Punkness and the inescapable self

A review of Rod Smith's 'Touché'



Rod Smith

Wave Books 2015, 98 pages, $18.00, ISBN 978-1940696089

In Wave Books’s new Touché, Rod Smith is a tender, often hilarious skeptic. His brilliance as a poet is strongest performing the many voices of willful ignorance and hard-earned perspective, often confusing the two in poetry that merges personal doubts with public ones. Built on a negative capability, Touché’s “futility as figurative / extreme” (81) is strikingly analytical about uncertainties in private awareness, domestic American politics, and the malleable referentiality of language in relation to the author’s scatological, punny, and aesthetically “clumsy” organizations of it, much more punk rock in Smith’s DIY grammatics than actual idiocy.

Smith’s grammatical experiments give a physicality of language that more traditionally stated poems in the book support (“The artwork provides the sensuous idea of freedom” [40]). That physicality pairs emotional experiences with general sensory ones in incredibly minimal, melancholy, and absurd ways. Like much of Smith’s writing, Touché is at its best when configuring aesthetic principles from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E with Smith’s own highly attuned ear and carefully interruptive voice.

 [screened in]
churning’s caught
learning’s bent
leaving plates
sexual heretofore’s
flux — the runned
& powdered
in the world’s
writing’s enigmatic
tactic-faced care-thief
an importance bite
of things
(bluffed & lucrative)
(bluffed & inner) bluffed
& crazed (58)

For me, the most successful part of Smith’s poetry is how slippery accountability becomes in small spaces between very carefully chosen words. In the fifth line of “[screened in]” we know the abstract language that came before (bluffed, churning, caught, bent) feels only connotatively sexual. But there’s an oddly placed narrative situation based on opportunities in the grammar. “Churning’s” reads as both “churning has” and “churning is,” and “learning’s bent” reads the same, personifying those verbs by possessing their own. The poem wants both a personifying possessiveness and a static “isness” to relate  “caught” and “bent” as self-contained small lines that eventually overlap into a kind of character framing, where “churning’s” is a witness to “learning’s” either being bent or having bent something itself. That slippery accountability feels like a mind framing its own processing instead of the external behaviors that result from such processing. The reader is to trust that both the possessiveness and more static “isness” happen as a single fluctuating path for reading those grammatical parts; essentially, both possibilities from grammar exist, but neither is dominant. They are not conclusive but they are procedural, truly a “coarsening / flux.”

The specifics that do exist, like “leaving plates,” actually interrupt both paths as a way to get the reader back to something immediately single, banal, and recognizable, in this case objects at dinner being left just before a strong sexual act. I read that “tacit-faced care-thief” as the speaker acknowledging that what came before were pieces of an evasively rendered memory under review, and that the memory itself isn’t as important for the poem’s idea of audience as the moment of remembering. What’s interesting there is how important “bluffed” remains. The poem’s built on hope that such intimacy — like in the memory — will at least pay off as reference for creativity later, that in a sense whatever reality those pieces come from were failed experiences that seem to need reconciliation. So in addition to their more direct meanings, it’s hard not to see fermenting in the word “buried” and difficult embrace in “brace,” instructional emotional dualities the speaker gives itself to value its present moment of reflection.

Excerpt of
The Good House, etc.

the house is made of would
& wonder — forty-five times
no one said it — a
former & future house, with
a dime, & definite —

the house that will save the small
animals from the ravages of inaction
the house that will impel, tiresomely,
a certain gate-kept diplomat’s
bureaucratic lechery

the house that refuses the unforetold,
          stymied in the wavering, swanlike,


— maybe a lakehouse
     w/ a horse
     on a hill,

                        hmm. (24)

“The Good House, etc.” is a sequel or another chapter in Smith’s serial poem “The Good House,” which seems bottomless here and in earlier editions (included in Smith’s 2008 book Deed). Touche’s section begins similarly, addressing Smith’s “egretlike alabaster florist” (24) instead of the standalone egret from earlier versions (see The Good House, Spectacular Books, 2001). The likeness of the current subject to the egret is both a formal association with the older poem and a mark of change. Both use the egret to announce the long poem’s emergence during times of writing and in other books, the poem itself jumping through history a little better than your own forms of residence, more surreal and emphatic about common difficulties from living in paranoia about your nation’s ability to endorse conservative and damaging political status quos. Sometimes “the house” implies shared governance, often with a powerful class antagonist that the speaker identifies being under and against, very much the House of Commons duty that we actually know, or as Smith might say, that we need to be more familiar with. But the refrain isn’t just political theatre: everything can and does get brought there because it’s the common thing everyone leaves and returns to, as portable artifice and physical locations merge without pause.

Nothing in Touché is perfect, and the flaws aren’t always interesting, losing me more than twice where slant political commentary and odd word choice are more confusing than associative. Smith can be affectingly both in a great poem like “The Good House, etc.,” where he has length to sprawl, seemingly not focused on keeping any set voice or political sense afloat. Such parts feel more than just linguistic foreplay — they’re confessional, devotional, and sometimes tired examinations of art, class, love, and doubt. These poems concern the idea that a mind is never beyond corruption and error, empowered or otherwise, and specifically that mental forces elevated to broadcastable positions, publicly or internally, will only sell terms that promote particular interests, not the whole public or the entirety of an individual’s fluctuating needs. While the political value of such a stance is necessarily contextual, Smith’s reports are aesthetically brilliant in conflating public broadcasts with the associative methods that individual minds impulsively use to create identities, the brain selling parts of experience to different selves in different moments.

