A review of Peter Gizzi's 'Threshold Songs' and K. Silem Mohammad's 'Sonnagrams 1–20'
In their latest projects, poets Peter Gizzi and K. Silem Mohammad recycle and rework old forms, experimenting with what poetry can do in the present through engagements with the past. As they reinvent the traditional forms of sonnet and elegy, Gizzi and Mohammad put pressure on how contemporary poetry straddles poetic tradition and contemporary life. In his Sonnagrams 1–20, Mohammad uses Shakespeare’s sonnets to generate new anagram sonnets that pair Shakespeare and Flarf in a hilarious and fruitful duo. Gizzi’s new book, Threshold Songs, orbits around the form of the elegy. He investigates classical Greek and Latin ideas of mourning to speak of death as at once cosmic and personal. Ultimately, both collections speak to the confusing way that tradition shapes how we encounter the world — whether we organize our thoughts, desires, and distractions through a constraint of the past, or mourn using misheard, ancient language. These formally diverse collections reveal contemporary poets who turn backwards in order to write poetry very much of the present.
Mohammad’s Sonnagrams follow specific constraints. He rearranges the letters of Shakespeare’s sonnets to make new anagram sonnets. Any leftover letters go into the title. The first twenty Sonnagrams have been collected in a chapbook by Slack Buddha Press, and others have been published in journals including Wag’s Review and The Nation, and anthologies including Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. The project is ongoing, although doubtless when all 154 Sonnagrams are collected into a book, they’ll form one of the most fascinating sonnet sequences dreamed up in recent years.
While Mohammad’s turn to the sonnet isn’t that unusual (he did his doctoral work on Renaissance lyric and has cited many other contemporary poets working with the sonnet form), his sonnets certainly are. Flarf is a clear influence on the Sonnagrams, which can be described as adolescent, tacky, hilarious, confrontational, smutty, devastating, silly. Mohammad maintains Shakespeare’s meter and rhyme scheme, but like any good sonneteer, he plays with his constraints (including the added constraint of the anagram). After reading the first few Sonnagrams, it’s difficult to believe that they do what they say they do — that Mohammad has actually made formally correct sonnets using only Shakespeare’s letters. Rearrange a Sonnagram (a tempting and surprisingly time consuming task), and Shakespeare’s original appears. Mohammad describes how he composes the Sonnagrams — “I thought it was a way to use the technology of the Internet, an anagram generator, as a device to break down my text, to tenderize it, to make it ready for me to sculpt. But it left the composing up to me. It left it to me to make the decisions about measure and meter and rhyme and word choice. I would use some words that the Internet machine would throw up just because they wouldn’t occur to me otherwise, but all the syntax, all the shaping of it into a verse, was left for me.”
Although it’s difficult, at least at first, to read Sonnagrams 1–20 without hearing echoing refrains of Shakespeare, their distinctive voice and interests quickly take over. The first quatrain of the first Sonnagram, “Hot Butt Hot Butt Hot Butt Diddy,” provides a good example of what they sound like:
Erotic reptiles sing sweet airs to me
Amid synthetic England’s deathly stench;
Lo, unto every teenaged thigh they flee,
While friendly hamsters masturbate in French.
(Sonnet 1, “From fairest creatures we desire increase”)
Mohammad often namedrops his friends and creates a coterie of the contemporary poetry scene (as in Sonnet 43, which begins, “Now Kenny G. and Christian B. were sweethearts, / Till Kenny had an uncreative thought”). Or the couplet of Sonnet 21, “What sort of poem makes her have to barf? / Mm-hmm, aw yeah, that’s relevant — it’s Flarf!”
Some Sonnagrams are clearly structured around a planned conceit — as in Sonnet 10, where every line is about a different European country (along the lines of “Norwegian steamboats violate my dad”). Sonnet 40 is a catalogue of Bill Murray films, Sonnet 55 is composed entirely of band names, and Sonnet 72 is all movie titles. Others seem to emerge from the chaos of the anagram generator, popular culture, or Mohammad’s teeming brain.
The Sonnagrams are particularity effective, funny, and devastating, as they combine (and annihilate) high and low registers of language and culture. This happens in the final lines of “O Feces, My Feces”:
Old Sappho says the sight of one we love
Is fairer than a row of marching troops;
Our sponsor for the sentiment above:
The folks who brought us Everybody Poops
The meme of mage and poet we renege
When ego cannot reconnect the egg.
(Sonnet 23, “As an unperfect actor on the stage”)
Hilarious yes, but, in the rarefied space of a sonnet, placing Whitman’s Song of Myself and Sappho’s archaic lyrics alongside a children’s book about poop is, not leveling, but widening. Many of the Sonnagrams illustrate this always hilarious, often insightful, juxtaposition, as at the end of “Gee Whiz, They’ve hit the Eth Hut with the Eth Teeth (Hit That!)”:
This sonnet won’t be winning any laurels
In prosody or argument, alas:
I’m short on insight, euphony, and morals
(Free enema? No Thanks, I guess I’ll pass).
Hey you, Godot! We waited twenty days!
Oh yeah, we dug up Rutherford B. Hayes.
(Sonnet 24, “Mine eye hath played the painter and hath seeled”)
Mohammad often takes aim at his own poetic project. “The the the the the the the the the the Death (Hey Hey)” falls into the genre of sonnets about writing sonnets:
Hell yeah, this is an English sonnet, Bitch:
Three quatrains and a couplet, motherfucker.
I write that yummy shit to get me rich:
My iambs got more drive than Preston Tucker.
