"I"-criticism in postliterary America

Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries

Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries

Maria Damon

University of Iowa Press 2011, 273 pages, $39.95, ISBN 1587299577

In this timely and temperamental critical performance, Maria Damon celebrates our brave new postliterary world as a thing of the past. Before neighborhood slam and Flarf spam — the “diaspora poeses” of contemporary America, treated in the second half of this essay collection — there was a beat culture in postwar San Francisco that did more than Howl. In the “shadowland,” beyond the floodlight of Allen Ginsberg’s expressive iconicity, jazz, poetry, and performance communities thrived in a tenuous relation to the literary. Jewish and African American artists exchanged street verse, flamboyant rap, klezmorim and “Jewish jazz,” gospel music, live comedy, epistolary poetry, diary autobiography, and the signifying practices of ethnic identity to form collectives where, as today, “poets are not the only poets.” 

The five essays of part 1, “Identity Kn/ot/e/s,” step outside the doors of City Lights Books to tour adjacent “hipster/bohemian” art worlds in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s. Two figures animate this lively cultural commons: Lenny Bruce, stand-up comedian and “diasporic icon” whose 1962 obscenity trial is frequently eclipsed by the notorious censorship of Ginsberg’s Howl six years earlier; and Bob Kaufman, whose street verse enacts, for Damon, a reflexive sociology of the ethnic politics of jazz communities in North Beach. Lenny Bruce explicitly dynamizes the historical moment as a “cultural lightening rod” (“The Jewish Entertainer as Cultural Lightening Rod,” chapter 1), a subversive disruption to the state as The Plaintiff, aka The People of San Francisco. (Bruce was charged with violating the Penal Code during a live act at the Jazz Workshop on San Francisco’s nightclub strip in 1961.) For Damon, the exposed Jewish male sexuality of Lenny Bruce stands as a “vulnerable” counter to concealed gentile male sexuality, “the capital-P phallus” representing state power (19). But what dichotomies might inhere in the case of Lenny Bruce, Heroic Dissident versus The People are quickly troubled, if not by Bruce’s own “frantic self-displacement” through “philosophical rambling” — what Damon calls the “survivalist compulsion” of “Jewish hyperverbalism” (26), simultaneously the threat of Bruce’s identity as a chameleonic ability to adapt, proliferate, trip over itself only to insist on itself again, but differently — then through its placement by artist-observers like Bob Kaufman. In Kaufman’s poem “Bagel Shop Jazz,” the Jewish entertainer assumes a contingent positionality in a “demography of the shadowland of the hip” (38).

In chapters 2 and 3, the most persistent and compelling analyses among the knotty notes which comprise “Identity Kn/ot/e/s,” Damon reads “Bagel Shop Jazz” as a description of the triangulated structure of desire among creative artists at Co-Existence Bagel Shop in San Francisco’s North Beach. In Kaufman’s social “tableau,” women — “nonethnoracialized ‘Beat chicks’” — mediate between 1) “presumed-male ‘white ethnic’ Beats,” often Jewish men, and 2) “presumed-male hip African Americans (black beats).”  Kaufman’s “Bagel Shop” throws into relief broader patterns of social affiliation presented in chapter 2, which introduces Jewish performers’ identificatory desire for African American culture. Against commonly accepted arguments about racial mimicry and assimilation, e.g. Michael Rogin’s account of Al Jolson’s blackface as a means to reject Jewish identity and gain acceptance by the American mainstream, and through readings of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, Ronnie Spector’s Be My Baby, and the exemplary case of Lenny Bruce, Damon argues that for Mezz, Phil Spector, Bruce, and others, blackness offered “a way to be ‘more Jewish.’” These performers were motivated by the anxiety that “Jewish American culture, by assimilating upward, was abdicating the special role of critique available to social outsiders” (42–43). For ‘white ethnic beats,’ identifying with ‘black beats’ was a way to maintain otherness — African American culture “a stable alternative, a nostalgic embodiment of the earthiness and vitality that threatened to get bleached out of secular and assimilated Jewish culture” (50). Moreover, women served as “vehicles … for these Jews’ desire for black masculinity” (46), alternately displayed in the autobiography of Ronnie Spector, Phil Spector’s African American ex-wife (“Phil loved his Afro wig. I guess it made him feel like he had soul or something … Here I was, this black girl, bored out of her mind at a gospel concert, sitting with a Jewish man in an Afro who looked like he was about to speak in tongues”)[1] and in Mezzrow’s jazz autobiography. Mezzrow narrates his transition into African American culture through love and scorn for women, his adoration of Bessie Smith matched only by his anger watching his sister “correc[t] Bessie’s grammar” while scribing her lyrics. Rejecting his sister’s “stuck-up jive” of “‘good’ English” and “fancy high-school airs” enabled Mezzrow to articulate his own (appropriated) vernacular and persona as “the first white Negro.” Damon’s argument is silently indebted to critical precedents describing women’s mediating social function between men, such as Eve Sokofsky Sedgwick’s landmark Between Men.

