremism — the current pressures are all there — or become another casualty in the landfill of the all-too-dense poetry that attempts to describe itself throughout so many poets’ careers, or sink into the mordantly oblique, but it has found its own re-formation among what has either been impulsively discarded or ignored by others, making itself necessary to an understanding of emerging sensibilities that, science tells us, are in a perpetual state of progressive development.

This, and a knowing laughter, humane and caring, necessary to enduring the worst of our tragedies — the laughter of Calvino, or what Hesse attributed to those magnanimous souls in his literary and musical panthéon — constitute a contribution to the enterprise of the poetry of our era. Above all, this collection is a notable contribution to the evolution of  poetic consciousness.

The Mummy

Wrapped in my blue & white-striped
100% Egyptian cotton bed sheet,
I skulk in the vestibule.  What a word —
ves.ti.bule, the last syllable
like breathing on a mirror.  I overheard
two girls laughing about their teacher
arrested taking out the garbage
in his underwear.  I say more power
to him.  I’ll say to those girls the night
I catch them, have a little mercy.
Mercy, a word that sounds
like someone swallowing flowers.

'To drown well is art'

A review of Anthony Lynch's 'Night Train'

Night Train

Night Train

Anthony Lynch

Clouds of Magellan 2011, 67 pages, AUD $18, ISBN 9780980712087

Night Train is Anthony Lynch’s first book of poetry, and it comes with a small list of weighty names in its acknowledgements. This promises to be poetry that has been carefully hefted, sifted, culled, and considered. In addition, Anthony Lynch is not only a fine short story writer, but is himself a professional editor and a publisher of poetry. To know what you are doing can be a dangerous starting point for a poet and for poetry, so it is with relief that I found the last line of the first poem suggesting “To drown well is art.”

This first poem has the openness of free verse, the kind of short-lined free verse where missteps are quickly exposed. It has the formality of three-line stanzas and a faintly self-mocking tone as it takes us through references to a Mandelbrot set, a climatologist’s beard, the after-rain songs of birds, and a brief theory of puddles via a dog (summed up in the phrase above). The lines are beautifully paced down the page, sometimes in a phrase so expertly handled you have to stop (“on a nub of hill”) and the whole carries a voice that’s interesting already. The first section, “Topography,” introduces the reader to landscape, weather, animals, and a faux-scientific vision that either accepts drowning “well” or aspires to that condition. This poetry can walk us vigorously across a farming landscape, alert us to the slaughter that is part of farming as well as those compromised versions of nature that go to constitute farming country (foxes, rats, genetically modified canola, hares, invading bees). The poet is there with us, simply, and we trust him, while the poetry continues in its steady short lines that pace themselves with steps that don’t stretch the breath but feel alive mostly because of the liveliness of the mind that subjects itself to the compact diction of the poetry: a sheep unplugged by a fox; a mop squeezed out in the sky; an octopus of hose; dumbstruck shirts on the clothesline; a pelican that “jumbos over the bay”; and in a train, “upon reflection, the dark windows clone you.” These images I have almost randomly chosen, for the arresting moments are so frequent that it takes more than one reading to catch them all.

In the second section of the book, more concretely titled “Interiors,” there is a closer world of sex, love, domesticity, personal rivalries, and depression, with shifting moods in the phrases that are so condensed, again, you have to stop to savor them:

The past exits the back door
where pot plants do their time.
(“The Vexing”)

Lynch does what the best poets do: he inhabits whatever he describes. You feel he has learned something important for himself from Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath without ignoring William Carlos Williams. Brendan Ryan’s and Laurie Duggan’s regional poetry forms a sympathetic spirit close to this poetry too.

The final section, “Splitting Space,” develops notes of urgency alongside a more open humor. The violence of the duck season, addressed jokingly to the ducks (“come be my quilt / or quill”) is expressed with what seems carelessness of tone after the early poems. It is as if almost any image will do as long as it breaks away from expectations, even from poetry, for the questions about violence must take precedence even over the poetry. A caustic vision takes over: Christmas is summed up with “the bonbons a reliable bad joke.” His black humor becomes reliable as he observes mercilessly the demented and the crippled. Nine people die on the final night train in the book. The subliminal expression of violence in this poet’s surname comes to my mind at the end. It is as if he is giving himself up to himself, though Saint Anthony, the orator who knew with devilish skill how language works, is there too. If this third section is more recent poetry, then the reckless urgency coursing through it is a good sign for the next book from this poet.