Smith knows that identity is a commodity, to the self and to the public, and that diversifying how the mind manipulates signaling from language is a way to draw attention to surprising, sometimes frighteningly detailed experiences about the impulsivity that all clear and ordered thinking originates from — in Touché’s case, with words that fluctuate grammatical positions during the poem in beautiful and completely Smith ways. These poems care about how our corruptions reason with each other, big and incredibly small, and how we distance ourselves from some by usingothers so that we can tell the cognitive stories of certainty and apprehension, and once again seem to understand a little better and a little more and maybe again, later.

On textual cohabiting

Jocelyn Saidenberg's 'Dead Letter' and Brandon Brown's 'Top Forty'

Dead Letter

Dead Letter

Jocelyn Saidenberg

Roof Books 2014, 94 pages, $15.95, ISBN 978-1931824583

Top Forty

Top Forty

Brandon Brown

Roof Books 2014, 136 pages, $15.95, ISBN 978-1931824576

What are the ethics of citation? Don’t all poems enter into the cacophony and babble of “the great conversation,” or to mix metaphors, that river of text, of jetsam and flotsam we all swim in and against? Still, to take up a gentle anachronism, we might ask, who sits at the table, and what is the etiquette of the host? How do you turn to your citation-guests? What do you offer? Two recent books, very different in subject matter and affect, take up this question — as both are explicitly addressed to other work(s) of art, inviting them, as it were, to the table. These reflections were first written on the occasion of hosting Brandon Brown and Jocelyn Saidenberg in Toronto at a reading of the Contemporary Poetry Research Group, organized by Mat Laporte, navigating through the tricky and wonderful territory of hosting and guesting: intimacies and disappointments, a stopped toilet, a rainy day, and a dumpling feast.

Dead Letter is a kind of rewriting of Herman Melville’s strangely opaque short masterpiece, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” To remind you of the plot in a nutshell: it is a story about Bartleby, a law clerk whose main job is to recopy documents. One day he is asked to work and says that “he would prefer not to.” The rest of the story is about the narrative and metaphysical consequences of that refusal. Top Forty is also an extended critique, an ekphrastic meditation on pop songs, proceeding from the fortieth song to the first song on American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest, September 14th, 2013.

In his last poem, Brown refers to “the long history of artists repeating, recycling, reusing other artworks in order to become less confused about their own art” (135). More words for artistic recycling: allusion, intertextuality, ekphrasis, rewriting, anxiety of influence, fan fiction, appropriation, translation. This recycling can read like mastery: I know you, pop song, Grecian urn, autopsy report, better than you know yourself! I can explain you, I can capture you, I can pin you down, boil you up, and render your essence. I can make money off you. In the same poem, Brown talks about a specific kind of mastery: “the long history in the US of white appropriation of black art, which regularly elides the visibility of that appropriation” (135). Together with this problematic implication of mastery, there’s also a sharp kind of sense of loss that lingers around the edges of these artistic projects. Anxiety that it won’t be as good as the original, that the copy can never be as vivid as the real thing. Poems are never as colorful as paintings, never as fun as a song that makes you want to get up and dance.

Both books take these two dangers into account as they proceed — but their main business is neither mastery nor loss. It’s something else, and I’ve been trying to find the right words for it — alchemy, making the space bigger, redeeming the sparks, if you want to get all Kabbalistic about it, or to say it really simply:love.

So let me be a little more specific. Melville wrote his story from the point of view of Bartleby’s lawyer-employer, and Saidenberg’s first big shift is to give Bartleby a first-person voice. However, in Dead Letter we still don’t get the exposé, the untold adventures of Bartleby, which would help us resolve the opacity of Melville’s text. Rather, Bartleby’s first-person narrative actually recopies many of Melville’s words; Saidenberg is more aligned with the job of scrivener than author, copying Melville’s words into her own text. Besides copying his lawyer’s documents, Bartleby is also given the task of proofing his work and checking the accuracy of his copy. In Dead Letter, we ourselves are also turned into these copyeditors/scriveners because we end up comparing the Saidenberg and Melville texts to each other, looking for discrepancies in the copy.

I’m writing this introduction surrounded by screens and by texts, sitting in a small office. I just read a piece in McSweeney’s on the snake-fight portion of your thesis defense. It was pretty funny. My phone beeped. I’m chatting with my partner about movie tickets while at the same time watching a video without sound of masked Israeli soldiers waking up a Palestinian family at three a.m. to ask their kids if they throw stones. Reading Ron Silliman on Kenny Goldsmith, Stephanie Young on Kenny Goldsmith, photos from National Puppy Day, apologies from the Israeli left for not winning the elections, a woman beaten to death in Afghanistan, advice on how to give away fares with your metro card on the new York City subway — this is the place we all live in, gorging all day on text, hemmed in by text, all of us like Bartleby hunched over his copying. 

And yet something happens to Bartleby’s stifling geography in Dead Letter. It’s all about the accumulation of tiny transformations. Saidenberg’s Bartleby pushes at his text, moment upon moment of heavy lifting, hard labor (as Christian Nagler describes it in the afterword), until he cracks it open, until the paltry life Melville has given him is made wild, and the chambers seem to reveal a hidden Atlantic ocean inside them. For example, in the Melville story, the lawyer describes his claustrophobic Manhattan offices: one window looks out onto an air shaft, the other window has a brick wall for a view:

Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern.[1]

More or less the same text is copied into a prose-poem Saidenberg calls “Our Habitats.” Listen to her lines, or to her Bartleby speaking:

the interval between the chamber’s windows and this wall not a little resembled a huge square cistern, from which in a pastoral scene, a shepherd might water his flock (25, emphasis mine). 