Throughout these readings, Lenny Bruce stands as a heroic counter: he “reverses the terms” of ethnic exchange, where black musicians “become honorary Jews”  (52). Yet Damon’s return to Bruce provides a welcome countermemory to the other “bellwether instance of Jewish male verbal and sexual identity on trial” in 1950s and ’60s San Francisco: Allen Ginsberg, whose obscene art and deviant sexual identity meanwhile fixed his iconoclastic “glamour for a straight white counterculture” (58). Beat criticism has lionized “‘white negroes’ for their individually flamboyant dissidence,” rather than endeavoring to see the kind of complex social portrait on view in Kaufman’s “Bagel Shop Jazz.” This has stultified the popular imagination in a romanticized heroics of commodifiable dissent. (Damon rightly estimates she need not refer to James Franco’s performance of Ginsberg in the blockbuster feature film Howl to make this point clear.)

The politics of identification among postwar artists as presented in part 1 thus provides an uncommon historical lens through which to view the contemporary in part 2, the exploratory “Poetics for a Postliterary America.” Damon toggles between two primary modes of “postliterary” poetries from the 1990s — present: counterperformance, or performance “practiced by poets of marginalized groups in American culture: young people, black people, street people, and various combinations thereof” (172); and micropoetries, a designation that riffs off of ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin’s study of “micromusics,” and encompasses “graffiti, poetry written as therapy, prison poetry, a relative’s topical verse, fortune cookie doggerel … market corporate slogans lasered in gothic script onto wooden plaques, preslam vernacular poetry …” (123). (Micropoetry’s subjects for inclusion, or at least its desire as a category to catalogue apparently endless cultural ephemera, could be said to derive also from Rimbaud’s accumulative recollection of ‘literary’ fondnesses as a child in “Alchemy of the Word,” an epigraph to chapter 10: “absurd paintings … old-fashioned literature, Church Latin, erotic books badly spelled, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naïve rhythms” [191].)  Chapter 7, “When the Nuyoricans Came to Town,” which describes the Nuyorican Poets’ Café tour of the Twin Cities in 1993 — or the cultural collision of Puerto Rican New York slam poets with “Midwestern lyric practitioners” — exemplifies the stakes of “counterperformance” as an analytical category. Damon’s reading of BlacQ/Ibn/Mujaheed/Adam Harden’s performance of “This poem’s about the alcoholic in my home,” for example, notes its “confluence of discourses” — “twelve-step philosophy, public prayer and black religious oratory, the dactylic tetrameter that by convention places it in a folk tradition” — all as “fodder for rich analysis” (123). At the same time, the poem derives traction from its social location, compelling Damon’s account of this context, a poetry slam battle pitting “New York in-your-face” improvisational acts against “Minnesota nice” and its “stoic prairie” poems. In chapters 9 and 10, Damon reads micropoetries to include text from anthropological ethnographies and exchanges of the Flarf collective and SUNY-Buffalo poetics listservs. Cyberpoet Alan Sondheim’s work (chapter 11) solicits readings as both counterperformance and micropoetry; although Damon reads Sondheim through Walter Benjamin, Sondheim’s explicit self-exposure during live web performance echoes the dissent tactics of part 1’s Lenny Bruce.

Damon’s critical method and discursive style are mutually constitutive and performatively engaged. The rough, uneven texture of the prose aspires to its objects, frequently imitating the creative acts it describes: “the Heraclitean flow of the ensemble process” — jazz improvisation — “a steady rhythm overshot with melodic lines improvised and defamiliarized from the individual pitches making up the chord progressions of … pop tunes” — bebop (1), — with Damon here overwriting critical rather than jazz standards; the organization of essays as thematically recursive and argumentatively iterative produces the “‘scrappy’ structure of feeling” (90) that Damon attributes to Adeena Karasick’s work in chapter 5. (Much like work by Karasick, “Jewish Canadian feminist Kabbalah scholar and poet” of “The Wall,” Damon’s project in part seeks to reanimate Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, where Postliterary America is its own “instance of diasporic excess” in which the creator cannot “bear to leave anything out” [89].)