(Sonnet 47, “Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took”)
Mohammad deftly spoofs on the constraints of his anagram project. He has all the letters he needs to begin a sonnet about sonnets, “Hell yeah, this is an English sonnet, Bitch.” The final line of the couplet, the line a traditional sonnet builds towards, arises out of the constraint — “My mad Shakespearean moves are ‘phat,’ or ‘def’: / They weave my pet eel Lenny — what the eff?” “What the eff” could be any reader’s response to many of the Sonnagrams. These sonnets don’t resolve themselves in their final lines. They can’t find closure, revelation, or even despair in the turn because that isn’t the point. Instead of writing sonnets in the twenty-first century, Mohammad writes the twenty-first century into the sonnet.
When Mohammad reads the Sonnagrams, he always gives them two titles. First there’s the Shakespearean title, a foregrounding that never allows the reader to stray far from Shakespeare’s English (which he echoes throughout Sonnagrams 1–20, from spoofs on Shakespeare’s rhyme words to campy uses of words like lo, hither, and thither). Then there’s the title generated from any leftover letters, which often includes, by necessity, acronyms, unusual spellings, and, when lots of one letter remain, not even words at all (as in Sonnet 14, “TTT TTTT (Or: TTTT TTT)”).
Words, and what words get used in poetry, are a constant subject of Sonnagrams 1–20, which, unlike their titles, almost never feature acronyms or nonsense words. This is why, at readings, Mohammad can make the distinction that the titles are often bullshit. Besides meter and rhyme, the Sonnagrams follow English syntax (even if the lines and sentences they construct are completely inscrutable, they’re correct). The words not included are the threatening ones:
I know a word the OED omits
Its syllables are fatal to be heard.
Whoever says it retches, dies, and shits;
I urge you not to utter such a word.
Although you feel the author’s days are through,
The author in the end erases you.
(Sonnet 13, “O! that you were your self; but love, you are”)
The sonnet “After Shakespeare” reverses the typical Sonnagram structure and puts the extra letters, not in the title, but in the couplet. The title provokes the question — if this sonnet is “After Shakespeare,” how much are (or aren’t) the other sonnets after Shakespeare? Mohammad uses recognizably Elizabethan language to make a point about what the Sonnagrams do:
Disloyal moon! thou hast betrayed the night,
In league with day, in fealty to lovers;
And so the clouds that chide thy stolen light
Made shades to hide the bliss that it discovers.
(Sonnet 37, “As a decrepit father takes delight”)
Mohammad makes a Shakespearean-sounding sonnet from the letters of Sonnet 37, “As a decrepit father takes delight / To see his active child do deeds of youth” (a clever take on Shakespeare as the poet-father, a rare instance of the Sonnagrams engaging on any level, jokey or serious, with the exact sonnets they anagrammatize). The attempt to sound Shakespearean emphasizes that the most Shakespearean-sounding Sonnagram actually has the least to do with Shakespeare. This sonnet only mimics Shakespeare’s language, and ends up sounding, by comparison, flat. But Mohammad knows this. “After Shakespeare” reveals what the Sonnagrams aren’t interested in (imitation) and how playing with Shakespeare doesn’t have to lead to it. The couplet recalls the dedication page of the original 1609 publication of the Sonnets and its still mysterious dedication to a “Mr. W.H.” Mohammad sets off his WS, WH and other enigmatic letters with suggestive punctuation. Do the brackets suggest another possible identity? Or a textual corruption? Of course not, they’re just leftovers, but Mohammad spoofs on how scholars read Shakespeare today by ending “After Shakespeare” with this sham puzzle.
There’s also the element of boredom to consider. After awhile, do the Sonnagrams get old? Will Mohammad’s clever, risqué, deflationary project be able to maintain itself for 154 sonnets? Although the Sonnagrams are certainly more novel in smaller portions (four or five at a reading, or the first twenty in the chapbook), the entire sequence accumulates significance as it develops. While the meter risks becoming repetitive when the nonsense begins to sound like just so much nonsense, this makes the moments that cut through it all the more devastating. This happens in Sonnet 55, when after a series of flippant comments and silly juxtapositions (“Do Thin Mints ruin death for Fred Astaire?”), Mohammad ends with the couplet, “Will no one but Neil Diamond wait my part? / When Snoopy goes Hawaiian … is it art?” The final question jolts the reader out of the amusing, the adolescent, and the absurd. Of course, any reader who has gotten this far isn’t likely to argue that the Sonnagrams aren’t art, but that isn’t really the point.
Threshold Songs, Peter Gizzi’s fifth book-length collection, is a series of mainly short lyrics that address, not the dead, but death itself. The volume begins with a dedication “for Robert, for Mother, for Mike called back.” “Called back” is inscribed on Emily Dickinson’s grave in Amherst (where Peter Gizzi teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst). Her gravestone reads, “Emily Dickinson Born Dec. 10, 1830 Called Back May 15, 1886.” Although Dickinson’s epitaph calls her back from life to afterlife, Gizzi’s dedication to his best friend, mother, and brother calls them back from afterlife into poetry.
Gizzi is interested in the vocal, the musical, the blur between poetry and song, and the human voice as an instrument that plays upon written words. Because of the absence of personal detail, these intensely private poems read, not as elegies for specific loved ones, but as elegies about how to elegize and what it means to mourn. They are poems of the threshold, the edge, the veil, the divide between life and death that isn’t so much a divide for Gizzi as a question.