When Bartleby is given a voice, our spatial imagination expands a little beyond the lawyer’s chambers — the suggestion of water, sheep, the enormous care taken by shepherds, the meetings that can happen at cisterns. There’s something deeply ethical about this act of cohabitation with a text, with a character, which is also a function of spent time; this is not a dashed-off copy, but the most careful years-long record of scrivening.

Perhaps because Bartleby is so lonely in Melville’s story, I tried to think up literary relatives for him: Shakespeare’s Cordelia, who wants nothing from King Lear; Kafka’s hunger artist, who will fast until he dies. As I read Dead Letter, though, I came to relate Bartleby to one of the most vivid of biblical characters, preserved in the amber of the so-called dead letters of the Old Testament. Part of Dead Letter’s alchemy is to make you feel that all of that richness of Bartleby’s inner life was already in the Melville text; you just have to be looking really closely. You have to really devote yourself to the language, to cling and to cleave. Jocelyn Saidenberg reinvents Bartleby as a figure of cleaving, who devotes himself to his lawyer and his refusal. In that sense, I think Dead Letter gives Bartleby another literary relative — or maybe she was there all along in Melville’s biblically haunted text — and that is Ruth, who loses everything in a famine, but queerly cleaves to her mother-in-law Naomi, and in her persistent cleaving becomes a figure for redemption.

Flickers of redemption can be found in the most unlikely places: in addition to being about one week of top-forty pop songs, from “Take Back the Night,” to “Blurred Lines,” Brandon Brown’s Top Forty is also about Icelandic epic, the great advantages of baths, addiction, political strategies, how you know things, movies from the eighties, death, the end of the world, capitalism, and friendship. It is also about time, but it’s not elegiac about the ephemeral nature of pop (and poop) and fashion and bad movies, as the blurred childhood photo on the front cover might suggest. Well, not only. In summoning up these ephemera, the stray thoughts you have while you pee, the things friends say to you, little vanities, crumbs of philosophy, I think Brown is doing something with a bit more of a kick.

Ok, well, I’m just going to say it: in Top Forty Brandon Brown is “seizing up the past as an image that flashes up at the moment of its unrecognizability.” That’s from Walter Benjamin, who also says “Fashion has a nose for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is the tiger’s leap into the past.”[2] What Benjamin is describing is the task of being so deeply inside the present moment, in fashion, and architecture, and cafés and the clichés of pop music, really immersed in it — in what he calls now-time — like putting your whole body into a warm bath — that you can see something important, something that will make the continuum of history explode. It’s flaring up and flashing by, so you have to catch it.

Benjamin’s metaphor always reminds me of the anxiety you get at a sushi-boat place when you see something you really like going by but you don’t get it in time, but this is happening about five times faster, and the little plate has the meaning of life on it, or at least a message from your long-lost lover. Brown’s trying to crack it open, and the only way to do this is with devotion, a shipwreck that comes from refusing to abandon the gaudy, boozy party-ship. There are moments of exquisite irony in applying philosophy and grammatical analysis to these songs, but even here Brown shies away from mastery, reminding us “I’m not just taking a cheap shot at Macklemore, / I’m implicated in this totally, as you know by now” (81). 

In Benjamin’s famous fragments on the concept of history, he addresses the task of the revolutionary historian who must reveal the histories untold by the winners. Well, that’s not quite what’s happening in Top Forty, which sometimes reads as an address to a musical version of the dollar store, full of desirable plastic. But Brown subjects this plastic ephemera to a kind of rigorous, radical, and revolutionary philology, in the sense of the love and friendship at the basis of the logos.

Let me quote an example of this revolutionary philology in full. In discussing Ice Cube’s metrical innovation, he says, “it is an exemplary instance of very regular measures surrounding quick tribrachs of hurtling syllables, broken up by the lightest stresses, light as a mosquito’s proboscis” (135). Brown’s precision about language, about metre, is mixed with a precision about affect, about the touch of language on the body, which is itself a swoon of a sentence, a sweet and heady cocktail. But it is also, finally, a generous and humble hosting of Ice Cube’s oeuvre. In Top Forty Brandon Brown is throwing a philology party, and you’re all invited to drink and be merry and break open the continuum of history. 

1. Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853), 5.

2. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume 4 1938–1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott and others, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 390, 395.

'The Liberty of Horrors'

On Marie Buck's 'Portrait of Doom'

Portrait of Doom

Portrait of Doom

Marie Buck

Krupskaya 2015, 114 pages, $16.00, ISBN 978-1928650362

In a year when the politics of contemporary experimental poetry have come under renewed scrutiny (to put it mildly), Marie Buck’s new book, Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya, 2015), is timely. It’s a meditation on our contemporary political economic situation that refuses the temptation of leftist sigils, Invisible-Committee-light jargon, and ironized hysterics. Instead Buck roots her poems in a more elusive and spectral discourse that better captures the alienation, strangeness, and complexity of actual life within the folds of a collapsing neoliberal world order.

Portrait of Doom is, for all intents and purposes, a book of political poems.

But at the same time, it’s not.