Not only is Damon invested in “attending to US poetries that have been underrecognized because of their social locations, processes, idiosyncrasies, or idiolects” (12), but she attends to their investments in experimentally mimetic affinity.  For example, she not only questions traditional notions of aesthetic value by examining a nontraditional subject, such as typo-infested Flarf doggerel, but by including and narrating through her own typographical errors in the monograph text. The chapter on Nuyorican slam ends in a catalogue of shout-outs and rants, desperate to lift off the page and into spoken word: “You say you want heteroglossia? Semiotic flux and shimmy shimmy coco-pop? Roll over, Bakhtin, and tell Kristeva the news” (143). Damon frequently makes parenthetical asides, offers a “[l]ongish disclaimer” by way of concluding chapter 6, and undercuts and pokes fun at her own critical affect: “It would be excessively corny to point out that AS, as the poet’s initials [Adam Sondheim] comprise an English word that, be it in the form of an adverb, conjunction, pronoun (!), or preposition, always necessitates relation and process — but if one can’t wax excessively corny in an essay such this, then where? And if not now, when?” (125, 215).

Finally, then, Damon’s most enduring argument is one about critical method, modeling a scholarship that performs pedagogical interest in its subjects as a student, or a “permanent apprentice” (203). Damon’s willingness to humor, imitate, and identify with her subjects frequently yields “research [as] emotional play” (123). This method in turn thoroughly hybridizes the genres of academic criticism and autobiography: chapter 3 opens with a reflection on her father and his efforts to “assimilat[e]” (40) in contrast to Jews of his generation who romanced alterity, i.e. Mezzrow, Spector, and Bruce. One can even get the feeling that the texts enlisted were plumbed in the interest of a family genealogy project or a quest for self-understanding as much as an academic argument: but this, Damon’s autobiographical or “I”-based criticism, is its own generative intervention. Rather than shy away from acknowledging the complex and often divergent affective motivations that compel one into contact with an archive or an art form, Damon embraces these “conflicts of interest” as an ethically invested mode of critical accountability. It is the task of the “I”-based critic to register and even explain her complicities and opacities vis-à-vis the historical record. Perhaps one of the next tasks of a “postliterary America” is to restore, or at least playfully retrieve, the speaking subject in criticism, the arena where it has been most comfortable withdrawing.  If the lyric “I” marks the sin of solipsism and private taste, the critical “I” meanwhile confesses — “this is not a disinterested analysis” (142) — and promises transparency from our cultural gatekeepers. Postliterary America is at least as “erratic” and “partisan” as Damon says it is — in the hope that postliterary criticism, like postliterary poetry, might have “poetry’s permission for subjectivity or hermeticism” to function as a “laboratory where the microeffects of subjectivity in discourse can be experimented on and with through the manipulation of language [as] a key to contemporary diasporic consciousness” (212); as a “completely appropriate venue for clarifying identities, evolving and devolving, that contribute to a rich, ahierarchic heterogeneity composing a thus far hypothetical democracy” (125).



1. Quoted in Damon, 48. See Ronnie Spector (with Vince Waldron), Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette (New York: Harper Collins, 1990) 171–2. Damon’s analysis does not explicitly note the presence of a white male ghostwriter.

Steven G. Yao's flexible methodologies

Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity

Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity

Steven G. Yao

Oxford University Press 2010, 336 pages, $74, ISBN 0199730334

Steven G. Yao’s Foreign Accents begins with a humorous account of Maxine Hong Kingston’s 2002 declaration, “I want the life of the Poet … I want the easiness of Poetry” (3). Although Kingston’s statement may seem a bit naïve, Yao explains that it nevertheless marks a significant turning point in Asian American literature and Asian American studies: Kingston’s turn to poetry sanctions a similar turn for readers and writers of Asian American literature alike (4). Much like the past few decades of university-based literary study, Asian American studies has largely been dominated by a focus on prose narrative. Yao’s monograph seeks to correct this methodological emphasis by considering the ways in which poets represent Chinese cultural elements, especially language. Rather than comparing degrees of cultural authority, however, Yao attends to “what any given works knows, or shows that it knows [about ‘Chineseness’], as well as … how it arranges that knowledge against an epistemological field of its own construction” (7).

Recognizing the increasingly multilingual nature of poetic production, Yao focuses on the representation of the limits of English in Chinese American poetry and attends to poets’ rhetorical and formal strategies for articulating an ethnic subjectivity. This study begins with Ezra Pound’s Cathay and the Angel Island poets, two extremely different models of literary production that in turn represent two very different modes of scholarly approach: the high-literary, and the sociohistorical. Between these poles, Yao creates a methodological framework that moves flexibly across a broad range of poetries that are commonly understood as disconnected, if not fundamentally opposed. Tracing a trajectory from Asian American activist poetics of the late 1960s and afterward, through the popular and highly individualized lyrics of Ha Jin and Li-Young Lee, to Marilyn Chin’s and John Yau’s “difficult” experimentation, Yao develops a schematic of three significant modes in Chinese American poetry: racial protest, lyric testimony, and ethnic abstraction. In examining each, Yao foregrounds the significance of transpacific exchange and articulates a combined sociohistorical and literary focus. In turn, the poems’ own critiques of “(il)logic by which dominant constructions of racial and ethnic constructions of difference in the United States have … functioned and achieved their hegemony” are illuminated through careful readings of their form (9–10).