Mostly this is a poetry of observation rather than sentiment. The “inhabiting” always carries with it ideas and attitudes that won’t let you, or the things observed, alone:

 All too strange
or too familiar, we can’t decide

Sean O’Brien, the British poet and novelist, speaks of the unreasonable reason that must be present in the best poetry. It is there in Anthony Lynch’s. It is this stance of the thinker-observer that makes the themes of forgiveness, violence, of “want and consent” shine through when they’re glimpsed. You realize they have been all over the poetry from the beginning while the brilliant visuals have kept you entertained. The violence is not, of course, simply there because it happens to be part of the panorama, a daily thing. That would be one attitude to take. Lynch notes the violence of the mundane has been called the stark reality of day, in order for his poetry to show that phrase up for the stale cliché it is. It is the “bigness of things” he shows us, and mostly through his small, brilliant details. His poetry drowns well in its final image of a library of all possible faces.

'Besieged by grief'

A review of Rachel Tzvia Back's 'A Messenger Comes'

A Messenger Comes

A Messenger Comes

Rachel Tzvia Back

Singing Horse Press 2012, 108 pages, ISBN 978-0-935162-48-6

In Rachel Tzvia Back’s collection of poems A Messenger Comes (Singing Horse Press, 2012), the poet, like a biblical Deborah bearing a torch, arrives to illuminate the dark, devastated, and devastating space of grief. Following the deaths of both her father and sister, the poet is spiritually “called” to apply language to mourning. This calling is revealed in the epigraph to Messenger, a passage from Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish, the profound elegiac work for his own father, which also gives the collection its title: “A messenger comes to the mourner’s house. ‘Come,’ says the messenger, ‘you are needed.’ ‘I cannot come,’ says the mourner: ‘My spirit is broken.’ ‘That is why you are needed,’ says the messenger.” In the first section of poems, “The Broken Beginning,” the poet imagines grief and grief’s counterpoint, love, being formed with the creation of the world itself:

(In the beginning)
In the beginning
it was sudden —
the world

that wasn’t
all at once

out of formless void —

of the infinite
into pieces — God

to make way
for perfect human

Adam and Eve

in the beginning
of a world that wasn’t
and wasn’t yet

broken either (13)

The poet must pave a way through the world after it, and she, are “broken” — after grief has befallen humanity inescapably: “Thus the sudden rift / opens // to define us — After and / then // Before” (66).

Many themes of Messenger — among them Judaism, the Bible, Israel, and Hebrew — are prominent in Back’s past collections, On Ruins and Return (Shearsman Books, 2007), The Buffalo Poems (Duration Press, 2003), Azimuth (Sheep Meadow Press, 2000), and Litany (Meow Press, 1995). Back was raised in Buffalo, New York, and studied at Yale and Temple universities, but has been living in Israel for three decades. Her work is thereby dually informed by American traditions (Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Adrienne Rich make appearances in Messenger), and Israeli ones. In an interview, Back has discussed the complexities of her choice to reside in Israel: “I have a great passion for Israel, even now — a passion for the Israeli landscapes and sensibility, for the rhythms of the Hebrew language, for the ancientness of the culture, and its raw newness too. My heart feels most connected to itself in Israel — I feel most myself there.” Indeed, Israel, Jewishness, and Hebrew permeate Messenger; for instance, in an image of olive trees (55); in a poem that enumerates the names of sacred Jewish texts, some invented by the poet herself (51); and in a poem which meditates on her father’s passing using the English letters a-b-a, which join in the last line to spell the word Aba: “father” in Hebrew (39).

Back’s work has long been engaged in and concerned with the atrocities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Andrew Mossin writes in his 2008 review of On Ruins and Return, Back has sought to bring a new mode of “seeing” to this conflict. Her poems, in the tradition of women poets of witness, such as Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Carolyn Forché, and Alicia Ostriker, frequently juxtapose the personal and political. In On Ruins and Return, this is achieved when the lyrical “I” is used in the service of describing a disputed, embattled land: “I live on the ruins of Palestine.” Sporadic references to conflicts of the region also appear in Messenger. In a passage from the long poem “Lamentation,” the poet writes about a dream in which her elderly father climbs “a grove of old olives” atop “the wounded land”:

(21) Dream inquiry (2)

pillagers have gathered
              stones from the wounded land in
                                       their angry hands and when

they raise weapons for harm
              my father lifts both his arms
                                     into the unblemished blue

a bird
             spreading white woven wings

over us all
                in the ancient grove

sun glistening
              still through the wings even

he’s gone. (55)

As her father morphs into a white bird, presumably a dove, spreading his wings “over us all,” the poet thus envisions his spirit bestowing peace to country that is torn, but their home nonetheless.

