A review of Heather Christle’s ‘Heliopause’
First of all, what is a heliopause? If etymology can be believed, it’s the caesura that lives in the sun, a respite from ordinary days and nights, a pause in life wearing a yellow dress, or maybe a green dress, maybe also embedded with jewels. These poems by Heather Christle, in her fourth full-length collection, wear the title well, but not all of them. There are ebbs in the sun’s glint that let us in on what ants might learn from masturbation, on the poet-speaker’s friendship with a fellow poet, and on the oscillations of music and its influence on the poet-speaker, though this too could be redolent of sun (in a sense). These are not conventional narrative poems, and, as with her other books, Christle provides a sense of lyric exigency that is both humorous and necessary, leaving little excess but comprising a world that leaves readers with ways to get in.
The sections of the book diverge from one another quite a bit. These are poems of habitation, in the sense that a linguist would dwell in language, as the epigraph by W. S. Graham lets us know: “What is language using us for? / It uses us all.” The poems are very light, as the yellow or green dress attests, and Christle writes in the book’s first poem that “What’s in charge here is the scattered light all over // and how it pulls my very blood into my hands.” She immediately segues into a beautiful section called “Disintegration Loop,” a meditative piece dedicated to William Basinski, a long poem written while listening to his music. This is a poem of contradictions and loops; it is a haunting poem that reminds me of Jack Spicer or some of the cooler pieces by George Oppen or Michael Palmer. Christle uses abstract philosophical language (“beauty is what beauty does to you”) to weave a web of paratactic fragments here.
Other poems in Heliopause address someone ambiguously defined as “you.” In “Summer,” the poet-speaker says:
Today you find yourself guilty
as the rim you split
an egg against
You press charges
You spell out your name
It’s tough to know who’s being addressed, for the speaker doesn’t seem to address everyone reading but an individual. These poems are not without a sense of violence, of the Real, for in “Realistic Flowers,” Christle writes that “I was so happy I could have / torn your head apart.” I get the sense that Christle is deftly and consciously working with Lacanian themes in the smaller poems that are not addressed to anyone, and a number of them show a sunny face to the reader that is just the slightest bit menacing.
“Elegy for Neil Armstrong” makes a whole section of the book, and is very funny. Christle riffs on Frank O’Hara — “Neil, we can // see you // get / up” — and the poem is spaced across the page to read like an erasure poem. This poem stands apart (but just a little) from the sad, spacey speaker of the other Real poems, and so do some of the poems with dedications. Christle maintains a sense of disappointed hunger in many of her poems, but the haecceity in the poem to Arda Collins is a nice change: “What they are trying to tell you / is you are wearing the wrong bra / for your shape and situation.” “Dear Seth,” for Seth Landman, does the same. Here the speaker-poet leaves the sun and gets sentimental, with lines like, “You have been disappointed / in love and I am sorry.” She maintains spacey humor but includes more of the physical world: “It’s snowing again lightly in Ohio.” I think this is a welcome change and appreciate Christle’s inclusion of the sensible world and its details.
The last poem, “Poem for Bill Cassidy,” is more confessional, and seems much softer and contains more gravitas than the other poems. It opens:
Already I have confessed
the whole alphabet
under my own duress
I came back again to try
The poem ends the book (with its multifarious and quirky humor) on a somber tone. Yet the book ends with a thick light, as the speaker would have it. The yellow sun stays bright, and I’ll be curious to see whether Christle’s next book delves into the shadows a bit more.
A review of Brandon Brown’s ‘Top 40’
Brandon Brown’s Top 40 is forty poems of forty sentences, each sequentially titled with the name of a song from America’s Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest, where the first poem’s title is the fortieth song of the countdown on September 14, 2013, and the title of the last poem is number 1.
Pop music is an ecstasy for Brown, and it has both collectivity and isolation in it. He writes:
Every Sunday as a kid, listening to America’s Top 40, wearing out
thin lines of cassette tape, scraping grass off a lawn, in my room
prostrate with headphones, in every scenario, I was always alone.