This flexibility is especially clear in Yao’s evenhanded deployment of both the high-literary techniques of poetics and the recuperative activist ethos of Asian American studies. The first two chapters establish the paradigm for Yao’s approach to the more recent poetry: writing first on Cathay and then on the Angel Island poems, which were composed in anonymity by would-be Chinese immigrants and carved into the walls of the immigration detention center at Angel Island, Yao uses Cathay’s “poetics of Chineseness” and the Angel Island poets’ racial protest to argue for an “explicit internationalism shaping ‘American’ literary culture at the time” (34). While Pound’s rendering of medieval Chinese verse “establish[ed] … a particular set of relationships between form, cultural authenticity, and language” that both challenged and perpetuated certain stereotypes about “Chineseness” (61), the Angel Island poets, though not “American” in the traditional sense, created “expressly demotic or popular” renderings of high-art forms, in parallel to second-wave American modernist practices, as well as jazz and blues (90).

In this way, Yao connects poetic form with larger cultural debates by focusing on the relationships among form, cultural authenticity, and language. In the third and fourth chapters, which concern Ha Jin’s spare realist verse and Li-Young Lee’s lyric testimony respectively, Yao demonstrates the concurrence of “the rise of lyric testimony and its focus on the expression of individual subjectivity,” and the displacement of “race” by “ethnicity” in US political and cultural discourses of liberal multiculturalism (101). That this is an argument about lyric and its reception is especially instructive; Yao demonstrates that disagreements over the meaning and substance of ethnicity have helped to create a social climate (and market) especially receptive to individualist expressions of “ethnic” difference “by persons considered … to embody that difference” (106). Yao explains that within the domain of poetry this emphasis on individualized expression “has not only led to the explosion since the late 1970s of published verse in English by people of Asian descent in the United States” it has also displaced more collectively-based racial protest “as the dominant expressive mode” in Asian American poetry (107).

Already it should be obvious that Yao is somewhat critical of the poetics of lyric testimony, and Foreign Accents includes many humorous comments to this effect. More significantly, however, the recuperative activist model of Asian American scholarship finds unlikely objects in Foreign Accents as Yao uses this scholarly mode to advocate for Marilyn Chin’s and John Yau’s poetics of “ethnic abstraction,” even as these works seem to require the more abstruse literary methodologies of poetics. While Chin’s sexual and linguistic transgressions of “poetic decorum in ‘ethnic’ verse” do not take her fully beyond the formal category of lyric testimony, Yao argues that Chin repeatedly challenges “assumptions about linguistic transparency and the adequacy of English as a medium for the representation of individual ethnic subjectivity” (190). In a highly engaging analysis of Yau’s work, Yao argues that Asian Americanists’ neglect of Yau’s hugely significant oeuvre demonstrates the “limitation of dominant hermeneutic approaches to minority writing in general” (237). Because Asian American studies typically privileges the liberal notion of difference, it lacks the “analytical capacity to address a growing body of work that unapologetically declines to bid for any sort of ‘recognition,’ and instead strains against the premise of an individual subjectivity … as the conceptual ground for ethnic (poetic) enunciation” (237). Yao provides an entertaining and compelling analysis of Yau’s “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” sequence, arguing that it “probes the terms of a specifically Asian American masculine identity” (248). In this way, Yao suggests new directions for scholarship in Asian American poetics: the “ethnic abstraction” he locates in Chin’s and Yau’s work is also, and significantly, sexual.

Foreign Accents makes a crucial intervention into the study of Asian American poetry. A few other scholars — Josephine Nock-hee Park, Timothy Yu, Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, Xiaojing Zhou, and Dorothy Wang — have recently drawn important connections between Asian American poetry and various Euro-American avant-gardes. Foreign Accents contributes to this rising trend by revisiting and reinvigorating the more sociological and narrative-based paradigm that predominates in Asian American studies, turning this technique to the advocacy of nonnarrative experimental art forms. In doing so, Yao makes a claim for the significance of poetry as a cultural product: the poets he considers are thinking through the relationship between form, cultural authenticity, and language, “a relationship whose implications … are far larger than simply the question of ‘Chinese’” (61). In an increasingly multilingual poetic tradition, Yao explains, “the question of form’s relation to language and to authenticity (both linguistic and ethnic) is, finally, at the core of how we can understand the work that poetry does” (61–62).