It’s a difficult book to get a handle on. The political signifiers and discourses within Buck’s poems are not static, unidimensional referents. Instead they are radically overdetermined, rendering an intimate lifeworld that, while not exactly realist, has the same texture and nuance of realism in that it indexes the fragments and relics and detritus of the real world only to overcode and mythologize them.

Take, for example, the poem “Pain Funnel,” the syntax and diction of which act as something of a skeleton key to Portrait of Doom’s intersection with discourses currently at play in the most deranged crevices of the information superhighway. On the one hand, it’s a fairly straightforward poem — a conceptually driven list poem of phrases appropriated from the website of some scam private college. The language is depressingly mundane and familiar as it moves across various pithily-worded categories of social position and action, from “Welfare mom with kids” to “pregnant ladies,” “low self esteem” and “low-income jobs,” to generic queries such as “Tell me more about that,” “Have you tried to fix it?,” “What has it cost you?,” and “Does the prospect have enough pain to qualify for the next step?” before ending with “Reality check! So why haven’t you taken these steps yet?” — a question at once aggressive and rhetorical (27–28). The “Pain Funnel” of the title leads invariably to the “reality check” in the final line, illuminating the various meanings of that latter word: check as in an examination, but also a restraint, a curb, a control on the addressee’s actions, and also a bill or promissory note, but one that can neither be cashed nor paid in full.  

The language the poem appropriates is familiar, and alludes directly to a world that is immediately recognizable, one that we, in fact, inhabit — a world defined by a series of increasingly grim or desperate social categories that get rerouted through the logic of neoliberal economic formations, an assemblage that is itself in a prolonged state of crisis and collapse. If the theory of interpellation still holds any water at all, “Pain Funnel” shows us how the discourse of economic opportunity — of vitalism, of affective labor, that by-your-bootstraps-on-steroids ideology that defines our current conditions of social being — can narrativize and, hence, define a subject’s place in the world.

But Buck’s poetry doesn’t promote a politics of revelation, a political strategy held, perversely, in common by both conceptualism and the political lyric poetry of the radical left. There’s a world-building function to Buck’s poetry that gives it a serious affinity with the project of science fiction as Samuel Delany understands it, which is to create fictional worlds that refract and clarify our own through a fantastic defamiliarization. For Delany, all writing is inherently about the present, whether it wants to be or not, the minimal difference being that some works recognize this capacity of language and thus use it to maximum effect. Portrait of Doom is one of those works.  

The basic strategy of the book: Buck takes the language on display in “Pain Funnel” and reworks it into a sheer hellish miasma of a world, which we are thrown into in the first poem of the first section of the book, “Collapse of Death,” a pastiche of the sort of autobiographical snapshot poem that old mummies might have written back in the stone age:

I crawled out of a spider hole into a fucked up kind of youth.
My parents were fucked up
and my school was kind of fucked up
and my left eye ticked and my ankle hurt.
I felt my soul withering into a tiny shrunken system
but I wore a pin that said fuck the system
and I drilled the bone out
till I deadlifted unimaginable weight. (19)

There is nothing strictly confessional about the work, and any sense of the “personal” is safely obscured by Buck’s preference for both the generic, sometimes-bubbly-sometimes-affectless discourse of web culture, and for jarringly paratactical line breaks, here shifting registers from the angst-fueled rhetoric of a teenager to, in the final couplet, something of a degenerate epiphany — if by epiphany one means “extreme bodily mutilation,” which I do.

The final lines, then, come as a parody of the breathless enchantment with the mundane and trivial that makes up so much mainstream and MFA lyric poetry. But one of the interesting things about Buck’s work is that she’s not interested in the total negation of the lyric form in the mode of various schools of language and postlanguage, conceptualisms and postconceptualisms, but instead works rigorously within this mode. So to say that this poem plays on the contemporary lyric is not to say that Buck rejects that form so much as to observe that she doubles-down on it, opens it up, and recharges it. Just as the speaker of this poem “drilled the bone out,” a feat that allows her to lift a shit ton (technical term) of weight, Buck’s juxtaposition of mundane diction and syntax with grotesque imagery creates genuinely strange associations that reanimate the burnt-out corpse of language. But like any reanimated being — corpse, head, language, dead pet — what is brought back is changed, changed utterly. 

I know for a solid fact that Buck is from rural South Carolina, so it’s more than a little autobiographical that the world presented in Portrait of Doom is a backwoods high-school dystopia whose contours most closely resemble the rural existential horror of Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997). Except in Buck’s world, you are the dead cat getting whipped. And also the person whipping the dead cat. And the whip. Like Gummo, the world of Portrait of Doom is a world of contradiction, disgust, and naive fascination. The deeper into this world you go, the more sinister it becomes.

And also just like Gummo, Portrait nestles itself awkwardly inside the folds of that overdetermined category of the bildüngsroman. Though not traditionally narrative, the poems follow an arc as they slouch through the developmental wastelands of maturation, illuminating a coming-into-self-hood in a world sick and brutal to its very core, and entered into via a language both exhausted and hollowed out but, at the same time, crackling with the febrile energy of total rot. Buck’s world is entropic, but it’s only in the decrepit cesspools of daily life and language that one finds a faint glimmer of the utopic.

But that’s just life in the anthropocene, baby, a world filled with flattened yet distorted stock characters such as “the banker,” “the cop,” and the mysterious “Kevin” who has unclear motives but is certainly up to no good if you want my opinion. They operate not so much as characters but as types, whose actions are both familiar yet bizarrely rendered, as in “Feathery Shapes in the Rock Pile”:

On my face sits a stain:
All move me along
to the liberty of horrors.