Divided into five unnamed sections, the poems in this collection continue the work of Gizzi’s previous books (perhaps Some Values of Landscape and Weather especially). They find their register in the cosmic and the ordinary, the celestial seen in terms of the everyday. Sweeping, planetary movements are pushed right up next to everyday life, as in “Fragment” — “when you feel the planet spin, accelerate, make dust / of everything beneath your bed.” At their core, they are about “The must / at the root of it all, desire / and wanting, must know.” Gizzi uses line breaks to extend meaning and often makes multiple readings possible by omitting punctuation. “This Trip Around the Sun is Expensive” uses a musical repetition and refrain to describe a wintery ocean landscape:
all time booming
all time viscous air
not black, night
winter dark blooming
surfs of winter ice
(“This Trip Around the Sun Is Expensive”)
Celestial movements often replace physical bodies, except strikingly in “A Penny for the Old Guy,” when the speaker asks, “Are we not bread-like, soft tissue, heat-seeking, and fragile?” Death, the decay of the body, omits bodies from these poems, which are more interested in the metaphysical than the physical.
In Gizzi’s own words, an analemma is the “path the sun makes over our heads in a given year,” a term he discovered while reading National Geographic as his mother was receiving chemotherapy. This rare moment of private detail doesn’t figure into the poem, where the parents are never so personalized. “Analemma” is a poem of tense, cropped lines about coming to terms, not with death, but its inevitability. Gizzi rewrites his elegies as they happen, “now that you’re gone / and I’m here or now / that you’re here and / I’m gone or now / that you’re gone and / I’m gone.” Language allows for the impossible:
now that you’re here
and also gone
I am just learning
and changing light
a leafy-shaped blue
an upstate New York
a tungsten light
an oaken table-rapping
burnt over, shaking
These song poems are interested in the slippages and shimmers between words, in misreadings and mishearings. Gizzi often finishes colloquial expressions unexpectedly — “In my father’s house I killed a cricket with an old sole” or “I am trying to untie this sentence.” In “On Prayer Rugs and a Small History of Portraiture,” he plays with like/light, piles/pyre, portrait/point/ pirouette, aught/awe, contrast/contest, away/a way, scene/skein/sight. In “Gray Sail,” “broad dazed light.” Gizzi delights in defying expectations and tripping up his reader — what Wallace Stevens celebrated as the imperfect, as “Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.”
Threshold Songs provides its own language to understand the slippages between words with the poems “Oversong” and “Undersong.” “Undersong” appears elsewhere as “Basement Song” and “Evensong,” all of which can be read as words for underworld or threshold. “Oversong” is itself an undersong, a list of words that aren’t synonyms (the Greek prefix syn means nameless, anonymous) because they reveal, by being placed next to one another other, that there are no synonyms in language, only a desire for the synonym. “To be dark, to darken / to obscure, shade, dim” becomes “throw a shade, throw / a shadow, to doubt.” This darkness feeds into Gizzi’s threshold:
to exit, veil, shroud
to murk, cloud, to jet
in darkness, Vesta
Thanatos, dead of night,
sunless, dusky, pitch
starless, swart, tenebrous
inky, Erebus, Orpheus
vestral, twilit, sooty, blae …
The ellipsis both omits and extends. “Oversong” implies an unending catalogue. It is the poet’s toolbox of words to describe something that is never reached. “Blae,” a Middle English word for a color somewhere between blue and black, appears elsewhere in the collection as cerulean, agate blue, deep indigo, perspective blue, cobalt, raven’s wing, bluish, bluing. In Threshold Songs, Gizzi creates a lexicon for darkness.
Mohammad and Gizzi both borrow registers of language freely — Mohammad from Shakespeare’s English, Gizzi from the language and myths of the ancient Greeks. Many of Gizzi’s titles may require a quick Google search, “Hypostasis & New Year,” “Analemma,” “Pinocchio’s Gnosis” (another great undersong), “Apocrypha,” and “Eclogues.”
Orpheus, a figure of singing and mourning, crops up throughout Threshold Songs. In “Oversong,” he appears with Erebus, a figure for darkness and also a region of the underworld. In “Pinocchio’s Gnosis” (in Greek, gnosis is both an investigation and the knowledge that results from it), Gizzi invokes a Latin description of Orpheus, “Hey you, Mr. Sacer interpresque deorum, how about a good bray, a laugh track in sync with your lyre? No?” (Although Gizzi has cited this in interviews as Ovid’s epitaph for Orpheus in the Metamorphoses, it’s really Horace’s in the Ars Poetica. Perhaps Gizzi, as interested in mishearing as hearing, is playing a game with the reader.) He translates the Latin as “the sacred interpreter of god and man.” Interpretation (another word for poetry) is what’s sacred.
The threshold between the world of the living and the underworld was more permeable to the ancients, a literal gateway that the living could pass and return through. Gizzi’s elegies lament and seek to resurrect the mystery that has gone out of death, to reopen the gate to the underworld and let loose its song. He folds direct cues into his discursive lines, “Grief is an undersong.” Underworld and overworld, undersong and oversong, these are poems of the night, of blue that’s almost black, of grief in the air and wind.
Gizzi is particularly interested in prefixes and how they can unmake language, not as a negative force, but a widening one. The middle English prefix un takes center stage in “Eclogues”:
… The unhappening of day. The sudden
storm over the house, the sudden
houses revealed in cloud cover. Snow upon the land.
This land untitled so much for soldiers, untitled so far from swans.
In a later line, “To do the time, undo the Times for whom?” Unhappening, untitled, undo — three takes on how un changes the meaning of a word. In the opening poem, “The Growing Edge,” it is the “un gathering.” Un becomes another edge, another threshold, another way to triangulate death, life, and poetry. In the final lines of “Eclogues,” un is met with re as the cosmic meets the atomic:
atoms stirring, nesting, dying out, reforged elsewhere,
the genealogist said.
A chromosome has 26 letters, a gene just 4. One is a nation.
The other a poem.