Release we can invent together

A review of Feng Sun Chen's 'Butcher's Tree'

Butcher’s Tree

Butcher’s Tree

Feng Sun Chen

Black Ocean 2012, 112 pages, $14.95, ISBN 0984475249

“The person I love should love me so much she wants to eat me alive. If I’m going to die this is how it should be,” a writer once told me. I didn’t know what this writer meant until I read Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree. This poetry collection wants to plunge itself into your guts and nest there. It wants to engage in corporeal, spiritual, and emotional cannibalism. It is the blood dripping down your chin. It offers you not a napkin but a compact mirror in the shape of a napkin. Butcher’s Tree enacts a poetics of confrontation and entanglement with unlikely pairings: intangible and material, stasis and movement, mythic and mortal. These collisions swerve into collusion. And from collusion, Chen asks us to consider what forms of release we can invent together.

A person is not a single living organism, and as Chen asserts, “it was not about self.” We contain 500 to 1,000 species of bacteria in the human gut and a roughly similar number on the skin. It’s easy to forget this, because, well, it’s freaky to think about and maybe it grates against ideas of autonomy, self-control, and individuality. Hi, microbiota, we need you. The boldly unexpected images in Chen’s collection force us to reevaluate what the body can contain and undo our lingering suppositions. In the poem “Inter,” the speaker’s lungs have “little gumdrop fish” that “camped out in the forest of alveoli” and her friends are “jealous of the new tadpoles living inside [her] body.” We’re constantly reoriented toward the multiplicity within and how it merges with the seemingly exterior world. The initial stanza of the first poem, “By the Dark,” introduces the reader to these strange amalgamations:

Two travelers boil in it.
Curtains of dry rock drink the glue
of their sweat.

The book begins with bodies undergoing a violent, physical reaction to the external temperature enveloped in the night. What seeps through our pores, what splashes off of the flesh does not vanish, but gets sucked into the rocks beneath. Nothing exists in isolation, and the salty water within us, that is part of us, seamlessly passes into the earth. In other poems, people conjoin (“Our skins fuse like early cells to become one sheet”; “Our blood will mix, grape on grape, crushed seed”; “You are the soup that fills my skull”) or have surprising organs and limbs (“your horseshoe heart”; big teeth made of glass”; “your ears were shells”; and “bones made of shale”). Distance and presence collapse via the constant smushing of parts into parts. To know the world is to let it enter us as we enter it in return: “Love and mourning march out of the little holes in your skin.” We must allow and be aware of these entry points. Chen offers, “Every opening meant access to the sea now, or the wind on the sea.” Always, “access” trumps the threats that can coincide with this vulnerability, as learning and being learned about meld together.

These poems, though, extend past corporal plurality and show us how the ephemeral is just as sticky, ever-present, or tangible. The collection is littered with lines like, “every sound reverberated through his fist.” Noise is grounded in body, given texture and power over the physical. The world is a black metal show that shakes us. Chen writes, “Love secretes reptile eggs into the ruptured drum nest. / This is what we hear.” Emotional abstractions accumulate while morphing into visual and auditory instances. We’re forced to listen to the reproduction of love: it’s slimy, oozing, and has scales. It’s not afraid of bloody membranes, of the tooth’s exposed nerve. Chen renders more observably present what is normally negative space or concepts tucked in our heads. Another notable visceral moment, “The word is ripped from me daily,” reminds us of the physical effort it takes to communicate. Words do not gently float through the air, but are torn from a body-site. They must leave a location to reach another. They penetrate. This particular line also brings into the foreground the power structure of language, as it does not seem that our daily vocabulary is inherently given consensually. Maybe the speaker “ripped” the word from her/himself or someone else demanded the extrication. Further into the book, Chen writes, “And so you are taken, instant by instant by what is taken from you.” Are we taken with (as in enamored), taken by, or taken back? Do we rejoin what has departed? Or “taken” could mean dispossessed, cheated, occupied, made sick, sexed? While the ambiguity in this assertion is complicated by the lack of a single “you”/self, I tend to read it as a general tendency in this book: nothing is ever fully discarded and nothing is fully kept.

This flux, this tangling, is caught up in the tension of movement and stasis. I want to return to the first poem in the collection, “By the Dark,” because it begins with the progress of travelers, treads water with potentials, and ends with a false declaration of immobility. Commenting on one traveler’s plight:

He could go back to the woods.

He could go back to the sea if he closed his eyes.

No going anywhere.
His two hearts are growing teeth.