So be easy on me if I exaggerate how gorgeous it feels to sing and
dance with you now. (93)
On the subject of poets and pop, the poet Reginald Shepherd writes in his 2008 essay collection Orpheus in the Bronx: “I suspect that for many contemporary poets popular music formed our first ideas of poetry.” This is true enough for Brown, who notes: “My first experience of poetry in any form was pop music, which / taught me about poetry and magic, love and fucking” (21). In writing Top 40 as a conversation with the Top 40, Brown creates an expectation that his poems do some of what the songs do — that they occasion singing and dancing with the reader. We’re all in this together, in Brown’s poems, even when we’re allied in each being alone.
Top 40 is a procedure, or a few at once: forty sentences extending from each song in order to consider how pop music and making friends and keeping lists are all procedures. Brown cares, too, about how procedures usefully and gorgeously break down: “A transit strike can be breathtaking actually in how it redistributes / the possible,” he writes (58). Brown shifts among procedural unpackings of the songs and their lyrics, anecdotes of his daily routines and recent events, exchanges with people close to him, and accounts of what he’s reading (from Norse mythology to Kathy Acker to Rousseau). The book presents a time warp, where the poems catalogue their writing as it becomes October (“sweater weather”) and then winter as the book progresses, where the poems are in the present of the September 14th Top 40 and also in a shifting present where that Top 40 becomes a continuously receding past. The poems assemble into a kind of fragmentary completed portrait, a snapshot of the months around the writing of Top 40 in some of the ways a Top 40 is itself a biography of an American moment. Brown writes: “The structure of the Top 40 is not seismically safe, it cannot survive / unagitated longer than one week” (57): and yet the poems survive, even as they shift. The book is meant to become dated, but also to live on.
Brown thinks often in this book about lineage, as when he quotes from Alice Notley’s Culture of One: “‘The world isn’t a text to be deciphered, it is a new / creation though ancient — but what is antiquity to me’” (59). And to Brown? Part of it is this: “When I look in the mirror I’m subject to a number of fantasies / about history and time travel” (69), which is the companion to the statement “The momentary eternal sounds like heaven to me” (71). These poems are a document of their moment, and a meditation on how antiquity and memory are carried on in the present as moments erode. They aspire to a momentary eternal, a trick of time where the present goes on forever, even as they map its impossibility. Through them, I learn that I prefer Top 40 with Brandon Brown to Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest as a way of keeping track of the present and its slippages.
Part of the moment of these poems is the aftermath in the Bay Area of the Occupy movement, and the November 2011 General Strike. In one reflection: “David often quotes Angela Davis, on the day of the General Strike in Oakland, saying ‘Our solidarities will be complex.’” (16) Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, often makes the argument that cultural production presages political action, and conversely, that cultural artifacts can demonstrate the political conditions of a given moment. In a 2004 interview with Oliver Wang, Chang notes, “Hip-hop shows how deeply the last thirty years of American history have been affected by the politics of abandonment.” This makes me wonder about Brown’s procedural solidarities: list making, and returning to texts and ideas and people and language as ways of combating abandonment. These poems demonstrate that Brown feels the complexity of this moment’s solidarities everywhere, as he tests attachments to a catalogue of the features of his daily life.
These are poems that believe in coming together, but also demand the privacy of the self. Brown writes about listening to many of the songs obsessively, as he catalogues repeated actions: “Cigarettes, drinks, pills, chips, fucks, syllables, reps, hours on the / job, whatever it is, counting is addiction’s constant praxis.” (86)
Repetition and counting are an abandonment of the self to the logics of obsession, but also ways of saving the self from abandonment through returning again and again to its desires and needs. For as much as he believes in collectivity, he is at the center of these poems. “I guess I finally don’t know for sure what solidarity is” (115), he writes. The poems in Top 40 are a scout’s guide to how to celebrate living as a twinning of disavowal and adoration, as in his treatment of Charlie XCX’s I Love It: “I Love It hypothesizes that not caring can make love more not less / robust, that not caring can be the object of our most passionate / feelings” (48). Brown’s rapid parataxis can offer the idea that he doesn’t care, abandoning one idea for the next, but whatever not caring he does, it’s with an enormous heart, where not caring creates the opportunity for serious emotional investment, as he selects where and how seriously to direct his attention. Not caring is a defense in a framework of abandonment. Top 40 is a book with structure and a number of repeated themes, figures, and ideas, yet its locus and its drive are feelings: what feels good, what feels better, and where elective affinities create permission for tremendous waves of feeling, which are often private, but shared because we are told about them.