There are moments in Threshold Songs that observe too opaquely. They begin to lose focus and pile up language without being particularly interesting. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s frustrating, as in the second “Lullaby” poem — “All animals like to nuzzle with their soft parts / what of it when you see the leafy conflagration in spring / a reminiscing eventual in small wistful bursts.” Although it hits some of the same notes as the previous poems, it has none of the distilled incision of Gizzi’s short lines or the unfolding mystery of his long ones. When Threshold Songs works (and it almost always works) it approaches the transcendent. When it doesn’t work, when it turns too far from the reader, it risks creating an impassable distance.
Like an orchestral score, Gizzi’s poems develop and repeat certain themes and phrases, giving to the final sections a built-up richness that pays off in poems like “A Note on the Text,” “History is Made at Night,” and the final poem, “Modern Adventures at Sea.” Near the end of the volume, Gizzi turns to the reader with a challenge:
I have always been awake
beneath glances, past
I never see through you
but through you the joy
of all that is there anyway,
singing. The world
is rising and crashing,
a crescendo all the time.
Why not start
with the whole note?
Bring all you got,
show me that stuff.
(“History Is Made at Night”)
The penultimate poem, “Bardo,” plays with any Hellenistic expectations. “Bardo” sounds like a wiggy version of the bard, but it is also a Tibetan word for the threshold, specifically the intermediary state between one life and the next in Buddhist reincarnation. With “Bardo,” “called back” takes on another meaning. The poem ends with questions:
I come with my asymmetries,
my untutored imagination.
my homespun vision
sponsored by the winter sky.
Then someone said nether,
And if I say the words
will you know them?
Is there world?
Are they still calling it that?
The short lines and alternating two and one-line stanzas bring a lyric intensity to one of the barest question of poetry — “And if I say the words / will you know them?” The reader doesn’t know who said “nether” or “whirr,” only that “netherwhirr” sounds like netherworld. The question, “Is there world?” is less important than the final line, “Are they still calling it that?” Threshold Songs wants, sometimes desperately, to know what to call things, in order to call them back.
A review of Raúl Zurita's 'Dreams for Kurosawa'
Raúl Zurita’s Dreams for Kurosawa belongs to a very small genre of what might be called “posthumous poetics.” Its practitioners are few: Dickinson, of course, but also Rilke, Celan, and Beckett. It was Roland Barthes who, in “The Death of the Author,” consigned the persona of the writer to the grave of textual effects, a symptom of the cult of authorship and the chain of its material production, distribution, and reception. But it was also Barthes who resurrected the author out of a desire for his presence, a desire to call back the ghostly trace into the warmth of human company. For Barthes, the text sometimes permits a transmigration, as he calls it, from the author to the reader. It establishes a coexistence.
In Dreams for Kurosawa, Zurita writes toward this coexistence from the other side of consciousness, a place to which the living have been disjected, but which poetry stubbornly reclaims. It is a place endowed by language with faith in being’s persistence, which is not the afterlife at all, but the voice of the poem as it speaks from the flow of logos, lit by a mortal darkness.
In these harrowing and ecstatic poems dreams of dying and resurrection commingle promiscuously. The presiding angel of these scenes of repeated nullity and affirmation is Akira Kurosawa, whose film Dreams allowed Zurita to imagine the possibility of a life after the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet, who seized power in Chile in 1973 through a CIA-backed coup. For Zurita, this sorrowful territory underlies all he has written since 1979’s Purgatory (also translated by Deeny). His imprisonment and torture were etched, most memorably perhaps, in the ephemeral skywriting poems of 1982 that appeared over New York City, spelling out “My God is Cancer / My God is Emptiness / My God is Wound / My God is Ghetto.” Dreams for Kurosawa is in some ways a less radically formal book (the poems have been assembled from three separate collections). But their seemingly calm hypotaxis belies the excruciating trauma that informs them.
The calm emanating from these poems is eerie, though. Emotion recollected through loss, not tranquility. Zurita’s primal aesthetic scene, as it were, is drawn from Kurosawa’s film and provides him with an image by which he can begin to address the horror of Pinochet in a new key: a squad of Japanese soldiers emerges from a tunnel and are confused to find that they are dead, and the war over. Like the soldiers, these poems wander restlessly through a posthumous landscape, searching for the remnants of the life they once knew. Unlike the lost revenants however, who must return to the darkness of the tunnel, Zurita depicts his former life with an incandescent glow, albeit stained with profound melancholy:
I saw the first cities of water heading north, in Atacama.
They were suspended in the sky, like gigantic
transparent aquariums, and the luminous reflecting
lines swayed on the ground covering the immense
ocher plane. It was 1975, the end of summer, and I
suffered then. (“Poem 5”)
Suffering haunts these poems with recollected pain and the yearning for the lost object. It is that very yearning which constitutes the poet’s resurrectional poetics. His family and friends come back once more, vivid with life, as in a dream. Yet the matter-of-fact tone, which moves between calm dignity and anguish, imparts both a piercing immediacy and a kind of finality to these scenes, preserving the distance death imposes even as it strives to close that distance. The dreamer suddenly wakes and realizes he’s been dreaming:
Now he had died and
I dressed him while mother and sister waited in the
living room. As I opened the door to tell them they
could come in the fury of the wind and hail thrashed me
stunning me and blind I ran across the field. Kurosawa,
I cried out then, he returned to die again with me.
As I opened my eyes above me I saw the dizzying
white of the summit and much further below the first
lights of the city illuminating. Only then could I cry.