The “he” is given options that are then negated by a command-like observation, “No going anywhere.” Yet, the poem concludes with growing, albeit a deformed version. Are the teeth an offensive posture or a defense mechanism? Regardless of how a reader may interpret this effect, what at first appears stymied is transformed into startling, slightly gruesome evolution. In the second poem, “Fourth of July,” motion occurs as directionless:

You will not understand your pain,
which is shaped like a windmill and moves
by the tug of a terrible moon
but you may learn to live with it, or forget it
for longer and longer stretches.

An outside source, the moon, drags pain through the body. Thus, while the “you” is faced with this initial lack of control, the “you” can also alter the ramifications by learning or forgetting. Interaction is a given but how you react is not. Management of an unceasing emotion becomes a way to channel movement.

Toward the end of “Moontube,” Chen writes, “Pure ecstasy is stasis.” I tend to think of ecstasy as an overwhelming, fleeting moment. Like a giant wave that sweeps over you. I think of it as a movement of revelry-like or euphoric expansion. A passing, joyous sensation that fills you up. Yet, the word ecstasy derives from “ekstasis,” standing outside oneself. So this moment of personal intensity contains “stasis,” inactivity as well as a sense of otherness at its core. To be fully engaged is to be outside oneself in a frenzy that resembles fixedness. This paradox exists within and then evaporates from lines like, “Each day was filtered through the wall made of movement” and “I am small, I am small. Here comes the parade! All that beauty! / I want to die! I want to die! / I want to die!” Movement is the force behind certain desires, some of which appear deceptively still, “I will keep my mouth on your mouth.” Chen exposes the static of our constant churning, churning.

The three sections of this book continually reference religion(s) and reinvigorate mythic/literary figures, situating them in contemporary habitats with colloquial vocabularies. For instance, mystique and tradition unravel when Prometheus announces, “The Olympians can go suck on the clouds.” A poem titled “Epistle” begins:

Words of wisdom collect in the corners of the room.

I gyrate about in a puffy suit filled with hair.

It takes me out of the circus
into the arena of history, which is full of white horses.

What kind of Apostle writes a letter about gyrating in a hair-filled suit? Maybe the kind that realizes history is composed of more than kings and gods and stale advice. History is no longer unreachable (i.e. unsoiled horses) and thus, foreign, because it’s the context for our current movements. And the present tides are goofy, ravenous, honest: “I will show you the common satellite. / We can go grocery shopping or watch the sunset.” Chen places the mythic next to postmodern terrestrial pursuits, the daily. While she claims, “Yes, yes yes. Let the ancient speak for me” and “legendary spots should remain legendary,” the language of Butcher’s Tree invites us into an absurd imagination that disintegrates literary fixity. In the final section of her book, Chen reinvents Grendel as a woman who is “feeling weird because of his body which was full and curvaceous as the moon. // He remembered the first day again. The only other time this would happen was thousands of years later in a university dorm, on salvia.” No idea, deity, fables, or “spots” are out of reach. As we’re told, “God is a girl in love.”

Butcher’s Tree also branches into poems that animate new characters like “the paper queen” “Wukong,” “Xuanzang,” and “the doctor.” However, I don’t think such pieces aim to plant the seeds from which new mythic heroes would spring. Instead, they feel more like someone purposefully overhearing an intimate conversation on a train. This effect — curatorial attention without elevation — offers release from the canon as a form of immortality. Chen writes, “A name in a book is nothing, said those female eyes black with swirling dust, / You will lose.” As you lose both literary hierarchy and the self that could claim this status, you gain the energy that comes from remembering, “There is no such thing as / time for everything, this much was clear.” We’re released into a thoughtful urgency that prioritizes an imagistic, emotive forthrightness. Moments like “you are alone with ashamed talons and alive loneliness. / I am lonely” are direct and vital. They beckon strangely, like “a gash the shape of you my friend.”

Textures for the mouth and ear

A review of Gale Nelson’s ‘This Is What Happens When Talk Ends’

This is What Happens When Talk Ends

This is What Happens When Talk Ends

Gale Nelson

Burning Deck 2011, 98 pages, $14, ISBN 9781936194063

Gale Nelson’s most recent book, This Is What Happens When Talk Ends, is his first full-length book in eleven years. In earlier works such as stare decisis and ceteris paribus, both published by Burning Deck, Nelson displays acute and often humorous attention to the sound in language rather than the meaning one may derive from language. In the serial poem “Corporate Blessings,” from ceteris paribus, for instance, he writes:

great gobs of goose grease
following tie culls

sweat on the
representation of jar.


One gets the feeling reading Nelson that language is a physical thing. Read any of his poems aloud and one’s mouth will feel thick with speech.