In Messenger, however, the poet primarily writes of grieving in a way that is personal, rather than political:

Every moment of every day and
Every night I am

Besieged by grief
Closed to any loss but my own. (97)

The last lines of this poem (from the section “Elegy Fragments”), display a turning inwards, away from the Other, following the poet’s terrible loss. In Messenger, the poet’s sense of self is so utterly shaken, shattered, that she writes (in another section of “Lamentation”) of being embodied by loss — “at” and “in” loss:


Cut loose (not
yet)    we are

a loss
we are

a loss
lost in

lost to
we are

bound to
bound by
now slowly

in days
and numbered

hours. (42)

The series of enjambments affirm the harsh rupturing of the poet’s selfhood and the life that was known to her. With the use of the plural “we,” she reminds us that while this rupturing can be shared to some extent, we must cope with its impact alone; in the case of Messenger, through a dialogue with one’s own poems. Though the poet certainly never addresses a higher religious authority (such as God), the incantatory poems are forms of "secular" prayers in themselves.

The poet’s father and sister occupy their own sections in the collection, highlighting the individual significance of each. In the first sections of Messenger, the poet writes of her father, depicting him as larger than life: “Six feet tall broad and bearded / traveling a world / (in a hospital bed) // professor and scientist / (huddled under / the covers)” (40). In a later poem, Back writes of his “wide-armed gestures, voluminous / stories detailing each / memory in grand trajectories / of arced blossoms” (65). In the final section, “Elegy Fragments,” Messenger turns to the early passing of the poet’s sister: “My sister died / in mid-summer, in the middle // of the night, in the middle / of her life” (87). In a subsequent fragment, the poet revisits the notion of shattering, or coming apart, which is so prevalent in the collection: “Steadfast / sister, there is steady / unravelment / in the vastness of your / absence” (89). Back courageously writes of the longing, even guilt, that can accompany the death of someone beloved, “How I try, and fail / to return you to us // in every word and verse / ever faltering —” (90). Although the poet cannot write her sister (or father) back to life, solace is found in the vision of her sister (like her father) as a bird:

Sometimes in the birds’ flash
of white-winged flight

I think I see you
delicate delicate

your lovely name
in that winged instant written

across all the skies (100)

As is often the case in Back’s poetry, layers of meaning are revealed with a knowledge of Hebrew; here, the twice-repeated word “delicate” (perhaps echoing the birds’ wings flapping), is the English translation of her sister’s name, Adina, to whom the section, and the book in its entirety, is dedicated. Thus, Adina’s memory inheres in English and Hebrew, the two languages from which so much of Back’s writing springs. In the last elegy fragment, we thankfully encounter not a contrived notion of grief’s finality, but a recognition of its perpetuity:

As though I am not
in Secret and
with every breath

Waiting for your return. (101)

Readers are advised to explore the moving, well-executed poems of A Messenger Comes. If the book begins with the poet being called, Messenger is a remarkable answer to this call. By hearing Back’s words, we become braver in the face of our own grief, as well as love, two sentiments the collection wonderfully articulates: “Enduring / love: How // is it to be endured / in your absence” (93).

'The architecture and ambience of the maze'

A review of Marie Buck's 'Amazing Weapons'

Amazing Weapons

Amazing Weapons

Marie Buck

Scary Topiary Press 2011, $10, ISBN chapbook

Let’s find our way out of this maze, the title of the opening poem in Marie Buck’s Amazing Weapons, draws an etymological fact to our attention, the relation in English between the noun maze and the verb amaze. All the maze words stem from old Germanic words referring to labor. So to be in a maze or to be amazed are similarly to undergo occupation, to recognize the inhibitions and prohibitions that condition one’s autonomy.

You know how they put mice in mazes in those scary labs so we can have better shampoo and cancer drugs? Those mice are supposed to get out. Amazing Weapons thematizes the recognition of political distress and jussive plea for solidarity as a means of “solving the problems” that distress produces. And yet I think that what’s at stake is a countervailing argument against finding the “way out” at all. What the book attends instead is the architecture and ambience of the maze itself. The contemporary subject represented in these poems includes the optimistic, positive desire of altering current conditions and an affirmation of the glamorous objects that keep us amazed.

Or, in other words, there is no way “out” of the maze, but there is a lot of way through it. It occurs to me that so much of the contemporary writing I’m most excited about, and this absolutely includes Marie Buck’s work and Amazing Weapons, is the particular affective orientation it occupies vis-a-vis catastrophic current conditions. And what I mean is that this writing tends to refuse stable, coherent modes of affective relation — including the stable, coherent modes that the avant-garde appropriates as its own. Instead, this writing articulates the nightmare of contemporary ecstasy (especially as it cathects to pop culture) and likewise the glee adjacent to the most abject, its comfort zone for paradox is vast.