(“Poem 12 — Papa Has Returned”)
Moving with the logic of dreams, their sudden shifts in register, their condensing of time and place, these poems are cinematic and fluid, a continuous montage of images culled from a childhood of deserts and waterfalls, life in the city, life under the tyrant, and the liberating interior life that only the movies can give us. Like the movies, poetry lets us live out a second life. We may die, but we can still be called back. For the dead in fact are never gone; they are the ones who are always returning. The crisis of living is in how we remember them — the shame and struggle of remembering them — and how we also look ahead into the horizon of our own finitude.
This is a beautifully crafted book, with hand-sewn binding and individually silk-screened covers, produced by Michael Slosek and Luke Daly’s arrow as aarow press in Chicago, and translated with extraordinary sensitivity by Anna Deeny. In her eloquent afterword, Deeny links Zurita’s resurrection poetics to Paul de Man’s explication of the central trope of poetry, prosopopeia. For Deeny, the act of poetic figuration “marks the ultimate limit of the self that is death at the same time that it imposes a greater concern for the limit of the other, that is, the other’s death.” In Deeny’s reading, Zurita’s concern for the other, what he himself calls “the resurrection of the dead,” aims toward and is affirmed by “language’s infinite yes.” But getting to that ‘yes’ means dying.
As I opened
my eyes my small body floated at the base of
the falls, and it wasn’t a dream Kurosawa because
I was dead and the waters were tearing me apart.
Then my eyelids froze, I saw the dark blue of the
sky open up above me, I tried to tell them and died.
got up I noticed I couldn’t move my arms frozen
beneath the snow. Kurosawa, I said, I was just a
typewriter salesman and now I’m dead and it snows.
Dying is the central predicament of these poems. It occurs over and over, with the repetition compulsion that colors dreams. For Zurita, dream is the portal to the imaginary of the afterlife, its capricious logic reenacting scenes of catastrophe and rescue through recurring images of the sea, waterfalls, the Atacama desert, Pinochet, and the poet’s deep sense of shame at having died only to come back again, forced to relive his trauma. A sense of lucent vertigo carries these twenty-three poems forward. Their brisk narrative pace has the momentum of a diary composed under duress. Laid out in block-like single stanzas, each roughly twenty-five lines long, their regularity reinforces the power of repetition, of a compulsion to retell the same scenes, the poem pushed to the point of exhaustion and, beyond that, to a floating transparency, to the voice of a recording angel that both inhabits and testifies suffering.
Then I plunged in
and saw that the sea was endless plains of
torsos and backs exhumed, of stomachs that
waved like rags extending themselves to the
they were millions
upon millions of faces with their mouths open,
infinite hips, arms and legs sweeping again
and again the beach as if painted ropes. Kurosawa, I
managed to cry out, this isn’t a dream, this is the sea.
(“For Kurosawa/The Sea”)
Raúl Zurita’s sea is both an actual repository of the victims of Pinochet’s cruel regime — not a dream at all, but the nightmare of history — and a surreal site beyond sitedness, where the dead are received, first as the mangled corpses of massacre, then as the hallows of living memory. They do not so much haunt the poet as allow him to reimagine what it means to be. In a word, they are messianic, since their return intervenes in the trauma of their violent deaths, re-potentiating the present for those who, like Zurita, can still speak for its dream of becoming.
A review of John Mateer's 'The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009'
With The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009, his second review selection of his work — following Elsewhere (2007) — John Mateer has decidedly happened to Australian poetry. The impact of his work is one of example rather than stylistic influence: that of an individual writer concerned with their relationship to the world, rather than a quarrel with it or himself, and rather than a self-portrait of sensibility — though quarrels and self do occur in these poems.
Mateer’s use of English makes his estrangement of Australian culture seem like a reflex, making a phrase like “Supreme Court Gardens” sound foreign (“Strolling in the Supreme Court Gardens”). Are poems products of tensions? Or do they rather stream (or step) from a poet in inconsistent variations of bicultural glory? Two qualities that colour Mateer’s poems are the formal and the melodramatic. In this sense the poems are like serious photography: Mateer has a very steady hand. Any extant discomfort is in the viewer-reader.
And yet the poems have a definite 3-D quality also, like a photo being shaken perhaps, or a slowed down accident: where nothing bad has happened necessarily, we’re just checking. I shouldn’t generalise: an early poem like “Outside the Nightclub” has a particular curling around itself that reads a bit like Mateer is asking what enjambment’s all about, doing it and then moving on. (“The sandstone architecture sailed / upward. She asked: “Where?” My / fingers clambered between hers.”)
What makes a Mateer poem? It seems standard enough in some ways: a narrator is somewhere, describing something; something is happening, someone says something banal or striking. The poems are distinct through their attention and their democracy. What happens at the beginning of the poem is as important as what happens at the end — and the end is a happening, not an anticlimax. Mateer’s is an ethical narrator: there to think and question, not to go around having sentimental experiences at Mateer’s expense. If there is awkwardness at times, it is the awkwardness of honesty. The (unawkward) poem of defeated compassion, “Exile,” ends, “And I thought of comparable tortures, / those I’d read of and my friends in / other countries that I can’t imagine. / And I said nothing. I thought: ___.” Another, thematically — albeit subtly — related, is of a dream of being a black cockatoo; its conclusion is: “I / was uneasily considering if I had the right perch” (“Last Night”).
Mateer is fearless in his use of metaphor and simile — like these from a series of poems dealing with bushfire: “I approach a tree, / trying to tell its type from reptilian / evenly scaled charcoal skin: / apartheid?” (“Aftermath”); “Then bushfire // reduced the plantation to ash. After thirty years, like a nation after decades of martial law, bodies unclenching, eyes opening, native seeds are sprouting” (“At Gnangara”); “When the living fire comes, the flames advancing in a straggly line, / like Emergency Services people searching for a lost child.”