This Is What Happens When Talk Ends is similarly invested in the texture of language. Here, the work derives some of its energy from Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Nelson’s book, in fact, consists of eight sets of eight poems that follow the vocalic pattern within eight different Shakespeare speeches. Regarding titles, Nelson also works a rotation of eight. In “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc,” his informative afterword detailing his method, the author writes, “Where Shakespeare cleaved music to sense (or was it sense to music?), I have done my best to persist with each verse as problem at hand, and hope for the best.” The mathematical sounding “problem at hand” makes clear Nelson’s Oulipian lineage as does the procedure he followed while composing these poems.

Nelson’s first step in his Oulipian procedure was to strip the soliloquies of all their consonants, leaving only the vowels. In this system, the author mentions, Y does not count. Next, he “did [his] best to forget what Shakespeare had written and sought [his] own set of words to build  (italics mine) from these vowel strings.” This notion of building poems illustrates further the materiality of language for Nelson. The goal, he goes on to write, “was to simply get somewhere else,” someplace other than where Shakespeare had gotten. The poems within This Is What Happens are translations, though not versions focused on sense. Instead, as Nelson suggests, the poems shed light on vocalic structure.

The second component of Nelson’s method is yet another link to Oulipo. After culling consonants from plays such as Macbeth and The Tragedy of Richard the Third, the poet wanted to avoid organizing the poems by play. Instead, he recalled George Perec’s usage of the knight’s circuit in a game of chess to shape the action in his book, Life: A User’s Manual. Where Perec mapped out his own knight’s circuit, Nelson’s eight sets of eight poems corresponded perfectly with the standard sixty-four squares of a chessboard. This correspondence enabled Nelson to rely on the earliest surviving knight’s circuit, which dates back to 840 AD and is associated with al-Adli ar-Rumi of Baghdad.

Throughout these procedural poems Nelson writes in diction that occasionally conjures past literary figures such as John Milton. In “Lycidas,” Milton turns towards closing his pastoral poem with this famously attention-shifting line: “Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th’ Okes and rills.” Nelson reformulates this line in the first rendition of his pastoral, “Sparse Fields Plowed Last,” when he writes, “thus spake / this bad-shamed boy in long, loud cadence.” In both Milton and Nelson the word “thus” insists that the preceding lines be read in a different light. Within Milton’s poem, the reader sees a distinction between the shepherd’s song of loss and the final eight lines that are spoken by another voice.

In his book, too, Nelson plays out this tension between song and speech in poems where words such as argot, jargon, and patois continually crop up. Argot and jargon refer to specialized language, such as Cockney Rhyming Slang or Esperanto. Patois, on the other hand, refers to any nonstandard language, such as pidgins and creoles. Interestingly, the French word signifies rude, incomprehensible speech. Nelson’s second rendition of “Sparse Fields Plowed Last” closes with these lines:

as egret’s shrill emboldens avis argot. Send

this bitter age in dust, send us swans,
another eagle. Ovations doom tug’s lost

 exacting droplet. Is that it, or is no

 gem sparkling? Egret’s eggs!


The “Shout” here, perhaps rude, turns up the volume on notions of speech while the poet links the “egret’s shrill” with “avis argot.” The piercing sound of the egret instills courage into the avis’s specialized language. In Latin, avis is a word for bird. So, this argot would be the specialized language of birds, song. Nelson’s attunement to birdsong links his work to one of the oldest and most traditional tropes in poetry. Notably, though, this song in contrast to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” would be shrill. In conjunction with the opening shout, this makes clear that Nelson wants readers to consider heightened instances of talk and song rather than so-called normative forms. Perhaps This Is What Happens When Talk Ends is another way of saying “song is what happens when talk ends.”

Nelson’s intention “to get somewhere else,” as mentioned above, starts in Shakespeare. But where does Nelson get to exactly? A place? A state of mind seems more apt. One that is unhindered within the constraints of what one might call traditional tradition, Milton and Keats et al. Nelson’s other companion from the outset, Oulipian technique, opens up this crowded path. In a book indebted to two literary traditions such as This Is What Happens When Talk Ends it’s clear that the poem for Nelson is a place after all, a place where the ear attunes to the textures of language.

Invisible protest

A review of Caryl Pagel’s 'Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death'

Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death

Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death

Caryl Pagel

Factory Hollow Press 2012, 78 pages, $15, ISBN 0979590523

Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death concerns itself with liminal states, the between and beyond that haunts the here and now. It is apparent from the opening lines of “Levitation,” the book’s first poem, that the very experience of having a body is going to be difficult and complex in this world of ghosts and shadows:

It is night & I am lying — my body level — low along the floor       until I take a hold of me; I slowly rise Each scientist in the     room reaches for his pen (breast pocket) at once (13)

The speaker’s levitation is experienced as an uncanny split in her self-awareness; an “I” takes control of a “me” to produce the mysterious motion, rising from the floor and eventually floating “out an open window & into       the evening” (13). The scientists, meanwhile, behave in machine-like synchronicity, reaching for their pens in unison and drawing the standard, unanimous conclusion that everything they’ve seen “is made: string smoke mirrors” (13). So who is pulling whose strings? The speaker is eerily both present and absent, the object of the investigation and woefully unable to investigate herself: “Tell me how that is possible; I could not see it but I was there” (13).