I had to work very much
and very hard.
The sweat was running down my skin,
my hand was shaken
by the extremely decaying body. (54)

The syntax and grammar of the familiar and the mundane reality is present, even as it is slowly unraveled, made strange, not just through reproduction but through transformation, a potential unlocked by the “liberty of horrors” and building toward the anguish of the stanza where Buck writes,

No, fuck, I’m weeping
because I live in a cage
and cannot deliver myself. (55)

It all builds up to a final stanza, in which the speaker finds some sort of perverse freedom within confinement:

I was dogged like a dog and
handed myself over
to the only digger that helped me
in the shimmering shallows
I rubbed and rubbed. (55)

The speaker’s freedom here takes the form of onanistic liberation, a carnality that does not even appear pleasurable, merely desperate. The speaker of this poem actually does get out of that cage later in the book, in the poem “Dark Dungeons,” but it’s a short-lived victory at best:

It worked! I’m free, I’m like everyone else now!
Then, come, join us, join the rebellion!
Before I decide what to do with my life, I must first learn to
be alive. (87)

Sure, this is obviously a send-up of wishy-washy, self-centered, New-Age liberalism, but it’s also the author castigating herself. After all, what can be more complicit and consistent with the age of “care for the self” than writing poetry? The behaviors learned while imprisoned are not so easily unlearned, and the book’s narrative arc, its bildüng, hinges precisely on this attempt to escape from the prison of the body and its narrow pleasures, and an attempt to expand and explode them in utopic, even revolutionary, fashion.

Indeed, despite the grotesquerie and horror of much of the book, Buck doesn’t leave things in a state of nihilistic despair. Even when these poems are at their most sinister, there is still something strangely utopic embedded within them. The book ends on just such a tenor when, in “I’ve Got a Few Tricks Left,” Buck writes:

I ate through
your flesh
and wore
your dried skin

until your poison
hit my guts
just as I

better than
bug broth,
better than
my odd tastes

opening my mouth
to the clouds. (113–114)

Bodily mutilation, mutation, affect and intimacy, magical realist imagery, a strange syncopated rhythm to the syntax — whatever you want, this poem has it. The myriad images, which are illogically connected to begin with, ultimately unfold, deconstruct, and transform as they progress deeper and deeper down into the mire of the fantastic. It’s at this lower level, in the truly terrible and profane — that moment when “your poison / hit my guts” — that Buck gestures toward some form of radical uplift, which is the very taste of the poison inside one’s own body “opening my mouth / to the clouds.” The deepest, gnarliest level of the self ends up “opening” skyward, a gesture indicative of the aesthetic and political strategy of the entire book.

Let me explain. There’s a relatively recent, relatively mainstream horror movie that maybe some people have actually seen, called As Above, So Below (2014). It’s about a graduate student carrying on the research of her deceased father by attempting to locate the philosopher’s stone, a magical amulet that medieval alchemists believed could turn any substance into gold. Or something like that. The point is, she thinks this philosopher’s stone is hidden deep in the Paris Catacombs, and to get there she enlists a motley crew of club-based urban explorers. There’s a cave-in, of course, and they end up in a part of the catacombs that is unexplored, rumored to be cursed, haunted, taboo to enter, etc. All this, as it turns out, is true, and they soon find themselves in a house-of-horrors mirror world, acting out their childhood traumas, past misdeeds, and other tragic events from the past in a spectral, nightmarish fashion. But — and this is crucial — they can’t just go back up and out of the abyss. They have to keep going further in to get out. It’s not until they reach the very deepest level of the catacombs that they finally find an improbable manhole cover and climb through it. The camera pivots, flips upside-down, and there they are, on a busy surface street directly in front of Notre Dame. The tagline for the movie is “The only way out is down.” The only way to escape the hole they are in is to sink further into it, to ride that trolley all the way to the end of the line.

Portrait of Doom functions in a similar way. The familiar surface of perfectly constructed lyric poems generated by or modeled on the equally familiar discourse of search engine results gives way to a churning abyss of horrific imagery that only becomes more unsettling and nightmarish the deeper down into it you go. It’s terrifying and alarming, yes; it’s profoundly unsettling, true; it’s sick and twisted and doesn’t provide any clear answers to any problems, of course; but it doesn’t turn away from these difficulties either. It enters fully into this perverse and unsettling world. And while looking the horror of austerity capitalism in all of its brutality and violence right in the face by crafting beautiful yet genuinely strange poems may seem like a form of minor politics, it is also probably the most that we can reasonably ask of any art at this point. Or, as Buck puts it, better than I can, in a line that it as poignant and small as it is #acab,

The new world is made of the old world,
the small stretch of the cat as it confronts the police. (43)

Between the world and the poem

On Dorothy Wang's forms and formations

Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry

Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry

Dorothy J. Wang

Stanford University Press 2013, 416 pages, $50.00, ISBN 978-0804783651

The last sentence of Dorothy J. Wang’s Thinking Its Presence — “It must change” — is a call to action in its redeployment of the title of Marjorie Perloff’s 2006 MLA address. By invoking this address, in which Perloff exhorts scholars to return to more rigorous training within literary studies, “no matter how culturally and politically oriented [their] own particular research may be” (686), Wang attempts to engage with the continued opposition of the aesthetic and social within literary studies and to push back against what she sees as the exclusion of the sociohistorical and political contexts of race from broader conversations about classifications within American poetry studies. Wang begins her text by close reading Perloff’s address, along with an accompanying series of exchanges in the PMLA, in order to show that certain terms like ‘identitarian’ and ‘identity politics’ operate as “placeholders for larger assumptions and beliefs” (10). By rendering the subtleties of these assumptions explicit, Wang reveals the ways they circulate in a discourse that dismisses the value of minority writing in favor of other kinds of writing which are not perceived to bear the burden of representation (10).