The West contains some ambitiously short poems. “On History” is just nine short lines. Even shorter poems make up sequences, or are stanzas or fragments dispersed over a number of pages. While at times Mateer achieves simplicity, the poems are mostly complex — in their composition, their implication (such as the apparently throwaway conclusion of “To Jack Davis”: “You have your own culture. Go back to the Greeks”) — even, occasionally, in syntax: “on the freeway void / and infertile as the European idea / of desert” (“In Real Time”). Mateer’s is at times a bitter sympathy.
Mateer grew up in South Africa under apartheid, a place more difficult than Australia to ignore the privileges of being white. He is unusual in acknowledging whiteness (“between the demolished white man’s school / and the whispering grove of London plane trees,” “The Brewery Site”), and also unusual in his direct address of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and in his use of (West Australian in particular) Indigenous material. Three great long poems all justify purchasing The West: “The Brewery Site” (a poem of mourning), and two sequences on Yagan, the Aboriginal General: “Talking with Yagan’s Head” and “In the Presence.” As Martin Harrison, in The West’s introduction says, “Much Australian poetry flees from this sort of history.”
Creatures (including humans), things, realities tend to have equal weight in these poems — an equal call on existence; mountains breathe, digging-sticks are “hungry.” This might be the influence of Indigenous philosophy, or maybe it’s just what happens when Mateer writes the world-as-poem, the poem-as-world. There is much more in The West: poems of Melbourne, of sex, of a statesman (white) cockatoo; an ironic “Nocturne.” It’s a book that requires far more consideration than a review can give, and while those considerations may not be in the newspapers where should be, they will happen.
Mateer isn’t pretentious enough to have a “collected” at thirty-nine. Or perhaps he knows it would do his work a disservice to be read in bulk. The West is an attractive volume, pocket-sized for anyone tough or sensitive enough to carry it around. Take The West with Elsewhere and you’ll see, that for range, care and courage, Mateer is as good a poet as we have. Whether we have the care and courage enough to hold onto him is another matter.
A review of Chad Sweeney's 'Parable of Hide and Seek'
In Parable of Hide and Seek, Chad Sweeney offers highly allusive and sonically textured lyrics that bring the reader to the edge of darkness, but always with a wink, the sense of menace tempered by the taut music of the pun. “Diurne,” the book’s first poem, gives us clues to the ways Sweeney’s rigorous imagination works. Here, he conflates time and frequency, subverts the ordinary much as Chagall subverts the laws of gravity: “I listen to my heartbeat / on the radio, 89.6 A.M.” Whimsical distortions continue as the speaker tells us he hears his heartbeat as “a prolapse then a whimper.” With a bow to Eliot’s “This is the way the world ends / “Not with a bang but a whimper,” Sweeney warns us — whimsy is deceptive. The day (“Diurne”) is dark. “It’s fear and something else — / black milk,” and we can’t help but taste “Black Milk of morning,” the visceral refrain of Paul Celan’s Holocaust masterpiece, “Death Fugue.” What follows, “static from a sermon,” initially seems a pun, but becomes charged when the reader questions whether “static” implies irritating noise, or lack of progress. Here, as in many of the poems in this collection, Sweeney plays hide and seek with clues as opaque as Malevich’s painting, “Black Square,” the poet’s method made clear in “Captain’s Log”: “The only art / is the opaque art / of surfaces.” In the final tercet of “Diurne,” the reader is pulled back to the initial image:
… a feeling of dread.
In the memory of that day
I can’t keep the wind in its box.
Sweeney’s speaker must release that mouthful of air to convey his concerns.
“Diurne” serves as an entry into Sweeney’s large themes: What are the possibilities for a self, a society, a world? What does history tell us about restriction, oppression, annihilation? Life is fragile — “the ribs of the tiger are rippling” (“The Piano Teacher”).
In “The Factory” workers build cages with careful preparation: “Each cage has a unique serial number.” As Sweeney explores restriction, the kinds of imprisonment humans have imposed on self and others, surreal details accrue:
We refrigerate each cage for one month.
We bury it in lime.
We sleep three nights inside each cage.
We hang it from the eaves.
Work numbs where only “once an hour the sun was caught inside our cage. / I swear it, the colors changed, / wind paused for the outcome.” While sun signals freedom, the freedom is transitory. The speaker reminds us that numbing happens so slowly, we’re unaware it’s happening: “It takes one year to grow a cage … / Long enough to teach a child / to weave a clothing from the keys,” something to protect the child from cages he or she will endure — perhaps in school (Paul Goodman’s notion of miseducation) or at work (the shuffling Chaplin in Modern Times, a hapless cog in the machine). The speaker suggests keys to unlock the cages:
One key is a rib.
One key is a cypress.
One key is a hammer.
One key is a sound.
Here again, we puzzle over Sweeney’s koans: Does rib as key refer to Eve, to a rib used to support a structure, or to the rib a potter uses to shape and smooth a vessel? And surely it’s the rib in our own rib cage, and the rib/the joke’s on us. We soon discover the speaker’s playful tone’s a ruse: “We line up the keys and paint them with water.” But water will quickly evaporate. The paint is ephemeral. The cages have no protective coating. Not so easy to change things. The speaker continues: “We export our cages everywhere. / Packed in sawdust. Packed in wool.” Ah yes — the rest of the world can fashion itself after us, but our influence, packed in soft stuff, will be insidious. These cages recall the cages sculpted by the late Louise Bourgeois, cages she named cells. Uncanny how both poet and sculptor lock us out while at the same time drawing us in. We can’t help but wonder who will occupy these cages. Finally, the speaker “inspects the locks,” says, “One cage is a method. / One cage is a story.” These lines surprise, reverse the mood. Irony plays against order. A method, though it may cage, can serve for making art, for structuring a life. A story can be a key to knowing, to being in the world beyond the cage.