In this poem, and throughout this collection, the body appears uncanny and alien — both to those inhabiting it and those observing it. A series of poems called “The Botched Bestiary” draws on a variety of source texts and replaces the names of specific animals with the word “body,” to intriguing effect: “The body from North America was considered . . . extinct in the 1980s but recently it has resurfaced. Little is known about the body, but what is known is very strange. It can grow up to three feet in length[,] and when handled gives off a smell like lilies. The body is believed to be able to spit in defense” (16). These archival assemblages challenge us to think in unusual ways about our own human bodies, but their cumulative effect is curiously deadening: instead of a rich and varied “bestiary,” these animals are stripped of their identities and appear as blank “bodies,” which perhaps they are. Like the levitating woman and the mechanical scientists, animals are animate without awareness — a state that suddenly appears uncomfortably close to “undead.”

In addition to bodies without names, Pagel gives us names without bodies in a poem titled “Common Plant & Animal Names (Existing & Not Existing).” This alphabetical catalogue begins this way:

Abandoned Eyelet, Absenting Fact, Absolute New Bus Stop. Alarmwireseed, Amberweed, Appalling Forgotten Flavor. Army Ant, Arson Day, Asphalt And, Awe-to-Death With Breakage. (28)

Some of these names are real (“Army Ant”), some sound real but are not (“Amberweed”), and many sound (and are) completely absurd. The poem works as an amusing, fanciful litany — but to read it is also to realize how much humans have projected themselves on the natural world, understanding it in their own terms. If there is a plant called “Forget-Me-Not,” why couldn’t Pagel’s inventions “Lie-To-Me” or “Magnificent Not” also be real? If such names are arbitrary, they are also intriguing, inviting questions about both the namer and the named.

Each of the three sections of this book begins with an epigraph about names, suggesting their centrality to Pagel’s concerns. Perhaps the most interesting is the one from Jacques Derrida, who writes that names inherently signify their own longevity beyond their bearers, “announcing a death to come” (33). All names, that is, are destined to end up on tombstones — or printed neatly beneath a specimen in a naturalist’s collection. In one poem called “Herbarium,” which Pagel explains was written with Emily Dickinson’s girlhood gardening album in mind, the identities of the namer and the named are perilously intertwined. In this section, the specimen seems to speak on its own behalf:

I is stem with no leaves I

 is body with

 no mind I blooms in sight of pressed stem still

 yet blooming When first did I

 inhabit the

 body that pressed this body I mean when

 first did I inhibit it

 Mis-named have I (40)


The pairing of the first-person pronoun with third-person verbs (“I is,” “I blooms”) suggests an object struggling to understand itself as a subject. Like all specimens in an herbarium, it is suspended in a two-dimensional imitation of life, its fleeting bloom fixed for eternity in “living” color. The shift from “inhabit” to “inhibit” shows how serious misnaming can be: one letter makes the difference between the presser and the pressed. Pagel’s investigations of names, bodies, and classification systems reveals them as a complex series of containers “inhabited” by the elusive spark of life, constraining it while also being its condition of possibility.

One reviewer has read Pagel’s frequent use of gaps and caesuras in this book as similar to “a moth-eaten journal or ancient scroll,” inviting the reader “to wonder what may fill the space.” But I don’t see anything missing in these spaces; syntax, ideas, and even words flow smoothly across them. Here are the final lines of a poem called “Occult Studies”:

one more soul could crack the surface (No) Why not collect your own                 throat in order to
answer yourself later from beyond We are a scientist                                         We say: “you are not
your body you inhabit it” No name can contain this in-                                                  visible protest (65)

I read these gaps instead as the thresholds with which the book is so obsessed: the chasm between life and death that is so profound and yet so narrow that Pagel can write “I held his hand / I did not / know when it was over” (53), and the chasm between subject and object that collapses in a construction such as “I blooms.” Particularly in the several poems that are both right- and left-justified like this one, Pagel seems to have created separate spatial regions where words can interact with one another along a different axis, in new combinations, as though in another world alongside the “real” one. From start to finish this book howls, rattles, and whispers like a ghost trapped in the walls, reminding us that a different, stranger world may be closer to hand than we realize.