Brown writes, “I fucking love duets” (35), and that’s kind of what Top 40 is — a duet between Brown and the countdown, but also between Brown and the reader. Many of the tenderest moments are Brown alone with, or thinking about, or wishing for another person he names or doesn’t. In Top 40 repetition is the companion to change, or the catalyst for it, or the balm that makes it bearable, or its reflection, as Brown makes handsomely known: the music gets into all of us because we all have bodies and hearts, and so reading a book that’s a gorgeous mirror has to be a duet. I fucking love duets. Me in Brown, and Brown in me.
3. “A Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Q+A with Oliver Wang,” by Jeff Chang, cantstopwontstop.com, 2004.
A review of erica kaufman’s ‘INSTANT CLASSIC’
In the beginning, I could not face INSTANT CLASSIC directly. Too bright, I could only handle it in bits, my gaze slightly averted. From this peripheral place, kaufman’s book followed me. I carried it with me on the subway, slept with it beside the bed. I gathered what felt like relevant books and films around me. Talismanic. I kept INSTANT CLASSIC, and kaufman, in mind. And then, I could not look away.
My experiences and questions of how to be in relation to INSTANT CLASSIC, and what this being in relation contains, seem to parallel those very experiences and questions that kaufman takes up in her text. Through grappling with John Milton and his revisions of Paradise Lost, kaufman invokes her identifications as a Jewish lesbian woman poet academic, attempting the psychic, linguistic, and creative work of struggling to locate her-self within the numerous and interrelated matrices within which she lives: her-self and others, culture, history, kinship and lineage, even objects.
After a short poem, “PREFACE: to tell you” (9), kaufman begins INSTANT CLASSIC by sharing the story of Milton’s first edition of Paradise Lost, published in 1667. Alerted by poor sales that the book was decidedly not an instant classic, its publisher at the time, Samuel Simmons, persuaded Milton to make the epic poem more digestible for readers, which resulted in subsequent editions, offered as twelve volumes instead of the previous ten, with “short prose arguments that precede each book” (11). kaufman is troubled by what this move towards censorship and accessibility might mean, particularly for those who, like she, write “difficult books” (12).
If we think of editions of books as generations, we might then consider what does and does not get passed on. And thus, what material is rendered indigestible, in excess, waste. In this sense, these post-1667 editions of Paradise Lost remain haunted by their 1667 original. By shifting her gaze to encompass what has been lost, kaufman reimagines the Paradise Lost of 1667, “where the text was allowed the plain it wanted to occupy” (12) and Milton becomes mother, alter ego, fellow outcast, and twin.
INSTANT CLASSIC is all surface, with symptoms appearing and disappearing in varied, disturbing, chaotic, and arresting combinations.
my history develops to fit the face the tumor steroid
chemo cancer goiter dis-ease genetic narrative strait
dance party petri dance horseshoe kidney fever sprite (69)
Contrary to the characterization of surface and depth as being opposed, kaufman demonstrates the ways in which “deep” material, which we might associate with the heavy, the unprocessed or unconscious, arises and becomes enacted on the “surface” level.
equipment aligns us thanato-tour bus
death march mulch money even at the base (73)
Each word, a thing in and of itself, modifies and engages the previous, so that meaning builds, accumulates, and erodes. Woven together by a sound and rhythm that’s nearly hypnotic, for kaufman, history is never past, but happening continuously in the present.
subversive wallow pick the translator
who sees thee (66)
I am terrified as I write this review. I cannot see the net from the holes. I am approaching the limits of my own coherence. Am I the translator who sees kaufman? And if so, to what affects of INSTANT CLASSIC does my profound disorientation speak?
While Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) provides INSTANT CLASSIC with one of its frames, the symbol of the garden, in multifarious iterations, populates the textual field. We start off, of course, via Paradise Lost, with the Garden of Eden, the Genesis version of which “there was never a place” (11) for either Milton or kaufman. kaufman is troubled “by the connotations of prelapsarian time” (11) and the impact that this perfect beginning, this ur-environment, might have on our psyches.
without asking the chariot
i walk towards the scene
first interest leave. be it eve
in the garden voiceless
or a moment of heterosexual
panic that necessitates it
necessary to dive plural drive (15)
As kaufman is troubled, I, too, become troubled. What does it mean to wish for a birth, a beginning, free from the traumas of history? Even in the womb, much is being transmitted to us.
let’s say i can visualize my own film
build a public garden out of body
language index the utterance devoid (39)
Here, the garden becomes an archive, a collection, and the body itself. Structures of public and private, personal and collective are remade to reflect actual lived experience, “where a garden/makes sense” (56).
INSTANT CLASSIC is a living text with its own inherent intelligence. Each poem, each stanza, each line: garden-esque.
i am the snake outside your history
i am far from archaic from scaffold repositories
i am vulgar in my fear of impact and inflation
success a woman in beta
launch jitter epic reputation
total comments allowed =
hear the territory then reframe it (63)
These are spaces of numerous pleasures and surprises, as well as inconsistencies, lapses, and loss.
As it is in the garden, so it is in the body.
a loveseat of intertextuality a struggle
with water resolved in the non-site
non-space nonsense panel of ugly (19)
Drawing upon the language of the human body, the techno-body, the post-human, the cyborg, the social body, pop culture, the religious body, the textual body, the queer body, and the body of history (among numerous others), INSTANT CLASSIC considers the psychic amputations one must bear or adapt to in order to belong.
remove a part of my body stitch me switch my blood
type to anesthetic pierce my nipples then wake to
reject the metal expel neuropathetic (69)
How are these belongings and not-belongings embodied, and what sorts of coherences and incoherences do they create within us?
skin emotionally liable mood incongruent
i care what you make of dysregulation my outbursts
come as specter corrupt in pliant goggles (77)
Instead of an argument, kaufman’s language serves as a prosthesis, connecting and also separating, herself and others, writer and reader.
In the beginning, I could not face INSTANT CLASSIC directly. When I say that it was too bright, I mean that I was confronted with an overwhelming blindness. Which is not to say that I saw nothing. In fact, I saw too much.
lung collapse some semblance of what
I used to be before I got all third
generation medi-can’t mobile in all
the right papers authenticate a constitution
age or meatloaf between tears
there is nothing wrong
with looking in the mirror a tendency
for the simulator to work badly (32)
Throughout INSTANT CLASSIC, kaufman grapples with lineage and its innumerable reverberations. Elaborating upon her own idiom, where “it’s always got to be about pattern” (32), kaufman endeavors to bear witness.
of course i turn to salt of course i turn
around rub mud on my face pray
light don’t reflect back do damage to
cheek bones mark me elegiac i know
about the looting the plunder the silver
furniture future if this is true democracy
please invite me to the meal that follows (72)
As reader, it is my responsibility to ride these waves of affect, to let myself be submerged. In order to reckon with kaufman’s ghosts/gaps, I must also reckon with my own. In order to locate kaufman, I must locate myself. Of course, this is always impossible.