Joy and delight dominate “Embark” and “Little Wet Monster.” In “Embark,” we hear endearment as the speaker addresses a beloved in lines that kindle images of pregnancy and parenthood: “Sit here little mumsy, a red pillow / for your bunion.” But “Mosquitoes climb the delicate. / Thus in a back alley / archaeologists maneuver a pirogue.” Mosquitoes bite; the pirogue (open boat) is stuck, not fit for a journey. Risk is everywhere, but the speaker is lucky; he faces risk with a beloved: “Help me, sweet bread, / mountains unravel by the hour. / This isn’t what we came for.” Ah “sweet bread” — sustenance in a soul mate and beyond — the speaker seeks sweet, not bitter, and sings so with assonance: unravel / hour / for.
Befitting the title, opposites, overt or implied, appear frequently in Parable of Hide and Seek. Gratitude opposes despair in Sweeney’s rollicking loose ghazal, “Little Wet Monster,” a celebration of impending fatherhood. We hear the speaker implore his unborn child:
The cornfield winds its halo darkly
Come home my little wet monster
Time in the copper mine, time in the copper
Come darkling soon, come woe my monster
Distance shines in the ice like a flower
Come early little bornling
Images startle, convey foreboding. Birth is a trial; woes will pile up. Yet the speaker’s voice is gentle; the child is wanted, already loved: “Come whole my homeward early” intones the speaker. “You devour the night’s holy sound / Come home my little wet monster.”
Throughout this collection, we find disparate images yoked together, lines that tug in opposite directions, yet images and patterns recur, reveal the poet’s preoccupations. Most salient perhaps is his focus on language as method for facing a chaotic and threatening world. Sweeney’s speakers tell us “I rent / this language / to stay dry in” (“Holy Holy”); ask: “What is the method for hatching an act of speech” (“A Love Song”), the method for when “we’ve nowhere to go // and the oblique syntax of bones / repeats its inquiry / in the language of the world” (“The Sentence”). Ultimately, what Chad Sweeney shares with mischief, thoughtfulness, and generosity, is infectious joie de vivre to help us survive as self, nation, and planet.
A review of Maureen Thorson's 'Applies to Oranges'
The experience of loss most often presents itself in the form of sensitivities: not just to the vacant space formerly taken up by the missing object — a beloved, an earlier way of life, a prized possession — but also to the environment we see on a daily basis. Almost immediately, the sense of deprivation starts to seek a new wholeness. The mind of the mourner looks around, attaching new weight and firmness to the previously inconsequential. In this sense, the rhetoric of the elegy is one of filling a void — looking for pattern, discovering surprising beauty in the trivial, and, most often, leaning on the power of utterance. We make speech and look for the patterning of language as a way of seeking a new totem, a new love that can replace what’s missing.
You took off
with the oranges and spiders,
the endings and the plot, and left me
with the Zenith’s chrome housing,
the cruise ships in their moorings.
The tender tourists with their trinkets
and tight-fisted maps. The orphans
and beachheads, so lovelorn and solemn.
The satellites’ red signals. The hotel’s
common gestures. Once you were gone,
there were only these few things left. (1)
Maureen Thorson’s first book, Applies to Oranges, functions as a project of elegy: a lyric sequence that tracks the speaker through a period of grief into a new semblance of wholeness. Located on a nameless tropical island, the poems inventory “these few things left” as the speaker moves through solitude and grapples with loss. At times the language is restrained, grafting the speaker’s interior state onto the environment that surrounds her: “Three months on, the stumps / remember being trees, waving in the wind” (14). Elsewhere, the sentiments of grief are directly owned: “I gather / your fallen phrases and soak in them / until my skin is wet with promises / that only one of us believed” (33).
Yet, as its title suggests, Applies to Oranges also maintains a consistent self-consciousness of the processes of language and of representation. The voice in these poems allows for the sentimental through the familiar rhetoric of loss: things used to be this way, and now they have changed. All the while, though, Thorson animates the poems with the awareness (and suspicion) of the linguistic mechanisms of mourning, like a grieving lover who can say, “I know everyone says this when they’ve lost someone, but …”
The object in Thorson’s title is the primary device for acknowledging the always-familiar in the language of loss. The word “orange” appears in nearly every one of the fifty-nine lyrics in the book. As a result, the elegiac process is thoroughly conscious of its own fruit: something is growing into fullness here, as the speaker gradually gains emotional strength after the beloved’s departure.
But still, a tension suffuses. The orange becomes a peculiar floating ghost throughout the book. It has considerable totemic value, but it is also estranged from its meaning. The very fact that the reader quickly learns to expect oranges on each page erodes the signification of the word. Orange. And consequently, this repetition becomes a value in itself: as when we seek comfort in loss, the words mean little, but saying them, over and over, is crucial.
Thorson’s grace with rhetorical strategies is immediately visible in her title. The phrase “apples to oranges” suggests the need to compare things, but also the inherent failure of doing so — the objects are not equivalent, so likening them is false. And the applying of “orange” to each of these poems performs a drama of repetition, intending to grapple with loss through the word’s very superabundance.
The arc of Thorson’s book runs its course from sadness to a new fulfillment, in keeping with the elegiac tradition. The act of consolation seems to have worked. But more alarming is the new absence that replaces it. By performing such an elaborate study of repetition, Thorson draws attention to another loss, as language risks the bleeding away of sense. In the end, these poems may elegize the words themselves, as they fall away from meaning.
At first, heartbreak made me beautiful.