Asian American poetry, in particular, serves as a limit case for this problematic institutional opposition of the “literary” and the “cultural” or “political” because of the unique relation that racialized Asian American subjects have to the American body politic, particularly with the memory of historical events like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans. Even the term “Asian American” — a product of strategic institutionalization — is itself fraught with difficulties, as Wang is well aware. Wang observes, however, that “in order to interrogate the category of Asian American, one needs the category to begin with” (28).

Wang’s study, which traces the work and critical reception of Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Pamela Lu, is not simply a reconsideration of poems by these authors but an interrogation of the very terms and conditions of the either-or manner in which these poems and poets have been read. Noting that these writers and their works are often caught between the rhetoric of “yellow peril” and that of “model minority,” Wang asks, “How then does an Asian American poet situate herself in an Anglo-American tradition when she is marked as constitutively alien and unassimilable and excluded from the category of ‘native speaker’ of English? How does [she] labor under and contend with the foregone conclusion that her English will never be ‘good enough’?” (27). Wang attends to the absence of analysis of formal techniques in works by more “mainstream” Asian American writers like Lee and Chin and links these techniques to the reception but also the rethinking of identity through Asian American poetry. Her reading of Lee’s works, for example, foregrounds Lee’s use of the metaphor of “cleaving” as a way of understanding alterity that can “[hold] sameness and difference together in tension without reducing all to sameness” and collapsing into assimilation (89). Similarly, her attention to form in Chin’s poetry reveals how irony codes Chin’s political interventions, making them more “palatable” to a wider audience than her more obvious forms of critique — even as it serves as a “structure [that] captures the rivenness of subjectivity wrought by immigration, diaspora, the violence of assimilation.” Chin’s ironizing of themes like the repeated figure of the “barbarian” challenges ideas of linguistic purity or cultural “authenticity” at the same time that it acts as a “rhetorical means to contend with the trauma of history” and method of grappling with racial melancholia (118).

Alternately, Wang also puts pressure on the tendency to read the work of more explicitly avant-garde poets’ work like Yau, Berssenbrugge, and Lu, who do not thematize or provide proof of ethnicity, as either playing “the race card” at the poet’s convenience (as Yau was accused of doing in a particularly acrimonious exchange with Eliot Weinberger in American Poetry Review), or somehow “post-race,” “a retreat to the idea of a universal subject” which Wang rejects (280). Indeed, for Wang, the questions of how linguistic mastery or credibility is signaled is intimately related to notions of aesthetic “difficulty,” particularly as it intersects with classifications of “mainstream” or “avant-garde.” Yau’s use of parody as well as the vexing of lyric subjectivity in his Genghis Chan poems makes, for Wang, the “erasure of the subject [register] as a generic postmodern move,” aligning his formal experimentation with an American and European avant-garde. But, as Wang notes, the tradition of this avant-garde often leaves little room for discussing how form relates to the politics of “ethnic self-identification” (181).

Given the absence of autobiographical material in Berssenbrugge’s work, as well as her play with linguistic conditionality and exploration of the liminalities between human consciousness and natural phenomena, her poems, like Yau’s, do not straightforwardly disclose information about the poet’s identity; Wang argues, however, that this does not excuse critics from the necessity of engaging with the “impress of the racializing pressures and structures that shaped her subjectivity” (269). Wang observes of Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel that it similarly needs not “announce its concerns with mere thematic markers because its very language […] is inseparable from this subjectivity and worldview” (276).

While Wang does not intend to “[posit] a simplistic causal or reductive link between the world — in this case, being ‘Asian American’ — and the poem,” her project is directed at recuperating the relationship between social formation and aesthetic form and demonstrating how the latter in particular is either occluded in the reception of Asian American poetry, or itself occludes the subject of race (35).

Wang concludes by looking forward to a rethinking of the forms of critical conversation themselves, whether in digital forums where institutional constraints do not weigh as heavily as they might elsewhere. Wang, who points towards a future poetry criticism in which Asian American poetry is read with both an attention to formal qualities as well as the realities of racial interpellation in mind, reminds us that “Poems are never divorced from contexts and from history, even as they are, among other things, modes of thinking philosophically through an engagement with formal constraints. Likewise, what constitutes the social, the cultural, and the political must be analyzed for their linguistic and structural forms” (19). Whatever shape future dialogue about aesthetic form in American poetry may take, Thinking its Presence insists that it cannot do so without accounting for the racialized particularities of Asian American and othered identities.

Song is remedy for loss

A review of Tiff Dressen's 'Songs from the Astral Bestiary'

Songs from the Astral Bestiary

Songs from the Astral Bestiary

Tiff Dressen

lyric& Press 2013, 64 pages, $12.00, ISBN 978-1889098135

If I were suffering from some kind of loss in the ancient Hellenic world, I could travel to an Asclepion priestess at Epidaurus and spend the night in an abaton, or sacred space, to ride out my dreams after having been given a “sleep” cure suited to my specific needs. In her first book-length collection, Songs from the Astral Bestiary, Tiff Dressen devises her own abaton made of poetry, taking her reader on a lyrical journey via the dreamscape where song is remedy for loss. Staring into the rich mulberry blue, gold, amber, green (and other colors in-between I can’t find names for) brushstrokes of Fran Herndon’s “Triangles,” the cover art, the reader is transported to a world half here, half there, and by the end of the collection realizes that s/he came to “harvest” light too as that “animal / in whom nothing is lost” (52) found in dream.