And, fittingly, the comfort zone includes a lot of discomforting material. Did you ever hear about the bugonia? It’s one of the nastiest things ever. Virgil goes on at length to describe the process in his didactic poem called Fourth Georgic. Basically, ancient apiculture formulated that bees were born in the rotting carcass of a cow. So if you’re a beekeeper and all your bees die, you go get a cow, you put it in a little shed, beat it to death, and then in a few months you have a ton of bees. Ew. But I mention the bugonia because it seems to me an apt image for the relational economy of Amazing Weapons: the sense that getting as close as possible to the most abject conditions is where you find a way through it — if not free of it. So in “Scope of Emotions,” Buck brings this ancient association of decay and flourish to bear, “all of my oceans’ dead and wounded / Brilliantly executed, several kinds of touch / In the warmth of the freshly-deceased.”

I guess this means for Buck’s book to achieve its maximal effect we’d have to be living in the most debased time in history and “luckily,” we are! It’s a time in which “terror strikes / in the home of my dead sisters.” It’s a time in which all previous systems of transcendent relief have gone Darth Vader at best. Here’s the entirety of “God In Heaven”:

What is the watchful eye upon you? The glitter-covered father
slashing and burning across the North American continent?

Amazing Weapons confronts its speaker paratactically with the objects of this ruined landscape. Parataxis, though, isn’t just a rhetorical figure in this book. The poet “herself” (I use the pronoun “her” although the gender of the speaking subject in the book is under extreme, sublime duress) emerges in an array of times and spaces in the world of the poems. Throughout, her orientation is marked by patiency. Rob Halpern defines patiency as “agency’s inversion and complement. Located in a situation of suspended action, patiency nevertheless contests impotent privacy and docile quietude.” The lyric speaker of Amazing Weapons manifests agency’s inversion by the stoic, hyper-bored way in which her body becomes the object of consumption by others.

This encounter of the patient subject and the hungry other inside the maze (the “situation of suspended action”) is often shown in terms of sexuality and power — which speaks to the sense of patiency as that state which “contests impotent privacy and docile quietude.” This contest is nuanced in Buck’s book: the subject drifts between poles of power in the encounter and assumes many forms of perspective. For instance, in “Underwear,” Buck writes, “I make you mount me / I am a boutique owner.” This represents an awfully complex picture of dom play inflected by the assumed agency pertinent to small business capitalism. On the other hand, the patient subject who appears and reappears in Amazing Weapons is under something like attack, which it confronts in the language of sexual pleasure and, simultaneously, the language of contesting docile quietude, “there is something rubbing my clit / it is the army of unalterable law.”

The spatial adjacency appears in the many landscapes that populate the poems. No individual object is ever allowed to survive the degradation and intricacy of the amazing present. Gestures of penetration recur throughout the poems, also emphasizing the essential patiency of the speaker, “yet another guy / inside you / a detailed view.” And finally, in this scene of “inescapable” parataxes, rational scale is ruptured, so “the small stretch of the cat … confronts the police state.”

Indeed, the police state is the dominant key governing all the spaces of Amazing Weapons. Tempting as it might be to simply read this book, though, as a response to the spectacular violence perpetrated by police regimes around the United States, time is subject to a similar juxtapositional pressure. The temporal adjacencies are emphasized by the insistent “ands” that dominate the book’s composition.

Like any great paratactic writing, the side-by-side propositions point to the breach between them. Buck exults in those breaches, inside of which are the real broadcasts from amazed life, from life enduring regimented mazeness. And part of the reality of that life, the everydayness of that life, is the articulation of “minor” desires and needs at the same time as major demonstrations by capital’s army attempt to crush formations towards autonomy, “I anticipate complete and utter destruction / And I want a maxi pad and I need a maxi pad.”

The economy of vacillation and ambivalence in this book is often articulated in terms of “emotions” and “feelings.” What I wanted to finally figure out about Amazing Weapons is whether these poems suggest that our condition is imminent by their juxtapositions, paradoxes, rhetorics of affective jouissance as well as malaise. Whether the law really is “unalterable.” I mean I want to figure out how hopeful the poet is, or how ruined is her optimism, or how unbelievably charged is her despair. But then, to have an “answer” to those questions, to “finally figure it out” would be, after all, a getting out of the maze, not getting through it.

Getting through it, all of those registers collapse into a desperate, fucked-up, hilarious, beautiful world populated by Hitler-fighting kittens. A spectacular expression of an effort “to bring the heart of the uncertain future.” The disenchanted ambivalence that completes the composition refers back to the forces of dominion and situates the poem in sight of an unsolvable world “prettily snowing on the police as they are.”