A review of Pierre Joris’s ‘Barzakh’
My father was a healer & a hunter. Is it any surprise I became a poet & translator? (“Nimrod,” 121)
“Nothing truer than fragment” — I’m quoting Robert Kelly — & I love the coupling of “truth” which in our Western culture is always associated with the simple, the whole, the complete with the notion of the fragment, which can only be incomplete, multiple, partial so that the notion of a “true fragment” is de facto oxymoronic” (“Maintenant #94 — Pierre Joris: An interview with Pierre Joris by S. J. Fowler)
In identifying archetypally with healer and hunter, Pierre Joris brings his poems of the twenty-first century into an ever more fervid and restless search mode. Healers and hunters operate under the most severe time constraints, with survival at stake. Which is why Robert Kelly’s sage half-truth “Nothing truer than fragment” needs to be fleshed out. What Joris does with fragments, with increasing acuity decade after decade in his poems, is search and sift among fragments with urgent speed and decisiveness — nomad on the run — to shape fragments so they coalesce into culturally vibrant patterns of meaning. Think of Pound’s image of iron filings magnetized, constellated into an image of a rose. Like Pound, Joris finds fragments that move through his field of attention at high-velocity. Often from source to target language(s), faithful to his Luxemborgian-cum-American self whose oscillations in youth between German and French gave rise to his unsettling-settling home language of American English. Heard in the play of his ear and intellect, a true world music mix from a hydrogen jukebox in “A Poem in Noon”:
where our r, French,
rolls & roils
into the dark of a round
wonder, a drop in
a bucket, to re-emerge
hissing wet, somewhat
sheepish, but not ain
so difficult to pronounce
for northern claritas. (130)
Roaming among romance languages — hunting in the terra incognita of romance — Joris finds fragments of extraordinary resonance among the exiled: Dante (“This afternoon Dante”), Jabes (“Reading Edmond Jabes”), and Celan (“Shakespeare sonnet #71, re-Englished after Paul Celan’s German version without consulting the original”). Hunting for fragments among them, carrying them with him on his US-Maghreb transits — he shares with his beloved exiles an acute moral vision, sparks crystallizing fragments into a poem as a patterned integrity, as dynamically whirling as a Calder mobile, intently defining exilic hideaways, latently healing/reweaving a ripped social fabric. Set to music in this book’s finale working through news fragments of yet another leaking oil tanker catastrophe at sea, “The Gulf: From Rigwreck to Disaster”:
what we know is oil & water do not mix
what we know is fish & oil do not mix
what we know is you & I have to mix
what we know is you & I have to live (175)
Fragments add up and configure for Joris as he lives out the situation of poet as healer: diagnosing a pattern of systemic dehumanization under an anything-goes facade of technological progress. Yet the moral prophet stance that accelerated Pound’s madness is lightened in Joris through sensual destabilizing plays (riffs?) of intellect, or Beat-like goofy reveries on commonplace objects awash in new light, as in this jotting:
I like the imp
that makes it all
And in “In Praise of Pinot Blanc,” an ode evoking Gregory Corso’s wildness:
Oh, you natural clone of a
Red clone, you are a most
Sympathetic Frankenstein (229)
Which underscores that the working of every fragment found under the poet’s gaze is not elevated to an epic occasion. But what engages consistently in these poems of a dozen years is an acute handling of everyday experiences of a poet-scholar whose nomadic intelligence with fluid musical grace moves among cultures and languages penetratingly yet lightly. Accelerating the faculty of search with a hunter’s and healer’s urgency carries the risk of overreaching, particularly when Joris dances among transcontinental language and culture systems. What impresses throughout Barzakh is how Joris finds nourishment intellectually at last in the plenum of a hunter’s chase and a healer’s equipoise, experiencing his multiple languages and cultures as codes of shamanic ancestral guides:
is it tiring to chase language?
it is not
it is more tiring
to be chased by language.
there’s one on my left &
one on my right
I am comfortable in the middle
I like those that are by my side
to go through me. (175)
These literary ancestors in their various tongues moving through Joris inevitably draw a resounding pattern, a continuity through time, however carnivalesque and Babel-like, of moral witness through poetic artistry. In Pound’s “It does not cohere” the Cantos do exactly that. As Celan speaking through the magnificence of the Joris translation has it:
A roar: it is
right into the
What makes the poetry of Pierre Joris most engrossingly nomadic may be the fact that the nomad’s sole home is constructed of his pressing propulsive hunting and healing songs. The Quran twice defines “barzakh” as a barrier separating salt water from fresh, suggesting a liminal zone where a soul after the body’s demise finds quiescence before its final infernal or blissful destination. Joris comprehends the tentative in-between nature of healing and hunting poetry. Senses a force-field between Orion and Chiron in the night sky constellating. And advances in his poems in spite of that precarious tragic focus. As the book’s final line paradoxically reminds: “DARK DISASTER CARRIES THE LIGHT” (297).