Offering twenty-three poems, the collection delivers a series of messages (“Message: O you who are” … “Message: book of debris”) and among those, interspersed, are several longer serial poems whose titles suggest propositions with their use of subordinating conjunctions: “If the air we live on,” “As deer (in aurora borealis),” and “Because Icarus-children.” Employing the medieval compendium of the bestiary which depicts animals and mythic animals in their natural history accompanied by moral lessons, Songs from the Astral Bestiary presents bees, deer, “Wapitis,” a “canadensis,” bears, a “trance- / horse,” cannibals, owls, and the hauntingly elusive half-light-half-human “Icarus-children.” The poems, projections from the dream world whose messenger “came to harvest / light” and “to hear the thousands / who signify the future” (2), are in part prayer, incantation, oracle, and their admonitory tone adds a touch of prophecy. Songs from the Astral Bestiary isn’t a first collection that strives through the cadence of language to get somewhere; this is poetry whose songstress has already been there in the “sky-trough” (14) and has returned with the goods to share with “all messengers on their way to / or returning from.” The poem “Message: astral bestiary” appears on the page in fragments as if received from an etched stone shard in antiquity:

cerulean  dirigibles


falcon  gestations

helicopter ignitions jamming



Dream interpretation as therapy, when “words once were / healers of the sick temper” (27), is a possibility in the hermetic poem “Because Icarus-children,” which opens with a quote by the Danish poet Inger Christensen, “in greylight, indeed they will / exist, in- ” (24):

Because we believe in the whole helio

      centric gaze    in the sky    as house

 of the dreamer

      Because of the Ionian sea and

              the Ionian scar       we ask the absent

      body to be restored to the present heart. (26)


The poem’s rhythm is driven by the repetition of the subordinating conjunction “because,” and its continual use of the collective pronoun “we” makes us, as readers, also feel (strangely) that “we are halogens” (25), having traversed the poem and having “perceived light / the natural body can never / account for” (27). The reader senses healing at work, and in awe, entranced “under fluorescent skies,” attends to it. In another poem, “Message: a theory (song),” the poet-diviner reveals “(our common lung our / communal humming / lung)”(43), further connecting the reader with the “breath between us / we share” (45). The poem muses an array of songs (“a song of water,” “a catalytic song,” “a pathogenic song”) entering the body through “a staple in the chest / where the song / stuck it / to the song” (43) and, like neighboring poems in the book, suggests that a “song of self-repair” is what “we” have lost. Refining her lyric, Dressen tunes into the Song of Songs that confronts loss. Whether it’s felt in “the oceans’ / lost speech” (2) or clearly stated as “a loss of heart / a loss / of capacity” (43), this first book engages loss by recovering (via dream) a world in which we know “it came from the stars” to share its “harvest” of light. The reader, implicated, becomes other addressed as you who has a “myrrh fairy” (12), like it or not; for you “who are / a creature of / the signs you cannot / escape” (8) are part of the luminary landscape of Songs from the Astral Bestiary, because “finally your face arrived / to complete / the bestiary” (42).

Nomenclature, the system of assigning names to things in the physical world, is explored in several poems. In “Message: It is as we said” (40), the animals are “longing to be,” yet belong “to nomen” as if the weight of their being or desire to be is held subject to (or hostage by) their names: “It is as we said / the animals naming them / we said name them.” In “In your hypoxia dreams” (47), there is someone “learning / how to say / your name for the first time,” and in “As deer (in aurora borealis)” we, “red giant Wapitis” or “cannibals,” name us “nameless” and “name us useless and / distinct” (18). What does it mean to be nameless or anonymous, and who listens when we “CALL ALL THOSE / BELONGING BEYOND / NOMEN / CLATURE” (8)? In “Message: periodic” (9), the immediate poem that follows this “CALL,” the poet-messenger shares, “there is silence however there is / whenever you are speaking / with another,” and then within the same line in italics sings, “silence is the third / and that is me.”Interpreting “silence”beyond the dream or words (naming it) is best expressed in the forms most of the poems manifest in, some utilizing blank space on the page in fragments or stanzas that are pared down to one-word lines. Silence is “the third,” the poet-cipher avows, mediating herself in the objective third person, as witnessed in “Message: parallel myth”:







(in the

intimacy of











a small


horse. (29)


The mostly single-word columnar form slows the reader down to a one-two syllable dance between “she,” the poet-dreamer, and you, “now / the / second / person.”

The poems in Songs from the Astral Bestiary are gracefully chiseled, arriving in fragments, set to an open form and sometimes seeming as if guided by the hand of Barbara Guest (“Message: amber”):

At night she went out

to let the bloodtrees           

rest upon

      the blue wedged

denial wheel

(collector of midnight-drift

  pollen aether).(6)


The only punctuation, like all poems in the collection, is purposefully placed, such as the italics and parentheses in the above excerpt (the “third” voice?) from the poem “for Paul Celan.” Blank space accentuates words on the page, stimulating the visual aesthetic of word placement and line breaks, which heightens the enunciation of words and potentially alters or enhances the poem’s meaning. Sound-play occurs in regular lyric breakouts throughout the collection. “Message: O you who are” concludes with:

              numinous  incendiary

              abecedary; (8)

and the word-dance continues into the next poem, “Message: periodic”:

au            aurum                  aura

gold            chromium            cesium

gallium (9)

The blank page transforms into the “night sky” (24) onto which poems are projected, with each word a blinking active star — a night sky, “northward,” that we can “sing starve-white-dwarf-crater-songs!” (19) into.