My skin fluoresced. I hypnotized trees.
The orphans followed me around town,
drunk on my pain. I ate only my own
hunger, gave off a scent like bitter oranges
or chlorine. Loss left me strangely whole,
as if my sadness, were it strong enough,
could turn your ship around. That was back
when I aged. Now, like an astronomer
who seeks no first causes, but only to map
the connections pinned out over the sea,
I want to diagram the light that shines out
through the holes you pricked into me. (6)
The process of reading Applies to Oranges, at least at first, is a peculiar form of self-awareness. As soon as the patterning of “orange” on every page becomes evident, the reader’s focus begins to waiver: it is harder to pay attention to the content of the individual poem when you need to keep your eye on the single word that moves and flits around, that hides itself in the tall grass of the lyric. Like a callow reader who peeks at the end of the book prematurely to know what happens, one can’t help, upon turning to each new poem, first looking for where “orange” will show up. The reader becomes that edgy, partial person who mourns and awaits the return of the single, critical element to the island of each page.
For that expectant reader/lover, nothing else seems to matter. Thorson’s lyrics cleverly endanger themselves: for awhile, the reader can’t give full attention to any of the other rich substances in the poems — not the “horse opera” played on the Zenith television, not the orphans selling snow globes of “the whole island made in miniature,” not even the table “where / a hardbacked Sonnets from the Portuguese / stands idly tented in its orange binding” (37, 27, 19).
But gradually, the reader’s attention returns to the substance of the poem, to the actual world growing full on the page. One comes to notice the precious word as it recurs, without being arrested by it. Still, though, through repetition, “orange” can never again be a proper sign. Its recurrence makes an absence: the reader becomes too conscious of its artificiality, too aware that it arrives here, on the page, against its will. Orange — as fruit, as color — is no longer active in the poem; not in itself, at least. It becomes a shadow of its meaning, a shell — or peel, perhaps — the albedo of its former light.
The more time Thorson spends on the word, the more one wonders whether it is out of love, or out of hate. What can we do with this word any more? How can we use it again? But there may be a reason here, too. There is a freedom that comes when the sign breaks down from overuse. This, in a way, may be a stratagem for untangling oneself from the attachment to a lover: as if saying the name until it’s robbed of meaning might rescue one from love.
In his work on the elegy, Peter Sacks has suggested that one of the primary functions of repetition in the poetry of loss is as anáklisis, or “leaning-upon.” Thus, the bereaved finds a new thing to attach to, in lieu of the lost love-object, as “a form of verbal ‘propping.’” While typically in elegy this work is performed by repeating the name of the beloved, Thorson circumvents this act of consolation, and moves straight into repeating the name of the stand-in. “Orange” is, in a sense, the name of the lost love, but it is also an absence. The word is used with full knowledge that it marks the spot that can’t be filled on the page, giving name to the unnamable. The speaker in Applies to Oranges simultaneously repeats herself in order to recover from the loss of the beloved, and repeats something other, as a way of getting out from under the weight of the beloved’s name.
This strategy is highly successful in terms of the character’s arc in the book. The early lyrics are etched with a sense of emotional deprivation: either in “a memory that won’t fade away” or in dreams of revenge: “I am reading up on horticulture and boats. / I am making a plan of attack” (14, 20). After the mention of “forgiveness” in the exact middle of the series, the speaker’s process of healing becomes more evident, admitting to “what I said or failed to say,” and finally acceding to “the demand that I get up and go” (39, 48).
But at the same time that the voice in the poems seems to recover, another element drains away. The elegiac use of repetition saves the speaker, but perhaps at the cost of the words themselves. This demise is inevitable: when we say a word too many times, its meaning blurs and breaks, even if its musicality heightens. We lose the sense for what we say in saying it over and over. And, while that loss might be a welcome one to the mourning lover, who needs to shed a certain skin, it carries with it a flouncing of language’s ability to mean.
Thorson is deftly aware of this bait-and-switch. In one poem she refers to her “handbook on the mechanics of gloom,” providing rules and methods for herself: “it shows exactly / how to ratchet up the melancholy / by accumulating neutral symbols” (29). But how long can symbols remain neutral, before their repetition bleeds them empty?
We’ve found cracked gray pictures
gummed in albums, and stripped
them slowly, fed them to a fire
of blue-then-orange flames. We’ve
all hid our feelings in the greenery
and when the greenery whistled,
we set our phasers to terminate,
and — no quarter asked, none given —
made sure no words escaped. (34)
Elsewhere, when not destroying the words, she sends their meaning packing, shipping it off into the ether, much as the beloved has abandoned the speaker:
I resolve to exploit
these mnemonic boxes, their tapes
and reels and electric sparks, to transfer you
from one tune to another, spinning
like an orange into the cosmos,
lonely locus for twisting in the wind,
for recalling all the anger I can sing. (47)
The strategy is a sound one, but it means death to certain faculties of language. Thorson’s poems move from observing the absence that she describes through language to acknowledge instead the absence within language itself. The sense of loss within the self is transferred to the medium of speech, and the loss now must be carried by language, with a hole where the meaning of orange used to be.
This is a masterful alchemy, albeit a frightening one. While Thorson plays with and gives in to the conventions and the succoring powers of the elegy, she also laces the form with its own destruction. What happens, then, if in order to shrug off the weight of one’s own loss, one must transfer that absence into language? What if the means by which we heal ourselves is to make a hole in meaning? Thorson’s sequence posits a chilling idea: that perhaps our own capacity to communicate — to love, to make poetry — is constantly being harmed by the losses we endure. In the end, the remainders in the poem are oddly ambivalent: “the things that fail are the only things that stay” (59).