A review of Leonard Schwartz’s ‘If’
In the fifteenth century, François Villon claimed the subjunctive mood for his vagabond verse with Si j’etais roi. In his book-length poem If, Leonard Schwartz returns to this conditional world of the subjunctive with a series of wise, vivid, and vulnerable questions, which the poet poses and then leaves unanswered — at least, apparently. More so than most poems, If invites readers to participate actively in its seemingly hypothetical world, underscored by the poet’s frequent invocation of we, our collective selves. In this deeply philosophical work, ontology and epistemology are made as human as hope and fear, and as necessary as wheelbarrows.
The key to If is that the poet posits p, but not q; the ifs of this poem stand alone, without corollary, waiting for the reader’s response, although hints are generously given. Through a terrain populated with possibility, the poet “rambles,” as James Wood termed the stream of consciousness in Shakespeare. The reader joins the poet in a passage through an oneiric, yet familiar landscape, like Richard Wilbur’s Walking to Sleep, encountering language, objects, and their philosophy in the terrain. From section 5:
If a bulldozer lurks in every
And the alphabet remains unchanged
For thousands of years
If the warming flesh of rhetoric is
Cut away and the spiritual
Bone structure underneath
Is, surprise, neither warm nor fleshy
What do these unanswered ifs imply? Despite no then statements, the poem’s conditional statements have a sense of completeness to them, accentuated by Schwartz’s occasional use of periods to close a sequence. These if statements assert their integrity and independence, claiming no consequences and all possible sequellae at once. But often, as in a koan, the answer is the question.
If what is said
Is what is sad
If we are signs without interpretation
And what is contemporary in me
Is the sun, the moon, and the stars
Our existence at an inner distance
The poet marks his interlocutions by calling on a “community of persons / Born in the same instant.” If calls to the reader to participate in its collective unconsciousness, which it brings to consciousness through objectivist images of alphabets, stars, and bone. The conditional mood in If takes on the reality of the true self of the individual and her community, looking beyond words through words for their noumenon. The poet’s ding an sich of the concrete examines his own observations throughout the poem, and seems to need the collective’s input for answers.
In the poem, the reader encounters the quotidian as after samadhi, when one continues to chop wood and carry water as before, but now chopped and carried in enlightenment.
If there are windows in mirrors
And mirrors in windows
Sometimes it is an ecstatic response
The unconscious offers to what is observed
As in samadhi or the collective unconsciousness, there is a timelessness to Schwartz’s subjunctive. In the conditional mood of the poem, we are often startled to find ourselves in the past, the present, and a yet-to-be-created future, often simultaneously. Like time-space, the poem curves upon itself: each new thing carries its “bulldozer,” the seeds of its destruction and rebirth, and each if posited refers to previous and next ones.
Language and perception and their confluence are both barriers and gateways for the poet, who is preoccupied by signifiers and memes; there is a search throughout the poem for the ineffable essence that lies behind or just beyond them. If examines semiotics, returning often to the question of what we are beyond symbols and representation, and what symbols and representation make of us. Word play is abundant in the poem and is used to further these themes. As in Joseph Brodsky’s poem New Life, Schwartz’s alphabet assembles itself into objects, hymns, people, and the pursuit of meaning in the text.
Neither mirror nor window
Neither Narcissus nor perception
The poem is built around pauses, and Schwartz’s majusculation chisels the elegant line breaks, allowing the if-without-then statements to be heard clearly in the reader’s mind. Stanza breaks further encourage contemplation of this philosophical work. There is also poetic unity to the poem’s sections and the work as a whole, bound together by this yearning, searching, and recognition of self and other as we. The reader walks to sleep with imagery as striking as in Wilbur’s poem, but from a voice less martial and detached:
If it is mostly in mist that
Losing the “I” yields up a “You”
If frail sleep barely withstands
If rubbing words together does kindle a voice …
One knows one will never free oneself
From the web of daydream …
There is a kindness to If’s broad worldview that appeals to the soul. Perhaps Psyche’s favorite word, the syllable she loves best, is this one of imagination, possibility, and quest, the syllable of If.