A recurring motif of gestation forms a delicate membrane that encases the entire collection and is activein the images of vessels (houses, abatons, silos, cauls) or things that contain and incubate life — like the body itself. In “Because Icarus-children,” the poem, with its curious tone of admonition, unveils that “we no longer live in sensitive bodies lit up […] because of a reversed birth a reviled birth” (24), and later we are caught in a “centric gaze” stationed “in the sky” or in the “house / of the dreamer” (26). In classical times, abatons — literally buildings “not to be trodden” — were specially designed dream incubators or sacred chambers where supplicants of Asclepius (god of medicine) could sleep to cure a variety of ailments by way of dream and enkoimesis: an opium or other narcotic-induced dreamlike state. Hints of healing using dreams are riddled throughout Songs from the Astral Bestiary,and in “Message: forms,” are affirmed in a third-person narrative delivered in disjunctive song:

And once

she did   really sink:

into an abaton


tross    silence

(bee cave) []

      (the interpreter mistook) (30)


Repeated images of a “caul,” the portion of the amniotic sac that holds the fetal head, and a storage “silo” fuse together to generate a déjà vu atmosphere in the alchemical “delphic cycle: (turns),” a poem “along the earth” (34) brewing “with iron” and “gas” that requests, if not implores, its audience to participate in a ghostly act of creation, evoking the familiar biblical spirit of word made flesh:

Someone please bury

the caul
behind the silo

as a blood / word

for the cause

of sound

sleeper  earth  hema. (37)

Dressen’s Songs from the Astral Bestiary not only reminds us that we, readers, are active participants in a poem’s meaning, but that poetry itself is a collaborative act. The collection opens with a supportive epigraph from Antonin Artaud’s “50 Drawings to Assassinate Magic,” setting up a “Way”(1) through which readers might enter this work, “in nature.” Two poems, “Message: amber” (6) and “Message: telepathy” (31), are dedicated to Paul Celan, proffering him “bloodtrees” and a “blueshiftchorus.” In her first collection, Dressen masters poetry that not only is in conversation with other writers and artists, but does so in a generous way: honoring their work by resurrecting it within her own. Other poems activate quotes from James Wright, “cloister … Closing around / a blossom of”(9), or appear as italicized text as in “As deer (aurora borealis)” (10), which restores parts of the obscure poem “The Wapitis” by Ebbe Borregaard. In this way, the book expands within the local and larger poetry communities byliving on through the “representative / of the other” (39)in an authentic poetics of collaboration’s sublime communion. The collection’s climactic poem, “In your hypoxia dreams,” incorporates quotes from Bay-Area poet Beverly Dahlen’s A Letter at Easter: To George Stanley and text from international poet Eléna Rivera’s Unknowne Land, eliciting the question of who is behind the “I” that speaks in poetry:

   “but I want to

 descend along the dense,

     animate river encircling the earth.” (47)


The poet-sibyl’s arrangement with the ancient Hellenic world of mythology additionally serves as a field of collaboration in which the “lost speech” (2) of the oceans is recovered through psychic connection via the astrally traveled dream. An “Achilles angel” (12) and a “satyr-star” (14) are illuminated in “As deer (aurora borealis),” my favorite series in the collection for its peculiar tones of address: “And so the elk sing / O you and your lumbar ache” (10) and “so name us nameless” (anti-nomenclature)! She, who “tonight and forever I shall be […] your mother lode branch and valley” (12), beckons her reader to join the ride: “ankle light / whip kick open thy mouth” (15). We become Dressen’s mythical “deer” animated in a “diffusion through atmospheres” and her “interlopers” (17) on an uncanny horizon whose “Old World” (18) Christian hues, with their prayerful repetitions of “Blessed are those who breathe and Blessed is she,” commingle with the rapturous “magnetic north” (17) of the “wild iris” (11) pagan.

“Breathing” and the “breath,” as in “Bless our breath sensitive” (16), is both theme and instruction during our song odyssey, prompting us to bethink this most important bodily function, while “belly / breathing” (21) signals toward the tradition of the deep regenerative yogic breath in the “song of self-repair” — a song “we share” during “a long ago event” (20). This ambiguous “event” had me returning back for clues, “to screen / an unknown” (2), long after my first, second, third, or umpteenth readings. The “alchemy” (1) that transpires between poet (messenger) and reader (receiver) in Songs from the Astral Bestiary is aired in the powerful intimacy of the I-You lyric address, fostering “our communal lung,” but also “you begin to see / landscape through the eyes / of a bee” (46) which, by suggestion, convenes the reader with “nature” (1). Engage your dreams to heal the self, this debut collection divinely utters with “pieces of you / in my blood and / in my bones / and together we knew” (59) as synergized invitation. Then we shall dream as Bestiary animals do “in whom nothing is lost” after experiencing these poems over and over, each time taking us a new Way to“or returning from” our past or future, “high on the hips” (60) of the poet with her “10,000 horses” (50) across a wordlit sky.